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Why the Terrible Destruction of the Civil War?

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Tags U.S. EconomyU.S. HistoryOther Schools of Thought

05/06/2011Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "America Aflame"]


The early publicity I saw on David Goldfield's new book, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, certainly made it seem like something a revisionist history buff like me would want to read. The review in the New York Times, for example, which ran on Sunday, March 27, quotes Goldfield's description of himself as "antiwar, particularly the Civil War," and goes on to say that "what is distinctive about Goldfield's book is that he believes the 600,000 deaths and countless mutilations [caused by the war] could have been avoided." As Goldfield himself puts it, "after the Revolutionary War, the Civil War is the defining event of American history." And it "was not inevitable." Rather, it was "America's greatest failure."

Surely, Goldfield writes,

the failure is evident in the deaths of over 620,000 young men, the misery of their families and friends left to mourn their loss, the destruction of homes and personal property, the uprooting of households, and the scenes of war haunting those who managed to live through it.

And how much wealth was seized and squandered in order to accomplish this orgy of destruction of lives and property? "All told," Goldfield writes,

the war's direct costs amounted to $6.7 billion. If upon Lincoln's inauguration, the government had purchased the freedom of four million slaves and granted a forty-acre farm to each slave family, the total cost would have been $3.1 billion, leaving $3.6 billion for reparations to make up for a century of lost wages. And not a single life would have been lost.

Of course, this passage, admirable though it is in many respects, is predicated on the assumption that the Civil War was fought over slavery — that slavery was the issue that brought the war on, made it happen. This has always been rather an awkward position for its many, many adherents to defend, due to the fact that such luminaries as the majority of the US Senate in 1861, the president of the United States during the years of the war, and the supreme commander of the Union Army during that time all disagreed with it. The US Senate declared in a resolution in support of the war adopted on July 26, 1861, that

this war is not prosecuted upon our part in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of [the seceded] States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and all laws made in pursuance thereof, and to preserve the Union, with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired.

Abraham Lincoln famously declared a little over a year later, in August of 1862, that

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union.

And as for Union General Ulysses S. Grant, he is widely quoted as having written, in an 1862 letter to the Chicago Tribune, that "the sole object of this war is to restore the Union. Should I become convinced it has any other object, or that the Government designs its soldiers to execute the wishes of the Abolitionists, I pledge you my honor as a man and a soldier I would resign my commission and carry my sword to the other side."

Nor did the other Union soldiers involved in fighting the war believe they were fighting to free the slaves. Princeton University historian James M. McPherson, in his 1994 book What They Fought For, 1861-1865 quotes "the commander of the New York chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans," who said in 1992 that "it wasn't because our fathers knew what they were fighting for that they were heroes. They didn't know what they were fighting for, exactly, and they fought on anyway. That's what made them heroes." McPherson cites two other "studies of the psychology and world view of Civil War soldiers, Gerald Linderman's Embattled Courage and Reid Mitchell's Civil War Soldiers," both of which conclude that Union troops were motivated more by the desire to prove their masculine courage than by the desire to advance any cause.

McPherson himself is convinced that ideology did play an important part in the Union soldiers' motivation to fight. He argues that "more than 90 percent of white Union soldiers could read and write," that they were regular readers of newspapers, and that many of them were even politically active, at least to the extent of voting in elections. "Their median age at enlistment was twenty-four," he writes, "which meant that a majority of them had voted in the election of 1860, the most heated and momentous election in American history."

It would have been more accurate, of course, if McPherson had written that a majority of the Union soldiers had been old enough to vote in the 1860 election. And it is worth remembering that that median age of 24 is a little misleading. If a majority were at least 21 in 1860, a very sizable minority, probably over 40 percent of the total, were teenagers at that time. As James J. Martin told me back in 2003 in what was probably the last interview the great revisionist historian granted before his death,

much of the Civil War was fought by boys, twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds. I found a piece by a nurse. She was so shaken by what had happened to her that she couldn't write about it for thirty-five years. She was on a floor where every kid died of gangrene after having an arm or a leg lopped off — twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds. The Union Army was loaded with children. I'm sure the same was true in the South too. Big farm kids who passed themselves off as two, three years older. A lot of this we know because, after the war, when Congress passed the pension bill, I think in 1882, covering the Union veterans, they had to verify the birth dates of the surviving veterans to qualify them. And there was a whole operation run by a general, a Union general, that verified these birth dates and as a result of that, we know a great deal about the extreme youth of a whole bunch of people who qualified for pensions though they were just boys during their term of service. Gettysburg was fought mainly by boys. Now it's reenacted by forty-year-old drunks.

These kids may well have been literate. Maybe they read newspapers when they had access to them. But few 13- or 14-year olds are at all ideological. And, for all his evident desire to establish the view that at least many Union soldiers were fighting consciously for a cause, McPherson is ultimately forced to acknowledge that the cause in question was not abolition of slavery; it was preservation of the Union — just as it was for the majority of US Senators at that time, for Abraham Lincoln, and for Ulysses S. Grant.

Nor did Confederate soldiers think of themselves as defending slavery. As Tom Woods puts it in his Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, commenting on McPherson's longer, second book on this subject, For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War,

two-thirds of his sources … said it was due to patriotism. Northern soldiers by and large said they were fighting to preserve what their ancestors had bequeathed to them: the Union. Southern soldiers also referred to their ancestors, but they typically argued that the real legacy of the Founding Fathers was not so much the Union as the principle of self-government. Very often we see Southern soldiers comparing the South's struggle against the U.S. government to the colonies' struggle against Britain. Both, in their view, were wars of secession fought in order to preserve self-government.

This is, in essence, exactly the way the great revisionist historian William Appleman Williams saw the US Civil War. In his 1976 book America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, he writes, "Put simply, the cause of the Civil War was the refusal of Lincoln and other northerners to honor the revolutionary right of self-determination — the touchstone of the American Revolution."

And this was rank hypocrisy on Lincoln's part, as Williams saw it, for on January 12, 1848, the Great Emancipator had intoned:

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. … Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit.

In his Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, Tom Woods explicitly rejects the term "civil war" for the unpleasantness that unfolded in America from 1861 to 1865, on the very sound grounds that it was not a conflict "in which two or more factions [fought] for control of a nation's government." Tom prefers to call the US Civil War the "War Between the States," which is what it was called when I was growing up in southeast Texas in the 1950s and '60s.
Woods notes that "other, more ideologically charged (but nevertheless much more accurate) names for the conflict include the War for Southern Independence and even the War of Northern Aggression." Myself, I kind of like the War to Ensure that Abraham Lincoln Goes Down in History as the President Who Preserved the Union. It was, after all, the almost fantastic vanity — the megalomania, if the truth be told — of Abraham Lincoln, that supposedly justified the mass murder of more than 600,000 Americans, 2 percent of the national population. Lincoln's desire to go down in history as the President Who Preserved the Union counted for far more than the petty concerns of those who lost their lives and/or property during his years in office.

It is useful to recall, when thinking about these matters, that figure I gave you just now — 2 percent of the national population. It is as though a war were to be fought today by American soldiers against other American soldiers in places like California and Texas and Illinois and Florida, with a death toll of more than 6 million.

Yet, despite the various absurdities one gets into shortly after beginning to consider the idea that the US Civil War was fought over slavery, David Goldfield does tacitly accept it. My own guess is that this bizarre notion has taken hold in the way it has because people realize, however dimly, that the actual reason for the war makes its carnage and destruction look utterly unconscionable, and since it couldn't possibly be true that the sainted Abraham Lincoln and his Grand Old Party had done anything unconscionable, there must really have been some high moral purpose — like ending slavery — that justified all that carnage and destruction.

Goldfield writes, on the second page of his new book, that he wants to avoid "gainsaying the individual heroism of those who fought and died" in the war. Yet was it in any comprehensible sense "heroic" to fight and die for the aggrandizement of Abraham Lincoln? Or to fight and die to prevent that aggrandizement? You see the problem.

Perhaps also you see the problem with Goldfield's book. It's well written; it's readable. But it isn't revisionist enough. Goldfield is quite willing to ask hard, potentially embarrassing questions about certain aspects of the war — most notably about whether it was in any sense necessary to get rid of slavery. Goldfield is convinced that "there may have been other means to achieve that noble end." After all, he points out, "the United States was the only country to require a civil war in order to abolish slavery." But he never questions the myth that the war was fought over slavery in the first place. Nor does he question the myth that wars can boost a nation's economy (as opposed to enriching politically connected "businessmen" at the expense of everyone else).

Worst of all, it seems never to have occurred to Goldfield to question the closely related myth that any amount of government spending on anything whatever can create prosperity or abundance. In a way, I suppose this is understandable. Even to someone who knows nothing of economics (or who "knows" only the tissue of absurdities peddled by mainstream economists), it probably seems fairly obvious that taking money out of the economy and spending it on blowing things up cannot lead to prosperity or abundance for anyone but a few explosives manufacturers. It is probably less intuitively obvious, however, especially to someone who knows little or nothing about economics, that government spending on things like railroads cannot create prosperity or abundance either.

Thus, Goldfield writes of the early years of the Lincoln administration after the secession of the Confederate States that "the Republican Congress, free of the southern Democratic albatross, passed an array of economic and educational legislation that helped to establish the federal government as an important catalyst in creating a national economy." He writes that "the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869 was a symbol of the … new role of government as a facilitator of the national economy." He writes that "the federal government [during the war years] was an active partner with private enterprise in expanding the economy and generating wealth."

Goldfield writes, on the other hand, that "despite the general prosperity, it is probable that the condition of working-class Americans was worse at the end of the war than at the beginning." Since most Americans at that time were "working-class," what exactly does the phrase "general prosperity" mean in that sentence? How can there be "general prosperity" while the economic condition of most people is declining? Hello?

It is evident that Goldfield does not understand that government has no money of its own, because it produces nothing; that all its money is stolen from those who do produce something and who would have spent that money on one thing or another if government had not seized it; so that there is therefore no net gain to the economy when government takes its stolen money and spends it on subsidies to railroads — or, these days, to automakers. There are many other things Goldfield seems not to understand — enough of them to justify saying that they're too numerous to name in what can only be a fairly brief review of his book.

The book, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, is willing to revise the conventional wisdom about the US Civil War, but only to the extent of challenging the idea that it was in any sense "necessary" to fight it. Goldfield's unwillingness to similarly challenge almost everything else that needs to be challenged about that conventional wisdom makes his book, in the end, considerably less than it might have been. If you're looking for a good one-volume history of the entire Civil War, I'd advise you to pass this one up. My own favorite remains Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, which was first published 15 years ago, in 1996.

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