Commemorating the American Civil War and lamenting its futility

The American Civil War officially began 150 years ago. It continues to resonate throughout the political and social life of the U.S.A., not least in the African-American civil rights movement. For many of the Southern states that took part, its legacy is one of both sadness and pride.

The American Civil War (1861–65) began when 11 Southern slave states seceded from the United States to form the Confederate States of America, known as the “Confederacy”. It was led by Jefferson Davis. The U.S. federal government led by President Abraham Lincoln was supported by 20 mostly Northern, free states in which slavery had already been abolished, and by five slave states known as the border states. These 25 states, together known as the “Union”, had a much larger population and stronger industrial base than the South.

Hostilities started on 12 April 1861, when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Lincoln responded by calling for a volunteer army from each state to recapture federal property. This led to declarations of secession by four more slave states. Both sides raised armies as the Union seized control early in the war and established a naval blockade that virtually ended the cotton sales on which the South depended for its wealth. Land warfare in the east was inconclusive in 1861-62, as the Confederacy beat back Union efforts to capture its capital, Richmond, Virginia. In September 1862, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made ending slavery in the South a goal of the war.

That same year fighting came to the southern Confederate State of Arkansas, when Union armies invaded and Confederate leaders established bands of guerrilla fighters to oppose them. Families were divided as members chose allegiance to the Union or the Confederacy, while others simply tried to stay out of it. Thousands of Arkansas soldiers were shipped to fight battles east of the Mississippi River, while thousands of Union soldiers occupied Arkansas. Many African Americans fought on both sides, and their appearance in the blue uniforms of Union troops and bearing arms must have confirmed the deepest fears of Southern landowners. Four years later, the Confederate armies surrendered and defeated soldiers returned to a blighted landscape and Union rule. Slavery officially ended in Arkansas when it ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on 14 April 1865 but, as its later history showed, racism itself remained undefeated.

The War led to immense carnage. The effects of new weapons showed up on the maimed bodies of wounded soldiers. Breech-loading repeating rifles combined with ill-conceived frontal assaults produced astronomical numbers of casualties. In May 1865 the American poet Walt Whitman published Drum-Taps, a collection of 53 poems he had been writing from early in the war years. After only a few copies had been bound, Whitman printed an 18-poem Sequel and added it to the first volume. The Sequel contained his most popular poem – “O Captain! My Captain!” – and his most important elegy – “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, later used by Paul Hindemith as the text for his Requiem (1946).

The American Civil War caused over one million deaths. A portend of the futility of war – later lamented by the English poet Wilfred Owen in the 1914-18 War – is found in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, which includes the following stanza:

“I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffered not,
The living remained and suffered, the mother suffered,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffered,
And the armies that remained suffered.”


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