Civil War still relevant in our lives today


From 1861 to 1865, more than 2 percent of the American population was killed in the Civil War. Although that was 150 years ago, Tuesday’s forum speaker told students why the Civil War has relevance and captures our interest, even today.

James M. McPherson, professor emeritus of American history at Princeton University, titled his remarks, “Why the Civil War Still Matters Today.”

“A bookstore owner in Falls Church, Va., said, also in the 1980s, for the last two years Civil War books have been flying out of here,” McPherson said. “It’s not just the buffs who buy, it’s the general public, from high school kids to retired people.”

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Princeton University professor and Civil War historian James M. McPherson addresses BYU students at Tuesday's forum about why the Civil War still matters.
McPherson received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.” He also received the Pritzker Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing in 2007.

McPherson discussed the history and significance of the Civil War today and in the Civil War era. He also recounted several statistical examples to explain why people are still fascinated with the Civil War.

More than 620,000 soldiers and unnumbered civilians were killed during the war, McPherson said. To relate that to today’s population, if 2 percent of the population were to die that would equal about 6 million individuals.

Individuals are continually interested in the Civil War, especially with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching.

“Then there are the larger-than-life near mythical individuals on both sides whose lives and careers continue to fascinate us today — Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Clara Barton and on and on,” McPherson said. “There’s a kind of romance as well as tragedy about those people and their times that is hard to resist.”

McPherson also discussed the importance of the civil rights movement and amendments to the Constitution.

“The Civil War accomplished a historic shift in American values in the direction of positive liberty,” McPherson said. “The change from all those ‘shall nots’ in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution to the phrase ‘Congress shall have the power’ is indicative of that shift.”

McPherson has authored 16 books and edited others as well. He focuses his writing mostly on the era of the American Civil War and Reconstruction period.

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