What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?

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.

8 thoughts on “What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?

  1. Interesting and profitable writing on this, Ted.

    I did notice no mention of the Christian concept or principle that our calling and duty is to teach and practice compliance with and faith in the rule ‘do no evil to another'(Rom. 13:8-10). In a sense we are not called to balance the good against the evil and then to do the conduct that we assess has the greatest net good or the least net evil. Specifically we may not do evil that good may result (Rom. 3:8). Evil is not an acceptable means to any end. This is genuine love: abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good. (Rom. 12:9). And so we are called to perfection, in loving all, even enemies (Mat. 5:43-48).

    Our faith is to trust that by doing good and refusing evil, at the microeconomic level, that God will take care of the macroeconomy. We will harvest righteousness (justice) by sowing peace (James 3:18). We are not to be anxious that we do not understand how this happens (Mat. 6:25-33). Even while we sleep and do not know how it works, God makes his kingdom grow (Mark. 4:26-27).

    So, doesn’t our faith rule out assessment of specific wars, then, at two levels:
    1. Our law specifically precludes war, even if the net benefits could be calculated with reliability and were known to be positive, and
    2. Our law specifically commands us to trust God as to the bringing about of big-picture outcomes of peace and righteousness / justice.

    1. Interesting. I’d say that even if your final points #1 and #2 are true (and I think I mostly think they are), they don’t preclude “assessment of specific wars.” It’s similar to how a public argument made by thoroughgoing pacifists about a particular war (say, the US attack on Iraq in the early 2000s) generally focused on pragmatic objections using implicit just war rationales. The issue is to try to resist the war, however works best.

      I don’t see much tension between, on the one hand, affirming that war is always precluded and that God is to be trusted for the big picture, and on the other hand, arguing against particular wars because they will not have net benefits that are positive. This is partly because I don’t know of any real-life (as opposed to hypothetical) war that has had net positive benefits.

      One problem with your conclusion may be that it leaves one with a very narrow, sectarian view of God and pacifism—as if God is not the God of the entire world whose will is peace for everyone. That then can lead to a kind of smugness that I have long perceived among some Mennonites (“we don’t have to worry about the big, bad world out there because by remaining pure we are assuring that God will be on our side”).

      1. Thanks Ted, well answered and agreed to all.

        As an argument or persuasion technique, using an opponent’s method and assumptions is generally a good approach, it helps build common ground and allows them to agree with you on your specific point whilst not having to re-think more fundamental issues of how they think about things.

        However, it also has an element of danger: is somehow suggests it is respectable and reasonable and tolerable to come to a different conclusion than them, just so long as we all accept that, in our example, war is just and necessary on some occasions rather than to be precluded in all circumstances.

        If they hear us as agreeing with their assumptions and methods, but disagreeing with their application in this specific case we could even be in danger of using falsehood to influence, or mislead them about who we really are and what we are about.

        And if we are to balance misleading or falsehood against the brutality and bloodshed of war, it is easy to try to justify a little white lie or a rhetorical sleight of hand as a price worth paying. And many ‘Christians’ argue in specifically these terms to justify more than white lies, even to the point of, for example, taking the life of an unborn human being to save the life of the mother as if this is obviously a justified and Christian thing to permit.

        So I guess this gets back to the original point: if true Christian morality and law and teaching is to absolutise good and evil, in the sense of always requiring the good and never permitting the evil, whatever the justification, we should be faithful to those teachings by refusing to justify any evil, regardless of the motivations or consequences, and always requiring good, and expressing our objections to wars, past and proposed, in ways that are consistent with these teachings.

        Jesus said he was the way, the truth and the life. If we teach no war because it is part of the life, and the way of life, and because it is the way we have been taught, we should do so bearing faithful witness to the truth.

        To address your last comment:

        Bearing faithful witness may involve a strategy of separation from the world, and associating ourselves with those who are committed to the way we have been taught. To provide mutual help and society, and to build and develop parallel institutions is essentially the strategy Christ gave us: build the assembly, the political body of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and to support our widows and needy etc. in preference to those of the world (Gal. 6:10) and to shun those who turn away from the truth and who do not listen to the rulings of the assembly (Mat. 18:15-20). Christ never told us to engage with the worldly powers and system by seeking to manipulate it or moderate it, he said his disciples would bear witness to him by being persecuted by those other powers (incidentally in reference to the Jewish rather than the Roman powers, but can be applied more broadly). We are to seek reconciliation of the world by seeking the conversion and joining up of its people to our Christian institutions.

      2. Sorry my previous comment said I agreed with all you wrote but ended up looking like more disagreement!

        Actually I do agree with you and the approach and example you have given is profitable, if used in an appropriate way.

        Your post was principally about the net costs (negative net benefits) of the US civil war, and I have no quibble with any of it, on its own terms.

        The issue for me is how should such examples be employed. I suggest we should put them in the context of the net benefits of a no war rule. So war A’s negative net benefits is part of a general argument against war. If we want to persuade people to a no war rule position, we may legitimately advance a utilitarian argument as part of that, since we honestly believe that a no war rule is not only morally correct, and faithful to our teacher, but beneficial.

        This also opens up more arguments that are, in my view, a much easier sell. The costs and benefits of the US civil war is something that requires considerable historical knowledge and the comparison of two very complex alternatives, one of which is a counter-factual scenario. Whereas the costs and benefits of war in general are easier to demonstrate: the costs far outweigh the benefits. In general, wars are horrendously costly in treasure and blood, which no one disputes, and the benefits are often recognised as pathetic and sometimes claimed as significant by some and denied by others. I think you could get the vast majority of people to agree that, in general, wars are usually a great net loss to society. On this basis alone a prospective war is a hard sell: notwithstanding the business case made for it, most likely it will generate more costs and less benefits than claimed before hand, and will turn out to have been a net negative, and greatly so also.

        Further than this, we can present some compelling arguments as to why this is the case. Rent-seeking by war-profiting connected insiders means that some people have a huge incentive to lie and mislead and to create false alarm etc. to foment war, notwithstanding its net negative effects. Public choice theory and state corruption and so on are issues that most people are familiar with, at least in theory, and greatly resent in practice. Most people know that the game is rigged, and so it is not hard to have agreement with the proposition that the case made for war at the time it is proposed and promoted is unreliable, biased and that the reality is that most wars are net negative as a result.

        In considering a utilitarian argument against war in general, of course counter-examples will be proffered by those opposed to the no war rule. WW2 and the US Civil war and the US Revolutionary war are probably the most popular examples.

        Whilst these examples could be conceded without undermining the general argument outline above, the counter examples are presented as if they had not only a good net result, but that they were urgent and necessary and justified, meaning that if such urgent, necessary and justified cases arise in the future, they could be considered on an exceptional basis. Of course the argument above is still good: all wars proposed are presented as urgent, necessary and justified.

        Yet, destroying the proposed counter-examples, as you have attempted, does totally destroy the argument: if the poster children wars were unnecessary and net negative, then the no war rule is not only justified as a matter of averages, it becomes a presumed absolute rule. Not only is ‘no war’ better than ‘selective war’ as a rule, ‘no war’ even works out better if we had better social-political selection technology and institutions now or in the future that weren’t available in the past.

        We can return this line of thinking towards more biblical language by considering the problems of rent-seeking etc. in terms of how Christ and the New Testament writers analysed the issues. They argued that ‘the law’ was in bondage to sin, and under the power of sin. The old coercive legal-political system was the corrupt body, the body of death. The coercive and violent power of retribution and vengeance, in the name of justice and necessity, and under colour of law, is unable to deliver righteousness and unable to save man from the problem of everyone being corrupt and violent continually. The law of liberty and mercy opens the way for healing and reconciliation, and allows more gentle institutions to work, building civility, mutually beneficial trades and cooperation, and peace, and rendering the violent, the dangerous and the destructive ostracised and relatively powerless. Our parallel institutions in the body of Christ, in the assembly, with our law of liberty and our mutual support and protection, render justice accessible and work powerfully to write the law of God and the law of justice and peace on every man’s heart.

  2. Let us not forget: The present idea that the Civil War was evidently a good thing is not very old. Around 1900 Ambrose Bierce could write extremely open about the war cruelties. And the general trend was a reconciliation of Unionists and Confederates under the common opinion that the war should at best not have happened.

    The change in public opinion came only in the “Red Decade” when the Leftists hailed the Civil War as a model and precursor of their own Civil War. Then, glorifying Lincoln meant implicitly glorifying Trotsky.

  3. Those who say it was worth it are saying there were only two choices, war or continued slavery. That eliminates the fact that there were other ways to have ended slavery. Closing their eyes to another solution is the failure of the leadership at that time.

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