The Civil War costs and benefits suggest Lincoln was wrong.


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!
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About JoeDuck

Internet Travel Guy, Father of 2, small town Oregon life. BS Botany from UW Madison Wisconsin, MS Social Sciences from Southern Oregon. Top interests outside of my family's well being are: Internet Technology, Online Travel, Globalization, China, Table Tennis, Real Estate, The Singularity.
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20 Responses to The Civil War costs and benefits suggest Lincoln was wrong.

  1. To be fair, their is nothing remotely unchristian about slavery. The bible is quite clear on how one treats slaves, which would indicate the religion is ok with slavery not against it.

    • Leon Davis says:

      You are Right… if you want to be free you must disobey authority sometimes … the Bible warns against it… but interpretation of the bible calls for wisdom and doing the right thing.. I would have been a deserter..Like Mark Twain and a lot of TEXANS..who retired to Mexico. The Great thing of modern war is fewer die…A War of self defense is different, would I fight for an Insane Lincoln, probably not.

  2. horatiox says:

    The South was reckless to secede. They should have realized they had little or no chance of winning a war.

    Agreed–yet there’s a bit more to it. For one, Lincoln may have wanted to “work things out” but the radicals didn’t (ie Douglas, abolitionists, etc). Slavery was not only to be ended–the goal was to seize the properties–ie plantations– of the southern rascals. So, yes, the secessionists were reckless, but they had little choice really. One could play “what if” –ie. had Virginia stayed with the North, there might not have been enough firepower or officers (Lee–Jackson was from Georgia…Longstreet also, wasn’t he)–but to men like Breckinridge– probably as important as any southerner in terms of arguing for secession–there was no choice. You fight.

    The thing that bugs me about the CSA leaders–Jeff. Davis especially– was their endless hype, broken promises, …grandiose plans (Beauregard in that camp at times too, but much greater heart than Davis..or Lee IMHE). The southern boys may joke about that, but read accounts of the later battles–like Vicksburg, where the soldiers ( forced conscripts for most part) had hardly any rations (not just food, but …boots and clothes, etc), little ammo, few rifles–and Davis is sending messages to his officers, like 5000 men are on their way with rifles,ammo, food, etc, and you get a sense of how absurd the situation was for the South (at least some of union brass–Sherman– let the rebels surrender–tho’ Uncle Billy was no saint either).

  3. tharwood says:

    “You boys may think war is all glory, but war is all Hell.”

    Joe, I am not sure I concur with your conclusions because you’re looking at the war as we know it went down. Expectations on both sides were for a relatively quick and “cheap” conflict.

    As a species we seem to systematically underrate the second part of Sherman’s analysis.

    • JoeDuck says:

      Tom thanks for checking in. One of these days we should meet up down there and tour some battlefields. Or maybe even .. Waterloo !

      Certainly agree that hindsight is better, but I don’t see historians suggesting that the actual costs were not worth the actual benefits. On the contrary it seems generally accepted in academic circles that Lincoln was “right” to fight. Usually the justification seems to be that it preserved the union and expedited the end of slavery.

    • raftman says:

      Other relevant examples more timely: how long have we now been in Iraq?….in Afghanistan?….how long did our leaders think we would be in Vietnam? Underestimation on wars seems to be a disease rampant among politicians of every political stripe.

    • Leon Davis says:

      The South fought a strong second….To many of the slave owners were military men and extremely wealthy. But Slavery was not illegal as they built the Union and their own fortunes..

      .This war was about MONEY…and a Crazy president..What are soldiers but slaves..they were forced to fight in most cases?many? just kids and farmers, the poor who could not buy their way out….I’m just saying, we need soldiers but the enlistment process is in the hands of the rich….I don’t trust them

      ..Lincoln should have come up with a plan to dry up slavery…Like slave rights! Taxation…that’s how they get what they want now. The slaves were sometimes mistreated …..but they were sold by their own country men…Some slaves were better off in America…..The politicians of the time maybe could not appreciate the advantage of non-violent struggle..THERE was also a taxation problem and as today , politicians were looking for votes. Americans killed each other to prove a point….and doing it that way didn’t work right away…

      .The KKK and racial hatred is only now on the run…but Americans are still selling themselves into economic slavery and politicians are still steeling votes and the peoples money..

  4. tharwood says:

    horatiox, for the record Tom Jackson was from Virginia. Longstreet was from Georgia. Wikipedia tells me he was Catholic, which I never knew.

    • horatiox says:

      Yes, Jackson was virginian (West VI. actually). Should have recalled that–he is however immortalized on Stone Mountain in Georgia, along with Lee and Davis. Heroes of the CSA yall.

      Got Longstreet correct at least. Longstreet did convert to catholicism, fairly late in life–also ….joined the GOP after the war (he was already pals with Grant ante-bellum, as they say). Longstreet may have been a good general, but he was blamed for the failure at Gettysburg (not without some justice–he apparently thought Lee’s plan too aggressive, and may have stalled a bit), and not respected much by the old southerners.

      • Longstreet was correct in his assessment that the attack as proposed was suicidal and could not work. He wanted the Big Tops and failing that wanted to slide south and east to cut the Federal supply line. Lee ought to have retreated the third day. He did not have enough men, he did not have enough ammunition, his army was spread out with exterior lines of communication facing an enemy on high ground with interior lines of communication and many more men and supplies. Marching men across a mile of open ground facing entrenched muskets and massed artillery was not “aggressive”. Longstreet did in fact delay, but in the end did as ordered, very reluctantly… tis said that he never actually uttered the order to advance.

  5. FoolsGold says:

    >The South was reckless to secede.
    Yes, most countries path to war is sheer folly.
    >They should have realized they had little or no chance of winning a war
    Generals never think that. Young men marching off to war always want to get a go at it before its over since it will be so short and victory is assured.
    >even if the North had agreed to engage in much trade with them
    I don’t think there was all that much North-South trade. That is why earlier embargoes had been so difficult. Northern Economy versus Southern Economy met in Washington, DC and when that failed, they met on the field of battle. Each flying false flags relating to slavery or freedom to secede.

    > Slavery was a morally bankrupt institution and the moral hypocrisy
    Please do not consider morality as an issue. Northern factory owners needed capital and Southern plantation owners needed capital. Slaves were capital. Slavery was a moral issue only to the rabble rousers such as the nearly mad John Brown. Various alternatives such as Liberia or relocating Negroes to Brazil were under serious consideration. The institution was indeed enroute to oblivion but the North did not want to pay compensation for eroding Southern capital.

    >The South’s emphasis on the principles of Christianity.
    Well the North had Bible-Thumpers too. None of them mattered much. We open our public meetings with prayer prattling and pledges of allegiance. No one ever takes any of it seriously.

    >Lincoln was irresponsible to prosecute the war so early.
    Not necessarily. Failure to prosecute it promptly might have meant defeat.

    >Lincoln should have considered a “no war / no recognition” policy.
    He didn’t have to. McClellanism was the functional equivalent of a Phony War.

    >prevailing view war was justified because it preserved the union and ended slavery.
    Slavery was not an issue. It was merely an excuse of great convenience.

    >625,000 dead, millions disabled, South destroyed
    >A House Divided Against Itself” did not stand – one side crushed the other.
    Precisely, but then that was the goal.

    • horatiox says:

      Not exactly, FG. Slavery was not the only issue, but it was an issue–certainly to the Northerners. Lincoln may not have been a radical abolitionist but the abolitionists (such as RW Emerson) were pressuring him to end slavery and to make the southern rascals pay. Ergo, there was a financial motive for the North’s military actions as well: ie, control of the Southern economy–the construction and control of the railroads as well. As with the materiel issue, the railroad-monopolies are typically overlooked by the pop-historians (like Burns).

      For one, Lincoln and Grant were acquainted with the industrialists such as Vanderbilt, and Carnegie. That may sound a bit cynical but by the end of the CW (ie, Sherman’s march) the Northern industrialists were very interested in making a profit from the Union’s destruction of the South (which continued with Reconstruction). Thus the South paid for the actions of a few CSA leaders (mostly corrupt, reckless rogues, the generals included).

  6. FoolsGold says:

    There is no question that the economic benefits of the War of Northern Aggression were of paramount importance. Supplying the Northern army and rebuilding the Southern railroads would be profitable. So much corruption, confusion and negligence went into the war purchasing that to this day much of our corruption and whistle-blower actions are brought under Civil War era legislation. There were some social pressures on the slavery issue and there was some progress being made on it as well, but I just don’t see drawing-room debates as exerting real pressure.

    • Thanks for the bit of knowledge about the source of whistle blower and corruption legislation came from civil war times. I think that war time purchases are urgent at the time and seen as corrupt later. In the War Between the States both sides had their share of corruption. The North could afford the wastage but the South could not. I read once that the North’s economy improved during the war even though much debt was accumulated.

      My plan for the South to win is to abolish slavery (pay the slave owners in Confederate dollars) in 1861, let the Union occupy and supply its garrisons like Sumter and build up the Southern industrial base over the next decades. You lose a little on the periphery and maybe the border states join the Confederacy. Thr North will get tired of such an ill defined war, as we do now in Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This would have removed the trade policies which were hobbling the Southern economy.

  7. Webster says:

    I would go one further and suggest:

    Slavery would have ended in the not too distant future without the Civil War. Today, even South Africa has moved more positively.

    There is still antagonism in the South and there always will be. If one were to look at the “Country” without the South (all of that part south of Virginia and east from Texas) there is a good case, culturally, to say that it would be GOOD to have it out of the US.

    We could have good relations with “The Confederacy” and let them volunteer their troops for every stupid conflict we wanted to battle throughout the World, while preserving a more cohesive nation that does not, for the most part, engage in Bible thumping, NASCAR and tree sniping wild life. (No matter what, I conceded that we would have needed Southern troops in WWII)

    The South would have moved, slowly and with their rationalizations intact, away from slavery. The South would have moved even more slowly than it has without the North’s influence culturally, intellectually and spiritually. But the rest of us would not have to be dragging them along, kicking and screaming, into each successive century.

    If we as a nation had looked then at the South as we might today with Iraq and Afghanistan, we might well have concluded that there is nothing we could have done to enhance the populace or enlighten their religious, moral, intellectual or governmental processes. The first hundred years after the Civil War, I think, bears out the lasting failures to actively participate in Democracy, despite efforts to the contrary.

    Leaving the South to their devices would have served the rest of us better than an all out civil war did. And without the war and the resulting inclusion of the South, we would not have had to press the South to provide voting, civil, educational or moral rights to vast numbers of its citizens as has been the case for the last 160 years. Even today, education, nutrition, and moral issues are lagging in the South. If you are optimistic enough to claim we are making progress, we must still concede that we are dragging them along in many respects.

    The Union clung to the presumption that having the moral high ground would actually make things better for the defeated. History has shown that that was a bad idea then and it is no more enlightened now.

    I imagine that it will infuriate some Southerners to compare their irrational dogmatism with that of today’s Muslims in the Middle East. But when one looks at the self-righteous proclamations about reproduction, women’s and civil rights, protecting minorities and about invasion into the personal lifestyles of others, the differences can be measured more as a matter of degree than in the basic attitude.

    If I were in Lincoln’s Cabinet, with the hindsight I would bring to bear, I would ask the President to actively encourage the retention of Virginia, and suggest that we bid the rest of the South adieux and good riddance. There would have been more than a half million fewer deaths and the North would have been free of slavery. The economic progression of the North could have moved, unabated by its less enlightened neighbors, drawing the brightest from the South and leaving the rest to wallow where they still reside. Really, can anyone imagine the US being worse off without the South? I don’t think so.

    • We did in fact leave the South to their own devices when we stopped reconstruction. As it was it took until the fifties and skixties to finally end legal de jure segregation. In one of my jobs I traveled extensively in the south in the seventies, and the difference was night and day. Mr. Webster your writings here are at best stereotypical and at worst irrational dogmatism.

  8. ebg says:

    I think you fail to realize the capital loose of material, manpower, and resources a nation looses when its borders shrink. The North American Continent is the most abundent in the world. This is the only continent that has everything…coal, gas, fishery, forest, minerials, farm land, grazing land, abundent river ways, oceans…you name it, and the United States has it! On an economic basis, protecting the resources of The UNITED STATES was his President’ Duty. Wars have been fought for for less. Land is the reasons of War! The South wasn’t fighting to perserve a life style…land, land, land was the true cause!!!

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