Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Saddest Chapter in U.S. History

The Civil War is surely the saddest chapter in U.S. history up to this point, and Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of that horrible war. It was on April 12, 1861, that the Confederates in South Carolina fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter, and the bloody Civil War began.

Certainly in 1917-18 American involvement in the Great War, as World War I was first called, was a terribly sad time for the U.S. as the country suffered more than 116,000 military deaths. And then World War II, beginning soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and not ending until the summer of 1945, was much more tragic with nearly 417,000 soldiers killed.

Partly because it happened entirely on American soil, the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01 also etched another sad chapter in U.S. history. The number of 9-11 casualties, though, was only a very small fraction of those in the two world wars.

The Civil War was such an overwhelming tragedy because not only was it on American soil, it was Americans fighting Americans. There may have been “only” around 213,000 battle deaths in the War Between the States, but the total number of deaths directly related to the war was probably at least 618,000 and may well have been more.

Missouri, my home state and where I live now, was a border state, and there were more Civil War battles fought here than in any other state except for Virginia and Tennessee. Not surprisingly, both Union and Confederate sympathizers and supporters lived in all parts of the state, including the north.

Some of the Seat family in Worth County, the northwest Missouri county where I was born, were on the side of the Confederates, much to my chagrin. Robert E. Lee Seat, born in 1866, was a first cousin of William Seat, my great-grandfather. Lee’s name surely says something about the political sympathies of his parents.

William’s father, Franklin, fled to Nebraska during the Civil War because his views in support of the Confederacy were so unpopular. Franklin later returned to Worth County, but his brother Jasper and his family, who also left Missouri during the Civil War, never returned. Although Franklin and Jasper were both born in Missouri, their grandfather had been a slave-owner in Virginia and then in Tennessee, so they apparently remained true to their Southern roots.

At the present time there are people in the country with marked political differences, holding strident positions on various social issues. We sometimes we hear about the “culture wars” going on within this country now. At times even members of the same family are on opposite sides, just as was the case during the Civil War.

The rhetoric of the culture wars gets quite heated at times, but at least the disagreements seldom lead to physical violence. I am thankful that the nation seems to have made at least some moral progress since the Civil War, which was surely the saddest chapter in U.S. history.


  1. I am delighted to post the following comments, at his request, by Dr. Michael Willett Newheart, a former student and good friend, who for many years now has been professor of New Testament at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C.

    "As you know, my great-great uncles were Frank and Jesse James. Frank rode with Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill (we can thank him for the term 'Bleeding Kansas'), and Jesse with one of Quantrill's lieutenants 'Bloody Bill' Anderson. Their half-sister was Fannie Quantrill Samuel, my great-grandmother. The 'definitive' biography on Jesse is subtitled, 'The Last Rebel of the Civil War.' Clay County MO, my home county as well as the Jameses' (and where you and June are living now), was a Confederate stronghold.

    "It's interesting that I've spent almost my entire life in border states: MO, KY, and MD. And I'm a volunteer mediator, married to a professional mediator. (BTW, Joy saw Keith and talked to him briefly at a recent mediator conference.) I'm still trying to get over the Civil War! But I think that we all are! And I teach at Howard University, an institution that was founded in 1867 for the education of 'former slaves.' I'm a Quaker, and Quakers were opposed to slavery and active in the Underground Railroad, which brought many slaves to freedom. Sometimes I think that I'm trying to redeem my relatives. I wrote a poem several years ago entitled, 'redeeming jesse james.'

    "So, I'm fascinated by the 150th anniversary coming up, to be followed by many over the next 4 years. Perhaps we can all reflect on how the Civil War is still with us. Faulkner wrote, 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' That's certainly true of the Civil War."

  2. Thanks for your post, Leroy. You've reminded us of the importance of resisting taking up arms in conflict. And I hope you're right about our having made moral progress, at least among ourselves. The recent invasion of Iraq suggests we're still rather bellicose vis-a-vis those perceived as outsiders, opponents, or enemies. I would observe, however, that for African-Americans the Civil War is probably not "the saddest chapter in U.S. history." I think I have to agree with them because it could just as easily be argued that the saddest chapter was the decades of slavery that led to the Civil War. I think of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address in which he said this: "Yet, if God wills that [the Civil War] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

  3. P.S.: I don't know where my family stood on the slavery issue or the North-South divide. My Dad's family were Illinois Germans, but they came to the U.S. after the Civil War. My mother's were in southeast Missouri and Arkansas, so probably Southern sympathizers.

  4. Anton's point is well taken, and the Civil War doubtlessly looks different from the standpoint of those who are the descendants of the slaves.

    Still, isn't it terribly sad that it took a war that cost at least 618,000 to eradicate the pernicious scourge of slavery? And isn't it sad that it took a Civil War to get rid of slavery in the U.S. while, largely to the indefatigable efforts of William Wilberforce, Britain was able to abolish slavery without war as early as 1834?

  5. Just this past week, PBS repeated Ken Burns' monumental series on the Civil War. I was only able to see one night, the review of 1864. During the battles for Richmond and Atlanta, General Grant stopped the exchange of prisoners with the south. The south had been murdering the black soldiers it captured, and refused to quit the practice. As a result, the number of prisoners on both sides exploded. The southern prison at Andersonville went several times over capacity, and degenerated into squalor and starvation. Thousands of prisoners died, and when the prison was captured by the north, the emaciated survivors remind us of nothing so much as the photos from Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

    I too have a southern branch in my family. When my sister-in-law checked on the genealogy of one of my great grandfathers, she discovered that in one census just after the Civil War there were two boys in the family named after Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The next census they had the names our family knew them by later. This was the state of things in Magnolia, Iowa after the war.

    Many have marveled at how the seemingly mad ravings of John Brown, just before the war, came eerily true just after his execution for the raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia. After all, he was arrested by no less of a relevant figure than Robert E Lee, himself. And his prophecy of rivers of blood to wash away the stain of slavery came true as well. The tune that inspired the writing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic was well known during the Civil War as the song John Brown's Body (Lies A-moldering in The Grave).

    I would like to suggest a parallel prophet at the other end of American slavery. Perhaps the most problematic of all of William Shakespeare's plays is The Merchant of Venice. The treatment of Shylock, the Jew, has been a frustration to both Jew and Gentile ever since. I suggest we turn from what Shakespeare has to say about the Jews in this play to what he has to say about the Christians. They proudly spit on Jews, and at the end of this "comedy" forcibly convert Shylock to Christianity. In between, at the climatic moment, Shylock stands before the prince of Venice, and offers the life of the "son" of the prince if the prince will just let the slaves go free. The prince responds with a technical argument about the economic necessity of slavery. This in a play written almost exactly the same time as the arrival of the first African slave in the English colonies. One can almost hear the strains of Go Down Moses echoing through the play. Shylock had played Moses, to the prince's Pharaoh. Let those who have eyes to see, see, and ears to hear, hear!

  6. My esteemed friend in Kentucky, who often sends brief comments by e-mail, wrote this afternoon saying,

    "It is indeed a sad chapter in American history, Leroy. And it's made worse by the fact that many Southerners still can't put the experience behind them.

    "P. S. I'm a Missourian, too, with ancestors who fought on both sides."

  7. No doubt the Civil War was tragic. I've not read the KC Star's special edition about that event, but look forward to reading it.

    I wonder if that war is the saddest event, or if the resulting racial discrimination that has insued since is. It is sad that our free and democratic nation had to have a Civil Rights movement.

    I would plug a show dealing with this around the topic of health care. On KCPT, Kansas City's public television station, this week (4/14 at 9 p.m and 4/17 at 6 p.m.) a documentary "From Separate to Equal" will air. It tells the sad story about how African Americans wanting to get into and receive health care were discriminated against in Kansas City. The one-hour program will be worth your while if you have the time.

  8. I ran across an interesting CNN article by John Blake, "4 ways we're still fighting the Civil War." The parallels he sees are 1) the disappearance of the political center, 2) interest in nullification, 3) unleashing the dogs of war, and 4) Presidential power. For the complete article, see

  9. A very insightful review, Craig. I heard Jerry Heaster speak on the same topic at Rotary a couple of years back. He saw a key part of the demise of the middle as being smaller, unregulated news sources we now have with the proliferation of the internet blogs and YouTube, Twitter,etc, which parallel the small publications before the War of the States, and that neither side can now claim the moral high ground because both poles are perceived as the moral high ground with historically and Biblically supportable bases. Polarity is not interested in the middle or compromise.