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Celebrating Civil War Victories and Individualism

This week marks the 150th anniversary of two pivotal Union victories during the American Civil War: Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg is widely known. Sparked by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of northern territory, where he hoped to put the Union on the defensive, the three-day clash (July 1–3, 1863) cost more than fifty thousand lives (23,049 Union, 28,063 Confederate). President Lincoln famously commemorated the battle in his Gettysburg Address several months later.

Gettysburg was less a victory for the Union than it was a loss for the Confederates. It would be Lee’s final invasion of the North, and he would spend most of the remaining twenty-one months of the war on the run.

Meanwhile, in the Western Theater, an arguably more-significant campaign was underway: the Siege of Vicksburg. Spanning May 18 to July 4, this siege, in a southern town on the Mississippi River, ended in a decisive victory for the North. This victory prevented the Confederates from having access to the river, divided southern territory into two unconnected parts, and demonstrated how well Generals U. S. (“Unconditional Surrender”) Grant and William T. Sherman worked together.

Having observed the effectiveness of the Vicksburg campaign, Lincoln later gave Grant command over the entire Union Army. While Grant pursued Lee in Virginia, the Union commander gave Sherman free reign to implement his strategy of aggressive warfare. Sherman’s March, as it came to be known, relied not primarily on killing (very few people died compared to any other avenue of the war), but primarily on causing fear by burning and otherwise destroying property. His moral righteousness broke the Confederates’ spirit and terminated their will to fight. The grueling four-year war ended only a few months after Sherman’s March.

What were the Confederates fighting for before their spirit was broken? And why were Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman morally right to proceed as they did?

As historian John David Lewis argued in detail:

Despite many complexities, one ideological issue was at the center of the conflict between the North and the South—individualism versus statism—and it took the form of one concrete alternative: individual freedom versus chattel slavery. Individualism—the dominant theme of the American Constitution—places the individual over a government that is strictly limited to the protection of the freedom of the individual. Statism, on the other hand, places the government over the individual, and enables the former to violate the rights of the latter.

We Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and all those who fought so valiantly against slavery and for individual freedom. May their courage inspire us in our own efforts to thwart statism and defend individualism.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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