Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The American Civil War: The Crossroads of Our Being

Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.

                                  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.--Memorial Day Speech, Keene, NH, 1884.

     I have started this journal to share some of the things that inspire me as a writer. For the last year or so I have been working on a new book for teens to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg in July 2013. The project is entitled, Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. Essentially it is the Gettysburg story as told by those who were there, but especially from the memoirs of two teenagers caught in the epic struggle--Tillie Pierce, the 15 year old daughter of a well-to-do family, and Daniel Skelly, an 18 year old country store clerk. Each witnessed great moments of the battle and participated in events that helped shape the course of history. More on them later...

     I thought it might be worth starting this journal by reflecting on why history is so important. The American Civil War is now an event 150 years in the past. Why should we care? Is the Gettysburg epic nothing  but a dusty story of an age long gone? What relevance does the study of history give us in our modern age? In regards to this new book, why should young people care about our shared past as Americans?

 The High Water Mark by Don Troiani

     Bruce Catton was a great Civil War historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1954. As a young boy growing up in the small town of Benzonia, Michigan, he would sit on the front porch of his neighbor’s house and listen to the stories of Union veterans. Speaking in 1961 on the meaning of the Civil War, Catton noted, “It was the biggest single event in our national history. In a way it is the central theme of our existence as a people; it is our Iliad, our Odyssey , the one tremendous legend which expresses what we are and what we mean. We can no more ignore it than we can ignore the American Revolution itself. Here was our most significant and tragic experience.”

Bruce Catton

     If we are to understand ourselves as Americans and as a unified nation, we must have an understanding of the Civil War. Shelby Foote, an eminent historian from Mississippi, put it this way: “The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things . . . It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

Shelby Foote

     Gettysburg was one of the great turning points of American history. Certainly there were other battles and other turning points of equal importance that decided Union victory. Yet Gettysburg is the one battle Americans seem to remember the most. For the South, it was a supreme moment of honor, courage, and sacrifice for their cause of independence. For the North, it was another step toward what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.” And what ultimately emerged from the Civil War was a united country free of slavery. Today, looking back, we understand that the war between North and South is the American story and in every way worth knowing so that we might better understand ourselves and our country.

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, BN.com and Indiebound. 

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