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Could Abe Lincoln have kept from going to war?

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Port Hudson Battlefield, Louisiana


One Hundred and Fifty years ago this week, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.  During the next four years, carnage, mayhem and death were the order of day after day.  By the time the dust settled and the South had surrendered, some 620,000 soldiers had died on the battle field. The Union lost around 360,000 soldiers, and the Confederacy lost 260,000. More than twice that number were injured.  Fifteen decades later, here’s the question that needs to be asked:  Was it really necessary to have this war?

Here in my home state of Louisiana, we are surrounded by remnants of the bloody battles that took place.  When I began my law practice in Northeast Louisiana across the Mississippi River from Natchez, my home was the Lisburn Plantation, just north of Ferriday.  To make his final siege of Vicksburg in one of the final and decisive battles of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant commandeered my future home to headquarter for several days before crossing the Mississippi River and attacking Vicksburg from the South.

As Grant undertook his offensive against Vicksburg, Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ army moved against the Confederate stronghold at Port Hudson on the Mississippi River just north of my current home of Baton Rouge. On May 27, after their frontal assaults were repulsed, the Federals settled into a siege which lasted for 48 days. On hearing of the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederate garrison of Port Hudson surrendered, opening the Mississippi River to Union navigation from its source to New Orleans.   There were 12,208 casualties at Port Hudson of which 7,208 were Union soldiers. Hundreds of similar battles took place with devastating results of death and destruction for both North and South.

Could Lincoln have done more to stop the fighting? Was there a middle ground to buy time for ongoing discussions?  It was not like the South’s eventual leaders, from Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee, were from a foreign land.  Davis was a U.S. Senator, and Lincoln asked Lee to take over command of the entire U.S. Military.  They were colleagues in government. Couldn’t Lincoln have been more persuasive?

Lincoln stayed at the Willard Hotel in Washington the night before he was sworn in as President.  The Willard, situated just across from the White House, was then the nation’s largest hotel. For the previous three weeks at the same hotel, 131 delegates from 21 states met continually to find a solution for saving the Union without war. Judges, legislators, and even former president John Tyler argued, cajoled, and pleaded with one another for a way out of the looming conflict.  As a last effort, the delegates pleaded with Lincoln to join them for some direction and leadership.  Lincoln declined.

Imagine the public reaction today if either George Bush or Barrack Obama stood by and let some six million Americans kill one another in battle. That’s the number of deaths based on today’s comparative population. There would be open revolt and an immediate cry for new leadership.  Did Lincoln fail the test then?  Oh, he did take action.  Lincoln suspended parts of the constitution including habeas corpus, arrested numerous political opponents, and shut down several hundred newspapers.  Sounds like Iraq redux, but at least that’s half way around the world and not here in our own backyard.

Was Lincoln obsessed with freeing the slaves?  Here are his words in a letter written to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

So was it a total commitment to keep the union intact?  Not if you believe Lincoln’s words a few years before the Civil War began. “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable””a most sacred right”” a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize and make their own so much of the territory as they inhabit.”

Professor David Goldfield has written a new book called “America Aflame, How the Civil War Created a Nation.”Â  He’s a guest on my radio show this weekend.  Goldfield computes the total monetary cost of the war to around $6.7 billion in 1860s currency.  He asserts that if “the government had purchased the freedom of four million slaves and granted a 40 acre farm to each slave family, the total cost would have been $3.1 billion, leaving $3.6 billion for reparations to make up for a century of lost wages.  And not a single life would have been lost.”

What about the morality of a president declaring unbridled warfare on his own citizens? One can well argue that saving human lives would have been far more important than keeping the Union together. How can a President responsible for so much bloodshed be thought of as the greatest President in US history? I understand that Lincoln wanted to avoid the Civil War. However, was preserving the Union worth the cost of spilling so much blood on both ends of the battle field?

Lincoln went on to lead the country in reconstruction, and offered exemplary leadership as the nation healed it’s all too deep wounds.  Maybe it was because he was brand new at the job as the war began.  But it seems clear that when real leadership was called for in an effort to save hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens, Abraham Lincoln blinked.  And the country is still, after these 150 years, still reeling from this national tragedy.


America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter, and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

~Abraham Lincoln

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South.  You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com.  You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com.

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