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The Guns of Charleston and the House Divided

Posted by Eliot Weinstein on April 12, 2011

150 years ago today, the American Civil War began when forces loyal to the Confederate States of America bombarded United States federal troops garrisoned at Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. That event, known as the Battle of Fort Sumter, is considered to be the first military engagement of the Civil War, and it was both a cause and a consequence of increasing tensions between the newly-seceded Southern states, and the federal Union government headed by recently-inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln.

As Lincoln himself prophesied in a speech given in Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858,

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.

Although Lincoln went on to pay the ultimate price for his resolve in preserving that government, he left as his legacy a house that was no longer divided by the question of human enslavement. Unfortunately, the United States was divided by the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, as deep social and economic differences between the North and the South persisted for over a hundred years, well into the Twentieth Century. These divisions, and how they have recently begun to heal in earnest, are the subject of an excellent article in The Economist from two weeks ago.

It is also worth noting that the question of slavery in the United States was only resolved through the deaths of 620,000 soldiers (from the Union and the Confederacy combined), including 3,654 dead on a single day at the Battle of Antietam. While these counts are dwarfed by, say, the number of Russian deaths during World War II, they represent a staggeringly large fraction of the population of the United States at the time of the Civil War (total Civil War deaths amounted to around 2% of total US population, by my quick calculations).

Today, and for the next four years, we remember the American Civil War and those who died to settle the differences between the North and the South over slavery and states rights.

If anyone cares to comment, what does the legacy of the Civil War mean to you? What does it suggest to you about the way substantial political, social, and economic divisions, like those between the North and the South circa 1861, can be resolved through discourse or violence?

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