The 35-star American flag, following entry of West Virginia into the Union in 1863

The 35-star American flag, following entry of West Virginia into the Union in 1863

At long last, 150 years after the Union prevailed “with a brave army, and a just cause” in the American Civil War, one of the most visible remaining markers of that conflict is on everyone’s lips and coming down.

Williams College, and most Ephs, reflect on the Civil War through a Union lens — correctly so, from both a moral and historical perspective. As Leverett Wilson Spring described, “[t]here was no hesitation or uncertainty in the response of Williams men to the calls of patriotism” during the Civil War, and 317 Ephs (from the classes of 1825 to 1870) fought for the Union. 3 of these Ephs reached the rank of General for the U.S. Army. And these brave men, living and dead, were and are honored by the Civil War Monument in front of Griffin Hall.

But that doesn’t mean that Ephs have nothing to say about the rebellious Confederacy. EphBlog has previously noted William Lowndes Yancey, a one-year member of the Class of 1833, who became a leading secessionist, and he was not alone. In the early 20th century, distinguished historian and Williams faculty fixture Theodore Clarke Smith authored the excellent “Parties and Slavery, 1850-1859” as part of the 27-volume “The American Nation: A History,” assembled by Harvard Professor Albert Bushnell Hart, “The Grand Old Man” of American History as a discipline. More recently, led by Charles Dew ’58, the Ephraim Williams Professor of History, students and faculty in the Purple Valley have contributed greatly in their research to our knowledge of the South before, during, and after the Civil War.

So let’s use this occasion to learn more from and about Ephs on the subject of the Civil War and especially on the other side: the Confederacy. To forget the Confederacy is to forget an important part of our history as Americans, at the cost of misunderstanding our country today. As William Bennett ’65 has explained:

In the period right after the Civil War, the historian Shelby Foote reminds us, Americans ceased to speak of their country in the plural (“the United States are . . . “) and began to speak of it in the singular (“the United States is . . . “). The reason was plain: Like no other event in our history, the Civil War had brought home to every American the cost of irreconcilable division; from then on, we would speak of ourselves, and think of ourselves, as one. Curiously enough, however, it was in those same years that homegrown anti-American sentiments also began to manifest themselves with force and articulateness.

But there is nothing “curious” about this. The Civil War was fought not only to abolish slavery, but to keep the Union together. That is, to keep as Americans, not only the soon-to-be freed slaves, but their former captors. This assuredly shapes our present relationship with our country.

Print  •  Email