The nation will observe a major milestone in April: the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, when the guns fell silent as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. — and future president — Ulysses S. Grant.
Even after a century and a half, the war's echoes surround us in Lexington.
Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan still proudly sits on his charger in front of the old Fayette County Courthouse. Nearby, a statue of John C. Breckinridge, a U.S. vice president and Confederate general, stands at the foot of Cheapside, where slaves were auctioned before the war ended the "peculiar institution."
Perhaps it's not surprising that another Kentuckian, author Robert Penn Warren, once called the Civil War "the great single event of our history."
Now, the University of Kentucky's Gaines Center for the Humanities is noting the upcoming anniversary of the war's end through its 2015 Bale Boone Symposium. It will feature free public lectures during the next 10 days by three nationally known historians who will explore legacies of the conflict.
They are Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond; Coleman Hutchison, associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin; and David W. Blight, professor of American history at Yale University.
The American Civil War is generally recognized as the most written-about conflict ever, but Ayers insists there's still much we don't know about it. He notes that many Americans continue to debate states rights and federal government powers — issues the war seemingly resolved. Ayers contends that we need new and different ways to look at the war if we're going to fully understand it.
"We tend to think of it as a story, and that all you have to do is memorize the parts of the story and you can understand the war," he said.
Ayers is working with a group now planning a major civil war museum in Richmond, Va. One task will be developing innovative ways to tell about the war, he said.
"We're trying to find a new vision that will let us go beyond all these broken fragments of the war," he said.
So how should we look at the Civil War?
"My short answer is with humility," Ayers said. "The country obviously benefitted from the ending of slavery and the clarification of our unity as a nation. But we shouldn't take it for granted that the war was going to turn out the way that it did, and realize that what it won is still fragile in some ways."
Hutchison will talk about the song Dixie and the music of the Civil War.
The song is attributed to Ohio native Daniel Emmett, although there really were numerous versions of it, according to Hutchison.
Originally performed in minstrel shows, it quickly became popular. The South increasingly identified itself with the song, particularly as the buildup to the Civil War began, Hutchison said.
Once war broke out, Dixie essentially became the unofficial national anthem of the Confederacy, he said.
Hutchison said it's somewhat ironic that Dixie originally was performed by minstrels, white men in black face, portraying blacks whose slave labor made the southern economy a powerhouse.
Another irony: Dixie also was popular in the north, and remained so even after the Civil War began, Hutchison said. Troops in blue and gray marched to the rousing song, he said.
Abraham Lincoln also was a fan. He had the tune played on the campaign trail during his run for the presidency, and it was played at both of his inaugurations, Hutchison said.
"Lincoln," he said, "loved Dixie."
Hutchison noted that, somehow, both sides found their own meaning in the song. For Northerners, it was an anti-slavery song attacking the Southern system. Southers, however, saw it as a celebration of their land and a cause worth fighting for.
Today, Hutchison says, the term Dixie remains everywhere around us, from Dixie cups to the Dixie Chicks, to the modern rock-and-roll anthem, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
Yale University's David Blight will wrap up the lecture series with a discussion about whether the war ever really ended.
Although "the shooting war obviously ended in 1865," Blight said, some issues raised by the conflict did not. Race continues to be debated, he said, and Americans are still split over states' rights and powers of the federal government.
Blight cited the 14th Amendment, passed two years after the war, which introduced equal protection for all citizens.
"About two-thirds of all American litigation now is essentially 14th Amendment law," Blight said. "What does equal protection mean? Whose protection? Most people don't think of it that way, but we debate it in the courts every single day."
That's just one of many ways the Civil War maintains a hold on us, he contends.
"It has a lot to do with the fact that some of these issues at root have never been fully resolved and may never be," he said. "This is why it's a never-ending, persistent part of our memory."
Blight says many Americans also remain tied to the war "because it's just a great and powerful story, and we always return to the stories that define us. Plus, it has a lot to do with loss ... the scale of loss was far greater than anything else we've ever experienced."
More than 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War, a greater toll than in any other war we've ever fought.
"That's why we do history," Blight said. "It reminds us that there is a way we got here; that there is a reason we have these conflicts."