Monday, September 17, 2012

Was the Civil War a “War of Choice”?

Todd Arrington

"Camp Meeting," A. Rider, ca. 1835.  NY Historical Soc.
David Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, recently penned a column that has appeared in several major newspapers this summer, including the July 22 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  (Link is to, where Goldfield’s article first appeared.) 

In the column, entitled “Give Peace a Chance: Avoid the Carnage of War,” Goldfield bluntly states, “The Civil War was not a just war.  It was a war of choice brought on by the insidious mixture of politics and religion that caused our political process and, ultimately, the nation to disintegrate.”  As the U.S. commemorates the war’s 150th anniversary with battle reenactments, scholarly lectures, new books, and feature films, the question Goldfield poses is a legitimate one: was the Civil War truly necessary? 

Obviously, Goldfield believes it was not.  His objection to the war stems from his belief that by the year 1861, “the Bible had replaced the Constitution as the arbiter of public policy, particularly over the issue of extending slavery in the Western territories.”  The Second Great Awakening had swept across the United States in the early nineteenth century, and the evangelical Protestantism that resulted was a leading cause of the rise of social reform movements, including abolitionism.  At the same time, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant groups emerged as well, eventually resulting in the creation of the so-called “Know Nothing” political party.  Evangelicals and Know Nothings sought to spread democracy across North America, and to do so meant that, in Goldfield’s words, “America must expiate its sins, foremost among them slavery and the Roman Catholic Church—two forms of despotism that undermined democracy and Christianity.”  
Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier and Ives.  UC-Davis.

Professor Goldfield makes some very compelling points about the ties between early political parties and evangelicals, and such observations are still relevant today.   But are these ties the only reasons the nation went to war with itself in April 1861?  To argue that they are greatly oversimplifies a century of conflict over the presence of slavery in America.  It also seems to place the blame for the war directly at the feet of Republicans like Abraham Lincoln simply because they were Republicans.  While Lincoln the politician was deft with his pen and able to incorporate biblical ideas and verses into many of his speeches, Lincoln the man was not an overly devout Christian and was certainly no evangelical.  He is also the president that told the South in his March 4, 1861 inaugural address, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.  The government will not assail you.  You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.”  However, according to Goldfield, “When the Republicans, avowedly evangelical and proudly sectional, took control of the government in March 1861, Southerners were rightly concerned to expect the worst.  And the worst happened.

The worst did happen, and the war began on April 12, 1861.  If one reads Goldfield’s assessment, one might be led to believe that Lincoln ordered the U.S. Army to invade the South as soon as he finished his inaugural speech.  In fact, southerners fired on Fort Sumter, a federal bastion in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor.  Regardless of how “evangelical” or “sectional” the Republicans were, the South fired the first shot of the war that would last four years and claim approximately 750,000 lives.   And for what?  Why did the Confederates in Charleston attack Fort Sumter?  Why did southerners feel compelled to secede in the first place?  In sum, for what did the South fight?  Perhaps understanding this will shed light as to whether or not the war was truly necessary.

Lincoln, November 25, 1860.  By Samuel G. Alschuler.
Despite former Confederates’ postwar assessments that the South fought merely to defend itself from a tyrannical North or for the always vaguely-defined “states’ rights,” the war was fought primarily because the South wanted no part of a nation that questioned the value, morality, or legality of slavery.  When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, southern leaders—despite Lincoln’s constant assurances that he sought only to contain slavery in the South, not abolish it—convinced themselves and their constituents that the so-called “Black Republicans” would soon cross the Potomac and march through the South, freeing slaves and encouraging the twin horrors of black civil rights and miscegenation.  Secession movements began in earnest before Lincoln’s election but picked up steam after it was confirmed that Lincoln would become president in 1861.  Regardless of how passionately abolitionist they may have been, few northerners had ever openly threatened secession in response to outrages such as slaveholders being elected to the presidency or appointed to the Supreme Court.

The South fought to preserve and expand the institution of slavery.  While it is true that the majority of Confederate soldiers and sailors were not slave owners, they did fight for a government and a socioeconomic system built on slavery.   If a war to preserve the world’s only working democracy and free people from bondage is not necessary or justified, then what war is?  “I believe the war will soon take the shape of Slavery and Freedom,” wrote future Union General and President of the United States James A. Garfield just two days after Fort Sumter.  “The world will so understand it, and I believe the final outcome will redound to the good of humanity.”  Garfield also shared his opinion that “I hope we will never stop short of complete subjugation.  Better lose a million men in battle than allow the government to be overthrown.”

As further proof of his opinion that the Civil War was a conflict of choice, Goldfield includes this statement: “And what of the former slaves, on whose behalf this carnage was allegedly undertaken?  The Civil War sealed their freedom, but little else.  It would be more than a century before African-Americans attained the basic rights of that freedom.”  True, but does Goldfield actually believe that the failures of the post-war era—which, of course, no one could know or envision before or during the conflict—negate the war’s necessity in the first place?  Based on this line of reasoning, African Americans would have been better off to remain as slaves than to be free in an admittedly imperfect and unfriendly atmosphere at war’s end.  One wonders how many slaves would have volunteered to stay in bondage had they known how difficult their path to equality under the law would be after the war.  Goldfield appears to believe that since the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address was not immediate, it was not worth fighting for at all. 

Finally, Goldfield asks if peace, not war, might have ended slavery sooner and guaranteed the legal and political equality of African Americans.  He does not define what he believes “peace” to be.  Is it merely the absence of war?  Or is there more to it than that?  Consider that the North and South argued (relatively) peacefully about the existence, boundaries, and morality of slavery from before the Constitutional Convention until “Bleeding Kansas” in 1856—a period of 70 years.  During that time, Congress forged many compromises that appeased both northerners and southerners, but none ever permanently held.  Peaceful legislative compromises and solutions were pretty well exhausted by 1856, when pro- and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas brutally fought over whether that territory’s constitution would allow or outlaw slavery.  This mini civil war was merely a preview of things to come on a national scale five years later.  “Give peace a chance” is a great slogan and a great John Lennon song, but peace merely for the sake of avoiding war was tried for three-quarters of a century before the Civil War.  As John Brown—one of the most violent of those who fought on either side in Bleeding Kansas—predicted on his way to the gallows in December 1859, “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

This blog post does not mean to glorify or advocate war.  David Goldfield is correct when he writes “Wars are easily made, difficult to end and burdened with unintended consequences and unforeseen human casualties.”  As the Union General William T. Sherman told the citizens and leaders of Atlanta in 1864, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will.  War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”  This quote would help make Goldfield’s case if it ended there.  But Sherman continued: “…but you cannot have peace and a division of our country…I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war.”  

Perhaps David Goldfield is appalled by war in general and not just the Civil War specifically.  If so, few would disagree.  Based on his criticisms of the early Republicans’ ties to evangelicalism, he also appears to be repelled by religion.  He is certainly not alone in that, either.  However, is it possible that he is taking his personal distastes for war and religion in 2012 and using them to oppose the Civil War, which started over 150 years ago?  

The United States has unquestionably fought wars during its history for dubious reasons and unclear goals, but the Civil War was not one of them.  That war began as a fight to preserve this union, but evolved into a conflict that sought to ensure that union’s liberties and freedoms were and are made available to everyone—thereby making it better by forcing it to live up to the promise of its Constitution.  That is worth fighting for. 


Dan Allosso said...

Interesting argument. I wasn't able to find the original article, but I read the description of Professor Goldfield's book and it looks promising. It seems his point is not so much were the Northerners right or wrong to oppose slavery, but that "The political system could not contain the passions stoked by the infusion of evangelical Christianity into the political process" (at least, based on highlighting, Kindle users seem to think that's his point). I'll probably download it this afternoon. Which is not to say I disagree with your points, Todd. But I'm curious where Goldfield is going to take the argument about the ways religion interacts with culture and politics. For example, is it only a Northern issue? Doesn't religion inform the Southern position? And are the Abolitionists and Know-Nothings really that similar, that they can be dismissed in the same sentence? I always thought they disagreed about quite a bit, but I'm not sure how much of that was related to their faiths.

It's also an interesting question, whether Goldfield's argument is really about the Civil War or about the present. I wonder how representative the article is of the book's position...

hcr said...

I couldn't link to Goldfield's article either, but like you, Todd, I stopped cold at the idea that the North was on some kind of a religious crusade. A tiny part of the population was, but Lincoln himself was horrified by the idea that any concept of morality should trump the law. He made no secret of that horror.

To me, the interesting question here is the link between religion in the South and the region's economy. The Southern system was, in fact, under attack by modernity. When your world is falling apart, perhaps the logical thing to do is to turn to religion.

Thanks for this, Todd-- great post.

Todd Arrington said...

Dan, Heather:

Thanks for your comments. The full link didn't make it in for some reason, but here it is:

Dan, I also have Goldfield's book on my Kindle, but I admit I haven't read it yet. My piece was a reaction to this column only. I just found "give peace a chance" a very simplistic solution to an extremely complicated series of issues.

Heather, thanks for the kind words, and I agree that it would be interesting to see Goldfield's take on how religion affected the South's position. Surely it must have to some degree, right? But it seems to me that Goldfield presents the South as an innocent victim of the North's religious fanaticism.

Jim Farmer said...

As I recall, the "needless war" argument was quite strong in the inter-war years (1920s-30s), but it was knocked off of its pedestal by the "good war" school coming out of WWII. Goldfield's post-Iraq argument may thus be seen as further indication of the power of "presentism."

However, this would not make him wrong. Without Lincoln's determination that the Union must remain intact, and South Carolina's impatience regarding the US flag over Ft. Sumter, northern opinion, John Brown fans excepted, would arguably have accepted secession. As for the slavery issue, remember that the war became one of black liberation only after Lincoln decided in favor of the emotional and diplomatic edge that would provide the North.

hcr said...

Hmmm. This is really interesting. Do you really think that the North would have let the South go? I'm not sure... either way. Anyone else want to weigh in on this?

Dan Allosso said...

These two posts and the comment threads on them are great! Todd just wrote on the other thread about the level of commitment many seem to have felt, and their apparent willingness to sacrifice. I've only read Goldfield's intro so far, but he does make the point that lots of other nations eliminated slavery without a war. Can comparisons be made to Bolivar's Latin America? Brazil? I also wonder about the US Army's recent success in Mexico and how that may have set expectations about valor and battle. After all, people probably didn't initially join up thinking they would die. The war was expected by both sides to be an easy victory, wasn't it? And don't people always expect the casualties will be the guys around them?