“Was It Worth It?”

From Gary Gallagher's "The Union War"

From Gary Gallagher’s “The Union War”

Back in March I attended a conference at Gettysburg hosted by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. I never wrote about it. There seemed to be plenty of bloggers discussing its content, structure, successes, and shortcomings. Personally, I enjoyed the sessions I attended and was happy to meet face-to-face a number of people I had known previously only online. As I recall, Pete Carmichael, Director of CWI, opened the conference by questioning the thrust of Civil War interpretation in regard to the horrors of war. Dr. Carmichael showed a photo of an armless Civil War soldier and asked how often we are willing to share such images with visitors to parks. When Dr. Carmichael finished and opened the floor for questions, Brooks Simpson came to the microphone and observed that Dr. Carmichael’s address could be summed up with the question, “Was it worth it?” It’s been a few months, but that is how I remember it, and the subject came up again over the course of the conference.

I was reminded of that conference when last week a friend sent me a copy of an article that appeared in the latest issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era titled “Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship” by Yael A. Sternhell.  Dr. Sternhell argues that “a new revisionist trend in Civil War scholarship is in full bloom.” She describes the “old revisionism” which flourished in the 1930s, but then states that “much of the revisionists’ agenda has been discredited over the years.” I wrote about the “revisionists” in a past blogpost. See here.

Given the numbers of books and monographs being published in recent years, I’m not sure how anyone could come to a proper synthesis of Civil War historiography. Dr. Sternhell chooses to focus on a few books and articles, not all of which I have read. One, however is Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of Freedom: A Moral History of the Civil War, which I have read. Frankly, I wasn’t that impressed. For example, Stout’s grasp of events in Missouri is pitiful. I would have to agree with most of what this Amazon reviewer wrote. Sternhell also writes that “Stout argues that the Union army was fighting a total war against southern civilians and combatants alike, in which the dictums of just war were freely and unapologetically breached,” yet in her notes she admits that “the debate over the severity of Union policies toward the South began before the close of the war and has continued ever since.”

Sternhell also cites David Goldfield’s America Aflame: How The Civil War Created a Nation. I have not read this book, but considering that it is not published by a University press, I would be a bit suspect (not that there aren’t some excellent books published outside the academy). However, since Sternhell tells us that Goldfield’s mentor was Avery Craven, I feel little need to read it. Again, see my previous blogpost on the revisionists.

Sternhell cites Michael Fellman, a scholar who did some excellent work on guerilla warfare in the Civil War, but Sternhell quotes Fellman, “For most of its history, America has celebrated its military establishment, built it up, and used it around the world as an instrument of international power.” This statement ignores the fact that early Americans distrusted standing armies, and the fact that the Civil War in particular was fought not by a “military establishment” as we might envision that today, but by citizen-soldiers who answered the call to arms then quickly returned to their civilian pursuits. Fellman’s statement also raises the question of whether or not America’s power has historically been more a force for good in the world or bad.

More than once in her essay, Sternhell seems to accept potshots leveled at U. S. Grant. Stout, she quotes as saying, “Emancipationist rhetoric was actually (and unbelievably) employed by Grant and Sherman to justify Indian exterminations in the 1870s and later. Indians, they argued were standing in the way of ‘Americans” freedom to expand, and therefore they deserved to be exterminated.” I’d like to know where Stout finds Grant calling for the “extermination” of anyone. Grant repeatedly called for policies that (at least to his way of thinking) would allow Indians to become citizens of the United States. Sternhell also cites Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War.  Foreman apparently “contends that Grant achieved his monumental victory at Vicksburg not by any great military feat but by starving out the town’s civilians.” This likely comes as a surprise to the numerous military historians who have studied Grant’s Vicksburg campaign and praised it as one of the most masterful of all time. Furthermore, I wonder, not having read Foreman’s book, does she offer an alternative to Grant’s siege? One that would have cost fewer casualties?

Sternhell tells us that “new revisionist” authors see the Emancipation Proclamation as a mere “political ploy” and a move to weaken Confederate military capabilities. Criticism of the EP is nothing new, but Goldfield, according to Sternhell, “argues that other means might have achieved freedom for the slaves, had the democratic process been allowed to succeed.” This one really has me scratching my head. Who exactly does Goldfield think thwarted “the democratic process?”

In the end, Sternhell admits that the “new revisionism” is not very convincing. The “new revisionists” want to answer the question “was it worth it?” (and the question seems to be mostly directed at the Union side) with a resounding “no” just as the “old revisionists” did. There is, however, just too much evidence of the centrality of slavery  in bringing on the conflict, and the importance of the Union to Northerners (and many Southerners). If we are going to answer “no, it wasn’t worth it,” then we must allow that freedom is not worth killing and dying for, and that The United States of America is not, and has not been, the beacon of hope and freedom to the world that it claims to be. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” becomes mere words on fading parchment. From our vantage point 150 years and countless wars later, these might be debatable points. We might even need to admit that democracy as we practice it is not always the answer for other countries. But, the generation of loyal Americans who actually endured the Civil War from Ft. Sumter to Appomattox, as Gary Gallagher wrote, “possessed a strong sense of their nation as a democratic republic unique in the world, bequeathed to them by the founding generation and destined for future greatness if poisonous questions relating to slavery could be settled.”  It was  “worth it.”

I would suggest that one’s time would be better spent reading other books than those discussed by Sternhell. Here are a few:

The Union War by Gary Gallagher; Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South by Stephanie McCurry; The Civil War As a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll; Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America by Allen C. Guelzo.


4 thoughts on ““Was It Worth It?”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I also read the JCWE article without that much familiarity with the books discussed. You give an interesting perspective.

  2. For the record: In my book “A World on Fire” I do not claim that General Grant won Vicksburg simply by starving out its inhabitants.

    • Dr. Foreman,

      Thanks for commenting. As I noted, I have not read your book and was only responding to what Dr. Sternhell wrote, hence the word “apparently.”

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