Historical anniversaries naturally inspire reflection. This summer Americans mark the sesquicentennial of the pivotal battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Together, these two battles in the summer of 1863 went far toward sealing the fate of the Southern Confederacy. President Lincoln finally found his man in General Grant, the hero of Vicksburg. He placed Grant in command of the Union forces and charged him with defeating General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, now weakened after having their invasion of Pennsylvania checked at Gettysburg. In April 1865 Grant forced Lee to surrender. The Union was preserved. Chattel slavery was abolished. Peace returned to our war-weary land.
As we remember the Battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, it is worth reflecting on how and why these battles and the Civil War altered the course of American history. People at the time recognized that the War was a watershed. Retired Harvard professor George Ticknor felt like Rip Van Winkle after the War. It seemed to him that the Civil War created a “great gulf between what happened before in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter. It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.” A strong case can be made that George Ticknor was indeed not living in the same country in which he was born.
The Civil War had wide-ranging consequences which are still felt today. Not all of these consequences were intended. As historians Charles and Mary Beard noted, “Like every great conflict, the Civil War outran the purposes of those who took part in it. Waged over the nature of the union, it made a revolution in the union.” Before the War, America had been a republic composed of a union of states. The “United States” was a plural noun. People said “the United States are a republic.” After the War, America was well on the road to becoming a centralized nation. The “United States” became a singular noun. People began to say “the United States is a nation.” We can observe this transition in Lincoln’s own rhetoric. Historian James McPherson noticed that, “In his first inaugural address, he used the word ‘Union’ twenty times and the word ‘nation’ not once….In his Gettysburg address, the president did not refer to the ‘Union’ at all but used the word ‘nation’ five times to invoke a new birth of freedom and nationalism for the United States.”
Thomas Jefferson explained the Founders’ view of good government in his first inaugural address. Low taxes, economy in the public expense, the security of liberty and property, and a modest foreign policy were all essential elements of the Founders’ republican vision. The Civil War replaced that republican vision with a new nationalist vision. The War was used to justify our first income tax and first military draft. The War saw the creation of a national currency and an expansion of the jurisdiction of federal courts. Before the War, Americans understood that under our federal system the states served as checks on the authority of the national government. After Appomattox, the national government took on the role of a check on the authority of state governments. After ending slavery at home, the United States government gradually began to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy that aimed at expanding the sphere of liberty beyond our own borders. The new foreign policy, in turn, required ever greater expansions of federal power. Some have argued that, along with institutional changes, the nature of our leaders has changed as well. Henry Adams, for instance, believed “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”
Take time this summer to reflect on the Battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg and the complex legacy of the American Civil War. For millions of Americans, the War represents a new birth of freedom. Yet, it also created a great gulf between us and the Founders’ republican vision.
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1. Quoted in James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 861.
2. Charles A. Beard and Mary Beard, History of the United States (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 366.
3. McPherson, 859.
4. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1961), 266.