Why the Civil War is worth remembering
By John Barnhart
Approximately 250 people packed the Bedford Central Library on the Friday night of Labor Day weekend. The crowd that filled the downstairs portion and the balcony was about the largest group that can comfortably fit into the building at one time. They came to listen to a man tell them why the Civil War is worth remembering.
Although there is a great deal of local interest in America’s worst war, there was an additional reason why so many people turned out to listen. The speaker was Virginia Tech’s Dr. James Robertson, nationally recognized as America’s foremost authority on that war. Dr. Robertson has a number of titles to his credit, including a national award winning work on General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. This work provided the background for the movie, "Gods and Generals", and Robertson served as a technical advisor during the film’s production. He is also one of a group of American historians who, once every 10 years, rank America’s presidents in order of greatness.
The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Bedford Public Library and the Bedford Citizens for Land Preservation and Dr. Robertson waived his normal speaking fee, appearing for free. He did it as a personal favor to Dr. William McCabe, a retired physician who lives in the Sedalia area. It turns out that Dr. Robertson and Dr. McCabe are college buddies, with a friendship that dates back to 1948 when both men showed up as freshmen at Randolph-Macon in Ashland back in 1948.
"He wasn’t too good in history," commented Dr. Robertson, laughing as he looked at his old friend.
"I know somebody who wasn’t too good in chemistry," retorted Dr. McCabe.
Robertson, a native of Danville, came by his interest in the Civil War due to family connections.
"My grandmother lived to be 92," he said. "I can remember distinctly sitting in her lap listening to what her father did as a Confederate soldier."
Robertson’s great-grandfather, John W. Compton, a farmer, served in the 57th Virginia Infantry Regiment and took part in Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. Compton survived the war, but his brother didn’t. His brother was shot in the leg and bled to death on the battlefield.
So, why is that war worth remembering 139 years after its end?
"You will never understand the United States, now, unless you understand the Civil War," Dr. Robertson told the audience.
Robertson said that the United States, as we now know it, began in 1865. The United States, between 1789, when Washington took the oath of office, and 1865, when the Civil War ended, was anything but united. Robertson noted that, prior to the Civil War, people would say that the United States "are" when referring to the country. After the war, the plural "are" was replaced by the singular "is" when talking about the U. S.
The Civil War was the bloodiest event in America’s history. Robertson said that 700,000 men were killed, more than the total of all the soldiers who died in all of our other wars combined. This figure accounted for a large percentage of America’s population at the time. If the same percentage of our population were killed in a war today, the death toll would reach 15 million.
These men were young. Dr. Robertson said that half of the U. S. population in 1860 was under 21. We not only lost hundreds of thousands of young men, but we lost everything that they would have accomplished, everything that their children and grandchildren would have accomplished; a loss that echoes down through the years from the 19th century into the 20th.
"It is so big, so bloody and costly that there is no way to measure it," he said.
The war saw the beginning of many things that people take for granted today. It was the first time the U. S. budget topped a billion dollars. It was the first time that the U. S. Army had a standard uniform. Clothing sizes for ready-made clothing first appeared in the war, due to the need to produce all those uniforms that the war demanded. The needs of soldiers also led a shoe maker to begin making shoes paired for the right and left foot for the first time.
We also saw commercial canned food for the first time. One of the first was a canned ham, produced by Hormel, for the Army. A doctor, named James Salisbury, came up with a ground beef patty that still bears his name-salisbury steak.
The war changed the way the Post Office handled mail. Up until the war, people had to go to their local post office to pick up their mail. As the war progressed, these post offices became a scene of great anguish because the War Department notified a dead soldier’s next of kin, by mail, that they would never see their loved one again in this life. In order to give distraught parents and wives the chance to get the devastating news in private, the Post Office initiated home delivery of mail in 1863.
The Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for bravery in combat, was instituted during that conflict. The youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor, a 12-year-old federal soldier, also came out of that war.
The Civil War saw the advent of war photography. Woodcuts were made from photos of a battle’s aftermath and printed in newspapers, bringing dead soldiers to Americans’ living rooms for the first time in history.
"It had tremendous psychological impact," Dr. Robertson said.
Interest in the War remains high today. Robertson said that 2,700 books have been written on the Battle of Gettysburg and 8,000 on Abraham Lincoln. The war dominates historical fiction.
Because of this interest, Robertson said that historical sites connected with the war are a great tourist draw. A fourth of all tourists are looking for them and he urged the Bedford area to publicize its Civil War history. Historical tourism is big and Virginia has a lot of it to offer. It’s particularly rich in sites associated with that war. Tourists, he noted, bring dollars to an area, but require little in public services.