Skip to comments.Could the Civil War Have Been Avoided?
Posted on 10/20/2002 8:01:28 PM PDT by Aurelius
The Civil War could, and probably should, have been avoided, according to a new book authored by four Southern historians.
In the recently published "This Terrible War: the Civil War and its Aftermath," the authors weighed the war's brutality against its benefits. They came to the conclusion that the bloodshed was not "inevitable" and that slavery was not the key issue of the war.
In fact, the book says, slavery was in its waning days and was used as a propaganda tool by both North and South to stir up the public's emotions. The American Civil War, also called the War of Secession, was fought from 1861 to 1865. Eleven seceding states in the south waged battle with the Federal government, represented by the North.
At issue were opposing socioeconomic and political interests. The North was mostly industrial, and individual families operated the majority of its farms. The agrarian South, by contrast, relied upon large plantations that used slave labor.
While the death toll of the war is presumed to be much greater, military casualties were reported at a minimum of 623,000 dead, and a minimum of 472,000 wounded. Civilian deaths from sickness, exposure or imprisonment are estimated in the tens of thousands.
"The war was caused by political miscalculation, exaggerated rhetoric, public paranoia, and distorted popular fears in both North and South of the intentions of the either section, what one historian long ago called 'hyperemotionalism,'" said Daniel Sutherland, professor of history at the University of Arkansas and one of the book's authors.
"Even after secession, many Americans not just Lincoln did not think war inevitable, and they were genuinely surprised not to say shocked and dismayed when hostilities did come."
Sutherland told Discovery News that the real issue of the war was not slavery, but rather "the expansion of political power and maintaining the political balance of Congress through the addition of new representatives and senators."
He explained that both the northern and southern states wished to extend control over territories in the newly opened West. Slavery became a tool for either side attempting to gain control, as territory then was marked as either "slave" or "free." Only abolitionists, who were in the minority both before and during the war, viewed the issue in terms of racial injustice.
"Could (the) territorial issue have been settled without resorting to war? Of course," said Sutherland. "Could compromise have led to the end of slavery? Probably not, but remember that this was not the issue. Southerners feared it might become the issue part of the exaggerated fears and unreasonable assessment of the other side but it was not part of the public political debate."
Sutherland and his colleagues claimed that even if the South had been allowed to extend slave labor into the unorganized territories to the West and Southwest, slavery would have failed because these regions could not support staple plantation crops, such as cotton. According to the book, with or without war, economics, land and weather considerations would have limited slavery.
If not for the inflammatory rhetoric from both sides surrounding the issue of slavery still an emotional topic today the original secession dispute could have been resolved in a political forum by, for example, dividing up the land evenly, redistributing congressional seats or other legal measures, according to the book.
Paul Anderson, assistant professor of history at Clemson University, agrees with many of the book's theories and commented, "This book's greatest strength is that it deals with the terrifying messiness of the war, and the war's failure to answer some of the most important questions that it raised. Many of the supposed certainties in the war's legacy were more hollow than we like to think. The book is a welcome if disturbing and sometimes bitter commentary on that."
Anderson believes that slavery may have reached its natural limits in this country, but not necessarily abroad.
"Plenty of slaveholders had their eyes on other places Cuba, South America where there was no doubt slavery would and could flourish," said Anderson. "If they maintained parity in the Union, they might (have) eventually (been) able to secure these places through future expansion."
I'll patiently await the Wlat brigade's arrival. Maybe the Abratollah Jaffa can sick his mullahs on yet another book they've never read...or even better, maybe "Noam" McPherson will weigh in! ROTFLOL!
I have always maintained this premise. I lived on Aruba. It happens to be the only island in the Caribbean to have not been a slave island--and for the same reason. The land and weather conditions--mainly the lack of fresh water--made agriculture on a scale requiring the use of slaves unprofitable. Actually, the Spanish took the indiginous Arawak Indians from Aruba to Hispanola and used them as slaves.
The southern states were not trying to overtake the US government. It simply wanted to secede and form its own government.
A more accurate name for The Civil War would be The Second American Revolution.
The "addition of new representatives and senators" and thus the balance of power in Congress was determined by whether new territories were admitted as free states or slave states. The whole debate was over SLAVERY.
Sure there were economic hardships forced upon the South, but to state that maintaining an equal electoral representation of slave states in the Union was not based on maintaining slavery is revisionism.
Was the war avoidable? The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a malicious stupidity that opened settled questions, but even in its absence, one can imagine that the annexation of Cuba or Central America might have played a similar role in inflaming regional tensions. One can see too, that the demands for the return of fugitive slaves had a similar effect. Was it inevitable that some Southerners would demand expansion of slavery to the territories from which it had been excluded? Would, even in the absence of Stephen A. Douglas, violence between settlers from different regions have broken out in Kansas? It's certainly a possibility. And indeed, conflict was more likely than that things would simply have gone on placidly.
The argument that slavery had "natural limits" has long been discredited. The limits of cotton production were not those of slavery's possible expansion. The talk in Charleston and New Orleans was of using slave labor in mining in the West. If the political will existed and legal mechanisms were in place slavery could have taken in the Southwest or on the plains of Kansas. And of course slaveholders from the American South aimed at expansion to Central America, Mexico and the Antilles.
Theories of inevitability have a reputation for barbarism. They insult our belief in the effectiveness of human action. Words like "brute" or "blind" often procede "inevitable." There are always contingent factors that could have been different. And one can't prove in advance that anything is inevitable. It's only in retrospect that things are seen as being "inevitable." But a case for a war's inevitability and irrepressibility can be made, that is, if any conflict has ever been inevitable, the Civil War was a good candidate.
Perhaps there was a temporal window, a period in which war could and would happen. If sectional war could have been avoided between, say,1800 or 1820 and 1900 or 1920 or 1950 it wouldn't have happened. But our perception of what that window would have been is influenced by what actually happened, so we can't determine what that window would have been. And, chances are, if you have a period of a century in which war could likely happen, it probably will.
Had there been a national consensus in all sections solidly behind union or behind an orderly national dissolution of the union, perhaps war could have been avoided. But it was in the nature of country half-slave and half-free that such a consensus couldn't be reached. The fact that we were so much one country and one culture, whose substantial divisions involved slavery, made things harder to arrange than they would have been were we truly distinctive nationalities.
I could not disagree more. I think that the cultural differences between North and South which were present independently of slavery would have been enough to warrant a separation even had slavery not existed.
Similarly, the best solution for the "red-blue" separation manifested in the 2000 election would be, as Walter Williams has suggested, for the two groups to divide up the country between them and set up separate governments.
Every Southern State except South Carolina had regiments in the Union Army. And there was strong pro-Confederate sentiment on the Northern bank of the Ohio. There were rebel contingents or would-be contingents in Southern Ohio and talk of detaching Southern Illinois and joining it to the Confederacy. New York City talked of seceding, and other regions or municipalities might have joined it. Texas saw Confederate suppression of unionist sympathizers, and even Mississippi had guerrilla warfare.
Things might have looked differently in Maine or South Carolina, but for many Americans it clearly was a "civil war." Given the passions of the time, there was no way of cleanly dividing state from state or unionist region from secessionist area. Fighting was the result of mixed populations with differing sentiments.
Of course, if the "Civil War" is objectionable we could always go back to the war's original official designation: "The War of the Rebellion." Perhaps "The War of Secession" might be a possibility.
The War of the Rebellion or The War of Secession would be apt monikers. I guess you couldn't really call it The Second American Revolution unless it worked.
The fact that there may have been other differences isn't at issue. Whether they were fought about or worth fighting about is much less clear.
And, of course there are two approaches involved. One looks at the many differences and takes them as all valid. The other approach sees some differences as superficial and others as more basic or essential or lying at the root of the others. Do you take Southern and Northern self-definitions at face value or are you looking for reasons and more essential causes? Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
One problem with the "cultural differences" approach is that sometimes one doesn't go deeply enough. Did cultural differences in 1840 or 1940 make separation a good choice? You may think so, but most Americans in those years wouldn't have agreed. Why was 1860 different? Why was separation so much a topic of heated discussion then, rather than in other years.
You may find that separation or secession is always a good idea, but that only reflects your own subjective preferences. And of course, a preference for dissolution of nations can also be applied to states and other communities. Looking at the other side of the coin, the things we have in common, is also important.
...we were so much one country and one culture...
I don't agree with this assessment.
I suspect you are familiar with the book, Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer. It discusses four distinct cultures or folkways of English-speaking peoples that had settled into different regions of the US by the time of the Revolutionary War: (1) Puritans to Massachusetts, (2) Royalist elite and indentured servants to Virginia, (3) the North Midlands and Wales to the Delaware Valley, and (4) North Britain and northern Ireland to the Appalachian backcountry.
The book points out that these groups shared many things in common but differed in many ways, including conceptions of order, power and freedom.
Georgia-born Mrs. rustbucket calls our years in the North our foreign assignment. North and South are two different cultures.
Fischer's book is good and well worth reading. But the question isn't just why areas were different in their origins, but why some areas did and others didn't grow closer together later on. Quakers and Puritans hated each other in the 17th century, but such animosity wasn't a factor 200 years later. It's possible to speculate about what would have happened if Puritans had landed in Virginia and Cavaliers in New England. Things would have been quite different.
Massachusans and Alabamans or Mississippians and Vermonters always seem to end up on opposite sides of political questions, but why, at this one point in our history did separation become a live consideration, and not at other times?
The First World War could, and probably should, have been avoided, according to several dumb asses with nothing better to do than attempt to convince other dumb asses that their hind sight is 20/20.
The Second World War could, and probably should, have been avoided, according to several dumb asses with nothing better to do than attempt to convince other dumb asses that their hind sight is 20/20.
The Korean War.......
My revisions of history would have A) Gen. Patton: 1) leading the North (yes, I know, his thing was armor. Its his concept of war that stands before others.), 2) leading the Allies in WW1, 3) finish WW2. B) Let Doug do the ChiComs like he wanted to. B probably would have been a moot point had A (3) happened.
No, I see much better looking ahead than behind.
I just could not resist the could / should have part of this lame attempt to make a point.
History is just that - history. One needs to be mindful of the lessons, but don't second guess it.