American history, and all history for that matter, is interpreted differently between each generation. It is influenced by major events within the society and culture. As a society today, we want things to be clear cut, one way or the other. I think this view is becoming all the more stringent. The problem with the Civil War is that the events leading up to it and the event itself are very complex. There are many shades of gray (and blue and butternut). Compounding this issue—and this has already been touched on to a certain degree by my colleagues—is that critical thinking and analysis have taken the backseat throughout the education system. These are two very important tools to have when one examines the Civil War.
I think, however, there may be a remedy for these issues. As we go forward from the Sesquicentennial, one way to continue to garner and build interest in the Civil War is to continue to examine the individuals, both large and small, who participated in and influenced it. The range can be very broad, from President Lincoln to a lowly private from North Carolina or Pennsylvania. In doing so, I think we can gain a better understanding of the time and the events they experienced. I know this may be simplistic, but it is an easy vehicle for an extraordinary time in our nation’s story. The sum of all parts are the people who lived it.
At the same time—and I realize this may be cliché—I think we need to careful. We cannot fall into the trap of looking to the past through the lens of 21st Century America. The people, times, and politics were different. We also need to remember that these men and women were imperfect. Most importantly, though, we cannot forget that those on both sides were Americans and that we stand today on the shoulders of those who came before.