Could the Civil War Have Been Prevented?

by Samuel S. Hill, Jr.

Dr. Hill is professor and chairman of the department of religion at the University of Florida, Gainsville. He is the author of Religion and the Solid South (Abingdon, 1972).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 31, 1976, pp. 304-308. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


With the benefit of hindsight, we are forced to conclude that almost any alternative to the Civil War would have been preferable. The cancerous nature of its social causes would not brook any other “solution,” it is true. But the wastage of the actual and the potential was enormous.

(What If. . . ?’ -- Rewriting U.S. History -- is the second in a Bicentennial Series)

What would the course of American history and the quality of our national life have been like over the past 110 years or so if the U.S. had not fought the Civil War? It is hard to imagine "America," in any of its aspects, without that harsh conflict of 1861-1865, but such imagining is worth the musing.

To inject a personal word, I would not have lost to war a great-great-grandfather on my mother’s maternal side, nor would my great-grandfather on my mother’s paternal side have spent the rest of his life minus one arm. That life and that limb fell victim to the defeated cause. The best accounts estimate that some 610,000 died -- 360,000 in the service of the Union and 250,000 in the service of the Confederate States of America -- with countless thousands of others maimed, dismembered or less severely wounded.

Together with this irreplaceable and tragic human loss go the wastage of farms and cities, economic devastation, careers ended or prevented from beginning, families sundered or diminished, political suspicion and belligerency, internecine strife, a divided people, regional isolation -- the list of ravages is interminable.

But there are two additional dimensions of this war to which we shall give attention. One is its cost to the enduring and legally reunited nation in psychological strain and governmental and social preoccupation with reconstructing, solidifying and facilitating. These processes consumed decades of brainpower and millions of dollars. It boggles the mind to ponder what the American society might have been doing with its resources had it not been forced to rebuild and reconcile and to reconsider its values.

The second is the pride and prejudice the conflict engendered in both regional societies. Unlike President Lincoln, each was convinced that the Lord was on its side and so denounced the other as immoral or imperious. Until very recently most Yankees and Rebels spoke openly of their superiority over the other in terms of quality of life and moral responsibility. If the South is open to the charge (in a James Sellers phrase) of having squandered most of its psychic energy on the anachronism of segregation (and slavery before that), the North may be accused of having misdirected many of its attitudes toward the benightedness and inferiority of southerners and southern ways. A distant relative of mine from the Deep South as a child refused to step outside his family’s car parked on a Cincinnati street out of a sense of bestrangement, fear, and contempt for the residents of that (border) northern city. As recently as two decades ago such a response was not altogether exceptional -- and the same might be said of analogous incidents involving northern condescension toward citizens of Dixie.

I know of no better schema for interpreting this historic cancer in American life rooted in slavery and sectionalism than the classic triad of irony, paradox and fact. These are the index terms that best illuminate the inordinate complexity and extensiveness of this supreme American tragedy enacted within our own borders.

Lee: Ensnared in a Dilemma

The irony of the irrepressible conflict has been noted again and again by students of the War Between the States and its aftermath (which is hardly over in 1976). But surely none of these assessments of that bellicose era can hold a candle to General Robert E. Lee’s reflections on it: "had forbearance and wisdom been practiced by both sides," it might have been prevented. In providing a context for this quotation, Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote: "Each new inquiry has made the monstrous horror of war more unintelligible to me. It has seemed incredible that human beings endowed with any power of reason should hypnotize themselves with doctrines of ‘national honor’ or ‘sacred right’ and pursue mass murder to exhaustion or ruin." (See An Historian and the Civil War, by Avery O. Craven [University of Chicago Press, 1964], p. 132.)

Lee himself was ensnared in a dilemma. Was he to stand firm for the preservation of the Union or be uncompromising with respect to honor? In Craven’s words again, Lee "chose to yield deeply held convictions regarding immediate concrete issues in order to stand by those intangible, yet more profound values which had to do with honor, with self-respect, and with duty" (p. 115). There is no doubt that he did love the nation. The irony of his choice consists in his dedication to high ideals, subscription to which resulted in a practical abdication of his position that slavery was a moral and political evil and that secession was no constructive solution to the nation’s ills. That irony easily shaded into tragedy, because the pursuit of ideals led to the military defense of a society whose economic and social system was acknowledged by Lee and many another southern leader to be tainted with values indefensible on constitutional, humane or democratic grounds.

Furthermore, Lee was flying in the face of the entire drift of Western civilization on the question of disinherited people’s rights. To quote once more from the incisive words of Craven:

The historian may still question the soundness of southern leadership, but he will remember that men whose opportunity in the Modern World was one of producing its raw cotton did not deliberately choose to do so on plantations with Negro slavery. They only went on with what was already at hand in their hurry to prosper. And having done so without the necessity of altering to any degree their social economic patterns, they saw no reason for changing their traditional notions of the federal character of the national government, the benefits of Negro slavery, or the superiority of a rural-agricultural way of life. The social-intellectual side of the nineteenth century had not come their way. As. a result, they were sometimes confused, sometimes reduced to rationalizing, sometimes overwhelmed by guilt [pp. 215-216. emphasis added].

One wonders what alternative courses of action to the Civil War might have brought southern leaders to see that, although their people did not create slavery as an economic system or raw cotton as the principal product in the regional economy, the regional modus operandi was antithetical to the spirit of the American Constitution and the democratarian trend of Western civilization. What if Lee had chosen differently? What if the impulse for preservation of the Union had governed? Suppose the extremist mentality of Yancey of Alabama and Rhett of South Carolina had not prevailed. Might there even have been a few visionaries beginning about 1850 to promote a centennial celebration in which the several southern states would proclaim Emancipation, voluntarily doing away with the "peculiar institution"? It does not seem totally absurd to speculate that after a quarter-century of painstaking preparation, the southern states singly and in confederation might have brought slavery and secessionist impulses to an end, accomplishing those results on terms which they themselves had hammered out, hence found congenial.

Absurd such flights of the mind may not be, but they are fanciful, in light of the very special character of the South’s parochialism and conservatism. That is the sickness underlying the horrendous war. Let us leave our imagining long enough to deal with the facts of the matter, by reference to the profound and tragic proportions of the social origins of the war. Two explanatory devices help me understand the South’s containedness, or cultural "sacredness," in the sociological sense of the term. One draws upon the approaches of cultural anthropology in focusing on a society’s value orientation around the issues of space and time. The other turns to the evolution of southern literature for insight into the southern mind.

Wed to Its Own boundaries

Device I. There would seem to be four ways in which societies interrelate space and time in their systems of meaning: moving-time, fixed-time, moving-space, and fixed-space. (1) "Moving-time" describes an orientation to responsiveness, change and movement. Probably it is accurate to say that American society in the 20th century has been characteristically a moving-time society. (2) "Fixed-time" is the posture of nostalgia. A people may take its cues and derive its norms from what it once was, or is alleged to have been, before circumstances placed it at a disadvantage. Contemporary Britain shows some of the marks of this outlook. (3) A society preoccupied with conquest, or enhancing its own power and position, may be classified as possessing a "moving-space" orientation. Nazi Germany is the spectacular example of such a basic assumption. (4) Finally, "fixed-space" describes a society wed to its own boundaries and the traditional practices and arrangements of those who have lived within them. The evidence from the past century and a half indicates that the American South has been a "fixed-space" society.

What is the significance of the South’s being so oriented -- "wed to its own boundaries and the traditional practices and arrangements" which emerged there and were regnant for so long? First, I would suggest that of the four societal value-orientations, "fixed-space" is the most conservative -- that is, the least responsive to new historical situations. By contrast, fixed-time" is an attitude of lowered expectations and acquiescence in the face of less favorable conditions, but not necessarily to the absolutizing of the past by tenacious retention of its attributes. "Moving-space"’ also is conservative since its movement results from provincial rather than intercultural considerations. In addition it may be pathological. But there is dynamism and development in this orientation, and inevitably interaction with other cultures; "Fixed-space" fastens onto how things have been - and endeavors to preserve the past against erosive forces. It absolutizes or sacralizes the way of life of the province.

Second, "fixed-space" is a posture of abstraction, with emphasis on the rightness of institutions and formal policies, as distinct from both "time" positions which, in a variety of ways, trade in changing historical conditions. Cultures appear to find it easier to be tightly parochial with abstractions than with events or memories.

It is instructive and inspiring to contemplate alternatives to fighting the Civil War, but the character of southern conservatism prevented any of those other choices from being made. What was preserved and what provided a dynamic for the relatively separatist way of life in the South was a structure or a pattern -- once again, an abstraction, not categorically unlike the sterling Lee’s love of honor. Southern-ness stayed alive not because of events or leaders or wars or symbolic ceremonial occasions or adulation conferred upon it by outsiders. The energizing and identity-providing force came from the structure or pattern of a specific and inviolable arrangement for living involving blacks and whites. It seems to have been the sheer presence of Negroes -- affirmed to have their special place in this structural arrangement -- which intensified and perpetuated regional distinctiveness. This circumstance suggests a primary symbolic reliance on spatial categories, not temporal ones. There is irony in that fact, surely, given the legendary southern disposition to recall the past, and in view of the profound "God acts in history" tone of the biblical narrative which had (and has) such general and devoted following in the southern population.

The Dialectic of Tragedy

Device 2. Mention of southerners’ love for recalling the past, for story-telling, and even their not infrequent gifts as raconteurs, prompts reference to a brilliant essay by Allen Tate on the southern imagination (see Studies in American Culture, edited by Joseph J. Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie [University of Minnesota Press, 1961], pp. 96-108). In this description of the southern outlook we are again probing into the deeper layers of southern consciousness in an effort to understand why alternatives to doctrinaire regionalism and the resultant fighting of the Civil War were not pursued.

Tate’s thorough acquaintance with regional and national literature of the 19th and 20th centuries gave him an excellent vantage point for observing the evolution of southern literature over a considerable length of time. He concludes that the literature produced between 1870 and 1920 was typically of low quality, reflecting mostly social vanity and self-adulation, and expressed in artificial, contrived style. Thus, the so-called "literary renaissance" commencing in the 1920s was more a birth than a rebirth. About that time the production of first-rate literature began, with William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Ellen Glasgow, Robert Penn Warren and several others moving to center stage on the national scene. Why? What was wrong in the earlier period, and what occurred to lift southern-writing from mediocrity to excellence?

Tate argues that a shift took place in the mode of discourse, from the rhetorical to the dialectical. Before the era of Faulkner and his contemporaries, southerners were rhetoricians, speaking and doing battle for the local community. In a particularly memorable passage, Tate remarks that the "typical southern conversation is not going anywhere, it is not about anything. It is about the people who are talking." Clearly that kind of speaking and thinking lacks in tension and interaction and abounds in narcissism.

By 1925 or 1930, however, some major southern voices, including novelists, "looked round and saw for the first time since about 1830 that the Yankees were not to blame for everything" (p. 107). As Lionel Trilling has observed, the great writer, who speaks for a culture, carries in himself or herself the fundamental dialectic of that culture. When great writers, by Trilling’s definition, came to light in the American South, the mode of the imagination shifted from melodramatic rhetoric to the dialectic of tragedy. In Tate’s words, "the southern legend of defeat and heroic frustration was taken over by a dozen or more first-rate writers and converted into a universal myth of the human condition" (pp. 107-8).

The Cessation of Dialogue

The profound and tragic proportions of the Civil War -- from its preparatory period through its lengthy wake -- are demonstrated most intensely by the quietus they clamped on dialogue, the quintessential medium of effective humanity. North and South of the same nation broke off talking. So long as there were compromise stratagems, from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Compromise of 1850 -- "compromise" is a metaphor of speaking, it should be noted -- there was some hope. But interaction gave way to silence, only to be replaced by the cacophony of artillery. Close kinspeople or neighbors stopped speaking; not infrequently they proceeded to take up arms, each against the other’s side.

This aspect of the calamity produced tragic results both intersectionally and regionally. The South became a one-party political unit, thus depriving itself of the clash and flow of ideas prominent, and usually creative, in a multiparty system. Even within the national Democratic Party the southern wing was recognizably different from the rest. Again, reconstruction was largely imposed upon the South, so ill-equipped for conservancy and policy formation were the states of the Confederacy upon their readmission to the Union at the close of the war. The fact of imposition, as well, admittedly, as the mistakes in much of Reconstructionist policy framed by "the North," further stifled dialogue between the South and the rest of the nation, contributing to the hardening of unrespecting intersectional relations.

Within regional life, the cessation of dialogue brought about one of the most lamentable outcomes of the war. Throughout the period of slavery, as numbers of diaries and journals reveal, many across the barriers separating the slaveholding from the enslaved knew each other as friends. The picture is a sharply mixed one, inasmuch as relationships were limited and colored by the hierarchical framework, a boundary well understood by both. Yet, numbers of Negro slaves knew numbers of whites, both those to whom they were legally servile and others -- and they talked. Once the war erupted, was waged, and came to an end, with a new legal-social situation following in its train, a widened alienation occurred. No longer could there be genuinely promising communication. Blacks lived in their own neighborhoods, went to their own churches, and generally interacted only with other blacks save for the new (but still tight) pattern of hierarchical relations.

Thus, tragically, the very sense of local community over which (in part) the war was fought, with its attendant opportunities for friendship and communication between white people and Negroes, foundered and perished. Maybe, just maybe, if the war had not been fought, the face-to-faceness of white-black relations could have provided a foundation for building a coherent new society. That did not happen, and as a result precious little mind was given by the controlling white population to Negro rights and needs until, finally, after another war sufficient black leadership and national consensus emerged to listen to grievances and construct a better way. King, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth and Walker, along with others, gave proleptic embodiment to James McBride Dabbs’s low-keyed plea for the South to get down to concentrating on its main export, the spectacle of white people and black people living together.

New Forms of Diminishment

Abruptness, totality and finality, which are the pace of war, took their toll, then, on any possibility that living, especially by blacks, might be ameliorated in the South in the 19th century and for more than a half of this one. Whites were diminished too, by their cut-offness from their black neighbors and, in actual practice, from the other Americans to the north, but even more by their preoccupation with preserving segregation. Surely no one who saw the television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman can ever forget the lengths to which the imperialism of segregation went. The symbol of its dethronement was the aged black woman sipping from a water fountain on the southern courthouse lawn. What a waste of concern and misdirection of energy!

Nor is it over yet. Rock-throwing, name-calling, and expressions of hate are as bad in South Boston as they were in Birmingham or Jackson. However, for this late ’40s southern liberal, something new is happening -- something that comes as a real surprise and an occasion for a saddening fright. Is there not a new segregation in the land, accompanied by a new form of discrimination? I suspect we are still paying for the abrupt pace of the Civil War, this time with another form of diminishment of black Americans. Liberal-spirited whites, many of them church people, who intend to be persons of goodwill with a record to corroborate much of that intent, are beginning to think it is time for a new round of public activity. In some areas delinquent behavior by blacks in the corridors, toilets and classrooms of the public schools is approaching destructive proportions, with the result that the quality of education is in jeopardy. Favoritistic, kid-gloves treatment for black students and college athletes creates animosity in the ranks and harms individuals through the distorting image of a special-treatment style of existence.

I, for one, expect to go on being-open, advocating the civil rights of all, and continuing to celebrate the fact of my close friendships with blacks. But diminishment by special treatment is only quantitatively less injurious than old-style inhumanity. I take heart in the belief that this is a stage that will pass, partly because a basically peaceful revolution -- consisting in laws and a somewhat aroused national conscience -- not a war, ushered in the era of these problems. Yet we are still suffering the consequences of that long-ago abrupt destruction, that 19th century "final solution," this time through lowered expectations and a kind of double standard.

Maybe we who want to embody agape as "creative goodwill" are being called back into action, not this time to man the barricades or even to carry picket signs, but rather to initiate fresh forms of dialogue in parent-teacher-student organizations and town councils. We must seek to create conditions that will help prevent haughtiness or false expectations, and should work to create relations wherein white and black pupils will know each other and have respect. Replacement of the old bigotry or hatred by new ethnocentrisms or disrespect is hardly the improvement we yearn for.

With the benefit of hindsight, we are forced to conclude that almost any alternative to the Civil War would have been preferable. The cancerous nature of its social causes would not brook any other "solution," it is true. But the wastage of the actual and the potential Was enormous. Worse still, that war conditioned us for so many decades to choosing between total inactivity and action by strident measures. Perhaps we are finally moving toward the cultivation of an alternative way to do the nation’s business of forging one from many -- namely, dialogue: people talking, with moral passion, with respect, and with agreement that we fall or stand together.