How the South
Won the Civil War

We have been told endlessly that the U.S. Civil War was a good war, fought to free the slaves. About 110,100 Union soldiers were killed in action, and another 224,580 died from war-related diseases. An estimated 275,175 Union soldiers were wounded. In 1879, it was believed that the Union had spent $6.1 billion on the war – and that was real money back then. Yet to a significant degree, as far as the former black slaves were concerned, the South was triumphant. We have here one of the most astonishing reminders about how wars backfire, which we ought to keep in mind when discussing other wars, particularly preemptive wars like the one in Iraq or the one being contemplated in Iran.

Not long after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Abraham Lincoln’s hand-picked successor, Andrew Johnson, helped ex-Confederates reestablish white supremacy in the Southern states. These ex-Confederates understood that the war wasn’t really over in 1865. They enacted Black Codes to restrict the freedom of blacks and restore slavery in everything but name. To be sure, Radical Republicans in Congress asserted themselves and passed the Civil War Amendments, officially abolishing slavery, assuring equal rights for former slaves, and guaranteeing the right to vote. But these amendments soon became dead letters. Embittered ex-Confederates formed the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and other terrorist organizations that conducted brutal "Negro hunts." The influence of Radical Republicans declined after a few years as their leaders died or became preoccupied with other issues. Then the party of Lincoln made a deal to resolve the contested presidential election of 1876: they would have federal troops withdrawn from the last three Southern states that were occupied after the Civil War, enabling Democrats to gain complete political control of the South, and in exchange Democrats would permit the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, to become the 19th U.S. president. The civil rights of blacks were subverted for almost another century.

Incredibly, in the name of reconciliation, Union veterans and Confederate veterans gathered at Memorial Day ceremonies to mourn the dead – without discussing any of the war issues. Those were laid to rest. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson – the first Southerner elected president since the Civil War – gave a speech at Gettysburg, Pa., marking the 50th anniversary of Lincoln’s famous address there. Despite all the wartime sacrifices, Wilson declared that the Civil War was "a quarrel forgotten."

Moreover, Wilson betrayed his campaign assurances to the black community and segregated federal government offices that hadn’t previously been segregated. He defended segregation in a series of letters to New York Post editor Oswald Garrison Villard, the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Wilson claimed that segregation would eliminate "the discontent and uneasiness which had prevailed in many of the departments." Wilson added that segregation would make blacks "less likely to be discriminated against."

The South was victorious ideologically. Its view of the Civil War was the prevailing view in the North for a century. Columbia University Professor William A. Dunning, a founder of the American Historical Association and its president in 1913, was perhaps the most influential promoter of the Southern view. He portrayed Radical Republicans as villains. He helped popularize the term "Carpetbagger," meaning Northerners who went South to seek public office after the Civil War. Dunning defended segregation by claiming that blacks were incapable of self-government. A star of the so-called "Dunning School" of post-Civil War historical writing was Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who finished his teaching career at Yale. He defended slaveholders against charges that they were brutal, and he claimed they did much to civilize the slaves. Dunning School historians dominated American textbooks well into the 1950s and even the 1960s.

So, the Civil War was supposed to be quick and easy, and obviously it wasn’t. The Union’s military victories gave the losers an uncontrollable lust for revenge, and they renewed their oppression of blacks at the earliest opportunity. Nobody could be counted on to protect the blacks. The Civil War was no shortcut to civil rights. After the war, Northerners didn’t want to remember why they had fought, or at least the part about freeing the slaves.

We ought to know by now that the killing and destruction of wars tend to intensify hatreds, and they’re bound to play out, often in hideous ways that can be impossible even for a militarily superior power to control. If we had as much trouble as we did trying to achieve social reform through war in our own backyard, how can we expect to do wonderful things by sending our soldiers and money to faraway places we know comparatively little about?

The history of emancipation in the Western Hemisphere made clear that war wasn’t the only way or the best way to free the slaves. Although slavery had been around for thousands of years, abolitionists launched epic movements generating political support that doomed slavery in only about a century and a quarter. Slave rebellions reminded everybody that slaveholding was a risky business. There were private and governmental efforts to buy the freedom of slaves, reducing the number of slaves, reducing the amount of slaveholding territory, and reducing the political clout of slaveholders. Underground railroads further undermined slavery, and the runaways brought with them fresh horror stories for antislavery campaigns. A peaceful, persistent campaign involving a combination of strategies was the key to abolishing slavery. This was also the key to the campaign Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony launched to secure equal rights for women, the campaign that Mohandas Gandhi launched for Indian independence, and the campaign that Martin Luther King launched for civil rights in America.