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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Civil War Provides Lessons for the Future

On April 12, 1861, the bloodiest war on United States soil began when the Confederate army attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

What followed is one of the darkest periods in American history. Cities were destroyed, and over 620,000 soldiers died, plus many more civilians.

Nearly four years later on April 9, 1865, the Civil War ended at Appomattox when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. The last shot was fired two months later.

One hundred fifty years later America moves on, but not without memory of the conflict that threatened to split a very young U.S. nation.

John Neff, associate professor of history, said that 150 years later, it is still as important as ever to remember and study the battle of the states.

“The Civil War continues to be an important bedrock of how this country thinks of itself, thinks of its identity,” Neff said. “We don’t live in the country that the revolution created or the Constitution created in 1790 — we live in the country that the Civil War created.”

Neff, who is the director of the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi (CCWR), said that was particularly true for the South, but it is also true for all of the U.S.

“All of our political relationships, all of our federal state relationships — our sense of nation, our sense of identity as citizens of the nation — are all fundamentally tied up in that conflict,” Neff said. “As such, studying the Civil War remains very important 150 years later.”


Neff believes the struggle that many Americans have now is how we look back and understand the importance of the conflict and the lives touched by the war.

“I think the struggle that we have now in this country is shared not just by college-age people, but people of all ages,” he said. “How do we think about our personal connections with that history and then think about them, not from a personal stand point, but a national stand point? What role did that play in our national history?”

Neff said the greatest takeaway for students is how we balance our personal connection to history and at the same time appreciate the large, very important things that transformed our nation.

“How do we hang on to ancestors, to individuals’ family stories, lore that comes down to us, our own sense of identity as the inheritors of a particular Civil War tradition, and yet balance that against an understanding of how the nation itself transformed,” he said.

On April 28, the CCWR held its first Burnham Lecture in Civil War History. The lecture was named for Ole Miss alumnus Dr. Van Robinson Burnham, who was also on the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for 15 years.

“We hope that we are perpetuating his commitment to excellence and to life-long learning,” Neff said in his introduction to the lecture.


The speaker for the event was noted Civil War historian Elizabeth Varon. Varon is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and has just recently published a new book titled, “Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859.”

Varon said she believes that part of the reason why the Civil War remains a period of perennial fascination for modern Americans is because some of the issues about why it was fought remain unresolved.

“Power of the federal government and of the states, race religions, civil rights — these our live issues in our politics today,” Varon said.

Varon said the most important thing to take away from this sesquicentennial is the numerous sources available.

“We have tens of thousands of letters, memoirs and diaries, and other sorts of sources,” Varon said. “A lot of them are in places, archives like the one here at Ole Miss, and all over the South and the North, too.”

Varon said there is no substitute for going to those sources and holding them in your own hands and reading them for yourself.

“We historians can interpret them; we can try to read as widely and broadly in them as possible,” Varon said.
“But what will really spark your imagination, spark your interest is to go encounter them first hand.”

One big advantage that modern students have today is the availability of the Civil War documentation on the Internet.

“The web now has digitized letters and diaries, family papers and personal connections,” Varon said.

“It provides an intimate view of the war that takes you inside people’s heads and it really enables you to put yourself in people’s shoes.”

Varon said she wants for students to take advantage of the numerous written sources and all of the landscape that has been preserved and made available.

“That is what the sesquicentennial should inspire people to do,” Varon said.

“That way they can open their minds and draw their own conclusions and begin a lifetime engagement with the Civil War.”

Poinesha Barnes, a student chair for the Diversity Rocks journalism program held last week, said she believes the country has grown an enormous amount since the Civil War.

“The fact that I am at this school, and I can participate in Diversity Rocks and actually embrace diversity has shown that we have grown leaps and bounds,” Barnes said.

A junior double-major in biology and journalism, Barnes said she believes that to move on to the future, you need to understand your past.

“If students realize that our past is so rocky, especially here in the South with James Meredith integrating and things like that, then 20 or 30 years from now, we can look back and see where we have come from,” Barnes said.

“We can tell someone later that this is where we came from and this is where we are. I am proud to be a Rebel.”