Was the Civil War Tragic?

A recent post over at Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads has got me thinking about the tragic nature of the Civil War.  Brooks offers the following in response to two recent editorials by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Cohen:

Was it an awful war?  Sure.  Was it tragic?  In some ways, yes, but not necessarily in the ways in which Coates contests the term.  It was tragic that white Americans could not bring themselves to realize the promise of their own revolutionary and Revolutionary rhetoric.  It was tragic that in the end they could not bring an end to slavery short of secession and war.  Doubtless Coates would agree that Reconstruction was a regrettable tragedy that illustrated the same shortcomings.  In short, even as the destruction of slavery is cause for celebration, that it had to come to that through war is cause for reflection and contemplation.  Moreover, if we continue to concentrate on the story of the destruction of slavery and the achievement of emancipation as a wartime phenomenon, we risk losing sight of the fact that what freedom meant remained undefined and incomplete, and that during Reconstruction, a truly tragic era, white Americans once more fell short of realizing the ideals which they claimed to cherish, leaving a legacy with which we still wrestle.

I tend to agree with Brooks’s assessment, but I wonder if this characterization of the tragic nature of the war reflects the continued hold that the “War to End Slavery Narrative” exercises over our collective memory.  Yes, I am reflecting on this in the wake of having finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War.  In other words, our definition of what makes the war tragic reflects the value that we have come to place on emancipation and slavery, which may not match up so easily with how the citizens of the United States in the 1860s viewed the meaning of the war.

One way to explore this is to reflect on the very real possibility of the war coming to an end in the early summer of 1862.  We know the drill: George McClellan’s massive army defeats Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s army outside of Richmond and within weeks the Confederacy surrenders.  [Fill in the details however you choose.]  In that event the war would have ended without emancipation.  Under these conditions we can place into sharp focus the value that we assign the overall meaning of the war in connection to emancipation with the strong identification among millions of Americans with the preservation of the Union as the war’s greatest achievement.

Perhaps from this perspective the real tragedy is not that it took a war to end slavery, but that could have easily ended without emancipation.  But if we are going to assign a tragic quality to the war perhaps we should consider locating it closer to how the Civil War generation viewed its outcome.  In other words, we should be more willing to see the tragedy of the war in the failure to preserve the Union through peaceful means rather than a four-year bloody war.  William Gienapp once framed this as America’s greatest “failure.”

The United States did not go to war to end slavery in 1861, but it did lead directly to it followed by a concerted effort on the part of the federal government to give meaning to the freedom for 4 million slaves.  That is undoubtedly a central theme of our civil war and one that needs to be understood, but would the war have been any more or less tragic had it been concluded without emancipation?  In the end, I am still wondering whether this question of the war’s tragedy once again tells us more about how this generation has come to remember the war as opposed to the vast majority of Americans who lived through it.


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13 comments… add one
  • Joe Phelan Apr 30, 2011 @ 9:31

    Sure for the first two years of the war, Lincoln’s stated goal was to put down the rebellion and to restore the Union but he also said that the Union stood for certain principles embodied in the Declaration and the Constitution, principles with were hostile to the long term continued existence of slavery. I think most people who voted for Lincoln knew very well what his position was about continued existence of slavery in a republic dedicated to the principles of the Declaration.
    The Republican Party Platform of 1860 states:
    ” That the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the declaration of independence and embodied in the federal constitution, “That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” is essential to the preservation of our republican institutions; and that the federal constitution, the rights of the states, and the Union of the states, must and shall be preserved. “

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2011 @ 10:22

      Good points, Joe, but understanding Lincoln’s position on the Declaration of Independence and slavery cannot be easily reduced to why the nation went to war in 1861 or how it framed the goals of the war early on.

      Note: Click the “Reply” button to respond to my comment directly.

  • Joe Phelan Apr 30, 2011 @ 7:29

    Not at all. The tension between the two principles was there from the start but statesmen were always able to find compromises to prevent the conflict from pulling the country apart.
    I certainly don’t think that the US had accomplished everything it set out to do by 1860. After all there were 4 million slaves and that was a violation of justice. Certainly none of the statesmen I respect though so.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2011 @ 7:33

      You said: “I certainly don’t think that the US had accomplished everything it set out to do by 1860. After all there were 4 million slaves and that was a violation of justice.”

      Lincoln was very clear that the goal of the war effort was to reunite the Union. As late as the early summer of 1862 he stated in response to Horace Greeley that this remained a top priority. Would most Americans have seen the preservation of the Union as a tragedy because slavery did not end? I am finding that difficult to understand.

  • Joe Phelan Apr 30, 2011 @ 6:54

    I agree with Barbara Gannon and Abraham Lincoln the Civil War is a tragedy because two large priniciples of justice are in conflict. Moreover the conflict of the Civil War is inherent in the tension within our founding document, the Declaration of Independence between two truths: human equality and consent of the governed. The Republican North insisted on the truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal. The South insisted on the truth that all legitimate government rests of the consent of the governed, and that the people could withdraw their consent from any government which seemed to be destructive of their rights.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2011 @ 7:09

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for the comment. On this view do you think the United States was a tragic nation even before the Civil War? Would the war have been even more tragic if it had ended without emancipation even though the United States would have accomplished everything is set out to do?

    • Margaret D. Blough May 1, 2011 @ 8:08

      Joe-Do you believe that if, especially during the war, if any rebel state had decided it had had enough and wanted to secede from the Confederacy and resume active participation in the Union that the Confederacy would have permitted it to do so? It certainly did not defer to the clearly stated wishes of the governed in East Tennessee and the northwest Unionist counties of Virginia. The suppression of Unionists in East Tennessee by the Confederate army was brutal and lethal.

      As for the consent of the governed, what respect to that is shown by resorting to the bullet when one is disgruntled by the result at the ballot box, especially when one’s own actions contributed greatly to that result? I’ve never seen any serious argument made that Lincoln’s 1860 election did not pass Constitutional muster. For a democracy or republic to function, the losers’ acceptance (no matter how ungracious and grudging) of the outcome and willingness to focus their attention on winning the next election is essential. That is what the presidential election of 1800 showed us.

  • Ken Noe Apr 30, 2011 @ 6:43

    Since the Centennial anyway, we’ve treated the war as if we were accountants, balancing the (very real) losses on one side of the page against the gains of emancipation and unity, and concluding that the nation ended up with a net profit. Yes, extending the reckoning into the 1880s would suggest that some of those initial gains were a false bubble. But it seems to me that the accountancy model itself is flawed, a vestige of the Cold War years of celebratory Consensus history when many Americans were ready to absorb a few million casualties if it meant destroying godless Communism. We need a new model, and the place to start is in the 1860s. Most of the soldiers I recently studied never hesitated to call the war a tragedy, for themselves and for the country.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2011 @ 7:06

      Interesting comment, Ken. Was the war a tragedy for these men simply because of the extent of the bloodshed or did they offer a judgment about the price of Union and emancipation?

      • Ken Noe Apr 30, 2011 @ 9:03

        Largely a personal tragedy, lost years, lost lives, but many also commented on the war as avoidable had one group or another done something different.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2011 @ 10:22

          That certainly dovetails with what I’ve read as well.

  • Barbara A. Gannon Apr 29, 2011 @ 17:59

    The Civil War was a tragedy in the original meaning of the word. The Greeks understood that the fates or the gods decreed that there is sometimes an inevitability in human destiny. Usually, it is tied to a type of hubris that offends the gods. Could there be anything more offensive than a nations that claims to be founded in liberty that was, instead, conceived in slavery. The Civil War was a Greek Tragedy writ large. If you do not believe in Greek gods, then I recommend, the living God of the Second Inaugural Address and accept that the nation paid for the Bondsmens blood with its own.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Apr 29, 2011 @ 17:41

    I think this is all about how subsequent generations (including ours) remember the war. Otherwise, one’s sense of tragedy depends on where one would have stood in 1861, or 1865, or 1877. That’s why when I ask students whether reconstruction was a failure, I aske them to remember to define success and failure and define who were are talking about.

    Let’s say the war ends in the fall of 1862 with Union victory. Tragic? Depends on what happens to slavery. After all, if the Union is preserved but slavery remains, perhaps the triumph of union is temporary. That’s why both Lincoln and Grant came to see that without the destruction of slavery, the triumph of union would be at best a mixed blessing.

    Most people who read my work would place me closer the Gary Gallagher than Barbara Fields, including both of them. But I also reserve the right to express my own sense of what is tragic in my eyes, and Reconstruction did a great deal to define what the war did and did not achieve. Moreover, I have cause to wonder about union as an end in itself. I see it as the best way to achieve certain ideals. Without those ideals, maybe it loses its luster.

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