Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2019
As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I am continually impressed with how little questioning of the legitimacy of warfare as the default way to resolve conflicts I have encountered. I have seen even less skepticism about the Civil War as a tool for the good than I found in relation to World War II. I tend to think that so long as people accept those wars, they will continue to accept our present-day warring and preparation for warring.
A representative view of the Civil War
I encountered a representative view of the Civil War that illustrates my concern when I listened to an April 16, 2019, interview with Andrew Delbanco, history professor at Columbia University and author of The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, on a program called “Letters and Politics.”
I was impressed with Delbanco. He is knowledgeable and insightful about the Civil War era. He has good values and seems to be a reliable analyst. He makes helpful connections with the present. It is because he seems perceptive and humane that his comments about the “validity” of the Civil War seem especially useful (and troubling) for me. If someone with his general sensibility has these views, I think it is safe to imagine most other historians of the US do, too (and probably most people in the wider society). The comments that especially struck me came at the end of the interview as he was drawing some conclusions. Delbanco said:
In retrospect, I think most of us would say the price was worth paying. A million dead for the emancipation of four million human beings whose ancestors had been enslaved and whose descendants would have been enslaved if the war had not taken the course it took. But again I would suggest, how many of us today would willingly send our sons and brothers and friends to their deaths for any moral cause? How many of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum would be willing to contemplate war of that scale and savagery as a method to achieve a better society? I’m not sure I would. So, supporting the Civil War in retrospect is easy. Committing oneself to a war like that in prospect may not be so easy.
Two thoughts especially struck me. They seem to reflect the views of even the most perceptive and humane people who think about the Civil War. The first is that it was worth having one million people be killed in order to end slavery, and the second is that a war of even tremendous “scale and savagery” can work “as a method to achieve a better society.”
A “price worth paying”?
(1) How can we say that a million dead was a “price worth paying”? Can we even imagine such a cost? What was lost with all those lives? I am often struck with how sanguine people are about the costs of warfare. My sense is that we have no idea what kind of “price” a million war dead might be. I will reflect below on what it might have been that this “price” purchased—that is, what actually was accomplished by the Civil War. But now I want to stop for a moment at the thought of the “price… of a million dead.”
Of course, the “price” was more than simply about those whose lives were ended (as astronomical as that “price” itself was). It’s also the ripples down through time—the descendants of those who died who were never born, the broken hearts and emotional trauma of the loved ones of those who died, the “moral injuries” of those who did the killing and the devastating effects of those injuries, the immense toll of this massive violence on the flora and fauna of the battlefields, the wasted resources poured into conflict, the incredible destruction of the infrastructure of the areas where the fighting occurred, and many other costs.
How can we possibly imagine an amount of “good” that was worth this kind of cost? The fact that we don’t even try to tally the sum of the “price” that was paid does not erase the tremendous sum that was indeed exacted. I find it impossible to think otherwise than that the cliché that “the price was worth paying” is a lazy kind of moral evasion that allows us to avoid the reality that the “price” was in fact almost infinite—that no “good” could possibly be worth that price if we were actually able to approximate its sum. If we actually made an effort to test the validity of whether or not the “price” was worth it, we would recognize that no war (and certainly not the particular war that was fought between the Union and Confederacy) was ever “worth” the price—or ever could be.
Was it obviously “worth it”?
(2) Ironically, it is not as obvious as Delbanco seems to assume that the “benefit” side of a cost/benefit accounting of the Civil War is all that positive. That is, I suspect both that the “cost” (or “price”) of that war is much higher than is assumed (my point #1) and that the “benefit” is much lower.
What actually were the “benefits”? I will grant that the formal ending of slavery in the South was in itself a benefit. Slavery was without qualification an extreme evil. Ending it was necessary and a good outcome. However, we must ask how deep the changes occasioned by the formal end of slavery actually went. An influential book from a half-century ago, The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, by black historian Rayford Logan, famously argued that the time between 1901 and 1915 marked the “lowest point in the quest for civil rights” in American history—in other words, that in important ways things were worse with regard to racial justice in the United States fifty years after the Civil War than they had ever been before.
Perhaps slavery formally ended, but the devastating power of white supremacy and its impact on the descendants of those who had been enslaved to a large degree only got worse. Whatever the benefits of the Civil War might have been, they were pretty puny insofar as they affected the lives of those whose ancestors had been enslaved.
So, when we consider Delbanco’s comment that we should recognize that a war of even the “scale and savagery” of the Civil War worked to “achieve a better society,” we have reasons to be profoundly skeptical about his assumptions and to ask how much of a “better society” actually resulted, especially for those Delbanco has in mind, the formerly enslaved.
To the credit of the former slaves themselves, of a few powerful politicians, and of numerous other people of good will, the decade following the end of the war (called “Reconstruction”) did witness some genuine progress and attempts to empower the formerly enslaved to move into a time of healing. However, the demon of white supremacy remained at least as strong as ever. The efforts to bring justice to the South during Reconstruction met with intense resistance. And, by 1877, the work of “Redemption” by the white supremacists had succeeded to a large degree (that is, the work to “redeem” the South from the efforts of the Reconstruction years to provide for the wellbeing of the formerly enslaved).
Post Reconstruction, the dynamics of Jim Crow, segregation, intense violence including uncounted lynchings, reworking legislation that had opposed discrimination, and crucial rulings by the courts (especially the Supreme Court) negated the potential of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution that had ended slavery and provided for civil rights, most importantly the right to citizenship, the vote, and equal protection under the law.
Even the impact of the acceptance by the South of the formal end of slavery was greatly lessened by a fateful clause in the 13th Amendment. This clause allowed for the continuation of enslavement in cases where it served “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This clause allowed for the practice of the prosecution of thousands of black men in the South for trivial offenses (often called “vagrancy”) who were then assigned to long term work projects for which they were paid little or nothing and that often lasted until death (see Douglass Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II).
A “better society”?
The Civil War did not, thus, have the impact of creating a “better society” in a sustainable way. Whatever improvements there were for the formerly enslaved and their descendents were countered by the re-entrenchment of the white supremacist regime. The century that followed the Civil War certainly saw some advancement in the fortunes of many black Americans—due, to the most part, to their own resilience and creativity in refusing to accept their status as the victims of white supremacist America.
However, I don’t think we may accurately say that there was a white people’s intervention of massive warfare for the sake of freeing the slaves that actually did contribute to “a better society” that was worth “the price” of “savagery” on an enormous scale. I suspect that as long as we imagine that paying the “price” warfare exacts can be anything but an unmitigated disaster, we will be unable to move very far toward truly achieving a better society.