(Civil) War and Tragedy, Cont’d

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.”

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24 thoughts on “(Civil) War and Tragedy, Cont’d

  1. Note that Gettysburg was after the emancipation proclamation Jan 1, 1863, which was also done to keep the British from siding with the Confederates. The preliminary proclamation was after Antietam in Sept 1862. So yes if Richmond had fallen in 1862 its possible, but by Gettysburg Lincoln had pretty much decided on the fate of slavery.

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      • I don’t know about the movement, if you want to look at it, then the critical moment would have to be the fall of Atlanta, (which also got Lincoln re-elected, see Reelecting Lincoln) as there was a lot of war weariness in the North before that. Lincoln, was all in after early 1863 but its not clear about the congress.

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        • I think I agree. I should say (which was not at all clear in my original comment) that by “abolition movement” I didn’t mean what most people (rightly and accurately) mean: the activism that agitated explicitly for abolition. I meant the political alignment in favor of abolition.

          Still, I agree, Atlanta might very well have been a turning point.

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    • Whether Lincoln had decided doesn’t solve the whole matter; there would also be the question of practical politics. And while I, again, don’t doubt that the slaves presently held in Confederate states would have been freed, there’s still the question of the Union border slave states — which would have required either state action or an amendment.

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  2. Mr. Wall, I’m curious, since we’re speculating, if there had been no American ‘civil’ war, when do you think African chattel slavery would have ended in the United States?

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    • I know your question was addressed to Mr. Wall, but here’s my answer: Chattel slavery would probably have ended, but without the full citizenship guarantees we know from the 14th and 15th amendments. As it was, and as you know, the full complement of American rights did not really come close to fruition until Jim Crow was abolished.

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    • I don’t know. I do think that Pierre’s comments about the 14th and 15th amendments is probably accurate. If I had to take a GUESS, with no real evidence other than what my gut tells me, I’d say somewhere between 1890 and 1910. Probably over the course of that period — with Delaware at the front end of things, and the deeper South at the rear. But even if, in, say 1890 the otherwise-Confederate states had begun to choose emancipation, I think it would have been gradual — so that, say, an 1890 vote might not come to completion until at least a decade later. (Though, it seems, a decade was considered a FAST timeframe for gradual emancipation in the mid-1800s; Lincoln in 1861 wanted Delaware to adopt a plan that wouldn’t finish emancipation until around 1890.)

      So the question (which I think you’re moving toward; if not, forgive me for putting words in your mouth) is whether 500,000 casualties was worth forty years. I don’t think I’m in any position to say it was not. I know, that is, that I would not be able to say in good faith to one (or any, or all) of those slaves that they must wait out their life, and a portion of their children’s, in bondage, as less-than-man, in order that the legally fully human avoid bloodshed; I don’t, on the other hand, know that I could go to the dead soldier of either side and tell him that it was necessary that he, particularly, die. (I mean that “necessary” in a non-historical sense.) I have no means of choosing between two lives; the only way I tend to see is sheer numbers… which strikes me as slightly too abstracted, though it would point toward the good of ending slavery as outweighing the evil of a war.

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      • Thanks Mr. Wall, and yes, you’re a prescient dude, that’s exactly where I was headed.
        Here at the League much ink and tears are regularly spilt over the ‘torture’ of terrorists, and I quite agree with the position that we shouldn’t torture. I was wondering if those same sentiments re: the value of human life translates into (1) a concern for the slaughter of American fetuses (which we won’t delve into now) and (2) the 650,000 lives lost to ‘free the slaves.’
        I quite agree with you re: your timeline, although I’m inclined to think it may have been a little earlier.
        If I read you write you’ve lined up on the side of supporting not only the death of 650, 000 Americans, the loss of trillions in treasure, and the destruction of a viable Southern republic aganist the continuation of African chattel slavery, a practice in existence in the United States from the beginning of the country. Interesting. Again, thanks.

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          • Actually, I’d have preferred that slavery be dealt with peacefully as it was in every other country it existed (I believe) during that era. That there was no reason to engage in an internecine war, that the South should have been allowed, peacefully, to secede. On the other hand the African slaves had every right to engage in revolution against their enslavers.
            As always, the question isn’t why did the South secede, it’s why did the North invade?

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        • Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’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.”

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          • I believe you’ve hit a nail on the head and I quite concur with your analysis. There’s always a reckoning, a time to pay for our sins, individual and collective. Damn, Mike there’s hope for you yet!
            BTW, you might want to apply that differentiation to the current crisis. Let me know what conclusions you reach.

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        • Well, I don’t think it’s that simple. Like I said above, I don’t like counterfactuals, but, had I been alive and a voting adult in the years preceding the war, I probably would have lined up with the gradual emancipationists and nodded approvingly as those more radical than I were termed “Jacobins,” and have seen the whole matter constrained not by moral standards, but by the limits of the Constitution. (This is meant as a commentary on nothing besides my own temperament.)

          Had 21st-century me been able to transport back in time to talk to 1850s me and explain his belief that the war was, by that time, probably inevitable, Mr.-1850s-Wall wouldn’t have cared a whit — it would just mean it needed to be avoided with all the more determination. Because I won’t call the war a tragedy, or claim that it was, in its entirety, unnecessary, doesn’t mean it would have been my preferred means of ending slavery.

          The outbreak of the war wasn’t, to my mind, a tragedy in and of itself. It was a war that consisted of smaller tragedies, and that was the climax of a larger, longer American tragedy (of the question of slavery itself). In the same way, the deaths of Haemon, Eurydice, and Antigone aren’t, in and of themselves, what made the ANTIGONE a tragedy. It’s the unresolvability, and the way that makes catastrophe increasingly likely.

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      • When it comes to gradual emancipation, it might have taken much longer than 10 or even 20 years. New York’s and, if I’m not mistaken, Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation schemes after the revolution keep all current slaves as slaves, and kept any children they might have as slaves until a certain age (20? 30? I don’t remember). How this worked in practice, I don’t know (were they sold southward? were they manumitted earlier?)

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    • On this note, the last major country involved in the triangular trade to free their slaves was Brazil in 1888….so perhaps around there? But if the U.S. hadn’t freed theirs, perhaps this date might be pushed back as well. After all, U.S. slavery was at its peak of economic profitability in the years preceding the civil war …Check out the full timeline though (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolition_of_slavery_timeline#1850.E2.80.931899). Interesting to note that the main countries of the Arabian penninsula didn’t officially abolish slavery until the 1960s and 70s.

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    • In essence, for slavery to end in the South, particularly the deep South, political power would have had to be transferred from the cotton oligarchs to some other group. I suspect that group would have been industrialists (whether home grown or imported from the North), who would have seen freed slaves as a huge, cheap labor force (slavery not being as economically feasible in industry). However, this would take decades, and even after they begin to gain influence, they wouldn’t have been able to end slavery abruptly, but in stages, which also would take decades. As I see it, the final straw would have been America finally becoming a real player on the world stage. So, assuming that a United States with slavery joins World War I at all, I see that war being the point when the U.S. ends slavery completely. Put me down, then, for some point between 1918 and 1925.

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      • I know we’re dealing hypothetically, and so none of us knows the answer, but I would hazard that chattel slavery was not necessarily incompatible with industrialism for two reasons.

        1. Many of the larger plantations were, to some degree, agricultural “factories,” so they were already being used in an “industrialized” way. (At the same time, you’d be right to point out–and I think it’s implicit in what you say–that plantation owners could not, as industrialists northward could, lay off their workforce.)

        2. Some slave owners “hired out” their slaves to work in factories in cities, and perhaps this practice might have grown and continued. (On the other hand, maybe such hiring out would have marked a trend toward liberation, or at least a less “chattel” form of slavery.)

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  3. There was a prominent abolitionist movement that provided a large part of the steam powering the Republican political machine of the 1850’s and 1860’s. Most of the non-abolitionist Republicans were Free Soilers — Free Soil being a political platform which would have condemned slave states to eventually become a political minority in the Senate. And Lincoln’s hesitation to emancipate slaves in the border states was aimed at keeping those states loyal to the Union; by 1863, Lincoln had become an abolitionist personally, compromising his principles only for the purpose of keeping the Union whole.

    I speculate that had the civil war been much shorter, the Democrats would have had to have held on to much more political power than they were then capable of doing to forestall an eventual doom to slavery on the field of political battle — although it would have been a longer and more partisan fight than it was. But, you never know; clever politicians might have figured out a way to preserve slavery in a minority of states, perhaps by constitutional amendment as part of a horse trade of some other concession to the free states.

    As you say, a counterfactual is too speculative to be of much use historically.

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  4. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the reader’s “Lincoln Voice.”

    I’m picturing a deeper version of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain. Close?

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    • Unfortunately, no. Reports, as you may know, are that Lincoln had a high, nasal, “reedy” voice and sounded (according to his detractors, and, I’m sure, some bemused supporters) like a hick/backwoodsman. This is the voice the narrator attempts to do. Though the accent keeps shifting between Texas drawl and a kind of upper-Mississippi River ([north]east AR, western KY, etc.) redneck.

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