How the Civil War saved our pur­ple moun­tain majesties

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Ce­cily N. Zan­der Guest Com­men­tary

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.

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