Maybe it’s just the people we talk to, but we detect yawning (sometimes internalized, sometimes not) when the subject is that this year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. Except for active historians and reenactment buffs, the war is a distant event for which old times there are easily forgotten.
Still, in a world that has seen many civil wars spread over a multitude of boundaries, ours was an especially significant event. First, instead of being about tribal warfare or intramural conflicts between warlords, ours centered on a certifiably righteous cause: the abolition of slavery. While there are always certain economic undercurrents behind wars, they are seldom fought over moral issues. In the end, the cause prevailed.
Secondly, the war produced one of history’s greatest figures in Abraham Lincoln. As though created by Dickens, here was an unglamorous person who nevertheless had a sense of decency and an uncanny ability to communicate it. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson et al would mean less today had the country they forged not been held together by Lincoln.
Thirdly, though there was bitterness at the end, there was also compassion. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis could have justifiably been hanged; instead, they were allowed to rebuild their lives.
Fourthly, the war gave a stage to fascinating characters including Lee, who might have become president had he fought for his country rather than his native state, and U. S. Grant, who did become president, proved more successful at holding back the Confederate Army than political dealers.
And finally, there’s the Greek tragedy: At the moment of triumph, a fatal twist as Lincoln lay dying.
Compared to many places New Orleans got off relatively easy. Because the Union recognized its strategic importance, the city was pursued quickly. New Orleans’ history is like Paris during World War II – it surrendered easily but was spared devastation. Richmond would be ruined, Atlanta would get the torch, but New Orleans stood.
Scattered battles were fought throughout Louisiana but nothing that would equal the big name conflagrations such as Shiloh or Gettysburg. The most significant military action was upstate where Grant wintered his Army in preparation for the siege of Vicksburg.
Truth is, many Louisianians didn’t have their heart behind the cause. Poor whites saw the war as a plantation owner’s battle. Others joined the ranks not so much because of slavery but because it seemed like the thing to do when your state went to war. The concept of the undividable nation that Lincoln would articulate hadn’t yet taken hold.
General P.G.T Beauregard was the most notable Confederate officer to come from New Orleans. New Orleans resident Judah Benjamin served in Jefferson Davis’ cabinet. Davis spent his last days living in the Garden District and died here, perhaps giving the city the most symbolic moment to the Confederacy’s passing.
(According to a legend with many variations, the term “Dixie” originated in New Orleans because of a confederate $10 bill that was printed here that prominently showed the French word for 10 “Dix.”)
Like most of the South, New Orleans suffered through the long period of Reconstruction that followed the war but, just as the city is currently going through a period of recovery trigged by another traumatic event, hard times frequently bring renewed spirit, new ideas and pioneering people who want to be part of making things better.
We can be forever grateful that the South lost the Civil War, for we would have become a balkanized continent without the strength of a great nation. Global democracy would be less secure.
We should remember the American Civil War if for no other reason than to acknowledge the thousands of young men who, for various reasons, put on their region’s uniforms, marched into battle and never came back.
If only they could know that the war they died in would, once and for all, unite the states, and that the world would be better because of it.