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On Reappraising the Civil War

June 20, 2013

The Atlantic recently put out an essay on the latest generation of Civil War history that is well worth a read. Perhaps the Civil War is too much a personal interest of mine for some of these accounts to be so shocking as the author presents them, but early on, something started to bother me quite a bit (though read the essay in full first, lest my more or less sequential comments mislead you as to its conclusion). It came after a justifiably brutal depiction of Pickett’s Charge, which was horrific in execution and hardly noble in the cause it marched for:

This and other scenes of unromantic slaughter aren’t likely to get much notice during the Gettysburg sesquicentennial, the high water mark of Civil War remembrance. Instead, we’ll hear a lot about Joshua Chamberlain’s heroism and Lincoln’s hallowing of the Union dead.

It’s hard to argue with the Gettysburg Address. But in recent years, historians have rubbed much of the luster from the Civil War and questioned its sanctification. Should we consecrate a war that killed and maimed over a million Americans? Or should we question, as many have in recent conflicts, whether this was really a war of necessity that justified its appalling costs?

If we should question it, we should do so only quickly, because the answer is most obviously yes. Iraq was a travesty in conception and unacceptable in prosecution. Afghanistan is not so nearly as much a black mark but in its unbearably and unnecessarily lethargic and sanguinary slog towards a conclusion, yet the disappointment we shall surely face when it finally does will not evoke romantic images of a good war. However, what about Iraq or Afghanistan could possibly speak to the justice of the Civil War? If an entire region of the country decides to abrogate its commitment to a more perfect union because it is no longer happy with the political winds (let alone that it does so in defense of the worst practice in American history), and commits to violence in the process, there are few wars that could be more necessary. True, it would be dismissive to diminish the unprecedented and thankfully unmatched slaughter of the Civil War, but is there any comparison to the stakes either?

The Civil War today is generally seen as a necessary and ennobling sacrifice, redeemed by the liberation of four million slaves.

In the sense of all, inherently contingent history, no, the Civil War was not “necessary” as if by some mysterious law or principle, no, it was not “necessary” any more than the existence of the United States or any complex event was necessary. But, at the human scale, was it necessary for the Union to meet Confederate force with force, in the preservation of the country? To say otherwise is simply to dismiss the concept of a necessary war entirely. This is a valid decision to make, but sadly it is not the one under discussion. As for “ennobling,” however terrible the slaughter, it is difficult to see how, however tragic the costs or flawed the consequences, that the liberation of millions and the preservation of the country left us worse than how we began.

No, as the essay notes, we did not solve the racial problems of the day. I doubt anyone expected the war and most familiar with the cost expected to. But there is no better example of making the perfect the enemy of the good than saying that war and Reconstruction deserve short shrift for failing to “deliver true racial justice.” Justice, insofar as human beings in the real world remain charged with delivering it, is and will always be imperfect. Comparing the flaws of Reconstruction with the acknowledgement of the humanity and citizenship of an entire race in America? To paraphrase Adam Smith, there is a lot of room for ruin in an abolition. Did the war “knit the nation back together?” No, but it surely did a better job than letting a great deal of it become a separate nation entirely. Does it speak well to the country that the war occurred? No, it was awful that it came to this. Was it somehow the wrong choice when the combined decisions of North and South rendered the North the choice between accepting secession and war? I find it very difficult to imply so.

Not mentioned in the essay, which later, albeit indirectly, casts doubts on aspects of Goldfield’s view of the war, are some of Goldfield’s more sobering points about the degree to which even the re-United States indulged in horrific racism, not simply against the freed blacks but against Catholics and ruthless violence against the indigenous. I find it wholly unconvincing, however, to say that these aspects would not have been present in some alternative, Civil War-free past. Consider the bizarre and disturbing Norman-Cavalier thesis popular in the South on the eve of the Civil War, that Southerners were a naturally master race over the serf-descended Northerners. Would two countries, each seeking to define their own identity in the rift of secession, have not sought forms of nationalism just as, if not more virulent, than the ones they embraced in seeking reconciliation? Surely we can dismiss the notion that blacks stood a better chance under secession, but would a North in dire need of protecting its still sparsely-occupied West be more tolerant of Indians? Would a South with a direct economic and political incentive to renew the cause of expansion into Latin America forgo such a new and politically legitimate opportunity?

The notion that other countries’ compensated manumission, and the deus ex machina of industrialization, might have felled slavery in a Union that did not fall to secession should give us hope for a better path than war and its consequences is similarly dubious. No country relied so heavily on slavery as America, and even Britain’s abolition did not come with a corresponding refusal to profit from the institution of slavery. While Britons underwent no small feat of mental gymnastics to square their anti-slavery policy with the massive economic benefits of trading and processing slave-extracted commodities, we could hardly compare the degree to which slavery in the United States was not simply an economic but a political and social fact.

While manumission was not unspeakable, its hour never seemed at hand, and the South was unwilling to wait and give it a chance. To assume industrialization would have withered away or obliterated slavery seems odd. With far shallower foundations than America’s system of forced labor, the totalitarian governments of the 20th century were able to adapt it into their industrialization or the maintenance of industrial activity, even in cases (such as Nazi German used of forced labor) when ideological requirements made it unprofitable.

Luckily (and leaving this tangent on Goldfield), the essay brings in Gary Gallagher, one of the leading figures both in dissecting the Lost Cause mythology and also of much of the rosy romanticism about the North’s war aims. Unfortunately the essay gives Gallagher’s argument on the latter very little traction. It is very true to say the United States did not enter the Civil War for the principles of abolition, let alone racial justice in any recognizable form. To note the soldiers of the North should not be to suggest that there was no value in fighting for Union. There very much was.

We do not diminish the importance of abolition to also note that the Civil War in saying that Union was essential to the cause of republican government in the United States. As Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural, “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” It is easy for revisionist accounts to slight the degree to which this charge matters. In a functioning democratic republic, a great deal of the populace must accept a great deal of consequences to the detriment of their interests and preferences relative to what they might have enjoyed in a successful vote or reigning coalition.

The South seceded in part because of frustration but even more in fear of what the Republicans and shifting Northern sentiments would mean for its political, economic, and social interests. To usurp not simply the decision of an election but the Constitution, not simply the decision of the day but the entire charge to form a more perfect union, is to poison the principles of republican government. To endure and accept political decisions at the counting of the ballot rather than the charge of the bayonet, and to preserve that system so the people can remain confident that deliberation and peaceful decision will remain the primary arbiter of our daily political lives, is not simply an afterthought in determining the justice of the Civil War but an essential facet.

To legitimize or accept unilateral secession in preventive defense of sectional interests was not simply a blow to the Union as a label on an expanse of territory, but to the principles it and few other states had then committed to. The citizen-soldiers Gallagher describes fighting for this war were not always fighting for the most noble aims, but to then underplay the nobility that existed in those aim is, beyond slighting them, a slight to core foundations of republican government. The Civil War was not simply about slavery as some extraneous aberration to a power struggle, but a challenge, rooted in the issue of slavery but aimed, in execution, not simply at future abolitionists but at the system of government they might employ in that aim. The conflict was not only about slavery, nor even the “lofty principles” of Union, it was also about interests, often venal ones. But that interests lined up behind those principles should not give us pause as to which principles were worth supporting. In no fantasy would political or military decision have been any less compromised by these standards, and there is no good war in American history I can think of in which the world worked differently.

We should indeed note the South came quite close to winning, which is precisely what we need to put the continued war effort and its mounting and horrific costs into perspective. You can still see the earthworks along the route of the Overland Campaign where Grant earned his reputation as a butcher, where men would fall dead or lie maimed in unfathomable thousands, in a conflict where single battles or campaigns towered over American casualties in years of war in our time. That the Confederacy nearly won after years of unparalleled mutual slaughter should not discredit the cause of fighting, but force us to confront war in all its tragedy, and all the more appreciate the severity of the choices that a leader like Grant would have to face (and at least more understanding of those in the Union who opposed war, or ending it on the terms it did, to save Union lives). In a society where the decision to go to war is so selective in the horror it unleashes on its people, having such a blunt view of war’s consequences is necessary, and ought be part of our consciousness long before any politician or officer succeeds Lincoln or Grant in their duties today.

We could go further and note that not only did the Civil War’s toll apparently prove militarily necessary to seal the fate of the Confederacy and preserve the American Republic as it was and would be, but it largely foreclosed on American soil the prospects for total wars like those which would ravage the old world in the 20th century. We often remark that our experience of the 20th century’s titanic conflicts was radically different from those of Europeans or Asians – it did not have to be that way.

As Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist 8, peace, prosperity, and republican government depended in no small part on a political institution which could prevent America from descending into a mass of squabbling states. The fragmentation of ancient Greece and contemporary Europe had stark lessons. Division on the continent would mean competition, competition insecurity, and insecurity the retardation of liberty and prosperity. Cleavage in the Union would divide the United States into at least two peoples, embittered by war, in search of national redefinition, and fearful and contemptuous of each others’ often exclusive interests. This at a time of French intervention in Mexico, when the forceful reintroduction not just of a balance of power system on the continent but between the continents seemed quite possible. It would be one where a continent divided and already bloodied, with one state covetous of its former territories and crippled in the legitimacy of its principles, and another founded to the advantage of the most anti-democratic interests possible, lurched towards the era of total war the Civil War arguably foreshadowed.

I am sympathetic to the case that there is no such thing as a “good war,” and readers here probably recall some of my arguments against the unnecessary romanticizing and appropriation of World War II history. Yet to question the worth of the Second World War because it did not originally intend, and could not fully resolve, the worst excesses of totalitarianism or genocide in Europe or Asia does not invalidate the causes for which the war launched. Even more than abolition, ending the Holocaust was not the primary and unifying cause for which the Allies fought, and the moral compromises the United States made in building a coalition to defeat the Nazis were even more uncomfortable than those it made in prosecuting war against the South. But as we can discuss the validity of fighting World War II while still acknowledging its decision to go to war was about far more than the Holocaust and the merits behind that decision, we can discuss the Civil War and acknowledge that before abolition validated it, the cause of Union was worth fighting for.

To recoil at suggesting such a war – or any war – could be good is understandable. War is the killing, maiming, and depriving other human beings, in the Civil War’s case, of ones we’d called countrymen. Yet regardless of whether one thinks a war can be good or not, we ought recognize the Civil War was, however imperfect, just, in both the North’s decision to accept war and in the balance of the peace war’s decision imposed. Human justice, again, is necessarily flawed and incomplete, and to shift the burden of blame on those who gave so much to advance it as much as they did, rather than those and ourselves who succeed them in their duties, is unhelpful at best. The essay I quote from closes, even after a litany of provocative claims:

From the distance of 150 years, Lincoln’s transcendent vision at Gettysburg of a “new birth of freedom” seems premature. But he himself acknowledged the limits of remembrance. Rather than simply consecrate the dead with words, he said, it is for “us the living” to rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work of the Civil War.

If we are unduly complacent because we view something as a good war, then we ought target our complacency rather than veer into a headlong revisionism that, though a necessary part of improving our historical and moral understanding, can promote a self-satisfied dismissal of the dilemmas of the past – ones far graver, in many ways, than any we face today. The essay closes on a more agreeable note than it begins, though if the centrality of Union rather than abolition to Northern war aims remains underplayed, so too often does the justice of Union as a cause. It is with an eye towards justice, and the terrible toll that just war wrought, that I’ll close with some lines of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. In Lincoln’s theodicy, however controversial an aim abolition was, and however his own position on it shifted, we can still recognize the profound suggestion that slavery, the cause which promoted the South’s choice for war, bore too upon the degree of its suffering. No matter how contingent the outcome, the moral verdict of the war is still inseparable from the monstrous institution which brought half the country to force a choice between them:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Imperfect yet still praiseworthy causes and citizens brought about that judgment in earthly form, and however inadequate their work proved, it still saved us from yet more and worse of what they endured.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Trombly permalink
    June 20, 2013 10:57 am

    As the father who took you by the hand across many hallowed grounds and past many a patriot grave, I could not be prouder to see your passion take root and flower so brilliantly.

    There are things worth both fighting and dying for: Union and liberty are two of them.

    While I agree with Gallagher that there no immediate inevitabilities on victory, philosophically, free democratic government and slavery could not co-exist permanently…. To borrow from Lincoln’s House Divided, one or the other would eventually emerge to place the other in ultimate extinction.

    The Civil War is just or good, precisely because it helped to ensure free government persisted and endured, or as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “that government of the people, by the people and for the people did not persish from the earth.”

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