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Gilbert: Civil War Commission

08/11/10 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) This afternoon Governor Douglas appointed a commission to plan, promote, and present programs related to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which begins next April. Here's commentator, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council, and commission member Peter Gilbert to provide some context.

(GILBERT) Historic events and anniversaries make more sense - and are more interesting - when they're part of a narrative and not just pieces of unrelated trivia. Narratives are how we make sense of experience. The Civil War is perhaps America's greatest story; it played out on a huge stage, with great characters and themes, and multiple plot lines; it's both inspiring and absolutely heart-breaking.

Over the next four years, there'll be any number of programs and events, big and small, local and statewide, related to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The anniversary deserves our attention not just because the war's endlessly fascinating for myriad reasons having nothing to do with battle strategy, but also because in many ways, the issues it dealt with are still with us.

The origins of the war go all the way back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. We spent the first half of the nineteenth century wrestling with the critical issues of slavery and federal-state power.
    
Those efforts were, in the end, unsuccessful. Lincoln was elected President in November 1860, committed to saving the Union. But even before he was sworn in, seven southern states had seceded.

The shooting started with South Carolina shelling Fort Sumter, a federal fort in Charlestown harbor. That was April 12, 1861. The war essentially ended with Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox, April 9, 1865, almost exactly four years after the war started. And just six days after Appomattox, on Good Friday, Lincoln was shot.

Both sides thought the war would be brief. It wasn't. The first major battle - the First Battle of Bull Run - was five months into Lincoln's presidency. People rode out from Washington in carriages with picnic lunches to watch the battle. They witnessed not chivalry, but carnage, and a Union defeat.

Fourteen months later came the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, freeing the slaves in the Confederacy.
  
The key battle of the war was Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania. It raged for three days, including July 4th, 1863. The Confederates nearly won, but Union soldiers, including three Vermont regiments, stopped Confederate General Pickett's charge. Had the Confederates won, the war might have played out very differently.

Four months later, at the dedication of a military cemetery there, Lincoln delivered a two-minute speech, perhaps the greatest speech in our history, if not the entire English language.

In March 1864, Lincoln finally found in Ulysses S. Grant a general who'd fight Robert E. Lee's army and keep on fighting it, until, finally, Lee surrendered.

The war ends, Lincoln is shot, and then begins another painful story, the tragic failure of Reconstruction. And that, leads directly to the state of race relations in America today.
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