CIVIL WAR QUESTIONS
Re: Ben Stein’s Preserving the Civil War:
I wish to express my thanks to Ben Stein. To read his articles is one reason I purchase The American Spectator. As an amateur Civil War historian I really appreciate this current article.
— William R. Parker
SSgt USMC Retired
Kenmore, New York
You are very kind. Best and thanks, Ben
I have never shed a tear over the Civil War…until now.
— Deborah Barton
Waxhaw, North Carolina
I am grateful, and by total coincidence, just met a whole bunch of young people from Waxhaw at UNC this week. Best, Ben
Mr. Stein, I am an admirer of yours, especially when you appear on Fox News discussing the stock market. But, I came across your article “Preserving the Civil War” and I have a question for you. You mentioned Lee’s Lieutenants and it caught my attention. I have a journal, written during the Civil War by a relative of mine. I have often wondered where I could put this journal to the best use, since it would be better in a museum or other place of importance than in my closet.
This relative was a 1st Lieutenant, and in 1865 was discharged, or so he wrote in his journal. The writing is very hard for me to read and/or difficult for me to translate due to the different words used during that time. I have not put the amount of time into reading the journals that is required, but hope to some day.
I am writing you because of your interest in this subject and I thought you might have some suggestions as to a few good places to donate these journals, not to mention what the value of them might be. Would appreciate it very much. Thank you
— Pat A
This is a great letter. May I suggest Civil War Times, a great magazine about the Civil War, or else America’s Civil War. Both have websites. They are always looking for journals of the day. Many, many thanks, Ben
I thought your article was a brilliant précis of the dominant military, legal, and moral issues in the War.
It made me for the first time consider how my ancestors would have responded to some of the questions you raised.
One side of my family were major slave breeders, as Brown would describe it. Living ten miles upstream from Harper’s Ferry, I am sure they were interested in his activities and trial.
If I had been in their shoes, I would have resisted confiscation of what was mine by law and precedent. The moral issue, then, would have been cloudy to me as it was to my ancestors, but then, if a moral argument was made, and it was enhanced with just compensation, my family would have abandoned that odious industry.
Someday I will have to research this, but anyway you probably know more about this than I. In Russia, when the serfs were freed, the owners, I think, were compensated. This new and liquid asset financed an agricultural boom that made Russia a major exporter of grain before WWI.
Lastly, on the origin of racial strife and the rise of the Klan, I suggest this was a contributing feature. More Confederate POW’s died than Union POW’s, even though the North was a land of plenty with no shortages. Andersonville was an abomination, but the people outside the prison had little more than the prisoners within.
Black troops were well represented as guards in Union prisons. POW’s were murdered and abused by black guards. I suppose there were a few slave-owning grandees and probably even a few who owned and used the lash. But I speculate 90% of the prisoners did not come from slave-holding families. Before they enlisted, few of the prisoners had ever traveled 50 miles from their birthplace. Great portions of the South had few slaves, and some of those prisoners before the War had never seen a Negro, and many only a few.
When those prisoners were released, they came home with details of murder and abuse.
— W.N. Dunning
All good points and well stated. Re: your main points about the mistreatment of white Confederate prisoners by black guards, this is well documented, I believe. But the astounding mistreatment of blacks, military and civilian, by some (not all ) Confederate soldiers is also well documented, alas.
I agree, compensation should have been paid for the slaves, and it is my thought that this should have been the main approach throughout. But once war was in process, all calculations of propriety about “property” went out the window.
If only both sides could have foreseen how awful the war would have been…. Best, Ben
You raise very good questions regarding our Civil War/War of Northern Aggression/War of the Slaveholder’s Rebellion. If you want these answered, then next time you happen to be in God’s country (i.e. the Midwest) please stop by for a meeting of the Civil War Round Table of Eastern Kansas here in Topeka and we will feed you and answer your every question. Aw heck, don’t worry about making it to a scheduled meeting, we’ll entertain you anytime.
And did you know there was a war west of Virginia, and, yes, even west of the Mississippi!
— Bryce Benedict
Past President CWRTEK
Thank you for the invite. Of course I know about the war west of the Mississippi. I even know about bleeding Kansas before the war. Best, Ben
Excellent questions all, and probably each could support at least one doctoral dissertation. So my answers necessarily will be incomplete, schematic, and oversimplified.
1. Did The Civil War Have To Be Fought? Obviously not: there had been plenty of chances for it to be fought before, on both the same grounds and on other grounds. However, once the Southern states committed themselves to leaving the Union if Lincoln became President — and Lincoln remained committed to the core plank of his party’s platform, preserving the Union — war was inevitable.
2. To slightly restate this — assuming, as I do, that slavery was a moral evil of horrendous proportions — could it not have been allowed to wither away? Yes, it could: in fact, it did wither away in some other countries, including Brazil.
3. Why was it legal for the colonies to rebel against Britain but not for the South to rebel against the North? Neither act was “legal” in the sense of being permitted under the constitutional arrangements of either relationship. The signers of the Declaration of Independence did not appeal to the British constitution as their basis for action, but to a natural-rights theory of good government. The secessionists had already tried (and failed) to make their argument for a fuller concept of state sovereignty in 1832 during the Nullification Crisis: in this sense, the issue of secession was already well-settled by the time of the Civil War.
4. Could the South have won? Once Lincoln decided that the “grim calculus” favored the North, could Lee and Davis have done anything to save the Confederacy? In his re-examination of these issues (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men), Jeffrey Hummel argues that the South could have “won” by declining to fight conventionally, and by using guerrilla warfare to make the South untenable for the North. Among many other things, he argues that Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was one of the truly great acts of statesmanship of all time, as it made a “clean” end to the war possible (Jay Winik, in April 1865, makes essentially the same point).
5. How would America have been different if the South had won? Probably, there would not be an “America”. The French and British were conniving to help the South in order to weaken the United States: the French had already settled in with a puppet regime in Mexico under Maximilian, which was only ejected after the North had won and threatened to send troops to Mexico. Harry Turtledove, the science-fiction author, has suggested a plausible alternate history based on a successful Confederate secession, in which the beaten North becomes an ally of the major European irredentist power, Wihelmine Germany: the first world war is eventually fought out in the Americas along with Europe, with the rump of the Union allied to the Central Powers.
6. What would the South have been like if slavery had ended peacefully, as a result of moral awakening in the South, instead of through a bloody war? Difficult to say: the only comparable example, Brazil, appears to be a better-integrated society on the surface, but there are still substantial race-relations issues there: instead of one “color line,” there are a multitude of gradations.
7. Why is the Southern Cause so compelling even now? Romantic illusions die hard: and lost causes have very long half-lives.
8. Of all of the amazing, breathtaking truths and myths about the Civil War, why is this one almost always omitted from mention: that men of one race fought and died in the hundreds of thousands to free from bondage men and women of another race. Dunno: it’s not popular to say so, given the current Zeitgeist.
9. Why is not more attention paid to the stunning contributions of the black man to his own freedom? Another excellent question: perhaps because it’s almost unknown to most people. I do think that the movie Glory is an excellent start.
10. But most of all — and closely connected to this last point — how could all of the men and women who participated in the war have been so amazingly brave? People do amazing things in wartime: they are conditioned to the most amazing efforts by the desire not to let down their buddies. The Civil War is certainly a showcase of this, but it has been true in every war, and will no doubt continue to be true. We honor the men who died at the Alamo: but if you want a story of true heroism — of men dying for a cause when they had nothing else to gain but maintaining the honor of the regiment –you should read about the battle of Camerone (30 April 1863).
— David G.D. Hecht
I have nothing to add to this except where do I find an account of the battle of Camerone? Best, Ben
I read the beautifully written article by Ben Stein, and while impressed by the writing, saddened by the history. The Civil War was not about slavery. It was about power and money, and it started in the Senate several years before the first shot was fired. After “the war of northern aggression” was over, there was a concerted effort to change the nations history by destroying historical documents, and it has continued on by convincing people that the war was fought because of slavery, and that our nation began at Plymouth Rock. Could it have been avoided? Of course. But it was much more profitable for the struggling industries of the North, not to. It was also not to the South’s advantage to give up the power that it held in the government because of the millions of dollars that came from cotton. At that time, it was perfectly legal for the states to secede, but that would have left the North poor and struggling. And the rest is history? Or whatever, that is, that’s taught nowadays.
— Candy Bohmert
With respect, I think there were economic interests at stake, but the overwhelming issue was a moral one: whether slavery should be allowed, and also at stake was a huge amount of Southern ambivalence about slavery. Many in the South were against it, and Lincoln counted on them to help the Union — and they did.
Still, as another writer wrote, romantic illusions die hard. Love, Ben
As usual, Ben Stein asks thoughtful questions. But the short answer is that Lincoln saw a way to do to the South what Britain had done to the colonies. Since the South was largely agrarian and dependent on labor, forced and otherwise, if the South could be deprived of the majority of its labor, its natural resources would be ripe for the picking. Lincoln and his cronies were right, but it took a lot of bloodshed to make it happen.
As to why so many were so brave, two of my ancestors wrote about their experiences, and they remark that when a commander said before an engagement that he expected few of them to live through it, hardly an eyebrow was raised.
— Mary McLemore
Pike Road, Alabama
I am not sure the reason for fighting was correctly stated in Ms McLemore’s note. But it sure made me cry, and I guess this is why we cannot forget the South’s incredible bravery, or the North’s, and the catastrophic and unnecessary loss. Many thanks, Ben
Mr. Stein raises an interesting question — need the Civil War have been fought? If you do the calculations, if the South had not fired on Sumter that faithful day, the war may not have been fought for at least another year if at all. The North, though amply stocked, was not prepared for combat as the personnel were not readily available. McClelland was known as a meticulous planner with the pace of a snail. The war may not have started till the Spring of 1862. And I say not at all, for if the South had mustered the support of England and France early and taken a defensive position along the border states, the North may have wavered, looking for a political solution.
And if it had been political, the South might have prevailed. Clearly the Constitution does not speak one way or the other as to the issue of Succession. In the climate of the time, States Rights were clearly preeminent as Federalism as we know it was still in its formative stages. The whole issue could have landed in the laps of the Supreme Court. And here it gets interesting.
The Court at the time was clearly divided (e.g. consider the Dread Scott decision). John Campbell (Alabama) would have been a clear leader of the Southern cause on the court. Had Peter Daniel (Virginia), a clear States Rights advocate, not died; and Benjamin Curtis’ seat remained vacant. The court may have ruled, the succession of the states having been completed in an orderly fashion is constitutional. At that juncture, any actions open to Lincoln would have been few.
Slavery, the scourge that it was, would not persist for much longer regardless of the war. The beginning of the industrial revolution was in flower at the time the war ensued. The economics of slavery as an institution would have seen its demise one state at a time. The fact is three men running a combine would replace hundreds of pickers were but 40 years away.
But Mr. Stein did not ask the best question of them all: What if Mr. Lee had accepted the appointment of the General of the Army of the North? It is recorded that Lincoln offered Lee the commission first. Lee resigned, joined Virginia, leaving Lincoln to select McClelland. A torrent of questions ensue. Would Virginia have gone neutral in the conflict? (Such was Lee’s stature.) Would Gettysburg ever happen or maybe been the Battle of Richmond in 1862? Might Grant never reached the heights that he did for Grant was a boozer and rabble rouser while Lee was steel and contemplation mixed with action? Clearly Grant would not have been Lee’s choice for the Western front on personal differences alone. Would Lee have been the 18th President of the U.S., instead of Grant, regardless of the war’s outcome? And clearly the Lee residence in Arlington Virginia would not today be a national cemetery.
But a great article nonetheless.
— John McGinnis
Fascinating, and many thanks, Ben
I remain confused about the true cause of the Civil War. History books say “slavery,” yet one may talk to any Southerner, and he/she will argue that slavery was not the issue, but state’s rights. Your article proposes that slavery is the only cause. Please let us hear from you.
Well, the “state right” that was at issue was slavery…. Many thanks, Ben