Posted by: smstrouse | April 9, 2011

The Civil War—What Have We Learned in 150 Years?

The first year I attended the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, PA, I lived in one of the historic houses from Civil War days. Krauth House had been the home of Professor Charles Philip Krauth and his family. When the battle came to Seminary Ridge, the house was turned into a field hospital. Krauth and his wife and daughter stayed in the basement the first day, but as Confederate troops approached they were forced to flee. They eventually returned and the house has remained part of the seminary campus.

As you can imagine, stories are told of the wounded, dying and dead who occupied those rooms long before I did. One tale was of blood-soaked floorboards that had to be covered over, and of course of ghosts that still occupy the house.  I never saw or heard any ghosts (I chose to believe that the scuffling in the walls was caused by squirrels), but I do admit to experiencing a vibe – a mysterious sense of presence or spirit – at certain places on the battlefield. The field of Pickett’s Charge, a bloodbath within the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, is a place where I could truly understand President Lincoln’s words: ” . . . we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it . . .”

I don’t know about ghosts, but I do believe that the land remembers. And so should we.

April 12 marks anniversary of the beginning of the War.  What have we learned in the 150 years since?  As we look around at the issues confronting us today, have we come very far? Certainly not far enough. Those who fought against slavery would be proud to see Barak Obama in the White House, but would surely be discouraged by the persistent level of racism that continues to plague us. Those who fought to preserve the Union would surely be disheartened by cries of “Shut it down!” referring to the federal government (ironically, had that happened, the national parks that preserve our history would have been closed) .

This battle over the federal budget is not just about cutting spending; it is about defining the soul of our nation, our values and our priorities upon which we base our decisions. Are we going to make a commitment to the poor and vulnerable among us? Are we going to get serious about addressing racism? Homophobia?  Islamophobia? Who are we as ‘the American people’ so often referred to by politicians who claim to represent our will?

As Jim Wallis from Sojourners says, “This (budget) debate isn’t about scarcity as much as it is about choices. Should we cut $8.5 billion for low-income 
housing, or $8.5 billion in mortgage tax deductions for second vacation 
homes? Should we cut $11.2 billion in early childhood programs for poor 
kids, or $11.5 billion in tax cuts for millionaires’ estates? Should we 
cut $2.5 billion in home heating assistance in winter months, or $2.5 
billion in tax breaks for oil companies and off-shore drilling?”

As President Abraham Lincoln famously concluded, “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. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . 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.”

May we remember – and may we continue to learn.



  1. Very apt reference to connect the anniversary of the onset of the Civil War to the travesty that passes as discourse and the chicanery practiced by elected representatives in today’s congress. I, too, bristle when I hear referenced “The American People” and know that the reference in no way pertains to me. Of course, I just referred to the “Civil War”, and yet, during the time I lived in the South, I learned very quickly that it is not–ever–called that among diehard Southerners, but rather, on the benign side, “The War Between (sic) the States”–or more pointedly (yes–my high school history teachers used this description), “The War of Northern Aggression”. Having grown up just 60 miles from Gettysburg, and traveled there many times in youth, I can vouch for the truly poignant atmosphere of the battlefield–there are ghosts–spirits of some kind–that continue to move over the land there.


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