Ten Miles Square


June 26, 2013 8:26 AM Misunderstanding the Civil War

By Jamie Malanowski

Tony Horwitz has written an excellent article in The Atlantic called “150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War.” Horwitz, author of the very pereptive A Confederate in the Attic, makes the point that point that most Americans have a thin but generally positive view of the war, a post-WW II, post-civil rights era assessment that holds that because the war ended slavery, an `all’s well that ends well’ view of the conflict should pertain. “We’ve decided the Civil War is a ‘good war’ because it destroyed slavery,” Horwitz quotes historian Fitzhugh Brundage. “I think it’s an indictment of 19th century Americans that they had to slaughter each other to do that.” Horwitz says that this view was also held “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”’ Horwitz points to a new generation of skeptics, including David Goldfield, author of America Aflame, who says that the war was “America’s greatest failure.’ Goldfield accuses politicians, extremists, and evangelical Christians for polarizing the nation to the point where compromise or reasoned debate became impossible.

civil war battle

Writes Horwitz, “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.”

I have often wondered if the war was worth it. More than 700,000 dead (plus tens of thousands more wounded) versus the prolonged enslavement of 4 million people? It is some kind of cosmic ethical math problem that only God could solve, and God, when he had the chance, picked war. Imagine if the the north had allowed the south the secede. I think the north would have embarked on an effort to acquire Canada, either through war (the United States and Great Britain nearly went to war over Canadian issues in 1862) or through acquisition (it seems there was genuine interest on the part of Britain to sell the place. Add Alaska in 1867, and the United States of North America looks mighty strong. I don’t know about the Confederate states. There would be expeditions to conquer land in Central America, Mexico and Cuba; not clear that they would succeed. French interest in Mexico would create problems in Texas, Louisiana and maybe Florida, and there would be continued problems in west Texas with the Comanches, as S.C. Gwynne showed in his wonderful Empire of the Summer Moon. Booth countries would have turmoil along their mutual border, as malcontents on both sides would have a place to look longingly towards. The south would have more problems: slaves would now have some place to escape to, and there would be no Fugitive Slave Law to require their return.

Would slavery have ended? I like to think it would have, and before the turn of the century. First, slavery was dying out in the upper south. Second, the war interrupted a nascent southern populist movement that might have grown into a force. Third, might there have been a reform movement started by women; whenever I read Mary Chesnut‘s observations, I see a woman with a sharpening sense of the hypocrisy and injustice and cruelty created by slavery, and she doesn’t like it. Finally, I suspect young southerners would have seen the dynamisn in the north, and would have rebelled at the recondite practices of their parents. Progress may have been more possible if the south had not lost a war. Solutions may have been reached more swiftly–and might have been more easily accepted–if pride and disgrace weren’t involved.

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

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Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.
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  • Michael7843853 on July 01, 2013 11:40 AM:

    'What I'd like to think' should be the title of this article. I have to wonder why in the 21st century, people would like to think these things. Is it just a reheated Southern apologetic, denunciation of a less than perfect North, or just another denunciation of idealism providing comfort to those, supposedly reluctantly, ready to aid in the dismantling of the New Deal.

    These fanciful assumptions give rise to so many questions. Here are just a couple. Would the North have passed the liberating amendments without radical pressure and the war?
    When the enlightened South finally freed its slaves because the institution was no longer profitable, would the white population have embraced the former slaves with all the rights and privileges they are still fighting to achieve now?

    The North shouldn't apologize for winning a war the South started.

    Get real.

  • Anonymous on July 01, 2013 3:12 PM:

    Fascinating piece--but this southern economic historian is frankly skeptical that slavery would die easily. First, while slavery was declining in the Upper South, it was booming elsewhere, and still expanding in 1860; indeed, slaveholders in the Upper South were prospering from slave sales to the Cotton and Sugar South (a huge forced population transfer). Second, I think the late Robert Fogel had a point when he maintained that slavery had proven to be a quite flexible means of mobilizing labor (We forget that most propertiless laborers came to the New World as bound workers until the nineteenth century; the "free labor" society we think of as the norm is a very modern development). Third, I also do think that the plantation society was heading toward a crisis, because it was highly specialized in raw-commodity export and tended to stifle alternative economic opportunities; but the end of slavery in 1865 did not prevent this crisis. After all, while slavery ended, the plantation remained, transformed into what by the early twentieth century was being called the "tenant plantation." Moreover, the immediate economic impact of Emancipation was a catastrophic shock that sent southern per capita income down to half the US level, there to stay until World War II. A shift out of agriculture began, but, being an underdeveloped region in a highly developed country, it suffered from the classic "latecomer" problem, relegated to low-value added, highly competitive mature industries.

    Finally (and I don't think people really understand this), slavery wasn't simply an economic institution; it was a means of enforcing white supremacy, and as such was an institution in which even nonslaveholders perceived themselves to have a huge stake. As Gavin Wright has recently argued, Jim Crow played a major role in holding the South back, but once it fell into place as an alternative means of enforcing white domination it endured for most of a century

  • Terrance on July 01, 2013 4:17 PM:

    Posts like this always leave me wondering about another question regarding gradual vs. rapid social change. The argument here seems to be that slavery would have ended "by the turn of the century" through a more gradual process. The Civil War ended it much sooner than that, through a more rapid, though destructive process, that left simmering resentments in its wake.

    However, there's one aspect of gradual social change that poses a moral problem for me, because it means asking the minority (slaves, in this instance) to continue living with injustice, without relief or remedy in the foreseeable future. The status quo continues to exist for as long as it takes either for the majority to decide to change it or for time and circumstance to render it unsustainable.

    Perhaps the avoidance of war and tumult is beneficiary to everyone, but in the case of the civil war it means that some would have remained slaves much longer than they did. The greater benefit goes to the majority who already benefit from the status quo to some degree or another.

    The same argument has been applied to the Civil Rights movement, the court rulings that advanced it, and the outrage they inspired. Segregation, it has been argued, would have ended gradually, without the court's action. Perhaps the result would be far less racial resentment and tension than we have today. But a generation or more of African-Americans would've had to live with segregation and discrimination.

    At what point does the benefit to the majority or society as a whole justify asking, or requiring a minority to continue living with injustice, indefinitely, and without remedy?

  • sherparick on July 01, 2013 11:03 PM:

    It should be remember that what triggered secession was Lincoln's victory in a democratic election on a platform not to end slavery, but merely to halt its territorial expansion, and thereby put it (he hoped) on the path of gradual extinction suggested by Hurwitz, Goldfield, and Malanowski. So it was not just slavery and its continued existence, but the idea of democracy based on universal rights for all humans and the way that idea acts as a solvent on all tyrannies and injustice, no matter how stubborn that was on trial. Also, it is kind of cute how the abolitionists in the North, most who suffered repeated persecutions and assaults, including murder, from 1830 to 1860 are reduced to equivalency with Yanceys and Butlers who served the "Slave Power" and were honored by it.

    Also, I notice that none of these guys are African-Americans, and as Ta-Hesi Coates notes in response, Slavery itself was a war on African-Americans and that their condition, no matter how imperfect and unjust in 1865, was still immeasurably better for them than it had been in 1861.

    Finally, today I call your attention to the massive, stubborn resistance, of the fossil fuel industry, an immense economic interest, to doing anything about human caused global warming. They prefer to see the planet destroyed rather than suffer an loss to their profits. Similarly, the slave holders of 1860-61, would not tolerate an injury to that financial interest held in slaves. Eventually, armies would have been sent North to capture fugitive slaves and to extend the new Empire founded on the Alexander Stephens' new "cornerstone" of "truth," about the superior White race, and not the Declaration of Independence. I know this because today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the great battle of that war, caused by an invasion of a Southern Army that made one of its principle missions the capture of Black citizens living in Pennsylvania to be carried back to the South and sold as slaves to support the Confederate war effort.

  • Max J, Skidmore on July 18, 2013 8:36 AM:

    This is one of the very rare times when the comments, without exception, are lucid, intelligent, and absolutely correct--and they are far better than the article that elicited them.

  • SocraticGadfly on July 23, 2013 10:06 AM:

    Agreed with everybody above. Not only would slavery not have died out, but with renewed, aggressive filibustering in Central America, possibly a provoked war with Spain to seize Cuba and other things, it might even have strengthened.