Justifications for war differ.
So do opinions on their persuasiveness.
But the validity of this maxim from Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest remains constant:
"War means fighting, and fighting means killing."
Another grim line with awful staying power, from Confederate Gen. Evander Law, as he recalled what he saw 10 miles north of Richmond 150 years ago today, on June 3, 1864:
"It was not war, it was murder."
As Bruce Catton writes of that gory spectacle in his majestic "A Stillness at Appomattox," first published in 1953:
"And this, strangely and terribly enough, was the battle of Cold Harbor - a wild chain of doomed charges, most of which were smashed in five or ten minutes and none of which lasted more than half an hour. In all the war, no attack had ever been broken up as quickly or as easily as this, nor had men ever before been killed so rapidly. The half hour's work had cost the Union army 7,000 men."
What triggered that sudden, one-sided bloodletting?
Back to Catton:
"From the Chickahominy swamps all the way to the Totopotomoy, the Confederate line on the morning of June 3 was cunningly and elaborately designed to take advantage of every ravine, knoll and hillock, every bog and water course, every clump of trees and patch of brambles, so that unending crossfires could be laid on all possible avenues of approach. ... There was hardly a spot on the front which could not be hit by rifle fire and artillery fire from dead ahead and from both sides."
And for several weeks after that slaughter, there were hardly any defenders of U.S. Gen. U.S. Grant's foolhardy order to advance.
Ernest B. Furgurson writes in 2000's "Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864": "When the North realized how seriously the Union army was bloodied there, the muttered barroom description of Grant as butcher swelled into the public prints."
Yet less than a year later Grant was hailed as the nation's savior.
Less than four years after that, Grant was president.
Forward to 1961:
Many of us Charlestonians - well, the white ones - celebrated the centennial of the South's firing on Fort Sumter.
Many of us unreconstructed sorts even routinely bragged that many more Yankees than Confederates died in what we then still called the War Between the States.
Since my distant youth, though, local zeal for the Lost Cause has been largely driven into retreat by an overdue surrender to the ugly truth that the Confederacy was created in large part to save slavery.
Sure, there are still some diehard defenders of the 2000 legislative compromise that took a Confederate flag off the S.C. Statehouse dome and put another one front and center on Statehouse grounds by the Confederate Monument.
Plus, re-enactors still frequently play (Civil) war - and dress-up - in these and other parts. Garbed in gray and blue, they wage mock battles that purportedly honor the gallant heroes of lore.
Fine. Remember our history.
And whether you regard the Yankee hordes that won the uncivil war of attrition as invaders, liberators or both, remember to pay tribute to the brave men who fought and died in it.
Remember, too, that many of us 21st century Americans have ancestors on both sides of that 19th century mass tragedy.
But also keep in mind that only a pluperfect re-enacting fool would want to fully experience the Civil War, which inflicted huge body counts not just via mortal combat but via torturous dysentery.
Also keep in mind that the epochal conflict produced around a third of the war fatalities in the history of the U.S. armed forces. And that's not counting the C.S.A. fatalities.
Meanwhile, our species' relentless quest for advances in the technologies of killing each other persists.
The Union shelling of Charleston from a then-new-fangled Parrott gun installed on Morris Island in the summer of 1863 even inflicted some civilian deaths.
Do the grisly math
Roughly 360,000 Union troops died in the Civil War, which started with the population of the entire North at a mere 22 million.
Roughly 260,000 Southern troops died from the 11 seceding states that had a combined population of 9 million - and more than 3 million of those residents were slaves.
But hey, the Civil War did end slavery. Well, at least on this continent.
The appalling killing scale also liberated many of those who fought it from delusions about war's alleged glory.
For instance, Catton's "A Stillness at Appomattox" classic quotes what then-Pvt. Lewis Bissell of Connecticut "wrote to his parents" 150 years ago tonight, in the still-hellish aftermath of that day's Cold Harbor carnage:
"If there is ever again any rejoicing in the world it will be when this war is over. One who has never been under fire has no idea of war.' "
And a half century ago today at Cold Harbor, the grotesque essence of war was exposed - again.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.