The Unromantic Slaughter of the Civil War

Was the Civil War avoidable -- or was it the culminating violence of a quieter war that had already been going on for centuries?

The great Tony Horwitz has a good piece up at the site on the new movement among historians questioning the civil war as a good war:

"We've decided the Civil War is a 'good war' because it destroyed slavery," says Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina. "I think it's an indictment of 19th century Americans that they had to slaughter each other to do that." Similar reservations were voiced by an earlier generation of historians known as revisionists. From the 1920s to 40s, they argued that the war was not an inevitable clash over irreconcilable issues. Rather, it was a "needless" bloodbath, the fault of "blundering" statesmen and "pious cranks," mainly abolitionists. Some revisionists, haunted by World War I, cast all war as irrational, even "psychopathic."

World War II undercut this anti-war stance. Nazism was an evil that had to be fought. So, too, was slavery, which revisionists -- many of them white Southerners--had cast as a relatively benign institution, and dismissed it as a genuine source of sectional conflict. Historians who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement placed slavery and emancipation at the center of the Civil War. This trend is now reflected in textbooks and popular culture. The Civil War today is generally seen as a necessary and ennobling sacrifice, redeemed by the liberation of four million slaves.

But cracks in this consensus are appearing with growing frequency, for example in studies like America Aflame, by historian David Goldfield. Goldfield states on the first page that the war was "America's greatest failure." He goes on to impeach politicians, extremists, and the influence of evangelical Christianity for polarizing the nation to the point where compromise or reasoned debate became impossible.

Unlike the revisionists of old, Goldfield sees slavery as the bedrock of the Southern cause and abolition as the war's great achievement. But he argues that white supremacy was so entrenched, North and South, that war and Reconstruction could never deliver true racial justice to freed slaves, who soon became subject to economic peonage, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and rampant lynching.

Nor did the war knit the nation back together. Instead, the South became a stagnant backwater, a resentful region that lagged and resisted the nation's progress. It would take a century and the Civil Rights struggle for blacks to achieve legal equality, and for the South to emerge from poverty and isolation. "Emancipation and reunion, the two great results of this war, were badly compromised," Goldfield says. Given these equivocal gains, and the immense toll in blood and treasure, he asks: "Was the war worth it? No."

One thing that World War II taught me is that there is no such thing as a "good war." It's true the North did not go to war free the slaves. It's also true that no nation in Europe went to war to save European Jews. It's true that white racism had infected the North and the South. It's also true that anti-Semitism had infected the European and American allies. Faced with the actual horrors of mass killing, I don't know that there is any war that can objectively said to be "worth it." But with that said, I think the idea that the Civil War reflects some unique failure of 19th-century Americans -- a failure equally born by Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee -- is quite wrong.

It should always be remembered that America did not "go to war" in 1860. America was attacked in 1860 by a formidable rebel faction seeking to protect the expansion of slavery. That faction did not simply want slavery to continue in America; they dreamed of a tropical empire of slavery encompassing Cuba, Nicaragua, and perhaps the whole of South America. This faction was not only explicitly pro-slavery but explicitly anti-democratic. The newly declared Confederacy attacked America not because it was being persecuted, but because it was unable to win a democratic election.

Understanding that, it is not enough to simply say the war was not "worth it" or to indict the failure of 19th-century Americans. A responsible thinker must offer a plausible alternative to the one Lincoln ultimately chose. Should Lincoln have allowed the South to depart? Should he have compromised with the South and vowed to support slavery's continuance and expansion? If the Civil War represents the failure of 19th-century Americans, what represents success? How -- specifically -- should that have been achieved?

It's very important to follow the logic of alternatives all the way through. If the Civil War was not "worth it," then the logical conclusion is that my ancestors should have remained enslaved and should have continued to be subject to having their wives, husbands, fathers, and children sold away until some undetermined point that was more convenient for white people.

The fact is that the Civil War didn't represent a failure of 19th-century Americans, but that the American slave society -- which was itself war -- represented a failure of humanity. That failure was the price America paid for its conception. The bill came due in 1860. No one knew this better than Lincoln himself:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? 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 by 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."

I am very sorry that white people began experiencing great violence in 1860. But for some of us, war did not begin 1860, but in 1660. The brutal culmination of that war may not have allowed us to ascend into a post-racial heaven. But here is something I always come back to: In 1859 legally selling someone's five-year-old child was big business. In 1866, it was not. American Slavery was a system of perpetual existential violence. The idea that it could have been -- or should have been -- ended, after two and a half centuries of practice, with a handshake and an ice-cream social strikes me as really wrong.