Monday, March 23, 2015

Decision Making Leading Up to the Civil War

The Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865. As the commemoration is coming to a close, let me share an imaginary conversation I have in my mind taking place in 1866 or 67 with someone who was in the South Carolina legislature when it took the decision to secede from the Union in 1861.

     Me: I understand you were there in the state legislature when the vote was taken to secede from the Union.

     Respondent: Yes.

     Me: And you were there when it was decided to fire on Ft. Sumter and start the Civil War.

     Respondent: Yes

     Me. How did those decisions work out for you and your colleagues?

     Respondent: (Silence, tears in his eyes.)

Of course a generation of young Southern men had been decimated, slavery had been abolished suddenly and without compensation, Sherman's troops had marched through South Carolina leaving devastation in their wake, there had been few exports for years, and the economy and much of the infrastructure of the state was in ruins. Federal troops were garrisoned in the state, and the ruling White plutocracy had been dethroned.

Virginia had seceded from the Union after much debate and a significant pause. Much of the fighting during the war had taken place in Virginia, and West Virginia had been allowed to secede from Virginia; if anything the impact of the war was worse in Virginia than in South Carolina. Its former plutocrats had perhaps more to lament than those in other formerly Confederated states.

It seems to me that people in power in the South made a big mistake in choosing to secede from the Union and fight a war with the northern states of the Union. The independent decisions of South Carolina and Virginia politicians were both mistakes. Indeed, it seems to me that the decision making process must have been faulty; they must have failed to accurately assess the probabilities of alternative courses of the war, the results of each course, and thus the probable cost of secession and war.

Even had the Confederacy succeeded, that success probably would have been partial and at great cost to the South. What if the Union had made peace with the Confederacy, but held control of significant amounts of territory that had been part of the pre-Civil War southern states, and held control of the Mississippi? How would a small nation, with an agricultural economy lacking in industry and sea power, recovering from war, have done in the imperial age? Slavery would have been abolished eventually as happened in all of the Americas, and as the European imperial powers colonized Africa, the markets for cotton and other agricultural exports would have become more competitive. The French showed in putting Maximilian and Carlota on the throne of Mexico, that they would snap up American influence given the chance.

In contrast, it seems to me that the people in the north made the right decision. The north had sufficient advantage in manpower, economic power and diplomatic power to win the war. The European powers might want the Confederacy to succeed, but would find it hard to intervene visibly to support those fighting a war to continue slavery. It was also important to save the Union, since only a strong union would rise to quickly become a world power (with great benefits to future generations). Moreover, it had the moral arguments on its side -- it was important to show that democracy could work and develop, and it was right to end slavery.

Of course, there were many possible courses for the war. Seven slave holding states seceded in rapid succession from December 20, 1860 to February 1, 1861. Four more states seceded from the Union between April 17, 1861 and June 8, 1861. Four border states and the District of Colombia, in which slavery was still legal in 1861, remained in the Union. More or fewer states might have seceded; fewer might have meant a shorter war, more a longer war and a greater possibility of success of the Confederacy. Although a priori unlikely, Great Britain might have sided with the Confederacy, and France might have chosen to do so rather than chance a power play in Mexico.

What would have been the course of history had the South Carolina and Virginia not seceded, but rather had bargained for terms to stay in the Union? It seems likely that such a bargain could have averted war, but would have required the abolition of slavery; I would guess that the abolition could have been more gradual, with some manner of reducing the economic impact on the plantation economy of the south.

Huge advances in decision science were made in the 20th century, and it is not fair to expect politicians in the 1860s to do decision analysis as well as it can be done today. On the other hand, watching the political process in the USA and in other countries, it seems clear that irrational decisions are still common -- and indeed they rule the day.

No comments: