The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Finding the war

Storm clouds loom over the Village of Cohoes in the fall of 2011.

As mentioned, there seems to have been a lack of much activity,  North and South, during the early fall of 1861 through November, at least according to the major-event online timelines I use as references.

I like to think this was due to most Americans, on either side of the Mason-Dixon line, still not being so caught up in the approaching storm that they couldn’t ignore it for a little while longer, bring in the harvest, and lay in stores for winter the same as usual, though perhaps with a nagging concern about the need for extra stuff to tide them over during the troubles that would undoubtedly hit during the coming new year.

Certainly few could have suspected that they were facing four years of Hell on Earth.

Anyway, in 2011 I’m taking advantage of that “fall break” to try to find my way into the past, so as to see things a little more closely the way Americans who experienced the Civil War did. In doing so, it may be possible to understand more clearly why certain things are the way they are today.

It’s hard to stop looking, once you find a way into the past as I did through identifying the modern site where streets, houses and a bowling alley cover the old Erie Canal at a point where somebody had made a  postcard-pretty painting of it.  I’ve worked my way through that all the way to the Industrial Revolution, by way of the formation of the middle class, different modes of transportation back then, and so forth.

But that’s too much to get into at the start.  Remember that out-of-focus memorial at the start of this series?  You don’t just spring from that to, for example, a discussion about the effects of the Industrial Revolution in America, and its influence on the Civil War.  You have to start a little more locally, wherever you are.

Cohoes, New York

I have found a pretty interesting connection here between 19th century North and South, that is, Harmony Mills and King Cotton, respectively.  However, I didn’t come to Cohoes to find connections to the Civil War.  A whole bunch of 21st century factors led to my being here, and not particularly willingly, either.  I’m stuck here and lack the things necessary to head back South again for at least one more year.

Cohoes neighborhood with flag over Sept 11 memorial

The American flag flies over a church's 9/11 memorial near downtown Cohoes, New York.

Rather, I have found the Civil War here, just as you probably can find it in whatever part of America you’re sitting in right now.

Small-town America has a way of holding its important things close, and keeping hold of them for a very long time. All you have to do is look.

Here in the Northeast, during my childhood in the 1950s, grandparents would sometimes let us kids look at some of the Civil War memorabilia they had been given from their parents and grandparents – photos, clothes, flags, memorial ribbons and the like. In the 1990s, someone told me of cleaning out a relative’s house in rural upstate New York and finding a lot of bookkeeping from the Civil War days — that family apparently had a war profiteer to thank for some of their ongoing prosperity!

Not everything is big memorials and major historical sites. This war, like all civil wars, was a personal one and drew in everybody and changed their lives forever. I am in Cohoes, New York, just now and so will focus on things I find here, hoping to end up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, one day in 2015, having identified that desperately happy couple in the old photograph the local library had on display.

Your discoveries during this anniversary period will be different. Please feel free to share them in the comments.

Categories: American Civil War

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