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This week, the nation commemorates the 150 anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The last major act on the battlefield happened on April 9, 1865, when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces cut off and surrounded Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army at Appomattox Courthouse.
The war, which raged from 1861 to 1865, defined the second half of the 19th century in the United States, in the same way World War II defined the latter half of the 20th. Civil War author Shelby Foote perhaps captured its significant in a single observation:
Before the war, it was said “the United States are.” Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always “the United States is,” as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an “is.”
In 1858, a few years before he became president, Abraham Lincoln gave one of the most famous speeches of his career. In it, he stated that he believed the controversy regarding the place of slavery in the United States would not cease until “a crisis is reached and passed.” Then, quoting the words of Jesus, he said, “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe that this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it to cease to be divided.”
That crisis came in April 1861, following Lincoln’s election as president. Seven of the southern states voted to secede from the Union, even before he was sworn in; and four more would join them in short order. Lincoln’s election as the first Republican president told many in the South all they needed to know. The Republican platform called for halting the growth of slavery in the western territories. Many in the party wanted to see the institution’s demise altogether. Lincoln, in his famous debates with Senator Stephen Douglas regarding the future of slavery before the war, had often quoted the Declaration of Independence and the rights it promises to all, regardless of race.
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In a fiery moment during his U.S. Senate campaign in 1858 against Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said:
I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where it will stop. If one says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If the Declaration is not truth, let us get the statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold to do it? If it is not true let us tear it out!
Cries erupted from the crowd. “No! No!” When Lincoln implored, “Let us stick to it then. . . . “[L]et us stand firmly by it then,” the crowd erupted into applause.
With the first Confederate cannon shot over the federal installation at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, the Civil War began. It would not end until over 600,000 Americans laid dead on battlefields from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and North Carolina to New Mexico. For a population of just over 30 million, the toll of America’s most deadly war was devastating.
The total financial cost of the war to the federal government alone is estimated at $5.2 billion. The nation began the war with $65 million in national debt, and ended it with $2.7 billion.
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President Abraham Lincoln, in his brief Second Inaugural Address in March of 1865, sought to bring meaning and perspective to the cataclysmic events through which the nation had just passed. He observed that one-eighth of the population was enslaved, and all knew that the institution’s existence in America was somehow responsible for the war. He continued:
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Peace came a little over four weeks later. “Unconditional Surrender Grant” gave generous terms, only requiring the Confederate soldiers to surrender their arms and pledge not to re-enter the fight.
Less than a week later, Abraham Lincoln–the man who had guided the nation through one of its most tumultuous and defining times in its history–would be dead. On Good Friday, April 14, confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth stepped into the Lincolns’ box at Ford’s Theater and shot the president at point blank range.
Lincoln was one more sacrifice in America’s costliest war. Nonetheless, he died knowing the nation would be forever changed by what he and thousands upon thousands of other brave souls did. First came the Emancipation Declaration in 1863 freeing some of the slaves, followed by the 13th Amendment which passed the Congress shortly after Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, freeing all the slaves.
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In the years immediately following the Civil War, the nation would also adopt the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing all equal protection under the law, and the 15 Amendment granting African Americans the right to vote.
As Lincoln had envisioned when he spoke at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, the nation experienced “a new birth of freedom” rooted in the central proposition found in the heart of the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal. May we never forget what that Civil War generation did, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Lincoln’s exhortation comes down through time:
It is for us the living, rather, 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 honored 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 government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.