The Advantages of Defeat

"Our defeat at Bull Run was in no true sense a disaster; we not only deserved it, but needed it. It should give us new confidence in our cause, in our strength, in our final success." Soon after the start of the Civil War, Charles Eliot Norton urged the Union Army to toughen its resolve.

When the news flashed over the country, on Monday, the 22d of July, that our army, whose advance into Virginia had been so long expected, and had been watched with such intense interest and satisfaction,—that our army had been defeated, and was flying back in disorder to the intrenchments around Washington, it was but natural that the strong revulsion of feeling and the bitter disappointment should have been accompanied by a sense of dismay, and by alarm as to what was to follow. The panic which had disgraced some of our troops at the close of the fight found its parallel in the panic in our own hearts. But as the smoke of the battle and the dust of the retreat, which overshadowed the land in a cloud of lies and exaggerations, by degrees cleared away, men regained the even balance of their minds and felt a not unworthy shame at their transient fears.

It is now plain that our defeat at Bull Run was in no true sense a disaster; that we not only deserved it, but needed it; that its ultimate consequences are better than those of a victory would have been. Far from being disheartened by it, it should give us new confidence in our cause, in our strength, in our final success. There are lessons which every great nation must learn which are cheap at any cost, and for some of those lessons the defeat of the 21st of July was a very small price to pay. The essential question now is, Whether this schooling has been sufficient and effectual, or whether we require still further hard discipline to enforce its instructions upon us.

In this moment of pause and compelled reflection, it is for us to examine closely the spirit and motives with which we have engaged in war, and to determine the true end for which the war must be carried on. It is no time for indulging in fallacies of the fancy or in feebleness of counsel. The temper of the Northern people, since the war was forced upon them, has been in large measure noble and magnanimous. The sudden interruption of peace, the prospect of a decline of long continued prosperity, were at once and manfully faced. An eager and emulous zeal in the defense of the imperiled liberties and institutions of the nation showed itself all over the land, and in every condition of life. None who lived through the months of April and May can ever forget the heroic and ideal sublimity of the time. But as the weeks went on, as the immediate alarm that had roused the invincible might of the people passed away, something of the spirit of over-confidence, of excited hope, of satisfied vanity mingled with and corrupted the earlier and purer emotion. The war was to be a short one. Our enemies would speedily yield before the overwhelming force arrayed against them; they would run from Northern troops; we were sure of easy victory. There was little sober foreboding, as our army set out from Washington on its great advance. The troops moved forward with exultation, as if going on a holiday and festive campaign; and the nation that watched them shared in their careless confidence, and prophesied a speedy triumph. But the event showed how far such a spirit was from that befitting a civil war like this. Never were men engaged in a cause which demanded more seriousness of purpose, more modesty and humility of pretension.

The duty before us is honorable in proportion to its difficulty. God has given us work to do not only for ourselves, but for coming generations of men. He has imposed on us a task which, if well performed, will require our most strenuous endeavors and our most patient and unremitting exertions. We are fairly engaged in a war which cannot be a short one, even though our enemies should before long lay down their arms; for it is a war not merely to support and defend the Constitution and to retake the property of the United States, not merely to settle the question of the right of a majority to control an insolent and rebellious minority in the republic, nor to establish the fact of the national existence and historic unity of the United States; but it is also and more essentially a war for the establishment of civilization in that immense portion of our country in which for many years barbarism has been gaining power. It is for the establishment of liberty and justice, of freedom of conscience and liberty of thought, of equal law and of personal rights, throughout the South. If these are not to be secured without the abolition of slavery, it is a war for the abolition of slavery. We are not making war to reestablish an old order of things, but to set up a new one. We are not giving ourselves and our fortunes for the purpose of fighting a few battles, and then making peace, restoring the Southern States to their old place in the Union,—but for the sake of destroying the root from which this war has sprung, and of making another such war impossible. It is not worth while to do only half or a quarter of our work. But if we do it thoroughly, as we ought, the war must be a long one, and will require from us long sacrifices. It is well to face up to the fact at once, that this generation is to be compelled to frugality, and that luxurious expenses upon trifles and superfluities must be changed for the large and liberal costliness of a noble cause. We are not to expect or hope for a speedy return of what is called prosperity; but we are greatly and abundantly prosperous, if we succeed in extending and establishing the principles which alone can give dignity and value to national or individual life, and without which, material abundance, success in trade, and increase of wealth are evidences rather of the decline than of the progress of a state. We, who have so long been eager in the pursuit and accumulation of riches, are now to show more generous energies in the free spending of our means to gain the invaluable objects for which we have gone to war. There is nothing disheartening in this prospect. Our people, accustomed as they have been during late years to the most lavish use of money, and to general extravagance in expense, have not yet lost the tradition of the economies and thrift of earlier times, and will not find it difficult to put them once more into practice. The burden will not fall upon any single class; and when each man, whatever be his station in life, is called upon to lower his scale of living, no one person will find it too hard to do what all others are doing.

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