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Civil War Legacies

On March 29, 2012, as part of the ongoing sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition hosted a roundtable discussion about the contested nature and changing character of the Civil War’s memory in American culture. The panel, presented as the 2012 David Brion Davis Lectures on the History of Slavery, Race, and Their Legacies, was moderated by GLC Director and Professor of History David W. Blight and featured Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic and the host of a popular blog about African-American history; Andrew Delbanco, Professor of American Studies at Columbia University and author of the freshly released The Abolitionist Imagination; Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia and a leading scholar of Civil War military history; Stephanie McCurry, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the Frederick Douglass Prize-winning Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South; and John Fabian Witt, the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School and author of the forthcoming Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History.

civil war

For nearly two hours, the panelists debated their perceptions of the “most important” legacies of our nation’s fratricidal war, engaging in a wide-ranging discussion that shuttled between the past, historical memory, and contemporary political debates. Delbanco opened the conversation by asking probing questions about the meaning of compromise and the search for a “middle ground” in America – some of the deep, existential questions left unsettled by the unprecedented bloodletting of 1861-1865. The abolition of slavery easily lends itself to redemptive narratives, but should we so willingly embrace the Civil War as a “good war”? Reflecting on the most “profound crisis of legitimacy” in the history of “American democracy,” McCurry reminded the audience of the significance of Confederate defeat, but marveled at the “never-dying appeal” of the Lost Cause mythology. Gallagher agreed that southern defeat was important, but principally because the American republic maintained its integrity and standing around the globe, a result of the war that he contends is too often unacknowledged. Witt skillfully underlined the importance of the transformative Civil War Amendments, but Coates was most direct: “Modern black America,” he said, recounting his Baltimore boyhood, “is the legacy of the Civil War.”