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Was the US Civil War Inevitable?

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message 1: by Mary JL (last edited Sep 29, 2010 07:34AM) (new)

Mary JL (MaryJL) | 29 comments I just reviewed a book called "Civil War Trivia and Fact Book" by Webb Garrison.

Stated in passing in this book, the author states that 1) "Considerable evidence" exists that Lincoln provoked the firing at Fort Sumter so the Union would not be the side that 'started' the war. 2)Had anyone besides Lincoln been President, there might have been no Civil War because "only the man from Illinois" was uniwilling to compromise. (Pages 101 and 145, respectively.)

NOw, I am not an expert historian but I am interested in the subject. Was the Civial War inevitable by 1860? Perhpas if both sides had worked at compromise earlier, it might have been avoided.

But everything I have read so far--admittedly there is so much on the Civial War it is easy to miss newer research--seems to indicate that by 1860 the two sides had been wrangling for so long that compromise was unlikely, and the situation was already at the boiling point.

Any of you who are Civil War history fans--what do you feel ? Could the war have been avoided? Or, if Lincoln compromised, would it simply have delayed the war and handed the problem to Lincoln's sucessor?


message 2: by Steven (new)

Steven | 21 comments You missed the big point of a Lincoln comprise (which I feel sure the author did not). Most of the southern States had already declared their independence prior to Lincoln taking office - so the comprise to avoid the war was to recognize the new country.


message 3: by Terence (new)

Terence (Spocksbro) | 35 comments There's a recent book whose author and title I've forgotten (help me out Civil War buffs!) that makes the same argument - that Lincoln brought on the Civil War and that a great deal of misery and death (for white people, anyway) could have been avoided if only Lincoln had been willing to compromise with Southern leadership.

It's probably true that Lincoln could have avoided war if he had been willing to oversee the dissolution of the Union but he was by no means an Abolitionist or particularly committed to freeing the slaves (though he firmly believed that their situation was unjust). From my readings, the South brought on its own defeat by provoking a war.


message 4: by Manuel (last edited Sep 29, 2010 01:17PM) (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments Some of the Southern states had already started to leave the Union while Buchanan was still president. Unfortunately Buchanan was wishy washy over the entire incident and just sat on his hands; he believed it was wrong for the south to leave the union, but at the same time he believed it was wrong for the federal government try to stop them. By the time Lincoln took office, he had already been boxed into the situation at FT Sumter.


I find it interesting that many Southerners still believe the Civil War was not fought over slavery; they insist it was a matter of state's rights vs the federal government. I always respond by reminding them that as each Southern state left the union, they all printed a manifesto declaring the reasons why they were leaving. EACH ONE DECLARED SLAVERY was the reason they could no longer stay part of the United States.


message 5: by AC (new)

AC Manuel - what are the 2 or 3 best books on the Civil War, in your opinion...?


message 6: by Manuel (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments The best one in my opinion is "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
The book is in two parts. The first part deals with Lincoln's early attemps at elected office and the various politicians running against him. The second part deals with the war and how Lincoln incorporated his former political enemies into a formidable cabinet. The war is followed almost day by day in amazing detail and emotion.


message 7: by Martha (new)

Martha (marthas48) I'm not surprised ... she's an awesome writer. I loved her book about Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. I'm planning to read Team of Rivals this winter.


message 8: by Marian (new)

Marian (gramma) | 98 comments If the author you read believes Lincoln was stubborn, what does he call the radical states-righters like Calhoun (who hit another congressperson with his cane!)He was from s. Carolina, which took advantaage of president Buchanan's lack of leadership. When Lincoln was elected, it was the Southern states that left )Mississippi & S. Carolina leading the way. The Republican party platform stated that within 60 days, slaveholders must give up their slaves if they wanted to stay in the Union. (A personal note - my mother's grandfather from Kentucky had backed a plan that the government would pay the owner for each freed slave. This would have been much cheaper than the cost of the war, & there would be opportunities for their education.) By the time Lincoln was elected, all the politicians from the South were firmly against anyone from Washington telling them what to do. Many young men were itching for war. It appealed to their mis-guided sense of chivalry. Lincoln had enough contact with family (and that of Mary Todd) to know how the sentiment was running. It didn't matter who fired the first shots or who attacked whom. In the h earts and minds of the men involved the war had been going on for years.

"Battle Cry of Freedom" by McPherson and Shelby Foote's "The Civil War" give good over-all coverage.


message 9: by Mary JL (new)

Mary JL (MaryJL) | 29 comments Yes, "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize. i personally find it one of the best one volume histories available--it would be a good staring place for a person just beginning study of the Civil War.

I am hoping to read Shelby Foote's 3 volume Civil war series soon.

Bruce Catton was popular for many years and imho still quite readable. The trilogy I read was 1)The Coming Fury 2)Terrible Swift Sword and 3) Noever Call retreat.


message 10: by AC (new)

AC Thanks. I've read McPherson, and have a audio copy of 'Team of Rivals', which I will therefore listen to one day.

I have this book on my shelf and have been meaning to get to it some time:
http://www.amazon.com/Idea-Southern-N...

I am bothered by the hagiogaphical tone of much of the literature, however -- on both sides.


message 11: by Marian (new)

Marian (gramma) | 98 comments Writing in the 19th century did border on the hagiogaphical. If Lincoln & Robert E. Lee were Catholic, they both would have been nominated for sainthood In those days, things were looked upon as either good or evil. If you read any of Charles Dickens novels, the bad guys are super bad & the good people often too good to be believed.

Mark Twain made fun of much of the literature of his day - especially the biographies.


message 12: by Will (last edited Sep 30, 2010 06:49AM) (new)

Will Kester | 1047 comments I've often wondered: Had Lincoln known how many people would die and suffer would he have pushed the southern states into their actions? I'm sure he thought the North could win quickly and at a much lower cost than occured.

The war could have been avoided--the South could have formed a new country--Confederate States of America--changing our history forever. There would have been a trade war, for cotton supplies to the industrialized North, and the South would have had slaves longer, and no civil rights for African-Americans, still.

As we become more politically polarized, now, we move into extreme corners, from which there is no room for compromise, as occured then. War, revolution, or seccession becomes the ultimate only alternatives. Hopefully we can avoid that, this time.


message 13: by Terence (new)

Terence (Spocksbro) | 35 comments @Will: As I recall, David Donald in his bio of Lincoln, Lincoln, makes the point that he came around to believing that the war was Providence's punishment of the White Man for the sin of slavery. But I think it's important to understand that he didn't come into the Presidency with any intention of waging a war. If Lincoln could have perserved the union without firing a shot, he would have.


message 14: by Marian (new)

Marian (gramma) | 98 comments By the time of his inaugaration, most of the Southers states had seceded. Lincoln and congress had made one final appeal. A state could rejoin the Union if it gave up slavery within 60 days. Ft. Sumpter, off the coast of Charleston.S,C. was a federal outpost, flying the US flag. South Carolina had declared itself a member of the Confederate States of America and flew the Stars and Bars. In order to provision the Federal soldiers stationed at Ft. Sumpter, it was necessary to cross into Confederate territory. (South Carolina claimed Charleston Harbor as part of its domain.) There are conflicting points of view as to what happened next, but the guns were fired and the war had begun. If Lincoln could have coerced the Southern states into giving up slavery, he would welcome them into the Union. If the Confederate states could have re-joined the Union and kept their slaves, they would have rejoined. Lincoln, alone, was powerless to decide the outcome.


message 15: by Manuel (last edited Sep 30, 2010 11:35AM) (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments I have read articles where Lincoln hoped slavery would eventually become obsolete and the Southern states would abolish it themselves. He thought perhaps if they were giving a deadline for the year 1900, they might cooperate.

I don't happen to think war could have been avoidable even if the Confederacy had gained its independence. Economic competition for the Western territories and perhaps expansion into Mexico and Cuba would have made more clashes inevitable.

You also have to remember that not all the slave states seceded; Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware all stayed loyal to the Union. It would not have made sense to let the Confederacy go its way and still have slavery in the North. Yet if slavery was abolished in the border states, they too might have joined the Confederacy eventually.

I have always been surprised about how magnanimous Lincoln was towards the south. At one point (it makes sense to me) it was suggested the Southern states should be redrawn and renamed into different political identities, but Lincoln refused.


message 16: by Marian (new)

Marian (gramma) | 98 comments Slavery was already becoming inefficient. When England added Egypt to the British Empire, the English no longer depended on the American south for its cotton supply. Later the invasion of the Boll Weavel insect added another blow to the raising of cotton in the US.

The Republican extremists were not in agreement with Lincoln's plans for reconstruction. They wanted the South punished. There has long been debate over Lincoln's assassination. There was fragmentery evidence of a conspiracy. Robert Lincoln burned some of the records which pertained to the investigation. His reasoning was reported as being that his father should be allowed to rest in peace.


message 17: by Steven (new)

Steven | 21 comments Marion: It was Preston Brooks who beat Charles Sumner with his cane in 1856. John C. Calhoun died in 1850.
The 1860 Republican platform did not call for the abolition of slavery, but the non-expansion of slavery into territories (I didn't actually read the platform which is on the web, but a summary), you could be right about returning slave-free in 1861, is there a source on the web (I prefer primary to secondary).


message 18: by Martha (new)

Martha (marthas48) I've read these posts with much interest. I haven't read much about the Civil War, but it is a period that I want to explore ... there's just so much information out there ... where to begin?!?! I am a Southerner (at least born & raised there), but do not believe that Lincoln wanted the war. I believe that he suffered much anguish over the effects it was having on the country and the decisions he had to make as president. Of course, he had a son die in the White House & that was heart breaking for the family as well. For the last 30+ years I have lived less than 30 miles from his home in Springfield, Illinois and have visited there & his community of New Salem, Illinois many times. He was a man of flaws, I'm sure, but one that I admire very much.


message 19: by Marian (new)

Marian (gramma) | 98 comments Sorry, I have not tried the web. I worked in libraries for over 30 years & all my info is written. My mother's family is from Kentucky and I had relatives who fought on both sides.

A agood source of primary is the Rutherford B. Hayes library & museum in Fremont OH. We live near by & I have taken groups of boy scouts, girl scouts ect. & the docents are very knowledgable. They have a web site.


message 20: by Manuel (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments Martha, there is so much about the Civil War out there, sometimes it might be overwhelming. If you haven't already seen it, I suggesting looking at Ken Burns' PBS documentary titled "THE CIVIL WAR". I cant believe its already 20 years since it was released, but its a wonderful introduction to this fascinating period of American history.

I remember the series ran every night for one week when it first came out in 1990. Even though we already knew who would win, my family and I agonized as we followed the war's progress night after night. When Richmond finally fell, we were overjoyed!!


message 21: by Martha (new)

Martha (marthas48) I should get those from Netflix. I have the Shelby Foote books, The Civil War, & plan to start them at least this winter. We planning a trip to Gettysburg ... hopefully, next spring.


message 22: by Steven (new)

Steven | 21 comments Manuel - oddly enough, we down here in Dixie weren't that thrilled by the ending - no doubt why some of us keep saying the North cheated. ;-)
My grandmother's family lived near where Sherman's troops ended. I grew up 200 miles southeast, near where Sherman's troops walked. I now live another 200 miles southeast, and Sherman's troops walked near by here as well. I grew up hearing stories from those who talked to folks who were there.


message 23: by Manuel (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments Thank you for sharing Steven; yes even though the war ended 145 years ago, my Atlanta friends are still pissed off about General Sherman's march to the sea.

I myself was born in a former Confederate state, but as a Hispanic male, I have never been comfortable embracing Confederate iconography.


message 24: by John (new)

John It happened! How could it not have been inevitable.


message 25: by Will (new)

Will Kester | 1047 comments Lots of things happen, which aren't inevitable; there are always choices. War is usually the worst choice, but sometimes are inevitable, based on previous choices.


message 26: by Vince (last edited Oct 08, 2010 10:28PM) (new)

Vince (VChile) | 22 comments I just saw this reviewed in American Heritage: The Fiery Trial by Eric FonerThe Fiery Trial. "He traces the tangled evolution of Lincoln's antislavery views..." I might have to squeeze this onto my TBR list. (This may be hard to find as it was just published on 10-4.)


message 27: by Drush76 (new)

Drush76 | 7 comments I don't know if civil war was inevitable. But the country had failed to take the one step to ensure it would never happen . . . namely end slavery. Mind you, I don't believe that slavery was the main cause of the war. I believe it was the desire for power. I believe that slavery proved to be the main catalyst for that cause. After all, economic power would lead to political power. And the economy of the South was linked to slavery. The South probably saw the end of slavery as an end to their ecomomic and political power. And the North, which had been under Southern political power for decades, saw the end of slavery and the prevention of slavery spreading to the West, as its chance to finally become the center of political power after so many decades.


message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

I agree that economic and political power were key issues in the American civil war. Although slavery was also an issue, it was ecomomic as well as moral. In retropect it is easier to justify the civil war in moral terms with the abolition of slavery. The south was more willing to go on their own even if it meant that their new country would be a smaller nation in the world. The north had a different perspective and felt they had the power to enforce their will. Their vision of a united country being a larger power in the world was at least one motivator to keep the status quo. The length and human cost of the civil war, like World War I, was unexpected.

I do not pretend to know much about the American civil war but I do have an outsider's objectivity as I am a Canadian. The federal government of Canada has allowed Quebec to have two referendums on separating from Canada. A federal clarity act now exists to give some process to the referendum and how to deal with the results. In other words Canada has taken the opposite view of the federal governtment of USA in the 1860's.

There is no right or wrong in a legal sense. But in a moral sense, Canada is much larger (approx 78%) than Quebec (appro. 22% of the population). Without an issue like the abolition of slavery Canada would probably lose in the world of public opinion if we attempted to stop Quebec by military means. There is a Quebec separatist party and a federal one as well. They are democratic parties that are advocates for Quebec independence. The violent FLQ crisis of Oct. 1970 demonstrated to the Quebecers that a violent approach to independence was not wanted and was not a viable option.

When Trudeau brought home the constitution in the 80's without Quebecs acceptance he was questioning their motivation. Soon after that the first referendum in Quebec was held and passed by a 60 to 40% margin. To some degree, it was a vote on the new constitution.

At the moment separatism in Quebec has lessened because of stronger language rights and more imigrants moving into Quebec but the future in unpredictable. After two failures of more constitutional reform, another referendum was held in the 1990's. Just over 50% of the Quebecer wanted to stay in Canada.

I think Canada's approach to Quebec is a right one but I know some disagree. The country was built more on compromise than power.


message 29: by Manuel (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments Thank you Glen for an interesting perspective on this issue.

I too have looked into how other counties have managed to split apart under peaceful circumstances.

Norway broke away from Sweden in 1905.
Czechoslovakia managed to split without too much chaos.

Belgium also is showing signs that it might split apart between its French and Dutch speaking regions.


message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm writing a little historical fiction myself. Treduea told Quebec that he would bring the constitution home without agreement among the provinces before the first referendum in 1980. The constitution came home in 1982.

I'm going to plug a new book that I saw a review in this week McLeans. "The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects , Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies" by Alan Taylor.

I was looking for a good American historian on this war but no American could help me out. I found one in Alan Taylor,a Pulitzer winning historian from Maine. It would be fun to read it at the same time as a couple of Americans.


message 31: by John (new)

John Karr (Karr) | 8 comments The American Civil War was inevitable when slavery was not banished in the Constitution.

I saw some of a documentary the other night on Gettysburg (either History channel or Discovery). There was a black historian on it (didn't catch the name) who said, 'The Civil War was about slavery. For those who believe it was about State's Rights ... State's Rights for what? For the right to own slaves.' Hence the Civil War.


message 32: by Mary JL (new)

Mary JL (MaryJL) | 29 comments John, I tend to agree. The problems and dvisions between free and slave states keep growing and growing. There were some attempts at compromise, but the system was broken from the beginning--by trying to have a 'free" country which permitted slavery.

Going back and reading my starting post, (no 1) by the time Lincoln was elected, the hope of any solution was long past.


message 33: by Susanna - Censored by GoodReads, Crazy Cat Lady (new)

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (SusannaG) | 982 comments Mod
Yes, long past by Lincoln's election, I think.


message 34: by John (new)

John Karr (Karr) | 8 comments Good points, Mary and Susanna. For all the collective wisdom of the Founding Fathers, their prejudices/misconceptions about fellow humans would later cause a war to threaten the existence of the nation they founded.


message 35: by [deleted user] (new)

Growing up in IL I always thought the Civil War was about slavery. After moving to GA and visiting the Atlanta History Museum a couple of years back, I now believe the Civil War was an economic war. The north had started industrialization. The slaves as well as free persons learned they could make actual money if they went north. I have not read a lot of books about the Civil War nor studied it all that much. But I do now believe this is the reason all of it happened. Yes, slavery and independent states were issues but those issues were tied up in economics.


message 36: by Steven (new)

Steven | 21 comments Oh for sure, Slavery was economic - it made some folks filthy rich, and encouraged others to try large scale industrial farming to become rich. The south had some industries (indeed SC had the first clothing mill, and Georgia had several pre-war; and Georgia even had early mill villages)*, but large industrial farming with slave labor was much more promising for profits. Since in most cases, neither slaves nor free blacks could legally travel, there was not much moving up north (and the North traditionally used young unmarried white women as factory workers).

*I'm researching the church at Troup Factory, Georgia, in case anyone knows anything....


message 37: by Geoff (new)

Geoff Woodland | 7 comments May I suggest a quick look at my novel, which is about the moral dilemma of trading in slavery and how one can make a profit and not be involved in the slave trade.
Ice King

Tracy Falbe's review comments may also be of interest. Tracy reviewed the novel on behalf of The Historical Novel Review site.


message 38: by Susanna - Censored by GoodReads, Crazy Cat Lady (new)

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (SusannaG) | 982 comments Mod
And, of course, there was the very important Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. Without which the Confederacy would have been in trouble much sooner.


message 39: by Manuel (last edited Nov 19, 2010 02:05PM) (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments I read somewhere that Jefferson hoped slavery would eventually erode away on its own. Perhaps it would have disappeared eventually, but unfortunately the invention of the cotton gin in the early part of the 19th century suddenly made slavery very very profitable.

After the cotton gin, one slave could process all the cotton in one hour that used to take 10 slaves all day.
Suddenly huge fortunes could be made by exporting the cotton to Europe; consequently there was an added need for more land to grow more cotton and and increased demand for more slaves.

Lincoln didn't want slavery expanded into the new western territories. The South saw slavery as a state's rights issue; their very economy depended on the expansion of more and more cotton and subsequently more slavery.

An economic clash was inevitable.


message 40: by Drush76 (new)

Drush76 | 7 comments Glen wrote: "The south was more willing to go on their own even if it meant that their new country would be a smaller nation in the world. The north had a different perspective and felt they had the power to enforce their will."


They only felt that, after the attack upon Fort Sumter, which was Federal land. And many Northerners had chafed over Southern political power inflicting its will for many decades.


message 41: by Ron (new)

Ron Nothing involving human decisions is inevitable until it happens, but the cards were certainly stacked against a peaceful outcome to that issue, short of the north allowing the south to secede.


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Books mentioned in this topic

No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt - The Home Front in World War II (other topics)
Lincoln (other topics)
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (other topics)
Ice King (other topics)