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How Historians Can End The Civil War

The Sesquicentennial for the Civil War honors a war which still rages on in America. An example of the ongoing nature of the war was seen in the dispute over a memorial to northern troops at Olustee, Florida, the site of the largest and bloodiest battlefield in the state.

The issue of a memorial to the northern troops who died there has been compared to the reopening of a 150-year-old wound. According to a report on the front page of the New York Times, John W. Adams, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Florida division, said “Old grudges die hard. And feelings run deep.” Another person with ancestors who fought on both sides said, “There are some, apparently, who consider this to be a lengthy truce and believe the war is still going on.”

They were responding to the request by the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to the state parks department for permission to place an obelisk in honor of the Union soldiers who died due to the battle fought there February 20, 1864.  The existing Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park currently has three monuments commemorating the Confederate soldiers. As it turns out, the number of Union casualties exceeded those of the Confederacy.

Nonetheless, the request has enraged members of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans as a betrayal in what has been called the Second Battle of Olustee. As one might expect, the current Civil War re-enactment there draws thousands to the community so it is big business, for the small community. Battle re-enactments can attract tourists.

But the Florida of today is not the Florida of the Civil War. The demographics has shifted considerably. Huge numbers of northerners including from New York State now reside in Florida.  In this regard, the descendants of the Confederates may well feel besieged, as if the blood spilled by their ancestors counts for less and less with each passing year. Their sense of having their past taken from them is palpable.

What can New York do? Our state provided the most soldiers to the Union cause. One can travel the counties, villages, towns, and cities across the state and see where those who fought for the Union came from. Often, their descendants still live in those same communities.  Their connection to the Civil War is deep, but less dramatic since the battlefields on the New York State landscape are missing.

A few years ago when I was organizing county history conferences, it turns out that two people in attendance had ancestors who had fought at the same battle in the Civil War, but on different sides. That revelation did not lead to yelling, shouting, and a call to renew the hostilities. Instead it was an insightful anecdote in the knitting of the fabric of American society. Two Americans from Virginia and Massachusetts, which had been allied states in the War for Independence and enemies in the Civil War, were now meeting in peace and harmony in upstate New York to share the stories of their ancestors.

All Americans share a heritage of blood spilled and lives lost. The participants in both sides of the Civil War were human beings and their descendants now share a single country. We should see each other as people, not monsters, share the painful loss of 750,000 Americans in an internal war, and to join together as real people for a better future.

Can that be done? It would be difficult in the present political environment, but there may be a way. New York’s local historical societies know where New Yorkers fought. From letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts, they know where the sons of their communities marched, bivouacked, fought, were wounded and died across the south.

We should identify those places and reach out to those communities. We should visit the home communities of the people from both sides of the war and the battlefields where they died. We should work at bringing the two sides together, Yankees and Confederates, in a tourist exchange program.

We should do it for the good of the country so we can move forward together. We should reach out to the states who stars fly on the same flag as ours.

Photo: The Monument at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park being dedicated October 23, 1912.

15 thoughts on “How Historians Can End The Civil War

  1. Peter,

    Interesting take. What I’d like to see is respect. I”m so sick and tired of hearing “we won, get over it” when I tell someone that I am even aware that I have a Confederate Veteran Patriot in my lineage.

    Also, Historians can start being truthful that the great Northern army never fought to free the enslaved Africans in the South, in fact they returned them the 1st year of the war, and then they called them Contraband and forced then to participate in the War effort.

    What historians leave out is that West Virginia was admitted to the Union as a SLAVE state with tens of thousands of slaves DURING the WAR.

    When the hate and lies stop, then we can all get along!

    1. Unfortunately respect ranks low on the list for the way the people of two sides engage each other. I prefer to believe that Lincoln would have advocated for respect had he lived based on the principle that since we all pray with the same Bible therefore we are all human beings worthy of respect. What tends to happen instead is demonization and the attitude that the enemy is less than human and not worthy of respect. This works both ways as it is perfectly acceptable today for the advocates of each side to ridicule the other. One goal of the End the Civil War Tourist Exchange program is to make the people of both sides realize that those on the other side are human beings too. I recognize that it is a necessary but futile effort.

      Thank you for writing.

  2. Visit there for more than two days and it will be clear that the war is, indeed, still going on in the minds of most and sadly, the “not-the-most-educated” group. If you drive your NY plate, it won’t take a few days. Tourism dollars says it all, Who is paying the ticket to go there? They certainly do not want to see anything Yankee.

    New York State ignores history right here, never mind in Florida. We can’t even save and honor known burial grounds of our Revolutionary War patriots. The Tourism Board & so-called Historical Preservation is a joke.

  3. West Virginia was not “admitted as a slave state”, but was simply encouraged to split away from Virginia, certainly a slave state, to insure that the B&O RR didn’t run thru Confederate territory. That was important to Lincoln. Little farming in the mts required the use of slaves, and the boys there decided not to die to preserve the slavery they could not afford anyway !
    So many out of the way towns here in the north all have their Civil War statues. I have started compiling pix of them as I drive thru new places. Perhaps a book someday ??

    bob ulrich

  4. Even if they aren’t bigots, they’re responding to the fact that, in the words of the great southern writer, Willie Morris, “the south got beat “

  5. I am a retired pediatric cardiologist and an avid Civil War buff. I live in NY but we bought a retirement house in NC and spend about half the year in each location.

    I belong to a Civil War Round Table in NY and an editor of its newsletter. I found a CWRT in NC and joined it, and since they did not have a newsletter, I volunteered to edit one.

    In my Southern RT, most of the topics are southern-oriented, but this balances off, because all of the tpics of my northern RT are northern-oriented. I do presentations on CW topics for round tables and historical societies. I have a presentation on the wounding and death of Stonewall Jackson and the wounding and death of Joshua Chamberlain. The talks are medically oriented, but its half history and half non-technical medical. The presentations cover briefly the exploits of the men, but it concentrates on the injury, and how each accepted it and dealt with it. In Jackson’s case he knew he was dying quickly; in Chamberlain’s case, how he suffered for 50 years before dying. In other words, the presentation centers on the humanity of each man. Both round tables have heard both presentations and both audiences see the wounding and death of a soldier, not Yankee scum or dirty Reb.

    As editor of both newsletters, I can put stories about “the other side” in the newsletters which allows me to ‘teach’ using little known stories or facts, rather than the same old rehash of battles or engagements. In this way each group learns something they did not know before. They enjoy the newsletter for its content, rather than its support of their beliefs. In a sense the other side is humanized or found to be identical. For example, I talk about Dr. Mary Walker, the only recognized female physician in the Union Army. Yes, she was a Yankee, but Mary’s tale is one about a 19th-Century woman’s struggle for acceptance as a physician and dress reformer, and that is the focus. The audience does not dwell on the fact that she probably was a Union spy and spent 4 months in Libby Prison, but rather is interested in the eccentric woman who was a seer of women’s rights, dress and destinies.

    I don’t engage in head-on discussions on the root cause of the CW. Professional historians don’t agree on this multi-faceted, complex point, so why should CW buffs come to blows on it. I tell my audience I don’t have a “dog in this here fight” since my relatives were pulling fish out of the Adriatic Sea during the CW. Suddenly I am not seen as a Southern or Northern sympathizer. I have some disarming facts or statements I can make to either group if I am pressed to comment:

    1. The war was fought over the issue of states’ right. I agree, but slavery was a major states’ rights issue.
    2. Look what they did to our troops at Andersonville? Look what we did to their troops at Elmira.
    3. Economics were not a factor in the south losing the War. Let me tell you about the Burden horseshoe-making machine.

    As the baby-boomers start to retire in increasing numbers (technically I am pre-baby-boom), hundred of thousands will do what I do, namely spend time in the north and south. There will be a second invasion of the Deep South and your idea of a CW tourist exchange can cross-fertilize cultures and begin true healing. Although the war was 150 years ago, the end of the era of direct effect of the war ended in the early 20th Century with the death of the last CW soldiers. But their children carried their father’s beliefs beyond the mid 20th Century mark, so that in many respects the war ended only 50 years ago. So to some it is still relatively recent. My fear is that today’s youth often see no relevance of the CW to our history. Look at the age of reenactors! Look at the percent of young reenactors! Look at the age of members of round tables or historical societies! There is our crisis.

    1. Thank you for your comments. As one who navigates his way through the North and the South discussing the Civil War, you are well-positioned to recognize the benefits of a tourist exchange program. I am particularly struck by your last comment, however. I have expressed my concern that New York’s connection to the Civil War is heading the way of its connection to the French and Indian War, the War of 1812, and even the American Revolution: there for old people with too much time on their hands who like to dress up in funny clothes and play pretend involving events that have no meaning or connection to us today. So one thing Yankees and Confederates may have in common is that they are part of a dwindling number of people who care about a war that took 750,000 Americans and led to a redefining of America.

  6. This is an interesting article. This year is a significant an most poignant year of the Civil Sesquicentennial for African-American Heritage in NYS as it commemorates the New York Regiment United States Colored Troops ( 20th, 26th and 31st). These distinct Black regiments were organized right here in NY Harbor, at Camp Rikers and Hart Islands, than military training bases. There were made up for 4000 plus free black men, native born and expanded across the African Diaspora to note Canada, Cape Verde, Haiti, to name a few. They left trades, their other professions, their family and love ones to join the Federal Army to fight to end slavery and save the union. Indeed many descendants live among us, and even maybe our neighbors. Hundreds of USCTs are interred through out our cemeteries in NYS. The 26th USCT – a civil war regiment of Historical Interpreters and Living Historians active in Queens and Long Island area, are planning to host a USCT Living History Weekend event to Commemorate, Honor and Celebrate this momentus local history. The event will be held in Oyster Bay , Long Island. Hometown of several descendants of the 26th USCT, including 26th USCT Veteran David Carll, interred at one of the oldest cemeteries in Long Island. The Carll/Hill a free black family has resided consistently on Long Island since the colonial era. Maybe NYC , Upstate will offer more opportunities for commemorating this significant and poignant African Heritage Experience. To learn more about the 26th USCT visit this Facebook Page- “New York Regiment United States Colored Troops”-, and at

    1. That’s great information. The next step is to determine where these units participated in the war so we can arrange an exchange program between those places in the South and New York.

      1. Yes, 20th in Louisiana, 26th in South Carolina, 31st in Petersburg.
        There were over 17,000 within our immediate region. Consider many of the 54th were from NY. Overall more than 200,000 blacks fought in the civil war to end slavery. The 26th USCT has a formal relationship between the Sea Farmers Lodge in South Carolina which operated my members of the 54th , based in SC. Each year we travel for retreat and visit to these Battlegrounds, there and around Beaufort, presenting living history programs. It is our aspirations to bring the 54th to our upcoming event this year in NY. We are looking for sponsors.

  7. Hello Peter,
    Always enjoy your articles, the one on the end of the Civil War was truly excellent and drew equally incisive comments. When you are in the Queens area I invite you to visit the Museum. So much of the history of New York and America was impacted by the introduction of safe elevators, think skyscrapers.
    Imagine a city such as New York or Boston with nothing higher than a six story building. Call me anytime.

  8. Alas, Peter, your article and all the comments fail to address the more important aspects of the Civil War and its aftermath. The war came about because of slavery (there is no dispute about this among the collegium of leading Civil War historians), and the racism that (partially) fueled the subjugation of black people – including condescending attitudes by many northerners – brought about the renewed oppression of blacks after the war. That racism continues today, both explicit and in legacy-form.

    It is true that the loss of (perhaps) 750,000 people was horrible, but unless we are willing to balance that loss with the untold losses of slaves and their descendants, then a modern-day call for reconciliation between north and south over the fighting falls far short of what America needs to ‘end the Civil War.’

    1. Your point is well taken but the call for a Civil War Tourist Exchange Program isn’t a whites-only program. As you can see from the comments to the post, New York Regiment United States Colored Troops (20th, 26th and 31st) also participated in the fighting and the historic organization dedicated to preserving their legacy already does in fact visit South Carolina where it has a formal relationship with the Sea Farmers Lodge associated with the 54th which included many New Yorkers. Yes racism continues today and Lincoln’s call for malice towards none is honored in the breach. What would you recommend for actions which could be taken in the real world which end the Civil War?

  9. I think this is a terrific, forward-thinking idea that has the potential to clearly and engagingly connect the past to the present and reflect the modern relevance of history.

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