News / USA

150 Years Later, US Civil War Still Resonates

War between the states threatened nation's survival

Burying the dead - 620,000 Americans died during the Civil War.
Burying the dead - 620,000 Americans died during the Civil War.

Multimedia

Audio
Susan Logue

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War - a conflict that nearly tore the United States apart. Eleven southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, vowing to maintain their economic system based on agriculture and slavery.  

On April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers fired on Union troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. It was the first act of open aggression by the South against the North. After four years of bloody battles, the Confederates surrendered.

Today, the war between the states still resonates with Americans, and in some ways, the nation is still healing from that division.

Record casualties

Well over a half million Americans died during the Civil War, the equivalent of losing 2 percent of the population.  "You can imagine the impact that this would have on whole communities throughout the country," says Ray Brown, chief of interpretation for Manassas National Battlefield Park, site of one of the war’s first battles.

Brown believes that loss is responsible for "passions that have been passed on from generation to generation even at the remove of 150 years."

On a recent visit to Manassas, there is little evidence of that passion, but there is a desire to connect to the past. Park superintendent Ed Clark says the battlefield is a good place to do that.  

"You can actually stand out here on the fields, see what they saw. But I think there is also an emotional connection that can be made on battlefields. This is a place where Americans fought. This is a place where Americans died."

The park gets about 600,000 visitors a year.  People like Marianne Lee, who came with her children and their friends.

"I think it is important to look back at this particular war, because it is what made our union.  We separated and yet managed to come back together."

In 1961, Manassas National Battlefield hosted a re-enactment. Although still popular with many people, re-enactments are now deemed an inappropriate way to commemorate the Civil War by the National Park Service.
In 1961, Manassas National Battlefield hosted a re-enactment. Although still popular with many people, re-enactments are now deemed an inappropriate way to commemorate the Civil War by the National Park Service.

Mutual sacrifice

Yale historian David Blight, one of the leading experts on the Civil War, says the United States reunited after the war "by finding the mutuality of sacrifice between the two sides."

By the 50th anniversary soldiers who fought on both sides were getting together for reunions.  In 1913, some 50,000 veterans assembled in Gettysburg, the site of the war’s bloodiest battle.

"What we did in this country is we suppressed having to talk about what caused that war or what its results or legacies were, focusing largely on honoring the soldier," says Blight.

Americans continued to ignore the issues 50 years later, during the centennial of the Civil War, according to Kevin Levin.  A history teacher in Charlottesville, Virginia, Levin also maintains the popular blog, Civil War Memory.

"The dominant interpretation of the early 1960s would have been focused on the bravery of Union and Confederate soldiers, the theme of reconciliation.  Americans were more interested in remembering a war that united Americans rather than divided Americans."

In the last few years, there has been renewed scholarship on the Civil War by Blight and other historians.

He says that we shouldn’t forget the military history. "But this time, we need to put the story of emancipation at the center of this narrative, because what really transformed the United States, were not those battles.  What really transformed the United States was the process by which 4 million slaves were freed that necessitated a recrafting of our Constituion."

Three new amendments

Following the War, three amendments were added to the Constitution.  The 13th amendment abolished slavery forever.  The 14th granted citizenship to anyone born in the United States and guaranteed equal protection to all citizens.  And the 15th amendment guaranteed all citizens the right to vote.

A monument to Confederate general Stonewall Jackson overlooks the battlefield at Manassas. Americans have honored the military leaders of the South as heroes, even though they led a rebellion against the U.S. government.
A monument to Confederate general Stonewall Jackson overlooks the battlefield at Manassas. Americans have honored the military leaders of the South as heroes, even though they led a rebellion against the U.S. government.

Blight says the Civil War launched "a revolution in civil and political rights." But it did not last. It would take the Civil Rights movement, a full century later, to force the government to deliver fully on those promises.

Today, with an African-American in the White House, we have come a long way, but the legacies of the war are still being debated, says Blight.

"Every time Americans debate the problem of States’ rights, the relationship of federal power to state power - which we are indeed having a roiling debate again, and every time we debate, not only race relations, but the very idea of what it means to be an American, multi-racial, greatly diverse society, we are debating the direct legacies of the Civil War."

That, says blogger Levin, is one of the reasons Americans are still fascinated by the Civil War.

"Even if we don’t know much about this period, there is a hold on us, an emotional hold.  I think that explains why we still have a need to talk about it, because we are still struggling with many of those issues that came out of it."

And as Americans mark the anniversary over the next four years, there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss the legacies - and lessons - of the Civil War.

You May Like

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs