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Is government by the people, for the people threatened?

  • A 1905 artist’s rendering depicts President Abraham Lincoln speaking at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. Illustrates GETTYSBURG-COMMENT (category k), by Drew Gilpin Faust, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Library of Congress/ Prints and Photographs Division)

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil War is that it was fought at all. Even when sectional discord culminated in Southern secession in the winter of 1860-61, many Americans remained confident that military conflict could be avoided. Sen. James Chesnut of South Carolina dismissed talk of war by pledging to drink whatever blood might be shed. And in his March 1861 inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln insisted that "there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority."

Even those who did expect armed conflict thought hostilities would be brief and losses minor. At the war's outset, it seemed almost unimaginable that the North would be willing to fight so long and hard to keep the Southern states in the Union.

Confederate military strategy in fact came to rest on an assumption that the North would not sustain its commitment to war in the face of escalating sacrifice. Gen. Robert E. Lee's search for the decisive battle, his invasions of the North, the Confederacy's eager anticipation of Lincoln's electoral defeat in 1864 — all represented a costly and fatal underestimation of the commitment of some 2.2 million Northern soldiers, overwhelmingly volunteers, to the preservation of the Union.

With the inevitability of hindsight, with the nation preserved and projected toward the global leadership we have come to take for granted, we rarely consider that the North might in the mid-19th century have made a different decision, might have let the South secede or perhaps have negotiated a peace in the face of Confederate military successes during the war's early years. And those millions of Yankee soldiers might have proved unwilling to fight.

Today our military includes only 1 percent of our population. Could we mobilize the equivalent of the Union army? In 1860, the Northern states had 22 million inhabitants; 10 percent of them served; more than 360,000 of them died, offering what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion."

Would 31 million of our 314 million inhabitants be willing to risk their lives for the nation today? What cause, what circumstances, would motivate them?

Except during Lee's two brief incursions into the North, Union soldiers of the 1860s were not fending off an invasion or protecting their homes and firesides. Many came from towns and farms at great distances from the Confederacy, from Wisconsin or Michigan or Vermont or Maine. But they came to understand themselves as fighting for something at once more abstract, more selfless, more transcendent and more powerful than their self-interest.

We should, to borrow Lincoln's words uttered 150 years ago this Tuesday, "never forget what they did" and why they did it. Never forget the still-unfinished work they so nobly advanced. Never forget why they chose — and yes, it was for almost all a choice — to fight.

And we must not forget why that leaves a legacy of responsibility for all of us.

I often wonder if the North would have fought, if the ranks would have filled, if there had been a different president — one less able to articulate the war's meaning and purposes with an eloquence that grew alongside the war's costs and sacrifices.

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