Civil War still affects our lives, 150 years after it began

When Confederate artillery forces shelled United States Army troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, thus initiating the Civil War, my great grandfather, John Jacob Silbernagel, was 19 years old and living in or near Milwaukee, according family records.

I don’t know what Jacob, as he was called, thought of the events in South Carolina that spring — if he supported new President Abraham Lincoln, whether he believed this was a fight over slavery or secession or states’ rights.

I do know that 18 months later, in September 1862, he enlisted in the Sixth Infantry Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteers, and he remained in the Army until the war ended. He was discharged in June 1865, having fought in 14 major battles, including Gettysburg, and having been wounded at least once.

All this I mention, not because my great grandfather was unique, but because he wasn’t. An estimated 93,000 men from Wisconsin served during the Civil War, and similar numbers came from every state then existing, both north and south.

Vast numbers of them weren’t as fortunate as my great grandfather. At least 620,000 soldiers on both sides perished in the war, more than any other conflict in which the U.S. military was involved. In my great-grandfather’s regiment alone, 357 enlisted men and officers perished during the war, 112 of them from disease.

Over the coming weeks, months and years, there will be many articles, television shows and other events recalling the brutal war that began 150 years ago this week. That’s understandable. The Civil War was the second most important event in our nation’s history, after the country’s founding. It was by far the most savage in terms of lives lost and damaged.

But it shouldn’t be viewed as some abstract event in the distant past, perhaps like the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece. Millions of Americans living today have a personal connection to the war, as I do through my great grandfather. Those connections are indescribably more important for millions of African Americans, whose ancestors toiled as slaves until Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Additionally, the Civil War wasn’t limited to the battlefields of the East.

The newly formed territory of Colorado organized the First Colorado Regiment in the summer of 1861 to support the Union cause. It joined other Union forces at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in northern New Mexico in 1862, forcing Confederate troops that had briefly captured Santa Fe to retreat to Texas.

One of the officers in that Colorado regiment was a Methodist clergyman named John Chivington, who, as a colonel in the Colorado militia in 1864, would lead the notorious attack on unsuspecting Cheyenne Indians east of Denver that became known as The Sand Creek Massacre. Members of Congress, investigating war crimes that occurred during the Civil War, made a point of officially condemning Chivington’s action.

Veterans of the Civil War came west, and had an impact on this region later. An arrogant young war hero named George Armstrong Custer led his troops into a disastrous confrontation with Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The man who brought those Indian tribes to surrender after Custer’s debacle, Gen. George Crook, was also a Civil War veteran. He and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman — the man who led the Union march through Georgia and helped bring an end to the Civil War — would have peripheral roles in forcing most of the Ute Indians from western Colorado. And a man who lost his arm at the Battle of Shiloh would explore the Green and Colorado rivers all the way through the Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell also wrote the most important 19th century treatise on development of the mountain West.

Tens of thousands of less-celebrated Civil War veterans, from both the Union and Confederate armies, also came West and helped in the white settlement of this region.

The Civil War also had a long-lasting effect on the way this country’s citizens were treated. Reconstruction and the racist Jim Crow laws that followed, along with lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan, were all spawned by the Civil War.

Even in my lifetime, blacks were treated as second-class citizens in many areas, not just the South. Racism has not been eliminated, by any means, but Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the 1950s and 1960s began to change the old culture to create true equality for the descendants of slaves. The fact that a black man was elected president of this country in 2008 is an important indication that changes are still occurring.

In addition, laws and constitutional amendments, designed initially to protect freed slaves, have had far-reaching benefits for all Americans. It’s hard to imagine what this country and our legal system would be like today without the due process and equal protections of the 14th Amendment.

And, in a final personal note, the Civil War almost changed my name. Some unknown Army paper-pusher decided early in Jacob Silbernagel’s military career that he should go by the surname of Silvernail, the English translation of his German name. His official discharge lists him as John Jacob Silvernail. Twenty years later, Jacob enlisted the assistance of then Wisconsin Congressman Robert LaFollette to correct the error.


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