Was the Civil War Just?

A reader writes:

I have enjoyed your take on the whole Osama situation. I do agree with most of what you say ... if not all. I have to admit that my initial reaction was of most people, aka “ding dong Osama’s dead,” etc. but the Catholic filter kicked in and I was able to use this situation to evangelize to our Edge middle school group about this situation ... thanks to our astute children asking questions.

I do have a question for you though on the Just War doctrine and how it could apply (or not) the the War Between the States that took place starting 150 years ago. Since you are better versed in the doctrine than I am, what is your take on this conflict and do you believe this was a just war? One caveat, do not include the slavery issue, it was *not* the primary reason for the conflict although in today’s culture it is taught as such.

Hoo boy! There’s a question to get the juices going!

Of course, this is not something to which, for a Catholic, there is a necessarily correct or incorrect answer, particularly since, in a civil war it is especially meaningless to ask if the war was just. Just for whom? Americans fought on both sides. If we determine that it was just for one group of Americans, that means that the other group was fighting an unjust war. And it’s possible, of course, that neither side in a war is fighting a Just War (as could be argued, for instance, in the great war between the two despotic butchers Hitler and Stalin). There is no dogmatic definition for Catholics concerning what to make of the Civil War. And it is worth noting that one Catholic (G.K. Chesterton) has made an astute observation concerning the conviction most modern people have that, throughout history, the right side has always won every war:

There is everywhere the habit of assuming certain things, in the sense of not even imagining the opposite things. For instance, as history is taught, nearly everybody assumes that in all important past conflicts, it was the right side that won. Everybody assumes it; and nobody knows that he assumes it. The man has simply never seriously entertained the other notion. Say to him that we should now all of us be better off if Charles Edward and the Jacobites had captured London instead of falling back from Derby, and he will laugh. He will think it is what he calls a “paradox.” Yet nothing can be a more sober or solid fact than that, when the issue was undecided, wise and thoughtful men were to be found on both sides; and the Jacobite theory is not in any way disproved by the fact that Cumberland could outflank the clans at Drummossie. I am not discussing whether it was right as a theory; I am only noting that it is never allowed to occur to anybody as a thought. The things that might have been are not even present to the imagination. If somebody says that the world would now be better if Napoleon had never fallen, but had established his Imperial dynasty, people have to adjust their minds with a jerk. The very notion is new to them. Yet it would have prevented the Prussian reaction; saved equality and enlightenment without a mortal quarrel with religion; unified Europeans and perhaps avoided the Parliamentary corruption and the Fascist and Bolshevist revenges. But in this age of free-thinkers, men’s minds are not really free to think such a thought.

What I complain of is that those who accept the verdict of fate in this way accept it without knowing why. By a quaint paradox, those who thus assume that history always took the right turning are generally the very people who do not believe there was any special providence to guide it. The very rationalists who jeer at the trial by combat, in the old feudal ordeal, do in fact accept a trial by combat as deciding all human history. In the war of the North and South in America, some of the Southern rebels wrote on their flags the rhyme, “Conquer we must for our cause is just.” The philosophy was faulty; and in that sense it served them right that their opponents copied and continued it in the form “Conquer they didn’t; so their cause wasn’t.” But the latter logic is as bad as the former. I have just read a book called, “The American Heresy,” by Mr. Christopher Hollis. It is a very brilliant and original book; but I know it will not be taken sufficiently seriously; because the reader will have to wrench his mind out of a rut even to imagine the South victorious; still more to imagine anybody saying that a small, limited and agricultural America would have been better for everybody—especially Americans.

So: when asking whether the Civil War as a Just War, we have to ask what that means. Was it just that the North won? Was it just that the South tried to win? Was the North fighting for a just cause?  Was the South? Did they use just means? etc.

On the the whole, I think a case can be made for the justice and injustice of the cause for both sides. In the North’s favor was, quite simply, the survival of the experiment of representative democracy in the world. A nation where (as the North saw it), half the country could just take their ball and leave when an election didn’t go their way was a formula for national suicide. In the South, Southerners fought for a simple reason: ‘Cuz Yankees were down there when they should mind their own business and stay on their side of the Mason-Dixon. Lee’s remark that he could not raise his sword against his country (meaning Virginia, not America) sums up the Southern ethos and the Southern doom: they prized the small, local, and old and wanted to keep it from becoming part of the Borg Collective of the North.  In fact, they prized it so much they could never form a coherent nation capable of defeating that centralized, industrialized northern power.

Telling against the North was the fact that, in a certain sense, they destroyed the country in order to save it. Most of our present-day quarrels about the size, power and piggyness of the Federal government spring from the fact that we got the government the North wanted and that it has done nothing but metastasize ever since the Northern victory. Lincoln is remembered as a hero, but he is a hero who swept away habeus corpus, annihilated freedom of the press, laid the foundations for ginormous and unaccountable corporations to crush the ordinary citizen (beaten back only by the rise of labor with the encouragement of Pope Leo XIII), and gave complete approval for General Sherman to initiate a campaign of war crimes against innocent civilians in his March to the Sea. In short, Lincoln was the first practitioner of the sort of warfare which the 20th century would create War Crimes Legislation to try to curtail.

Meanwhile, like it or not, in the South, the reality is that slavery had everything to do with the shots fired on Fort Sumter and the whole domino fall of secession. The South fought for “State’s Rights” because the South was fighting for the right to keep an agrarian economy based on slavery. That’s what the war was about. It was the simmering resentment of a northern economy that was squeezing the life from the South *and* looking down on the South with increasing contempt for their “peculiar institution.” No slavery, and there might very well never have been a Civil War.

So I think the verdict is mixed on the justice of the Civil War. For the North, the war (which began as a war to preserve the Union from rebellion) morphed (as wars are wont to do) into a moralist crusade against slavery (much as the Gulf War morphed from fending off a spectre of mushroom clouds over America into Operation Enduring Freedom once the WMDs promised by the war zealots failed to materialize). The psychological dynamic is fairly simple: When thousands of corpses—killed in a few hours—lie dead at Antietam with nothing to show for it, you can’t tell your population—heck, you can’t tell yourself—that all this pointless carnage was in order to preserve a viable port on the mouth of the Mississippi or to keep selling steel to some smithy in Birmingham, Alabama. You have to believe it was for something higher than just economics and power politics. So you focus on freeing the slaves and that becomes your cause.

It is notable that Pius IX thought enough of Jeff Davis that he sent the poor imprisoned man a crown of thorns he wove himself as a sign of sympathy for all that he and the South lost in the war. It is also notable that Americans, who are basically a big-hearted lot, waited a generation or so, and then began to look back on the war with regret for what was lost when the South was destroyed. It’s telling that from the dawn of the cinema until the dawn of the Civil Rights movement (roughly 50 years), most depictions of the war tended to favor the South. From “Birth of a Nation” to Buster Keaton’s “The General” to that great epic of Southern Romanticism “Gone with the Wind” and even as late as the “Twilight Zone” you find tale after tale filled with sad regret over what was lost when the Cause was lost.

However, what the Civil Rights Movement forcefully reminded us of with the images of good white Christian folk screaming at kids for the crime of going to school in a black skin, or Bull Connor and his dogs and fire hoses, was that the Romanticism of the South (much like our culture’s present Romanticism about the rise of the Women’s movement) acted not only to celebrate what was good, but to obfuscate some real evils. Just as the story of feminism includes not only the righting of real wrongs against women, but also the sacramentalization of abortion as a core value, so the romanticism of the Southern role in the Recent Unpleasantness systematically overlooked the continuation of the slave culture under other names until the Civil Rights movement reminded us that the war may, after all, have been a necessary first step in purging America of the original sin of its founding.

Might slavery have disappeared without the Civil War? We can’t know. All we can know is that it was outlawed after that scourge was, in fact, visited on us. Perhaps a more interesting question is not whether the Civil War was just, but whether the American Revolution was. After all, had it never been fought, the slave trade might have ended for us when it ended for Britain, due to the tireless, peaceful, and unbloody work of the great William Wilberforce. But, as Aslan points out in the Chronicles of Narnia, nobody is ever told what would have happened.