Are We Reconciled?

The 152nd anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg came to a conclusion last Friday afternoon after three full days of hikes, walks, and talks. Speaking on behalf of the entire staff, we were overwhelmed with the interest, support, and enthusiasm the thousands of visitors who hiked the battlefield with us brought to Gettysburg National Military Park. It was truly a pleasure and an honor to be on the field one hundred and fifty two years to the day after the battle was fought, with such an interested and dedicated crowd.

The battle anniversary took a slight departure this year from previous formats. Normally our concluding program is the retracing of Pickett’s Charge (Or the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble-Lang-Wilcox Assault for those of you uninterested in brevity) on the afternoon of July 3rd. This year however we were pleased to work with our partners in the Gettysburg Foundation to mark the end of battle anniversary and the start of our Sacred Trust Lecture Series with a special Friday evening panel discussion.

I was fortunate enough to take part in that panel, alongside Drs. Timothy Orr, Keith Harris, and James Marten. The ensuing discussion, moderated by Park Historian John Heiser, turned into one of the highlights of the battle anniversary.

Focused around the central theme of “How veterans told the story of their war,” each panelist had roughly five minutes to discuss some particular aspect or component of that larger question. A fascinating series of presentations ensued which ranged from the limits of reconciliation, the varied and often contradictory memories of the veterans, the Confederate flag, and the best veteran-penned memoirs to emerge from the war. The entire panel discussion was filmed by our partners at the Gettysburg Foundation and will soon be available for viewing on their website. I highly recommend watching it.

As interesting as the individual panelists were the highlight of the evening came, as it often does, from the questions posed by the members of the audience. One in particular provoked a great deal of thought, not only during the panel, but afterwards also.

Are we, as a country, reconciled from the American Civil War? Has reconciliation been accomplished?

I suppose part of the challenge in answering that question resides in its definition. What does it mean to be reconciled? What does it mean to us today and what did it mean to the individuals who experienced the American Civil War firsthand? Does it involve anything more than a begrudging acceptance of the changes brought about by the conclusion of the war? Does it mean forgiving? Does it mean forgetting?

Alongside “reconstruction” and “reunion,” two terms it is often confused with, reconciliation represents the third, and by far most subjective, of the “R” word triumvirate that defined post-war America. By the end of 1865 reunion was a fact. The country had been physically and politically reunited, the Confederacy had been crushed and its armies in the field had been vanquished. Reconstruction was the political, physical, and social act of rebuilding the south and bringing it back into the Union while simultaneously grappling with the new social order that resulted from the abolition of four million enslaved people. Reconciliation though would necessitate the restoration of amicable, if not harmonious, relations between two once warring peoples, including and encompassing those who shouldered a weapon, those who experienced the war on the home front, and those whose freedom was ultimately secured by the conflict.

By the turn of the century many of the veterans of the war seemed to have cautiously embraced the idea of a reconciled country, provided it was a reconciled country that embraced their particular viewpoint on the war. Fairly typical, of the veterans anyways, was the standpoint of Union veteran F. H. Harris who remarked in his speech at the dedication of the 13th New Jersey monument on the Gettysburg battlefield, “When our misguided brethren lately in arms against us say ‘forgive,’ let us, in accordance with the principles of the religion we profess, say, with outstretched hands and cordial greetings, ‘forgiven;’ but let us never forget that treason was treason, and that loyalty was loyalty.”

Many former Confederates were just as eager to bury the hatchet, though they refused to concede the worthiness of their cause. As Gen. Bennett H. Young, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, stated in an oration during the 1913 reunion at Gettysburg, “The Confederate comes here with his heart still loyal to the South and to those who made the four years of the Confederate nation’s life resplendent with heroism, glory, and noblest sacrifice.What we ask for ourselves we freely and cheerfully accord to the other side. You had great soldiers; you had hundreds of thousands of men whose hearts were touched with the truest instincts of patriotism…Build them monuments wherever you will, laud their courage and their virtues as you may, write in unnumbered volumes the story of their achievements, and enshrine in your hearts the sacrifices of the millions who fought and thought as you fought and thought. We only claim the same right as to our dead comrades.”

Ultimately reconciliation would be as difficult to achieve as it would be to quantify, measure, and define.  It would not be achieved through legislation or military conquest. It wasn’t a state, county, or town issue. If it was to be achieved at all it would have to be done on an individual basis. In the end reconciliation was deeply personal, made easier or more difficult depending on the individual in question and their vantage point on the war and the issues at stake. I suppose it remains so today.

One hundred and fifty years following the conclusion of the conflict many of the consequences, meanings, causes, and symbols of the war are still being passionately, eloquently, and occasionally violently debated. No more than a cursory glance at the most recent headlines will testify to the continued volatility of the very same issues that were debated a century and a half ago. In Charleston, South Carolina an alleged gunman who took as his personal symbol the “Confederate battle flag” killed nine innocent church goers. In Memphis, Tennessee city officials have initiated a discussion that could result in the exhumation and removal of the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park, while on the Gettysburg battlefield Union and Confederate reenactors symbolically join hands across a rock wall that was once the site of death and carnage.

So, the question remains. Are we reconciled? Is true reconciliation even possible? What does reconciliation even mean in 21st century America?  We’d be interested in hearing what you have to say.

Christopher Gwinn, Gettysburg National Military Park


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22 Responses to Are We Reconciled?

  1. Stephen Connell says:

    My wife and I had the pleasure of being there again this year, as we have the past five years. The programs are so informative for us and makes us look forward to coming back in November.

  2. Jim Bizarri says:

    In respectful honesty — I feel removing the southern battleflag from SOUTH CAROLINA government grounds – may well be appropriate — but that single removal issue solves nothing — more than lifting the political future of the current SC governor…. To “Join-in” in removing/banning The Southern Cross battleflag from our historical battlegrounds– re-enactor events- visitor center gift shops — NATIONAL GRAVEYARDS??– etc-etc – can only further fan the flames of division.. It will be for the Interior Department- and our congress to decide how much division they are willing to participate in…

    • Patric Brayden says:

      Agreed. The battle flag was hijacked by segregationists in the ’60’s, but the fact of its role, honroable or otherwise, in the soul-wrenching war one hundred years earlier simply cannot be erased from the truth of history.

  3. I am from South Carolina. I just watched the Battle Flag come down from our Statehouse grounds. I am 62. I lived through integration and civil rights. I am so glad that the flag is down. I truly wish my state would fully come to grips with the damage it caused in an attempt to perpetuate a most evil institution. Or we reconciled? No, but perhaps, just perhaps, today we in SC are just a little bit closer!

  4. John Hart says:

    I too saw
    the Battle Flag come down today. It really doesn’t belong on state property, however it does belong on battlefields where history was written and men died.

    • Robin says:

      I completely agree. I was raised by a Northern mother in the North, my entire life. But on my father’s side, all who were in the Civil War, were my Confederate ancestors – my own gr. gr grandfather, for example. We have their pensions records; two of his brothers were blown apart by cannon during FLorida regiments charge on July 3: my gr. gr uncles (young men) are missing, never brought home, still on PA soil out there off Emmitsburg road somewhere. I have their military records, and those of countless other Confederate soldiers – I can never, ever forget them. The Confederate flag is a symbol of what they gave their lives for, right or wrong. It belongs on the battlefield, correctly, where they fought. History, and who is deemed “traitor” is always determined by the VICTOR of any war, fact. If the Confederates had one (for their “legal” right to separate under Constitution, no matter what I believe today), then the Yanks would have been the traitors. History and therefore, war is revolting and unpleasant. But we do a disservice to tray and “rewrite” history and take away even what we may find “revolting symbolism”, (ie the Confederate flag). Let’s all be grown ups about this. Confederate flag on tax-payer built buildings, not a good idea today. On a battlefield? Always appropriate.

  5. Anthony Klick says:

    We all suffer from the need for identity. For as long as we insist on referring to ourselves as northern or southern, or by political party, nationality, or religious affiliation, or by any other definition or characteristic, we only reinforce our differences. We cannot be “we” as long as we cling to “I am” and “you are”. As much as it’s side stepped with political correctness and righteous speeches, I can never escape the feeling that there are large swatches of peoples who still carry the torch, still hold the grudge, and quietly and unto themselves or their like minded friends mutter that they didn’t lose the war. But rather than debate who won or lost, who was right or wrong, the larger point is to move past it and be one nation. We’re talking over 150 years. That’s more than a few generations. And the wounds are still fresh in the minds of too many.

  6. Tommy Hyer says:

    It seems to me, if these men could fight in mortal combat with one another, seeing their family and friends die over 4 long years of war, and were able to overcome their differences to unite as Americans, what does this say about us today?

    I had ancestors that fought on both sides of that uncivil war. Those of the north, fought to preserve the Union. Those of the south, fought for states rights and what they believed to be a tyrannical Federal government. Both fought and died for what they believed to be right.

    I have served this nation of ours for 30 years, as a member of the Air Force and working with the FAA. I love this nation of ours. I love the very idea of America. It is most tragic to see what is happening to her today. I often wonder what I have served. I know many Veterans who feel this way and share the same thoughts about what is going on. We also know we live in the greatest nation on earth, bar none. Just wish many of our fellow Americans, felt like we do. Appreciate what you have, and respect one another. This nation is not here by fate, but by Divine intervention. My biggest fear, is that God will pull his blessings away from America.

    If we’re not very careful today, we will again have an uncivil war.

  7. Unfortunately, no we are not, and it is likely we will never be reconciled. Instead of all sides coming together we have one side demonizing the other. While it may be true that the flag should have never been placed over the statehouse of South Carolina in 1961 the call for the removal of all Confederate items, dead, etc has degenerated well beyond the point of absurdity. Any call for reconciliation is usually one side bashing the other side over the head and reminding them how wrong they were. True reconciliation is a give and take proposition, and currently we are not allowed to discuss any of the difficult issues facing this country because of political correctness. While the shooting from 1861-1865 have stopped the war of words will continue, and it will get uglier. Those that think the removal of the flag today will bring the sides closer are burying their heads in the sand.

    • Robin says:

      You are SO correct here. I was at Gettysburg last year, and I heard a woman tell some Southerners to “get over it”, meaning: your ancestors shouldn’t be important because they lost the cause (or were wrong, etc.). I never heard anyone tell a Northerner to “just get over it” when they are feeling sad at one of the monuments and want to lay a flag or flower down beside it. Grieving, honoring, etc. should be fair and respectful for ALL – these were real men, young boys mostly, and real ancestors of real people walking around today. We have no business telling people to “move on”, “get over” even if it were, as it one day will be, 300 years ago! As long as no one is outwardly harming someone else, people should be able to honor the fallen, no matter if you personally believed in their cause or not.

  8. Tommy Hyer says:

    It seems to me, if these men could fight in mortal combat with one another, seeing their family and friends die over 4 long years of war, and were able to overcome their differences to unite as Americans, what does this say about where we are today?

  9. Bill Holland says:

    You can conduct a panel discussion any time. You can also get your fill of many of the topics you discussed onl news shows and C-Span. The anniversary of the largest battle ever fought on the North American Continent cames around once a year, and you missed it

  10. Bill says:

    As a Friend of Gettysburg, I have visited and walked the battlefield several times. I am a resident of South Carolina and two of my confederate ancestors participated in the fateful charge there. Perhaps the confederate battle flag should never have been hoisted atop the state house, but, interested parties “compromised” in 2000, moving it over to a soldiers monument on the grounds. This was not good enough for the NAACP and other groups. Sadly, few people in America truly know history and believe only what they have heard (modern revisionism) and/or choose to believe, as to the causes of the civil war. Unfortunately, those who believe the war was singularly fought over slavery, might suggest that reconciliation should be simple. Few, if any, would still maintain that slavery was proper – anywhere or any time. But, the real issue was (and IS) state’s rights. Does any state have the right to break (secede) from any association, regardless of the reason? I rather doubt that any group of people will ever agree on the validity of such a right, despite the fact that America chose to secede from British control upon the birth of this nation.

  11. Jason R. Gettinger says:

    Two professors have dealt with the issue of reunion and reconciliation in telling ways. RIchard Blight, then of Amherst and now at Yale wrote a book that detailed that reconciliation was the predominant theme for too long — over a hundred years, because it tended to obscure that, as the NJ veteran said, it confused magnanimity with the truth, that the war was fought to preserve republican democracy against the idea that elites could break up a country for ignoble reasons — preserving slavery. See “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.” We must be wary of Blue-Gray nostalgia, as Blight put it. James McPherson has written volumes but during the flag controversy 15 years ago, he said approximately: descendants of confederates must get over it, admit their ancestors were wrong and that there was no worthy lost cause to honor. We will not be truly reconciled until the lost cause is buried. The survivors of the confederacy were treated better than any losers in civil wars in the history of the world. Malice toward none, charity for all, as Lincoln said. That doesn’t mean moral neutrality.

    • epaddon says:

      The problem with this argument though is that I have seen a lot more “moral neutrality” regarding events from long after the Civil War by those who get so stringent on the subject of Civil War battle flags. The people for instance who are so anxious to see Confederate flags and war memorials removed and eradicated are too often the same people who think the hammer and sickle isn’t the offensive symbol of a mass murdering regime that left more than ten times the number of people who died at the hands of the swastika, or who think that Chairman Mao was a benevolent agrarian reformer instead of someone who perpetrated a Holocaust called the Great Leap Forward.

      I say this as someone who believes the Confederacy was wrong, but at the same time we have lost sight of the nuances that for a century made it easy for us to separate respecting Robert E. Lee from lionizing the South’s stubborn embrace of slavery. And when that nuance is being eradicated by those who have made “moral neutrality” an art form when it comes to whitewashing the atrocities of the 20th century’s greatest mass murderers, I find myself feeling repelled.

  12. Russ L. Arbuckle says:

    It’s sad that today’s generation can not recall that all Americans on both sides, union and confederate fought for what they believed in. A battle flag representing the south is seen in such a negative light. Remember, the men that fought under the confederate flag and died for your so-called opinions may have died in vain. History can not be change now that happen over 150 years ago. Move on and preserve our history. Why is the squeaky wheel always getting the attention. It makes me sick. God Bless the North, and the South, and God Bless America!

  13. George Geer says:

    This dissertation is right on the money. Reconciliation has come to us with conditions, and those depend on individual feelings. As a Northerner, I side with the Union. But as an American, I have deep respect for the Southern side even though I disagree with their reasons for waging war. By the way, I am a member of the Sons of Union Veterans and am a ceremonial reenactor.

  14. Jim Mulchay says:

    American Civil War “reconciliation”? There are many levels to this discussion and no simple answers.
    I think that for those who lived through the Civil War “reconciliation” was achieved (not for all, but for most).
    But like the confederate battle flag, many of the results of the Civil War became interpreted “selectively” by various political / social groups for their own purposes – trying to use the past to fit their view of the present / future.
    Most who fought in the Civil War did it for their community / state / region / families – not for political gain, profit or “political correctness” – most now (I fear) have their own “axe to grind”;

  15. Fred Knauf says:

    A difficult question to answer. I believe that the post Civil War president named Grant followed Lincoln’s belief to welcome all of those rebelling back into the Union. Eventually, Jeff Davis even got his citizenship back.

    I know I have many beliefs and tenants, but for most of those I’m not too sure I would walk or ride on rickety, risky railroads, 450 or more miles, to stand in a line face to face with rifled muskets and cannon spewing canister at me for more than a select few of those that are deep in my heart. Thus to me, those who did select to rebel against the New England’s textile magnets taking control of Washington & the tariff system being applied to the agricultural south – so that they could control where the south shipped their cotton, I must think that they had had enough; much like those of 80 or so years before them with King George. Perhaps their reasoning was justified. Slavery – well, slavery was still allowed in DC and the last of the northern / border states when the war broke, so I’m not too keen on that being the cause of this great war. The imbalance of voting in the senate is more appropriate.

    My G-G-grandfather on my mother’s side was lucky. He went in in 1862 in the NY 105th and was wounded two or three times, captured between Shead’s woods and the town, and spent a while in Libby, only to get back in the war in 1864 as a Col. of the 188th NY. I honor him and all those who fought to preserve our Union, but I also marvel and honor those of the south, who fought so bravely for what they believed in. We can’t change the past – only learn from it. So, to that end, I am totally reconciled. I believe the removal of the flag from a State capital is ok, but if a neighbor wants to fly it or put it on his truck, so what. The statues, murals and Stone Mtn. should stay since the Rebs were all allowed back into the Union by the leaders of the day, so those of the modern era who never fought and never were slaves GET OVER IT and do something to make America great. Dividing and opening old wounds is not making America great – it weakens us. Learn and move on.

    • Jason R. Gettinger says:

      It is a myth that the war was caused by economic or tariff issues, solely the economic issue of slavery. The constitution expressly prohibits taxes on EXPORTS, such as cotton and the south could ship their cotton anywhere. The war was brought on by slaveholders who could count: if slavery could not be extended to territories, which Lincoln and the Rep platform promised to oppose, then at some point slavery could be dealt with lawfully with amendments to the constitution, perhaps with compensation, but not immediately. [That is why the Emancipation Proclamation was solely a war measure — it took the 13th Amendment to apply emancipation to areas in control of the union, including several states where slavery was still legal.] Therefore, when Lincoln won, they picked up their football and went home, thereby trying to prove that a republican democracy could NOT work in a large country. Need to get beyond myths of the lost cause. If the south had won, it is quite likely that England, the biggest overseas buyer, would have boycotted southern cotton — they were developing Egyptian long staple cotton for their mills anyway.

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