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One nation, many stories page 3
The Sesquicentennial's Tangled Web

 The author, John Hennessey, talks to a group of battlefield preservationists about a proposed development near an area Civil War site.
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Date published: 8/7/2011


This has caused mayhem as it relates to the Civil War's place in American culture. We see it in the form of debate over flags, the Lost Cause, and the legacy of Lincoln. Perhaps most importantly we see it in the ongoing separation from, and even rejection of, the Civil War's relevancy by huge blocks of the American public, especially African- Americans (one of whom recently asserted that, to him, the public interest in the war is nothing more than a vehicle for celebrating a "white-supremacist Confederacy." It's hard to miss the irony--even tragedy--of this disconnect, for the Civil War meant freedom for 4 million enslaved Americans and constitutes a major milestone in the progress of freedom across the globe.


Many have tired of the tumult, and so some Americans will pay the 150th anniversary of the Civil War little mind. But I offer that differing perceptions and narratives of the conflict--the product of a changing nation struggling with a historic tragedy of (we would like to think) un-American proportions--render this anniversary of the Civil War as an opportunity.

Even after the intense sectional reconciliation that characterized the century after the war, our nation still has some reconciling to do--now with history itself. Our challenge is not to see the war as just the sum of very personal stories--though those stories are important--but to see it as part of the evolution of America's national purposes of unity, freedom, and equality. Parts of that story are difficult, to be sure: America's longstanding commitment to oppression in a society dominated by a white majority, the war's unexcelled brutality, and the suffering it caused among soldiers and civilians. But the Civil War matters still precisely because its tendrils touched and shaped virtually every aspect of the America we know today.

So we enter the sesquicentennial with a different purpose and perspective than we had 50 years ago--less celebratory, more reflective, broader in reach, committed to history not just because it inspires, but because it matters. Understanding the Civil War is central to our nation's imperfect quest for a more perfect Union.

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John Hennessy is chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and former chairman of the Fredericksburg-Stafford-Spotsylvania Sesquicentennial Committee.