Tossed off almost like an aside, and one of those lines I had to go back and listen to multiple times while somewhere on I-65 in the northern half of Indiana, Eric Foner speculates momentarily that if McClellan’s 1862 campaign on Richmond had succeeded and the war ended shortly thereafter, slavery would have emerged as a weakened but still extant institution.* The Civil War’s ability to bring about the end of American slavery, that is, depended to some important extent on the length of the war.
The Fiery Trial holds that the way in which the end of slavery unfolded was part of a process of personal (within Lincoln) and national evolution—that the nature of its cession was the result of a confluence of historical, political, and personal factors. It makes a good deal of sense, then, that Foner would doubt that the mere fact of the war was enough to end American slavery. The war had to last long enough to change minds, present opportunities, and force hands. A short paragraph considering McClellan, the Seven Days, and one of the interminable “What-Ifs” of that war is less a stray thought than a way of asserting one of the premises of the book.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention this possibility—that, to end slavery, the war had to be lengthy—in light of my previous assertions that whatever is tragic about the war comes from the way in which, as it progressed, it seemed interminable; from the way in which the incompetence of some and the daring of others prolonged a war even as its ultimate end became increasingly inevitable. It is clear that, had the war preserved the Union without ending slavery, it would have been something more justly called a tragedy. What if Meade had pounced in the aftermath of Gettysburg and destroyed, with finality, the Army of Northern Virginia? The slaves of those in rebellion would have been freed—but the institution of slavery may well have emerged intact, especially if, Lincoln living, the re-admission of the former Confederate states prevented the ratification of an anti-slavery amendment.
Though I’ll say it with more caution and reserve, I won’t retract my claim that, for the men who sacrificed and suffered because their commanders did not know how to win the war, or because their leaders sacrificed the lives of others for the sake of misconstrued personal honor, the war was, at times, tragic without being tragedy. Phrased a little differently, it isn’t just easier to make the case that Cold Harbor or Marye’s Heights or Franklin were tragedies but that the war itself was not than to claim the whole as tragedy; they are statements different in kind. The war resolved, without sudden signs or helping hands from heaven, the question of slavery. (Or is war itself a kind of deus ex machina, a means of resolution that comes into play when the crisis cannot be concluded within civilized norms?) I can find no grounds on which to dispute TNC’s conclusion that this result prevents us from calling the Civil War, in retrospect, a tragedy. The result—the end of slavery—appears capable of lending affirmative meaning to the sound and fury of war. The thought that had not occurred to me was that the conflict might have ended too soon to resolve the question and left the wound open and festering while, on either side of the leg, physicians of incompatible practices squabbled over how to treat it. This possibility ought to condition my (or any) claims about the tragic in that war.
The problem is not just that war is messy, but that history itself is. Pluck one stray thread and the whole thing comes unraveled. The war could have ended sooner had McClellan not thought himself outnumbered or Meade not been suddenly timid; but would it have resolved the crisis? Counterfactuals, because they are counterfactuals, are meaningless. They turn history’s narrative into fan-fiction. The past we have is not ideal. It can, at times, feel more filled with error than anything else. But it’s the history we have and the history we must live with. Sometimes it’s better to go ahead and wrestle the angel than to wait on the goddess’ chariot.
*I don’t have direct quotations, or page numbers, because I’m going through it via audiobook—which may be the most entertaining way to do it. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the reader’s “Lincoln Voice.”