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The relevancy of history - and of the Civil War sites of the National Park Service - is to help us better understand the issues, trials, sacrifices, and struggles that past generations endured to bring us where we are today.

Civil War era farm workers

The Legacy of the Civil War

Rick Beard American Association for State and Local History
Richard Rabinowitz, American History Workshop

In 1961, Life magazine invited the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, poet, and literary scholar Robert Penn Warren to ruminate on the upcoming centennial of the American Civil War. His resulting 25,000-word essay-The Legacy of the Civil War-remains a brilliant and timely meditation on "our only 'felt' history-history lived in our national imagination." As the War's sesquicentennial arrives a half century later, Americans prefer a degree of concision and self-assuredness to their historical legacies that would surely have been anathema to so nuanced a thinker as Penn Warren. Type in "the legacy of the Civil War" on Google, and third site that pops up-will tell you that: "The civil war helped unify the union and free slaves." Simple! Declarative! Forestalling debate! And certainly not incorrect.

But there is a great deal more to be said about the legacies of what Penn Warren called "the great single event of our history." His Southern roots-Penn Warren was after all a native of Kentucky and a leading contributor to the Southern Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand-bred an appreciation for the influence of a person's birthplace, race, political beliefs, and economic station in shaping their particular point of view about the War's legacy. He also knew that despite the many different, often contradictory, meanings Americans ascribe to the Civil War, there are certain elemental legacies that no thoughtful student of the War can dispute. The Civil War irrevocably transformed the social, political, constitutional, and economic landscape of the United States to a greater extent than any other event before or since. To the historian's eye, many of these changes were immediate and dramatic. The nation became bigger, more dynamic, more aggressive internationally, and more diverse within the space of only a few decades.

The National Park Service commemorates a defining event in our nation's history and its legacy in the fight for civil rights. Join us.

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