One hundred and fifty years ago Tuesday, the first shots were fired in what would become America’s bloodiest conflict, and the most critical point in our nation’s history.
In January 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas joined South Carolina in seceding from the union. These states, later joined by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina, formed the Confederate States of America.
And in April, when the South bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the Civil War began.
From April 1861 to April 1865 in a conflict characterized by outmoded tactics against modern weapons, some 625,000 men died on both sides. To put that in perspective, the combined American deaths for World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam total some 629,000.
Some researchers, citing the combat deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire, peg that number closer to 700,000, more than all the dead in all the rest of America’s wars.
The war did lasting damage to the United States, both culturally and politically.
For decades after the war ended, southerners still carried “The Cause” like a chip on their shoulders.
For decades, southern Democrats, many the descendants of slave owners, stood as a solid bloc of votes resisting civil rights legislation.
Even today, signs of that division still exist. The Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag still flies over the capitol of South Carolina, and its design echoes in the state flags of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
Throughout the next five years, commemorative events are planned across the country. On battlefields big and small, 21st-century men will don the ancient blue and gray and re-enact battles with 19th-century arms. Spectators will sit nearby and view the smoke and flames and experience the din and confusion of battle.
When the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg rolls around in 2013, the fight will be staged by a record number of living historians.
Some speculate that as many as 20,000 re-enactors will be there.
This is an important remembrance, not just for Americans as a whole, but as Pennsylvanians. With the exception of New York, no other state, North or South, sent as many soldiers, some 33,000 of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice. And the battle that many agree was the turning point of the war was fought in Gettysburg.
The Civil War marked perhaps the most dangerous moment in the still-short history of the United States.
What had been one country became two. Brother fought against brother; fathers against sons.
And yet, the basic constitutional argument that drove the conflict had to be settled.
Would we be a nation characterized by strong, nearly autonomous state governments, or would the states be subordinate to a strong central government?
Would slavery remain an accepted institution, or would the United States live up to its high ideals and recognize freedom for all people?
And the question that still hangs over us today, can we settle important and divisive issues without destroying our country?
The war’s result changed the history of the rest of the world.
If the Confederacy had won, America would have been two separate countries, a mere shadow of the economic powerhouse we became. There would have been no “arsenal of democracy” to challenge Wilhelm, Hitler and Tojo.
There wouldn’t be anyone to contain and eventually defeat the Soviet Union. The moon landing probably never would have taken place.
It is sobering to contemplate the fate of the world since April 1865 without the powerful presence of an intact United States.
Today, as then, we are a nation also suffering from deep divisions.
Unlike the United States of 1861 however, our divisions are not easily drawn on a map, for they are not issues that divide state from state, but rather neighbor from neighbor, friend from friend and even cleave families.
The Civil War was a brutal and bloody teacher, the lessons of which we should have learned by now.
Perhaps in the study of those events we can find the wisdom to keep us from yet coming apart at the seams.
Winston Churchill once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Let’s learn from our past. And maybe, just maybe, we can save our future.
Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.