The Civil War at 150

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor


Richard Johnstone

Barely a year after the Union army surrendered Fort Sumter to Confederate forces, an obscure battle was raging on the other side of the continent. Almost 2,000 miles from South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, some two dozen cavalrymen were locked in a 90-minute gunfight on April 15, 1862. This westernmost battle of the American Civil War was being played out in the shadow of 1,500-foot-high Picacho Peak, a striking spire of granite and gneiss arching its sinewy rock face skyward above the dusty desert of south-central Arizona.

In this stark, unforgiving landscape, Confederate rangers — who just two months earlier had hoisted the Southern flag over Tucson to stake out a Rebel presence in the West — defeated Union cavalry soldiers from California. Three Union soldiers were killed in the Picacho battle, including the commanding officer, and three others were wounded, before Federal forces ended up retreating.

Like so many other Southern battlefield wins, though, momentum from the Battle of Picacho Peak would prove to be short-lived. Just one month later, the Union’s “Column from California” took Tucson without having to fire a shot.

Scholars and ardent armchair historians have likely heard of the Picacho Peak encounter. But it was a newly found nugget to this reader, who, while a serious book lover, tends to sample somewhat indiscriminately from the bibliophiles’ buffet, enjoying best-selling fiction over here, an obscure work of nonfiction over there, with an occasional guilty-pleasure dime-store novel in between.

The account of Picacho Peak came to this casual Civil War buff through a delightful new book, one whose premise is fresh and inviting, and whose material nicely balances the widely known with the never-knew. The Civil War 150: An Essential To-Do List for the 150th Anniversary (2011, Lyons Press, 262 pages, $14.95) is a wonderful addition to the canon commemorating the great struggle that determined the kind of country we would become.

Matching the number of years that have passed since the opening encounter at Fort Sumter, the book suggests 150 things to do, or places to visit, to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the arduous struggle that divided both our nation and many of its families. The “things to do” section contains an array of activities, from movie and book suggestions, to how to find a Civil War ancestor, to ways to help preserve a battlefield, this last example forming one of the principal missions of The Civil War Trust (www.civilwar.org), publisher of the book.

Virginia, of course, served as the epicenter of the war. As such, almost a third of the 150 suggestions involve battlefields and other Civil War-related sites in the Old Dominion, from First and Second Manassas in Northern Virginia, to McDowell in the Allegheny Mountains, to the McLean House in Appomattox, where Generals Grant and Lee finally met, ending the war, and launching its legendary status. 

In this first year of the five-year Civil War sesquicentennial, we as Americans seem as transfixed as ever on the brightness of this blinding star — this great, awful war — that forged our national identity, ended over two centuries of slavery, and ultimately built the republic that would lead the world through war and peace throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Part of the Civil War’s allure, of course, is that it lives and breathes for us as Americans because the events happened here, in our nation, and for Virginians, in our very own backyard. This is not merely the dry husk of history recounted in a book. No, indeed; the Civil War’s complex tapestry is spread before us, a colorful, living panorama within our reach, with artifacts we can touch, battlefields we can walk, and cemetery headstones we can gaze upon with curiosity and reverence.

All of us, from scholars, to armchair enthusiasts, to occasional Civil War readers like yours truly, remain fascinated with this monumental conflict, no matter your viewpoint or the depth of your knowledge. As Americans, it seems self-evident that the war’s imprint is deep and its effect on us indelible, like a meteorite changing a landscape, and its crater forever marking the impact. To this day, it remains a rich and relevant part of our national conversation.

The Civil War 150 is a wonderful resource that you and your family can utilize to prompt or expand your own conversation about this epic struggle, which continues to help define who and what we are as a nation.  


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