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Was the American Civil War Worth the Cost?

This is the opening song for the Civil War film, "Gods and Generals."

620,000 Americans died in the United States’ only Civil War, and another 400,000 were wounded. These numbers in themselves are difficult for Americans to wrap their minds around. But when you consider the fact that there were approximately 32 million people living in the United States when the war began, the casualties become even more unimaginable. After all, just the population of California today is significantly higher than 32 million. Can you imagine a war in which there were one million casualties in California alone?

So whose fault was it? If you can still find Americans who are aware that there was a Civil War, I imagine that the majority of these respondents would view the south as the “bad guy.” After all, eleven southern states “started it” by committing treason against the United States and attempting to form a separate country. Also, typical explanations for the causes of the war focus on slavery, and the south in this narrative becomes the evil region defending slavery against northerners who were (supposedly) against it. Reality, however, is a bit more complicated. When I cover the Civil War with my history classes, the root cause I keep coming back to is southern paranoia. Mistakenly, they believed that the north was filled with people who wanted to abolish slavery, and if the north was ever able to gain complete control of the federal government, then they might force the south to change its way of life. The attempt of a crazed, white, northern abolitionist named John Brown to violently liberate slaves, and the election of a Republican named Abraham Lincoln who supported policies only advocated by the north, fed into these fears and pushed some southern states over the edge. The facts that Lincoln clearly stated that he, like most northerners, was not an abolitionist, and that the majority of northerners condemned the actions of John Brown, were not enough to extinguish these fears that had been building for some time. Then, like now, political beliefs often had little to do with evidence and reason.

One could just as easily, however, blame the north for the war. The south, after all, wanted to leave the union peacefully. In their minds, our country was first and foremost a collection of independent states, and these individual states had the right to withdraw from the union at the time of their choosing. Southern states were simply asserting the same right as the British colonies when they formed the United States in the first place. The north, of course, did not see things this way, so the decision was made to invade the south and put down this rebellion. At that point, the war truly started.

But what if the north had made a different decision? They could have told the southern states to just go ahead and leave. Think of all the benefits of this decision. Hundreds of thousands of people could have avoided death, maiming, and psychological damage. Families who lost loved ones could have kept their husbands, sons, and brothers. All of that money poured into military supplies could have been saved. (Mississippi and California would no longer have to share the same country.) President Lincoln must have spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering if he and the Congress had made the correct decision. Given the fact that he was a man inclined toward intense mood swings, his job must have been agonizing.

Of course, if the north had made a different decision, it is hard to predict how American history would have played itself out over the past 145 years. Some would argue that conflict was going to happen eventually even if the southern states were allowed to secede. Much of the tension that led to the war was caused by decades of competition over the western territories. Both regions wanted expansion. The problem was that they had different visions for what the west would someday look like. The south had visions of plantations, cotton fields, and slave labor; the north saw a future of family farms, businesses, towns, and wage labor. So how would they divide the undeveloped lands in the southwest, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountains? Would the United States and Confederacy peacefully draw a line down the middle, or would they compete in a land grab that might ultimately lead to war?

Also, what would happen the next time that a state or group of states had a gripe about a federal policy? If southern states were allowed to separate peacefully from the union, then a legal precedent would be set. It is possible, therefore, that our currently large country with many regional differences would have ultimately been carved up into multiple smaller nations. A map of North America today might resemble that of Europe. I wonder if California would still be in the union. If any state seems like a candidate for secession, it would be my home state. Much of the rest of the country thinks that we are nuts anyway. Plus, we have Arnold, Disneyland, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, redwoods, wine country, central valley farms, a hell of a lot of beachfront property, and one of the largest economies in the world. As an independent nation, California could also solve its fiscal problems like the federal government: by cranking our more currency and borrowing until the end of time. I better stop this line of reasoning. People might think that I am some sort of a “Californiaist” revolutionary.

Last but not least, how long would slavery have continued if the south were allowed to secede? In order to win the war, save the union, and prevent future conflicts, the north eventually took the drastic step of freeing the slaves. If the south had never seceded and triggered the northern invasion, then slavery would have stayed intact indefinitely. And when you consider the fact that the post-Civil War system of segregation lasted until the early 1960’s, you must conclude that if the south were left to itself, then slavery would have lingered for some time. Today, almost fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, the lingering effects of our nation’s legacy of racism are all around us. Imagine the conditions faced by African-Americans today if slavery was a much more recent phenomenon.

It’s fun for historians to speculate about what might have been. But unless someone invents a time machine and goes back to mess with the past, we will never know how different decisions might have played out. So we are left with speculating about and ultimately shaping our future. And as I look to the future, I wonder what it would take for Americans to endure the kinds of sacrifices made by people of the Civil War era. What cause would we consider righteous enough to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans in a war?

Clearly, the United States government does that think that Americans are willing to make significant sacrifices in the “War on Terror.” Apparently, they are worried that we do not see the cause as adequately vital to our survival and/or just. Taxes have been kept historically low, especially relative to past times of war. Few politicians would even consider the possibility of reestablishing a draft. It has been politically easier to add another trillion to our national debt and to squeeze the volunteer soldiers (and their families) to the breaking point. Yet even as they try to shield most Americans from the cost, some of our citizens have long been fed up with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, about $120 billion per year (out of a budget of $3.55 trillion) and approximately 5,500 American deaths (out of a population of over 300 million) are too high of a cost. Many others seem apathetic and perfectly content with living their lives as if our nation was not at war. So those who want Americans to awaken from their apathetic slumber should make a simple demand: the government must ask Americans to share more fully in the costs of these wars. The Civil War generation sure the hell did, and we have been reaping the benefits, and paying the consequences, ever since.


  1. I view the United States as a bunch of independent states which agreed to combine under a contract (Constitution), somewhat like a marriage. And like some marriages, only one party decides to get a divorce. But when the wife wants to leave, some husbands use force to preserve the marriage, and prevent the wife from leaving or living independently.

    That's perhaps not a perfect analogy, but I think that the states should have signed a pre-nup (specific clause in the Constitution), so that they could have backed out of the united situation, in a way that didn't lead to the North thinking it was an insurrection, and respond with an invasion.

  2. Unfortunately, you have a major fact wrong.

    "The south, after all, wanted to leave the union peacefully... The north, of course, did not see things this way, so the decision was made to invade the south and put down this rebellion. At that point, the war truly started."

    I think if you look at who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, you will find all of your above statements (that I have quoted) to be untenable.

  3. "f"-

    Consider that the Articles of Confederation, the much weaker contract that preceded the Constitution, explicitly called for a "perpetual union." It certainly raises question to whether the founders thought that a state should be able to leave the union.

    Moreover, as for the Constitution, it does build on the Articles in the sense that it states, "to for a more perfect union" (referencing the pre-existence of the union, which was formed based on the document I just mentioned: the Articles of Confederation).

  4. It's a matter of point of view. According to the South, northern troops were occupying southern territory at Fort Sumter. When Lincoln refused to pull out the troops, the south fired on people who they considered to be invaders. The south would have preferred that they peacefully leave.

  5. Paul. Sumter was a federal fort. Therefore South Carolina had no authority to simply claim it. It is the duty of the federal government to protect a federal fort against all enemies.

    And still the Confederacy fired the first shots.

    I think there is some serious spinning there to make it a "matter of a point of view." Confederates fired the first shot onto a federal fort, not a state fort.

  6. All true. In the post, I wasn't trying to say that the actions of the south were justified. I was merely trying to summarize their point of view. They did, after all, refer to the Civil War as the "war of northern aggression." And in their view, it did not matter if Fort Sumter was a federal or state fort. Once the Confederacy declared independence, the United States no longer had the right to maintain any type of fort on southern soil.

    It seems that you could just as easily say that the United States had no right to simply declare independence from Britain. (Although in the case of the American Revolution, it's hard to say who fired the first shots at Lexington.) In any rebellion, the rebels disregard regulations enforced by the nation that they are rebelling against. The distinction between a rebel and a freedom fighter is in the eye of beholder.


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