Wondering about the American Civil War

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2018

I grew up in western Oregon. Until I was 17, the farthest east I had ever been was Wallowa Lake in the northeastern corner of the state. Then, the summer after my junior year in high school, my family took a road trip out to Virginia to meet my new niece. My dad, who was a history teacher with deep interest in the Civil War, was thrilled to get to visit battlefields, museums, and other key Civil War sites. It was pretty interesting, but we had to leave to return home way too soon and only scratched the surface.

Ever since Kathleen, Johan, and I moved to Harrisonburg, VA, in 1996, I have felt guilty that I have not given much thought to the Civil War. My dad (who died in 1984) would be furious if he knew how I had wasted my time here by not paying more attention to Civil War places and materials. My apathy might finally be ending.

Did slavery actually end?

In the past few years I have learned about the impressive work of Bryan Stevenson. In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), Stevenson details his work as an attorney who has devoted his energy to saving the lives of people treated unjustly by our criminal justice system. He established the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, as the headquarters for his work.

Living in Montgomery has exposed Stevenson to the long and deep history of American violence toward people of color. He led an effort to establish a museum that would recognize the terrible toll of lynching in our country. This museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and its accompanying Legacy Museum opened their doors in late April this year. With this opening, Stevenson has been asked to talk in various settings about the legacy of such terroristic violence. He is extraordinarily clear and straightforward in the story he tells. A few weeks ago, I listened to an extended interview he gave the Washington Post.

Stevenson made a comment that got my attention. He stated that slavery never actually ended in the United States. It only evolved. This statement came simply as an observation, not as a strong thesis that he laid out a detailed rationale for. But his discussion of the tradition of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings by the thousand in the generations following the legal ending of slavery following the Civil War and his allusions to the ongoing plague of mass incarceration that has especially targeted black Americans offer anecdotal support for his statement about slavery’s evolution (and correlate with Michelle Alexander’s arguments about the dynamics of mass incarceration, especially in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness).

So, then I wondered. Let’s assume that Stevenson’s comment about slavery has at least some truth to it. I recognize that such a broad and perhaps shocking statement—slavery didn’t end, it only evolved—requires quite a bit of scrutiny before being taken as a statement of fact. I assume Stevenson means “slavery” in a more metaphorical sense and not in a strictly legal sense. I think it is undeniable that the ending of slavery in the legal sense did not deliver very much that was positive in terms of the betterment of the lives of its victims. And it is becoming more apparent all the time that the vicious legacy of white supremacy in the United States remains all too present.

This, then, is my question: If it is true that in ways that genuinely matter, slavery did not end but only evolved, what does that say about the Civil War? And, more broadly, I will add another question that directly relates to my interests as a peace theologian (see my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II), what does the failure actually to end slavery say about the use of warfare as a tool for social justice? I should note that Stevenson does not speak directly to these questions—they are mine, not his.

What about the Civil War?

I want to investigate these questions. What I have pretty much always heard about the Civil War is that it was a terrible tragedy, the source of massive death and destruction, but in the end a necessary evil that delivered the much needed and otherwise unattainable ending of slavery in the United States. The promise of the ending of slavery and integrating its victims fully in American society has been slow in being fulfilled, but this first step still was essential. So we should be grateful for the terrible costs that were paid and the undeniable achievement that was gained. Probably the most famous articulation of this way of thinking about the Civil War is Ken Burns’s lengthy documentary, The Civil War.

What, though, if Stevenson’s assessment of the fate of slavery in this country is accurate? Should that change how we look at the Civil War? Was it actually in almost every area that matters in relation to genuine justice for those who were forcibly relocated to North America and so brutally enslaved a failure? If that is the case, then surely we should not be thinking that the Civil War was a necessary, albeit tragic, step toward the justice we all would agree has been so necessary. And, perhaps, as well, we should quit looking to war itself as ever serving as a tool for social justice.

Rethinking the abolitionist movement?

Another question that arises for me, then, is a question about the pre-Civil War movement to end slavery. The standard account of the abolitionist movement usually includes a kind of condescending conclusion in relation to the branch of that movement that opposed the use of violence to end slavery. Doesn’t the Civil War—and its success in finally ending slavery—prove that nonviolence simply doesn’t work in the end to overcome truly profound systemic injustice?

Well, if we follow Stevenson’s comment, we are left with some issues in relation to the standard account. If slavery actually did not end, then the central point about the Civil War’s effectiveness vis-à-vis nonviolence must be rethought. It would appear that the war actually was not effective, and perhaps in the long run made the condition of the enslaved people worse.

What should we make of the abolitionist movement? I have long admired those activists who fervently sought to end slavery. I have especially admired abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison who combined their commitment to ending slavery with a commitment to nonviolence. But if slavery actually didn’t end (in Stevenson’s sense), shouldn’t that cause us to reassess what the abolitionists did and didn’t do? Perhaps most urgently for me, I would like to understand how erstwhile abolitionists responded to the emergence of the Jim Crow regime in the South in the years after the war.

The moral legacy of the Civil War?

If we are going to consider the moral legacy of any war, a good place to start is to consider that immediate cost of that war. If we assume that war is morally problematic—which is what all actual moral reflections do when say the benefits must outweigh the costs, since there are significant costs—then we must consider what that war did cost so we can compare that cost with the benefits.

So, what did the Civil War cost at the time it happened? How many people were directly killed or died as consequence of the war? What about other human damage—serious wounds, the psychological costs, destruction to infrastructure, nature, farm animals, etc? I don’t know the answer to these questions but it seems important to be attentive to the immediate costs as one learns more about the war.

Then there are longer term and more intangible costs. One resource I have read on the Civil War and morality is a fine book by historian Harry Stout—Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. Stout’s book is very helpful, even eye-opening. He does a nice job of critical analysis asking important moral questions. However, he ends the story abruptly with the war’s end in 1865. I think we also need a “moral history” of the consequences of the war. Did it accomplish what was claimed for it to justify the financial expense and the lives of the soldiers?

A related set of questions have to do with what the war actually achieved. Did it succeed in accomplishing the goals leaders of the North claimed to pursue? What it a success on its own terms? These questions do not have obvious answers. They need to be critically investigated. Part of the investigation here will be on actual war aims. Was the Civil War actually fought in order to end slavery and bring justice to those enslaved? I will ask these questions on behalf of the war effort of the North. Obviously, the war was a major failure in terms of the war aims of the South.

The kind of lens I will choose to use in evaluating this story is the lens of the ostensible rationale for the war, the cause of ending slavery. However, I want to look more deeply than simply the legality of the formal ownership of slaves. It does seem clear that slavery in that sense did end. But what about the underlying issue of the respect for the humanity of formerly enslaved people? This is the kind of issue that seems to be in mind for Bryan Stevenson when he says slavery did not end but only evolved.

How did the war impact the dynamics of addressing the context for slavery? What did the seemingly successful ending of the Civil War actually mean for how American society thought about and acted toward former slaves? What about issues such as actual freedom for liberated slaves—economic development, access to education, safety, and similar dynamics. Maybe we could think ahead and apply Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “four freedoms” that helped provide a direction for the ideals behind the prosecution of World War II—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. How available did these freedoms become for former slaves? This seems like quite an important question in considering the moral legacy of the civil war, particularly if we think of it as a necessary and justifiable war required for the ending of slavery. What if slavery ended only in a formal sense and the actual freedom of slaves was not in reality a result of this terrible and horrendously costly war?

The long-term effects of the Civil War

Besides the impact in the decades afterwards of the Civil War on the lives of those the war was supposedly fought on behalf of, I also want to understand better other long-term effects of the war. What was the impact on the general attitude about warfare in the United States going forward? Did the “success” of the Civil War lead to a more optimistic view of the usefulness of war in general? What about the pre-war militaristic sensibility in the South—was that weakened or strengthened afterwards?

What is the connection between the Civil War and the smaller wars in the years to follow that subdued the resistance of Native Americans to the expansion of “civilization” to the West? It does seem notable that such major figures in the Civil War such as Union generals Sheridan and Sherman played huge roles in the “Indian wars.”

Then there is the tremendous expansion of the availability of firearms after the war when millions of soldiers returned to civilian life taking their weapons with them. How did this impact life in the years after the war? How about the impact of the Civil War on the frequency of domestic violence in the years after it ended?

Finally, what were the consequences of the short-lived exercise of trying to impose a new political order on the former Confederacy through the work of the occupying federal troops in the South? What did it mean for black southerners when their protectors were taken away? What have been the effects of “unreconstructed” white supremacists exercising mostly unchecked political power in the South in the years after the termination of Reconstruction only 12 years after the war ended?

The agenda of this project

My intent is not to focus mainly on “what if” considerations. I won’t focus on emphasizing how things might have been different. My interests are more in trying to learn from what seems now to have been a failed effort bring about social justice through massive violence. It’s not so much: How could things in the past have been different? More so, it’s: Can we learn from the mistakes of the past? How can we free ourselves from the pervasive myth of redemptive violence that has led us to valorize the Civil War for achieving something it actually did not achieve but likely made worse?

I also want to look more closely at the second big effort to try to effect social justice for black Americans—the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Clearly the Civil Rights movement took a diametrically different approach toward social change than the Civil War. What is to be learned from the differences? Is it possible successfully to argue on behalf of nonviolence as a much better approach to these issues than warfare?

But, also, what were the limitations of the Civil Rights movement? What is left to be achieved? And how?

Behind all this, I also want to think theologically. Themes such as human dignity, social change strategies, a vision for the “beloved community,” working for hope and energy in face of impervious oppression, and many others all have theological roots. Is it possible to imagine an overcoming of the problems of racism, white supremacy, domination, and the like without a deeper theological analysis than we have had?

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5 thoughts on “Wondering about the American Civil War

  1. Wow… a great set of questions and issues to explore, Ted! Both your summaries of others’ work and your own thoughts are a good contribution to re-examining the war and its effects, at least for me. (I also was raised exclusively West Coast and never knew much as a kid or teenager beyond basic history texts and lectures about the war and the surrounding issues. And I’ve learned only a bit here and there since.)

    In terms of broad principle and creation of alternatives to war, I do think the Civil War is a good “test case” for whether and how war can be avoided, including when at least a good portion of the issues involve severe social justice or humanitarian concerns. I have a strong hunch that there ARE virtually always ways (especially in civil wars) to avoid war and yet to largely if not fully resolve the issues that are provoking conflict and potential war. It’s mainly that in the process we are butting into incredibly stubborn human nature and ingrained systems of cultures and economies.

    I hear your intention to avoid “what if’s” and deal with effects and current realities. I do think (without being much into the lit on pacifism, or even “just war” theory), however, that showing how serious, nearly intractable differences CAN be dealt with aside from war, is important. And that may need to involve running alternate scenarios for past situations as part of theory-construction and “selling” alternatives to enough people to end the practice of armed, mass-causality conflict.

    If that were followed, one key q. I’d have right off would be, “What could have been the North’s response to the initial attack and cession of Southern states, coalesced as The Confederate States, short of declaration of war?” What if the cession HAD been allowed? What then could have perhaps exerted sufficient pressure (or persuasion) on the Confederacy to get them to remove slavery? And if the Union were never “reunified” would it necessarily have been a horrible thing? (I honestly don’t know enough to ascertain the answer to that.)

  2. Thanks, Howard! You make several good points. I would like to think being a West Coast person might help me be a bit more objective about the Civil War than someone, say, from here in Virginia or from Pennsylvania. And I don’t know much about the war even after living here for 22 years. I expect to do something about that ignorance now.

    It may well be that as I learn more, while asking the kinds of questions I raise in my post, I will find myself engaging more in the kinds of thought experiments you allude to with your comment about “alternative scenarios.” I appreciate you pushing me on that point.

    I have wondered in the past about the question of if the North had allowed secession what would have happened. It seems to me now like a lose/lose scenario once things had gone that far. One of the issues for me is simply the deep and profound corruption of the South in its ideology about slavery. Losing the Civil War obviously did not remedy that. So, there is no happy outcome that seems to have been possible—the massive violence that did not work to end slavery in any meaningful sense or stepping back and allowing the slavery regime to continue unabated. Once slavery was allowed to sink its teeth so viciously into the soul of the South, it’s hard to see a way out.

    My big thought is that this whole story points to perhaps the greatest unsolved problem in the human project—how to deal with such intractable evil in ways that don’t simply add to the evil. I expect to argue that the Civil War and what follows show how not to do it. To establish that would be huge; that could help free us from the blindness of our current warism and maybe (I’ll really dreaming now!) free our society to imagine heretofore elusive strategies about actually resolving such evils.

    1. Ted, I agree with Howard: great questions. As a practitioner and not an academic, might I suggest you put those very questions first to African Americans, not only from the academy but also from all walks of life? I don’t know what answers you would hear, but the answers and accompanying stores would likely refine your thinking, research, and conclusions.

      1. Thanks, David. You raise an excellent point that I had already thought about a bit and with the impetus of your comment will try harder to work on. I do have an acquaintance that I had already planned to talk with about this stuff.

        I think a lot of people would agree with Bryan Stevenson that slavery never ended but only evolved. But I don’t know of any who would link that idea with questions about the Civil War. Whether there might be some who do make that connection is part of what I need to explore.

    2. Good point about “greatest unsolved problem”. No easy answers, but one obvious implication is that we must get better and more courageous and sacrificing in not letting problems become so deeply ingrained (if and when we have some potential input, as we often do). Right now one critical application of that is following “prophet” Steve Schmidt (long-time former Republican strategist) in concept… and ACT on it: recognize that right now the only sensible, responsible way to vote is Democratic (at least on all besides very local races, perhaps).

      Now, for the bit longer to much longer term, that is NOT the answer at all. Rather, there is hope by following known principles and some existing structures and plans that can create a truly transpartisan situation. Only procedures and structures which do that can allow the current 2-party system to be able to work… by truly deliberative democracy, which can give us “wiser democracy”. It will be well-informed, and nationwide, but locally deliberated and local issues included. The furthest along (impressively so, but little-known so far), organizationally, is Voice of the People (vop.org). I know this all is a bit “afield” but not irrelevant. Rather it’s part of the way we can, really for the first time in at least medieval/modern history, find and apply common sense and/or creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

      Much as I’d like to see progressive theological thinking play an important role (and it may), I do trust “the wisdom of the crowd” regardless of “the crowd’s” formal religion or political theory. And I do think we “theologians” are currently needed to be activists in this kind of development or the drastic polarization currently in place may lead to some dire results that will be very hard to recover from. Anyway, that’s where I’ve begun to put some of my energies lately and probably will be more so.

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