The Magazine

Aftermyth of War

The Lost Cause is among the casualties in this definitive history.

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Such considerations also affected the steps the Union took with regard to slavery. Their first approach to drawing slave manpower away from the Confederacy was to treat slaves as “contrabands of war.” Radicals in Congress favored confiscation. But to apply confiscation and contraband as they were understood in international law, again, gave the Confederacy belligerent status. This was at odds with Lincoln’sinsistence that the states of the Confederacy could never legally leave the Union. On the other hand, if the war was only a domestic rebellion (as Lincoln held), then confiscation of slave contraband violated the constitutional prohibition against attainder.

Lincoln’s preferred approach to ending slavery called for a policy of legislated, gradual, compensated emancipation, which he proposed early in his administration. Lincoln believed that he could convince Congress to appropriate funds to compensate slave-owners for gradually freeing their slaves. His plan was to begin where slavery was weakest: in the northernmost slave states, especially Delaware. Lincoln reasoned that the combination of military success against the Confederacy and compensated emancipation in loyal slave states would lead to thecollapse of the Confederacy, which had staked its hopes on eventually incorporating the border states. 

But neither condition came to pass. Lincoln’s proposals for compensated emancipation were rejected by the border states. Meanwhile, the Confederacy was just then exerting maximum effort to mobilize its population for war. In April 1862, the Confederate Congress passed a conscription act. Then, abandoning the “cordon” defense that had permitted Union armies to penetrate into Confederate territory as far as northern Mississippi in early 1862, the Confederacy organized its mobilized manpower into field armies. One of these forces, the Army of Tennessee, struck Ulysses S. Grant at Shiloh. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia drove George McClellan back from the gates of Richmond. Then, in the fall of 1862, rebel armies invaded Kentucky and Maryland. To a great extent, the South was able to do this only because slave labor freed white men to fight. 

The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s response to the failure of Union arms and compensated emancipation. Thus, after Lee’s invasion of Maryland was turned back at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation, on September 22, giving the Confederates 100 days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation. 

The great strength of Fateful Lightning is its demonstration that slavery lay at the heart of the conflict. Guelzo accepts Lincoln’s argument that the institution was an affront to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and that the Founders had compromised only because of their belief that it was on the road to extinction. Until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, the federal government had no authority over slavery in states where it existed. It was only the Union victory in 1865 that gave the federal government the authority to end slavery. 

Guelzo’s discussion of Reconstruction
is brief but elegant. The Lost Cause thesis has also influenced the way Americans have thought about Reconstruction, and, until recently, the dominant narrative regarding Reconstruction has been to portray it as the imposition of a tyrannical, unjust peace on the South. Ironically, this narrative took root in academia because of the work of Northern progressive historians, including James Ford Rhodes, William Dunning, Claude Bowers, and James Randall. 

But, according to the story, the old Confederacy refused to bend, which eventually enabled a Democratic counter-revolution against radical Reconstruction, finally “redeeming” the South. The South may have lost the war, according to this view, but it triumphed over Reconstruction and the radical Republican legacy of corrupt, carpetbagger governments and the anarchy of black rule. 

Guelzo rejects this. Along with other revisionists, he contends that, despite its apparent failure to change the socioeconomic basis of the South in the short run, Reconstruction did provide the basis for the eventual application of civil rights for all, laying the groundwork for the legislation of the 20th century. It is impossible to imagine the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments under circumstances other than those that prevailed during Radical Reconstruction. 

The human cost of the Civil War was immense. As Guelzo recounts, 

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 hundred men of military age in the North died during the war, and one out of every sixty-five who served perished. 

The cost to the Confederacy was even greater, not only in terms of dead and wounded, but also in terms of the economic devastation visited upon the South. There were other costs as well: Guelzo shows that religious faith suffered as a result of the war, as well as faith in liberal democracy. Progressives, who “loathed the ramshackle inefficiencies of democracy,” judged that the war had created an “industrial and commercial nation” (in the words of Charles Beard) where “the power of capital, both absolute and as compared to land” had dwarfed self-government. Such an outcome, in their eyes, was not worth the cost. For the Progressive interpreters of the conflict, 

The Civil War approaches the nadir of total loss precisely because at some point they concluded that since liberal democracy was a dead end, an illusion, and never worth fighting for, intentionally or otherwise, the Civil War could never amount to more than a tragic failure.

Guelzo demurs. The Civil War maintained the Union, and it ended slavery. To paraphrase the words of Abraham Lincoln at Peoria in 1864, the Civil War not only saved the Union but also made it worthy of saving by removing the stain of slavery. It repurified America’s republican robe, washing it in both the spirit and blood of the American Revolution. 

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author, most recently, of U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.