Was the American Civil War Worth It?
Yes, it ended slavery. But at a huge cost.
Tony Horwitz, The Atlantic (“150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War“):
The Civil War today is generally seen as a necessary and ennobling sacrifice, redeemed by the liberation of four million slaves.
But cracks in this consensus are appearing with growing frequency, for example in studies like America Aflame, by historian David Goldfield. Goldfield states on the first page that the war was “America’s greatest failure.” He goes on to impeach politicians, extremists, and the influence of evangelical Christianity for polarizing the nation to the point where compromise or reasoned debate became impossible.
Unlike the revisionists of old, Goldfield sees slavery as the bedrock of the Southern cause and abolition as the war’s great achievement. But he argues that white supremacy was so entrenched, North and South, that war and Reconstruction could never deliver true racial justice to freed slaves, who soon became subject to economic peonage, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and rampant lynching.
Nor did the war knit the nation back together. Instead, the South became a stagnant backwater, a resentful region that lagged and resisted the nation’s progress. It would take a century and the Civil Rights struggle for blacks to achieve legal equality, and for the South to emerge from poverty and isolation. “Emancipation and reunion, the two great results of this war, were badly compromised,” Goldfield says. Given these equivocal gains, and the immense toll in blood and treasure, he asks: “Was the war worth it? No.
Soldiers in the 1860s didn’t wear dog tags, the burial site of most was unknown, and casualty records were sketchy and often lost. Those tallying the dead in the late 19th century relied on estimates and assumptions to arrive at a figure of 618,000, a toll that seemed etched in stone until just a few years ago.
But J. David Hacker, a demographic historian, has used sophisticated analysis of census records to revise the toll upward by 20%, to an estimated 750,000, a figure that has won wide acceptance from Civil War scholars. If correct, the Civil War claimed more lives than all other American wars combined, and the increase in population since 1860 means that a comparable war today would cost 7.5 million lives.
This horrific toll doesn’t include the more than half million soldiers who were wounded and often permanently disabled by amputation, lingering disease, psychological trauma and other afflictions.
Consider that the United States is today considering intervening in someone else’s civil war because 90,000 people have been killed in two years of fighting. We lost more than eight times that number fighting our own. (Syria’s population at the outset of war was roughly 21 million; America’s, 31 million.)
On the other side of the ledger is the hastened demise of slavery, which surely would have persisted for some time to come otherwise.
Most historians believe that without the Civil War, slavery would have endured for decades, possibly generations. Though emancipation was a byproduct of the war, not its aim, and white Americans clearly failed during Reconstruction to protect and guarantee the rights of freed slaves, the post-war amendments enshrined the promise of full citizenship and equality in the Constitution for later generations to fulfill.
“Generations” seems a bit much; it ended elsewhere in the civilized world much faster than that and the United States had long ceased to be an agrarian economy within decades. Presumably, and independent South, cut off from the manufacturing of the North, would have been forced to industrialize even more quickly.
Though Confederate armies surrendered in 1865, white Southerners fought on by other means, wearing down a war-weary North that was ambivalent about if not hostile to black equality. Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13thamendment, we see a “good” and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn’t quite so uplifting.
But that also is an arbitrary and insufficient frame. In 1963, a century after Gettysburg, Martin Luther King Jr. invoked Lincoln’s words and the legacy of the Civil War in calling on the nation to pay its “promissory note” to black Americans, which it finally did, in part, by passing Civil Rights legislation that affirmed and enforced the amendments of the 1860s. In some respects, the struggle for racial justice, and for national cohesion, continues still.
No doubt. The question, ultimately, is whether anything is worth that kind of slaughter. The only other war in which Americans participated with a cause comparably just was the Second World War, in which we lost 418,500 dead. The Soviets lost some 22 million.