Earlier today I returned from five days in Gettysburg for the annual Civil War Institute. Like last year, I feel rejuvenated and utterly exhausted. I had an incredible experience interacting with the participants and catching up with many good friends. Thanks to Peter Carmichael and the rest of the CWI staff for all the hard work. I can’t imagine the logistical juggling that takes place beforehand, but they seem to do it so effortlessly and that they do it in the name of history education makes it that much sweeter.
Horwitz’s interview with Fitz Brundage and David Goldfield raised the question of whether the Civil War was a good war and whether the bloodletting was worth it in the end. I tend to avoid these questions. That said, I find myself agreeing with the thrust of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s response.
The fact is that the Civil War didn’t represent a failure of 19th-century Americans, but that the American slave society – which was itself war – represented a failure of humanity. That failure was the price America paid for its conception…. I am very sorry that white people began experiencing great violence in 1860. But for some of us, war did not begin [in] 1860, but in 1660. The brutal culmination of that war may not have allowed us to ascend into a post-racial heaven. But here is something I always come back to: In 1859 legally selling someone’s five-year-old child was big business. In 1866, it was not. American Slavery was a system of perpetual existential violence. The idea that it could have been — or should have been — ended, after two and a half centuries of practice, with a handshake and an ice-cream social strikes me as really wrong.
I’ve always maintained that the right side won the war and that we are better off without slavery. Who is going to disagree with that? Was it worth the price? Certainly, those enslaved must have thought so along with those Americans who were not willing to stand by and allow their Union to be destroyed. What else can I offer that adds or detracts?
I suspect that many people in Gettysburg are horrified at the prospect of tens of hundreds of thousands of strangers descending on their peaceful town this summer. Not Daniel. He is going to make the best of it by heading out and meeting new people.
I am hoping to have a bit of time to take Carol Reardon’s and Tom Vossler’s new Gettysburg guide out for a test run next week at the CWI. The book is right up my alley given its emphasis both on what happened during the time of the battle as well as the many postwar battles over memory. Here is a taste of that approach in a series of videos that Reardon and Vossler recently did for CSPAN. First up is the North Carolina monument.
123rd New York Infantry & Culp’s Hill
24th Michigan (Iron Brigade)
Finally, here is David Thompson’s (Civil War Monitor magazine) interview with Allen Guelzo about his new Gettysburg book. This is a book that I recently finished and highly recommend. David was kind enough to give me the opportunity to ask a couple questions of Prof. Guelzo. I suggested he ask whether beliefs in American Exceptionalism have hampered our understanding of the battle and the war as a whole and whether it is fair to measure every new Gettysburg book with Coddington’s classic work.