This new year 2011 will mark the 150th anniversary of the United States Civil War. The New York Times has been presenting excellent pieces that look back on this deadliest war in American history, a war so brutal that historians contend it was the most deadly confrontation in humankind until the trench warfare of World War I. Remembering and reflecting upon the Civil War may be considered part of a contemporary American Catholic’s responsibility to develop a moral sense toward the situation of warfare in the 21st century. Educators at all levels may want to consider the relevance of remembering the Civil War in different academic endeavors, as even many college students lack rudimentary understanding of what occurred.
When I spent some time in the South nearly two decades ago, I recall hearing the name “Sherman” in tones too hard to describe, a mixture of angst, horror, and disgust; uttered usually in combination with the phrase “March to the Sea.” His actions are not forgotten despite passage of much time. General William T. Sherman led 98,797 soldiers, through Atlanta, Southeast to Charleston and then up the coast into the Carolinas. Sherman’s own understanding of his motives were as follows, noted by John Keegan in The American Civil War:
“We [Grant and Sherman, the two leading Union generals] both believed in our hearts that the success of the human cause was necessary not only to the then generation of Americans, but to all future generations. We both professed to be gentlemen and professional soldiers, educated in the science of war by our generous government for the very occasion that had arisen. Neither of us by nature was a combative man...”
Sherman’s March began in May 1964 in Nashville Tennessee and continued until the end of the War in April 1865, finishing in Raleigh, North Carolina. At this point the war was not about State’s Rights but about the Emancipation of the Slaves as Lincoln had placed the Emancipation Proclamation into effect January 1, 1863. Keegan points out that, unlike some of the previous Generals in the Union Army, both Sherman and Grant were dedicated to a brutal style of warfare that, in their minds, would end the war more quickly and in the end save lives on both sides. Sherman wrote that in his march from Atlanta to Savannah his Army had:
“Consumed the corn and fodder of country thirty miles either side of the line from Atlanta to Savannah, as also the sweet potatoes, cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry and had carried away more than 10,000 mules and horses, as well as a countless number of slaves. I estimate the damage done to the State of Georgia and its military resources at $100,000,000...This may seem a hard species of warfare, but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly and indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities...If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war. You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; and those who have brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”
There were 620,000 deaths during the United States Civil War. Two deadliest battles were Gettysburg and Chickamauga, where 51,112 and 32,624 perished, respectively; the largest one-day death toll was at Antietam where 26,134 died over a 24-hour period. In retrospect Christians will weight these figures against the result of the end of the war, the emancipation of the slaves. Was this a just war in the Augustinian sense?
In the Gettysburg address Lincoln did not differentiate between Union and Confederate soldiers who had died but instead considered their sacrifice a joint one: “It is for us the living to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” In this 150th year anniversary Lincoln’s words will be parsed, criticized and deconstructed, but in the end for many they will remain part of humankind’s repository of sadly-earned truth and a source of continuing reflection and meditation for Christians who seek social justice.