By Fergus M. Bordewich. Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, April 2011
ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY years ago today, on April 12th 1861, a shell fired from a rebel battery on James Island in Charleston harbor burst over Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War. Answering the South Carolina secession convention's call for the rest of the South to join it in "a great Slaveholding Confederacy, stretching its arms over a territory larger than any power in Europe possesses," eleven slave-holding states soon seceded to form the Confederate States of America. Armies fought over now-famous battlefields from Bull Run to Petersburg in a see-saw contest that would ultimately claim 620,000 American lives before the bloodletting came to an and at Appomattox, in 1865.
Remembering the past is vital to any nation’s identity. The Civil War, America’s Iliad, was by any measure an epic struggle, whether measured by the numbers involved, the human and financial cost, the vast area fought over, or the magnitude of what was at stake. Over the next four years, sesquicentennial commemorations will celebrate battles great and small. Reenactors will march. Museums will mount blockbuster exhibitions. Scholars will debate strategy and tactics, and why battles were won or lost. TV documentaries will deliver up legions of sepia-toned warriors to the mournful plinking of a banjo. Issues once thought to have been settled by the Civil War still continue to resonate at a time when an African-American president sits in the White House, and belief in states rights and the nullification of federal law have taken on new vigor, with some politicians even suggesting that secession is a reasonable reaction to federal legislation they don’t like.
The war’s outcome was not a foregone conclusion. Confederate armies were remarkably successful on the battlefield during the first years of the war, while European powers came close to granting the Confederacy diplomatic recognition, under circumstances not all that different from their recent recognition of the rebels in Libya’s civil war. By 1864, the North was so weary of bloodshed that Abraham Lincoln expected to lose his bid for reelection, until General William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta made the Union’s victory virtually inevitable.
Some of that victory’s meanings are obvious. In the mid-19th century, in a world of monarchies and dictatorships, it was widely believed that republics were fated to die either from external attack or internal collapse. The Northern victory proved the fallacy of such assumptions, and established a model for democratic government around the world. By freeing 4 million enslaved black Americans, it also set the nation on the road to fulfilling the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Yet some of the war’s most far-reaching consequences have largely been ignored.
Had the Confederacy won its independence, it would have provided fertile ground for the development of totalitarian institutions. The immediate consequences for African Americans would have been catastrophic: possible pogroms against self-emancipated blacks who had taken up arms against their former masters, and decades or generations more of slavery for the rest, underpinned by an official racial ideology. Formal slavery would eventually have come to an end because it was economically inefficient. But in a nation founded on the permanent control of a huge, despised, and feared minority, the Confederate version of “freedom” would doubtless have meant the restriction of blacks to segregated townships, and institutionalized repression of both blacks and dissident whites, for although antebellum southern states were robustly democratic for whites who supported slavery, they routinely denied freedom of speech, press, and assembly to anyone who opposed it. In contrast to a United States striving to perfect human liberty, the Confederate States would have offered the world a model of authoritarianism and racial oppression well into the twentieth century.
A triumphant and prosperous Confederacy would probably have carried its borders – and slavery – west to the Pacific Ocean, as it in fact attempted to do in 1862. It would also have attempted to annex or conquer Cuba, other Caribbean islands, northern Mexico, and parts of Central America, all of which was openly proposed by proslavery expansionists in the 1850s. Declared Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi, just before the Civil War, “I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it...I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States; and I want them all for the same reason – for the planting or spreading of slavery.”
With secession established as a precedent, other portions of the United States (and for that matter the Confederacy itself) might well have broken away in reaction to national policies they opposed. As early as the 1850s, opponents of secession warned that gold-rich California and the rest of the West Coast might also secede. Others feared complete disintegration, with Midwest, the mid-Atlantic states, and New England going their separate ways, creating a congeries of competing or even warring states – a North American "Balkans" – that would fall prey to foreign interference.
What of the truncated United States? In place of the muscular nationalism that actually sustained the growth of American power in the twentieth century, the traumatized North would likely have been left hobbled by a defeat-complex that infected its foreign relations for years afterward. On the other hand, freed from the drag of proslavery interests, the North might also have evolved rapidly in the direction of a war-averse social democracy similar to those of twentieth century northern Europe.
These are all speculations. But it is safe to say that there would have been no globe-striding American colossus to assert its military power and political will, and to intervene on behalf of democracy around the world. Would the diminished United States have entered World War I alongside Britain and France? What might Confederate affinity for German racial policies have meant for the Third Reich? Would either the United States or the Confederacy have dared to confront an expansionist and militarist Japan? (If the West Coast states had formed a new nation, neither the U.S. nor the Confederacy would even be a Pacific power.) In the absence of an American superpower, could the West ever have hoped to contain the Soviet Union? One can only imagine.
We may continue to argue whether the Civil War was inevitable or justified: passions and myths die hard. But in the effort to celebrate our past and honor the dead, we also ought to remember that the war was about much more than picturesque soldiery on the green battlefields of yesteryear, or just about domestic concerns that are still with us. It was not a world war. But the victory of the Union changed the world, for the better.