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February 12 is the birthday of a grim-handed killer who inflicted more casualties on his foes than anything the Russians did in Chechnya. Of course I refer to Abraham Lincoln, whom the Americans have reinvented as a kindly national paterfamilias. War ranks among the strangest forms of willful self-destruction, and America’s Civil War of 1861-65 in turn ranks among the strangest of wars. Three-quarters of Southern military age men served in the Confederate ranks, and of these almost 40 percent fell. What prompted these men to cast away their lives with such abandon, and what motivated their enemies to slaughter them?
Amid a great extinction of nations, in an era where whole peoples seem to hold their lives cheap, what can we learn from these events? The United States again confronts an enemy with boundless capacity for suicidal sacrifice, but ignores the lessons of its own sanguineous past. “Americans fail to grasp decisive strategic issues not only because they misunderstand other cultures, but because they avert their gaze from the painful episodes of their own history,” I wrote last year (Why radical Islam might defeat the West, July 8). Bloody Abe’s upcoming holiday provides a good occasion to return to this theme. In fact, the North and South of the US have agreed to perpetuate two sets of self-consoling lies about each other:
1) Southerners were simple patriots fighting for love of their home states.
2) Kindly Abe Lincoln went to war only when the rebel Confederacy left him no choice.
The first lie addresses a glaring question: If the South fought the war to preserve chattel slavery, what possessed the 80-90 percent of southerners who owned no slaves to die for a practice from which they drew no immediate benefit? Professor Gary W. Gallagher (The Confederate War, Cambridge 1997) represents the scholarly side of this myth, while popular fiction and films such as Gods and Generals dish it out to the broad public. That does not wash; one does not register 40 percent casualty rates for sentimental reasons. Catastrophic casualties pile up when a conqueror rallies greedy men to his banner. Ask the half-million men who marched to Moscow in 1812 under Napoleon Bonaparte’s banner why they fought for an emperor, although they had no empire of their own. Napoleon said it best: Every soldier carried a field marshal’s baton in his rucksack. The same apples to Alexander of Macedonia, Mohammed and his successors, the Thirty Years’ War General Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634), Francisco Villa during the Mexican civil war of 1910-18, the Germans during World War II, and so forth.
The unpleasant fact is that Southerners who had no slaves hoped eventually to get some, and fought for the Confederacy for the same reason that Napoleon’s freebooters fought for the emperor. In fact, Southerners had been fighting for the right to bring slaves to new territories for a generation prior to the outbreak of war, in Kansas and elsewhere. Cotton, their principal cash crop, exhausted the soil in a decade’s planting, and the planter took his slaves and moved on. Slavery and the Southern economic system would choke to death without expansion. Had the South formed an independent state, it would have embarked on a campaign of conquest and imposed slavery on the whole southern half of the Western Hemisphere.
Professor Robert E. May demonstrated this in The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire (1973). Of hundreds of newspaper citations in May’s book, here is one: “The Memphis Daily Appeal, December 30, 1860, wrote that a slave ’empire’ would arise ‘from San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean, thence southward, along the shore line of Mexico and Central America, at low tide, to the Isthmus of Panama; thence South – still South! – along the western shore line of New Granada and Ecuador, to where the southern boundary of the latter strikes the ocean; thence east over the Andes to the head springs of the Amazon; thence down the mightiest of inland seas, through the teeming bosom of the broadest and richest delta in the world, to the Atlantic Ocean.'”
No pipe dream was this plan. That is what Southerners read day in and day out during the 10 years that preceded the Civil War. The slaveholding interest had engaged in land grabs for a generation prior to the outbreak of Civil War, including a brief takeover of Nicaragua by American adventurers. A Southern empire meant a revived African slave trade and land for any man enterprising enough to take it. So much for the first self-consoling lie.
Today’s American Southerners rather would wallow in sentimental memories of Southern gallantry than to admit that their ancestors died for sordid imperialistic ambitions. Yet that is what they sang as off to war they marched: “We are a band of brothers/native to the soil/fighting for the property we gained by honest toil.” When brave men are convinced that conquering others is the best way to make their fortune, it may be necessary to keep on killing until not enough are left to fight. Even after the Southern armies had bled almost to death, their commander, Robert E Lee, persuaded his reluctant staff to surrender only with difficulty (More killing, please!, June 12, 2003).
As for the second self-consoling lie, it suffices to observe that Lincoln easily could have averted the war by agreeing to let the South acquire slave territories outside of the continental United States. His 1860 election victory (by a minority of votes in a four-way race) provoked a crisis. Future Confederate president Jefferson Davis supported a compromise that would have allowed the South to acquire slave territories to the south. Georgia senator Robert Toombs, along with Davis, the South’s main spokesman, pleaded for the compromise that would have given the North “the whole continent to the North Pole” and the South “the whole continent to the South Pole,” as Professor May reports.
It was Lincoln, not the Southerners, who shot down the compromise. “A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union … There is in my judgment, but one compromise which would really settle the slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory,” he wrote (cited in Robert May). Republicans preferred to fight. Said congressman Ortis Ferry of Connecticut: “Let but the ties which bind the states to the federal government be broken and the leaders of the rebellion see glittering before them the prizes of a slaveholding empire which, grasping Cuba with one hand, and Mexico with the other, shall distribute titles, fame and fortune to the foremost in the strife. Such, in my opinion, is the real origin of the present revolt, and such are the motives which inspire its leaders.”
For those who do not know the Americans well, it is much easier to understand why the Southerners should have taken up arms in the pursuit of wealth and status than to understand why the North should have expended so much blood and treasure to stop them. What was the fate of an African slave in Cuba to a farm boy from Wisconsin? Yet Lincoln’s Republicans found the prospect of a slave empire to the south sufficiently repugnant as to merit a terrible war.
A cloud of myth protects Americans from the truth about bloody Abe Lincoln. His statue sits in a mock-Greek temple like the statue of Zeus at Olympus. Chiseled into the marble are Lincoln’s words to the nation weeks before the war’s end, an abiding source of horror for European tourists: “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
It sounds like a sort of religious fanaticism that would make the mild Methodist George W. Bush hide under the bed-covers. Yet that is how the Northerners sang as off to war they marched: “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat/He is sifting out the souls of men before his judgment seat/O be swift my soul to answer Him, be jubilant my feet!”
A noteworthy conclusion is that America fought the bloodiest war in its history (and a bloodier war than any in Western Europe since 1648) in order to prevent an imperialist war, that is, out of fanatical religious principle. Americans find it too painful to think about; should they by some means re-establish the frame of mind of 1860, may God help their enemies.