Zinn is right. The Civil War was a costly, unnecessary, and unfortunate tragedy. The South never should have gone to war.
That’s the baffling thing about these counterfactuals. To ask whether the war was necessary to end slavery is to place the onus for the conflict entirely upon one side. It makes far more sense, within the context of its own time, to ask whether the war was a rational means of preserving and extending slavery. The South was not obliged to fight. If Zinn is right, if Paul is right, if we had already launched irrevocably upon the road to emancipation in 1860, then the decision of the Confederate States to wage a long and bloody war against the inevitable was a heinous mistake, a blunder of enormous proportions. All these counterfacualists agree that the North was in the right; the great question ought to be why the South fought in defense of a doomed wrong.
So why isn’t that the question with which the counterfactualists are obsessed? Why aren’t there best-selling novels pondering what might have happened if the South had simply acquiesced in emancipation, or if the North had prevailed at the First Battle of Bull Run and suppressed the rebellion almost immediately? Why don’t those who wish to point toward the futility of conflict under any circumstance point to the blunder of defending slavery, instead of the supposed blunder of opposing it by force of arms, and by so doing, ending it?
Why isn’t there, for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, an instant when it’s still not yet four-thirty on that April morning in 1861, the batteries are in position opposite Fort Sumter, the guns are laid and ready, furled flags are already loosened to break out and Edmund Ruffin himself with his long, stringy white hair and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up waiting for Beauregard to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Stephens and Toombs look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Morality and self-respect and progress and development. Maybe this time they won’t fire the shot that doomed the South to a century of reactionary backwardness?
-Cynic, commenting on Coates’ post on Zinn’s critique of the American Civil War. I was one of the many whose eyes were opened in high school by Zinn’s writing, but grew to realize that everything he wrote was informed by his ideology and his critique of the American military/industrial complex. His critique of the Civil War isn’t really about the Civil War, its about post-Cold War America. Zinn says “this idea of “good wars” helps justify other wars which are obviously awful, obviously evil”. So if he convinces you that there’s no such thing as a ‘good war’, you won’t be convinced by the next policy maker who argues that the next war is just like one of the good wars.
It would be nice if things were that simple, but the truth is stubborn, complex and filled with contradictions.
So I understood Zinn, even though I thought he was wrong on the facts.
But Coates’ post and Cynic’s comment raise some troubling questions - why did he focus on the North and not the South? Why did Zinn disregard the fact that the Civil War was part of a long undeclared war against African Americans?
NB: The last paragraph of the comment is inspired by the opening of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust.