The Lessons of Civil War


Understanding the reasons behind secession and the reasoning of southern leaders following the Civil War is critical in any analysis of the Civil War or its’ aftermath because it shows how and why southern states actually left the Union and the reasons that they have had to adopt over the years to disguise their original motives in order to perpetuate further violence and a continued struggle against northern ideas.  At the start of the Civil War there was little in the way of political pragmatism supporting the idea of emancipation, let alone equal rights for African-Americans.  Even in 1862, with the Emancipation Proclamation sitting in his desk drawer, Abraham Lincoln repeated the fact that the goal of the United States government was to preserve the Union above all else.  Abraham Lincoln famously said:

“If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.[1]

Lincoln could have said that emancipation was an unnecessary maneuver or an act of political brinksmanship that would put an unnecessary burden on his party going into a Congressional election.  The easy thing for Lincoln to do would have been to sit on the sidelines and hope for better days, but he didn’t.  James McPherson makes the argument that: “if the war had brought an end to the Confederacy in the summer of 1862, slavery and the antebellum Southern social order would have remained largely intact and the Southern infrastructure relatively undamaged.[2]”  This is an important distinction to make because war is a manifestation of political problems.  It was, after all, an election in 1860 that prompted South Carolina to secede from the Union.  But what does all of this mean?  What was the significance of the war?  McPherson contends that our very existence as a nation was at stake, saying: “Confederate victory would destroy the United States and create a precedent for further balkanization of the territory once governed under the Constitution of 1789.[3]

The Civil War showed us that it is possible to do something as audacious as setting men free while fighting for the very right to exist as a nation at the same time.  When one thinks of the enormity of the challenge that our nation undertook, it is difficult to not be awestruck by the sheer magnanimity of will showed by those who fought in such a conflict.  Lincoln said in his second inaugural address that the nation would remain committed to fighting the war “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.[4]” 

620,000 people had lost their lives, yet a resilient President continued to fight until the war finally came to a close just a month after his second inaugural address, but perhaps the greatest casualty of the war was Abraham Lincoln himself.  For all the things he wanted to accomplish: the passage of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery and a reconstruction policy that promised to treat the south generously, Lincoln would never live to see the things that he dreamed could become a reality.  It is Lincoln’s spirit of generosity, but even-handedness that should define that war in which he became the final casualty.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.[5]

Our nation may never reach the ideal that Lincoln sought to attain and that many men fought for, but the fact that we are able to define ourselves by what we’re able to achieve and not by an arbitrary factor like race, skin color, or gender that give us the promise of a better tomorrow.  Ultimately, the true lesson of the Civil War is that we are not defined by the trivial matters that divide us as people, but by what unites us as a nation.

Secession is historically significant not only because it led to the formation of a separate nation and Civil War, but because it was also the last full manifestation of southern ideals that had begun twenty eight years earlier during the Nullification crisis. 

Secession was first declared by South Carolina on December 20, 1860.  Secession was based on the theory that the Union was a compact between states and that each state had the right to either stay or leave the Union depending on whether or not they believed their rights were being upheld by the federal government. 

The theory came from the Nullification and State’s Rights ideas of John Calhoun, which came about in 1832 when South Carolina wanted to nullify federal laws regarding the tariff.  Secession is important not only because it was the manifestation of southern political ideas that led to disunion, but because its’ justification, and re-imagination by men like Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Former Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens came to define an entire school of thought on the righteousness of the southern cause. 

When men like Davis and Stephens embraced what they called the Constitutional right to Secession, they did so in an attempt to minimize the role that slavery played in causing the Civil War.  Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia, for example, insisted that:

“The states of the union are all political equals – each state has the same right as every other state – no more, no less…by the laws of nations, acquisitions, either by purchase or conquest, even in despotic governments, ensure to the benefit of all of the subjects of the state; the reason given for this principle, by the most approved publicists is, that they are the fruits of the common blood and treasure.[6] 

He was essentially saying that even despots are more democratic and fair in their treatment of subjects than Congress had been to the south.  This is significant because it gave a justification for secession and this justification was, in the post-war years, given as a primary example of how the Civil War was not one that was started by the south, but by the north.  Toombs also said that “expansion is as necessary to the increased comforts of the slave as to the prosperity of the master.[7]

Senator Albert G. Brown of Mississippi reinforced Tooms’s view when he said:

“Twenty millions of property may be stolen from us, and the government stands by and contents itself with simply remonstrating with giving gentle hints that it is all wrong.  When I say this is done by the government, I do not mean the government of James Buchanan, or Franklin Pierce, or Millard Fillmore; but I mean the government in whosever hands it happened to rest.  Justice has never been done us; our property has never been treated like the property of other people; has never received the same sort of protection, the same kind of security.[8]

By attempting to marginalize or perhaps even change the causes for war, southerners in many ways perpetuated the violence that occurred following the Civil War.   These ideas stood in stark contrast to reality, but by attempting to give a logical reason for continued violence these men gave southerners a reason to continue acts of sabotage from reconstruction onward.  There are of course, differing views on why secession occurred.  Historian Don Fehrenbacher points out that:

“The extraordinary power traditionally exercised by southerners in national affairs constituted one of the principal deterrents to disunion; for as long as it endured, the south had better reason to remain in the union than to leave.  It was the loss of a substantial part of that power in 1860 that drove the seven states of the lower south into secession.[9]

          Oliver Wendell Holmes’s speech saying that honor and manhood were what defined the war was as much a southern rationalization for events as it was a northern rationalization.  The simple truth is that after the war, neither side was able to claim victory nor was either side willing to accept defeat.  Today, we live with the legacy of an unequal system and learned academics such as John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a professional historian still thought that we had made sufficient progress in race relations in America to warrant the abolition of the Voting Rights Act of 1964.  All of this coming after Republican Governors put in place rigid new voter ID laws aimed at keeping minorities away from the polls and it should come as little surprise that America remains a racist nation. 

          America was founded on the principle of white supremacy, a war was fought to instill that idea on a generation and after not quite fifty years as the law of the land a bunch of white guys in robes decided that we don’t need to try to prevent people from stopping others from voting because that sort of thing isn’t that big of a deal anymore.  Indeed, voter fraud, on a large scale is not a big deal.  Less than .4% of ballots were fraudulent in the 2008 election.  The majority share of Americans however still have the obligation to ensure that equality under the law exists for the minority.  Just because we don’t believe that something is no longer a problem does not mean that it can’t be a problem in the future.  States haven’t seceded from the Union in one hundred and fifty-three years, but states tried to secede from the union just this past year (Texas, not surprisingly.)  I highly doubt the Supreme Court will make it easier for states to secede, but they have had stranger rulings (see: Bush v. Gore, 2000.)

[1] Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greely, August 22, 1862.  Roy P. Basler Ed.  Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 5, 389.  New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

[2] James M. McPherson.  The Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, 129.  New York, N.Y.  Oxford University Press, 2007.

[3] James M. McPherson.  The Mighty Scourge, 167.

[4] James M. McPherson.  The Mighty Scourge, 183.

[5] Second Inaugural Address.  Roy P. Basler Ed.  Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 8, 333.  New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

[6] Toombs, Robert.  “Speech at Tremont Temple, Boston, January 24, 1856,” in Alexander Stephens, “A Constitutional View of the War Between the States, Vol. I (1868), pp. 631-632.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Congressional Globe.  36 Cong., 1 Sess., Vol. 29, pt. 1, p. 187.

[9] Fehrenbacher, Don E., “The South and the Sectional Crisis, pp. 45-47,” (1980) Louisiana State University Press.


4 thoughts on “The Lessons of Civil War

  1. I think it’s kind of ridiculous that people are still debating this. It’s been a long time since this happened. We’ve moved on.

  2. I’ve not seen that artwork at the top of your post before. It is beautiful and movingly illustrates the futility of war and the humanity we all share. The injustices continued for a hundred years after the end of the war. We imagine that Reconstruction might have gone better if Lincoln had lived, but of course we’ll never know for sure.

    Steps toward equality didn’t begin until the end of WWII, with the integration of the armed services by President Truman and the integration of baseball by Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. The Civil Rights Acts of 1963 made it official. But as you say, equal rights are under renewed attack today.

  3. Pingback: Both International And National Security Starts At Home – US in the picture. | We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"

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