Deciphering the Civil War

For many years following the Civil War up to the present, and likely to continue for generation henceforth, we have struggled to understand the causes of the Civil War. Depending upon which angle one approaches the event, and perhaps the geographic location one resided. The overall question many have reviewed, is why did President Abraham Lincoln decide to invade the southern states, which inevitably cost the United States a newly estimated 750,000 lives and completed destroy the 4th largest economy in the world? Secondly, let us discuss the overall assumption that the southerners were fighting to preserve slavery, which we know is a myth because official records indicate that less than 3% of the population of southern people even owned slaves. So what were they fighting for?

When Robert E. Lee made the not so quick decision to resign from his position within the United States military, he indicated once questioned whether he will join the rebellion. Lee responds very bluntly that he has no intention to ever raise his sword again, but if he must, it would be to defend his native state of Virginia, in essence, his family and friends. Lee cared not for slavery, and in many records spoke against the institution. He simply implied with his response that if in the worst case scenario, that United States raised an army against the southern states, he would have no choice but to defend his home, and this is the sentiment of many other southern people who knew at any moment, they would be invaded by the North. Historian James McPherson points this out in his book Battle Cry of Freedom “His captors asked why he, a nonslaveholder, was fighting to uphold slavery. He replied: “I’m fighting because you’re down here”.

The question of the rationale for going to war is probably the largest question at hand. Very similar to the decision by President Harry Truman to drop the atom bomb not once but twice on Japan killing many innocent civilians, Lincoln made the decision not only to go to war, but after 4 years and hundreds of thousands of deaths to continue the war even when the odds were against him, and report after report of Union troops desecrating civilian crops, homes, businesses and otherwise were pouring in suggesting this had turned into what is defined as a total war. Why? What is worth this large amount of lives, and billions of dollars of destruction within an area of the country the northern industry relied heavily upon for the raw materials in which it grew?

Slavery by every account was understood even by many southern leaders to inevitably be an institution which would die of natural causes. The expansion westward with the exception of perhaps gold mining required no use of servant labor. Much of western Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and other lands acquired through the Mexican War were too inhospitable for agriculture, thus no use for slave labor in any large form, and aside from perhaps small household chores, slaves would not be required. Many in both the North and the South wished to move west so as to avoid having to live in conjunction with “an inferior race” of people (keep in mind prejudice thought held no drawn lines of war as both northern and southern people made it clear that coexistence was not something either wanted). So we can reasonably conclude, that slavery was not necessarily the main cause of the war though at the time (1861) it was essentially the “engine” which drove the economy of the South much like it did for every major empire in recorded history even before the existence of the United States (which so many seemingly forget). Slavery, while a blemish to the nation’s past, should be understood that it was an acceptable method of getting things done during the mid 1800s and before. The generation of this time should not be judged by modern ideals of our advanced society of the present, but rather understood for the period of time in which that generation existed.

So let us fast forward to the present, a time which the dividing line separating the state’s powers and the powers of the federal government have been very muddied (for lack of a better term). Let us pose the hypothetical scenario of a president who makes the decision to wage war (or militarily invade) one or more border states in the south for adopting a strict immigration policy such as those Texas and Arizona have recently passed so as to reduce crimes being committed by illegal immigrants (I use the term illegal as it is the proper term to use for individuals who have bypassed federal laws and improperly entered into our country of which meet the definition of the term “illegal”). It is with great confidence that one would assume this would be highly frowned upon, if not the main reason behind the beginning of a new second Civil War. So the question remains as to whether or not Lincoln’s cause for going to war, resulting in the deaths of over 750,000 American lives, and the destruction of billions of dollars of property, homes, and livestock was warranted?

 

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