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Brent Glass: Could the war have been prevented?

By Brent Glass

Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Glass

War is avoidable until the fighting starts. Therefore, it was possible to avoid -- or at least delay -- the start of the Civil War if President Lincoln had instructed Union troops at Ft. Sumter to not defend a federal property and quietly withdraw. This action might have given the advocates for peace more time to negotiate a peaceful settlement. An agreement between the U.S. government and newly formed Confederate States of America would have required the recognition of the former slaveholding states as a new nation. It may have required an extension of slavery into western territories perhaps using the boundary established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as the boundary line between free and slave states.

Delegates to a peace conference discussed a compromise of this sort at the Willard Hotel in Washington in February, 1861. However, this proposal failed to generate any serious support and everyone at the conference knew that President-elect Lincoln strongly opposed any agreement that resulted in the dissolution of the Union. His decision to protect federal property after his inauguration was symbolic of a deeper belief that the Constitution established a united nation and a single government and that states could not enter and leave that nation. His commitment to preserve the Union and his opposition to the expansion of slavery made it impossible to escape the conflict that began with the firing on Ft. Sumter.

Visitors to the National Museum of American History can find an interesting footnote to the beginning of the Civl War in the exhibition Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life. Lincoln's pocket watch is displayed along with a story about an Irish watch repairman, Jonathan Dillon. Mr. Dillon was cleaning the president's watch when he heard about the attack on Ft. Sumter. He wrote a short note inside the watch to commemorate the occasion with a hopeful -- and prophetic ending -- "Thank God we have a government!"

By Brent Glass  | November 8, 2010; 11:36 AM ET
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Comments

Mr. Glass, thanks for writing this. Yours is the best response.

Posted by: TylerHealey | November 8, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

You're asking the wrong question Mr. Glass. The more relevant question is 'When will Texas, North Carolina, and other states successfully secede?' The answer is, sooner than you think. The Civil War isn't as much a history lesson as it was a precursor. This country is as divided as it ever was. To pretend that doesn't spell trouble is to be smokin' some seriously good weed or be as naive as it gets. I'm not personally happy about it, but the quiet indicators are out there and the FBI knows it.

Posted by: JHG_sec405 | November 8, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, Brent. That's a 'pollyanna-ish' view, by which I mean that power rules, then as is now. The Northern and border states with their increased industrialization and economic strength were rising on the world stage, and the immorality and cheap labor of slavery was intolerable to them. Slavery was intensifying in the South, esp in Florida. Also, the strong desire of most intellectuals was to keep the Union intact to prevent the continent from splintering into many quarreling nations like Europe. Such a peace conference meant negotiating with a weaker, immoral entity. And since the South and its business leaders weren't going to voluntarily/unilaterally give up their investment in slave labor, it had to be done by force.

Posted by: alanwrobel | November 9, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Hattaway and Jones, in their book, “How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War” have a marvelous end-note in their chapter entitled: The Symphony of Vicksburg, Tullahoma, Gettysburg. In that chapter’s end-notes they pose the hypothetical question of the consequences of a Confederate victory at Gettysburg, as complete and total as Marlborough’s at Blenheim.

They come to the conclusion that even if you grant that General Lee achieved a “Blenheim” in Pennsylvania; and, that as a result, it would only mean a greater many terrible tactical consequences for the Union. But Hattaway and Jones go on to observe that, if the fundamental purpose of the Civil War was to “…change the balance of power in North America…”, then, that was not possible, “…even if Lee had achieved a Blenheim in Pennsylvania…” Reading that, I raised a corollary question. What was this change in the “balance of power” in North America that the Confederacy was trying to achieve? And what would have been the consequences?

What the change in the balance-of-power that the Confederacy was trying to achieve, was to create a second, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant super-power in North America, and the Western Hemisphere. And since the French and Indian War there has been only one. And our hemispheric history has not been a story of next-door superpowers, like Britain-France-Germany-Russia.

Imagine that there was another nation state in the western hemisphere (much less North America) that presumed to be able to ally itself with any of the western European powers, or to join in alliances like the Central Powers, the Axis, NATO or the Warsaw Pact. All without regard to, and independent of, the national security interests of the United States.

From this perspective, the whole point of Civil War was prevent this from happening. The United States could not let the Confederate States of America (CSA) come into existence. The CSA could not exist or survive as an independent nation state with the kind of foreign policy of a Mexico, a Cuba, or a Costa Rica. Long before the Cuban Missile crisis the United States would have had to confront the possibly of an independent CSA forming political-economic-military alliances in contravention of the US’s Monroe Doctrine. For the Confederacy, there would have been the prospect of being forced to be a second rate Cuban style slaveocracy, which in essence had no independent foreign or national security policies at all.

Who would have controlled the flow of goods on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers? Who would the CSA states of Texas and Louisiana been “allowed” to sell their oil and natural gas to? What political factions in Washington DC could have allowed “foreign” military bases at Key West, Norfolk, and New Orleans?

What Government in Richmond could have tolerated a foreign policy that allowed ships from Philadelphia and New York naval bases to cruise from Hampton to Jacksonville, just to "keep the sea lanes open."

Posted by: rc115shepherd | November 9, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

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