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Civil War Trust

2014 Essay Contest First Place, Senior Division

Cathy, 11th grade

Teacher: Marcia Untracht
School: Manhasset High School | New York

Preserving 150 Years of History: Life at War

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln responded to Horace Greeley’s editorial “The Pray of Twenty Millions” in one of his most famous letters, writing, “My paramount object in this struggle [the Civil War] is to save the Union.” Months later, on January 1st, 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made the abolition of slavery an explicit goal of the war. Thus, Union soldiers were fighting not only to preserve the unity of the nation, but also for the rights of others, a far greater and more profound ideal than themselves.

Life as a Civil War soldier was plagued with difficulties and adversities. Ironically enough, the fight against prejudice and subjugation was marked by inequalities; wealthy men who were drafted to serve in the army were able to pay to hire substitutes, usually poor Irish immigrants desperate for money to send back home as well as food and shelter. In the ranks of both Union and Confederate armies, policies favored wealthy white soldiers. Racial inequality was also prevalent; African Americans who served in the Union army were faced with greater danger than whites when captured by Confederate soldiers; African American prisoners of war were often treated much more harshly and abusively.

Both the Union and Confederate soldiers also faced serious health issues. Unbalanced diets and poor sanitation spawned the outbreak of infectious diseases such as mumps, measles, and chicken pox. More deadly ailments such as malaria and typhoid fever took away more lives than did physical combat.

When the war ended, the soldiers who had survived were changed forever, yet the friendships and camaraderie established between them would endure for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the spirit of the Civil War soldier is best captured by the words to Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” which became the most popular Union marching song. Howe’s words “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” represent the idea of eradicating injustice in society, much as the Union soldiers fought with their bodies, lives, and souls to abolish the dehumanizing institution of slavery and put an end to the oppression of a people and the darkest period in American history. Howe’s poem has become more than a characterization of the Civil War; it has come to symbolize the combat against any form of societal injustice.

The accomplishments of the soldiers in the Civil War show the lengths that the American nation would go to in order to protect the our fundamental rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Only with the study of history can future generations fully comprehend and appreciate the value of the precious freedom we have today that is often taken for granted, can future generations consecrate America further with positive changes and social reforms.


1. "Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Horace Greeley." Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Horace Greeley. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2014.

2. "Battle Hymn of the Republic - History and Words." Battle Hymn of the Republic. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2014.

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