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UWF Historian Examines The End Of The Civil War 150 Years Later


This month marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the start of Reconstruction.

WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody sat down with UWF historian Derek Zumbro.

DD: Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. How close, if at all, did the Confederacy come to winning the war?

DZ:It depends on whether you view it from a political perspective or a military perspective. Of course, the military perspective was going to be the deciding factor. In terms of being able to defeat the North militarily, the South just did not have much of a chance, based on the overwhelming superiority in numbers of people; the Northern economy, and Northern industrial strength. For example, the industrial output of the state of New York equaled more than the entire Confederacy. And that’s just New York. Without such an illustrious commander as Robert E. Lee, that struggle most likely would not have lasted as long as it did.

DD: What was Lee’s secret in being able to rally the troops in what was to become the “Lost Cause?”

DZ: His secret was more or less borne of desperation. And you see that throughout history, particularly in military history. The more desperate a leader becomes, the more inventive and the more willing to take risks they become.

DD: What was President Lincoln’s reaction to the surrender? I understand it was somewhat muted.

DZ: It was muted, but needless to say it was also great relief.

DD: Did Lincoln’s leniency towards the South begin with its surrender, and what forms did it take to ease the South back into the Union?

DZ: In essence, he supported (Gen. Ulysses S.) Grant’s leniency at Appomattox. And there were a number of northern politicians, northern congressmen who were outraged when they heard of the surrender conditions that were offered to Robert E. Lee. They wanted to try him and possibly even execute him as a traitor. Then it was no longer possible. And then Lincoln was fully aware that repercussions against the South, vengeance against the South would not be a healing measure. It would only create more problems for the now-reunited nation.

DD: Had Lincoln served out his second term and maybe even a third, how would Reconstruction have been? Possibly a lot less harsh?

DZ: Everything with regard to what Lincoln would have done following the war have to be assumptions. First of all, I believe that the former Confederate soldiers, former Confederate supporters, would have regained their citizenship much quicker. And I think that would have been a much smoother process. As a result of that, you would have had just that one issue – of which there are numerous – you would have had a much smoother transition. And of course, the disenfranchisement of the white voters in the South of course led to more blacks voting, justifiably so, but nevertheless it did create much more friction in the South. Not only between the North and the South but also between the races.

DD: One hundred-fifty years later the Civil War continues to fascinate, in a way not seen even for the two world wars. Why does the Civil War have such a grip on the American people, especially on those in the South?

DZ: It seems to be a southern phenomenon, more than anything else. I think it’s because the Civil War, more than anything else, defined America. And it defined in many regards who we are as a people. And needless to say for the South, in an odd sort of way, it defined the people’s willingness to sacrifice for an ideal, regardless of how you interpret that ideal. Of course, oftentimes it’s interpreted as a very negative or evil ideal in terms of slavery. But on the other side, it’s interpreted as an ideal for standing up for your individual freedoms – what you feel is right. And the South certainly felt it was oppressed by the North during that conflict. And I think that’s one of the things that continues to keep that spirit alive.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.