(This essay, entitled “Freedom, Unity Born in Conflict,” was published in the Newport Daily News on April 25, 2012)
One hundred and fifty years ago, Americans fought, wounded, and killed each other in astounding numbers. The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces began shelling Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina. Although fighting continued until the end of May, 1865, the war was essentially over when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9.
After Abraham Lincoln won the national election in November, the Confederate States of America began its formation when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. By April, 1862, it had grown to eleven states. The United States had 34 states and about 31 million people when the Civil War began. It ended the war with 36 states after West Virginia and Nevada earned statehood during the war.
The war took the life of the president who, in most surveys, is rated our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. In accepting the Republican nomination for the Senate in 1858, he stated, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. … It will become all one thing, or all the other.” The bloody conflict ended slavery and mended the political division among us. At the outset of the war, people referred to the country as “the United States are,” while afterward people said “the United States is.” At first the conflict was about the existence of the Union and about states’ rights, but it eventually rose to a higher plane. The subtext of slavery surfaced and recast the war into one fought about a new birth of freedom for our country and about dictating that the Southern way of life based on slavery must be gone with the wind.
The Civil War is a cornerstone in America’s national identity. Civil War writer Shelby Foote stated that any understanding of our nation must be based on an understanding of the Civil War. “The Civil War defined us as what we are and opened us to what we became ….” It was an “enormous catastrophe” and the “crossroads of our being.” Civil War historian James McPherson has stated that: “From the war sprang the great flood that caused the stream of American history to surge into a new channel ….”
The average Civil War soldier was 25 years old, five feet eight inches tall, and weighed 143 pounds. Though the minimum legal age for enlistment was 18, an estimated 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army were under 15, some drummer boys being as young as nine.
The war claimed the lives of over 600,000 Americans, about 2% of the population. Over 2.2 million men served under arms in the Union military and perhaps 1.5 million served in the Confederate military. One in 65 died in combat, one in 13 died of disease, one in 10 was wounded. The last Civil War veteran died in 1959.
By March, 150 years ago, a number of key events had taken place since the surrender of Fort Sumter to the Confederacy in April 1861. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina had joined the Confederate States of America, bringing its total to eleven. In July the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas to the Confederates) took place, ending in a rout of the Union Army. The Union navy had begun its blockade of the South. Finally, in March, the first naval engagement between ironclad ships took place. The Union Monitor fought the Confederate Merrimac (C.S.S. Virginia) to a draw, but only after the Merrimac had sunk two wooden Union warships.
By this month 150 years ago, both sides still hoped for a war limited in scale and duration. This lasted until April 6-7 when in Tennessee about 65,000 Union troops led by Major General Ulysses S. Grant fought some 45,000 southern troops, led by General Albert Sidney Johnston near a church called Shiloh. Attempting to finish off the Union forces, the Confederates launched a dozen attacks at the weakening Union center at a place which came to be known as the Hornet’s Nest. But the Union line held, and when reinforcements arrived the next day, the Southern forces retreated.
The losses were shocking and unprecedented: 3477 deaths and 24,000 total casualties (killed, wounded, captured, fallen ill, or missing), more casualties than in all previous American wars combined. After the Battle of Shiloh, both sides realized in Foote’s words that they had “a very bloody affair on their hands.” Shiloh is a Hebrew word meaning ironically “place of peace.”