Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lincoln and the Civil War: Separating Myth from Fact

In February, 2009, I wrote a piece on Lincoln in honor of his birth, titled Lincoln: 200 Years Later - Debunking Myth from Reality.  As an admirer of Lincoln, but also a student of sociology, I had grown wary of the almost saint-like status accorded the 16th President of the United States.  With a newly elected president, Barack Obama, also an ardent admirer of Lincoln, I felt a more, shall we say, realistic reading of the man, along with a healthy debunking of some myths, was in order.

With the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War having just passed, I decided to revisit the whole matter.  And while I realize I'd be ripping myself off, I'm more than sure my past self wouldn't mind one bit.

In every way imaginable, the Civil War was the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, even bloodier than the Revolutionary War.  And while the principal battles that took the lives of so many brave men ended long ago, in many ways the War itself has never ended.  The major reasons why?  Basically it boils down to two: a misread of the causes leading up to hostilities between the North and South; and the motives behind Lincoln's decision to go to war in the first place.

There are many things about Lincoln that to this day remain more myth than fact; the greatest of these was his reason for fighting the Civil War. Back in my college days I wrote a paper on Racial Inequality for my Sociology class. Naturally, the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction period in American history were quite illuminating. Lincoln, like his protégé Barack Obama today, was more pragmatic than idealistic. His primary concern was not the condition of black slaves in the South, but the preservation of the Union and, more importantly, the future direction of the Union. This does not diminish his accomplishments; he did afterall have the stomach to end slavery - no matter his motives - when lesser leaders wanted nothing to do with it. Below is the body of that paper, as written back in 1994.  Keep in mind, it is, basically, a sociological paper rather than a historical one.

One of the great myths about the Civil War was that it was a war to end slavery. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. It was, to put it bluntly and more accurately, America's version of the French revolution. Seven percent of the total population of the Southern States in 1860 owned nearly three million of the 3,953,696 slaves. In a country whose economy was still predominantly agricultural, the ownership of land, labor and capital was extremely concentrated in the South. At the start of the war, an estimated three billion dollars annually was owed in no small part to the labor of slaves; this represented the bulk of the Southern economy. No such concentration of wealth existed in the North; it had yielded to democracy, but only because democracy was curbed by a dictatorship of property and investment which left in the hands of the leaders of industry such economic power as to insure their mastery and their profits. The Northern and European industries dictated the price for Southern cotton, leaving a narrow margin of profit for the plantation owner. Thus, his only means of making money was the continued exploitation of his slaves. The thought of his principal source of labor suddenly being freed out from under him not only was abhorrent to every bone in his body, it was deeply feared in the North and Europe, as well.

Thus, a rift of monumental proportions existed between the latent sixteenth century feudalism of the South and the nineteenth century capitalism of the North. Lincoln himself, owing to the pressures exerted on him by both sides, was deliberately non-committal on the subject of emancipation. "My paramount object in this struggle," he wrote in 1862, "is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery." It was a struggle primarily because of his wavering. While the South was fighting for the protection and expansion of its agrarian feudalism, it was continuing to utilize the services of its slaves on the plantations, thus freeing over 600,000 men of its more than five million white citizens to fight. The North, with its dearth of qualified men, lost thousands of positions in industry to the war, and the impact was reeking havoc on its already fragile economy.

But this was not the only cause of concern for Lincoln. The Union blockade of cotton from the South to Europe was having more than just a profound effect on the Confederacy's economy, it was beginning to turn public opinion in England and France decidedly against the Union. The prevailing sentiment in Europe was that the longer the war went on, the costlier it would be for all economies concerned. As late as the fall of 1862, England, which was building and harboring Confederate warships, was ready to formally acknowledge the Confederate States as being Independent. Such a move could have meant British intervention, a thought too ghastly to consider.

At last, Lincoln had no choice. With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he ostensibly killed two birds with one stone. Not only did he manage to stave off European discontent, which would have meant inevitable Union defeat, he freed up nearly four million slaves, the bulk of which were now eligible to enlist with the Northern armies. At once, the advantage that the South had enjoyed the first two years of the war had vanished.

That the newly freed slaves were ill-equipped and poorly outnumbered, or that they were facing the prospect of being homeless at the conclusion of the hostilities, did not in the slightest bit concern the President. He had helped facilitate the end to the fiercest and bloodiest war the young nation had yet witnessed, and at the same time managed to preserve the Union. Lincoln would go down in history as the President who freed the slaves, but now the business of the country turned to incorporating them into its fabric.

The end of the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction did not end the misery for blacks. Legal, intellectual, economic and population changes were occurring that provided support for continued discrimination against them. For over three hundred years the nation relied on an exploitative formula, which had been ingrained into the collective conscious of the masses. Slavery had been justified on the basis of racial superiority of whites over blacks. The nation now faced the prospect of four million freed slaves it had been told were inferior to them. To say it did not know what to do with them would be an understatement.

The South had risked war to protect its system of labor and to expand it into a triumphant empire; and even if all of the Southerners did not agree with this broader program, even these had risked war in order to ward off the disaster of a free labor class, either white or black. Now, beaten and demoralized, it faced all sorts of difficulties. Its entire military, naval, and commercial systems were in ruin; the people, particularly the plantation owners, were broke and destitute. There was at the end of the war no civil authority with power in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas; and in the other states, authority was only functioning in part under Congress or the President. The destruction of the South was more complete than that of the nobility and clergy in the French revolution.

So here we are 150 years later, and the resentments still linger.  The country's first truly pragmatic president risked everything to reunite a nation that had torn itself apart over ostensibly which type of economic system would dominate its future.  There were three choices in front of Lincoln.  The first was to allow the South to secede, which was a non-starter for him; the second was to permit the status quo to remain, which would've meant a huge disadvantage for the North against a Europe, which was gearing up for an industrial revolution that would eventually sweep the West, again not permissible; the third, eliminating the agrarian South's domination of the American economy, was the only logical choice open to him.  That the only path to victory meant the total destruction of the South was regrettable, but necessary.  The Confederacy had given him no other option.

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