How the Civil War saved our purple mountain majesties
On July 4, 1889, William Tecumseh Sherman delivered an address to the citizens of Denver, reflecting on the natural majesty of Colorado’s mountains — and the character of the men and women who had settled the state’s plains, peaks and valleys. Sherman proved he had the true measure of his audience when he reflected on the scenic picture offered by the Front Range.
“A man might stand where we sit at his own doorstep,” Sherman told the assembled crowd, “and drink in beauties to satisfy his soul.”
To Sherman, the plains of Kansas and Nebraska were commonplace, despite their endlessly capacity to produce wheat and corn; so commonplace, in fact, thought Sherman, that “if you could take up Longs Peak and remove it to Lawrence, Kansas, you get $1,000,000 for it!”
For Sherman, the great mountains rising up over Colorado were among the many wonders that Union victory in the American Civil War had saved from a future of economic domination by slaveholders and the collapse of democratic government. Because of Union victory, farmers, miners, merchants and ministers had been free to head west and make new lives for themselves in the decades following the Civil War. In their August 1889 issue, the Magazine of Western History affirmed that it was “the veteran survivors of the war of 1861” who had been at the front of Colorado’s growth and development. As he concluded his speech, Sherman recalled a trip he had made to Denver in 1867, accompanied by Ulysses S. Grant and John A. Logan, his fellow Union generals and, in their day, two of the greatest heroes of the American Civil War. Sherman noted that then there had been but one brick house in the entire region, belonging to the governor, but still so small that “he had to go outside to pull on his pantaloons.” By 1889, Sherman thought, Denver compared favorably with any city in the nation — and the general asked only three favors of its citizenry: “Be content. Do as your fathers did. Love, cherish and adore the flag.”
As the Fourth of July approaches, we would do well to reflect on Sherman’s request and recall the true meaning of our national holiday. For Sherman’s generation, the most laudable achievement of the American Civil War had been the preservation of the Union. And while the wartime generation had indeed contributed to the passage of the 13th Amendment, ending the institution of American slavery, the notion that losing the Civil War could have sundered the democratic experiment begun by the founders in their declaration of independence from Great Britain was the greatest threat imaginable. As historian Gary W. Gallagher argued in his book “The Union War,” Americans in 2017 have lost a true sense of what Union meant to Americans in 1861. For the wartime generation, the threat of the loss of their democratic republic was more than enough to justify a four-year war that killed 360,000 Union soldiers and left thousands more maimed and wounded.
In an era of intense partisan fighting (though it is fighting that does not come close to that of the decade preceding the Civil War), history can offer examples that modern Americans should recall and consider. Indeed, though Abraham Lincoln believed the world would “little note, nor long remember” what was said at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the world could “never forget what they did here.”
On the Fourth of July, history offers an opportunity to pause and reflect, in an era when news breaks constantly and social media preserves every moment of our lives. This ever-changing world allows us to be critical of our leaders — an essential tenet of our democracy, to be sure. But if we could be as content as Sherman wished, we would also do well to do as he asked, and, if only for a moment, do as our fathers did and love, cherish and adore the flag.
Cecily N. Zander is a Colorado native who is currently attending Pennsylvania State University, where she is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the Civil War in the American West.