The Hardest War to Avoid: US Civil War

By Ed O’Rourke

The Civil War came and it went. Its reason for fighting, I never did get.

From the song, “With God On Our Side.”

The war… was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forebearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.

Robert E. Lee

Patriots always talk of dying for their country, and never of killing for their country.

Bertrand Russell

The United States chose to fight many wars.  There was some popular sentiment for the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).  The US had to fight the Axis Powers or see them conquer Europe and Asia.  Other wars were by choice: in 1812 with Great Britain, 1848 with Mexico, 1898 with Spain, 1917 with Germany, 1965 with Vietnam, 1991 with Iraq and 2003 with Iraq again.

The US Civil War was the hardest to avoid.  There were many cross issues:  immigrants, the tariffs, priority on canals, roads and railroads.  The main issue, of course, was slavery.  Like abortion today, there was no room to compromise.  In most other issues, Congressmen could split the difference and close the deal. Not here.

The biggest mistake at the Constitutional Convention (1787) was not considering that a state or states in a group would leave the Union once they joined.  In other places in life, there are legal separation procedures, as for married people who can separate or divorce.  Such an arrangement would have avoided bloodshed and destruction.  The Constitution was silent on departure.  They probably never thought it would happen.

Since the United States started as a break away from Great Britain, the Southerners had a valid legal theory to leave the Union.

James  M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era describes the deeply felt feelings on both sides. The cotton economy and slavery was exemplified the Dutch disease, which is concentrating a national or regional economy around a single product. Cotton was to the South what petroleum is to Saudi Arabia today, the driving force.  Cotton absorbed most available investment capital.  It was easier to import manufactured goods than to make them locally.  Since labor to grow and harvest cotton was simple, there was no need for a public school system.

As usual with exploitation, the exploiters sincerely think they are doing a favor for the oppressed that people outside their culture cannot understand. South Carolina senator James Hammond gave his famous “Cotton is king,’ speech on March 4, 1858.  See these excerpts from page 196 in McPherson’s book:

“In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life…It constitutes the very mudsill of society…Such a class you must have, or your would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization,, and refinement…Your whole hireling class of manual laborers and ‘operatives’ as you call them are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and are well compensated…yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated.”

My theory is that the Civil War and emancipation did not help the black people as much as an avoided war.  The late economist, John Kenneth Galbraith thought that that by the 1880s that slave owners would have had to start paying their slaves to stay on the job.  Northern factories were booming and needed cheap labor. Slavery would have weakened due to the need for factory labor.  Later there would have been a formal legal abolition.

Emancipation was a tremendous psychological boost that only white people who have been in concentration camps could understand.  Economically, black people were worse off than before the Civil War because they lived in a devastated area, similar to Europe after the Second World War. Southern whites who had suffered much in the war were less tolerant than they would have been had there been no war.

Had the South won the war, a Nuremberg type tribunal would have sentenced President Lincoln, his cabinet, the federal generals and the congressmen to life imprisonment or hanging for war crimes.  The war would have been called The War of Northern Aggression. The Union strategy from the beginning was to carry out the “Anaconda Plan,’ blockading Southern ports to cripple the Southern economy.  Even drugs and medicine were listed as contraband items.

For at least a century before the First Geneva Convention, there was consensus to keep civilians’ lives and property harmless. The condition was they refrained from participating in the hostilities. The world expert on proper war conduct in the eighteen century was Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel. A central thought to his book was, “The people, the peasants, the citizens, take no part in it and generally have nothing to fear from the sword of the enemy.”

In 1861, American’s leading international law expert for war conduct was San Francisco attorney, Henry Halleck, a former West Point officer and West Point instructor.  His book International Law reflected de Vattel’s writing and was a text at West Point.  In July, 1862, he became the General-in-Chief of the Union Army.

On April 24, 1863, President Lincoln issued General Order No. 100 which seemed to incorporate the ideals promoted by Vattel, Halleck and the First Geneva Convention.  The order was known as the “Lieber Code,” named after a German legal scholar Francis Leiber, an advisor to Otto von Bismarck.

General Order No. 100 had a mile wide loophole, that army commanders could ignore the Lieber Code if circumstances warranted.  Ignore it they did.  The Lieber Code was a complete charade.  Since I only learned about the Code in October, 2011, after growing up in Houston, reading several books on the Civil War, teaching American history at the Columbus School and seeing Ken Burns’ famous documentary, I can only conclude that no one else noticed the Code either.

Since almost all the battles were fought in the South, black people and white faced an impoverished economy.  What was worse was deliberate destruction by the Union Army that served no military purpose.  Sherman’s march through Georgia was necessary but his scorched earth policy was for vengeance only. Similar to Admiral Halsey’s genocidal comments about the Japanese during the Second World War, Sherman announced in 1864 the “to the petulant and persistent secessionists, why, death is mercy.” Another celebrated war hero General Philip Sheridan was in fact a war criminal.  In autumn 1864, his 35,000 infantry troops burned the Shenandoah Valley to the ground. In a letter to General Grant, he described in his first few days work, his troops had “destroyed over 2200 barns…over 70 mills…have driven in front of the enemy over 4000 head of cattle, and have killed … not less than 3000 sheep… Tomorrow I will continue the destruction.”

A major step to ending violence among nations is to recognize war criminals for their heinous crimes instead of honoring them with metals and naming schools, parks and public buildings after them.  Shame on those who write our history textbooks. Put them up on war crime charges as accessories after the fact.

In all the great compromises, 1820, 1833 and 1850, there was never any serious consideration about what separation terms would have been acceptable.  The nation shared the same language, legal structure, Protestant religion and history.  At the same time, the North and the South were going their separate ways, in culture, the economy and the churches.  In early 1861, the Presbyterian Church separated into two churches, one in the north and the other in the south.  The other three large Protestant churches had separated before then.  Slavery was the elephant in the room that crowded out all else.

What I never have seen in the history books was serious consideration or even mentioning the idea for a commission, Northerners, Southerners, economists, sociologists, and politicians to make recommendations for separation terms.  Upon separation, Union states would repeal the fugitive slave laws.  Southerners would have wanted to add more territory in the western states, Mexico, Cuba and the Caribbean.  The US Navy would cut off additional slave imports from Africa.  I imagine there would have been bloody skirmishes but not anything like the Civil War’s 600,000 dead.

There would have to have been trade and travel treaties.  There would have to be an agreed division of the US public debt.  One case where separation was as bloody as the US was Pakistan and India when the British left. The British were good at exploitation but did little to prepare for a peaceful transition. Today there is only one port of entry along the 1,500 mile border. Northerners and Southerners could have done a better job.

Of course, since emotions were inflamed, the hypothetical commission may have been unsuccessful. The country was deeply divided.  With Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, it was way too late to negotiate anything.  The commission would have had to been established several years before 1860.

When the country needed leadership from thoughtful resourceful presidents in the 1853-1861 period, we did not have them. Historians rate Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan as the worst presidents. Franklin Pierce was a depressed alcoholic.  One critic said that James Buchanan did not have a single idea during his many years in public service.

My feeling is, that even if the US would split into several entities, that industrial progress and prosperity would have continued. If the Confederates would have left Fort Sumter alone, there would have been skirmishes but no major war.  War enthusiasm would have fizzled out. Fort Sumter could have become a tiny enclave as Gibraltar had become for Spain and Great Britain. The Fort Sumter incident was something like the Pearl Harbor attack, the spark to the powder keg.

Main Sources:

DiLorenzo, Thomas J. “Targeting Civilians”

McPherson James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era , Ballantine Books, 1989, 905 pages.

Ed O’Rourke is a retired certified public accountant living in Medellin, Colombia. He is currently writing a book, World Peace, The Blueprint: You Can Get to There from Here.

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