Civil War Counterfactuals

By Ta-Nehisi Coates


Broadsnark, looking at my piece on the Civil War, and my thoughts on Ron Paul, gives us this from Howard Zinn:


You can't deny that the civil war is fought and slavery is ended. But even while not forgetting that - that is very, very important - it is worthwhile at least looking at the other side of the balance sheet. 600,000 dead in the civil war...in a population of 30 million...600,000 today would mean we fought a civil war in which 5 million people died. What if we want to end racial segregation, or maybe even slavery? Should we fight a war in which 5 million people died in order to end slavery? Of course, we want slavery to end. But is this the only way it could have been done, with a war that takes 600,000 lives? 

There are countries in other parts of the world and in the Western hemisphere that did away with slavery and without a bloody war, all over Latin America and the West Indies. It is worth thinking about. It is not that we want to retain slavery. No. We do want to end slavery. But again, we have to let our imaginations go. Is it possible that slavery might have been ended some other way? Maybe it would have taken longer. This is a very important factor. If you want to avoid horrendous violence and accomplish something, you may have to wait longer. The nice thing about violence, it is fast. You want to accomplish something fast, violence will do it. 

I tried to source this quote, but I couldn't. With that in mind, I don't think it would be fair for me to engage. With that said, I found Zinn making a similar, if slightly more nuanced, argument in a talk called "The Three Holy Wars"

So, the Civil War and its aftermath, you know, have to be looked at in a longer perspective. And yes, the question needs to be asked also: yeah, is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead? We don't know for sure. And when I mention these possibilities, you know, it's very hard to imagine how it might have ended, except that we do know that slavery was ended in every other country in the western hemisphere. Slavery was ended in all these others places in the western hemisphere without a bloody civil war.

Well, that doesn't prove that it could have been ended, and, you know, every situation is different, but it makes you think. If you begin to think, "Oh, the only way it could have been done is with a bloody civil war," maybe not. I mean, maybe it would have taken longer. You know, maybe there could have been slave rebellions which hammered away at the Southern slave structure, hammered away at them in a war of attrition, not a big bloody mass war, but a war of attrition and guerrilla warfare, and John Brown-type raids. 

Remember John Brown, who wanted to organize raids and a slave rebellion? Yeah, a little guerrilla action, not totally peaceful, no. But not massive slaughter. Well, John Brown was executed by the state of Virginia and the national government. He was executed in 1859 for wanting to lead slave revolts. And the next year, the government goes to war in a war that cost 600,000 lives and then, presumably, as people came to believe, to end slavery. There's a kind of tragic irony in that juxtaposition of facts. So it's worth thinking about, about the Civil War, and not to simply say, "Well, Civil War ended slavery, therefore whatever the human cost was, it was worth it." It's worth rethinking.

I really wish Zinn had pushed through, instead of simply posing questions. I wish he had made a case for Lincoln responding in some other way, after the Confederacy launched a war with the explicit aim of raising an empire that would protect and expand slavery. I really wish he'd taken a hard up the Haitian Revolution, which did not have a bloody "civil" war--but suffered a bloody war, nonetheless. I wish he'd tried to explain why these other places did not have Civil War, instead of retreating to the notion that we somehow just chose it.

I wish he would have tackled Lincoln's long record of advocating for paid emancipation as well as colonization, and the sordid results of those efforts. I wish he'd looked at the history of paid emancipation efforts in the South, and grappled with their repeated failure. I wish he'd tried to explain why, if Lincoln couldn't get Delaware to peacefully give up slavery in 1863, why he would have been able to convince South Carolina in 1860. I wish he'd grapple with the ethical dilemma of telling someone like Frederick Douglass that four million blacks should continue to live in a state of perpetual violence, in hopes of forestalling violence for the rest of the country.

I am not being sarcastic here. There may well be a case. But too often I find that this argument is based in high-minded generalizations, and not in the tiny, hard facts of history. The history of emancipation attempts in Delaware and the South never come up. No one looks at how Sojourner Truth's son was sold into slavery in Alabama, after New York went with gradual emancipation. Instead we just get "war is bad." But some of us were already at war.

What most saddens me about this argument is the sense that Abraham Lincoln, who repeatedly advocated for peaceful means to end slavery, many of which were opposed by African-Americans (and rightfully so,) is somehow cast as a kind of war-monger. To put this in perspective, consider that Abraham Lincoln had to come to Washington on a secret train for fear that he would be killed. When he got there, he said this upon his inauguration:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

He was answered, a month later, when Confederates fired on federal property. The next five year took a toll on Lincoln which I can scarcely imagine. His wife was bipolar. His son died from typhoid fever. And Lincoln, himself, was murdered by an unrepentant white supremacist.

There's something distasteful, and cynical, about asking why Lincoln couldn't prevent a war, that was thrust upon him a month after he became President. Of course we could flip the question and ask why slaveholders elected to expand their war against black people to the entire country. But we already know the answer. The truth is so very terrible.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/01/civil-war-counterfactuals/251325/