“Was the Civil War Worth It?”

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back our friend Joe Ricci, historian at the Battle of Franklin Trust.

In December 2023, it was announced that I would assume the role of Historian of The Battle of Franklin Trust—a dream come true. Only a few days later, still bubbling with excitement over the task ahead, the opportunities, and the tremendous honor it is to be in that role and at this moment in time, I ascended the steps to the Carter House Visitor Center and began my Friday routine. Turn on the lights, check. Stock the fridge, done. Sweep out the outbuildings, vacuum the house, and, quite literally, dust.

On the short walk back to the storage closet to stow away the push broom, I eyed a cinderblock warehouse astride Strahl St. and Columbia Ave. Over my Dave Matthews Band Live playlist on Spotify, I whispered, “One day.” Indeed one day, very soon, that building and others in the immediate area will be removed from the Franklin Battlefield. Did I mention it is an incredible time to be a witness to active battlefield reclamation?

With the coffee pot percolating in the back office, I began to plot out the day’s schedule. There is never, ever, a dull moment at Carter House, Carnton, and Rippa Villa, the three premier Civil War sites in Middle Tennessee. From three different time slots for our 90-minute Battlefield, Slavery and Enslaved, Reconstruction, and Extended Tours, not to mention the classic hour-long guided tours through the homes, there are days where that pot of coffee is ice cold by the time you pour a cup of lukewarm (at best) Folgers. With all the commotion, it is easy to get lost in the fray. It is equally easy to fall into a robot-like trance. That’s usually when a middle-aged woman from Muskegon, Michigan, asks a question so simple, and yet, one that forces you back into the moment.

I had just concluded a classic house tour and was locking up the bullet-riddled Farm Office when a woman with a green Michigan State hat, shades covering her eyes, sporting a brand new “I Believe in Nashville” t-shirt, and the trademark vacation gear—a fanny pack—approached. She did not skip a beat. After she had thanked me for the tour, she remarked, “All this violence in that war. I just don’t think it was all worth it. Don’t you think?” Before I could respond, she observed, “I mean, come on. Just look around. This was just useless. We have more problems now than they did.”

This was my first interaction with a woman I came to know, in a matter of minutes, as Deborah.

With pockets of my tour standing around, I was compelled to respond. “Deborah, I promise you there is no better place to think about that question than here on one of the ‘great battlefields’ of our Civil War,” I replied. Whether it is Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Vicksburg, or Franklin, the battlefields of the Civil War give us space to reflect on what was at stake from 1861 to 1865. Admittedly, I have always had a gift for memorizing quotes from famous speeches by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra’s monologues from Live at The Sands, even movies, so the fact that I immediately jumped to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address came as a shock to exactly no one.

Shuffling through the filing cabinets and rolodexes in my mind, and with a moment’s pause to ruminate on her question, I started in: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Lincoln was an absolute genius when it came to speaking through the annals of time. I was not sure where I was going with this. But in that moment, it was my job to convey to Deborah that he was right and, furthermore, his message was one we need to be reminded of.

I continued:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, should have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

“No, Deborah, my friend,” I said, “we have problems, but nothing like the Civil War generation endured. Maybe it is because I am an optimist, but I think we are in a far better place than any previous generation in our history.” We discussed, among other things, race, education, historical literacy, generational apathy, and much more. Two people from completely different walks of life, and in vastly different stages of our earthly journeys, shared a special moment contemplating what our Civil War still means to us today. As Deborah and I parted, she wiped a tear from her cheek, and I dabbed sweat from my brow. That caught me flat-footed.

My conversation with Deborah stuck with me for weeks, and still, now months removed, I can recall the entire exchange verbatim. A newly retired nurse on a cross-country road trip in her brand-new camper van (a retirement gift) with admittedly “more days behind me, than in front,” gave me, a 28-year-old man, newly minted historian, and then-expecting father, something else to ponder. As if it was not enough that I had to evaluate a new filing system, a digital database for records storage, text for additional signs, whether or not my wife’s hospital “go-bag” had an extra stick of deodorant, or if my soon-to-be-born daughter would remember my first words to her or recognize my Superman logo t-shirt if I wore it to the delivery room and continued to wear it for weeks on end, now, thanks to Deborah, I was left to consider the gravity of the Civil War. No big deal. Of course, it was all I could think about. They do not teach this stuff in a classroom.

I had believed the war redeemed the nation before, and my conversation that day with Deborah only served to solidify my position. Close study of the Civil War, I ardently believe, reveals to us that the nation endured this brutal crucible of war and emerged from it transformed and with the hopes of the “Spirit of 1776” re-imagined. The war opened the door for the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the 13th Amendment by December 1865, and the Civil Rights advances of Reconstruction. This is not to say that the Civil War cured all evils and mended all ills. Certainly, that was not the case. The violent resistance to Reconstruction Era policies and the ensuing Reign of Jim Crow that dominated the United States into the middle of the 20th century, in many ways, rolled back the progress made in those immediate post war years. The Civil War, however, did give us the chance to begin anew. And, though the work is far from complete, it should serve as our roadmap to understanding what we can become: “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Without the Civil War, the nation that emerged in the 20th century to do battle with the forces of tyranny and Nazism would not exist. The struggle of 1861 to 1865 paved way for the struggle for Civil Rights from 1961 to 1965. Even still, today we battle with hard challenges of race and the legacy of slavery, and we stand at a crucial crossroads in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War. Yes, we often find ourselves disagreeing with someone about national politics, the economy, and the rising costs of a loaf of bread or a brand-new house. One thing, though, is certain. There is no issue as pervasive, as imbued into society, and as politically, socially, morally, and economically volatile as the institution of African slavery was in the United States up to 1860. With the war’s end, slavery and the Confederacy died, while, for the nation, a new birth of freedom was at long last attained.

I am an avid reader of Robert Penn Warren’s works. Of all the great American literary figures, Warren most resonates with me. In exploring the Civil War in his excellent book, The Legacy of the Civil War, Warren asks, “Have we been ‘instructed’ by that catharsis of pity and terror?” In his response, in a way I only wish I could have communicated to Deborah, Warren concludes:

But there is a deeper appeal…. We can yet see in the Civil War an image of the powerful, painful, grinding process by which an ideal emerges out of history….

Looking back on the years 1861–1865 we see how the individual men, despite failings, blindness, and vice, may affirm for us the possibility of the dignity of life. It is a tragic dignity that their story affirms, but it may evoke strength. And in the contemplation of the story, some of that grandeur, even in the midst of the confused issues, shadowy chances, and brutal ambivalences of our life and historical moment, may rub off on us. And that may be what we yearn for after all.[1]

Warren, like Lincoln, reminds us of the greatness we are capable of, and the sacred vows of equality inherited and safeguarded by each preceding, passing generation of Americans. When next you find yourself standing on Little Round Top, walking the Dead Angle, fighting off ticks in the Hornet’s Nest, reading an interpretive panel near the foundation of the Carter Cotton Gin, or walking in the footsteps of Gen. William Loring’s Division on the Eastern Flank, stop and consider all we must be grateful for, and re-dedicate yourself to the great task remaining before us.


[1] Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War, (NY: Random House, 1961), 107-109.

7 Responses to “Was the Civil War Worth It?”

  1. Excellent post! Thank you for sharing your personal experience and the thoughts and emotions it churned up.

  2. This was a great post! I am glad that you got to share your knowledge with Deborah. In graduate school and in my daily life, I have found the Civil War to be more relevant now than ever. Too few Americans have reflected on the Civil War and its enduring meaning, so I am glad that you gave people the opportunity to do so.

  3. What a great personal anecdote that touches on some big questions! Just goes to show how relevant the Civil War is to our country’s legacy.

  4. I love walking away from a post with more good stuff to think about. Thanks, Joe!

  5. A great post and very thought-provoking. Many books have been written on the topic. The war was for sure a pivotal moment in the evolution of the US. What it actually achieved and when, is still hotly disputed. Prof Heather Cox Richardson recently published a book entitled “how the south won the civil war” which makes for interesting reading. I particularly like David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and a recent book entitled Living Hell. My personal opinion is that killing people in their thousands seems a bleak way to resolve problems, and with the civil war specifically highlights how broken US politics was in the late 1850s. As a war correspondent, John Steinbeck wrote “All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal” – seems about right to me.

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