Westport Sunrise Rotary member Jeffrey Mayer talked on Friday morning about the Civil War and its meaning in a broad American context and, more narrowly, to Westport.
He began by reminding members and our many guests about the meaning of Memorial Day.
Shortly after the Civil War families began to decorate graves of the dead. In 1871 Decoration Day became a holiday in Michigan. In 1882 the name was changed to Memorial Day to remember the dead of all wars. By 1890 it was celebrated in every northern state, and 25 years later in every state.
Mayer suggested that at the parade on Monday we “shake a hand of those in uniform to thank them for their service.”
He said the Civil War – the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression in the south – “cemented many values” we take for granted today. Among them, “these United States,” a holdover from the revolutionary period, became “the United States.”
Mayer said the war was fought for different reasons in the two regions. To the south it was a “freedom fight, a defense of a way of life jeopardized by the north.” Unsaid, but implied is that it was a defense of states’ rights, for their right to make their own decisions about matters that affected their lives.
In the north it was to “preserve the union, the last, best hope to realize the principles of freedom, and of the virtues of paid labor.” Freeing the slaves was not a goal, though stopping its spread was. Slavery implied that labor was valueless. To the urbanizing and industrializing north, labor had an economic value.
While President Lincoln “abhorred slavery,” he wrote to Horace Greely in 1862 “If I could save the Union without freeing a slave I would do it.”
Mayer asked for a show of hands of those whose forebears fought in the war. Seven Rotarians knew of relatives who had.
Mayer told the audience of over 50 that victory for the north was not pre-ordained. Assuredly the north had greater numbers and more industry, but the south had, at the outset, better generals.
Had some battles turned out differently the north would have been doomed. Had the Union lost at Antietam there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation. Had General Robert E. Lee’s two incursions into Pennsylvania, the second to Gettysburg – to “turn public opinion in the north” – not been disastrous, the war’s result may have been different.
Had Sherman not taken Atlanta in September,1864, George McClellan, a general fired by Lincoln, and the Democrats’ presidential candidate, may have defeated Lincoln, and, in line with his party’s objective, made peace with the Confederacy at any cost.
Ultimately the war swung toward the more populous north – 22 million, compared with the south’s six million, one-third of whom were slaves.
Mayer then brought in a Fairfield county unit, Company E of the 17th Regiment. It was formed in the summer of 1862, based in Bridgeport, and included some familiar Westport names – Wakeman, Nash, Burr, Hoyt and Lockwood.
These volunteers left Bridgeport by train on September 3 – the draft did not begin until July, 1863 – for what many thought would be a brief sojourn.
They missed Antietam in September as well as the north’s misadventure at Fredericksburg. They finally saw combat at Chancellorsville in May, 1863, then again, two months later at Gettysburg, where they were instrumental in the victory at Cemetery Hill.
After a futile pursuit of the retreating Lee, they were sent to Charleston, SC, where they prepared to take part in the battle for Fort Wagner – the final battle depicted in the movie Glory, about the black 54th Massachusetts’ – until the Confederates surrendered it.
They then entrained to Florida and remained there repairing railroad tracks until they returned home and were mustered out in July, 1865 – three years after enlisting for what most thought would be 90 days of hostilities.
Mayer stated that the success of the north forestalled a potential apartheid in which it “could have been swallowed up by Canada” and the south “broken into a loose confederation of weak agricultural states, not unlike Mexico.”
Likewise, the flood of immigrants to this country would have been unlikely as a victory by the south would have been seen as a “failed experiment in social planning” rather than the creation of a land of opportunity.
Mayer summed up, reciting the final portion of the few words uttered by President Lincoln at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, four and one half months following the three days of what may have been the tipping point battles of the war:
“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, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”