Civil War Memorials: What We Need to Remember

Civil War Memorials: What We Need to Remember

Of Civil War…

“We think we are whol­ly supe­ri­or peo­ple,” said the Civ­il War his­to­ri­an Shel­by Foote. The 50th and 75th Anniver­saries of the Civ­il War Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg were poignant, inspir­ing moments. The words spo­ken of those occa­sions give cause to won­der. In the wel­ter of emo­tions, have we for­got­ten what we need to remember?


Footage of Civ­il War Vet­er­ans at 50yr Anniver­sary in 1913 & 75yr Anniver­sary in 1938

“We may be given to meet again…”

Shel­by Foote:

We think we are whol­ly supe­ri­or peo­ple. If we’d been any­thing like as supe­ri­or as we think we are, we’d nev­er have fought that Civ­il War. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the great­est war of all times. And our gen­er­als were the great­est gen­er­als of all time. It’s very Amer­i­can to do that.

“Who knows,” Berry Ben­son, a Get­tys­burg vet­er­an asked, as his nar­ra­tive drew towards its close, “Who knows but it may be giv­en to us after this life to meet again in the old quar­ters, to play chess and draughts, to get up soon to answer the morn­ing roll call, to fall in at the tap of the drum for drill and dress parade, and again hasti­ly to don our war gear while the monot­o­nous pat­ter of the Long Roll sum­mons us to battle.

In 1959, Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er took Churchill on a tour of Get­tys­burg. Char­lotte Thibault’s paint­ing cap­tures what they may have imag­ined. (Cour­tesy of the artist).

“Who knows but again the old flags, ragged and torn, snap­ping in the wind, may face each oth­er and flut­ter, pur­su­ing and pur­sued, while the cries of vic­to­ry fill a sum­mer day? And after the bat­tle, then the slain and wound­ed will arise. All will meet togeth­er under the two flags, all sound and well. And there will be talk­ing and laugh­ter and cheers. And all will say: Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?”

The Civil War “is not ‘was,’ it’s ‘is.'”

Bar­bara Fields:

William Faulkn­er said once that his­to­ry is not “was,” it’s “is.” And what we need to remem­ber is that the Civ­il War “is” in the present, as well as the past.

The gen­er­a­tion that fought the war, the gen­er­a­tion that argued over the def­i­n­i­tion of the war, the gen­er­a­tion that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blast­ed hopes and a lost future also estab­lished a stan­dard that will not mean any­thing until we fin­ish the work.

“Under One Flag Now”

Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt, Get­tys­burg, 3 July 1938:

On behalf of the peo­ple of the Unit­ed States I accept this mon­u­ment in the spir­it of broth­er­hood and peace.

Immor­tal deeds and immor­tal words have cre­at­ed here at Get­tys­burg a shrine of Amer­i­can patri­o­tism. We encom­pass “The last full mea­sure of devo­tion” of many men and by the words in which Abra­ham Lin­coln expressed the sim­ple faith for which they died.

It sel­dom helps to won­der how a states­man of one gen­er­a­tion would sur­mount the cri­sis of anoth­er. A states­man deals with con­crete difficulties—with things which must be done from day to day. Not often can he frame con­scious pat­terns for the far off future.

* * *

But the full­ness of the stature of Lincoln’s nature and the fun­da­men­tal con­flict which events forced upon his Pres­i­den­cy invite us ever to turn to him for help.

For the issue which he restat­ed here at Get­tys­burg sev­en­ty five years ago will be the con­tin­u­ing issue before this Nation so long as we cling to the pur­pos­es for which the Nation was founded—to pre­serve under the chang­ing con­di­tions of each gen­er­a­tion a people’s gov­ern­ment for the people’s good.

The task assumes dif­fer­ent shapes at dif­fer­ent times. Some­times the threat to pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment comes from polit­i­cal inter­ests, some­times from eco­nom­ic inter­ests, some­times we have to beat off all of them together.

But the chal­lenge is always the same—whether each gen­er­a­tion fac­ing its own cir­cum­stances can sum­mon the prac­ti­cal devo­tion to attain and retain that great­est good for the great­est num­ber which this gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple was cre­at­ed to ensure.

Lin­coln spoke in solace for all who fought upon this field; and the years have laid their balm upon their wounds. Men who wore the blue and men who wore the gray are here togeth­er, a frag­ment spared by time. They come here by the mem­o­ries of old divid­ed loy­al­ties, but they meet here in unit­ed loy­al­ty to a unit­ed cause which the unfold­ing years have made it eas­i­er to see.

All of. them we hon­or, not ask­ing under which flag they fought then—thankful that they stand togeth­er under one flag now….

* * *

That is why Lincoln—commander of a peo­ple as well as of an army—asked that his bat­tle end “with mal­ice toward none, with char­i­ty for all.”

To the hurt of those who came after him, Lincoln’s plea was long denied. A gen­er­a­tion passed before the new uni­ty became accept­ed fact.

In lat­er years new needs arose. And with them new tasks, world­wide in their per­plex­i­ties, their bit­ter­ness and their modes of strife. Here in our land we give thanks that, avoid­ing war, we seek our ends through the peace­ful process­es of pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment under the Constitution.

We are near to win­ning this bat­tle. In its win­ning and through the years may we live by the wis­dom and the human­i­ty of the heart of Abra­ham Lincoln.


See also “Lehrman on Churchill and Lin­coln.”

2 thoughts on “Civil War Memorials: What We Need to Remember

  1. Past doubt to the first thought. Those sen­ti­ments, and Lincoln’s, were intend­ed, then and now, for 99.9% of Americans. 

    Churchill too dep­re­cat­ed stat­ues of him. He said once he would much pre­fer a park for East End chil­dren to play in. We are still wait­ing for the park.

    Lee was my boy­hood hero, before I learned why, in an oth­er­wise exem­plary life, he placed loy­al­ty to Vir­ginia over his oath to the Union, despite aver­sion to slav­ery and seces­sion (and why that choice, in his case, was inevitable). It is well that the Get­tys­burg bat­tle­field, where stat­ues of both sides stand, has said it will make no changes.

    The ques­tion of pulling down stat­ues in oth­er places, which is a local mat­ter, is fraught enough with­out get­ting into why each was erect­ed 100 years ago. They involve com­plex­i­ties not grasped by those who see some stat­ue of a fig­ure they know lit­tle about as all about them. I would like to see Fred­er­ick Dou­glass added (as he has been recent­ly at Hills­dale Col­lege) than Lee sub­tract­ed. I con­fess to no par­tic­u­lar brief for John Cal­houn, if stat­ues of him still stand. But peo­ple need to under­stand the differences.

  2. Lofty sen­ti­ments, to be sure and those that I learned study­ing that era. I doubt though the recent­ly embold­ened hate groups would sub­scribe to Lincoln’s plea of “char­i­ty for all.” 

    Hon­or­ing the Con­fed­er­ate dead was only a sec­ondary rea­son for the estab­lish­ment of the now con­tro­ver­sial mon­u­ments. They were erect­ed pri­mar­i­ly as sym­bols of white suprema­cy and the tim­ing of their estab­lish­ment coin­cides with the impo­si­tion of Jim Crow laws in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and the rise of the civ­il rights move­ment in the mid twen­ti­eth century.

    The mem­o­ries of the fall­en are sacred, but Lee him­self want­ed no grand mon­u­ments erect­ed. His wish was only for the care and preser­va­tion of the com­bat­ants tombstones.

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