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On its 150th anniversary, US Civil War matters more than ever

The conflict between North and South stands as one of the only civil wars in human history that did not end in monarchy or dictatorship. Its lessons hold enduring value for the modern struggle to defend liberal democratic principles without compromising them in times of existential crisis.

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When recently discussing the war in Afghanistan with a former high-level Pakistani official, I was whisked from the streets of Kabul by my interlocutor’s jaunty conclusion: “We’ve had the devils own day, haven’t we?”; to which I instantly replied: “ Yes – lick’em tomorrow though.”

With this brief, apparently enigmatic, exchange we both acknowledged our membership in a rather obscure subculture: non-American Civil War buffs. The dialogue we quoted was an actual exchange between Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman after the first day of the battle of Shiloh, the bloodiest battle fought in the western theater of the war.

Rather than further musing on the progress of the war in Afghanistan, we spent the next two hours talking about Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Gettysburg campaign, the siege of Petersburg, and Stonewall Jackson’s bold exploits in the Shenandoah Valley. Before we parted, my companion confessed that the US Civil War was the conflict he studied most for one simple fact: It is virtually the only civil war in human history which did not end in dictatorship or monarchy. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the last "gentleman’s war," this fact is often forgotten.

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