This Fourth Commemorate Not Only 1776 But Also 1863

Thankfully, the vast majority of Americans do not need a reminder to remember July 4. However, on this Fourth of July, I urge you to commemorate not only 1776 but also 1863. While July 4, 1776, serves as the foundation date for the United States of America, July 4, 1863, serves best as the date marking the forging of the United States of America, for it marked the penultimate turning of the Civil War. The South’s retreat from Gettysburg and the surrender of besieged Vicksburg, Mississippi – the South’s crucial last hold on the Mississippi River – all came on July 4, 1863, and sealed the Confederacy’s fate.

Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that the whole history of philosophy can be considered merely footnotes to Plato. And, similarly, modern American history might be considered merely footnotes to the Civil War. When considering almost any ongoing American debate, one can typically trace its modern construction to that war. As Shelby Foote stated, the Civil War was the American crossroads and “it was a hell of a crossroads.”

So if this briefest of arguments attesting to the ongoing importance of the Civil War has piqued any interest, I hope that can be channeled this summer into a commitment to understanding a bit more about this most important American event. And, if one does have a mind to, let me suggest three excellent works in which to do so.

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the first will fit easily within a typical summer reading list. The novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara details the battle of Gettysburg, which was fought over July 1-3 1863 and proved to be the bloodiest and most decisive battle in America’s bloodiest and most decisive war. In it, one witnesses the two armies’ movements but more importantly glimpses the personalities of American warriors, North and South, who battled one another in those Pennsylvania fields and hills. The persuasive power of the prose almost singlehandedly both launched the contemporary adulation of the Union’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and reversed the historic assessment of the Confederacy’s James Longstreet. It is a page-turner par excellence, and these pages are worth turning.

George Proulx of Cumberland, R.I., plays revelry during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on Friday at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa. – Image credit: Associated Press

Requiring more commitment but offering an understanding of the entire war rather than one battle is another Pulitzer Prize winner: James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Considered the best one volume history of the war since its publication in 1988, this tome explores all aspects of the war from a bird’s eye view but one thematically centered on the American understandings of freedom and the significance of the war in creating the United States today. Though a lengthy work, McPherson’s skillful pen puts the war in historical context and delicately balances coverage of all aspects of the war including military, political, social, and economic to provide a broad overview without bogging down in unnecessary detail.

My final recommendation, Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, comes with a prediction. Of course, the only type of prophecy any academic should make is one that cannot be proven wrong in his lifetime. Therefore, I “boldly” suggest that this is the one historical work produced by an American that one day might rank with the highest literary achievements of history. Ancient Greece had its Herodotus, Rome its Tacitus, and likewise perhaps America had its Foote.

Like his ancient forbearers, Foote understood that history at its best tells an engrossing story of the human condition and thereby implicitly provides wisdom for future generations. Of all that has been written on the Civil War and even American history broadly, no chronicler has more consistently provided that than Shelby Foote in this magisterial work. His three-volume magnum opus is not for the faint of heart, but this novelist-turned-historian, who took twenty years to produce his masterpiece, has provided Americans with an unsurpassed account of the war. As a gifted artist, Foote makes the individuals and events jump off the page as if he were writing the most engrossing of fiction.

In any exposure one gets to the Civil War, what one hopefully recognizes is the amount of sacrifice that those in the 19th century made for future generations. Now, as members of those future generations, it is not too much to ask that we give back by spending some of our summer attempting to understand and appreciate their sacrifice on its 150-year anniversary. These three books are wonderful places to start.

Read the Rest of Jason R. Edwards’s Four-Part Series on the Battle of Gettysburg:

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