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Will the Civil War speak to America again?

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War kicks off Nov. 6. Dramatic events from Fort Sumter to Lincoln's assassination once again will enthrall Americans. But does 'the second American revolution' also have other things to say in 2010 about the rise of new political forces and race relations today?

By / November 5, 2010

A man holds a flag in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during a recent Remembrance Day Parade. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this cutline had the incorrect month.]

Credit: Kenneth Garrett,, Newscom


Nov. 6 marks 150 years since Americans elected a little-known lawyer from Illinois as president of the United States.

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The anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s victory also serves as the informal kickoff to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Ahead lie five years of commemorations, from the firing on Fort Sumter that began the conflict (April 2011) to the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Confederate states (January 2013) to the military turning point (Gettysburg, July 2013) to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and Lincoln’s assassination (April 2015).

Shiloh. Antietam. Fredericksburg. The battle of the ironclad ships, Monitor and Merrimac. Union naval officer David Farragut urging "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" And much more. It all lies ahead – as Americans revisit the greatest national crisis since the founding of the United States, what some call “the second American revolution.”

How lasting has been the impact of the Civil War? “... [W]e are destined to reckon with the Civil War as long as we are Americans,” notes one contemporary observer.

How will Americans mark the event, which cost at least 600,000 American combat deaths out of a US population of 31 million, which included at the war's beginning some 4 million slaves?

Ken Burns’s monumental 1990 TV documentary series "The Civil War" will be dusted off by fans and, one hopes, fascinate a new generation of viewers.

States and cities, especially in the Southeastern US where most of the fighting took place, will hope to see a tourism boom as Americans look for themselves at the places where these events that forever changed US history took place. Gettysburg, Pa., expects to host an additional 1 million visitors in 2013, for a total of 4 million during that year.

Several years ago my wife and I finally made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg. We splurged and hired a licensed guide to personally show us around the battlefield. We explored the rolling terrain, from both the Union and Confederate perspectives. Preservation efforts have kept it looking much the way it did then: Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Seminary Ridge, Pickett’s charge, the Angle. Those names mean so much more when you stand on the ground where the blood was spilled.

It’s hard to predict now what aspects of this long-ago conflict will resonate most with Americans in the second decade of the 21st century. But two early contenders stand out.


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