Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Terry Rensel

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The cover story of the newest issue of Civil War Times asks, “Do we still care about the Civil War?” ECW is pleased to partner with Civil War Times to extend the conversation here on the blog. Today, ECW Editorial Board member Terry Rensel offers his thoughts.

The great thing about statistics is that you can find one to prove any argument you want to make, but that doesn’t make it true. The idea that interest in the Civil War is waning doesn’t take all the facts into account because not all the facts can be counted.

The Wall Street Journal article that brought this debate to the fore doesn’t, and can’t, look at the entire story. Their premise is that visitation to battlefields is down, but that is not the only way to tell if people are interested in the history, and whether that history still matters.

In this day and age, there are so many ways to experience history. Not only can you visit a battlefield in person, but you can visit it virtually. History isn’t contained to just the National Parks; there are state, local, and private sites, too. You used to only be able to buy a book, or a magazine, but now there are web sites, blogs, and mobile apps.

I live in Fredericksburg, and I love having Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in my backyard. A week doesn’t go by where I am not exploring some part of it. Depending on where and when I’m exploring, I may not see another soul—so does that mean I’m not visiting the park, because I haven’t been “counted” by someone?

In an ever-growing community, the park, and other preserved land, provides much-needed green space and the opportunity for reflection and recreation. I cannot travel Lee Drive without seeing dozens of people enjoying the space, not just for its historical significance.

Everywhere I go was a part of one of the four battles that took place in this area. During Second Fredericksburg, the Union Army marched right through where my office sits today. I drive on roads that follow the same routes as the waring armies. The history IS everywhere.

I also turn to history to help me better understand the world around me today. I take lessons in leadership from Grant and Lee, among others. Looking back at our past, and learning from it, is how we navigate the here and now. I find comfort in our past, knowing that we as a nation have persevered and it provides me with faith in our present and future.

Does it still matter? I believe that it matters, now more than ever.

10 Responses to Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Terry Rensel

  1. The American Civil War brings the same contrasts and struggles as with the Philippine-American War did. Both wars were truly tragic and the learning from both historical events reminds us all of how vicious wars are. To me, the importance of learning about the American Civil War reminds me that such wars are ultimately destructive to life but likewise a driver for change. At its purest form, war is a human failure to attain change through peaceful means—destroying those that oppose instead of striving for peaceful resolutions. History is a powerful reminder that dialog, education, and communication are more effective than war—and war should always be the last and final option.

  2. You make the classic error of taking a 21st century political context and imposing it on the mid-19th century. It doesn’t work – from either a modern “right” or “left” viewpoint. I can’t wait to hear your take on the AWI.

  3. And on that same note of decreased visitations to battlefields, we can look at it from a economic standpoint as well. Some people who are in the mid-west and VERY far from any Civil War battlefields may be intensely interested in the subject, but lack the funds to visit. The same can be said of people who are close as well. I live less than an hour from Fort Pickens, but the traffic to get there is insane! I’d love to go every weekend, but I don’t have the patience to brave the traffic. Those who are in the Washington D.C area may think the same thing when considering a trip to Fredericksburg or Manassas. Loved this piece! Thank you for sharing.

  4. The author makes some great points. To the premise that ‘visitation’ is down as far as Civil War battlefields go, I don’t think it is so much a ‘waning interest’ in the subject as it is competition for one’s attention, especially when it comes to young folks. There are are just so many other things that competes for, and often wins out, when it comes to that attention. How to change that? I’m not really sure. Perhaps some sort of ‘outreach’ effort can be attempted with schools and college campuses. Local level entities like Civil War Roundtables might be a good means to convey such efforts. Much of what takes place as far as knowledge of what is ‘out there’ appears to be based on word of mouth. My own experience echoes that. I have a life-long interest in the Civil War. A few years ago, I just happened to be reading a book from my local library on the subject at the gym I am a member of while waiting for my wife to finish her workout. One of the ladies who was also a member noticed the book, and informed me that there was a ‘group’ that met every month at that library to discuss the Civil War. Lucky for me, fate and happenstance worked out in my favor. I think there are lots of folks out there who have such an interest, but don’t know what is available. Getting that word out is the crux!

  5. Tim, can you explain that please? Just what does “America’s greatest leftist revolutionary victory” mean? I admit that I don’t get it.

    1. You might want to take a look at the industrial culture which took hold after 1865 and lasted into the new century. I’ll wager that Marx wasn’t taking a victory lap.

    2. That’s so simple a child of ten could understand it. Run and find me a child of ten – I can’t make heads or tails of it.

  6. Viewing the Civil War as a leftist victory strikes me as just another way to continue dividing our already splintered nation into “left” and “right.” Until everyone can look at the war (and current events) dispassionately and objectively, we cannot advance past this juvenile stage of “us” and “them,” virtually continuing the Civil War indefinitely.

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