I’ve just finished watching Ken Burns “The Civil War” and (as usual) I think I’d argue a very unusual position in terms of what the North and South “should” have done given the massive cost in lives and prosperity and pride. It seems to me that:
The South was reckless to secede. They should have realized they had little or no chance of winning a war, and even if they’d won they would have been a weak and poor new country even if the North had agreed to engage in much trade with them – a questionable proposition at best. Slavery was a morally bankrupt institution and the moral hypocrisy was particularly glaring given the South’s emphasis on the principles of Christianity.
Lincoln was irresponsible to prosecute the war so early. After Fort Sumpter Lincoln should have pressured Virginia (or at least the West Point Graduates) to stay neutral rather than immediately calling for a massive army, an act that clearly pushed many Virginians toward secession. Without Virginia’s wealth, military, and brilliant commanders like Jackson, Lee, Forest, Stuart, and more the war would have been over very quickly with far fewer dead and far less destruction. Reconstruction would have worked well rather than ushered in a long era of exploitation and corruption.
Lincoln should have considered a “no war / no recognition” policy. He would have allowed the deep south to go about their secessionist ways, courted Virginia to stay in the Union or stay neutral, and then enacted laws and policies to thwart secession non-violently such as no trade, no return of escaped slaves and active support of the underground railroad. This would have undermined the secession efforts without the massive death and destruction of infrastructure via Sherman’s march, and probably led to an eventual return of those states to the union when the economic challenges of secession started to bring greater and greater hardships to the people.
There seems to be a prevailing view in history circles that the war was justified because it preserved the union and ended slavery. I agree that slavery was so diabolical you can make a case that no cost was too high to bear to end it, but I think it could have been ended at a much lower cost both then and in terms of future fights for civil rights. Innovation and industrialization combined with the growing moral outrage and demands of poor immigrants (who didn’t want to compete with slaves) would likely have eventually ended slavery soon even in the deep south.
In terms of preserving the union, I think the case for the Civil War is extremely weak – largely irrational in fact. You simply cannot make a reasonable case that the cost of the Civil War – 625,000 dead, millions disabled, South destroyed and demoralized – justified simply keeping the deep South states in the union. “A House Divided Against Itself” did not stand – one side crushed the other with consequences that last even today in terms of the lower living standards in the deep south. A cost benefit analysis of the Civil War would show it was not worth fighting.
Comments very welcome as always!