What does the American Civil War teach us about peace and conflict? In the next few entries I will consider this question. The simple answer is that peace is preferable and conflict is bloody awful. Simple answers rarely suffice, however. The just outcome of the war – the ending of slavery – makes discussions of lessons learned more complex. To argue today that a nonviolent approach would have been a preferred approach is confounded by the violence of slavery and the apparent exhaustion of options.
Yet, the antebellum period consists of so much more complexity than generally gets discussed. During my schooling I learned about the Missouri Compromise, the rise of King Cotton, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates as illustrations of antebellum life. Things were not, obviously, simple. The second great awakening stirred men and women across America. New Englanders and others from the Middle Atlantic states migrated westward to find their future success. Their sojourn was not merely an economic venture, but it held promise of so much more.
Equally, amongst many Southern whites the economic riches of slavery were all too apparent. For many small holders the promise of greater income from owning a few slaves acted like a candle drawing the moth ever closer. Of course, there were also many in the South for whom slavery represented an ambiguous future. Not slaveholders themselves, they nonetheless opposed the Black person’s freedom that abolition promised.
The simplicity of North vs. South, free vs. slave, blue vs. gray hides an enormous amount of complexity and ambiguity. The moral clarity, not to mention the analytical simplicity, offered by these dualities hide some fascinating dynamics. For example, did the politicians and other elites have sufficient skill to negotiate their way out of conflict? Or, is part of the reason for the American Civil War found in the lack of skill on the part of the leadership both nationally and locally? Did events simply get away from the leadership? Did they simply not have the opportunity to muster their skills in an effort to better manage the conflict? Did inefficiencies in communication curtail the opportunities needed for peace to emerge? Finally, was peace and conflict avoidance simply not in style? Did the zeitgeist augur ill for peacemaking? In later postings I will take on these issues.