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No honor in the American Civil War

The sesquicentennial of the battle of Gettysburg is coming up soon. Let’s not romanticize it; Tony Horwitz has written a great antidote.

On July 1st, 1863, Alfred Iverson ordered his brigade of North Carolinians across an open field. The soldiers marched in tight formation until Union riflemen suddenly rose from behind a stone wall and opened fire. Five hundred rebels fell dead or wounded "on a line as straight as a dress parade," Iverson reported. "They nobly fought and died without a man running to the rear. No greater gallantry and heroism has been displayed during this war."

That’s the officer’s view. The men in that tight formation had a different perspective.

Soldiers told a different story: of being "sprayed by the brains" of men shot in front of them, or hugging the ground and waving white kerchiefs. One survivor informed the mother of a comrade that her son was "shot between the Eye and ear" while huddled in a muddy swale. Of others in their ruined unit he wrote: "left arm was cut off, I think he will die… his left thigh hit and it was cut off." An artilleryman described one row of 79 North Carolinians executed by a single volley, their dead feet perfectly aligned. "Great God! When will this horrid war stop?" he wrote. The living rolled the dead into shallow trenches–hence the name "Iverson’s Pits," now a grassy expanse more visited by ghost-hunters than battlefield tourists.

The Civil War was not a romantic struggle between the forces of good and evil (both North and South were rather horribly racist), and it was a totally unnecessary war — it was a botched surgery to excise the ugly tumor of hypocrisy established at the founding of this country, and it didn’t do a very good job of that. We still have yahoos celebrating the Confederate flag and so-called Southern values that too often include ignorance and racism. The war may have ended outright slavery, but it didn’t end oppression and discrimination.

And we all lost. Three quarters of a million dead, a legacy of division, widespread racism, and the same battle lines are still drawn in our political parties. What a waste.

My father’s family was involved in that war, too. They were farmers in Iowa, and my several-times great grandfather served with Grant in the campaign that marched down the Mississippi and ended in the capture of New Orleans, where my ancestor was mustered out with an unidentified chronic illness (most likely malaria). And a few years later he lost his farm, and then began several generations of desultory familial peregrinations as migrant farm workers until they washed up on the shores of the Puget Sound, and could go no further. We were all wrecked by that stupid evil war.

Comments

  1. kreativekaos says

    Here, here! (Raising a glass to toast the above). Well said, and can applied to countless other times humanity has fallen into the pits of disgusting violence and barbarism called war, or as it’s been said, ‘politics by another means’. When will we get over war as a means of ‘problem solving’?

  2. kreativekaos says

    (Not to mention the glorification of it, as well as revering and almost honoring it.)

  3. says

    Just a couple of minor corrections. If your ancestor marched with Grant, he was in the Mississippi Campaign that culminated in the July 4, 1863 surrender of Vicksburg, not New Orleans. New Orleans was captured more than a year earlier by US marines under the command of USN Flag Officer David G. Farragut.

  4. Doug Hudson says

    Privilege check: saying the Civil War was “unnecessary” and that “nobody won” erases the Black viewpoint of the Civil War.

    I suggest Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent essay The Civil War Isn’t Tragic.

    Also, a rather unfortunate argument to make the day after Juneteenth, the day celebrating the end of slavery in the United States.

  5. mattwatkins says

    “The war may have ended outright slavery, but it didn’t end oppression and discrimination.”

    This strikes me as a pretty flippant statement. Slavery’s end was worth achieving even if what followed wasn’t full equality. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote a series of very thoughtful blog posts, and an essay for The Atlantic on the causes and utility of the Civil War. It’s worth reading his words here:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/12/the-civil-war-isnt-tragic/266062/

  6. Doug Hudson says

    @mattwatkins, only because I didn’t take the time to get the link right, heh.

    Another point: the leaders of the South had persuaded themselves that slavery was a positive good, that needed to be expanded into the new US possessions in the West and, ultimately, throughout the Americas. (Check out Southern efforts to annex Cuba and Nicaragua.)

    The North may have been horribly racist, but the South had become an absolute evil, a society dedicated to preserving and expanding the enslavement of large groups of people.

  7. says

    It’s important to remember, also, that among the Confederate troops particularly, a lot of them didn’t want to be there in the first place, and this number grew with time. The Confederate army had a huge problem with desertion,; by the time the war ended, upwards of one in three Confederate soldiers were listed AWOL, deserters, or simply unaccounted for. many of the deserters joined crossed the lines to join the Union forces, while the rest went home to their farms, organizing local bands to evade or resist press gangs. In some cases, the reasons for joining were explicitly class-based; many poor whites hated the slaveowner class with a passion, because they were relegated to subsistence farming for a poor living, because the price of cash crops was chronically undercut by slave operations. This disaffection increased during the war, as the plantation owners continued to grow tobacco and cotton, making enormous sums smuggling it past the blockades, while the price of food for soldiers families went up and up, since so much of the labor force for small farms had been drafted and sent off to war. Anyone who owned more than five slaves was exempt from the draft, though, which was another major source of disaffection among conscripts. (I recommend Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War for more on this.

    I would also argue with the assessment that there was no honor in the war. While it was unnecessary in principle, it was necessary in fact. That is to say that slavery could have been ended without a war, but even the rumor of a plan to do so* was enough to make the slaveowners start one anyway, so in practice it was necessary.
    For smaller scale examples, a number of Norther labor unions functionally ceased to exist during the war, as entire locals joined up at once in order to fight slavery, which is a principle that I can stand behind despite my general pacifism.

    *Lincoln ran on a platform of limiting slavery to the existing slave states, not general emancipation; the 19th century equivalent of the Koch brothers turned that into “Lincoln’s gonna take our slaves,” and so a bunch of rich slaveowners, who happened to compose the government of those states declared independence and opened fire on Fort Sumpter.

  8. busterggi says

    Sounds like Horwitz has watched ‘Gods and Generals’ too many times – a film that I found revolting in its suck-upness to the ‘glory’ of the slaveowning south.

  9. says

    The family legend is that my ancestors came over from Norway on one of the coffin ships due to the potato famine. (It hit Norway too, just the population had not been forced into total potato-dependency by the upperclass; Norwegians had fish…) They settled in Wisconsin and were pretty much mind-boggled that the local idiots had managed to find something pointless to fight about in the midst of so much plenty.

  10. alkaloid says

    @Doug Hudson:

    I wanted to say that I agree emphatically with you-and NOT with PZ Myers about this at all.

    I’ll try and put it this way with regards to a recent thread:

    Envision Vox Day. I know it’s not a pretty picture and that you’d like to flush that picture (and possibly him) down a very large drain. That’s much of the point.

    Now envision Vox Day as being able to legally own and abuse black people at will.

    I’m aware that the North was horribly flawed, had a ton of ulterior motives, and didn’t engage in the civil war out of pure goodness. At the same time, I firmly believe that when people really have this kind of mindset and are dedicated to act on it, there probably is no real possibility of peaceful resolution with them.

  11. Holms says

    Regardless of the imagined or real gains brought about by a war, there is no sense in romanticising it. All wars are horrible; the only people that refuse to see it as such are those that have not been on a front line. See: many officers, all armchair war buffs.

  12. johnharshman says

    What Hugh, Doug, and Matt said. What would it mean to say the war was unnecessary? It certainly would have been possible for Lincoln to have avoided war just by following the policy of the Buchanan administration: let the South go. Of course that would have perpetuated slavery in the South, with the added drawback of splitting up the country. How long would southern slavery have survived? Impossible to know, but I would guess that it might well have lasted for another 50 years or more, perhaps even up to the present. And it probably would have resulted in eventual war, because northern abolitionists wouldn’t have given up. It would of course have been possible for the South to avoid war by not seceding, but that doesn’t seem likely. And the result would have been gradually increasing restrictions on slavery, possibly ending it in as little as another couple of generations. Opinions may differ as to whether a war is worth it to skip two or more generations of slavery. So I guess the “unnecessary” bit is true if you mean “unnecessary if a great many people had been better than they actually were”.

  13. alkaloid says

    @johnharshman:

    If it had been your ancestors that would have remained in slavery for two or more additional generations, would you have thought that letting the South go would still be worth it?

  14. says

    @busterggi:

    God’s and Generals – that wretched film is the set text of every armchair contrarian spouting the line that the American Civil War was all about states’ rights and nothing to do with slavery.

    Also it lasts several weeks and it’s DULL.

  15. Sastra says

    Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature: why violence has declined points out that before the twentieth century even the liberal intellectuals thought war was, on the whole, a grand and glorious thing: countries needed occasional wars in order to toughen up the populace and remind them of the value of honor and sacrifice. The general assumption that war is a bad thing to be avoided if at all possible is a recent improvement.

    The areas which have yet to adopt the idea that ‘war is bad’ include those countries and societies which are still counted as “honor cultures” — rigid, revengeful, rebellious, and reactionary. No gubmint gonna tell ME what I kin do with my own property and kinfolk. Guess which part(s) of the United States get Pinker’s special attention as modern day examples of the ‘honor culture?’ Yes, that’s right. The South … and the West.

    @busterggi:
    “Gods and Generals” is one of the very few movies which moved me to get up and walk out of the theater even though I’d paid for tickets (well, I was moved emotionally — since my husband was obviously enjoying it I politely stayed put.) It wasn’t just that it sucked up to the South. I thought it sucked, period. A bad film, painfully bad on multiple levels. For one thing, it looked to me like they had formed the dialogue out of old letters and writings of the time . This sounds like a good idea — but it translates into long, stiff, formal, Aynrandistic speech patterns which I found insufferable to sit through.

  16. doubtthat says

    @Doug and Matt

    I was thinking about Ta-Nehisi’s blog with regard to this statement:

    “…it was a totally unnecessary war…”

    There was an awesome discussion spread over several threads about that issue. It was spurned by Ron Paul making a similar claim (though, in PZ’s defense, the motivation for the claim was much different. Paul had some “competitive federalism” theory of the problem taking care of itself over time).

    Here’s one of the parts: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/no-lincoln-could-not-have-bought-the-slaves/277073/

    The general conclusion was that given the South’s position on the moral issue and total dependence economically, there really was no way to end slavery absent that war. Hell, Lincoln did everything he possibly could to avoid that war, so they just decided to fire on Ft. Sumter.

    They considered every possible alternative, including straight up purchasing every slave and then freeing them. It was just inevitable, and as others have said, well worth it, even given the horrible cost.

    Perhaps PZ meant that the war shouldn’t have been necessary. I agree with that. The idea that we had to fight a war over slavery is a deep point of national shame, and people should have been able to realize how horrible the peculiar institution was absent a war, but it is more or less true of every war ever fought that one side or the other or both should have behaved differently, eliminating the need for the conflict.

  17. lpetrich says

    Around when the North American colonists were grumbling about taxation without representation, Samuel Johnson in “Taxation No Tyranny” pointed out “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

    Just before the Civil War, there was a proposal to divide the US into three nations: New England, a Central Confederacy of the Mid-Atlantic states, and the southern ones. Central Confederacy – Wikipedia — in one proposal, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Missouri, and Ohio.

    There was even a proposal to turn New York City into an independent city-state.

    Adding to what Dalillama, Schmott Guy points out, the southern states without much slavery joined the north, and this included western Virginia, which seceded from the rest of Virginia. But the poor whites who fought the Southern slave lords also hated blacks, and they sort-of-joined the Confederate side after the war.

    Colin Woodard’s American Nations is good reading on the cultural background of the Civil War.

  18. WharGarbl says

    When will we get over war as a means of ‘problem solving’?

    Until individual human values themselves less than any one other human.
    Because frankly, until that happens, you’ll always have reasons to go to war.

  19. says

    All wars are horrible; the only people that refuse to see it as such are those that have not been on a front line. See: many officers, all armchair war buffs.

    I suppose it should be pointed out that “those that have not been on a front line” is a description that covers precious few officers who fought in the Civil War. Officers up to and including brigadier generals were expected to lead their troops in battle, from the front. If you were a Civil War era colonel, and your unit went into action, you stood right there with the line.

  20. says

    aaronpound

    I suppose it should be pointed out that “those that have not been on a front line” is a description that covers precious few officers who fought in the Civil War.

    And they had this to say:

    William Tecumseh Sherman
    You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

  21. NitricAcid says

    @Alkaloid #15

    As opposed to three-quarters of a million people killed?

    I’m not sure I can answer that.

  22. dianne says

    The American Civil War shouldn’t have happened…when it did. Almost every other country on the continents of North and South America had gotten rid of slavery long before the 1860s. If the US had to have a war to end slavery then it should have happened in 1830, not 1860. So many people’s lives lost because anglos couldn’t get it together as quickly as the more civilized Hispanic countries.

    And yes I’m aware that the various countries in South America had their problems. But having suffered through learning history in Texas where the Monroe doctrine was romanticized and the actual cause of the Texas Revolution (the anglos wanted to keep slaves, the government in Mexico City wanted emancipation) was completely erased, I feel compelled to point out who was first at every opportunity.

    Also Uruguay and Argentina have same sex marriage. The US: still so far behind in equality.

  23. alkaloid says

    @dianne, #24

    Aren’t the terms of the American constitution in no small part responsible for the difference, though? The original constitution, before the post-civil war amendments, gave slavery a lot of protections in the United States and if anything, the barriers against abolitionism actually increased throughout much of the antebellum period.

  24. jeffreylewis says

    As opposed to three-quarters of a million people killed?

    I’m not sure I can answer that.

    There were 4 million slaves in the U.S. prior to emancipation, and the population was growing (750,000 in the previous decade). Had it gone on a few more generations, just consider how many people there would have been doomed to slavery.

    Yes, three-quarters of a million people killed is a great sacrifice. But tens of millions of enslaved people is even more horrible.

  25. dianne says

    @alkaloid: Probably. But the Constitution wasn’t handed down directly from the FSM or something. A bunch of people (wealthy white men) sat down and decided that this was what they wanted their country to be like. Including the “3/5 of a person” thing.

  26. alkaloid says

    @dianne. Exactly. I just wasn’t being as blunt about it as I normally am.

  27. doubtthat says

    If someone wishes to claim the Civil War was unnecessary, they need to provide an explanation of how they think slavery should have ended.

    I have yet to see a plausible alternative scenario.

  28. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    All wars are horrible; the only people that refuse to see it as such are those that have not been on a front line. See: many officers, all armchair war buffs.

    I suppose it should be pointed out that “those that have not been on a front line” is a description that covers precious few officers who fought in the Civil War. Officers up to and including brigadier generals were expected to lead their troops in battle, from the front. If you were a Civil War era colonel, and your unit went into action, you stood right there with the line.

    …and on horseback, and so a more prominent target, if you were a senior officer.
    However, the two aspects are not contradictory: how many Confederate officers were “war buffs”- and honour buffs, fed on fantasies by Walter Scott, according to Twain- before they went to war and so behaved “honourably” in action?

  29. Amphiox says

    I think it is not so much that there was no honor in the Civil War, but that the concept of honor itself, as it applies to War, is not something worthy of admiration.

  30. alkaloid says

    @doubtthat:

    The most ludicrously obnoxious attempt I’ve seen (so far) was from a self-proclaimed pacifist and woo-peddler who tried to say that the South would’ve eventually starved itself into oblivion, turning itself into a failed state like Somalia which would have then been reabsorbed into the north.

    Then again, there wasn’t a war involved, so it was obviously ‘peaceful’ as far as he was concerned.

  31. Pen says

    Thanks for telling those stories, both from the soldiers and from your family history. What really happened is the combination of everyone’s stories. What it means and why it happened is another matter.

  32. Amphiox says

    On the issue of necessity, I think that there was a point after which the Civil War became necessary, inasmuch that, past that point, not having the war would have resulted, in the end, in a worse world in the long run than having the war.

    Before that point, the war was not necessary, and opportunities existed to both avoid the war and deal with the problem of slavery, such that potential alternate histories existed wherein not having the war would turn out in the long run to produce the better overall result for humanity than having the war.

    Determining when and where that point existed, though, is problematic.

  33. DrVanNostrand says

    @34:
    I fail to see any point between the drafting of the Constitution and the Civil War that any attempt to end slavery in the South could have succeeded. The South defended slavery with extreme vigilance from the very beginning. In fact, the federal government did essentially nothing to limit or end slavery, and yet the Southern states preemptively squashed anything that could possibly be used as a “foot in the door” to try and limit slavery in the future. Balance between slave states and non-slave states was rigidly maintained, threats of nullification and secession were tossed around constantly, and brawls broke out on the floor of Congress. Furthermore, it wasn’t even possible to end slavery short of amending the Constitution, which wasn’t even remotely plausible at any time. Barring an alternate history with completely different leadership/citizenry in the South, I don’t see any way slavery could have been ended short of war, or decades of waiting.

  34. Amphiox says

    I fail to see any point between the drafting of the Constitution and the Civil War that any attempt to end slavery in the South could have succeeded.

    Perhaps the point actually lies before the drafting of the Constitution?

  35. says

    In an interesting side note there’s been talk about “Gods and Generals” the movie that was the prequel for “Gettysburg,” Jeff Shaara’s book actually dealt with both the North and the South, and there’s even suppose to be a four and half hour cut of of GG that show more scene of Norther Officers and Abe Lincoln.

  36. DrVanNostrand says

    @37:
    Fair enough. My understanding of the origins of the Constitution leave me somewhat skeptical, but I haven’t studied the pre-Constitution period as closely. I suppose at some point, the right leadership might have steered the South toward a different agricultural model, though I’m not sure how early that would have been.

  37. johnharshman says

    Perhaps before cotton farming began. I’ve heard it said that up to that point, many considered slavery to be moribund in the south and on its way out.

  38. paleotn says

    Perhaps the point actually lies before the drafting of the Constitution?

    And our fledgling country would have lost every state from Maryland south and history would have taken a very different turn. The founders were well aware of the hypocrisy, but kicked that can down the road and hoped for the best. I agree with DrVanNostrand. Slavery would never have died a quiet death. Evil as it sounds today, slaves in the south represented billions of $’s of capital. And as we all know, it’s always about the money. As the balance of political power began to shift towards the free states, it was bound to get ugly.

    According to family lore, my several times, great grandfather, Tennessee state legislator and life long Whig said about then TN Gov. Isham Harris and the secessionists…” those damn fools will be the ruin of us all!” He wasn’t far off

  39. kaleberg says

    The plantation south was heavily influenced by its colonists, since so many came from the South of England who had backed the Cavaliers in the English Civil War of the 17th century. New England was heavily settled by folks from East Anglia who had backed the Puritans and was a hotbed of the abolitionist movement. The English Civil War was also a war that had to be fought. There was no other way to fight the political culture ruled by The Divine Right of Kings.

    The horrible thing is that war works. As George MacDonald Fraser said in Flashman and the Mountain of Light, “And if you tell me that every man’s death diminishes me, I’ll retort that it diminishes him a hell of a sight more ….” That’s how it works. It isn’t fair. It isn’t moral. Dead is dead. I’m a big believer in avoiding wars that don’t need to be fought, but sometimes there is no other way, save to acquiesce in or to advance injustice.

  40. kaleberg says

    (George MacDonald Fraser, interestingly, believed that the Civil War could have been avoid if the American Revolution had failed. England had abolished slavery, at home and in its colonies, in 1833.

  41. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    George MacDonald Fraser, interestingly, believed that the Civil War could have been avoid if the American Revolution had failed.

    …but- if we go in for counterfactuals- would a UK still with colonies in America to consider and placate have abolished the slave trade at all, let alone slavery? The example of Brazil and Portugal is an interesting example: after the government went to Brazil in the Peninsular War, as Brazil became more powerful, it was Portugal that declared its independence.

  42. DrVanNostrand says

    @41:
    I tend to agree with the Whig TN legislator. I would never suggest that extending slavery would be a good thing, but it’s quite obvious that secession was a disastrous strategic failure for the slave-holding South. The Republican platform only prohibited the extension of slavery into the territories. Even with a Republican president, Congress could have fought tooth and nail to preserve popular sovereignty and/or the Missouri compromise, as well as fight to keep the slave/non-slave state balance for decades. Eventually prohibition would have prevailed, but the requirement of Constitutional amendment would have preserved the status quo for a long time.

    I’m personally with Coates and others that the war was unfortunately necessary. However, it seems quite obvious in retrospect that the South really fucked up (from their perspective). Their only hope was that the Union would let them secede peacefully, or would rapidly tire of war. Lincoln would clearly not accept the former (obvious), and was savvy enough to prevent the latter (not so obvious at the time).

  43. says

    @ sc-77*yahoomess* #44

    after the government went to Brazil in the Peninsular War, as Brazil became more powerful, it was Portugal that declared its independence.

    You’ll have to build your case a little better.

    From Pfffffffft:

    [Prince Peter] … tore the Portuguese white and blue insignia from his uniform, drew his sword, and swore: “By my blood, by my honor, and by God: I will make Brazil free.” With this oath, that was repeated by the assembled, he announced: “Brazilians, from this day forward our motto will be…Independence or Death”

    Seems a smidgen at odds with your hypothesis.

  44. ekwhite says

    Tony Horwitz is right, there certainly was nothing honorable or glorious about the Civil War. It was a bloodbath of catastrophic proportions. There were over 46,000 soldiers wounded and killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, and over 23,000 wounded and killed at Antietam. The war left scars on this country that are still being felt today.

    With that being said, the horrific institution that was slavery in the American South had to end. Too bad that my ancestors fought and were badly wounded defending that despicable institution.

  45. bad Jim says

    A longer version of the quote from Sherman shows how shrewd he was:

    You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

    And from his letter to Atlanta:

    You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it;

    Here are Grant’s thoughts upon Lee’s surrender:

    I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.

  46. doubtthat says

    The discussion moved pretty rapidly, but it’s important to point out that our Constitution is largely the way it is because special exemptions had to be made to cajole the South into joining.

    Obviously there’s legalized slavery and the 3/5ths clause (which had the effect of giving the South disproportionate political power which the managed to use to stuff the Supreme Court full of pro-slavery folks from 1787—>Civil War).

    The reason we have a bicameral legislature was to allow the low population Southern states to have a means of stopping any anti-slavery legislation from being passed.

    Thus, if you want to argue that slavery could have been avoided pre-Constitution, there would be no America, and more importantly, all of those territories would still have slaves. Hell, it may have persisted longer under that scenario, as motivation for keeping the Union together got a lot of Northern racists on board with the War. No Union, chances are there’s little if any effort to end slavery — not to mention what would have happened with Western expansion.

    @alkaloid

    That’s pretty absurd from just a moral perspective, but with England depending on that cotton, I think they would have managed to keep going for a while.

  47. Amphiox says

    And our fledgling country would have lost every state from Maryland south and history would have taken a very different turn.

    Perhaps. But would such an outcome, without an American Civil War, produce a future necessarily worse than what really happened?

  48. bad Jim says

    By the way, Lt. Col. Bob Bateman is live-blogging the Gettysburg and Vicksburg campaigns at the blog of the inimitable Charles Pierce at Esquire, which I highly recommend to anyone who follows American politics.

    Here’s a taste of LTC Bateman’s commentary:

    Historically, at the outset of most wars, we Americans suck at the whole “war” thing. But the thing that has scared the piss out of our opponents, over time, is that we don’t quit, and we learn. Neither of these, historically, is a given.

    This conflict, the American Civil War, is now about 25 months old, having started in April 1861. Put that in WWII context, and the parallel places you at about January 1944, which was the part of the war when the Germans started saying, “Shit, this sucks!” when facing our troops on land, in the air, and on the sea. Pretty much the same deal occurred in 1863.

  49. falstaff says

    Simply put, PZ Myers would never fight for anything. Someone is going to shoot a girl in the head because she wants a education? Someone is going to throw acid in a woman’s face because she was raped? An entire culture is going to buy and sell and enslave others for generations? I’ll go online and rant.

  50. anteprepro says

    The Civil War was not a romantic struggle between the forces of good and evil (both North and South were rather horribly racist), and it was a totally unnecessary war — it was a botched surgery to excise the ugly tumor of hypocrisy established at the founding of this country, and it didn’t do a very good job of that. We still have yahoos celebrating the Confederate flag and so-called Southern values that too often include ignorance and racism. The war may have ended outright slavery, but it didn’t end oppression and discrimination

    This undermines itself. It wasn’t totally unnecessary if it ended slavery, dismissing it as “not a romantic struggle between the forces of good and evil” is rather disingenuous if you are going to go on to suggest that “celebrating the Confederate flag and so-called Southern values” is an inherent bad (which it is, but noting that is inconsistent with denying that the North was clearly better than the South in this conflict). Really, this is all just overly pessimistic. It goes too far in the other direction. No, the North wasn’t perfect and pure and undeniably Good. No, ending slavery didn’t end social injustice or the mistreatment of the (now former) slaves. But the North was undeniably better, and their victory in the Civil War was undeniably a step in the right direction. Being overly pessimistic on the matter just gives cover to those very same people who “celebrate the Confederate flag and so-called Southern values”, who desperately don’t want it to be clear that the Civil War was ultimately about slavery.

    Simply put, PZ Myers would never fight for anything. Someone is going to shoot a girl in the head because she wants a education? Someone is going to throw acid in a woman’s face because she was raped? An entire culture is going to buy and sell and enslave others for generations? I’ll go online and rant.

    And I suppose you’ll just fight for whatever, because fighting is virtuous in itself, and you will just assume that you can psychically detect violent intentions and motivations with perfect accuracy and use it to justify any and all of your violent actions. Hey look, I can do it too!

  51. says

    I’ll go online and rant.

    Says falstaff.

    It is really easy to get into a warzone if you set your mind to it. And you can even do a lot of good. I cannot imagine you have ever done as such.

    The whole point of the intellectual battle we are fighting is to sway society to a point that it does not go to war. We can prevent the shootings and acid attacks by … by drones? … “boots on the ground”? What is your brilliant suggestion?

    Would it not be better to seek to bring about societal changes in the countries in question? We can do this both by showing a better way and by marginalising the agressors.

    Hell, falstaff, you could even put your money where your mouth is, join a relief organisation, travel out there and help those woman personally. You will be amazed what you can achieve.

    But sniping at all the hard work PZ puts into this same cause? Don’t be such an ass.

  52. bad Jim says

    Ta-Nehisi Coates is on fire today:

    I am very sorry that white people began experiencing great violence in 1860. But for some of us, war did not begin 1860, but in 1660. The brutal culmination of that war may not have allowed us to ascend into a post-racial heaven. But here is something I always come back to: In 1859 legally selling someone’s five-year-old child was big business. In 1866, it was not. American Slavery was a system of perpetual existential violence. The idea that it could have been — or should have been — ended, after two and a half centuries of practice, with a handshake and an ice-cream social strikes me as really wrong.

    Read the whole thing.

  53. carlie says

    Hey falstaff, PZ’s son is in the military. Do you have any progeny currently serving?

  54. Steve LaBonne says

    To sum up: some wars are truly unavoidable and necessary (though far fewer than the likes of failstaff like to think) and there is a very strong argument that the Civil War was one such. No war, ever, is glorious. War is always insane butchery, even when it cannot be avoided. Really, nobody of sound mind should have much trouble with that set of propositions. Sherman and Grant certainly thought along those lines.

  55. doubtthat says

    @51 Amphiox

    Perhaps. But would such an outcome, without an American Civil War, produce a future necessarily worse than what really happened?

    Obviously we’ll never know — I just say because when we have these discussions, I feel like strong arguments start to seem like certainty, but obviously we’re just speculation.

    That being said, I think that system could have plausibly been worse for the following reasons:

    1) Without a Union, there’s no war to preserve the Union. Some percentage of folks in the North were fighting exclusively to keep the country together. There is absolutely no way the North could have mustered an invading force to stop slavery in another country, or series of countries, thus, slavery may have persisted significantly longer.

    2) Western expansion would have been a total mess, and there would have been some amount of warfare between the two sides, anyway — though obviously not to the degree that it actually happened.

    3) A less known but equally pivotal moment in the War was when the North successfully blockaded the South — Battle of New Orleans, I believe, but that might not be right. The South’s currency was built on credit, a promise to repay after the war, and once the cotton supply to England was cut off, there was no way to repay them, and the support of Europe evaporated.

    Absent that blockade, they’re sending massive amounts of cotton to England, and England is gladly paying. I think that ultimately would have been the end of slavery — England stops doing business for moral reasons — but that could have been another generation or two of slaves.

    Honestly, looking back on history, the only way to make that period “better,” would have been to fight the war earlier–which probably couldn’t have happened. The North needed to see the South as rebels before they engaged in military activity. I don’t see much opportunity for an alternate solution in any direction.

  56. WharGarbl says

    @falstaff
    #53
    Do remember that whenever a war starts, even unavoidable ones, it was the poor and weak that suffers.
    The girl in question? She’s just about as likely to die if you go to war to “liberate” her. And even if you “liberate” her, it won’t help getting her education if you already bombed the hell out of her potential schools and teachers. Unless you’ve never heard about military using civilians as human shield.

    Some wars are unavoidable, some might even be necessary (such as defensive wars, or against extremely evil regime such as Nazi Germany). But it should be everyone’s goal to avoid starting one whenever possible.

    In a perverse manner, war (violence) IS very good at “solving” problems, namely by removing those effected by said problems. If they’re dead, they’re not going to have any problem anymore.

  57. What a Maroon, el papa ateo says

    Thus, if you want to argue that slavery could have been avoided pre-Constitution, there would be no America, and more importantly, all of those territories would still have slaves. Hell, it may have persisted longer under that scenario, as motivation for keeping the Union together got a lot of Northern racists on board with the War. No Union, chances are there’s little if any effort to end slavery — not to mention what would have happened with Western expansion.

    On the other hand, you have to consider what the effect would have been of having a non-slave nation right across the border from the slave states, with no political or constitutional pressure to return escaping slaves. If the escapees had to make it just to PA or OH, rather than all the way to Canada, would more slaves have tried to escape? And would the resulting economic and moral pressure on the South have made the continuation of slavery less feasible?

  58. Amphiox says

    @59;

    It is as you say all speculation, but the way I see it, without the compromises regarding the slavery question, the 13 colonies would never have agreed to act in unity in the American Revolution, and that would most likely have meant no American Revolution period. It would probably have just gone down as a minor flare-up, quickly suppressed, like the revolts in Upper and Lower Canada in the mid-1800’s.

    British North America would have remained part of the British Empire, and the Empire would have abolished slavery in the mid 1800’s or earlier. Then, as with Canada, the British Empire would eventually have granted sovereignty to its North American colonies, perhaps a bit later than 1867 as happened with Canada in the real world (because the perceived threat of the US was one of the motivating factors for Canadian Confederation), but it would be inevitable, because the ultimate driving force for the dissolution of the British Empire into the Commonwealth was financial – the British simply could not afford to maintain their empire indefinitely. The new nation would be an almagam of Canada and the United States, and would have started as an ally of Britain and be a member of the Commonwealth. This would mean that come WWI and WWII, there would be no “late entry” of the US, and the allies would have won both wars much earlier. And politically, the North American Nation would be a far more progressive nation than the US is today, because the combined political power of Canada and the Northern blue US states would ensure that the extreme conservative elements that poison the US today would always be a much weaker minority in the hypothetical combined BNA entity.

    So you end up with a former British colony nation in North America playing a similar role in world affairs to what the US did in real life, except there would be no American Revolution, no War of 1812, no American Civil War, and with WWI and WWII being shorter affairs with the “good guys” winning sooner. (The term “good guy” being rather loosely applied in the case of WWI).

    One potential wrench in my idealistic little dream scenario could be that the southern states might try to secede from the British Empire over the ending of Slavery. In which case we get the American Revolution except with just the South. ie, the Civil War and the American Revolution would get rolled into a single conflict. Great Britain would most likely win rather easily, and the service of the northern States and Canada in that conflict would probably provide the impetus that eventually leads to Britain granting them sovereignty.

    But in the off-chance that the South wins that rebellion scenario, then we could easily get an alternate history far worse than what we ended up with in real life. The “United States” would then only consist of the southern states. It would be far weaker than the US was in the real world but would still be a major world power. It would likely have sided with Germany in both world wars, creating a North American front.

  59. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    When slavery was enshrined in the US constitution, the Civil War became inevitable. Slaves accounted for the majority of the wealth in the South, and the wealthy were not about to give up the “peculiar institution” that allowed then to live in leisure.

    The Civil War was tragic, and it took the genius of Lincoln to wrest from that tragedy some enduring value–the end of slavery. What happened after the Civil War was also tragic, and very nearly extinguished the hope Lincoln had managed to kindle.

    The Civil War has lessons in it that tell us a lot about our species–our folly, our vanity and our stupidity, but also our courage, perseverence and genius. I have always been struck by the parallels between the American Civil War and the Mahabharata.

    So, I would urge you to commemorate if not celebrate the Civil War and what it tells us about ourselves as Americans and humans. Start with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:

    Fellow-Countrymen:

    AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured. 1
    On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. 2
    One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 3
    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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

  60. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Also, there is considerable evidence that the South had been planning a war of secession since at least the 1840s. Certainly, Jefferson Davis, as Secretary of Defense, did everything he could to advance the careers of southern officers with states-rights sympathies and to ensure a cabal of capable generals should the South secede. It is hard to stop a war when one side insists on shooting.

  61. doubtthat says

    @61 What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    That’s an interesting point. It depends on entirely how much sway abolitionists would have in a North separate from the South. I can see it going a number of ways:
    -Your model — North agrees to harbor “fugitive” slaves (free humans), and that eventually wears down the Southern economy.
    -Alternatively, without having to worry about political cooperation with the North, perhaps the South is even more brutal in its treatment of escapees or potential “fugitives.”
    -Perhaps the North just doesn’t care, abolitionists don’t have much foothold (that’s their problem, not ours), they adopt treaties to return slaves (I don’t think that’s particularly likely).
    -Finally, the escaped slaves just don’t represent a significant enough group to have much effect on the Southern economy, especially with England free to trade for cotton without worrying about alienating the North.

    @62 Amphiox

    I enjoyed that theory, it’s MUCH bolder than you will ever hear a historian consider. There may be forums where that gets discussed, but “the world would be a more moral place if America never existed,” is certainly (1) a defensible premise and (2) something you will NEVER hear discussed — or at least I haven’t.

    I do wonder, however, if England would have been as bullish on abolition if they were controlling the cotton producing areas. England at that time was operating much like Western nations currently do with regard to Southeast Asia: we happily take advantage of the cheap products, periodically acknowledge the horrible things happening, but don’t really do that much about it. England was perfectly happy to accept that cotton, knowing full well how it was generated, and only really abandoned the South officially when the North totally controlled the Mississippi, ensuring that no cotton would make it out.

  62. doubtthat says

    I shouldn’t have said the following: “it’s MUCH bolder than you will ever hear a historian consider.”

    I’m sure there are plenty out there who would consider it. I should have said that such an idea would never be voiced in “respectable” media outlets. I’ve never heard it before, but it is interesting. I’m sure folks consider it often over in England, for obvious reasons.

  63. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    On, yet off topic:

    There was a minor Civil War skirmish virtually (if not literally) in my backyard in 1864.

    Though outnumbered by more than two to one, the Confederate cavalry attacked the federal unit, breaking the federal unit and chasing them down York Road to around current day Woodbourne Avenue within Baltimore City limits.

    I live a couple blocks west of York Road just inside the city limits. Pretty close to the battle.

  64. What a Maroon, el papa ateo says

    Alternative history is a lot of fun. Another consideration is: what would have happened to Mexico if the colonies had never revolted? There’s a decent chance that Mexico would have held on to the west (and maybe even bought Louisiana from Napoleon?). Would that have made Mexico the dominant power in the hemisphere? And what would that mean for the general ratio of good to evil in the world?

    @65 doubtthat,

    Ideally your first scenario would have played out, but I suspect the fourth would have been the most likely.

  65. says

    It’s important not to dismiss something as useless because it failed to accomplish all that might be possibly wished for. To quote Jonathan Lynn (writing satirically in Yes Minister):

    All that World War Two achieved after six years was to leave Eastern Europe under a Communist dictatorship instead of a Fascist dictatorship.

    Yet, many people find value in that war. The Civil War did, in fact, end Southern ambitions to extend slavery into the West, Cuba, and Mexico. It did, in fact, result in the 13th amendment. More could be wished for, with less cost–a wish fervently made at the time–but that’s what we got, and it was of real value.

  66. says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    . What happened after the Civil War was also tragic, and very nearly extinguished the hope Lincoln had managed to kindle.


    Tony Mendina

    It did, in fact, result in the 13th amendment. More could be wished for, with less cost–a wish fervently made at the time–but that’s what we got, and it was of real value.

    This is another excellent point. In a way, John Wilkes Booth may have actually achieved his goals by shooting Lincoln; I suspect that had he lived, he would have taken a much stronger line on Reconstruction, instead of largely handing power back to the same white plantation owners who ran things before. At an absolute minimum, all real property (notably and especially land) of slaveowners should have been promptly confiscated and distributed among the freedmen and freedwomen formerly enslaved by them, along with lifetime bans on membership in any state or federal legislature for anyone who was an officer in the Confederate armed service or who served in the governments the Confederacy or any of its member states.

  67. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    As to the British colonies, the Brits would probably have held on to them as long as they ascribed to the flawed theory of mercantilism. They were desperately afraid of sending their Sterling abroad, and the Colonies were a convenient way of getting raw materials and a captive market for manufactures. The hold of mercantilism didn’t wane until at least the 1840s, and it is hard to see them letting go of the colonies after that.

    Mexico was terminally unstable, and would have been so even in the absence of the annexation of TX and CA. The Napoleonic wars would have provided all the excuse for settlers to take the Spanish possessions in the New World after Napoleon conquered Spain.

    Of greater uncertainty is whether the Brits would have ever founded the Raj in India had they held onto their American colonies.

  68. dogfightwithdogma says

    The Civil War was not a romantic struggle between the forces of good and evil (both North and South were rather horribly racist), and it was a totally unnecessary war — it was a botched surgery to excise the ugly tumor of hypocrisy established at the founding of this country, and it didn’t do a very good job of that.

    I think perhaps you let your emotions get the better of you PZ. I can’t imagine how this war could or would have been “unnecessary” for all the reasons that have been mentioned by others who have posted in this thread, not to mention the Ta-Nehisi Coates series of essays. I’m sure you didn’t intend it, but your comments minimize the 250 years of suffering and degradation of blacks.

    What a waste.

    It all would have been a waste had slavery continued for whatever reason. But the end of slavery certainly means that the deaths and destroyed lives were not a waste. Sure, we still must deal with racism and political divisions. But the end of slavery was and continues be worth the price that was paid. It is now up to us and future generations to end the racism, to root it out in all its manifestations. The Civil War did not leave us a legacy of racism. That was present before the war. Ending it is the part of the struggle that is our burden to carry. It is the remaining part of the evil that is our task and moral obligation to destroy.

  69. says

    And in this advanced future, per acre, California produces more cotton.

    Weird, huh? California is responsible for about 2.5 million of the 17.3 million bales of cotton. Although Calcotton and National Cotton Council / USDA disagree on output.

  70. richcon says

    I can’t disagree more. The only truly tragic part of such a brutal and destructive war to end slavery is that it took such a brutal and destructive war to end slavery. Even if it took another hundred years for real legal equality, it was worth any human cost to end slavery and start the hundred years going.

    I bet if you asked any former slave living in the South through the early years of Jim Crow, hate militias, lynchings, and burning crosses if they’d rather just go back to slavery, you’d get a VERY emphatic answer.