The Civil War In Historical Memory

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Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.

Shelby Foote

An episode of an excellent series on YouTube, the Civil War in Four Minutes, the above video takes a look at the differing interpretations of the War by Americans.  The Civil War is, of course, an immense event in American history, perhaps the immense event in American history.  Most Americans I think do not understand how huge it is, simply because we think we are familiar with it, and because we are still too close to it in time for us to gain the historical perspective to judge.  The many, many differing interepretations of it:  a glorious war for human liberty, a valiant defense of States’ Rights, the war against the rebellion, the second American revolution, a needless conflict, etc, often say more about the times when the interpretations are made, than they do the Civil War itself.  Almost my entire life I have been studying the conflict.  However, the scholarly necromancy that we perform in historical texts can, at best, only put before our eyes pale shadows of what the War was like for the men and women on both sides who lived the triumphs and tragedies of a conflict so vast as to perhaps dwarf all our other historical experiences as a people.  Sadly, perhaps this scene from the John Adams miniseries sums up the daunting, if not futile, task of presenting to succeeding generations the reality of an event as historically significant as the Civil War:

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