Everything you know about the Civil War is wrong

Almost. Historian David Goldfield exposes how evangelical Protestants turned a conflict into a bloody conflagration

Published June 9, 2011 1:01PM (EDT)

On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Americans are engaged in new debates over what it was about. Southern revisionists have long tried to claim it wasn't about slavery, but rather "Northern aggression" – which is a tough sell since they seceded from the Union despite Lincoln's attempts at compromise on slavery, and then attacked the federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina. That would be Southern aggression, by any standard.

But there's still room for smart revisionism. Instead of the traditional view that finds the Civil War a great moral and political triumph, David Goldfield calls it "America's greatest failure" in his fascinating new book, "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation." It killed a half-million Americans and devastated the South for generations, maybe through today. And while many Northern Republicans came to embrace abolishing slavery as one of the war's goals, Goldfield shows that Southerners are partly right when they say the war's main thrust was to establish Northern domination, in business and in culture. Most controversially, Goldfield argues passionately -- with strong data and argument, but not entirely convincingly -- that the Civil War was a mistake. Instead of liberating African Americans, he says, it left them subject to poverty, sharecropping and Jim Crow violence and probably retarded their progress to become free citizens.

Whether or not you accept that premise – more on that later – Goldfield shows definitively that Northern evangelical Protestants were the moral force behind the war, and once they turned it into a religious question, a matter of good v. evil, political compromise was impossible. The Second Great Awakening set its sights on purging the country of the sins of slavery, drunkenness, impiety -- as well as Catholics, particularly Irish Catholic immigrants. Better than any history I've seen, Goldfield tracks the disturbing links between abolitionism and nativism. In fact, he starts his book with the torching of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass., in 1834, a violent attack on Catholics which Goldfield shows was "incited" by Lyman Beecher, the father of the Beecher clan, most of whom turned out to be as anti-Irish Catholic as they were anti-slavery. To evangelical Protestant nativists, Catholicism was incompatible with democracy, because its adherents allegedly gave their loyalty to the Pope, not the president, and the religion's emphasis on obeying a hierarchy made them unfit for self-government. Also, rebellious Irish Catholics didn't show the proper discipline or deference to conform to emerging industrial America. The needs of Northern business were never far from some (though not all) abolitionists' minds.

Still, though nativism was widespread in the North, and within the Republican Party (which  absorbed some old Know-Nothing and nativist Whig party remnants), abolitionism remained at the party's fringe. Most Republicans were seeking compromise, not the abolition of slavery, in the years before the war, including Abraham Lincoln. Our first Republican president didn't like slavery, and he fiercely opposed its extension to the Territories, but he also expressed doubts about African-Americans' capacity for democracy, and he opposed black suffrage. Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act, which let slave-owners call on law enforcement even in free states to capture their runaway "property." (As a lawyer, he'd represented a slave owner trying to recapture a fugitive slave.)

And as a strict constitutionalist, Lincoln resisted abolitionism, because like it or not, the Constitution made room for slavery. The president disliked slavery, but his priority was the union. He famously told abolitionist Republican Horace Greeley (who later turned against Reconstruction and ran for president as a Democrat, abandoning African Americans as did too many other abolitionists): "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."

In fact, during Lincoln's 1860 presidential campaign, Republicans went so far as to argue that they were the real White Man's Party, because their commitment to keeping the Territories slave-free wasn't about the evils of slavery; it was about keeping the West white, so white families alone could enjoy the bounty of the frontier without competition (except from Indians, who would be eradicated.) Democrats insisted they were the White Man's Party, because slavery liberated white men to be the property owners and entrepreneurs God intended them to be, while an inferior race did their manual labor, for free. Most Republicans and Democrats agreed on white supremacy; they differed on the right way to maintain it.

Yet as the war went on, Lincoln came to see slavery as a moral cause, and he wouldn't entertain compromise armistice proposals that let the South keep black people in bondage. In a book with few heroes, Lincoln emerges as one over time, virtually alone as an American politician in blending compassion for slaves with compassion for white Southerners. It's popular to suggest that had Lincoln lived, Reconstruction would have been more successful. But Lincoln's pattern of compromise throughout his political career makes speculating on what he'd have done very difficult. Goldfield makes clear, though, that Lincoln wanted reconciliation with the South, not Southern humiliation. In his subdued Second Inaugural Address, he refused to blame the war on the Confederacy, or trumpet the righteousness of the Northern cause. Because the Founders legalized slavery, he believed the country, North and South, shared responsibility for it. Lincoln closed with words made more poignant by the fact that the outcome he envisioned didn't come to be (and still hasn't):

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln even proposed a plan to compensate slaveowners for their losses. That might make our blood boil today, but it was actually the way slavery had been abolished in other countries. Clearly, the Southern economy was destroyed, and families suffered hugely. Most of the war took place on Southern battlefields, destroying farms, homes, churches, businesses. A quarter of Southern men between the ages of 20 and 40 died; more than 28 million Southerners, white as well as black, fled the devastated Confederate states in the decades after the war. And while Northern wealth increased 50 percent between 1860 and 1870, the South lost 60 percent of its wealth in those years, roughly half of it human "property." Lincoln proposed legislation establishing a $400 million fund to compensate Southerners for giving up slavery, if they would recognize national sovereignty and ratify the 13th Amendment emancipating the slaves. We don't know what Southern leaders would have said; Lincoln's own cabinet nixed the idea.

It's also possible Lincoln might not have taken from Confederate leaders the right to vote and hold office away, while giving it to former slaves, as Congress did after his death. Again, however fair that may seem from our distant (presumed) consensus that the pro-slavery Confederacy deserved whatever it had coming, it let Southern leaders complain they'd been "disenfranchised," even though the stricture only affected a fraction of the Southern male population. It was also rank hypocrisy, as eight northern states rejected black suffrage, while forcing it on the former Confederacy. But we'll never know what Lincoln would have done; he died. Meanwhile, the view of Henry Ward Beecher, staunch anti-Catholic (and a villain in this book, if it has one) prevailed: In a speech just before Lincoln's death, he gave a sermon at Fort Sumter:

The whole guilt of this war rests upon the ambitious, educated, plotting, political leaders of the South…A day will come when God will reveal judgment and arraign at his bar these mighty miscreants…And then [they] will be whirled aloft and plunged downward forever and ever in an endless retribution."

Contrast that with Lincoln's Second Inaugural, and then try to figure out which man is the actual Christian leader.


Goldfield's book has been well-reviewed, because if it's sympathetic to Southern whites, it depicts the savagery of slavery and post-war white terrorism with unflinching and gut-wrenching clarity. (Literally. The book's tales of slaves' abuse and Southern white post-war savagery will make you sick.) Still, this Civil War history challenges the absolutism of the "Northerners were heroes, and Southerners were vicious, violent racists" school of history. He exposes and excoriates Southern whites' violence against black people before and after the war. But he also links the war to the pro-business evangelical Protestant crusade to eradicate native American Indians, Mexicans, Irish and German Catholic immigrants, and an emerging class of landless Northern laborers – anyone who stood in the way of their vision of clean, hard-working, business-friendly American progress. And he counts the South as a victim of that Northern evangelical crusade. Southerners were another group that simply wasn't conforming to their doctrine of "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men," as the title of Eric Foner's equally complicated and fantastic Republican Party history puts it.

Republicans were first and foremost the party of small business, an emerging class of industrialists, the nascent middle class, and anti-Catholic nativists. They despised the working class – or denied it existed. Lincoln himself talked of the emerging caste of wage-earners optimistically as "young beginners," who would work for a time, save money, then buy land and/or their own business. Republicans either couldn't imagine an America with a permanent class of laborers (like Lincoln), or they dreamed of one, but found ways to convince those workers it was all in their interest. In their defense, in the decades after the Civil War, the Horatio Alger, rags to riches story was never more true.

It's indisputable that Republican zeal for the liberation of black people was always a fringe sentiment – and even among that fringe, it was short lived. After the war, Northerners wanted to get back to business, and they did, with a vengeance. During the war, the federal government had flexed muscles of taxation, conscription and land annexation. The post-war era's emerging robber barons pointed to the Union army's successes as a justification of their march toward monopoly. "Who can buy beef the cheapest – the housewife for her family, the steward for her club or hotel, or the commissary for the army?" Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller asked. Oil and steel businesses boomed. The transcontinental railroad was completed -- as was the near-eradication of American Indians.

Goldfield shows how leading Union generals almost immediately became warriors on the frontier, bringing the zeal with which they decimated the backward South to the task of decimating backward "savages." That new crusade had direct ramifications for Southern blacks. Even when President Ulysses S. Grant tried to use the military to beat back white Southern paramilitary groups literally massacring African-Americans trying to execute basic rights, he couldn't, because soldiers were deployed out West in the new Civil War against Indians. One hero of the book, Mississippi Republican Gov. Adelbert Ames, tries to use his power to protect blacks from Southern Democratic violence, but there were no Federal soldiers left in his state to call upon, they were all on the anti-Indian front. As the state's "White Line" paramilitary group tore through Mississippi to violently intimidate black voters, Ames was forced to give up his governor's position and flee. Early in the book, Goldfield quotes a Northern newspaper editor proclaiming "We can have no peace in this country until the CATHOLICS ARE EXTERMINATED." Near the end, he finds a Birmingham News headline that reads: "We intend to beat the negro in the battle of life, and defeat means one thing: EXTERMINATION." That doesn't feel heavy handed; it's fact, and it's tragic.

Meanwhile, attacks on Irish Catholics continued. Although the famed Civil War Irish brigades fought bravely, the Organization of Union Veterans wouldn't include them – or black Union veterans, either. And if certain abolitionists hadn't already shamed themselves with their anti-Irish Catholic bias, they would later, when they dropped their concern for African Americans – and in fact, joined slavery advocates in concluding that blacks were unfit for self-government. After the war, Henry Ward Beecher began hawking watches and preaching "The Gospel of Prosperity;" he also wrote a novel whose hero was an industrious white Southerner, and whose main black character was a stupid, drunken man-child incapable of self-support. Beecher remained viciously anti-Irish Catholic and opposed to the emerging labor movement (those two things were connected, by the way, for quite a few abolitionists), arguing that the era's strikes showed that the working class was "unfit for the race of life." During the Great Railway Strike of 1877, he denounced the strikers in his loathsome "bread and water" sermon, where he thundered: "Man cannot live by bread alone but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live." A few days later he proclaimed: "If you are being reduced, go down boldly into poverty." I wonder if Scott Walker is an admirer.

Harriet Beecher Stowe moved to former Confederate Florida, became an Episcopalian, wrote a best-selling book about home decorating for women, and never again troubled herself about the (former) slaves. Abolitionist Horace Greeley gave up on Reconstruction and black rights quickly. His New York Tribune, which once crusaded against slavery, began to feature "exposes" of Reconstruction, including tales of black "corruption" and political incompetence. Even the Nation magazine, which we remember as a journal of abolitionism, soured on the experiment with black suffrage. Editor E.L. Godkin proclaimed that the "blackest" legislators were the worst, particularly in South Carolina, where blacks possessed an "average of intelligence but slightly above the level of animals."

Part of the problem was that at the same time, the North was experiencing its own political growing pains, which former egalitarians suddenly blamed on universal (male) suffrage. New York recoiled at the Boss Tweed corruption scandal of 1870. Tweed himself wasn't Irish, but some of his on-the-take top lieutenants were, and he relied on the votes of Irish Catholic immigrants – who produced votes in excess of their already large, pro-Democratic numbers, thanks to the Tammany machine, as vote fraud was rampant. The New York Times used Tweed's corruption as "an example of the Irish Catholic despotism that rules the City of New York." At the same time, the once-abolitionist paper blamed "ignorant Negroes" for South Carolina's corruption issues, which had of course predated black suffrage and would survive it.

Suddenly white Northern Republicans had a reason to sympathize with white Southern Democrats: Universal suffrage blighted both sides of the Civil War conflict. There's no better symbol of the transformation of Northern abolitionist sentiment than the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast: The pro-Union Harper's artist once graphically depicted the perfidy of Confederates and championed civil rights for slaves. But his most famous cartoon, from 1876, depicted Irish Catholics and African-Americans – two simian creatures labeled "Paddy" and "Sambo" -- as "The Ignorant Vote." Northerners had new appreciation for the South. It made the country whole: The North stood for reason, the South romance. Northern industrialists were happy to preserve the Old South in amber, a land of sweet magnolias and even sweeter women, who hadn't been "masculinized" by either labor or freedom, as Northern women were. It became a shrine to our agrarian past as worshipped by the founders, permanently left behind.


In this same period, even a couple of liberal heroes fell down too. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman both lamented the messiness of universal suffrage. Their worries, paradoxically, came out of a certain kind of populism. Whitman concluded that "the appalling dangers of universal suffrage" seemed to be empowering a rapacious post-war business class. Likewise, Twain railed against the greed of "The Gilded Age," a searing term he coined to describe the cruel era of robber barons, but he believed poor uneducated voters were letting the rich run rampant. A dinner companion reported Twain railing against "this wicked ungodly suffrage, where the vote of a man who knew nothing was as good as the vote of a man of education and industry; this endeavor to equalize what God has made unequal was a wrong and a shame." Both troubadours of democracy believed that universal suffrage was dooming democracy, as uninformed voters backed politicians who colluded with robber barons to destroy the country. Thus they concluded, Goldfield writes, "It might be prudent to restrict democracy in order to save it."

For many reasons, Northern Republicans gave up on the early goals of Reconstruction: to grant free blacks civil and economic rights. Goldfield quotes a Northerner observing a general desire to forget the war, and particular "apathy about the Negro" – shades of the "compassion fatigue" that would be diagnosed by neoconservatives 100 years later, after the Great Society. The parallels between the backlash against Reconstruction, and the backlash against Lyndon Johnson's civil rights reforms, are unmistakable and chilling. The Republican Party of the 1860s, just like the Democratic Party of the 1960s, paid dearly for championing the rights of African Americans. And both parties backed away from their commitment to addressing the economic barriers to black inclusion once they dealt with the era's pressing moral problem: In Lincoln's case, Southern slavery, in Johnson's, violent Southern suppression of black civil and voting rights. After each morally overdue reckoning, the parties suffered, and then they changed sides. Republicans were trounced after Reconstruction, as Democrats became the party of the South; 100 years later, Democrats were trounced, and Republicans became the party of the South. The Civil War is still not over.

Here is where Goldfield's scrupulously fair and heart-breaking story softens up even the most ardent civil rights advocate, to begin to sympathetically contemplate his notion that the Civil War could have been avoided, and slavery eradicated without it. As much as I love this book, and believe anyone concerned about race relations and the country's current political stalemate should read it, I couldn't quite get there. I understand Goldfield's reasoning. In an interview with Leonard Lopate, he contended that the abolition of slavery was inevitable "in a world that was hurtling toward the Industrial Revolution." I can imagine that, had a more politically creative group of politicians tried to compromise on a way out of slavery – perhaps offering to compensate slaveholders for their slaves, the way every other country that abolished slavery did – we maybe, maybe, might have avoided the Civil War.

But that's such starry-eyed conjecture, it's hard to go there. One of the most persuasive arguments for Goldfield's theory is the fact that it took another hundred years to end Jim Crow. And almost 50 years after that, African Americans still aren't completely free: the legacy of what we lamely call "structural racism," in the criminal justice system, the health care system, the housing and job market, lives on. That makes it easy, in a way, to fantasize: Hell, yeah, there had to be a way to do this in less than 150 years!

I wish. While it's possible, I just don't see the evidence in Goldfield's meticulously researched, passionately argued book. Yes, decent Southerners had doubts about slavery, and even some of those who didn't tried desperately to save the union. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia was an old Whig friend of Abraham Lincoln's, and he didn't want war. But he couldn't compromise on slavery, not even when he met Lincoln for a secret peace summit early in 1865, as the Confederate Army lay bleeding after Sherman's march and Grant's late victories. And after the war, which perhaps made Southerners bitter in a way that foreclosed compromise, Goldfield depicts few if any ex-Confederates voicing contrition about their role in the war, as Lincoln did, let alone a desire for reconciliation – and certainly not support for equal rights for former slaves.

Still, with half a million Americans dead on Civil War battlefields, and 150 more years of bitter conflict, it's worth pondering Goldfield's challenge -- if only because it might give some modern visionary a way to see beyond our current social, racial and economic stalemate. I have no doubt about Goldfield's premise that we are still fighting the Civil War. We still need a way to end it. This book models the complicated, even contradictory, compassionate vision that might make that possible. Eventually. 

By Joan Walsh

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