for National Geographic News
This year marks the 140th anniversary of the advent of the American Civil War. During the ensuing almost century and a half, nearly 65,000 books have been written on the subject and new material is published every year. Indeed, only Jesus Christ has been written about more than Abraham Lincoln.
After many years of reading and writing on the subject, I have become convinced thatafter all of its convoluted complications, causes, and consequences have been carefully examinedthe war essentially boils down to a conflict between Lincoln and Lee.
For the president the Union was an insoluble "marriage" and therefore secession was, pure and simple, a "divorce."
On the other hand, Lees loyalty went first and foremost to his state. Like Thomas Jefferson, and so many others before him, "my country," to Lee, meant Virginia, not the United States of America.
For those of his persuasion, the states voluntarily entered the Union and therefore they reserved for themselves the right to voluntarily exit from the Union.
Opposed to this, Lincoln passionately believed that whatever differences divided the country, they could be resolved through compromise between the contending political forces.
The Constitution is silent on the subject of secession, which is partly the reason why (after two years of federal incarceration) Jefferson Davis (wishing to do so) never stood trial. It would have been very difficult, in a court of law, to prove that he was a traitor.
Virginiaalong with three other southern statesdid not join the confederacy until after the firing on Fort Sumter. And of course it was to Leethere was no better choicewhom Lincoln offered command of the army of 75,000 volunteers that he would raise and employ to suppress the rebellion.
Lee rejected his commander-in-chief's offer (after well more than a quarter of a century of military service) and subsequently resigned his commission. Within a few days he joined the army of the Confederate States of America.
Lest we forget, it was not until the near mid-point of the war that the expanded moral goal of abolishing slavery became one of the Union's military missions. Indeed, slavery was not abolished in the nation's capital until April 16, 1862, and the Emancipation Proclamation did not take effect until January 1, 1863. Suffice it to say, the vast majority of northern soldiers saw themselves as an army fighting for national reunification, not black liberation.
Additionally, in many respects, the Civil War was an American tale of two cities.
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