Commemorating and Learning From the Civil War

On the 150th anniversary, James Lighthizer of the Civil War Trust looks back.


On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War began at Fort Sumter near Charleston, S.C. Now, 150 years later, the sesquicentennial anniversary of that moment and the following four years of the war gives Americans an opportunity to remember how the nation fought against itself, eventually preserving the union that exists today. U.S. News chatted with James Lighthizer, the president of the Civil War Trust, a non-profit organization based in Washington, about why it's important to learn more about the conflict and what people around the world can do to honor those who fought in the country's bloodiest war.

Why is the sesquicentennial so important?

The Civil War was a defining time in American history, just for a blizzard of reasons. It really is the birth of the modern United States of America. It settled for all time the issue of secession, which was huge, and spoke directly to what kind of nation we would be: one country versus a vulcanized group of states. It's important to remember that time. As David McCollough, the famous historian has said, "History is who we are and why we are the way we are." To know who you are and why you became who you are is extremely instructive in moving into the future. It was a horrible time, a terrible time, a killing time, but [we should] celebrate what came from it. It is significant to us. [See a U.S. News special report: Secrets of the Civil War.]

Are there still unanswered questions about the war?

Well, history doesn't change but interpretation of history changes. The Civil War is still a hotly debated topic as to causes. You can still have a challenging and compelling argument and discussion as to the causes. Was it solely due to slavery? Was it solely due to tariffs and economic issues? A combination of the two? And you can marshal legitimate arguments for all of those.

Was the Civil War just about slavery?

Some people say it was only about slavery, and yet, remember, South Carolina was talking about seceding in the 1830s over tariffs, not slavery. And New England states were talking about seceding during the War of 1812 over the war, not slavery. The point is, secession was a fairly debatable question until 1865 in this nation--and not just by southerners, but by people in all parts of the country. [See an interactive map of Civil War Battles.]

The issues have obviously changed, but we are seeing some of the same ideological debates over states' rights and the power of the federal government in today's politics. Can politicians learn lessons from this pre-war era?

Yes, I think they can. That is, I wouldn't try seceding. It's probably not even worth the attempt. Nobody's arguing for slavery anymore [either]. But the tension between the federal government and the state governments, which has always existed, varies from era to era. Right now it's on the ascendancy, federalism versus a national government.

What do people forget about the war?

People tend to view history through rose-colored glasses and a rearview mirror. And by rose-colored glasses I mean they often tend to impose their values, their morals, their opinions on people from another time. People from another time didn't have the advantage of knowing what people now know. They can talk about how one group treats another and find it abhorrent. But that's imposing your values on them. You weren't there. And the rearview mirror, of course, is [that] you know the end. People tend to use hindsight to make judgments about history, and they tend to use their own prism, their own perspective. It's really easy to be judgmental if you judge them through the prism of your values, but they didn't have your values. [Check out our Civil War fast facts and trivia.]

What are some ways for people to better understand what really happened during that time?

It's to know how they lived, to know as much as you can about them, and know what they knew when they knew it. That's why when studying a battle that determined the war, it can be so helpful to walk the ground. It's one thing to look at a sheet of paper and say, "Well you should have gone left instead of right." It's another thing when you walk the ground and learn that you couldn't see left. You didn't know what was left. That's why you went right. Putting yourself in their boots and knowing what they knew at the time is absolutely essential for having a decent understanding of history.

Corrected on : The article was updated on 4/13.