Review of “The Curtain Falls”: a Lecture by Professor Allen Guelzo

By Andrew Bothwell ’13

What was the Civil War fought for? Dr. Allen Guelzo, in part four of the four-part lecture series A Walk through the Civil War, set out to resolve this question. The final lecture, titled “The Curtain Falls,” was held Wednesday, March 20 in Gettysburg College’s Kline Theater.


Dr. Guelzo began his lecture detailing the final year of the war. Union hopes were high entering the spring of 1864. President Lincoln had faith in his general Ulysses S. Grant, and Grant was confident in his plan to capture Richmond. But as the spring campaign progressed, Union hopes were once again dashed. The Southern army remained steadfast in its defense of Confederate territory. As Grant pushed relentlessly toward Richmond, he suffered grave losses at the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. His persistence left him in a prolonged siege at Petersburg, and once again the North recognized the war would not end as soon as expected. Conceding peace with the Confederates seemed a plausible solution. As the 1864 presidential election approached, Northern Democrats rallied behind General George B. McClellan and his promise of immediate peace talks.

If not for General William T. Sherman’s victories in Georgia, the election may not have been favorable to the Republicans. Lincoln’s victory in the poles gave the Union army a second wind. Soon, Lee retreated from Petersburg, and the Confederate government packed up and left their capital of Richmond. By April of 1865, Grant encountered Lee’s army for the last time at Appomattox Court House, where Lee offered his formal surrender. Soon after, the war was over. Yet by the war’s end, death tolls had reached 210,000 killed in battle and 440,000 dead from wounds and disease. Northern war debts grew to colossal sums, and much of the Southern economy was destroyed.

Reconstruction in the South also proved difficult. Lincoln’s assassination left the duty of reconstruction to Andrew Johnson. President Johnson had no desire to give equality to the now freed black population of the South, and the politics of reconstruction were strenuous. During the years of Grant’s presidency, reconstruction fatigue set in. Occupying Union forces were eventually withdrawn, and government control was once again placed into the hands of Southern leaders and their Jim Crow laws. After reconstruction, as the North struggled economically and the South remained stubborn in its Lost Cause mindset, the legacy of the Civil War seemed questionable.

Dr. Guelzo, upon observing the persistence of the Northern cause and the legacy of the war, provided his audience with an answer for why the country had to endure such a long and difficult war. Democracy, he said, is what the war was fought for. Lincoln held the belief that equality was the foundation of democracy. A nation founded on equality could not remain legitimate with part of its population subjected to bondage. Therefore, a lasting peace could not be secured until the North assured the freedom of Southern slaves. Not until the spring of 1865 was the South willing to concede this, and until that point, the North had to endure the hardships of war. It was the sacrifices of men like those who died at Gettysburg, Dr. Guelzo declared, that reunited a country and has allowed it to survive on the merits of democracy.

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