The American Civil War lasted from April 12, 1861 to May 9, 1865 and resulted in a loss of more than 600,000 lives at a time when the population of the entire country was perhaps 23 million. Few historians dispute that it was the most important event in the history of America.
In July 1861, only three months into the war, a large Northern Army crossed a small river in Virginia to assault the forces of the South. Were it not for miscommunications and other mistakes, they might well have marched straight to the Southern capitol of Richmond, a mere 90 miles away.
In March 1862, less than a year after the beginning of the war, a much larger Union army of 120,000 men began to march toward Richmond, confronted by a Southern force about 10 times smaller. Were it not for the timidity—some say cowardice—of the commanding Union general, it is easy to imagine that the Civil War could have ended far sooner than it did.
But would this have been a good thing? If Richmond had been captured in 1861-2, most of the South would have remained unaffected, and even if the war had stopped, it is likely that another would have broken out. The Southern states would have retained the will and resources to defend their way of life and to resist the Northern invasion. An early victory would have meant little, because the South simply had not experienced enough pain to be willing truly to surrender to the North and resume its place in a united nation. 600,000 dead men was an expensive price to pay, but the lessons learned have produced a nation united in the protection of the liberties of uncounted millions of people in the United States and around the world.
On many occasions in my life, I have hoped and prayed for relief from physical, emotional, and psychological pain. Who wants to be in pain? And yet, with the wisdom of many subsequent years, I can see many instances where early relief would have prevented me from learning lessons that have given me invaluable strength now.
We all suffer pain, and while I can’t imagine wishing for pain, I’m happy that from our pain we can learn wisdom and strength that will serve us well for the rest of our lives—often preventing suffering that might last a lifetime.