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Response to Review of War That Forged A Nation: Why The Civil War Still Matters

I very much appreciate Susan-Mary Grant's incisive and thoughtful review, especially as it comes from one of our most distinguished historians of the American Civil War. She has done a superb job of placing the essays in my book within the context both of current scholarship and of broader contemporary events in the United States and abroad. I wish to comment briefly on one of the themes in the review: the reference to my work as being ’out of step’ with recent studies portraying an ‘increasingly grim and gruesome picture’ of the ‘dark side’ of the Civil War. I concede the point. Although I have certainly written at some length about that dark side, as Grant readily acknowledges, it is quite true that I have portrayed the results of the conflict (to borrow Winston Churchill's depiction of the Second World War) as a triumph as well as a tragedy. 

This reference to the Second World War is relevant here. As historians, we view the past through the lens of the present. The adult lives of most historians writing today about the Civil War – and of most people reading these words – have been marked by a series of senseless wars that accomplished few if any positive results, while imposing enormous suffering, death, and destruction on their victims: the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the civil war in Libya, the current civil war in Syria, various other conflicts in the Middle East and Africa – on and on. None of these wars seems worth the cost in lives and resources, and it is natural to ask if the American Civil War was equally pointless. Perhaps the preservation of the United States as one nation and the abolition of slavery were not worth the cost – especially if the experience of many freed slaves was marked by ‘fear and misery, disease and death’. But so was the experience of many refugees and displaced persons in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, which killed scores of millions of people around the world. Perhaps it too was not worth the cost. I was a child during the Second World War, in which several of my relatives fought, and I grew up in its aftermath of the Cold War, McCarthyism, the savage repression of the aspirations of peoples in Eastern Europe and Asia. Perhaps Allied victory in the Second World War was not worth the huge cost. But one could not find many people of my generation outside the defeated nations who believed that. Nor would one find many freed slaves or many white Americans (outside the South) who believed that the Civil War was not worth the cost. Both of those wars destroyed repressive tyrannies, freed millions, and created new hope for the future, even though these outcomes fell short of perfection. They accomplished decisive results that changed the world – largely for the better, in my opinion. To be sure, they also featured fear and misery, disease and death. But that is far from the whole story, and in my work I have tried to tell the whole story.