Patriotism and the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War

David H Jones asked:

A few years hence, the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War will provide an auspicious occasion during which we can reflect on what the historical event should mean to us.

I’m certain that the enthusiasm for this Civil War observance won’t match the level of unabashed infatuation experienced by many Americans during the Centennial; for better or worse, we aren’t the same country that we were in the early 1960s. Nevertheless, it’s important that we understand how the war forever changed and re-shaped our great nation. For real insight into this transformation, we must grasp mid-nineteenth century perspectives as we contemplate the participation of unionists, secessionists, African Americans, and women during the conflict.

This broad spectrum of human experience was confronted when I researched, then wrote Two Brothers: One North, One South. It’s the story of Clifton and William Prentiss of Baltimore, their fellow soldiers, civilian friends, and acquaintances. Closely based on real people and actual events, the novel follows these characters from early 1861, before the war began, until mid-1865, after its conclusion. Walt Whitman encountered the Prentiss brothers at Armory Square Hospital and later eulogized them in Memoranda During The War, thereby commemorating the sacrifice that each made for his cause. Whitman became the navigator of their story in Two Brothers.

While Whitman’s fervent support for the Union and his abhorrence of slavery never wavered, his devotion to visiting wounded soldiers of both the North and South furnished him with a unique perception of patriotism and courage. His intuition is revealed in this passage of The Wound Dresser:

“(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,

But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resigned myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)

Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,

Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)”

As we approach the sesquicentennial of a war in which 600,000 American deaths were suffered, the poet’s words should be remembered and embraced. Walt Whitman was right. Many of the participants were unsurpassed heroes: Federal and Confederate soldiers; women on the home front whose role in society was forever changed; and African American soldiers who fought for the Union to achieve dignity and freedom.

They were, one and all, American patriots.

In my view, we have much to celebrate during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

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