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Which War Was the Most American War?

What a playfully arbitrary debate says about American historical memory.
Cannon at Gettysburg

Cannon at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jorge Moro/Shutterstock)

We were at Lexington and Concord, looking at a military memorial to British soldiers by the side of a bridge—complete with little Union Jacks waving up out of the ground—when I said to my boyfriend, “Of course, the Civil War is the most American war.”

These, apparently, are fighting worlds in New England. My boyfriend, a New Hampshire native, bristled. “The Revolutionary War invented America,” he said, or something to that effect. “How can you get more American than that?”

Now let’s just start by acknowledging that my original premise is inherently arbitrary. To determine what qualifies a war as “most American,” you have to know what “American” means, and I don’t. Not really. How to comprehend not only centuries of blood and genocide and slavery but also real hope, real progress? And how to reconcile their interconnectedness—that hope, that progress, is so often contingent on those same acts of theft, enslavement, and genocide?

Then, presuming you have a grasp on what “American” even means, how do you quantify it?

If you count just Union casualties from the Civil War, the number falls only 40,000 short of the total number of Americans who died in World War II. That’s crazy!

If my boyfriend saw this question through decades of New England historical conditioning, I looked at it through a ring of Civil War forts and battlefields. Washington, D.C., my hometown, was transformed by that war, in ways both superficial and profound, from a litany of place names—Farragut, Sherman, Logan, Sheridan, Scott, McPherson (all Union heroes)—to a massive demographic shift: The city population doubled between 1860 and 1870, largely thanks to the influx of contrabands, a sneaky military term used to describe enslaved people who had crossed over Union lines to freedom before the Emancipation Proclamation. (If, General Benjamin Butler reasoned, the Confederacy considered these human beings property, then by the secessionists’ own logic that property could be seized—or, as in this case, freed—as contraband of war.) I once went on a coffee date in D.C. with a law student from Colorado who spent much of the time talking about the differences between “East” and “West.” I never really thought about the West as “the West,” I confessed to him, or even the East as “the East.” For me, who grew up on their border, there was only “North” and “South.”

My boyfriend and I had left the bridge and were following a dirt path back to our car—him on the path, me on the grass. “America in the Revolutionary War wasn’t America yet,” I told him. “Plus, the other side of the war was England. So 50 percent of it isn’t American at all!”

This is probably the Civil War’s strongest selling point in the “Most American” sham contest: What can be more itself than a country embroiled in civil war? That said, I take a certain grim pleasure in the nitpicky precision of Wikipedia graphmakers who, on the “United States Military Casualties of War” page’s overview section, separate out Union from Confederate dead. Confederates don’t deserve to be counted as American. And they wouldn’t want to be, either!

My boyfriend listening skeptically, I rattled off other, more general reasons for the Civil War’s significance: the number of casualties (if you include the Confederates, it’s still by far the largest in American history; if you count just Union casualties, the number falls only 40,000 short of America’s World War II total. That’s crazy!); how it, more than any other war before or since, made the country its physical battleground (leveling cities, blowing up bridges, and tying up railway lines); the widespread changes it made in our lifestyle (you can thank the Civil War for both our national obsession with showering and our tendency to embalm the dead); and—most of all—that it freed nearly four million people from a brutal (and anti-human) system of bonded labor. That over 2.6 million men fought, and that over 640,000 of them died, to end slavery makes me proud to be an American. And while there were plenty of terrible racists in the Union, I remember also the righteous outpouring of anti-slavery sentiment in letters that both black and white soldiers sent home after the Emancipation Proclamation—letters that described their fight in idealistic terms, as one for freedom.

“But the ideals of freedom you are talking about are first outlined in the Declaration of Independence,” my boyfriend said.

Must the most American war also be our most interesting?

“The Constitution says that a black person counted only as three-fifths of a human being!” I shot back.

I had been barefoot on the grass and, now at the parking lot, I put my shoes on again to walk across the gravel. My feet were damp with dew.

“The Revolutionary War posed a question,” I said. “The Civil War was its answer.”

“If that’s true, isn’t the War of 1812 its answer?” he asked. It was a low blow, mentioning the War of 1812, one of America’s most confusing and boring wars, up there with the Spanish-American and Mexican-American wars. (All notably wars of imperial expansion!) For instance: What did I know about the War of 1812 that didn’t involve Francis Scott Key or the White House on fire?

“If the question is—is this republic viable, can we survive in the world—then by your argument the War of 1812 answers it,” my boyfriend continued. “So is the War of 1812 the most American war?” A rhetorical question, we tacitly agreed: obviously not. Neither of us were big 1812 buffs. But, on the other hand, must the most American war also be the most interesting?

“The question is what does freedom mean, what does it mean to really live up to the principles we say we believe in!” I said. Maybe we both started to care a little bit too much. At least, I certainly did. If there’s anything guaranteed to make me cry, it’s the Civil War. (Also my family’s annual “What We’re Thankful For” ritual that precedes Thanksgiving dinner.) “Yes, the Revolutionary War made this country possible, but the Civil War determined what kind of country we would be.”

We got in the car and I took a swig of the Dunkin' Donuts pumpkin coffee I had left in the cup holder. (That day we were going full-on Massachusetts, though neither Dunkin' nor the pumpkin-flavor were exactly period-appropriate.) We didn’t concede our respective points, but we had both said our piece—or, at least, we had realized our limitations. We both had some War of 1812 reading to do.

Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.