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home : considered comment : selected past columns April 29, 2016

4/18/2006 2:27:00 PM
Fulton County reads: Lincoln defined the Civil War's meaning
BY JACK K. OVERMYER
President and Owner, The Sentinel

Fulton County Reads is a one-book, one-community project conceived by Librarian Jody Newton and Sue Clark, English teacher, of Rochester High School. It was inaugurated in February with A Stupendous Effort, my 1997 book about men from Fulton County and northern Indiana in the Civil War. Those participating in the project received the book to read; then followed three nights of discussion that each attracted more than 50 people. My remarks at those discussions, edited for space limitations, have been presented in six columns. This is the last of them.

You have given me great pleasure and satisfaction by coming here to examine A Stupendous Effort, my modest contribution to the literature of the Civil War. I thank you for that and I thank, once more, Jody Newton and Sue Clark for asking me to begin what I am sure will be a continuing, successful Fulton County Reads project.

I am loath to close, for I have enjoyed my time with you. Before I do let me present you with a personal, condensed view of this Civil War of ours, which was fought with such unrelenting intensity and which brought about the 87th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

We may ignore the study of this war, but we cannot cut ourselves off from it because it is a part of our own human experience, of our heritage as Americans.

Those who lived through the war had differing definitions of it.

George Pickett, the Virginian who lost 7,000 men in his famous charge at Gettysburg, thought "it was all a weary, long mistake." Pickett never forgave Robert E. Lee for ordering that doomed attack.

Poet Walt Whitman nursed its wounded in Washington hospitals and considered it a "strange, sad war," in which two peoples so much alike fought each other.

Some were proud of it, such as Colonel Robert McAllister of New Jersey. To him, it was "a privilege to live and to take part in a struggle that decided for all time to come that Republics are not a failure."

When the war ended, though, a Mississippi infantry captain no longer had any hope. He had lost all that was important to him: property, pride of character, family and he considered that he had been deeply dishonored.

To Robert Hunter, a Confederate senator from Virginia, the war was a simple matter. Late in the war when Rebel manpower was at its lowest ebb, the Confederate congress proposed freeing slaves who joined the army. Senator Hunter was outraged, and said: If we didn't go to war to save our slaves, what did we go to war for?

Senator Hunter absolutely was right. The reason for secession was so that the slaveholding states of the South could perpetuate and extend slavery. Their economy, their culture, their lifestyle depended upon slavery. The South's claim that only state's rights was at issue is nonsense, an evasion.

This nation had been living since its birth with slavery, a denial of its declaration that all men are created equal. The Founding Fathers made a deal, you see - an agreement with hell some called it. They accepted slavery as the price of getting the Southern colonies to accept a Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person and in Article 4, Section 2 required that runaway slaves be returned to their owners.

While the Founders accepted slavery in the states where it already existed, nothing was agreed to about its extension. The deal might have held if the country had remained east of the Mississippi River. But when the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added two million acres west of the Mississippi, the game was up. Slaveholding states lusted to expand slavery into the new territories that would be created there. Free states of the North said no, that was not the deal, and we will not allow it.

Arguments, challenges and compromises on this question consumed the political life of the country for the next 50 years and more. Then, in 1860 a minority of voters elected a Republican president, who had spoken out against slavery. With that, the quarrel reached its flashpoint of secession.

But new President Abraham Lincoln did not seek a war. He said in his First Inaugural Address of 1861, "in your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressor."

Soon afterward, South Carolina attacked a federal fort in Charleston harbor. And so the war came.

What if the South had won the war? In 1861, America's republican democracy was not yet accepted as a success by the world. If secession had become a principle of government, a continental America might never have come about.

California and Oregon were not connected to the rest of the country and may have sought their own destinies. The vast and empty prairies west of Nebraska might have beckoned Great Britain and France to meddle in their development. Both nations had North American history and France was ruling southern neighbor Mexico by proxy, while Great Britain controlled northern neighbor Canada.

Thank God none of those possibilities came about. The Union was preserved, the transcontinental railroad was built to the west coast in 1869 and by the early 20th century all of continental America was settled into statehood. We were on our way to glory. The South was left with its Lost Cause, and that brings me nearer the end of this tiptoe through the endless rooms of Civil War history.

The Lost Cause perpetuates a romantic memory of the war as one of honor and martial glory in which brave men contested for Southern independence. Some consider The Lost Cause frivolous, but the very phrase accepts that the cause has been lost. There is no hint of biding one's time, waiting for revenge. The cause was lost. It can be cherished, revered and made an outlet for emotion, but not as a center of a new outbreak of violence.

When I was a schoolboy, I was required to memorize the Gettysburg Address of President Abraham Lincoln. I do not know if that still is an academic requirement; Jody Newton just now informs that it still is.

I have studied the life and character of Abraham Lincoln most of my life. I consider him not only the greatest American president but also the greatest of all American historical figures. And so, in closing, I want to draw your attention to his short speech, given at the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery in November of 1863. It is one of the great speeches of history and it is composed of only 286 words.

Lincoln consistently defined the war's purpose as saving the Union, but he also wanted the Union to be identified with freedom, not just with geographical boundaries. That is why the most important part of the speech is the first line, in which Lincoln dates the country's founding not from the Constitution of 1787 that condoned slavery but from the high purpose of the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

Remember that line?

"Fourscore and seven years ago, our Fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Then comes his second sentence to reinforce the first:

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

I cannot imagine any better way to leave you than with these immortal words, for they tell better than I why our civil war was fought and why it remains important to us today.



(Copies of A Stupendous Effort are available at The Sentinel's business office for $25 per copy.)



Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, January 9, 2007
Article comment by: Eric McCullough

I was curious. Is the book 'A Stupendous Effort' still available for purchase?? If so, is it still $25 from the Sentinel's business office? Your attention to this matter is greatly appreciated.

Thank you,
Eric R McCullough




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