First comes the war, then the moral justification

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 17, 2011

OXFORD — Abraham Lincoln inspired people of the North to sweep the South and rid it of the pestilence of slavery.

What’s that? It’s the snapshot of the American Civil War lots of people keep in their brains. If that’s all they need or want, fine. For others, however, 150th anniversary events now getting under way offer a learning opportunity not just about that war, but most of them.

A good starting place would be to understand it wasn’t a civil war at all. That term describes a struggle among various groups or factions seeking control of a single government. What happened in 1861 was that several states, including Mississippi, voted to break away from the others and start a separate confederation. The war started when the states that didn’t secede said, “No, you can’t do that,” and the South responded, “Can, too.”

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The first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861.

That scene near the opening of “Gone With The Wind” was accurate. Southern boys whooped it up. As word spread that war had come, the firmly held belief was that actual fighting would, in essence, ratify secession. The prevailing sentiment was that Northerners would argue against dividing the union, but had no will to fight, much less a legal basis on which to stop the split.

Lincoln was in his first term. His call to arms after Sumter was a surprise to many, but once he made a commitment to preserve the Union the outcome was ordained — if Lincoln could stay the course. The North had more people and a far greater industrial base. The South could not win a war of attrition — and that is what it became.

But the war that, in fact, ended slavery did not begin as a moral quest any more than World War II began as an effort to end the wholesale slaughter of European Jews. Both wars had moral outcomes, but as byproducts. What triggered them were struggles for economic power, economic leverage.

As Bertrand Russell put it, “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.”

The North-South friction arose largely from geography and weather. The North had more people and a climate more suited to factory work and shipping. The South was still being settled and had mines, farms and forests to provide raw materials for finishing in Northern factories. Disputes centered on trade, tariffs — who was getting a good deal and who was feeling ripped off.

How slavery fit into the picture was also different than might be perceived today. The practice of human bondage was completely at odds with everything the nation said it stood for, but the idea that slaves had any claim to personal freedoms was both rare and radical.

In fact, the emotion that arose when slavery came up for discussion was jealousy, not that residents of Northern states wanted slaves — but that they provided an unfair economic advantage to their owners. On the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, the slaveholders’ view was that a slave’s life was often better than a factory worker’s. Slaves were not free labor. When purchased, they were expensive and they had to be housed, fed and provided medical care. Factory workers were just as trapped, the Southerners believed, but had to be paid wages often insufficient to provide themselves life necessities.

As the war dragged on, Lincoln knew he was in trouble as a result of increasing daily casualty reports and slow slogging against Confederate troops fighting on their home turf and using novel tactics.

Lincoln was, at heart, an abolitionist, but he also was astute enough as a politician to know that when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which he did on Jan. 1, 1863, public sentiment would grow stronger against the war. Newspapers of the day made it clear there was no appetite for a “war to end slavery.” Northern editorialists predicted there was no way Lincoln could win a second term, especially once Gen. George McClellan, one of his former allies, was nominated by Democrats as the “peace candidate” going into the 1864 elections. It was Gen. William T. Sherman’s victory in Atlanta, which took four months, that sent Lincoln back to the White House for a second term.

There’s hope a generation will yet come in which people figure out how to resolve conflicts without breaking things and killing each other. If so, it will be because the people of that generation have more than a snapshot and recognize there’s no glory in war.

While remembered as moral quests, wars usually start due to human failures. Honor and bravery are real and much-to-be respected, as is answering the call of duty. But it’s better for everyone if the call never comes.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail