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As we enter the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we are seeing reiterations of a tradition that separates the cause of Union from the issue of slavery and insists that the Civil War changed little and achieved less. Only rarely do we see acknowledgment of the hundreds of thousands of casualties, so many that we would need a loss of life equal to that sustained on September 11, 2011, every single day for four years to recreate the scale today. If in fact the war meant so little, then there would have been no good reason for those loyal to the Union to resist secession in 1861, no purpose to all those deaths, and therefore there would be good reason for indifference to the Union cause today.
But the men who fought in blue would not recognize their war in that interpretation. To them, the president’s exhortation to remember the “unity and liberty” achieved by the war would mean something, because to them, Union victory was necessary for the survival of representative government based on ideals such as liberty and equality, was inextricably bound up with emancipation, and marked the redemption and transformation, not simply conservation, of the United States.