Although Robert E. Lee made the end of the Civil War a practical certainty when he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, it was not actually until August 20, 1866, that President Andrew Johnson officially declared that the American Civil War was “at an end and that peace, order, tranquility, and civil authority now exist in and throughout the whole of the United States of America.”1 In one of the few moments of tact Johnson ever exhibited during his miserable presidency, he refrained from chortling over who had won and gloating over who had lost. But Johnson also missed a golden opportunity to identify what the war had accomplished, or failed to accomplish. He would never have that chance again, and his omission initiated a vast uncertainty over who the war’s winners and losers actually were. Over the years, the war would become hostage to contorted definitions of victory and defeat, resulting in a generous ransom of sentimental treacle that converted the war into a national entertainment within an American exceptionalist narrative in which all had somehow won. The biggest loser of the Civil War thus became our understanding of the Civil War itself. One hundred and fifty years on, the question of who lost the Civil War is still very much worth asking.
In the simplest sense, the most obvious losers of the Civil War were the dead. Between 1866 and 1885, the Federal War Department issued three successive enumerations of Union army wartime deaths, ultimately arriving at a figure of 360,222. Precise as this sounds, it was actually only an approximation. There were no death or grave registration units in the Civil War armies; in some instances, officers were encouraged to undercount their casualties in order to soften the blow to civilian morale back home.2 The number of Union wounded, which could mean anything from minor punctures to double amputation and blindness, was pegged at another 275,000. Add the 7,000 or so Union Navy dead and wounded, and the butcher’s bill for the preservation of the Union amounted to at least 640,000 dead and wounded. In practical terms, six out of every 100 men of military age in the North died during the war, and one out of every six who actually served perished: One out of every 65 soldiers was killed, one out of every 56 died of their wounds, one of every 13 or 14 died of disease, and one out of every ten was wounded. Every one of these statistics, in turn, generated ripples throughout American society for decades thereafter. By 1903, there were 970,322 Civil War pensioners (both veterans and families of veterans) at a total cost of almost $139 million, which in those days amounted to 22.5 percent of all Federal expenditures. In these terms, the Civil War was first and foremost a fiscal and demographic catastrophe.3
These losses, however, paled beside the toll that the war exacted from the Confederacy. Estimates of Confederate battle-related deaths range from 74,500 to 94,000, while between 110,000 and 164,000 Confederate soldiers died of various diseases. But the Confederacy had a far smaller pool of military manpower to draw upon, and it was restricted until the very end of the war to whites. All told, ten out of every one hundred Southern soldiers were killed (a literal decimation); adding to that figure the deaths from disease, this means that one out of every four Confederate soldiers never came back. It is almost impossible to estimate how many Southern civilians may have died war-related deaths.4
Along with these lives, a large portion of the prewar Southern economy vanished into the loss column as well. Although embittered Southerners were wont to blame this on rampaging Yankee barbarians, the single biggest item in the bill of Southern economic losses was caused not by Union pyromaniacs but by emancipation. Of the $7.2 billion in Southern property listed in the 1860 census, $2.4 billion existed in the form of slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment simply erased these as assets.
A second economic blow was fiscal in nature. The money that Southerners had converted into Confederate bonds and notes disappeared the moment it became clear that the U.S. government had no intention of assuming any part of the Confederate government’s debt obligations. After these capital losses came the destruction of physical property: As much as 43 percent of the South’s non-slave agricultural assets was destroyed by the war. By war’s end, a third of the cattle, horses and mules was gone, and in the absence of slave labor to till the soil Southern farm values fell by half. In Alabama, per capita wealth among white farmers fell to one-sixth of what it had been in 1860. In Georgia, one-quarter of the state’s rail lines had become piles of useless, twisted iron, and the state controller general helplessly estimated that “almost four-fifths of the entire wealth of Georgia had been destroyed or rendered unproductive.”5
By 1870, the accumulated value of all Southern property stood at only $2.05 billion, which means (after wartime inflation is factored in) that the war cost the South $5–8 billion. If the slaveholding states had agreed to a slave buy-out plan instead of going to war, then those billions could have freed every slave at market value, funded the purchase of forty acres and a mule for every slave family, with $3.5 billion left over.6
It has long been a truism that while the Civil War ruined the South, it gave birth to the Northern industrial economy. That belief, in turn, generated suspicious comment from turn-of-the-century Progressives that the war was actually a deliberate mechanism of Yankee capitalists and industrialists to seize control of the republic from its agrarian patriarchs. But war rarely acts as anyone’s friend, and it was something less than a friend to Northern industry. The rate of commodity growth actually slackened in the four postwar decades, and manufacturing showed a boom only in certain narrow sectors. In a few places, industrial employment rose at giddying speed: In Chicago, for example, it quadrupled between 1860 and 1870 and tacked on another 50 percent over the next decade. But in Philadelphia, the economic impact of secession and government war contracts was broad rather than deep; some Philadelphia manufacturers made sizeable personal profits out of war contracting, but the overall structure of the Philadelphia economy, not to mention its politics, underwent little re-organization during the war. In Pennsylvania’s rural Chester County, the war multiplied land values and boosted the Phoenix Iron Works in Phoenixville to a competitive level with British ironmakers. But it also starved to death the cotton and woolen mills that had been the original foundation of Northern industry in the first half of the 19th century, and wiped out the small-scale iron mills that once occupied the banks of the county’s Brandywine creek. Few of the officers and bureaucrats who had learned how to manage large-scale wartime production and distribution were ever able to translate those lessons into the peacetime economy.7
It was not Northern industry that benefited most from the war so much as it was Northern agriculture and Northern finance. The outbreak of the war and its demands for foodstuffs neatly coincided with the mass introduction in the late 1840s and 1850s of mechanical seeders, steel plows and the McCormick reaper (250,000 of which were in use by the end of the war). The potent combination of wartime demand and machine-based productive capacity combined to swell the production of Northern wheat and oats by 35 percent, Northern wool by 66 percent and Northern potatoes by 28 percent; exports of wheat doubled over the prewar export levels, as did exports of pork and corn. Moreover, Northern wartime price inflation helped Northern farmers pay off their land indebtedness with cheap greenbacks and doubled land values in states like Illinois and Iowa. “Creditors were running away from debtors”, smirked William McCormick, of the reaper family, “who pursued them in triumph and paid them without mercy.”8
Northern financiers benefited in even more remarkable ways. The seven Democratic administrations that straddled the first six decades of the 19th century, by holding the government’s role in the economy strictly to exchanges of specie, had given little if any encouragement to the development of American finance. A good deal of the capitalization of American industry in the 1820s and 1830s had to be imported from abroad, notably from London. But the war, and the newly dominant Republicans in Congress in 1861, changed that.
First, the threat of civil war drove foreign investors off the American securities market, drove down demand and allowed American investors to step into the vacuum; then the Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ abiding suspicion of financial markets and took the nation off the gold standard; and finally, the immense amounts of money needed to carry on the war created a new class of financiers—bankers, insurers, brokers like Jay Cooke—who dealt in unprecedented volumes of cash and securities. The creation of the national banking system in 1863, and the subsequent disappearance of state bank currencies from Northern circulation, helped to further centralize massive financial power in the hands of financiers.9
And yet, even these entries on the profit side of the war’s ledger were mottled with failures and ambiguities. Northern finance quickly outstripped the capacity of the Federal government to oversee and regulate it, and the financial community soon found itself agitating for a return to the gold standard, not to restrain the free-wheeling dealings of the financial markets, but to slow down currency inflation and attach the markets to a standard independent of Federal control. This meant, in effect, returning the United States to its dependence on the international flow of specie, especially through the hands of British financiers. When British financial markets failed in 1873, they carried Jay Cooke and the other American financiers down with them.
The Panic of 1873 hit agriculture the hardest. The American farmers who had rashly expanded westward on the balloon of increased wartime production, and who eagerly plowed up the plains on easy postwar credit, suddenly found themselves tied to distant markets where their goods sold for less and less. Prices on world markets tumbled from $1.05 for a bushel of wheat in 1870 to 49 cents in 1894. The veteran who took Federal enlistment bounties and homesteaded the West found himself, thirty years later, mortgaged, foreclosed on, or bankrupted. The territories had been kept safe from slavery, but not from the fluctuations of the market.10
However, the most important change in the outline of the postwar American economy was organizational rather than industrial or agricultural, although once again it was difficult to say whether this was a loss or a gain. Before the Civil War, only about 7 percent of American manufacturing existed as corporations. By 1900, corporations accounted for 69 percent of all American manufacturing; between 1897 and 1905 alone, 5,300 small-scale firms were consolidated and re-organized into just 318 corporations; and just 26 trusts controlled 80 percent of major American industrial output. Standard Oil of Ohio, chartered in 1870, was converted into a trust in 1882, by which time it controlled more than 90 percent of American oil refining. “Now”, warned James A. Garfield, who had ended the war as a Union brigadier general and who would be the second President to be assassinated in office, “a class of corporations unknown to the early law writers has arisen”, turning the prewar Republican political slogan of “free soil, free labor, free men” into “industrial feudalism.” At the end of the war, “I found that I had got back to another world”, said the title character of William Dean Howells’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, who had survived a wound at Gettysburg. “The day of small things was past, and I don’t suppose it will ever come again in this country.”11
The Northern victors who inherited this landscape of loss came to despise their own generation as no other American generation since. The novelists and poets cried out first, initially in pain but gradually in disgust. Walt Whitman recalled with desperate fondness the nobility of the wounded soldiers he had met while volunteering in Washington’s wartime hospitals. But the vulgarity of the peacetime decades that followed filled him with horror. “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States”, Whitman complained in Democratic Vistas in 1871.
The results of the war had made people skeptical of noble causes, and wearily tolerant of stupidity, greed and fraud. Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, was enraged at what he saw as the betrayal of the public trust his ancestors had handed down. Adams carried his contempt all the way to the desk his grandfather and great-grandfather had occupied, that of the President of the United States and the generalissimo of Union victory, Ulysses S. Grant. “Grant’s administration outraged every rule of ordinary decency”, Adams complained; it was corrupt, visionless and helpless. Grant himself was “inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more distrustful of others, and awed by money.” He should, Adams raged, “have lived in a cave and worn skins.”12
The South’s postwar generation had to struggle with loss in more literal terms. Between 8,000–10,000 Confederates simply left for exile, mostly to Mexico to serve the short-lived “empire” of Ferdinand Maximilian, or to Brazil where they could once again live in a slave society (Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888). A number of Southerners tried to turn defeat into a victory of sorts by insisting that they had been right all along, and that they hadn’t the faintest interest in asking Northern pardon for anything. This counter-mythology of the “Lost Cause”—a term coined by Edward Pollard in 1866—stubbornly defended the old Southern order, including slavery, on grounds of white supremacy. Pollard even predicted that the superior virtues of the old South would cause it to rise ineluctably from the ashes of its unworthy defeat. “The Confederates have gone out of this war, with the proud, secret, deathless, dangerous consciousness that they are THE BETTER MEN, and that there was nothing wanting but a change in a set of circumstances and a firmer resolve to make them the victors.”13
There remained the embarrassing question of how Pollard’s BETTER MEN could be “better” and still lose the war. The answer the Lost Causers provided to that conundrum was Robert E. Lee. Determined to avoid “all discussion of political questions” in the years after Appomattox, Lee’s dignity in defeat showed to the Lost Cause’s satisfaction that suffering might be a nobler calling than victory. Rather than promoting sectional reconciliation, the devotees of the Lost Cause spurned such gestures. Instead, they staged observances of Jefferson Davis’s birthday, organized the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and paraded the slashed red Confederate battle flag down dusty Southern streets on one Confederate Memorial Day after another. Jubal Early, one of Lee’s generals who may stand as the single most unreconstructed Rebel of them all, refused even to contribute funds to a monument to Robert E. Lee in Richmond when he learned that the pedestal would be carved from Maine granite.14
These mental contortions perhaps help to explain another great loss of the war, and that is the surprisingly small space the Civil War occupies in American high culture. The American Civil War never gave birth to a national epic, an American War and Peace. With the exception of Stephen Crane’s psychological 1895 novella, The Red Badge of Courage (based on the battle of Chancellorsville) and Ambrose Bierce’s frighteningly bitter short stories, America’s major writers in the postwar period passed the Civil War by on the other side. Although the published output of Civil War-related novels and stories is fairly considerable, their strength lies in their sheer quantity rather than their quality.
American poets of the Civil War era, meanwhile, seemed moved by the war only for the production of banality. Walt Whitman, alone among them, wrote wartime verse without indulging in either cheap pacifism or maniacal bombast. Not until the 1920s did Stephen Vincent Benet come the closest of any American poet to creating, in John Brown’s Body (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929), an Iliad for the Civil War. Similarly, Civil War-related art rarely rose above the technical level of newspaper illustration, and only a handful of genuinely extraordinary paintings from Winslow Homer, Xanthus R. Smith, Conrad Wise Chapman and Gilbert Gaul are available to compete with the far vaster output of American artwork on the urban North and the cowboy West.15
Along the same lines, the dearth of great Civil War fiction was overshadowed by the immense production of Civil War regimental histories, a quirky and revealing species of non-fiction with a virtually unique place in American letters, but one that American literary critics have yet to notice. Even Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (1962), the most famous study of American Civil War-related literature, makes no allusion to the regimental histories that blossomed in far greater numbers after the 1880s than the novels and memoirs upon which he lavished so much attention.
The single greatest collection of cultural artifacts bequeathed by the war is in popular music and lyrics. Many of the Civil War’s tunes—Daniel Emmett’s “Dixie”, Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, Henry Root’s “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys”, Patrick Gilmore’s “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, and Henry Clay Work’s “Marching Through Georgia” and the rollicking “Kingdom Comin’”—are still instantly recognizable and evocative of the Civil War. But once the war’s own music is left behind, very little rises in its tracks. Charles Ives toyed with Civil War melodic fragments and worked “The Battle Cry of Freedom” into a particularly heart-rending moment in his orchestral composition Three Places in New England. Aaron Copland set Lincoln’s words against the heroic background of what has become one of the chestnuts of Fourth of July concerts, A Lincoln Portrait (1942). Beyond that, only a handful of pieces—a stray symphony here (Roy Harris’s Gettysburg Symphony, for instance), a choral arrangement there (Peter Wilhousky’s arrangement of the “Battle Hymn”, the last resort of every high-school music director)—even notice the Civil War. No Eroica; no Wozzeck; no War Requiem.
Ironically, the most recurrent artistic shape that the Civil War took was statuary, some of it, like Augustus St. Gaudens’ memorial on Boston Common to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts, the work of mountainous emotion and real genius. But by and large, the Civil War monument has been treated more as a joke than a genre.
Balanced-off against these physical, cultural and spiritual deficits was at least one enormous victory, and that was over slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, followed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, and both enforced by the Union armies, nailed down the coffin-lid on what had always been the most egregious and shameful self-contradiction in American life. In 1864, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass returned to Baltimore for the first time since his flight from slavery 26 years before, and he was “awed into silence” by the changes the war had wrought. As he spoke to a racially mixed meeting at an African-American church, he declared, “The revolution is genuine, full and complete.”16
But once the war was over, the soft tidal recovery of racial mythologies robbed emancipation of much of its promise. The conquered Confederate states tenaciously contested every move to follow emancipation with civil equality for the freedmen. This started in 1865 with the notorious state “Black Laws”, which aimed to control blacks’ freedom through vagrancy laws, curtailing free speech (including “insulting gestures”), and restricting ownership of “fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie-knife.” The Reconstruction Congress struck back in defense of the freed people with two amendments to the Constitution, defiantly drawing the line of citizenship around the freed people, and two civil rights bills (in 1866 and 1875) that spelled out the amendments’ implications. Rushing to the aid of the ex-Confederates, however, were the Federal courts which, beginning with the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873 and ending with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, allowed the states to wall off the freedmen into a civic limbo that was no longer slavery but still far short of civil equality. Southern state governments piece-by-piece imposed segregations of black and white that ensured that blacks would occupy the second-class railway cars, get the scantiest education and stay on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
All that these actions produced for the South was more loss. Segregation, which apportioned the towns and cities to whites and the fields to blacks, bound blacks to an agricultural peonage—whether in the form of sharecropping or debt tenancy. This low condition only smothered the resourcefulness and economic potential of an entire segment of the Southern population, which in turn prolonged the bitterness of destruction and defeat for the South. In the name of white supremacy, the South marginalized itself.17
There were more than a few Americans who nonetheless clung resolutely to the visions of emancipation they had seen written in burnished rows of steel. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) angrily rejected appeals for reconciliation issued by ex-Confederates and energetically condemned the defiant hostility of the Lost Cause. The Society of the Army of Tennessee described the war as a struggle for “the cause of human liberty”, burying “treason and slavery in the Potter’s Field of nations” and “making all our citizens equal before the law, from the gulf to the lakes, and from ocean to ocean. ” In 1937, when the United Confederate Veterans extended an invitation to the GAR to join in what amounted to the last great Blue and Gray Reunion at Gettysburg, the ninety-year-old veterans at the GAR’s 71st Encampment in Madison, Wisconsin, were adamant that no displays of the Confederate battle flag be permitted. “No rebel colors”, they shouted: “What sort of compromise is that for Union soldiers but hell and damnation.”18
An even more resolute objection came from Frederick Douglass, who fought virtually to his dying day in 1895 to keep the eyes of Americans fixed firmly on his vision of a war that had been won, not only for emancipation, but for the survival of the republic itself. “We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to forget the merits of this fearful struggle”, Douglass declared in 1871, “and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life, and those who struck to save it.” He would have nothing of it. “I am no minister of malice . . . but may my ‘right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth’ if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.” Douglass wanted the South not only to admit that it had lost, but also that it had deserved to lose. “The South has a past not to be contemplated with pleasure, but with a shudder”, he wrote in 1870. More than a decade later, Douglass was still not satisfied: “Whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.”19
Saving the republic, however, provided little in the way of grandeur or inspiration for W.E.B. DuBois. He had been born free to free black parents in Massachusetts in 1868, so that a saved republic was something he had the luxury of taking for granted. It was segregation, lynching and casual racial humiliation that loomed on the horizons of the DuBois experience, and they made the preservation of the Union seem airless and inconsequential as a rationale for the Civil War. By the 1930s, DuBois had lost faith in Union-saving as a worthwhile achievement of the war, leaving as its only justification an emancipation so palsied by Reconstruction as to amount to no justification at all. When DuBois published his history of Reconstruction in 1935, he concluded that the North “never meant to abolish Negro slavery, because its profits were built on it”; it only decided to “fight for freedom since this preserved cotton, tobacco, sugar and the Southern market.” All the palaver about preserving the Union was code-language for dodging the necessity of freeing the slaves to fight the Federal government’s battles. “Life, Light and Leading for slaves” would come only “under a dictatorship of the proletariat.”20
DuBois was not the only one thinking along these lines. Lurking within Henry Adams’s snarky contempt for Ulysses Grant was a Progressive snob’s loathing for the ramshackle inefficiencies of democracy. The idea that 640,000 Americans had died merely to keep such a democracy from imploding seemed so pointless as to cry out for a more sinister explanation. That explanation was supplied by the Progressives, by Charles and Mary Beard, Louis Hacker and DuBois. At the end of the war, “neither the hopes of the emancipators nor the fears of their opponents were realized”, said the Beards in 1921. And why? Because the true purpose of the war was to make the United States into “an industrial and commercial nation following in the footsteps of Great Britain”, where “the power of capital, both absolute and as compared to land, was to increase by leaps and bounds . . . positively sustained by protective tariffs that made the hopes of Alexander Hamilton seem trivial.”
The Beards’ single-track economic determinism has long since lost its luster. But what lingers of it in several present-day Civil War-era historians—Michael Fellman, Mark Graber, Harry Stout, Michael Holt—is the pervasive sense that the actual (and ignoble) outcomes of the war fell far short of justifying its costs. If the Civil War was fought for emancipation, then it must have been a failure, because mere emancipation by itself accomplished so little. If the Civil War had been fought to save the republic, then it was a success so vapid as to have not been worth the staggering cost of achieving it.21
This stands in wintry contrast to the confidence of Abraham Lincoln that a war devoted to saving the Union carried a world-historical justification with it. The Civil War, Lincoln said, was indeed not about slavery, even though slavery was its immediate cause, and Progressives ever since have seized that concession as proof that neither Lincoln nor the Civil War had hold of meanings that rose anywhere above the trivial. But believing that the war had another purpose than the elimination of slavery was not a failing on Lincoln’s part, because he believed that it was about something even more important than slavery, something without which emancipation really would be worthless, and that was the idea of liberal democracy. “This is essentially a people’s contest”, Lincoln said in 1861:
On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.
Eleven months after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was still saying that the war was the test, not of equality or racial good will, but of a greater question that absorbed all the others, whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people . . . can long endure.” If democracy proved that it suffered from “this inherent, and fatal weakness”, that it was “too weak to maintain its own existence”, then the world would not give emancipation or racial equality a second glance.22
Democracy and the Union shared a common fate because, in 1861, the United States was the only large-scale, functioning republic in the world, and the only example of Enlightenment liberalism that had actually worked. Goldwin Smith, on tour in America in 1864, said, “An English liberal comes here, not only to watch the unfolding of your destiny, but to read his own. . . . Your regeneration, when it is achieved, will set forth the regeneration of the European nations.” If the American republic turned on itself and fractured from pressures it had itself created, the rejoicing from every crowned head, every dictator and every princeling would be heard around the planet. Certainly those crowned heads saw that this was the ultimate stake in the war. This is why so many of them rooted for the Confederacy. The British did not love slavery, but they loved the bad example set by a successful democratic republic even less. In the House of Commons, Sir John Ramsden happily greeted the Civil War as the bursting of “the great republican bubble”, and the Times of London, the great mouthpiece of Tory reaction, offered its considered opinion that the self-destruction of “the American Colossus” would be the “riddance of a nightmare” for all monarchies.23
For DuBois, the Beards and those who have followed in their path, the Civil War approached the nadir of total loss precisely because they at some point concluded that liberal democracy was itself a dead end, an illusion, a failure that was never worth fighting for. The Civil War’s central purpose was thus ipso facto its assurance of failure.
But this was not what Lincoln, Douglass and the veterans believed. In 1886, the survivors of Battery B of the 1st New Jersey Artillery gathered together at Gettysburg with the survivors of the III Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Together, they strolled over the battlefield and visited the graves of New Jersey’s dead in the National Cemetery that Lincoln had dedicated 23 years before. One elderly man in the group, who had lost his son at Gettysburg, listened as the old battery mates stood by the boy’s grave and “praised his boy’s pleasant ways, genial, kindly disposition, and brave deeds.” The man was unconsoled. “My boy, my boy, O God, why did you take my boy? He was all I had”, he sobbed. It was the wife of an ex-artilleryman who at last took the old man by the arm and turned him toward the flag on the cemetery flagstaff: “Your boy died for that flag, and while this nation endures his deeds will never be forgotten. When you and I are dead, patriots, standing where we are now, will remember his name and fame.”24 It was a beautiful and quintessentially Victorian moment of nationalistic melodrama, but it underscores a point often missed in the terrible toll of the Civil War’s losses, which is that democracy—the classical liberal democracy of Locke and Montesquieu, of Hamilton and Madison, of Mill and Tocqueville—survived.
Francis Fukuyama spoke, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the triumph of the “last man”—the victorious bourgeois who had finally bested his Romantic and reactionary rivals. But it was an ironic triumph, since the liberal democrat was also sterile, vulgar, self-interested and culturally second-rate. Kings and revolutionists have this advantage; they create illusions of power, sovereignty, verity, pennons snapping on lances, Eisen und Blut. It is the unhappy task of liberalism (as it was of liberalism’s parent, the Enlightenment) to strip away illusions, to disenchant. But the American Civil War—liberal democracy’s war—redeemed this disenchantment, invested democracy with a transcendent story, made its progress providential, its self-interest moral, its principles a struggle between light and darkness, elevating the humility of “malice toward none” into an expiation of national sin.25
And it survived, not in a scattering of futile pieces, but united, undivided by sectionalism even if its unity was marred by ample residual racism. It was that unity, some eight decades later, that constituted nearly all that stood between civilization and the universal midnight of Nazism. And it was that same unity that, a century later, finally rose up to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., summon a nation back to the unfinished work of justice and equality. Whatever else the Civil War failed to accomplish, and whatever questions it left unanswered, we can at least be reasonably certain about the answers to two questions: What America would we live in, and what world would others live in, if the American republic had fragmented into two or more pieces after April 1861? Or if the institution of slavery had survived, either in an independent Southern Confederacy or as the foundation of the new Western states whose future had been Abraham Lincoln’s greatest concern?
The American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, reporting to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in the spring of 1864, thought the alternatives to reunion and emancipation were already too horrible to contemplate: trade wars, foreign intervention, dictatorships. The Commission wrote:
In such a state of feeling, under such a state of things, can we doubt the inevitable results? Shall we escape border raids after fleeing fugitives? No sane man will expect it. Are we to suffer these? We are disgraced! Are we to repel them? It is a renewal of hostilities! . . . . In case of a foreign war . . . can we suppose that they will refrain from seeking their own advantage by an alliance with the enemy?
That none of these horrors happened does not erase the sickening sense that they very well might have, or that however halting the results of the war were at the time and through Reconstruction, they were far from being the pointless tragedy envisioned by DuBois, Henry Adams and the Beards.
Each year on September 17, the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had been a lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts that day, received a red rose from his fellow justice, Edward Douglass White, a former Confederate soldier from Louisiana whom Holmes joined on the Court after Holmes’ appointment by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. It was the kind of sentimental gesture Holmes appreciated, and which Frederick Douglass would have deplored. But Justice White had a point to make. “My God”, the old Confederate would mutter in palpable horror as he reflected on the war he had lost, “My God, if we had succeeded.”26
1“By the President of the United States of America. A Proclamation”, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, edited by James D. Richardson (New York, 1908), vol. 9, pp. 3,632–6. 2Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008), p. 255; Faust, “‘Numbers on Top of Numbers’: Counting the Civil War Dead”, Journal of Military History (October 2006), pp. 1,005–6. 3William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861–1865 (1889), p. 526; Frederick Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Dyer Publishing Company, 1908), 1:12; Maris A. Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations”, Toward a Social History of the American Civil War: Exploratory Essays, edited by Maris A. Vinoskis (Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 1–12, 21–8; E.B. Long, “The People of War”, The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac, 1861–1865 (Doubleday, 1971), pp. 700–22; The American Almanac, Year-book, Cyclopaedia and Atlas (W.R. Hearst, 1904), pp. 474, 503. 4Thomas L. Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-1865 (Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1900), pp. 5–9. 5Claudia D. Goldin and Frank D. Lewis, “The Economic Cost of the American Civil War: Estimates and Implications”, Journal of Economic History (June 1975; Mary A. DeCredico, Patriotism for Profit: Georgia’s Urban Entrepreneurs and the Confederate War Effort (University of North Carolina Press, 1990), p. 115; Douglas B. Ball, Financial Failure and Confederate Defeat (University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 300–1; Paul F. Paskoff, “Measures of War: A Quantitative Examination of the Civil War’s Destructiveness in the Confederacy”, Civil War History (March 2008), pp. 35–58. 6Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History, 2nd edition (W.W. Norton, 1994), pp. 356–60, 362–3, 373. 7J. Matthew Gallman, Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia during the Civil War (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), pp. 299–328; Robin L. Einhorn, “The Civil War and Municipal Government in Chicago”, Toward a Social History of the American Civil War, pp. 132–8; Douglas Harper, “If Thee Must Fight”: A Civil War History of Chester County, Pennsylvania (Chester County, 1990), pp. 363–7; Mark R. Wilson, The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861–1865 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), pp. 214–5. 8Paul W. Gates, Agriculture and the Civil War (Knopt, 1965), pp. 375–7; Hacker, The Triumph of American Capitalism: The Development of Forces in American History to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Simon & Schuster, 1940), pp. 398–9; Louis R. Wells, Industrial History of the United States (Macmillan Company, 1922), p. 466; R. Douglas Hurt, American Agriculture: A Brief History (Purdue University Press, 2002), pp. 133–47; Harold D. Woodman, “Post-Civil War Southern Agriculture and the Law”, Agricultural History (January 1979), pp. 319–37; H.W. Brands, Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J.P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey (Free Press, 1999), p. 36. 9Richard F. Bensel, Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859–1877 (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 241, 252, 282. 10E.V. Smalley, “The Isolation of Life on Prairie Farms”, Atlantic Monthly (September 1893), pp. 378–82. 11John Moody, The Truth About the Trusts: A Description and Analysis of the American Trust Movement (Moody Publishing Co., 1904), pp. 486–7; Atack and Passell, New Economic View, pp. 484, 487; Christian Smith, “Introduction”, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (University of California Press, 2003), p. 74; Garfield, “The Railway Problem”, in John Clark Ridpath, The Life and Work of James A. Garfield (Jones Brothers & Co., 1881), pp. 241, 243; Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (Houghton Mifflin, 1885), p. 20. 12Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”, The Portable Walt Whitman, edited by Mark Van Doren (Viking, 1945), pp. 399–400; Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, edited by J.T. Adams (Modern Library, 1931), pp. 266, 280, 297. 13Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (E.B. Treat & Co., 1867), p. 729; Michael O’Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), vol. 1, p. 192. 14Thomas L. Connelly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (Random House, 1977), p. 95; Thomas L. Connelly and Barbara Bellows, God and General Longstreet: The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind (Louisiana State University Press, 1982), pp. 73–5, 82–3; Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (Knopf, 1991), pp. 102–21. 15Kathleen Diffley, Where My Heart Is Turning Ever: Civil War Stories and Constitutional Reform, 1861–1876 (University of Georgia Press, 1992), pp. 5, 76; Roger G. Kennedy, “Mourning a National Casualty”, Civil War Times Illustrated 27 (March 1988), pp. 34–8, 45–6. 16David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Louisiana State University Press, 1989), p. 186. 17“Laws in Relation to Freedmen”, 39th Congress, 2nd session, Senate Executive Doc. No. 6 (1867), pp. 192-9; John C. Rodrigue, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes, 1862–1880 (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), p. 67; Edward Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 8, 37, 42, 77, 146, 102–4, 110–1, 137–46; Paul Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (Knopf, 1970), pp. 202–3. 18T.S. Clarkson, “Committee on School Histories”, Journal of the Thirtieth National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, St. Paul, Minn., September 3rd, 4th and 5th, 1896, pp. 10, 234; Report of the Proceedings of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee at the Twenty-First Meeting, Held at Toledo, Ohio, September 5th and 6th, 1888 (1893), p. 145; Stan Cohen, Hands Across the Wall: The 50th and 75th Reunions of the Gettysburg Battle (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1982), p. 40. 19Douglass, “Unknown Loyal Dead” (1871), Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (Park Publishing Co., 1882), p. 506; David W. Blight, “For Something Beyond the Battlefield’: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War”, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), pp. 105–6, 114. 20DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935; Free Press, 1992), pp. 633–4, 635. 21Charles A. and Mary Ritter Beard, History of the United States (Macmillan, 1921), p. 398; Beard, “Efficient Democracy”, Pennsylvania State Educational Association: Report of the Proceedings with Papers read before the General Sessions, Department and Round Table Conferences; and with Constitution and By-Laws of the State Educational Association . . . December 27, 28, 29, 1916 (1917), p. 279. 22Lincoln, “Message to Congress in Special Session” (July 4, 1861) and “Address delivered at the dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg” (November 19, 1863), Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (Rutgers University Press, 1953); Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 161. 23Goldwin Smith, “England and America”, Atlantic Monthly (December 1864), 753, 763; Frank Lawrence Owsley, King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America (Chicago, 1959), 186. 24Michael Hanifen, History of Battery B, First New Jersey Artillery (1905; Longstreet House, 1991), pp. 82–3. 25See Michael Knox Beran, Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871 (Free Press, 2007), p. 358; and Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (W.W. Norton, 2003), pp. 169–71. 26“Final report of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission to the Secretary of War” (May 15, 1864), The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, DC, 1900), series three, 4:356, 358, 359; Liva Baker, The Justice From Beacon Hill: The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes (HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 438–9.