Was the Civil War Necessary?

Was the Civil War necessary to (a) preserve the Union (b) to destroy slavery as it existed in the United States of November 1860?

Note: “necessary” is not the same as “inevitable.”

42 thoughts on “Was the Civil War Necessary?

  1. Jim Lamason July 26, 2013 / 7:26 am

    Brooks, That is really a tough one to answer. I dont know how to separate the two.. It was inevitable given the times it occurred in. In a way the pent up energy that the crisis that led to the war, was an explosion of emotion and feelings and even yes hatred pent up over so many years. I think Lincoln said it best and maybe (gasp) john brown understood, that the whole concept of slavery there was no way to get rid of it without the shedding of blood. There were so many factors in my mind driving the nation in that direction. I think also Catton may have put it best. That as long as “reasonable men” were still being heard and listen to, no war. But once they were shutdown and shouted down, drowned out as it were, yes we were headed towards war.. I know its not the answer you are looking for.. Maybe its because I have come to understand how we got there were because of decisions of several and then the hector. In the end of it all .. I think there were forks in the road And we as a people just kept making the wrong decisions.. JIM

  2. Barky July 26, 2013 / 7:51 am

    I’m afraid to say it, but yes, yes it was. IMO slavery was the cancer eating at the soul of the nation, and was actually keeping us back from being a major world power. It had to be dealt with, and it was not going to be dealt with legislatively.

  3. Yes. It was necessary for both reasons. I am fairly new to Civil War history (only 3 years), but as a dramatist, it is a “perfect” conflict — tragically inevitable, with equal passions — and wounds still not healed. It was necessary to preserve the union because the South would not end slavery except through force. Frederick Douglass understood this early, Lincoln later. It is impressive to realize how fast people like Lincoln and Grant learned this. And equally impressive and sad to realize how stuck we are now, how unable to find common ground for the good of the nation that was saved.

  4. Lyle Smith July 26, 2013 / 9:38 am

    I say yes to both (a) and (b). Once Fort Sumter was fired upon you have to send troops south. Compensated emancipation wasn’t a practical solution at the time (probably not for some time, if ever) and would have been met with violence, I imagine, if forced on what became the Confederate states.

  5. Bob Huddleston July 26, 2013 / 9:38 am

    Your question is backwards: it is quietly assuming that the Yankees started the War. The question should read “Was the CW necessary to preserve slavery?” The answer is a resounding “No”! Starting a civil war hastened the demise of slavery by several generations.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 26, 2013 / 11:09 am

      We have no idea what would have happened to slavery in several generations. Show me how you preserve the Union otherwise. Perhaps you want white southerners to make the concessions. Let’s say they don’t.

      The question doesn’t ask who started the war.

      As for what the questions should be, heck, you can always ask your own questions, but I’m perfectly happy with mine.

  6. Bob Nelson July 26, 2013 / 10:16 am

    To preserve the Union, yes. The leaders of the infant CSA were determined to go their own way and I can’t think of any inducement that might have gotten them back in the fold peacefully. To destroy slavery as it existed in April 1861, I’m not sure. Lincoln in his Inaugural said he had no intention of meddling with the institution where it existed. Freeing the slaves only really became a war measure in late 1862 after the EP.

  7. Bob Nelson July 26, 2013 / 10:29 am

    Not a reply to this question but a new one if you think it appropriate.

    After the war, a number of former high-ranking Confederates including Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote that the war was not fought over slavery. With 300,000-plus dead and the South largely destroyed, they probably realized that slavery might not be the best justification for what had happened. No, they wrote, it was all about states’ rights. OK, if it was states’ rights, just exactly which rights did they want that they didn’t already have? What rights were being withheld from them? The only I can think of was that Southerners were disallowed from taking their slaves into the territories. I don’t see how their fear of what might transpire in regards to slavery years in the future could be construed as a “state right.”

    • Joshism July 26, 2013 / 1:48 pm

      Ironic on the part of Alexander Stephens in particular since shortly after the formation of the Confederate government he declared slavery as the cornerstone on which the CSA was built.

      • Bob Nelson July 26, 2013 / 2:51 pm

        He later claimed to have been misquoted.

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 26, 2013 / 3:04 pm

          Stephens’s claim to have been misquoted reminds me of Thurman Munson’s reaction to Reggie Jackson’s assertion that he was misquoted in a controversial 1977 Sport magazine article:

          “For three @&%$)#ing pages?”

          • Jimmy Dick July 26, 2013 / 6:19 pm

            It’s the classic case of what was said early and what was said after.

        • Bob Huddleston July 26, 2013 / 4:08 pm

          Good claim. But worthless!

          In an age innocent of CNN, a politician could repeat a speech several times without worrying that his listeners had already heard or seen the speech. Stephens appears to given the basic Cornerstone Speech at least two times: in Atlanta on March 12 and in Savannah on March 21. The first speech was reported in the _Atlanta Southern Confederacy_ the following day and repeated in the _Charleston Mercury_ on March 18 but appears to have not been noted in the Northern papers. However the second speech was copied from the Savannah Republican and made its way into the war-time _Rebellion Record_, edited by Frank Moore (Doc 48, vol. 1, 1861). While Stephens was in Fort Warren, (Myrta L. Avery, ed., _Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens: His Diary Kept while a Prisoner in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, 1865_ (reprint 1998, pp. 172-174) he claimed that his “cornerstone analogy was taken out of context.

          While justifying his involvement in starting the Civil War, Stephens also forgot a third time when he used the “Cornerstone” as part of a speech. On April 23, 1861, Stephens addressed the Virginia Secession Convention, urging them to join with the other slave states in the new Confederacy. In addition to all but promising that Richmond would be the Confederacy’s capital, Stephens carefully laid out the consequences to the Particular Institution if Virginia did not join the Confederacy.

          What is not mentioned in any of the biographies of Robert E. Lee is that Stephens made his address right after Lee was appointed major general of the Virginia state army – right after Lee had made his famous and taken out of context statement about never drawing his sword except to defend Virginia. Lee’s confirmation by the convention was an add-on for the day’s events, when the army officer arrived in Richmond after Stephens had already been invited. And Lee had to know that his sword was going to be drawn to defend Virginia as part of the Confederacy. Lee also conveniently forgot that he was still a United States Army officer, since his resignation had not yet been accepted by the Secretary of War.

          As for Stephens, his declaration both at Fort Warren and in _The War Between the States_ that he was misquoted and taken out of context is interesting since both the Savannah Republican version of the speech as well as the Virginia Convention speech appeared in his authorized biography and speech collection, Henry Cleveland, _Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private. With Letters and Speeches Before, During, and Since the War_. (National Publishing Company: Philadelphia and Chicago, 1866), a book which was written with his full cooperation, including the use of letters written by president-elect Lincoln to Stephens and the inclusion of a letter from Stephens to Cleveland approving the page proofs.

    • TF Smith July 29, 2013 / 3:51 pm

      Yes to both.

      Re the issue of slavery in the territories, was that even really an issue in 1860-61? Had slaveowners even been prevented – by federal forces, civil or military – from taking slaves into the territories prior to when the rebel states seceded? The FSA was still in play, after all.

      Lincoln had yet to be inaugurated, much less created any policies to prevent slaves from being taken into the territories. It was part of the party platform, but had yet to be promulgated in terms of legislation, much less actual enforcement, from what I know.

      Absent secession, Lincoln is sworn in, and a bunch of armed Texans start herding a coffle of slaves into New Mexico Territory – what happens? The US Marshal stops them with a writ?

  8. Eric Burke July 26, 2013 / 12:14 pm

    (a) The preservation of the legislative Union, perhaps – which in and of itself, as an icon, is perhaps worth it. The ideological “Union” has never really existed, unfortunately; (b) To destroy slavery in such a temporally expedient fashion, yes. Four years is about as close as one can get to “sudden death” when it comes to a centuries-long institution.

    The question definitely warrants more attention. At least as much as the “inevitability” clause is so often granted.

  9. Mark July 26, 2013 / 12:24 pm

    >> After the war, a number of former high-ranking Confederates including Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote that the war was not fought over slavery.

    And in the case of JD, his version was widely accepted based on nothing other than his word. So much for the “winners writing history” meme. See “Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism” by Neely. The author notes that it is remarkable that Davis’ version of history was largely unchallenged for over 100 years on nothing other than his word for it. One reason was the weakness of Southern record keeping. The relevant records that would challenge it didn’t advertise themselves very well, and those who knew better were discouraged from saying so as the Lost Cause narrative brought Southerners into line with the talking points.

  10. Al Mackey July 26, 2013 / 12:42 pm

    As long as the confederates were willing to start a war in order to 1) break up the Union; and 2) preserve and protect slavery, then yes, it was necessary to both preserve the Union and destroy slavery, even though the Federals, at the very beginning of the war, weren’t seeking to destroy slavery in the states where it existed–at least right away. Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to make moves against slavery outside the states where it existed, such as challenging the Dred Scott ruling and cutting off slavery’s expansion and putting forward their constitutional interpretation that the Federal Government and citizens of free states had no obligation to return runaway slaves. And we shouldn’t forget the reason why they wanted to break up the Union was to preserve and protect slavery.

  11. John Foskett July 26, 2013 / 12:49 pm

    Yes, if one believes that the appropriate objective was to bring the evil of slavery to a fairly prompt end (as opposed to gradual erosion which likely would have required decades). As we know, the trigger – secession – occurred primarily because of fears that the “Black Republicans” intended to shorten the time it would take to kill the snake. Proof that it wasn’t happening without the resulting war. This is a case where inevitable = necessary. and that then carries over to the other.goal of preserving the Union.

  12. Joshism July 26, 2013 / 1:59 pm

    It was necessary to preserve the Union. The Deep South seceded before Lincoln was inaugurated, before he had a chance to commit a single overt act as president. The South made the decision to seceded based on FEAR of what was going to happen because of Lincoln’s election. They were too paranoid of the Republican boogieman and too proud to admit they were wrong to come back peacefully. What guarantee could have been made that the South would have accepted, especially one that the North could have also stomached? I think there was none.

    I don’t think the war was necessary to end slavery eventually, but it was necessary to end slavery at that time period. Slavery would have become extinct when it was no longer financially lucrative, but there is no way to known how long that would have taken and no evidence it was on the horizon in 1860. The social controls of slavery were largely successfully replaced in the South by segregation and Jim Crow. Alternatively, you have an internal revolution in the South against slavery by Southern whites, but based on the reaction to Hinton Helper’s book that wasn’t going to happen any time soon either.

    • Save July 4, 2016 / 12:56 pm

      Slavery was ended peacefully in the British colonies at or before the same time.

      The economic forces against slavery were already in play i.e. The steam engine.

      • Brooks D. Simpson July 4, 2016 / 2:19 pm

        And, of course, one reason Great Britain could end slavery in the empire is that it could still profit from what slavery produced in the United States.

      • John Foskett July 5, 2016 / 2:43 pm

        Sure they were. Of course there’s the small matter of the date by which it would become economically unattractive and the date by which it would be perceived as economically unattractive. That horizon wasn’t a mere 3-5 years out – if it were, secession was a colossally stupid, suicidal, unnecessary move. Slavery by 1861 was a profitable enterprise and the “forces” which you mention were in the nascent stage so far as they affected slavery in the South.

        • bob carey July 5, 2016 / 5:12 pm

          He mentions the steam engine as a technological advance that somehow would eliminate slavery, look what the cotton gin did.

  13. Jimmy Dick July 26, 2013 / 2:40 pm

    Definitely required to preserve the Union. The concept of America as it exists today would not have happened without that war. There would have been bigger wars later in North America had the North not called up troops after Sumter. However, the war was not inevitable. As Jim Lamason pointed out above, when reasonable men were no longer being heard due to the unreasonable men who refused to compromise the only solution was violence.

    As for ending slavery, we will never know. Slavery was flourishing in 1860, but it was due to the high prices of the cotton on the world market. Had the price of cotton dropped which definitely would have happened at some point the high cost of slaves plus the resulting financial depression that would have resulted would have given the perfect opportunity to end slavery through financial compensation. That is entirely subjective. What would the former slaves have done? The need for labor in the South would have required them, but would a relocation concept have been brought up again? Who knows?

  14. Matt McKeon July 26, 2013 / 3:23 pm

    Since the secessionists were not open to compromise, and not willing to accept a Republican president, and the North and Lincoln were not willing to accept secession, there was going to be a fight. I think both sides would have loved to get their way without a fight, both they couldn’t.

    As far as slavery is concerned, there was no mechanism, no place, mental or institutional to even question its existence in the slave states. Because there was no slavery in the United States from 1865 on, its hard to picture slavery co existing with Model T Fords, or World War II. But in an hypothetical Confederacy, I just can’t see who would abolish it or how it would ever be abolished.

    Slavery hummed along profitably for over 200 years. It survived financial panics, major wars, and adapted itself to every kind of economic activity. Any effort to uproot it would have to be a sustained

  15. James F. Epperson July 26, 2013 / 4:35 pm

    To some extent the answer depends on when the question is posed. Pose it before 1854 and Kansas-Nebraska and Dred Scott, and there is a chance the two sections can live in a tense peace. But just a chance. (And this doesn’t address part (b).) Once secession occurred and the Confederacy formed, it became necessary, IMO, for the Federal government to respond, and any response other than abject surrender would mean war.

    The above was all about (a) in Brooks’s formulation. I think (b) is more complicated. It is *possible* that, with the fullness of time and in the absence of a war over secession, that slavery might have ended in the United States. The course of a Lincoln presidency w/o secession and war is interesting to contemplate. But, given the Southern reaction to Lincoln’s election, I fear that the elimination of slavery would require either a civil war between the sections, or one hell of a long time.

  16. Salvador Alex Litvak July 26, 2013 / 6:48 pm

    What I’d really like from this august company is ammunition when someone tells me, “Lincoln should’ve just let the South go. So what if there were two countries instead of one? The Balkanization argument is hogwash. There would have been two countries sharing a large space and trading with each other. Slavery would die out over time as it did in every other republic. And 700,000+ boys would not have died.” This is certainly NOT my view, but as the director of a Lincoln film, I often hear something like it…

    • Jimmy Dick July 26, 2013 / 9:38 pm

      Since the secession was over the expansion of slavery, the Confederacy had to expand. Where was it going to expand to? It was not ever going to be Cuba because the Spanish refused to sell it and the Confederacy did not have the power to take the island. It couldn’t take Mexico either. It would not have had the support of its people in any shape close to what it had in the Civil War for an invasion of Mexico. That leaves the Western United States which was not Confederate territory. If the idiotic fireeaters were willing to attack the US like they did, what makes you think they wouldn’t have attacked to gain lands in the West?

      Expansion was the key. The victimization idea that the South should have been left to go peacefully is garbage. Peace was rejected by the South when Davis ordered Sumter fired on. Violence was their preferred method of gain and that is exactly what they did to get more states in the Confederacy. They would have certainly attack the US to gain additional lands at some point in time or to grab a state that was on the border.

    • John Foskett July 27, 2013 / 8:19 am

      Start off by asking one of these nitwits to pretend that he/she is a slave working somebody’s cotton fields; that he or she wants to know when Massah will stop selling off the wife and kids and resorting to the occasional lash; and then getting the answer “be patuent – these things sometimes take a few generations, but all signs indicate that maybe by 1900 or so it will mostly have died, off.” Let them ponder that one. If they’re smart enough, we can move on to the future of that self-sustaining independent nastion south of the Mason Dixon line.

    • James F. Epperson July 27, 2013 / 8:28 am

      I don’t think the Balkanization argument is hogwash—and I have argued it with someone from the Balkans! Even two countries with competing interests would have struck sparks. There would have been constant potential conflict over borders, over abolitionists wanting the US to free the slaves in the CS. European powers would have been playing one off against the other. It would have been a mess.

    • Don July 27, 2013 / 6:13 pm

      If the secession of the confederate states were accepted by the United States, war would have broken out eventually. First, there is the problem of the slave states that remained in the United States. Would a peaceful resolution of what they would do eventually be acceptable to both sides? Second, if the United States adopted a hands-off policy on fugitive slaves how long would the slave republic have accepted that a common border with a non-slave republic led to increased attrition to slaves? Third, the cessation of United States lands claimed by the slave states would have been demanded by the triumphant slaveocracy. Fourth, wars of expansion by the slave republic into Mexico, Cental America and the Caribbean would have led to clashes with the United States. Fifth, how long would the slave republic accept efforts to end the international slave trade? How long would the slave republic accept abolitionist attempts to foment defection and even rebellion in their slave populations? The plain fact is that not only could the United States not survive half free and half slave neither could two adjacent republics one free and the other slave.

    • TF Smith July 29, 2013 / 4:05 pm

      How long before Texas secedes from the CSA, simply because it is Texas? The debts were paid off, after all, and they HAD been independent once before…I’d expect the Comanche could make interesting allies for a rump CSA against the Texans…

      Indeed, what does the entire trans-Mississippi CSA gain from being governed from Richmond – or Montgomery?

      Why wouldn’t the Francophones in Louisiana or the Iberophones in Florida see “parish rights” or “county rights” as the next logical step from “states rights”?

      How long until France (which intervened in Mexico in the 1860s), Spain (which intervened in Chile, Peru, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, in the 1860s, and actually tried to reincorporate the DR back into the Spanish Empire), or Britain (which intervened in Mexico in 1861) decided that “Louisiana Libre” or “Florida Hispanica” was wise policy?

      The Confderates had their eyes on the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico), northern Mexico, and Central America – the “Golden Circle” was envisioned as including the whole of the Caribbean Basin, north to south.

      If the south secedes over slavery, than one could expect Utah to do the same over polygamy…and the Legion marches on Denver. Or San Bernardino…

      Take a look at the histories of Mexico (Yucatan, especially), and Gran Colombia, and/or the lengthy conflict between Buenos Aires and the rest of what eventually became Argentina?

      Best,

      • SF Walker July 30, 2013 / 9:01 am

        Exactly. Had secession prevailed, the idea could very well have been contagious—which is also one of several reasons why Great Britain and France were wary of officially recognizing the Confederacy, despite much sympathy with the rebels (among the upper classes, at least). The prospect of a successful rebellion anywhere still made them nervous.

  17. Michael Confoy July 26, 2013 / 8:49 pm

    Maybe not if Zachary Taylor had lived and been able to go to South Carolina and string up some nullifiers. Might be a good idea for the nullifiers out there today.

    • Joshism July 27, 2013 / 11:09 am

      Zachary Taylor was ready to string up Texans over the NM border issue (and any Southerners who stood with them against the Federal government) in 1850.

      Andrew Jackson was the one looking to string up Nullifiers, but that was in 1833.

      Technicalities aside, It does raise an interesting question: what if SC and Calhoun fail to compromise and Jackson drops the hammer on SC via the Force Bill? How would the rest of the South reacted? They were far less united on nullification in the 1830s than they were in 1850 or 1860. Does putting down SC squash states rights and prevent civil war?

      • Michael Confoy July 28, 2013 / 8:34 pm

        Well Taylor indicated he would veto the compromise of 1850 and not knuckle under to what Daniel Webster was excoriated for supporting. Then what would have happened? Taylor last Commander-in-Chief to lead the army in battle?

  18. Matt McKeon July 27, 2013 / 5:21 am

    I think war could have been avoided if Lincoln had invited the leading secessionists, such as Jefferson Davis, Louis Wigfall, Barnwell and a few other key figures to a conference in the White House, and then shot each one in the face. In 1842. Then maybe, just maybe, then wouldn’t have been a war. But I’m sure there are some problems with this scenario I haven’t worked out yet.

    • SF Walker July 30, 2013 / 9:18 am

      Hahaha! Very creative, Matt! That would have solved the issue in the short term, but in the long run the fundamental differences between North and South, with their different demands from the government, would still have been there. As long as the South clung to slavery and the plantation system remained profitable, new fire eaters would soon have emerged to replace the ones gunned down by “Quick-draw” Lincoln. Hostility over the balance of power between slave states and free would still have poisoned the situation.

  19. Ethan Rafuse July 27, 2013 / 8:55 am

    Is it necessary to punish your children when they throw a temper tantrum because they don’t get everything their own way?

    Uh, yeah.

  20. Bob Huddleston July 27, 2013 / 3:48 pm

    John Viscount Morley was a British politician and pacifist who resigned from the Cabinet in late 1914 because England had gone to war with Germany.

    In 1917, he published his _Recollections_ (New York: The Macmillan Company):

    “Humanity fought one of its most glorious battles across the Atlantic. An end had been brought to the only war in modern times as to which we can be sure, first, that no skill or patience of diplomacy could have averted it, and second, that preservation of the American Union and abolition of negro slavery were two triumphs of good by which even the inferno of war was justified.” (p.20)

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