The Civil War Isn't Tragic, Cont.

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William-and-Ellen-Craft (1).jpg

We're going to fight to the death against you and your nigra allies
--Nathan Bedford Forrest

Better to die a thousand deaths than submit to live under you and your nigra allies.
--John Bell Hood

Matt is in general sympathy of my point, but regards the War as sorta tragic, if only from an economic perspective:

That's a lot of money, and you can see why southern slaveowners were eager to safeguard their "investment" in human beings. But the Union spent $2.3 billion fighting the war and the South spent $1 billion fighting back. That right there is approximately the monetary cost of just buying all the slaves and freeing them. Except the war option was not only equally costly in narrowly fiscal terms, it also led to the deaths of 625,000 people and all kinds of other physical devastation. 

Which is just to say that the war, like most wars, was a monumentally negative sum use of human capabilities and economic resources. Expending vast resources in pursuit of human freedom was eminently justifiable, but it's still the case that relative to other conceivable ways of wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters "fight a giant war" is a tragically wasteful way to do it. 

Another, perhaps less loaded, way of putting this is that a war necessarily involves a serious miscalculation on someone's part. Either you fight and fight and fight and return to the status quo ante, or else someone loses and in retrospect it's clear that they shouldn't have fought. In this case, in particular, the white south made a giant mistake.

I think this is wrong. I don't know that the Civil War should, or shouldn't, have been fought. But it's worth pointing out that it didn't appear by magic. The years leading up to the war -- from the Nullification Crisis all the way to Lincoln's election -- were rife with attempts to forestall a violent sectional confrontation. In other words, it's valid to say the Civil War shouldn't have been fought, but then what should have happened?

Matt seems to nod toward compensated emancipation. Sounds like a decent idea, indeed one that many anti-slavery moderates floated at the time. Indeed, as Eric Foner notes in The Fiery Trial, Lincoln, himself, came into office believing in an anti-slavery alloy of limiting the institution's growth, colonization of blacks, and compensated emancipation. Slaveholders would hear none of it and immediately seceded. 

Even in Delaware with a paltry slave population, Lincoln's gradual and compensated emancipation was frustrated:

Opponents warned that emancipated slaves would demand citizenship rights and that the end of slavery would lead to "equality with the white man." Fisher went to great lengths to fend off this charge, insisting not equality but colonization, of blacks already free as well as emancipated slaves would follow abolition. But by February 1862 it had become apparent that the bill could not pass and it was never actually introduced to the legislature. Slavery survived in Delaware until December 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution (and the owners received no monetary contribution.)

Gradual compensated emancipation would, presumably, have been the better option. It would have saved the lives of soldiers, while leaving my grandmother's grandmother as property. This would, presumably, have been "untragic" or "less tragic." At any rate, Delaware -- a state where there were more free blacks than slaves -- rejected this option, preferring to grapple to the last. Compensated emancipation isn't a hypothetical. It was attempted. It failed for actual reasons.

To simply view the Civil War as a massive miscalculation, as Matt puts it, or a mistake is to, first, presume inevitably, and elide the fact that the Confederacy was very well could have won and made their calculation real. Beyond that,  reducing the firing on Ft. Sumter to a "mistake" neglects to ask the hard questions--Why was the mistake made? What forces were at work, beyond economics, that would cause a society to make that mistake? 

In other words, it fails to confront the antebellum South as not simply a place with economic roots in slavery, but a slave society. Slavery was not merely a matter of stocks, it was a matter of citizenship, suffrage, bearing arms, and the very nature of freedom itself. In 1860, the notion that a large swath of a state could consider itself free was novel, untested, and unstable. I don't want to repeat my post from yesterday, but I urge people to read James McPherson. Again:

[The Civil War] was fought over real, profound, intractable problems that Americans on both sides believed went to the heart of their society and its future.

Finally, I'd submit that there is justice in the fact that there was no compensated emancipation. If you read through the oral histories you find that the slaves themselves, like real Americans, never accepted their status as property. They never believed anyone had the implicit right to buy, sell, or barter them away. 

I think of Jourdan Anderson writing to his old master who tried to coax him into returning:

I would rather stay here and starve, and die if it comes to that, than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood, the great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.  

P.S. --Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

Mr. Anderson was among that last generation of a people who lived under a two and half centuries of perpetual war, of perpetual violence, of perpetual destruction of black families,  of sexual violence and near-ritual torture. I will not privilege the last four years of that conflict over the preceding two centuries. 

Perhaps it is right that we regard those last four as "The Late Unpleasantness." I don't want to valorize violence. I'm sensitive to the horrors of war--but, in this country, all wars are not regarded equally. I decline to lament that the federal government didn't go into the business of buying people, stripping them of their claim to America, after investing the profits of their labor, and colonizing them in parts unknown.

I decline all offers to mourn the second American Revolution. No one mourns the first.

The portrait is of Ellen and William Craft, two of the few slaves to escape out of Georgia. Ellen, passing for white, dressed up as a man and passed William off as her slave.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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