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Historical anniversaries naturally inspire reflection. This summer Americans mark the sesquicentennial of the pivotal battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Together, these two battles in the summer of 1863 went far toward sealing the fate of the Southern Confederacy. President Lincoln finally found his man in General Grant, the hero of Vicksburg. He placed Grant in command of the Union forces and charged him with defeating General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, now weakened after having their invasion of Pennsylvania checked at Gettysburg. In April 1865 Grant forced Lee to surrender. The Union was preserved. Chattel slavery was abolished. Peace returned to our war-weary land.

As we remember the Battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, it is worth reflecting on how and why these battles and the Civil War altered the course of American history. People at the time recognized that the War was a watershed. Retired Harvard professor George Ticknor felt like Rip Van Winkle after the War. It seemed to him that the Civil War created a “great gulf between what happened before in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter. It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.”[1] A strong case can be made that George Ticknor was indeed not living in the same country in which he was born.

The Civil War had wide-ranging consequences which are still felt today. Not all of these consequences were intended. As historians Charles and Mary Beard noted, “Like every great conflict, the Civil War outran the purposes of those who took part in it. Waged over the nature of the union, it made a revolution in the union.”[2] Before the War, America had been a republic composed of a union of states. The “United States” was a plural noun. People said “the United States are a republic.” After the War, America was well on the road to becoming a centralized nation. The “United States” became a singular noun. People began to say “the United States is a nation.” We can observe this transition in Lincoln’s own rhetoric. Historian James McPherson noticed that, “In his first inaugural address, he used the word ‘Union’ twenty times and the word ‘nation’ not once….In his Gettysburg address, the president did not refer to the ‘Union’ at all but used the word ‘nation’ five times to invoke a new birth of freedom and nationalism for the United States.”[3]

Thomas Jefferson explained the Founders’ view of good government in his first inaugural address. Low taxes, economy in the public expense, the security of liberty and property, and a modest foreign policy were all essential elements of the Founders’ republican vision. The Civil War replaced that republican vision with a new nationalist vision. The War was used to justify our first income tax and first military draft. The War saw the creation of a national currency and an expansion of the jurisdiction of federal courts. Before the War, Americans understood that under our federal system the states served as checks on the authority of the national government. After Appomattox, the national government took on the role of a check on the authority of state governments. After ending slavery at home, the United States government gradually began to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy that aimed at expanding the sphere of liberty beyond our own borders. The new foreign policy, in turn, required ever greater expansions of federal power. Some have argued that, along with institutional changes, the nature of our leaders has changed as well. Henry Adams, for instance, believed “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”[4]

Take time this summer to reflect on the Battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg and the complex legacy of the American Civil War. For millions of Americans, the War represents a new birth of freedom. Yet, it also created a great gulf between us and the Founders’ republican vision.

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1. Quoted in James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 861.

2. Charles A. Beard and Mary Beard, History of the United States (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 366.

3. McPherson, 859.

4. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1961), 266.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Upon these celebrations, I remember info. garnered across the years from family and friends. For instance, my great great grandfather, William Jenkins Willingham, a private in the 19th Arkansas infantry (Dockery’s Regiment) was captured in April of 1863 outside of Vicksburg and exchanged back to the Confederacy on Dec. 24, 1863 from Lookout Point, Md, where he had been taken after capture. My great grandfather remembers seeing him and my great grandfather’s oldest brother coming down the road, returning home after the war. This was in Texas, where my Great Great Grandmother had taken the youngest children afer the Yankees burned down the home place in Union County Arkansas. And then there was Gettysburg. During my pastorate of the Gum Springs Baptist Church of Moncure, NC, in the Sandy Creek Baptist Association, we would have a Methodist member who would come to the Homecomings. He told me about talking with the Founding Pastor’s son, George Harmon back in the early 20th century. George was buried next to the church on the Northside with a Confederate tombstone and the NC regiment, etc. on it. In any case, the Methodist member would tell me about how George would show him and the other children his metal jaw bone. It seems that he stopped to help a wounded Yankee soldier during the battle, and after he was leaving the fellow pulled a pistol and raised up and shot him, tearing out his jaw bone. The Methodist friend also told how George said that many in the third and fourth lines did not have weapons. They simply went along to pick up the weapons of their fallen comrades in order to take part in the battle. I saw a re-enactment segment on tv this past week which showed some in the third and fourth ranks carrying no arms.

    I had the privilege of teaching U.S. history for two years at South Carolina State College, from ’70-’72, a Black college. It is a sad fact that in reading the records about how bad Blacks were often treated, those vivid documents gave me nightmares as did the stark graphic stories from the Inquisition which I recorded on notecards and the terrible pictures of one of the holocaust camps taken by a member in my second pastorate.

  2. ” For millions of Americans, the War represents a new birth of freedom. Yet, it also created a great gulf between us and the Founders’ republican vision.”

    Yes, a fair and objective assessment of the ‘late unpleasantness.’ Although I might argue that the word “gulf” just doesn’t quite describe the derailment.

    I look forward to the comments re: this blog. For me, nothing supersede’s the establishment and maintenance of the American Republic, not even African chattel slavery. The republic, and it’s principles, especially the AMERICAN version of republicanism, offers the best hope for man to obtain both the idea of the ‘good’ in the Aristotlean republican polity and the best opportunity for man to participate in the personal communion with God as the ground of our very tension of existence.

    In the words of Eric Voegelin: “The Logos who as spoken Word creates heaven and earth and as articulate Reason orders and sustains reality in Genesis and in the Gospel of John is no less the rational Ground for apostles than for philosophers.”

    And, it is thus that the equivilanet structure process is present in both the transcendent divine reality and the noetic embrace of reason that allows man, within the republican construct, to first, understand and diagnose the horrors inherent in the existential maladies and pathological ideologies (liberalism, Marxism, progressivism) that marks modernity, and, second, utilize the construct of the central gov’t and the state to thwart the advance of these sundry diseases.

    Lincoln should have done the moral and the right thing, and that is allow the South to leave the voluntary compact freely and peaceably. Instead, he loosed the dogs of war.

    Father Abraham is our American version of Lenin.

  3. God evidently had something to say about the South and its treatment of the African Americans. Even a Seminary President, Dr. James P. Boyce, first President of Southern, admitted that the South would have the war and would lose it, because of the way they had treated the Black families. What the South should have done was follow the example of the British in abolishing slavery. Wilberforce and Newton led the way, and slavery came to an end in a more peaceable manner. Besides, there were certain folks who wanted that war in Europe, and their minions, the Knights of the Golden Circle, simple took advantage of the greed and fears to irritate the wound in the body politic until it became infected with a corruption that could only be removed by war.

    • No one is defending African chattel slavery.
      Let me ask you this, Dr.: whose obligation was it first, to throw off the shackles of slavery?
      Yet, other than the brave Nat Turner and a couple of other minor flare ups, we see no slave revolt, of consequence, out of a population of slaves that approached 5 million, with a half a million freedmen.
      Dr. you’ve detailed, rather starkly, the horrors visited on the Africans at the hands of Southern whites. Why did they not revolt, as was their God given right?
      And, while the question of African chattel slavery is interesting and certainly one of the primary causes of the ‘late unpleasantness’, it is only one element of the collapse of American Republicanism/Constitutionalism.
      Perhaps the question is: Can one be a true conservative, and a Lincolnite?

  4. Surprise, dear brother! It was the responsibility of the Baptists to throw off the shackles of slavery. The problem with the Africans is that they did make great efforts at times, but when one is closely guarded, as the patty rollers (African American term), it is difficult to take action. You did not include the Seminole Indian War which was really a part of the Black resistance to slavery. The Africans were often a part of the Indian tribes like the Seminoles; they would flee to them at the first opportunity. This is not to deny that there were Africans who accepted slavery. Some folks forget that between 60,000 and 70,000 Blacks drew pensions from the former Confederate states for their service during the war.
    When Baptists first came to the South, they did not believe in slavery. However, they were soon seduced by their neighbors to the point that they became proponents of this great evil which so contradicted their form of church government. Richard Furman’s statement, circa 1822-23, that the Baptists would fight in defense of slavery is the nadir of folly. I have read where a cannon ball from Fort Sumter crashed through the First Baptist Church of Charleston and buried itself in his grave. Sort of an exclamation point to his statement, I suppose. However, I have since read he was not buried there. Anyway, it sounds good and appropriate. Consider how the Mt. Pisgah Church in Chatham County North Carolina, the home church of the first Southern Baptist Missionary to China, Matthew T. Yates, excluded a white member in 1861 for his protesting of treating Blacks as equals in the church membership (I suppose it was calling them brothers and sisters, for church records often read, “Black or Coloured Brother or Sister so and so.”\

    How could one hold one’s brother or sister in slavery? That is the sticking point for Baptists. We had a war that cost the whole nation 630-670,000 battle field casualties, not counting the wounded, many of whom died later. It was a horrendous slaughter.
    One reason why there was a surprising bit of cooperation from African Americans was that they were well aware, in many cases, of the political precepts of our way of life and of the Christian Faith. Their restraint is admirable in many respects, but that they wanted to be free is beyond question. When they got it, in South Carolina for instance, they took a trip. The slaves who served on plantations in the upstate took a trip to the coast, while those in the coastal areas traveled to the upstate. So many did this that they traffic jams in Columbia. You can also add those who fled to the Union Army, when it got within range and the Slave Patrols (the pat rollers or patty rollers mentioned above) became less effective due to the loss of members to the military.

  5. Rev. Willingham, thank you for your erudite analysis of Baptist history, fascinating. My own grandfather was a Presbyterian (Northern) who, in his youth, was told stories of how the old preacher placed a Colt 45 on the pulpit in order to deal with the Rebel sympathizers who would ride by the church and fire off their guns. My people were border folk.
    My real interest in the ‘late unpleasantness’ is to determine if the actions of the general gov’t betrayed our founding principles. The question of why the slaves did not revolt is, in and of itself, one of those fascinating questions no one wants to ask. I would take a moment to tip my hat to Mr. Elliot and the fact that he permitted the question to be asked on his website. In this day and age of ‘political correctness’ that, in and of itself, express a certain personal courage and a desire on the part of our erudite editor to seek the truth, no matter where the trail leads.
    I truly appreciate this website!

    • One of my grandfathers had a grandfather who was supposed to a Colonel in the Yankee army, and his father was also supposed to be in that army (no evidence of this has been found to date). The latter is also supposed to be in that picture of the two trains meeting in Utah at the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. so I was told by my Grandfather’s brother, who also told me that the name Bankston was based on the union of two Scottish clans, and that they had two coats of arms. I was in another nation, Jamaica, in 1980, having tay with a Scotch woman and happened to think of what Uncle Bill had told me. Her answer was that sdhe knew Bankstons in Scotland and that they were a combination of two clans and had two coats of arms. Uncle Bill’s comments were proved true…as were other things he had said. He had a battlefield commission as a 2nd lt.signed by Woodrow Wilson in World War I. I saw that commission, and my eye, loving all things historical even then, zeroed in on the President’s signature. There is more, but I defer in the interests of time.

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