April 12, 2011 marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. In a four year span this country saw deaths beyond counting, courage beyond description, and complete economic devastation of the Southern States.
A ten-mile stretch of land in Virginia played host to the deaths of more than 100,000 soldiers. During the Seven Days Campaign, the entire adult male population of Lincolnton, North Carolina was shot down in a matter of minutes.
It was a conflict in which bodies of soldiers lay rotting in fields, buzzards dined on death, and men fought atop skeletons from previous battles. By war’s end, the South was in utter ruin.
Homes were burned, property looted and destroyed, livestock shot, and cities lay in rubble. The human cost was an astonishing 625,000 Americans lost; over 370,000 Union and 250,000 Confederate. One in eight Union soldiers lost their life. One in three white southern men were killed.
For the Southern high command, the figures were even more staggering. Sixty-six percent of all Confederate officers died. Thirty-one of the thirty-two officers in Pickett’s Charge became casualties.
The South lost an entire generation of men. No Southern family was spared by the catastrophe, and grieving women began the tradition of placing flowers at the gravesides of fallen heroes, a concept that lives on today in an American ritual known as Memorial Day.
This struggle saw so much bravery that the Medal of Honor was created to reward it. Thomas Custer, brother of Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, received the distinguished award twice.
In reflecting on this tumultuous event, it is difficult to conceive that this tragedy occurred a mere two lifetimes ago. Many of the oldest we have lost in recent years, heard as children, firsthand stories of valor as they sat atop the lap of a grizzled hero.
As we pass through the next four years we will be informed that we are experiencing more 150th anniversaries from the single most defining experience in America’s history; Bull Run, Antietam, the issuing of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg, the fall of Vicksburg, the Gettysburg Address, Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Fall of Richmond, the surrender of Lee’s Army, and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
As these anniversaries approach, might I invite you all to join me in not only reflecting upon the atrocities of our past but to also seize upon opportunities to celebrate how far America has come in the past one hundred and fifty years. Ironically, many of these events will coincide with ceremonies marking fifty year anniversaries of advancements made in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.