That is the question posed to a group of historians by the Civil War Trust in this brief video. I was asked this question back in 2014 while in Petersburg for the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater.

So, what is the big thing that you have learned as a result of studying the Civil War era?

11 comments add yours

  1. I can’t top Ben’s comment.

    But here’s my own two cents worth.

    The importance of getting off your keister and trying again after you’ve been knocked down. The Civil War’s two greatest generals – Grant and Lee – are prime examples of this lesson.

  2. I’ve learned how much I don’t know. And even though slavery ended 150 years ago, it still has impact 150 years later.

  3. I’m always struck by how little people in the two major sections of the United States understood about each other. Mass communication, for all its faults, has bound the country together. Nothing close existed in the 19th century.

    It is difficult at this historical distance to understand how intense sectionalism had become. Reading about the run up to the war is like watching the pressure gauge on an overheating boiler rising to the point of an explosion. Could actions have been taken to avert war? On paper, yes. But the reality was the mistrust, contempt, and fear had reached a point where the desire for anything but war didn’t exist.

    The war ended with freedom and union, but what an extraordinary price was paid by people who spoke the same language and revered ancestors who had created a nation less than 75 years previously. Yes, the war was about slavery but the motive force behind it was the same as is always the case in war-contempt, hatred, and miscommunication. Neither side entered the war with anything resembling regret.

  4. I’ve learned that a perceived threat to ones culture and way of life unleashed powerful reactionary forces which led to a devastating conflict which nearly destroyed democracy.

  5. I have learned to assume, tentatively of course, that any time I do not quite understand some aspect of American politics or culture, it’s almost certainly about racism.

    And then when I investigate it from that angle, sure enough, it usually turns out to be the case. Things as diverse as my local municipal politics (in a northern state) to the Rolling Stones make sense in this light.

  6. From a purely military point of view, I’ve learned that Grant was a great general, not the butcher stereotype, and that his influence on the US Army was profound.

  7. That man has an remarkable capability to destroy and to build, to love and to hate, all at the same moment in time.

  8. I learned that my great great grandfather, an immigrant, German-speaking farmer, who moved from what is now Poland to the state of Wisconsin in 1856 at the age of 29, died of disease in the Civil War a little less than ten years later and was buried at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. I learned that this fact was withheld from me for the first fifty years of my life, but confirmed for me by a relative, my dad’s oldest sister, on her death bed who had known this fact and kept it secret until I had uncovered the fact, thanks to data made available by the advent of the internet. I learned that my dad’s notion of himself as a self-made man was substantially undermined by the revelation of this fact which had also been withheld from him and that it may have been a significant factor in his break with the church in which he was raised. I was raised to be an existentialist. Civil War records have allowed me to retrace the last six months of my great great grandfather’s life and to consider the impact of his death on his widow, four children and extended family. My dad’s first job upon completing his doctorate in clinical psychology was with the Veteran’s Administration and it served as the foundation for his subsequent career. He attended the orientation inaugurating his career in clinical psychology at the Jefferson Barracks hospital without realizing that his great grandfather was buried in the Civil War cemetery surrounding that hospital. I have to wonder to what extent the presence of my ancestor in that cemetery was in fact a qualification for my dad’s employment by the U. S. government.

  9. In the last 5 years or so* I have become utterly convinced of the primacy of slavery in causing the Civil War and the staggering degree to which it warped everything around it for decades leading up to the war. I’ve also come to realize the mindset that enabled and perpetuated slavery are still alive today, and not only in regard to race relations.

    * which represents not only the sesquicentennial, but also a period when I have read far more about the war than during the rest of my life combined, and probably more about that subject during that span of time than about any other subject during the entirety of my life.

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