(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on June 24, 2015.)
This year our country concludes its sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War, fought 1861-1865, in which Americans fought, wounded, and killed each other in astounding numbers. For many years, the conventional number of soldiers killed was 620,000. In recent years, sources have raised the figure to over 700,000.
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.
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.
While many Americans consider Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, to be the end of the war, this is not true. Other Confederate units continued to exist and remained at large for the next few months. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured on May 10.
The final engagement in which there were casualties took place at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, May 12-13, on the banks of the Rio Grande, east of Brownesville, Texas. Union Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana Regiment, who died in this battle, was the final soldier to die in the war.
Private John J. Williams, the final soldier killed in the Civil War
The final Confederate surrender took place on November 6, 1865, when the Confederate warship CSS Shenandoah surrendered at Liverpool, England.
The Civil War forced our country to face four key issues. Were we a federation of states in which the central government has higher authority than the individual states, or were we a confederation of states in which the individual states had more power than the central government? One of these powers was, of course, the right to secede from the Union. The answer: a federation
Second, if one of our first principles was that all men are created equal, how did we reconcile this with the existence of slavery in our country? The Atlantic slave trade had been banned since 1808; however, slavery was still lawful. Eighteen states had passed laws banning slavery; fifteen states did not. The war eliminated this contradiction, even if true social equality in our country has, to this day, still proven elusive.
Third, in a national crisis, what civil liberties could justifiably be restricted and too what extent in order to quell the crisis? While President Lincoln believed that he could do just about anything to quell the insurrection, the war provided no definitive answer to this question. The civil liberties and rights curbed after the 9/11 terrorist attack continue to be a source of debate.
Finally, could a democracy sustain itself through such a crisis? Not only did it endure the storm, it had a national election in the midst of it, reelected its leader, and saw the crisis through to its conclusion.
The war took the life of President Abraham Lincoln who, in most surveys, is rated our greatest president. On April 14, 1865, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a southern sympathizer who believed that slavery was one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind.
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 ….”
This brings to an end my series of essays on the Civil War. I hope in the past three years I have educated and enlightened, and perhaps inspired you to renew your civic commitment to our country. My thanks to all of you who have given me such kind feedback.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian teaches history and political science at Salve Regina University and is a member of the Rhode Island Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration Commission Advisory Council. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his blog at www.zilianblog.com and his Abe Lincoln website at www.honestaberi.com.