The tragic irony of the recent rioting in Baltimore, after alleged police brutality on an African American man is that the violence is a legacy of the American Civil War, which had its first violent deaths in the same location 154 years before. Some of the rioting occurred near Camden Yards, which now is a sports complex, but which in 1861 housed one of Baltimore’s train stations. Troops from the northeastern states were racing to get to Washington, D.C. to defend the North’s capital, which was surrounded by many Southern sympathizing regions, including the city of Baltimore. The troops had to disembark from trains and march across the city to the Camden Yard station to transfer to trains taking them south to Washington. In Baltimore, they met angry southern resistance, which resulted in the first combat deaths of the Civil War.
The Civil War – still the most deadly war in American history with 850,000 deaths, including civilians, seared already deep regional and racial cleavages in America into the permanent political landscape. Abraham Lincoln, the man who our high school history books tell us held the Union together and freed the slaves, receives adulation from historians and a stone temple today on the National Mall in the capital of the reunited nation. Nowadays, criticizing Lincoln, who has become almost the secular equivalent of Jesus, can raise suspicions that you are a closet racist who likes to manifest it publicly by supporting "Confederate heritage" or waving the Confederate battle flag.
Yet coming from a family that was part Quaker with roots in a Northern state, my criticism of Lincoln and the Civil War (in my recently revised book, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty) comes from the other – abolitionist – direction. I make no apologies for a slave-holding, aristocratic antebellum South, which had oppressive one-party rule and many industries that were socialized. Yet the real question is this: Would the country, and especially African Americans, have been better off if the Civil War had never occurred. I say yes.
Say what? Our high school history books seem to tell us the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, but that’s about as correct as saying the United States fought World War II to free Jews from Nazi concentration camps. Not very. Like most of his era, Lincoln was a racist who believed that African Americans were inferior to whites. He did not like slavery, but he was so afraid of freed slaves that he advocated deporting them back to Africa, as did Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant (another Union hero). The Republican Party was formed to oppose slavery in the western territories. The states of the South realized that adding more free states in the West might eventually allow free states to outvote them in Congress, thus ending slavery by allowing the U.S. Constitution to be amended.
After Lincoln’s election in early November 1860 with less than 40 percent of the national vote, the southern states began seceding from the Union. During the then four month period between the election and inauguration, Lincoln, believing he didn’t need to compromise because he had won the election, refused to offer any conciliatory words to the South. And instead of withdrawing from Fort Sumter off the coast of South Carolina – one of the few federal forts and facilities in or near the southern states that hadn’t yet been taken over by them – as his top military men had advised because it was regarded as indefensible, he chose to re-provision it, knowing that it meant certain war. A federal resupply ship sent to the fort by James Buchanan, the president who had just left office, had been fired on by South Carolinians, and the expectation was that any other ship sent there would meet the same fate. However, Lincoln clearly wanted to provoke the South to start a war. He refused an overture by Jefferson Davis, the new president of the Confederacy to negotiate a peaceful solution before war broke out over Fort Sumter. Lincoln wanted South Carolina standing "before the civilized world as having fired upon bread." The South Carolinians foolishly took the bait and not only fired upon the ship but also upon the fort itself, causing it to predictably surrender. Thus was inaugurated the most cataclysmic war in American history.
But wasn’t even a massively destructive conflagration worth it for the freedom of the slaves? Recent historical research on the war’s aftermath has shown that the answer is not as clear as high school history books would have us believe. First, although the South was clearly and unconscionably fighting to preserve a horrid institution that even Southerners knew was abominable, the reality was that the vast majority of Northerners were fighting to preserve the Union – not to free the slaves. In late 1862, only in the middle of the war, when Lincoln first issued his clearly unconstitutional Emancipation Proclamation, that action was a cynical ploy to help win the war by preventing Britain and France from recognizing an independent Confederacy. Evidence for this accusation is that the proclamation freed slaves only in areas held by Confederate armies – not in a Union state (Delaware), border states (Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri), or Union occupied areas of the Confederacy (Tennessee and parts of Louisiana) – thus not really freeing anyone. Slaves would only be free if they could make the dangerous way to Union lines or if they rebelled against Confederate armies, which Lincoln hoped would happen but which was unlikely and did not, in fact, occur.
Unlike the portrayal in the Hollywood movie "Lincoln," Lincoln was not the driving force behind the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which later formally abolished slavery, but only an eventual and reluctant supporter of it after a member of Congress had initiated it and built up congressional support for it.
More important, the Civil War began the American illusion that the United States fights its wars for freedom. Unfortunately, the track record for most wars anywhere is that they don’t advance freedom. Surprisingly, the Civil War is no exception. Recent scholarly research on the postwar Reconstruction of the South paints it in a much more unfavorable light than our high school history books do. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments giving slaves freedom, equality, and voting rights, respectively, were observed only for a few years until Northern armies abandoned their occupation of the South because of Northern financial exhaustion. Southern states then took away black voting rights, instituted a system of neo-slavery or "black codes" (which mandated that slaves had to work for their previous masters), trumped up legal charges on many blacks and required them to work off their sentences, and passed Jim Crow laws that discriminated against African Americans, making them permanent second class citizens. What was worse, Southern hostility from the war led to the rise of what may have been the first non-governmental terrorist group in American history – the Ku Klux Klan – which murdered and terrorized people based on the color of their skin. So now African Americans also had to fear for their lives. In other words, the North won the war and the South won the peace. The war caused overwhelming resentment among southern whites, and African Americans bore the brunt of it. Martin Luther King was largely correct when he later said that slavery wasn’t effectively ended until the Civil Rights movement did it hundred years later.
The main premise here is that hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed, including 40,000 black soldiers, in a war that did not intend to end slavery and, in effect, did a lousy job of it. What would have been better? Almost anything. Most countries in the world that had slavery were able to end it peaceably by a system of compensated emancipation – in other words, slave owners were paid to free their slaves. Lincoln had earlier in his political career advocated this solution and later went back to it, but only after the war had started, which with the passions combat aroused, made it impossible to carry through. But in early 1861, Lincoln had just won an election and didn’t want to compromise. Had he done so, the nation might have been spared the huge costs in lives, money, and 150 years of poisoned race relations, such as those on display in Baltimore and other cities and towns around the country.