Was It Worth It?

During the last week Tony Horwitz and Ta-Nehisi Coates offered their opinions on whether the Civil War was worth it … or, as some would put it, whether it was a “good war.”

These arguments tell us much more about the perspective and the values of the person presenting the argument than anything else. Yes, I believe secession and war represent a failure of the American system of government to resolve certain problems. However, I’ll add that when I hear that it failed “to resolve certain problems,” implicit in that phrasing is that the resolution would have brought an end to slavery. What if American whites had decided to resolve their problems in the first half of the nineteenth century by retaining slavery in a way that most people found acceptable? Would that represent a triumph of democracy? For whom?

What happened between 1861 and 1865 came at great cost to many Americans. So did what happened between 1619 and 1860, especially to the enslaved. Yet one of the ugly truths of American history is that much of the nation’s early strength was erected on the foundations provided by slave labor. And please spare me the discussions about peaceful emancipation: after all, the British Empire had no problem proclaiming its moral purity on the issue after 1833 while it continued to import the products of enslaved labor … and there were those who advocated intervention in the conflict to protect that flow of raw materials that was so essential to British industrialization. Do a little more reading before you tell me all about peaceful emancipation.

I think it’s a mistake to engage in the simple-minded balance sheet discussions that weighs 640,000 … or 750,000 … or whatever number we decide was the war’s toll in human deaths … in exchange for the emancipation of some four million African Americans, especially as the people who engage in this discussion were not asked to pay those prices. But let’s humor some folks. If slavery persisted beyond 1865, one would add those born into slavery after 1865 to one’s balance sheet. One could also argue that one does not discuss the generations never born as a result of the war’s slaughter. It all depends on who you believe is paying the price … although it astonishes me that people continue to forget that a good number of those who died in the American Civil War died not to destroy slavery, but to preserve it, and many people gave their lives for other reasons. So let’s be careful when we throw around numbers and confuse intent with result.

Let’s also not forget what the war wrought … and what it did not wrought. No one likes to talk about Reconstruction, of course, and how it represents another failure of the American promise (or, as Eric Foner calls it, “an unfinished revolution”).

Was it worth it? You tell me. Is it a shame that we have to ask that question? Yes.

21 thoughts on “Was It Worth It?

  1. jfepperson June 21, 2013 / 12:47 pm

    Yes, it was worth it. It is sad, even tragic that it was necessary, all the more so because of the unfinished nature of things, but it *was* necessary. The death and suffering could perhaps have been less, but that gets into hindsight and other controversies.

  2. Mark June 21, 2013 / 1:11 pm

    >> And please spare me the discussions about peaceful emancipation: after all, the British Empire had no problem proclaiming its moral purity on the issue after 1833 while it continued to import the products of enslaved labor … and there were those who advocated intervention in the conflict to protect that flow of raw materials that was so essential to British industrialization. Do a little more reading before you tell me all about peaceful emancipation.

    That’s a great point. And from the point of view of an American slave, it seems to me a state of war did exist in their world. Unless it wasn’t so bad after all, which is where the Lost Cause and Gone with the Wind versions of things play a crucial role in the narrative, as we all know.

    >> Was it worth it? You tell me. Is it a shame that we have to ask that question? Yes.

    I second that.

  3. Jimmy Dick June 21, 2013 / 2:39 pm

    Wars are terrible things that destroy everything remotely connected to them and leave a wake of chaos and change behind them. This war could have been prevented, but slavery would have still existed. Would slavery have ended peacefully? We don’t know the answer to that. What we do know is that men valued the system of slavery enough in 1860-1865 to secede from their parent country and start a war when the they felt the very concept of slavery was being threatened. Would they have thought that way a generation or two later?

    Slavery as an institution was a horrible stain on humanity. I should use present tense because it still exists today. For the American version of it I feel that it was a terrible crime against humanity, yet I can’t change the past. The people of the past did what they did. All I can do is learn from what I deem were their mistakes.

    With that thought in mind, if it was going to take a war to end slavery in the United States, then the war was worth it. It could have had far less damaging effects, but that again was beyond the control of most people.

    The problem with saying the war was worth it seems to be a lousy question to begin with because of what happened afterwards. Reconstruction could have gone a lot better, but it appears that cracking the whip on the resisters wasn’t going to happen. Even then it might not have gone well. It was a terrible mistake to end Reconstruction. That may be the bigger crime than the war itself.

  4. Rob Baker June 21, 2013 / 4:39 pm

    I feel like you’ve limited the conversation to a narrow scope, dismissing other forms of emancipation without war and the casualty count of the war. With that said, all we can say for sure is that a war did happen, and it did, through it’s impact, end slavery. So was the war worth it? And is it a shame that we have to ask?

    To acknowledge the latter, I disagree that it is a shame we have to ask. Given the numerous “ideal” ways to achieve emancipation, and the casualty counts and economic deprivation the war wrought, I don’t think it is a shame to ask. I think it is a legitimate question to ponder. To use your same line of thought, at what point and at what abstract number does the casualty toll outweigh the war’s outcome? Life/death for freedom and vice versa. At what point is the escalation of violence justified? These are moral dilemmas and philosophical paradoxes that can weight heavily. I don’t think it is a shame to ask such questions.

    Finally was the war worth it? Yes and no. I am not a fan of war, believing it is the extreme escalation of violence only necessary when all other acts of diplomacy have failed. So we have to ask, was diplomacy exhausted? In that regard yes. Is freedom worth war? Again yes. But the Union did not begin their war for slavery, they fought their war for preservation of the Union. The South fought in defense, both of their newly claimed independence and the slave society of the Confederacy. In retrospect, both the Union and the Confederacy used war as an instrument of those policies. In that respect, no the war was not worth it. But here lies the paradox. The war evolved to and became a war to end slavery. So if there is no war, is there no emancipation? And if the Union and Confederacy never escalated the instrument of policy for reasons not worth war, will a war ever start where its causes and outcome are emancipation. Maybe you have an answer here Brooks.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 21, 2013 / 5:01 pm

      To me, emancipation’s not inevitable. You have to figure out how white southerners were going to abandon slavery. It would have to have been out of economic interest, and as of 1860 slavery’s booming in most of the places where it exists. Even where it does not (let’s say much of Virginia), it’s useful to keep slavery going in order to allow white Virginians to sell more slaves.

      So, regardless of how you foresee slavery ending, you have to tell me how white southerners come to accept that.

      My point about the casualty count is that intent does not equal result. All of those people did not die to end slavery. A good number died to protect it. Others thought they were giving their lives for other reasons … independence, union, self-defense, and so on.

      A question may be both a shame to ask and legitimate to ponder. What I’m suggesting is that the pondering tells me more about the ponderer than anything else.

      Without war, is there emancipation? Well, depends on the state of things in 1861. Is there a Confederacy? Is there no war because another compromise has been forged, or because Lincoln decides to accept Confederate independence?

      The problem with the “slavery was in decline” argument is two-fold. First, most people in 1860 did not believe that. Second, the models that present that argument use statistics shaped by the event of war. So you would first have to project changes in that alternative universe of the counterfactual.

      • Rob Baker June 21, 2013 / 5:23 pm

        I don’t see how white southerners could accept that. Given that two centuries of slavery created a slave society culture, abandoning the institution would be a dramatic ideological shift.

        A good number died to protect it. I guess we should hypothetically ask those deceased, was it worth it?

        What I’m suggesting is that the pondering tells me more about the ponderer than anything else. Absolutely. Questions often carry the perspective of those asking.

        I think the numerous questions often lead to the road of counterfactual. But I recognize that reducing the contingencies of emancipation may or may not lead to a different event. Yet I think when we chip away items that lead to war which lead to emancipation, we begin these loops. In 1861, if there is a Confederacy are they independent or are they contested? Does the compromise prevent or merely postpone war? Does Lincoln’s recognition of a Southern Government prevent or postpone war? Sticking with what we know, the war did happen, it did end slavery. The question, “was it worth it,” is subjective.

        I’ve never found any merit in the belief that slavery was on the decline in 1860. I’m not sure what you are referring to.

        • Brooks D. Simpson June 21, 2013 / 8:30 pm

          I’m not referring to anything you’ve said. What I think needs confronting is this notion that (a) slavery was dying [folks at the time did not believe that] and (b) that “settling” the issue meant arranging for an eventual end to slavery. I see nothing in the position of a majority of white southerners to have any confidence about that in terms of the world that actually existed.

      • Ned June 21, 2013 / 5:27 pm

        I agree. Furthermore I feel that there the alternatives presented are too limited to address a complex situation. Without war in 1861, would there be war in 1865 or war in 1873 or at some other time? In other words, does avoiding bloodshed now simply postpone it until another time? Whereas does engaging in bloodshed now reduce future bloodshed?

        On other observation about the ‘slavery in decline’ argument — the fear of decline can make a resort to violence more likely. It was the prospect of decline in political power of the slaveocracy vis a vis the republican north that led to secession. If that power were not in decline, rebellion would not have been necessary.

        I also think the ‘peaceful emancipation’ argument misses the forest for the trees. Haiti was not peaceful and there was plenty of slave vs owner violence in the british carribean colonies — pompeys revolt in the Bahamas, the Baptist war in Jamaica, Jacob Kierney plot on Tortola, unrest in Antigua.

  5. neukomment June 21, 2013 / 9:05 pm

    Regarding slavery dying or declining: The whole point of Lincoln’s Cooper Union address underscored the free states’ fear that they would wake up one morning to find out a Dred Scott II Supreme Court decision had effectively expanded slavery into the free states. I find it curious that the popular view of the history of the Civil War seems to totally miss Lincoln’s concern in that speech and also misses why the Cooper Union address was so effective in propelling Lincoln into national prominence and the presidency. How many high school history students ever had the Cooper Union address as required reading?

    It was not just abolitionist sentiment, but a perception in the free states of an aggressive pro-slavery imperialism not only running rampant in the territories, but also to be foisted upon the free states wanted or not.

    In that light it is an amazing wonder how the slave confederacy and its revisionist “historians” puts on the air of the aggrieved and oppressed “free people of the South…”

    A horrible cost was paid in lives and destruction. Was it worth it? What choice were we given when they stole our forts and armaments and fired on our flag? As one Union veteran put it, it was not just about preserving the Union, it was also about making the Union something worth preserving…

  6. Lyle Smith June 22, 2013 / 5:59 am

    Well bless some of our intelligentsia’s hearts, of course it was worth it and of course it is a shame today to have to ask such a question. There’s going to always be people though that say no good or value comes from any war or any violence, and that such war or violence could have been avoided through more dialogue and compromise. How ridiculous though right?

    • SF Walker June 24, 2013 / 5:37 am

      That’s very true. As it turned out, slavery and rebellion could not have been ended by political discourse, appeasement, or negotiation any more than the Holocaust and Hitler’s expansionism could have been. In cases like these, when your opponent understands only violence, the man behind the trigger is the only solution to the problem. We wish it didn’t have to be this way, but the fact is that there will always be a few bastards in this world who need to be killed. The 180,000 blacks who donned Army blue to help free their people certainly thought so.

      Further diplomacy with the South was pointless, because they made it clear that they’d settle for nothing less than unconditional Federal protection of slavery wherever Southerners chose to take it. By the end of the 1850s, this was unacceptable to many in the North, despite the Fugitive Slave Act.

      In the end, Grant was absolutely right when he stated that “they who fired on Fort Sumter were the greatest practical abolitionists our nation has produced.”

  7. John Foskett June 22, 2013 / 8:20 am

    Ask the dude whose wife and kids just got sold to three different people from two different states. That “institution” wasn’t disappearing peacefully in his lifetime. Not dissimilar from asking one of the human skeletons rescued from Dachau whether the war was “worth it”.

  8. John Randolph June 22, 2013 / 1:10 pm

    Of course, your question depends on who is doing the answering. The mother with five children in Georgia who was emancipated by Sherman’s troops in 1864 might be expected to answer with a resounding yes. However, the mother in Maine who never saw any of her five sons return home from the war might be expected to answer the question differently. Both answers would be valid given the different perspectives involved.

    From the broad perspective of history, however, I think Neukomment makes a really good point when he notes, “As one Union veteran put it, it was not just about preserving the Union, it was also about making the Union something worth preserving…”

    I think this is exactly right.

    The ideals of human freedom and equality so eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence are, in and of themselves, nothing but words on a piece of paper. These only have meaning and significance insofar people are actually willing to stand up and fight for them. From this perspective, the answer to your question would be yes. The Civil War, for all of its brutality, horror and carnage, was ultimately a necessary evil if the ideals of the American nation were ever to be regarded by its people as more than mere words. Many Americans from the Civil War era would have understood slavery as contrary to the ideals set out in the Declaration of Independence and, therefore, something that needed to be forever eliminated from the life of the Nation through any means possible. While the struggle against slavery was a moral victory for America, its destruction in 1865 certainly did not redeem the American promise nor come anywhere close to settling the conflict between human freedom and exploitation.

    The war concluded at Appomattox in 1865 was part of the same struggle witnessed in the streets of Selma in 1965 and continues on to the present day. It’s a conflct with no end in sight. The long run significance of The Civil War is not just about the defeat of secession and slavery. Yes, its true the legacy of racism and Southern nationalism still linger and animate some to continue to resist along those lines, but they are not the only reasons for the continuing existence of this struggle. In regards to the bigger picture, I think one always needs to be mindful of the role of powerful economic and political forces which loom large in the history of both America and other Western nations since the Industrial Revolution, albeit in the shadows. Whether it is through slavery, indentured servitude, or paid labor, our political institutions faciliate a system that out of necessity presses countless numbers of human beings into a life of ongoing economic production in order to satisfy society’s material needs. There are both great benefits and costs to this. Nevertheless, given the inevitable imbalance of power between those at the top of the system and the multitudes below who are required to serve it, this situation also sets the stage for a never-ending struggle between the individual’s aspirations for true freedom and society’s collective need to employ human inputs in order to achieve material abundance and progress.

    Much of the history of the West since 1800 is the story of the ebbs and flows of this struggle.

  9. wgdavis June 23, 2013 / 11:42 pm

    For four million slaves it was worth it. For the millions of Blacks who came after it ended slavery, it was worth it. For the redemption of a nation that in a moment of strength and courage at its formation showed a moral weakness that it put off dealing with until a later time, it was the price that had to be paid.

    As Lincoln said:

    “…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
    offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by
    whom the offence 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 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, as was said
    three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgements of the
    Lord, are true and righteous altogether”.

    That last sentence sums it up:

    “…Yet if God wills that it continue 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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”.

  10. TF Smith June 24, 2013 / 9:26 am

    Yes, yes, a million times yes.

    The war began in the 1600s…it just took until 1865 to come to a conclusion.

  11. Reed June 24, 2013 / 4:42 pm

    No, the war was most certainly not worth it. It was, in fact, a senseless, murderous, and outrageous injustice perpetrated against a people who chose to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers. As Southern white slave-owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson sought political independence, so too did Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. And as King George attempted to deny that right of independence, Abraham Lincoln did deny that right. And as Brithish loyalists observed the evident hypocrisy of American slave-owners and slave-traders howling for freedom, so too do contemporary critics of the Confederacy snarl that slave-owners do not deserve independence. It should be very clear that 1776 and 1861 were virtually identical political phenomena.

  12. TF Smith June 24, 2013 / 5:05 pm

    Too perfect – you must be one of Dr. Simpson’s grad students playing sock puppet.

  13. TF Smith June 24, 2013 / 5:25 pm

    Maybe he or she is running it through a friend’s ISP?

    One other point worth making in the “was it worth it” discussion – not that it should be, but put the impact on the enslaved to one side – simply for the fact that the ACW prevented a North America as balkanized as South America makes the cost of the war worthwhile.

    Take a look at the internecine wars between the Latin American republics in the 19th and 20th centuries, much less the internal conflicts, and explain how a similar future in North America would have been avoided if the southern rebellion had suceeded.

    How long before Texas rebels? The Trans-Mississippi? The LDS in Utah? How long would if have taken for some sort of fragile stability to have arisen? There were international conflicts in South America with significant territorial exhanges until the 1940s, and absent the Cold War, it is quite possible there would have been more throughout the 20th Century…

    North America could have been just as bloody, and with all the potential involvement of the European powers, it probably would have been even bloodier…as would have the South American conflicts, absent a strong US.

  14. Chris Evans July 5, 2013 / 2:31 pm

    Yes, it was the key event of American history.

    I think all readers would do well to read a virtually forgotten book from 1975 ‘The American Civil War’ by Peter J. Parish. Everybody always mentions McPherson when they talk about a one volume history of the war but the way Parrish weighs the issues of the Civil War is stunning (at least to me). He has some of the best synthesis of heavy issues created by the war that I have read.

    In his last chapter he sums up the influence and importance of the Civil War to America the best I have seen anyone do.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s