Not A “Good War”, But A Necessary One

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (fought July 1-3, 1863), Tony Horwitz calls for Americans to revisit their views of the War Between The States:

[I]n recent years, historians have rubbed much of the luster from the Civil War and questioned its sanctification. Should we consecrate a war that killed and maimed over a million Americans? Or should we question, as many have in recent conflicts, whether this was really a war of necessity that justified its appalling costs? “We’ve decided the Civil War is a ‘good war’ because it destroyed slavery,” says Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina. “I think it’s an indictment of 19th century Americans that they had to slaughter each other to do that.”

Dan Trombly responds that “[i]f we should question [whether the war was justified], we should do so only quickly, because the answer is most obviously yes”:

I am sympathetic to the case that there is no such thing as a “good war,” and readers here probably recall some of my arguments against the unnecessary romanticizing and appropriation of World War II history. Yet to question the worth of [World War II] because it did not originally intend, and could not fully resolve, the worst excesses of totalitarianism or genocide in Europe or Asia does not invalidate the causes for which the war launched. Even more than abolition, ending the Holocaust was not the primary and unifying cause for which the Allies fought, and the moral compromises the United States made in building a coalition to defeat the Nazis were even more uncomfortable than those it made in prosecuting war against the South. But as we can discuss the validity of fighting World War II while still acknowledging its decision to go to war was about far more than the Holocaust and the merits behind that decision, we can discuss the Civil War and acknowledge that before abolition validated it, the cause of Union was worth fighting for.

TNC nods:

The fact is that the Civil War didn’t represent a failure of 19th-century Americans, but that the American slave society — which was itself war — represented a failure of humanity. That failure was the price America paid for its conception. …

I am very sorry that white people began experiencing great violence in 1860. But for some of us, war did not begin 1860, but in 1660. The brutal culmination of that war may not have allowed us to ascend into a post-racial heaven. But here is something I always come back to: In 1859 legally selling someone’s five-year-old child was big business. In 1866, it was not. American Slavery was a system of perpetual existential violence. The idea that it could have been — or should have been — ended, after two and a half centuries of practice, with a handshake and an ice-cream social strikes me as really wrong.

In a later post, TNC emphasizes the infeasibility of the US government simply buying the slaves their freedom. Meanwhile, Esquire is recreating the Battle of Gettysburg through a series of blog posts:

In keeping with the anniversary, we have invited serving Army officer, military historian, keen observer, and longtime friend of the blog Bob Bateman, to contribute regular dispatches about the the Gettysburg campaign, the long series of maneuvers, counter-maneuvers, blind chances and lucky breaks that led up to the epic (and largely accidental) collision of the two armies in a small Pennsylvania college town. Knowing my friend, you will find your assumptions challenged, and some modern parallel drawn, and you will come away from this project knowing a little more about the battle, the people who fought it, and the country that it produced.