Was the Civil War a Good War?

Tony Horwitz’s piece in the Atlantic yesterday has raised some eyebrows. I enjoyed it, though the author of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War would have done us more of a service if he had explored beyond the ivory towers. Hey, we are in the midst of a Civil War Sesquicentennial and there is a lot going on out there that defies easy categorization and that is worth exploring. But if we must stick with a couple of academics to define the current state of Civil War memory than so be it.

Horwitz’s interview with Fitz Brundage and David Goldfield raised the question of whether the Civil War was a good war and whether the bloodletting was worth it in the end. I tend to avoid these questions. That said, I find myself agreeing with the thrust of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s response.

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…. I am very sorry that white people began experiencing great violence in 1860. But for some of us, war did not begin [in] 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.

I’ve always maintained that the right side won the war and that we are better off without slavery. Who is going to disagree with that? Was it worth the price? Certainly, those enslaved must have thought so along with those Americans who were not willing to stand by and allow their Union to be destroyed. What else can I offer that adds or detracts?

OK, back to packing for Gettysburg!

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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55 comments… add one
  • Josiah Nov 28, 2018 @ 17:17

    “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln. The disagreement that started on April 12, 1861, became the war that we all know as the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in 1865, ended the brutal battle. The Civil War had two sides, the Union side (which is the northern side of America), and the Confederate side (which was the southern side of America). The Union side wanted to abolish slavery, but the Confederate side wanted to keep their slaves.

    The Civil War had America's bloodiest battle. This battle was the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Both sides battled brutally to get what they wanted. This war is considered a tragedy because of all the lives that were sacrificed for over equality. I thought Martain Luther King Jr. solved that. "The deadliest war in American history, the importance of the Civil War cannot be under-estimated. Taking more than 600,000 lives." This quote from Matthew Fortuna tells another reason why the Civil War is considered a tragedy.

    Matthew Fortuna also said, "The Civil War paved the way for the establishment of the Republican North and the Democratic South." This part of the Civil War wasn't a tragedy, it was more like a triumph. The Civil War made people think about their governing system, which created the strong, central government that we have today while propelling the United States to becoming one of the strongest countries in the world. Now, that at least has got to be some sort of triumph. Also, the Civil War did provide us with advances in medicine, one of the biggest being sterilization in order to prevent the spread of infection.

  • A.D. Powell May 25, 2014 @ 21:16

    Well, Americans who fought in WWII did not do it to save Jews, Roma, and political prisoners from death. Most were unaware of the full scale of Nazi atrocities. We might say that they and their government blundered into the role of savior, just as their Civil War counterparts did. In both cases, only a war could have ended the extreme political evil they ended up fighting.

  • Rob in CT Jun 26, 2013 @ 11:50

    I think it’s the wrong question. The question, to me, is “could the war have been avoided, and – if so – what would the consequences have been?” I see multiple wars (border skirmishes at the very least) between the North and South if the South was allowed to go. I see slavery lasting longer (the reality of “redemption” and Jim Crow complicates this, of course, but slavery has to be seen as worse).

  • TF Smith Jun 24, 2013 @ 15:47

    Not that it should be, but put the impact on the enslaved to one side – simply for the fact that the ACW prevented a North America as balkanized as South America makes the cost of the war worthwhile.

    Take a look at the internecine wars between the Latin American republics in the 19th and 20th centuries, much less the internal conflicts, and explain how a similar future in North America would have been avoided if the southern rebellion had suceeded.

    How long before Texas rebels? The Trans-Mississippi? The LDS in Utah? How long would if have taken for some sort of fragile stability to have arisen? There were international conflicts in South America with significant territorial exhanges until the 1940s, and absent the Cold War, it is quite possible there would have been more throoghouyt the 20th Century…

    North America could have been just as bloody.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 24, 2013 @ 1:00

    I think trying to question the value of the Civil War à la its cost in human lives lost is something like trying to wade through those counterfactual history questions such as “What if the South had won the war?” or “What if Lincoln hadn’t been murdered in 1865?” Maybe all of you don’t see a connection between questioning the worth of the war and speculating what would have happened if history had gone some other way. Maybe there is none. But I’m not sure if we can really answer if the Civil War was or was not worth it… because we weren’t a part of that experience. To me, the only people who can really speak to this are the ones who lived through it, who saw the death tolls mount day after day, who knew personally someone who died. Or we could ask a former slave. The good news was they no longer had to live in fear of being sold into bondage or having their family ripped apart and not being able to do anything about it. But in 1865 after Confederate military defeat, Black people simply traded slavery for Confederate racial victory: second-class citizenship, disfranchisement, legal inequality, lynching, degredation, segregation and even de facto enslavement, as Douglas A. Blackmon has written in the book “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.” I always think it’s funny when people, who groan about African-American awareness of the past, say things like “my ancestors didn’t come to this country until 1907, so they had nothing to do with slavery.” Why do these people act like as soon as slavery ended in 1865, Black people had equality waiting for them?

    • Chuck Marcus Jun 24, 2013 @ 3:17

      Bryan, those are good points, however you must also recognize that the strong political will to enforce the civil and voting rights of black people eroded over a 30-50 year period after the Civil War starting with the electoral compromise of 1876, continuing with the Plessy decision of 1896 and culminating with Woodrow Wilson’s betrayal. Is it possible that the violent end of slavery (the CW itself), the lack of compensation to slave owners and the lack of reparations to freed slaves led directly to 100 extra years of “re-enslavement”? I think so.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 24, 2013 @ 5:14

        Thanks for the compliments. Yes, I am aware that efforts were made to give Black people civil rights after the war. And those efforts didn’t succeed because the nation wasn’t really ready to accept Black people. I guess that’s what happens when a country is allowed to fix its own problems without being accountable to anyone.

  • Forester Jun 21, 2013 @ 10:56

    I think our march towards progress in the 20th and 21st Centuries is something that would have occurred no matter which side won the Civil War. A Confederate victory would have SLOWED the abolition of slavery, but not entirely halted it.

    For example, victory in the American Revolution slowed abolition by 30 years, but it still happened eventually. The British would’ve ended slavery in the 1830s, had we stayed a colony under the Crown. Had the colonists lost, we might very well be reading the American Revolution Memory Blog and commenting on how the right side won. With the exception of a few crazy “Patriot Flaggers” and the SCV (“Sons of Colonial Veterans”), most Americans would agree that we were better off British, and the US flag would probably have become a symbol of racism. And here’s the rub …. in this parallel universe, they would be absolutely RIGHT.

    I think just about any end to the Civil War was right solely because it ENDED it. Society has been on a certain track since the Enlightenment and a Confederate victory would have only been a temporary roadblock, like the Colonial victory before it. Our lives in the 21st Century would be the same.

    Are slave lives more valuable than soldiers? Is it worth 700,000 dead soldiers to free slaves? On the other hand, is preserving the lives of soldiers with continuing the enslavement of several million people for another thirty or even hundred years? These are HUGE questions and I don’t think any of us can really answer them.

    It ended, slavery was abolished and things are working out. Instead of debate, let’s just thank God it worked out somehow.

    • Pat Young Jun 21, 2013 @ 14:48

      Forester, only about half of those lives were lost to end slavery. The other half died trying to preserve it.

      • Rob Baker Jun 21, 2013 @ 21:03

        That’s incorrect.

        The Confederacy’s policy was to preserve slavery. They used the army/soldiers and warfare as an instrument to bring about that policy. Confederate soldiers served because of ambition, tradition, conscription, defense, to preserve slavery, etc. The soldiers fought for various reasons, but their reasons were moot as they were subject to the overall strategy of the government. To say the government send half of those soldiers to their death, only to preserve slavery is an accurate statement. But to say the soldiers themselves died to preserve slavery is a generalization.

        • Pat Young Jun 22, 2013 @ 4:10

          No, Rob, I am not incorrect.

          Whatever their personal motives for for fighting (because they were conscripted, to impress a girl, because daddy expected it, etc.), they died because their leaders wanted to preserve slavery. No slavery, no war. Confederate soldiers, whatever their personal motives, or even their disagreements with their leaders, were trying to preserve slavery. QED.

          To accept your construction, Union soldiers did not die trying to preserve the Union or end slavery. In evaluating “Was it worth it?” we would have to look at each dead soldier’s motive for fighting. If a soldier’s motive was to impress a girl so that she would marry him and have his children, then if he mated and reproduced perhaps we could say it was worth it? If he struck out, as we so often do, then his “sacrifice was in vain”? Seems sort of besides the point as a form of analysis.

          • Rob Baker Jun 22, 2013 @ 10:12

            Thanks for proving my point. I said that above. The Confederate soldiers died because of the state’s policy, not because of their aspirations of battle. You can say that a country sent 300,000 to die in a war in order to preserve slavery, but to say that 300,000 died to preserve slavery is a generalization that does not take into account the personal ambition of the soldiers or their reasons for fighting.

            You can accept the construction, but your acceptance is irrelevant. Union soldiers died in a war for various reasons. They fought for various reasons. Yet their reasons were irrelevant as they merely represented an instrument of policy. The same is said for them. They died in reflection of their own ambition. But they died because of the country’s policy, not their intent to preserve the Union or end slavery.

            Soldiers died because of a country’s policy. It’s a lateral attachment, but a generalization nonetheless. To dismiss personal motivations is lazy history.

            As Brooks Simpson already pointed, asking questions such as “was it worth it” tells us more about the person asking. The answer to the question, is a subjective one. Worth it to who?To dismiss the personal motivations that is the cutting edge of the state’s sword to execute its policy, is to dismiss them as inanimate objects. To dismiss them is to go back to this concept of rich dead old white man history that ignores details, and tramples on the history of the common man. If you feel it necessary to “lump,” your analysis will be a generalization. Exploring the micro picture wields better analysis.

            • Pat Young Jun 22, 2013 @ 19:47

              If I said that a group of construction workers killed in a bridge collapse were killed “trying to bridge a river”, your response would be that they weren’t trying to bridge the river. They each had personal motives for being on the bridge. Bridging the river was the intent of the state highway department, not of the worker. I understand you point, but I disagree that I am incorrect.

              • Pat Young Jun 22, 2013 @ 20:42

                BTW, Rob, you wrote “As Brooks Simpson already pointed, asking questions such as “was it worth it” tells us more about the person asking. The answer to the question, is a subjective one. Worth it to who?” A few points on this:

                1. I am not a historian. I am an advocate for several Latino and civil rights organizations. In each campaign I have been involved in, we have done multiple post-action evaluations where we have asked “Was it worth it?” The answer is always partially, though certainly not wholly, subjective. Obviously, we are asking the question in terms of benefits to our stakeholders. The fact that a benefit is to a particular party does not make it merely “subjective” since it is often an objective and sometimes quantifiable benefit to a discrete group or class.

                2. In my first post on this subject I wrote “Whether the war was worth it depends on who you are. For the Southern white secessionist, the very figure who chose not a path of constitutional challenge nor diplomacy but war, the war was definitely not worth it.”

                3. I never said that individuals were generally irrelevant, merely that their individual motives were irrelevant to the question of whether Confederate soldiers “died trying to preserve” slavery.

                4. I found your statement that “To dismiss them is to go back to this concept of rich dead old white man history that ignores details” to be overbroad. I was discussing my original statement that Confederates died trying to preserve slavery. I don’t think that examining the subjective states of individual Confederates who died in the war is a useless enterprise, merely that no amount of diary entries will detract from my statement that they died trying to preserve slavery.

                5. I write a series on immigrants during the Civil War that now is more than 200,000 words long for an immigrant community website. Lots of details in there about the subjective consciousness of very marginalized and ignored people.

                6. I have read a number of letters from immigrant Union soldiers after Jan. 1, 1863 who were opposed to emancipation who wrote home that they were disgusted that they were now fighting to end slavery. In other words, they understood that even though they personally did not enlist for that purpose and they in fact opposed it, their military efforts in the future would serve a purpose with which they disagreed

                7. The fact that the question “tells us more about the person asking”, as you say, does not make it irreverent. When I ask “Who won the Met game?” I tell you that I follow sports, that I like the Mets, that the outcome of the game is important to me, that I feel comfortable asking another person about the game, that I understand that baseball games have winners, that I know there is a way the person I’m speaking to might know who won, etc. The fact that the question says a lot about me does not mean there is no answer to the question of who won the game.

              • Rob Baker Jun 23, 2013 @ 6:49

                Building a bridge over a river is hardly comparable to serving in warfare. Now if these were soldiers in an engineer corps, settle up a pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock, what then did they die for? The purpose, intent and policy of the state is always important, but dismissing the personal reasons for why the soldiers signed up, is lazy. Lumping them into state policy tells us more about the state, and less about why, as individuals, they fought and died.

              • Rob Baker Jun 23, 2013 @ 7:11

                1.) Noble work. But it doesn’t dismiss subjectivity of the question. Worth it to who remains? It is a matter of perspective.

                2.) I did not see that post. But you have a point, as long as the documents support your answer.

                3.) It’s not an irrelevant point. By blurring the line between state and soldiers you lose understanding. They deserve to be separated out, especially true in situations of conscription. The draftee did not die in Vietnam to stop Communism, he died because his government sent them there for their own reasons.

                4.) I would wager that numerous diary entries would detract from your statement. In fact, books have been written on the subject (The Life of Johnny Reb & The Life of Billy Yank) just to name some off the top of my head. The essence of history is people…History deals in large measure with human beings, and I know of no better way of understanding people of past times than through the study of their personal papers and personal papers of their intimate associates. Bell Irvin Wiley Reader. Granted, I am not saying you are completely wrong, in general and by connection, Reb soldiers died for the state’s policy of preserving slavery, yet to lump them into that policy loses understanding.

                5.) Noble. Did they all fight/die to preserve the Union/end slavery?

                6.) They understood the state’s policy, but why did they fight?

                7.) “Who won the Mets game?” and “Was it worth it?” are two different types of questions. Yes the former provides information about the person posing the question, but it has a definitive answer. Asking, “Was it worth it?” can only be definitively answered by those that fought in the war or lived through it, and then you are answering was it worth it to them and receiving only their definitive answer with makes the answer one of opinion. Any answer we provide, 150 years removed, is merely a opinionated exercise in philosophy. Those that might claim today that the Civil War has a direct impact on their lives deeming themselves to answer “definitely,” is also only answering whether or not it was worth it to them. One question provides us with a definitive answer, the other provides us with that person’s opinion.

      • Forester Jul 3, 2013 @ 4:52

        In a very abstract sense, the Confederates DID die to end slavery — albeit unwittingly. Had the Union won early on, slavery would have been left alone where it already existed. But the Rebs doggedly refused to compromise at all, accepting nothing less than total unfettered slavery rights. In the end, their bulldog tenacity drove the North to ban slavery outright.

        From a cosmic perspective, slavery may not have been ended if the South hadn’t tried so damned hard to keep it. So I hold to my statement, that all 700,000 died in the process of ending slavery.

        In a purely literal sense, Pat is right. The CSA was fighting to preserve slavery. My statements are only to be taken in a broad and retrospective sense. I never meant to imply that Confederate forces marched off with the intention of fighting slavery, that’s absurd.

        Pat, I respect your position as a Civil Rights advocate. I think we all bring something of our own beliefs and perspectives into these discussions. Personally, I’m more on the feminist/pacifist slant, and I just have a hard time viewing ANY war as “good.” I also understand what Rob is trying to say — that the individual Confederates weren’t necessarily villains and had their own reasons for fighting. In the end, it’s apples and oranges and both points are basically true.

        I agree that slavery is better off ended. But we have to weigh these gains against the losses, as well as question what was really gained. Civil Rights werent gained for another century. The Civil War instituted a draft system that continued until Vietnam. These things must be considered too.

    • M.D. Blough Jun 22, 2013 @ 7:08

      Chuck-It’s an interesting speculation but, to me, it’s like the one about whether Lee could have won the Battle of Gettysburg if the ANV had AK-47s. I see the question is whether the Civil War, with its death and devastation, could have been avoided with the tools, including intellectual tools, that were available at the time. We know compensated emancipation would not have done it because, prior to the war, slave states refused to discuss anything that even inferred emancipation/manumission and, during the war, the loyal slave states rejected compensated emancipation.

      • Chuck Marcus Jun 22, 2013 @ 10:33

        M.D., AK-47s would have been a fantasy in 1861 but compensated emancipation was a more common way to end 19th century Western Hemisphere slavery in 1861 than was war. Regardless of whether or not the slaveocracy would have accepted an over the top offer, the fact is that there were powerful economic interests in the North that profited from slavery and there was no political will to make a generous offer. Furthermore, as the CW is cast increasingly in moral terms (hence there very question, “was it a good war”), we forget that in the beginning of the war that Union policy was to return slaves who crossed lines to their masters, that the major Union policy toward what to do with freed slaves was deportation (“colonization”) and that it was primarily NGOs, not the Federal government, such as the American Missionary Association, with very little public support, who began efforts to educate the freed slaves.

        When you consider that this nation was founded as a slave nation, that more slaves were imported in the first 20 American years than in any 20 year colonial period, that slavery was protected in the constitution, that Washington D.C. , the city that symbolizes the nation, sits where it sits because of a deal made by Northern financial interests (Hamilton was involved) that cemented slavery’s existence as national policy, that the U.S.A. didn’t enforce the trans Atlantic ban on the high seas until from 1808 until 1861, then it is no wonder that a deal wasn’t cut based on compensated emancipation. The lack of a negotiated deal is an indictment of the entire nation, not one section or another.

  • Ken Noe Jun 21, 2013 @ 5:00

    Long before Tom Brokaw discovered “the greatest generation,” my uncle suffered with PTSD for over thirty years. So while I do believe that World War II was a “good war” that defeated the evil of fascism, I’ve never been able to contemplate it fully without thinking of what it did to him, or the brothers who went down on the same ship leaving people I knew in my hometown, or my grandparents’ bitter memories of draft evaders and black marketeers. When Brokaw glances by those things, he distorts the totality of what the war really was like, and worse unintentionally puts every generation since on trial

    In my mind, that’s all the “new revisionism” is about. I’ve been recommending the Sternhell essay Beau mentions as the stronger of the two because she simply delineates that better than Horwitz. I especially appreciate her clarity that the “new revisionism” isn’t really about ends at all–a war that ends slavery for millions is still worth it to nearly all historians apparently not named Goldfield–but instead argues that scholars have too often hurried over the horror, ugliness, pettiness and “weirdness” of many of the means to get to those ends, and the scars those particular means left on real people and institutions.

    Frankly I’m sorry that this is turning into a ‘was it a good war” debate because with obvious exceptions I don’t think that’s been the research question at all. Jim Downs, to point to one example, isn’t saying that emancipation wasn’t worth it, he’s waving and pointing to what happened in the refugee camps, and asking why so many newly freed people died. That’s an important difference.

    • M.D. Blough Jun 21, 2013 @ 9:58

      Ken-I fully agree. I see no conflict in saying what was achieved was worth the price and being honest in determining what that price was. In fact, I think anything less is an act of disrespect to those who paid that price in suffering and, in many cases, death. I think in terms of both the Civil War and World War II we still have things to achieve to honor the price that was paid, not just in dollars and cents but in human suffering.

      I LOATHE the term, the “Greatest Generation”. How is that determined? How many of the soldiers of WW II were draftees, for instance, as opposed to the all volunteer armies of the American Revolution. Did they suffer more than Washington’s men at Valley Forge? Did the POWs in the various stalags suffer more than the POWs at Andersonville? BTW, I don’t think there’s an accurate answer to those questions. To me, it should never be a contest. All should be respected and honored for their service and for their suffering without comparing them.

  • Nathan Towne Jun 21, 2013 @ 4:10

    I am going to come at this from a somewhat different angle than Coates does.

    During the slavery debates in Virginia in December 1831-January of 1832, representative William Ballard Preston of Montgomery Country made a speech known to history as “The Curse of Slavery.” In his speech he referred to the Virginia people as having been cursed by the institution and having little real power or ability to deal with it. On the one hand Virginians were at the mercy of its protections. Only the institution protected the people from degradation and ruin. Yet on the other hand, the inherent necessity of racial protection shielded the institution from interference. The irony, he said, was that as enslaved populations rose, further protections for the institution must be initiated to protect the citizenry. Yet, it is the institution itself, that has laid the foundation for the rapid increase in the black population.

    Furthermore, this self-perpetuating curse, he declared, would continuously an ever-growing fuel anti-slavery sentiment. Unless the pressures of slavery could somehow be alleviated, whether internally or externally, he prophesied tragedy for the Virginia people. Thirty years later, Ballard Preston, a unionist, put forth the ordinance of secession that carried his state out of the United States.

    In essence, Preston confronted the central dilemma that would face the nation over the next thirty years. Could a solution be found? In that, as a nation, we collectively failed. For that too we must all bear responsibility.

    I think most people would concur that the war is the greatest tragedy in American History. Yet, in the end, it preserved a Republican form of government for posterity and permanently freed the nation from that “curse of slavery.” For that, I am forever grateful.

  • Beau Jun 21, 2013 @ 0:52

    This is extremely similar to a piece by Yael Sternhell in the latest issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era on the “new revisionism.”

  • M.D. Blough Jun 20, 2013 @ 19:42

    I’ve also found it disingenuous at best to see the question as being a choice between peace and war. Even if the US government had “let the erring sisters depart in peace.” in 1860-1861, what makes anyone believe that peace would have been the result, even in the short term?

    In the first place, once the principle had been established that a state or group of states could, unilaterally, leave, then what happened the next time a state or states felt disgruntled? The secessionists talked a good game but any attempts by Unionists to resist secession was met with military force.

    There were states in which whether the state would join the rebellion or not was bitterly contested. Would there not have been pressure on the USA or CSA to come to the aid of their brethren?;

    If there was one thing that the most radical on each side of the schism over slavery agreed upon was that slavery MUST expand from its current territory to survive?:

    How would the territories be divided, if at all, and what would happen to supporters of the
    other side?

    What would be the response of the United States, post-separation, and Great Britain, in
    particular, to filibustering expeditions into Mexico, Central America, Cuba, and other
    Caribbean islands in order to find additional land suitable for slavery based agriculture?
    Would France support or even give Mexican territory to the CSA in exchange for the CSA
    going along with French actions in Mexico? How would those interactions affect the
    already turbulent situation in Europe?

    Among the most passionately proclaimed causes set forth in the various Declarations of causes for joining the rebellion was the resentment around non-enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution. However, a fully independent CSA would have none of the rights and therefore none of the remedies accorded to states under the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution. If slaves fled to free states when the Fugitive Slave Clause was relevant, what would happen when it didn’t? If slave owners or state/local militia crossed the border into the US in pursuit of slaves, could that result in hostilities if the CSA either sanctioned it or even passively condoned it? What if a similar action occurred in the opposite direction by forces trying to retrieve a runaway slave or even a truly free black?

    The what ifs could go on a lot longer but I think I’ve made my point. So long as slavery remained in the equation, there was never a clean choice between peace and war in 1860.

    • Jimmy Dick Jun 21, 2013 @ 5:40

      There would have been more wars had the South left peacefully. It would have been far worse and possibly the end of the ideas brought forth in the Revolution. Slavery could still be in existence as well. See my post above on this.

  • Christine M. Smith Jun 20, 2013 @ 18:51

    I think the phrase “good war” is an oxymoron. There are perhaps wars which need to be, or have to be, fought. (I personally am glad I’m not goosestepping down the Ginza.) However, every war is a failure on some level to right the problems which are causing the dissent which leads to the conflict. It’s easier to fight about something than it is to take a less aggressive approach. I believe the Civil War changed America profoundly in many ways, some that perhaps we aren’t even aware of yet. I like Tony Horwitz’s idea that looking at four years of warfare, and then expanding the scope on both ends to pre-war and Reconstruction gives us differing visions of the war, and should cause us to think about war in general. What comes before and after, the unintended consequences perhaps, are just as important in some ways as the war. Everything we read about the Civil War should make us think and/or rethink what we think we know about it. Far too many people take the non-thinking way out. It’s just easier that way. Thinking is hard work, especially thinking about something about which we already have our ideas set.

  • Al Mackey Jun 20, 2013 @ 18:48

    Was it worth it? The outcome of the war was the end of slavery. Was that worth over 600,000 lives? How many years would it have gone on without the war? How many more millions enslaved would there have been? Something we’ll never know. I don’t know if it was a “good war,” but it sure had a good outcome.

  • Brendan Bossard Jun 20, 2013 @ 15:35

    I am with Mr. Coates. I agree with him and Pres. Lincoln that the Civil War was a judgement of God in which this nation paid back-dues for the evil that it had allowed within its borders.

    More valuable than questioning the goodness of the Civil War is asking what lessons we can learn from it. It is hard to summarize some briefly without sounding trite here, so I will not attempt it. But I personally have spent a lot of time thinking about this matter.

    • Forester Jun 21, 2013 @ 11:04

      I’m a Christian, but I cannot accept a God who punishes whole groups of innocents for a few peoples’ sins. To call the Civil War a “judgement” is as ridiculous and inflammatory as Jerry Falwell blaming 9/11 on gays and feminists. Most of the dead, North and South, were non-slave owning. And the “right” side suffered the most deaths … strange for God to punish slavery by killing Northern boys who never owned any.

      I think we can have a better debate by leaving religious rhetoric out of it.

      • Brendan Bossard Jun 23, 2013 @ 17:36

        Forester, I was just concurring with comments made by Mr. Coates and Pres. Lincoln himself. They injected the religious rhetoric, not me. I would be interested in hearing your response to Pres. Lincoln.

        As to the innocence of individuals: I agree that many of those who suffered were innocent of the evil of slavery. But slavery was not an individual evil; it was a national evil. As you know, when nations allow evil to exist within their borders, innocents suffer. I recall listening to a good man who happened to live in a town in Germany that was firebombed during World War II. He said of the death camps, “We did not know!” Yet he and many other innocents suffered as a consequence of Hitler’s evil regime. That is just a fact of life, whether we want it to be so or not. And our nation did not even have ignorance as an excuse.

        Besides, there was a very strong religious component to the Civil War. Maybe that is one of the reasons that we are having this discussion. I am far from an expert in this particular matter, so I defer to more knowledgeable people, but I believe that the vicious nature of the Civil War was partially a product of religious fervor fed by the notion that the enemy was a heretic.

  • Chuck Marcus Jun 20, 2013 @ 14:44

    I meant Lincoln’s 02/1865 offer of compensated emancipation, not 02/1861. That was a typo. I think Lincoln was winging it because his team members were caught off guard and disagreed with him when he made the offer. Nonetheless, although the 3 CSA negotiators (one, Campbell was an ex US Supreme Courst Justice) were intrigued by Lincoln’s offer, Jeff Davis mischaracterized (he lied) the offer to his congress and the CSA squandered another opportunity for a better result. I also think Spielberg squandered a great opportunity by not digging deeper and more accurately into the Hampton Roads peace conference which on its own would have made a great movie.

  • Chuck Marcus Jun 20, 2013 @ 14:35

    Was the CW a good war? – No.
    Was it worth the price? Would you trade 600k+ lives to free 4 million slaves? A utilitarian such as John Stuart Mill (who was around in 1860 and had opinions about the war) might say “yes”; I’m not so sure about other ethical theorists such as Kant or Rawls – they would probably say “no”. If the alternative was the permanent death of democratic government then most people would say “yes”. The price question begs the question of whether there was a better alternative and there were better alternatives. The most obvious was compensated emancipation which worked elsewhere in the western hemisphere and in Washington D.C. However, even pro-slavery border states that remained in the Union turned that down and the CSA turned it down when Lincoln offered it at Hampton Roads in 02/1865, less than two months before capitulation, a fact conveniently left out of Spielberg’s Lincoln movie.

    The macroeconomic shock of losing the largest assert class in the nation, much less the south, crippled the southern economy which probably exacerbated the continuing economic suffering and exploitation of the newly freed slaves. In Keynesian hindsight, the south needed a massive economic stimulus in conjunction with emancipation and compensated emancipation would have provided some of that as well as avoid a bloody war. Of course, if the south turned down compensated emancipation in 02/1865 they certainly would have turned it down in 1860/61 (although Lincoln’s 02/1861 offer was low). However, if you read Judah Benjamin’s 1860 New Year’s Eve senate speech he put a number on the cumulative value of America’s slaves of “four thousand million dollars” and assumed that the number was unaffordable. Had Keynes been writing in 1860 perhaps that type of deficit spending would have been seen as a credible alternative to war and not as crazy high.

    • M.D. Blough Jun 20, 2013 @ 18:08

      Chuck-I think you phrase the question and to whom it is directed incorrectly. The war was not started by Northerners or even abolitionists to free slaves. It was started by secessionists whose goal was to PROTECT slavery from a perceived threat. All that happened in November 1860 was the election of Abraham Lincoln. The states that rebelled could have remained, worked in Congress to thwart any Republican efforts to which they were opposed. They chose the path of rebellion and they initiated violent confrontations. They thought they could prevail and prevail overwhelmingly and instead they brought the house down on their heads.

      Leaders of slave states appeared to have had the ingrained belief that they had a constitutionally protected right not to be criticized, even though the process of ending slavery had begun, peacefully, in the north BEFORE the Constitutional Convention ever met. I don’t think you’d have found much support in free states for a war to free the slaves in 1860. As the war proceeded

      The problem with your economic analysis is that the “asset” of which you speak were human lives who had opinions about it. When a movement in the South to force free blacks into slaver actually was passed into law in Arkansas right before the war, by the effective date, the only free blacks, who led a miserable life, at best, left in the state when the law (which “generously” gave the blacks the right to chose a master) went into effect on January 1, 1860, were a small number who were too old and/or sick to flee. Others left family and friends and all other ties and fled. In the 1850 census, Arkansas had 608 free blacks. In 1860, it had 144.

      • Chuck Marcus Jun 21, 2013 @ 5:09

        M.D., I agree with you. The CSA unilaterally seceded in order to protect slavery. I will go even further and say that CSA leadership sought to expand slavery. No doubt, not enough credit has been given to slaves who resisted slavery by several different means and forced Lincoln’s hand by fleeing to the North which resulted in Butler’s contraband policy which led to the EP. Credit should also be given to slaves who, seeking freedom, fled the Americans led by George Washington during the Revolutionary War and ran into the arms of the Brits who freed them. America was certainly founded as a slave nation but I digress.

        Unfortunately, as reprehensible as it was, the largest asset class in the nation (not just the South) were human beings and, as you imply, the status quo was generally accepted throughout the nation and, had the CSA states not seceded, slavery might have lasted into the 1900s. To answer the question, was the CW worth it, you must ask what else could have been done. The South could have not seceded. Lincoln could have let them walk when they seceded. The Union could have offered “four thousand million dollars” for America’s slaves in 1860 which, if accepted, would have socialized slavery’s cost in dollars instead of blood.

        • M.D. Blough Jun 21, 2013 @ 10:16


          The only way Lincoln could persuade Congress to fund compensated emancipation was by pointing out to them the daily cost of the war and, compared to that, compensation was a bargain. Without a war, I can’t see the Congress coming up with the bills that would have produced the requisite money and how would they be able to do it. Yes, there was a income tax during the Civil War,but that was pursuant to the War Powers doctrine. It took a constitutional amendment to have an income tax. Raise duties, etc. or an excise tax? Both come with sets of problems. That’s not even getting into whether the votes could be obtained.

          Unless Dred Scott could be overturned, there was no basis for additional compromises on the territories.

          The slave states would not discuss slavery in any way except on how to protect and expand it. As the Civil War approached, Virginia had a case coming before the SCOTUS that would, if it won, overturned free state laws granting freedom to slaves who came within their boundaries. It would have come before the Dred Scott Supreme Court. Virginia joining the rebellion rendered the case moot.

          • Chuck Marcus Jun 21, 2013 @ 14:51

            M.D., part of my point was that macroeconomic theory barely existed in 1860 and that no one could envision massive deficit spending and paying off the debt over one or two generations. The Federal Reserve was 53 years away and Bretton Woods was 85+ years away. Even such, some of the techniques the Union used to finance the CW, most notably the printing of fiat currency (greenbacks) and , ironically, tariffs, could have been used to fund compensated emancipation. My hypothetical question is what if slaveholders had been made an offer that even they couldn’t refuse?

            Large scale compensation is the only end game I can see as having been possible in lieu of war. Socializing the cost across the nation over a period of 40 years would have been far better than the CW or the method use by France vis a vis Haiti. Haiti gained independence in 1804. About 20 years later, as part of a deal to gain French recognition (negotiated at gun point courtesy of the French navy) France demanded $20+ billion from Haiti to, in essence, buy themselves back. After 120+ years of principal and interest payments, Haiti made the final payment in 1947. Liberté, égalité, fraternité…?

  • Peter Jun 20, 2013 @ 14:19

    I think it is also worth raising the point that the ways in which the Civil War answered questions regarding the meaning of the American nation and citizenship meant annihilation (or near-annihilation) for many Native American groups in the west. Elliott West and Heather Cox Richardson, to name two historians, do a good job of showing the ramifications of how Northerners thought about the South and the formerly enslaved African-American population upon Indian policy. We might debate the inevitability of American conquest of the west, but the fact remains that ways of thinking and the concomitant actions that led to the Civil War and emancipation also led directly to the obliteration of Indian nations.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2013 @ 15:15

      Excellent points, Peter.

  • Bob Huddleston Jun 20, 2013 @ 13:42

    John Viscount Morley was a British politician and pacifist who resigned from the Cabinet in late 1914 because England had gone to war with Germany.

    In 1917, he published his _Recollections_ (New York: The Macmillan Company):

    “Humanity fought one of its most glorious battles across the Atlantic. An end had been brought to the only war in modern times as to which we can be sure, first, that no skill or patience of diplomacy could have averted it, and second, that preservation of the American Union and abolition of negro slavery were two triumphs of good by which even the inferno of war was justified.” (p.20)

  • Bob Pollock Jun 20, 2013 @ 13:11

    Hi Kevin,

    Interesting timing here. See my post of June 18:


    I think Coates makes excellent points. Without dismissing in any way the profound importance of the abolition of slavery, I do think we have lost sight of the importance of the Union. These articles often mention the saving of the Union almost as a side note, as if only the abolition of slavery made the war “worth it.” When we ask if the war was “worth it” we have to ask not only was the freeing of 4 million people from slavery “worth it,” but was saving popular government “worth it.”? Was saving The United States of America “worth it”? How many people would be enslaved today if the United States had ceased to exist in 1861?

    We also have to remember that we are looking back in hindsight. No one knew in 1861 how events would unfold. At what point should someone have said, “OK, now it’s not ‘worth it?'” After the first battle? The first year? The third year? Are 10,000 lives worth less than 600,000?

  • Pat Young Jun 20, 2013 @ 12:28

    I have worked with refugees from many countries which have suffered through civil wars. In many cases those wars have not only led to mass slaughter, they have also crushed civil society. I am not sure that there is such a thing as a good war, and war always represents a failure. Civil war turns a country into a charnel house and leaves at least two generations traumatized by the experience of former countrymen slaughtering one another. Yet many of the refugees I’ve spoken to from Latin America directly credit the guerrillas of their countries with bringing post-imperial independence and democracy to the region over the last two decades.

    Whether the war was worth it depends on who you are. For the Southern white secessionist, the very figure who chose not a path of constitutional challenge nor diplomacy but war, the war was definitely not worth it. Everything the Southern white fought for was compromised. Slavery was ended, the robust independence of the Southern state governments was first crushed and then only gradually allowed to reassert itself in more limited way. The human and material costs were incredible.

    For the black Southerner, the war created the conditions for equality, even if equality was not achieved for 150 years. Tony H’s assertion that Northern and Southern racism circumscribed black freedom does not argue that the war should not have taken place. What African American wishes that emancipation had come later?

    For Northern whites, the choice was not whether to go to war or not. That choice had essentially been made by the firing on Sumter. The choice was whether to surrender in the opening weeks of the war to what many northerners saw as rump Southern governments or to fight. Giving in would have allowed the election of 1860 to be overturned by violence, undermining respect for democracy in the US and worldwide. It would have also left the United States so weak as to be a target of outside powers that might want to annex its territory with the help of the Confederacy.

    The destruction of the principle of the ‘indissoluble union” would have also created a possibility of further secession movements in the west, with the possibility that soon three countries would inhabit what was once the United States.

    • Jimmy Dick Jun 20, 2013 @ 13:39

      I don’t think people really consider what would have happened had the US decided not to go to war over the actions of the Confederacy. There is no way to know how many nations would occupy what is now the Lower 48 states, but I would venture a guess that it would be more than two and maybe up to 20. How many wars would have been fought between these nations over whatever reason? Please do not suggest that there would not have been additional wars. That would have been a highly improbably occurrence. The more nations, the more likely there would have been conflicts. Just look at Europe’s wars from 1700 to 1945 to see what happens when multiple nations occupy the same large region of land.

      Also, just because a war might not have occurred in 1861 did not mean that one would not break out later between North and South had they became two separate countries. Would states in the border regions wanted to have moved around? We haven’t even begun to factor in slavery’s expansion to the West and how that would have had a massive effect on the Balkanization of the continent.

  • Will Hickox Jun 20, 2013 @ 12:23

    “But for some of us, war did not begin [in] 1860, but in 1660.”


    • msb Jun 20, 2013 @ 23:24

      Yes, those of us Americans who were brought here against their will and treated like things but made the best lives they could for themselves and their families nevertheless.

      (to think it’s this that’s brought me out from among the lurkers!)

      • Boyd Harris Jun 21, 2013 @ 11:10

        Despite our best intentions, the internet eventually gets us all. Right on, msb, and glad to have you in the conversation.

  • Rob Baker Jun 20, 2013 @ 12:04

    Interesting and emotional. Was it worth the price? I like to think not. 600,000+ American lives lost in order to end an institution which many countries ended without such bloodshed, is a high price for a generation to bare. Could slavery have ended, in America, without the war; to me that is the question. I disagree with Coates however on two counts. 1.) Often, historians criticize “Southern Heritage” advocates for using “we” and “us” when referencing the past. I think Coates should remember the same. He did not endure the violence of 19th century slavery. 2.) Ending the institution in a peaceful manner is not wrong, it is ideal. Does blood have to end decades of blood? Didn’t enough people die for and under slavery? Just kicking around some ideas. It is thought provoking for sure.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2013 @ 12:16

      Some interesting points here Rob. When we throw up a number like 600,000 it’s hard to imagine anything being worth such a price. What if we rephrase the question. Can we ask what was gained (broadly understood) as a result of the war, both in the short and long term? I hadn’t thought about Coates’s language. I get the sense, however that he is thinking in causal terms. The end of slavery had a direct impact on his ancestors which has direct bearing on his own.

      Finally, we talk about slavery ending peacefully elsewhere, but many of those places experienced violent slave uprisings before the practice was discontinued. And as Coates reminds us slavery itself is a form of violence.

      • Pat Young Jun 20, 2013 @ 13:20

        Many of the parts of Latin America that ended slavery did so either during or immediately after their anti-imperialist revolutions in the early 19th Century. Anti-slavery was part of the revolutionary platform (or in some cases part of the effort by the status quo forces to mobilize slaves for the ancient regime). The US did not abolish slavery until 6 months after Lee’s surrender. Does this mean that slavery ended peacefully in the US?

        In the British Caribbean, slavery was ended by the central power rather than the slave owners on the periphery of empire.

        • London John Jun 23, 2013 @ 2:31

          I think you’re quite right that the abolition of slavery in colonial empires did not provide any sort of blueprint for abolition where slavery was part of society in the metropolis. This also applies to Kevin’s point above about slave uprisings (eg the Baptist War in Jamaica 2 years before abolition). Where slavery was part of society slave revolts had to be put down at any cost. Where slavery was strictly business, and kept offshore, suppressing slave revolts was an expense that could become insupportable.
          But I think “the periphery of empire” could be a bit misleading. Altho’ the plantations were in the Caribbean, the profits returned to Britain. It’s hard to believe now that during the War of American Independence both Britain and France considered the Sugar Islands to be more important than all the North American colonies. 50 years later the successful investment of those profits had reduced the relative importance of sugar, while increasing the importance of slave-grown cotton, which was not grown in the British Empire until the ACW.

          • Pat Young Jun 23, 2013 @ 4:34

            I agree with you London John on most of your points. I was using Center and Periphery (aka core and periphery or metropol and periphery) in the sociological sense in which it is used in the study of colonialism.

          • M.D. Blough Jun 23, 2013 @ 5:01

            The slave trade was of immense economic value to many in the UK who never saw Africa or a kidnapped African. British shipmakers built slavers. British chandlers outfitted them. British mills produced the cloth with patterns desired in Africa for Africans captured in the interior. All of these industries employed many people, whose wages were critical to the local and national economies, especially cities like Liverpool. Many wealthy Britains invested in slave trading concerns, including Royal African Company, which held the monopoly on Britain’s slave trade from 1672 to 1698, including members of the Royal Family. That is why the fight to end the slave trade not only was long and brutal but a remarkable instance of where a fight based on a moral principle eventually overcame an entrenched economic interest.

            • Chuck Marcus Jun 23, 2013 @ 9:41

              M.D., move your time frame up 100-150 years and change “UK” to “America” and “England” to “New England”. American ship makers built and outfitted slavers. Slave cotton supplied New England textile mills. Northern shoe factories sold shoes destined for the feet of slaves. New York banks financed the whole enterprise from the building of ships, to the purchase of slaves, to cotton purchases and to the sales of manufactured goods meant for slaves. I don’t think I’m engaging in “moral presentism” because contemporary anti-slavery advocates, some from the south such as Angelina Grimke, argued that not only were slave owners at fault but so were northerners who bought slave cotton and who traded with and financed the slaveocracy. I can’t think of a single notable boycott related to America’s slave economy. There were, however, plenty of anti-abolitionist and anti black riots in northern cities before the CW. The newly built hall in Philadelphia where Grimke gave one of her most famous speeches was burned down in a riot the next day. You might also look up the 1842 Lombard Street or Abolition Riot in Philadelphia and how the city arrested the black victims but not the white perpetrators.

      • Dave Stilwell Jun 20, 2013 @ 14:08

        I see the civil war as the real “revolutionary war.” Not only did it finally create an actual nation from a gaggle of states but it also ended that uniquely evil institution that was antithetical to our founding credo and founding documents. It is no wonder that it is our biggest war and unless — God forbid there’s ever a nuclear war — it will always be our biggest.

      • Rob Baker Jun 20, 2013 @ 15:56

        I think that is a better question. Rather than weighing into the counter factual, much can be learned from your question. There are drastic gains, short and long term, the end of slavery in the U.S. being one of them.

        I recognize that it is casual terminology. I’m just OCD about it 😉

        You are right about violence in slavery, which is exemplified in the American institution as well. I did not dismiss that. My retort is basically, does violence end violence? A handshake and ice-cream social, though it may seem wrong to Coates, is much better than over half a million dead in my opinion.

    • Jonathan Dresner Jun 20, 2013 @ 12:44

      Slavery’s defenders started it: you should be asking whether the defense of slavery was worth that many lives when it was destined to end.

      Do we count the perpetrators killed by police in the protection of innocents when we count the number of officers killed in the line of duty? Why do we count deaths on both sides of the Civil War as of equal moral weight in this equation?

      Coates’ description of slavery as a form of warfare against slaves themselves answers this question. Yes, the (declared) war claimed many lives. But slavery claimed lives every year. How many? It doesn’t matter, honestly: it was an atrocity that needed to end.

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