Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Thinking about the causes of the Civil War

There are many theories as to the cause of the Civil War. Here is another.

The Attack on Fort Sumter April 12-13, 1861

The proximate cause of the Civil War was the attack on Fort Sumter. The states of the deep south had seceded from the Union and decided to attack, knowing that the attack was an act of war. The Union responded by mobilizing a military response. Those actions emerged from complex social and political processes. Both choices can also be seen as causes of the Civil War, as can the processes that led to those choices.

The choice to secede and to begin military action seems to demand explanation since it was so disastrous. Nominally, the choice was intended to preserve the institution of slavery and the way of life that that institution permitted to the whites. In fact, that choice led to the rapid abolition of slavery as well as the death of one quarter of the white men of military age in South Carolina, wounding of even more of its young men, the destruction of the state's economy, occupation by troops from the northern states, and citizenship for the former slaves. Since negotiation could easily have led to conditions more satisfactory to the white power structure of South Carolina, I suggest that a real cause of the Civil War was a very bad choice by South Carolina.

The choice by the south to start the Civil War, bad as it was, is but one of many such bad choices made in world history. Think of the choice by Paraguay in 1864 to enter a war against the Triple Alliance. The loss to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay led to the death of an estimated 3/5th to 9/10th of the people of Paraguay, leaving the country a basket case for the next century. That was a really bad choice!

The choice by the Union seems at first glance not to require explanation. It was the moral choice to end slavery. It was a choice to respond in kind to an act of war. It was a choice that led to victory in the Civil War, and the Union after the war went on to become the world's richest and most powerful nation. However, just because the choice was right does not mean that it need not be explained. Many countries have made the wrong choice is similar circumstances. I am tempted to compare the Union's right choice to take the hard road of war to the wrong choice made by Britain to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938.

The shape of the Civil War was formed by many choices made in other times and other places. I am especially interested in the choice of Virginia after the attack on Fort Sumter and the beginning of mobilization in the north to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. That decision was actually a reversal of a slightly earlier choice to remain in the Union. It resulted in much of the actual fighting taking place in Virginia; had Virginia chosen to stay in the Union, the fighting would probably have taken place further south. I suggest that had Virginia stayed in the Union, the war might have been avoided entirely or shortened, the abolition of slavery in Virginia might have taken place more gradually, and the results for the white people of Virginia (who had all the power to influence the choice) would have been much better in terms of human casualties and economic destruction than actually was the case.

Why the Deep South Chose the Wrong Path

South Carolina's white population in 1860 was under 300,000. Since slaves were property rather than citizens, and since women and children did not have the vote, the number of voters would have been about 75 thousand. However, the political power was held by a minority of the whites who were not only slave holders but included the wealthy owners of many slaves each. The exclusion of the slaves, free blacks and women from political participation and the domination of the political process by those who had the most to gain from continuing the institution of slavery clearly must have influenced the choice for war rather than compromise.

It must have been that those people of influence:

  • failed to understand the vigor with which the north would prosecute the war, nor the quality of the northern forces;
  • failed to understand the nature of total war in their time (as those who had fought in Indian wars and the Mexican War such as Sam Houston, Grant and Sherman must have done);
  • failed to understand the economics of maintaining large, well armed forces in the field and a domestic economy that would also support the people at home;
  • failed to understand that the industrial plant of the south would prove inadequate to keep up with the weapons production of the north, and that it would be impossible to continue to import adequate supplies of weapons from abroad;
  • failed to realize that the million white men of military age would not be sufficient to win a war against the 4 million men of military age in the North while simultaneously maintaining productivity in the south;
  • failed to appreciate that the slaves and free blacks would want the south to lose the war, would prove to be a very difficult work force to manage, and that many would desert to the north at the first opportunity, leaving the south with severely limited economic productive capacity;
  • failed to realize that the northern blockade would be so effective, and indeed failed to realize that not only would the blockade stop the export of cotton during the war, but that other sources of cotton would replace southern production for European markets.
  • failed to recognize that European powers would not provide military aid to the Confederacy -- aid that would become politically impossible after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862,
Thus I would suggest that a radical failure of knowledge and analysis in the deep south which led the vast majority of its influential to assume that the war would be quick, painless and victorious, combined with a deeply flawed political process, were important causes of the Civil War.

Why the North Chose to Fight

The breakdown of the Whig Party and the triumph in the north of the Republican Party in the election of 1860 brought Lincoln to office with a supportive Congress. Lincoln saw his duty to preserve the Union and the bellicose mood of the country evolved into war fever after the attack on Fort Sumter not only allowing but forcing a decision for war. So too, the media supported the initiation of the war on the part of the north. However, most people in the north also failed to appreciate the nature of the total war that would follow. They assumed that Union forces would be far more successful (and Confederate forces far less successful) in the early part of the war than they proved to be. They underestimated the will of the south, and underestimated the magnitude of the total war that would ensue. So it would seem that the choice to fight by the north also was in part the result of a political process that depended on poor information and inadequate analysis.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
Abraham Lincoln
The Gettysburg Address
The decision by the north to fight was in part to oppose the creation of a new nation cut out of the Union that was specifically conceived on the proposition that all men are not created equal, and dedicated to preservation of an institution that would enslave millions. It was also due to a degree we find hard to understand today to the belief that if secession were to succeed, democratic governance would disappear. Leaders were familiar not only with classical examples of Athens and Rome in which democracy had failed, but also with the failure of democracy after the French Revolution and after the revolutions of 1848 in much of Europe. The more thoughtful of the leaders saw the global importance of the United States of America as a beacon for liberty. They also saw that a weakened Union would face much more serious threats from European imperial powers in achieving imperial domain over the west.

Why Virginia Chose to Fight

The choice of Virginia to join the Confederacy and fight on its side seems especially worthy of consideration. That choice turned out to be comparably disastrous to the choice of South Carolina, leading to heavy casualties in the war for Virginia citizens, the abrupt end of slavery, the destruction of Virginia's economy, occupation by northern troops, and citizenship for its former slaves.

Richmond after the siege
Virginia's convention to consider secession had voted to stay with the Union; it quickly reversed that decision after the conquest of Fort Sumter and the call for troops by President Lincoln. If Virginia had not seceded, the war in the east would not have been fought primarily on Virginia soil, and the devastation of Virginia by the war would have been much less. Virginia's switch would have greatly strengthened the Union forces and weakened those of the Confederacy, probably shortening the war.

Had Virginia not seceded, it is even possible that North Carolina making its decision in the following month would also have stayed with the Union. If both Virginia and North Carolina had opted for the Union, the war would probably have been still more shortened. Indeed, there would have been much more room for negotiations toward outcomes more desired by those in power in Virginia.

The process by which the choice was made by Virginia must have been much like that of South Carolina, beset by similar failures of perception of the risks and analysis of the situation. It was apparently influenced by public opinion mobilized in support of the Confederacy after President Lincoln called for troops to fight in a Civil War.

Ultimately the course of the war was influenced by those and other failures of information and analysis in flawed decision making institutions comparable to those which had led to the start of the war.

So What

Understanding historical events is of course valuable in and of itself. Still there are some cautionary lessons for us today. It is as important today as it was 150 years ago to understand the implications of important government policy decisions; the experience with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that U.S. government decision makers chose to enter those wars with very inadequate knowledge and analysis. So too, the mistake of leaving decision making in the hands of small minorities with interests that are not those of the majority of our citizens is present today as it was a century and a half ago. So too is the danger of making choices based on the emotional response of the public to specific events rather than on a more dispassionate assessment of circumstances and interests.


John Daly said...
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John Daly said...

So the lesson is one we have learned before. The southern institutions put power in the hands of people whose interests were different than those of the majority of the people. Not only that, but those with influence and power in the south misjudged their enemy, misunderstood the nature of the war that they were starting, misjudged their potential allies, overestimated the capacity of their economy to support the war, and overestimated the willingness of their people (including slaves) to support the war.

John Daly said...

I have been listening to a discussion as to whether Robert E. Lee or U.S. Grant was the better general. The two faced very different situations. Lee was on the weaker side, Grant on the stronger. The numbers said that the Union should win, as it did. Lee's task was to create conditions in which the Confederate elected officials could negotiate a peace that would preserve the Confederacy with his inferior resources; Grant's was to end the rebellion and restore the union with his greater resources. It is not clear that either would have done as well as the other were their roles to have been reversed.

I am impressed by how near Lee came to achieving his purpose in the 7 Days, the Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville. It is possible facing the strategies of Grant and Lincoln, and the logistic superiority of the Union, no one could have saved the Confederacy.

On the other hand, Grant's side won, and it is hard to argue with success. We credit a quarterback with a win, even if his winning team doesn't beat the point spread.

John Daly said...

I recently watched a lecture by Wayne Hsieh at Annapolis on Robert E. Lee's strategy in the Civil War. He asked if the strategy was plausible.

The Confederacy was out manned and outgunned. The Union economy was better able to support a long war. Both sides were manned by people with a common language, common religions, and similar cultures. There were more professionally trained officers on the Union side. And the Union was fighting for liberty and democracy while the Confederacy was fighting for the rights of the states to enslave a large part of their populations. Realistically, neither side could expect help from European allies.

Hsieh pointed out that there is something above military strategy -- the will of the nation that the strategy serves. Lee's strategy was constrained by what the Confederacy would accept, and was predicated on the impact Confederate military strategy would have on the Union willingness to fight.

In those circumstances, I am not sure that there was a plausible strategy. Perhaps a better question would have been if there was a more plausible approach available than that which Lee actually followed. I don't know the answer to either question.