Historian: Bloodbath saved U.S.
If the Union Army had not prevailed militarily, a Civil War historian says the United States likely would have fractured into several republics much like Latin America.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Steven Hahn, who penned the 2004 book “A Nation Under our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration,” approached the Civil War from the counterfactual historical perspective — looking at the Civil War if any of a series of events occurred differently.
“When the Civil War ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery, slaveholders in the South knew their way of life over,” Hahn told approximately 75 people at the Wapakoneta Middle School. “Had the two sides reached an armistice, the United States at the end of the 19th century would have looked like a very unattractive mix of Germany, South Africa, Brazil and Latin America. “We think of the Civil War in terms of North and South, but the likelihood is if the federal government was unable to put down the rebellion in the Southern states that the country as a whole would have slowly dissolved,” he said, explaining California and Oregon would have likely split away from the Union along with factions in the Northeast, the South and the Midwest. “The United States could have by the end of the 19th century looked like a version of the Latin American republics. This division of the Union was one of Lincoln’s greatest fears that if you don’t put your foot down at Charleston Harbor then the centrifugal forces in American life would have asserted themselves.”
If an armistice would have occurred, he explained one result could have been a loose federal system where there is an alliance between the South and the West and manufacturing in the Northeast. Hahn said this was a real possibility since it was debated as President Abraham Lincoln battled former Gen. George McClellan during the presidential election in 1864.
He explained the Confederacy had sent troops to the New Mexico territory in an attempt to spread slavery to these new territories and to take advantage of any precious metals found in Arizona, California and New Mexico. They needed silver and gold to help their treasury since they had no income taxes to fund the war.
Lincoln knew of the need to tie the country together and it is one reason for his push for the transcontinental railroad — to link the eastern United States together with Oregon and California.
Hahn also delved into issues of contention prior to the Civil War. He explained the South held disproportionate power at the time. He noted most of the first 15 presidents came from the South or nearly all had held slaves at one time.
The U.S. Constitution even ceded them more power by permitting slaves to count for three-fifths of a person, giving them more representation in the House of Representatives.
The South also held more power than the North because the two largest cash crops were cotton and tobacco.
Hahn also explained slavery was a national problem. It not only existed in practice in the South, but it had not entirely been eradicated from the North. Provisions in the North granted a gradual emancipation, granting the next generation of slaves to be free, but that could take more than 20 years.
“Abolishing slavery was really about abolishing private property rights,” Hahn said. “The line between slavery and indentured servitude was really, really blurry at this time.”
He said another turning point was the election of Lincoln as president. President James Buchanan was the sitting president in 1860 and was popular in the North and the South, but he did not seek re-election because he hated Washington, D.C. This opened the door for Lincoln to garner the Republican nomination.
Even the pacifism of Lincoln contributed to the start of the war. He tried to avoid war and let many skirmishes between the North and South pass without response until the shelling of Fort Sumter, where he finally “decided to put his foot down.”
This is followed by a war where the South actually may have won militarily early on and stalemates occurred throughout the war. Lincoln’s battle with McClellan for the presidency finally took a turn when Union troops took Atlanta. An armistice was being discussed and negotiated until the fall of Atlanta.
Without a victory by the Union and re-election of Lincoln, Hahn said slavery may have existed in the United States until the 20th century before slowing disappearing.
Hahn ended with the Civil War being a necessary evil.
“A lot people think about the Civil War as a great tragedy in American history and American life because afterall it was a terrible bloodbath, it is by far the bloodiest event in American history,” Hahn said. “Nearly every family in the United States suffered some casualty so the war touched everybody in very, very powerful ways.
“Despite all of this, the real tragedy, the future of this country would have been a Civil War that wasn’t fought or a Civil War that wasn’t won the way it was.”