One hundred fifty years ago the United States remained divided in a brutal war of rebellion. Rather than unusual, such convulsions are typical in the establishment of representative republics. It does not come easy for a population new to a republic to embrace in practice the idea that matters of life and wealth should be resolved by votes. It seems that the age old recourse to arms and blood has to be tried again a time or two before people, who have only experienced more abusive government, come to accept that ballots and representation, enshrined in the rule of law, are a better way of deciding a society’s important issues.
One hundred fifty years ago, in 1864, the people of the young United States were still learning that painful lesson. But the instruction was nearing its end. Back in July of 1863, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the outcome of the war became inevitable. The rebels of the southern states were going to lose, constitutional government of the United States was going to succeed. The only chance for the rebels would be if the loyal people of the nation lost their determination to persevere to reunite the nation and reaffirm the constitutional republic. Often that seemed in the press to be an iffy question, but in reality the republican will remained strong. The hundreds of thousands who sacrificed life and limb in the field of war, in an overwhelmingly volunteer army (the number of drafted soldiers remained relatively minor), testified to that determination.
In the winter of 1863-64 U.S. soldiers in the field reenlisted in large numbers. Throughout 1864, and into the Spring of 1865, many thousands more would die, but the battles were becoming increasingly futile for the rebel cause, little more than adding to the destruction and suffering that rebel commanders were pulling down upon themselves and their fellows and families in this national lesson in self-government.
For the rebel soldier, experiencing defeat after defeat to his regiment, his corps, or his tattered army—with only occasional respites and temporary successes—it all may have felt pointless. The high and growing rate of desertion from rebel armies in those days suggests so. The historian comes to this point in the conflict and is tempted to describe the remaining rebel heroics and gallant but failing defenses as futile, the casualty lists a bloody tally of worthless and wasted sacrifice—particularly for so ignoble a cause as breaking up the best form of government on the earth at the time.
From the perspective of the rebel “cause” it was pointless, the continued bloodshed and destruction a burden for which the rebel leaders—in the rebel government and at the head of the rebel armies—will surely have to give an accounting before the Judge who weighs the doings of nations and those who lead them. Does that mean, therefore, that the daily struggle of the individual rebel soldier was meaningless? His effort could not change the outcome, only affect in some small way its overall cost.
And yet, throughout 1864 and to the end of the war, there were meaningful and often pitched battles fought on every field of action. The battles to which I refer echo a passage from The Book of Mormon written almost two thousand years before, describing an ancient American people after a very long war:
But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility. (Alma 62:41)
War, on a very personal level, appears to accelerate moral development. Individuals become more virtuous or more evil more quickly than they might under more peaceful conditions.
I believe that for the individual rebel soldier, as for perhaps every soldier, the real battle was his own, and in the end it was the most important battle with the most long-lasting consequences. Abraham Lincoln understated that the world would “little note, nor long remember” his speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, though he perhaps correctly predicted that the world would never forget the great battle fought there.
In the full scheme of things, in terms of what really matters in the eternal worlds after this temporary one is rolled up and its purposes completed, the individual battles fought by each soldier on each side will be recognized as far more important than the whole Battle of Gettysburg. The battle of armies is a temporary one. The battle fought by each soldier, whether he exercises virtues or chooses vices, is the more permanent, the one that has never ending consequences. The battles of freedom were fought in recognition and preservation of these more important personal struggles we all have.
In the battles of 1864 and 1865 of the American War of the Rebellion the rebel soldier could not change the outcome of the war. But in each case his own personal triumph or defeat was there to be etched into his character more permanently than the scars of bullet and saber in his flesh.
As my son has often reminded me, everyone who fought in the Civil War died. And all of them lived. So must we all die, and yet we will all live again where there is no more death. By the time each of us leaves mortality, each must face and fight his battles, the ones that really matter far above those recorded in the history books of the world.