Far From Numbers – The Civil War and How It Can Still Teach Americans Today


By Jelson Mendoza

In the complex history of the United States the thread of war has always been interwoven, intimately placed as a means of defending notions of democracy and republic. However, approximately one hundred and fifty years ago the Civil War threatened to tear apart the United States from within. For four long years, brothers, fathers, sons and neighbors marched into opposite sides of vicious combat the likes of which could not be anticipated. Yet, even today the conflict is reborn as debates flare up on the nature of Confederate statues and how, if at all, reverence should be given to such men who took up arms against the Union. To that end, individuals on both sides of the political debate seem to forget the scale of the conflict and the sheer loss of life choosing rather to look solely at the divergent reasoning of the politicians who sent men to the battlefield to labor, toil and fight. Likewise, the conversation continues to be bogged down in that political whirlpool of allegories, ideologies and political posturing instead of truly reflecting the time that has passed since the end of the Civil War and how we as Americans should have grown past the division that had marked it.

In order to start such a renewed conversation on the topic, I believe it’s important to look at Drew Gilpin Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering and in particular the chapter on killing as she states,

“As the intensity of this war and the size of its death tolls mounted in the months and years that followed, vengeance came to play an ever more important role, joining principles of duty and self-defense in legitimating violence.” (Faust 35)

Immediately, the notion of legitimate violence is itself a “gift” (that is to say, a curse) passed down from the Civil War to modern day America. Primarily, both sides of the political spectrum in approaching Confederate statues act in the same way as their forebears had in believing their cause to be truth and remain unyielding to change even going so far as to embrace violence. Explicitly, one would not have to look further then the tragedy at Charlottesville for an example of failure to take a step back and recognize we are all human beings and all legitimate Americans. The major difference is that in the context of the Civil War, this very same notion of legitimacy led to the horrors of Antietam (where 23,000 soldiers overall were killed or went missing) and Gettysburg. Even today, we as modern day Americans, fail to heed the lessons of avoiding such dehumanization as America faces groups like ISIS and in some individual cases proceed to generalize and dehumanize all Muslims.  The largest instance of “vengeance” as Faust had illustrated it, in modern times would most be the months and years following 9/11 as racist imagery and wrongly placed anger (which in some cases took on physical violence) were launched against innocent Muslim Americans and Muslims abroad.

“Many soldiers found that society’s powerful inhibitions against murder were all too easily overcome.” (Faust 38)

Faust again reminds us of the notion that in war, murder as it were becomes state sanctioned and when that occurs all bets are off. In contrast to that time period, there is a certain notion of bloodlust in today’s America that is not restricted to times of war or in the army alone, in fact the passion of belief is so strong that both anti-fascist organizations and the alt-right possess no inhibitions when it comes to a brutal fight.


Yet another example of both the scope of conflict and its entrenched notions of difference past the Civil War itself can initially be seen in the case of Arlington National Cemetery where Confederate soldiers were buried with the same headstones as civilians and therefore not considered military veterans as their Union counterparts were. Yet, in death, the rows upon rows of headstones from both sides illustrates just how grave the war had been and how many had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

In the end, as I look back at the time period and pour over the human cost of a conflict such as the Civil War, it becomes even more difficult to see continued division on my television screen and sprawled all over the Internet. In some way, the answer to the question of what must be done with the statues lies in plain sight, meaning that as Americans we must finally separate their creation and continued existence as means to intimidate minorities and the real men on both sides who fought, bled and died regardless of their reasons. Similarly, learning about both sides equally as far from simply numbers and casualties and as  names it becomes apparent that no one can take away what had occurred (as many alt-right individuals believe and testify to as their casus belli for violence against democrats) whether in  the physical sense of battlefields all across the country or in its cultural memory and present. In that respect the conversation on Confederate statues is both necessary and can be renewed as a reexamination of the past and its human cost versus its current form as a push and pull of political agendas. Once that is done and only then, can the United States truly learn and grow from the violence of the Civil War and finally begin the process of truly healing and becoming stronger for it.

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