Lest We Forget…


It calls first of all for an attitude, a frame of mind, a brooding awareness of the immensity of the tragedy that once befell our country and an honest attempt to understand the far-reaching results which grew out of that tragedy. It calls upon us to be fully adult in our approach to it, so that we can make ourselves familiar with the hot passions and the human blindnesses that led up to it and grew out of it and can realize that greatness went hand in hand with meanness, that men caught up in a tide too strong for them to resist did somehow accomplish more than they meant to accomplish, that the whole of the terrible process did in the end mean more than the sum of its parts. We need to realize that although we are never going to reach a complete understanding of the war, it is not wholly incomprehensible; that it was infinitely more than a needless catastrophe, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

All of this has little to do with parades, re-enactments, and the serving of refreshments by bright young women in hoop skirts and ruffles, it has to do with the real value of the centennial; with the unfinished business which the Civil War left to us, the living. What we are today grows directly out of that war; what we mean when we are at our best is rooted in it. It left us not just something to remember but something to live up to. It began a process that still is not finished and that will be our continuing responsibility as long as we live.

For in its blind, brutal, and all but unendurably expensive way, the Civil War did accomplish something.

It created one nation, destined for world leadership, and it once and forever expanded the dimensions of American freedom. It brought Negro slavery to an end; doing that, it left us with no conceivable alternative to the task of creating, perfecting, and defending a one-class citizenship in our fair land. The fact that this task is a long way from being finished is beside the point. The commitment was made for us, and we cannot either escape it or forget it. Under everything else—the remembrance of the valiant things done by men long dead, the bright pathos of the Lost Cause, the continuing endeavor to heal the deep wounds which the war inflicted—this is implicit in the Civil War centennial. The centennial years are hardly less solemn than the years they commemorate.

We have had re-enactments, parades, and flowery speeches, and we shall doubtless have more. They are all to the good, so long as they are not all that we see or hear or think about. But we shall lose something we must not lose if we make these centennial years simply a time of soft and forgetful sentiment; if we hesitate to stress the final meaning of the war because we are afraid to “stir up controversy” or touch some present-day issue which might leave thorns in our fingers. We are a grown-up people by now, or at least we think we are, and we do not need to go through this anniversary on tiptoe.

Somewhere in these centennial observances there must be a time for sober reflection; for contemplation of the fact that freedom is a magnificent possession and an undying responsibility; for rededication to the ideal that came to its first flowering in battle smoke and agony. The centennial is not to be approached lightly. It means either nothing at all—or everything.

—Bruce Catton