Was the Civil War necessary?
Book questions its inevitability
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Author David Goldfield’s new book, “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation,” may cover the same topic as myriad previous books, but he hopes his ideas about the origin of the war and its aftermath are new.
“I ask two questions: One, was this war necessary, and two, could we have found a better way to achieve the two great objectives, freeing slaves and preserving the union.”
He says the Civil War was a war of choice. “It would be very difficult to compromise; the issues of slavery had become moral issues; evangelicals had raised the stakes of politics.”
This country, indeed, democracy, Goldfield says, “work best in compromise and moderation.”
“Our government governs best from the center … when we have polarization,” not so well.
Goldfield points out the years before the Civil War were an era of polarization. “If someone disagreed with you, they were a sinner, they were to be condemned.”
That sounds strangely like our current political condition.
“It’s not as serious,” Goldfield says, “but what’s happening in Washington is what happened in late 1850s and leading up until Fort Sumter.”
He says “the center mostly has eroded. People are erecting barricades on the right and left … We’re at that point of gridlock.”
In 1861 the version of a government shutdown was the Civil War. “Hopefully, we will not reach that.”
His book explores the dangers of ideology. “We govern from ideas, not ideology. When we become rigid in politics and religion … the thing with religion is you can’t compromise with sin. If a political issue is central to your faith, you can’t compromise; you demonize your opponent and your opponent demonizes you.”
With the coming of the Civil War, there were many opportunities for compromise. The war was not inevitable, it was a war of choice, not necessity. “If you say slavery is a central fact of the coming of war, OK, but you had a compromise over slavery in the Constitution, a compromise in 1820 for Missouri, a compromise in 1850 over California becoming a state.
“Polarization is a result of the evangelization of politics; it made it more difficult to compromise; at the last moment there were two or three major compromises floating around. Jefferson Davis begged not to fire on Fort Sumter. Lincoln could have withdrawn troops from Fort Sumter.”
Goldfield says Lincoln believed, as a matter of faith, that the country could not exist half slave and half free. He used quotes from the Bible that a house divided will not stand.
“If you believe that and you’re president, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Mary Chestnut in Charleston wrote about everyone being so excited about the war, Goldfield said. She felt sorry for people who couldn’t see the war, not realizing the carnage that followed.
“Fighters in this war were individuals, they had no idea what they would be doing. … They were used to farming, or small shops … They didn’t know anything about modern weaponry, about what war could do.
“The horror they saw was unbelievable … post-traumatic stress disorder was first diagnosed with Civil War veterans,” though it wasn’t called that. “The soldiers who survived were maimed in body and mind; 620,000 died, and those who mourned them must be taken into account, as well,” he says.
“The deaths don’t trump what came out of the war, but the freedom of slaves and saving the union result has been overexaggerated. It took African-Americans over a century to win their rights.
“The union would have been saved anyway. After the union reconstructed the South, it was a millstone around the nation because it was not very productive.” It took the South 60 years, until 1920, to recover the growth it had in 1860, Goldfield says.
“The good results of the war were not as glorious as one would think. One of the questions is, was there a better way?
“We’ll never know.
“I certainly hope we honor the men who fought and commend their courage, but the greater tribute would have been if they had lived,” Goldfield says
When the Irish began immigrating to America, they were not welcome, especially in the cities, where they clashed with Protestants over jobs, housing, “over what the Irish Catholics did on a Sabbath — go to pubs and sing.”
The U.S. was the only democratic government in the world. Goldfield says, “People looked upon it as an experiment. People were concerned that the Catholics owed allegiance to the pope, that they might undermine democracy.”
The Republicans were the only party in history against a particular religion, represented by the Irish immigrants, he says. Before then, evangelicals were not only concerned with individual conversion, but also with the reform of society, “that Jesus would not come until society was free of sin. One way to do that was to get rid of Catholics and slavery; anti-Catholic and anti-slavery forces merged in 1840 and the political parties tried to introduce those ideas into the political process,” Goldfield says.
The evangelical Christian parties were valid, but the majority still moved to the center; on the local level, it was successful, but on the national it was not real significant. As Irish immigration accelerated and people moved West, it brought slavery more into the political arena.
“The Republican party was the anti-Catholic, anti-slavery party. Not all Republicans were evangelicals, but … a vote for Republicans was a vote for God.”
In 1858, the Lincoln-Douglass debates brought on the slogan twin despotisms. They wanted to wipe out Catholicism and slavery. Lincoln was not a religious bigot, but that was his party.
Where do Southern evangelists come in, Goldfield asks. Some advocated keeping religion out of politics, “but eventually they came to view slavery as a God-given institution; it was OK to bring slaves to Jesus and to protect the African and lift him up from babarity. There was a paternal and religious dimension. Northerners said slaveholders were sinners, Southerners said Northerners were sinners.”
In 1860, the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians split along sectional lines on slavery. “Political issues were raised to a religious level. Remember, our government works best in moderation and compromise. It’s difficult to formulate policy otherwise,” Goldfield reiterated.
“Versions of history are too emotional. I tried to write the book to get over that. I asked why and tried to show it. … The Civil War was the greatest American political failure. We’ve had crises throughout, but usually our political system has risen to the challenge.”
Southerners have been highly critical of Goldfield’s books. “They’s still fighting the Civil War, but I’m a Southern historian. It’s about how Southerners have remembered the war — a lot of it is myth. They haven’t been in my corner, but this book, the response has been more guarded, but more positive. I’m applying a more even-handed approach. I’m not anti-Southern or anti-South, but anti-war.”
The North developed a reputation of virtue, the South became the evil empire, Goldfield says. “I say a curse on both of them. Lincoln said both sides were responsible for the war.”
Goldfield said not many books look at it this way. “In terms of looking at the origins of war from an evangelical perspective, we’ve been in this ditch and we can’t get out. Was it slavery or states rights? We’re not asking the right questions. …
“I always tell my students to leave 2011 behind, but that’s why we’re still fighting the war today, not replaying history. It’s a vindication for who we are today. I wanted to get away from what presents false dichotomies. I wanted to look at what people at the time were talking about, what they were interested in. On the streets of New York what concerns you is Catholics or Protestants — not slavery. … People think we were always talking about slavery; but Lincoln won because he got his Protestant working-class base in the North,” where Goldfield says they were frightened about the Irish Catholics and free black people. … Lincoln won the Northern states because Protestant men wanted to keep their superior place.”
The book tells a story through real people who lived at that time, such as Walt Whitman and Douglass Stephens, Goldfield says.
“It’s not a textbook. … It becomes very personal.” Readers can see themselves and their society today in this book: the gridlock, ideology over ideas, some of the same erosion of the center and same religious self-righteousness.
Because it is the 150th anniversary of the war, his book has garnered national interest. He’s been interviewed on NPR and will be at Washington’s famous bookstore, Politics and Prose, and he’ll do a program for the Treasury Department. “I have a mission to get people to read the book, but I want to take it to the people of the Southeast. I really want to bring this message.”