Why the Civil War Lasted So Long

Everybody knows the American Civil War was the war to free the slaves right? No, it wasn’t. Until I watched the full Ken Burn’s documentary last fall with my son, I had not realized how long it took for Lincoln and the rest of the North to pass the Emancipation Proclamation. The War began on April 12, 1861 but the slaves weren’t freed until January 1, 1863 and was clearly passed to be a punitive measure against the Confederate states for rebelling, since it only freed slaves in Confederate states. So for almost the first twenty months the American Civil War was not about slavery but about preserving the Union. Had the war been won then, as I learned it easily could have, the slaves would not have been freed.

“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong . . . And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling . . . I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”- Abraham Lincoln

While my son repeated over and over how sad it was that the war did not end that first year as it could have, had McClellan actually tried to win. I sat amazed to think what if we had won then? Would we have ever abolished slavery? Fortunately McClellan was such a failure it is a wonder that he was not tried for treason. He, a General of the Union Army, was so against the war that he ran against Lincoln in 1864. McClellan, himself saw slavery as a right guaranteed in the constitution. In running against Lincoln, he promised to end the war and negotiate with the Confederacy.

But his failures as a General helped the antislavery movement. Determined to win the war Northern Republicans, suggested emancipation as the key to undermining the South’s manpower. It encouraged slaves to join the Union and even to join the Union army. It also ended the likelihood that Britain or France might aid the Confederates since both countries were against slavery.

From a spiritual point of view I couldn’t help thinking it was fate that kept McClellan blundering about, lengthening the war, until the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued. Of course by that time both sides had dug in to the point neither could have an easy victory. Still looking at the cost in human lives, while 620,000 soldiers died in the American Civil War, this number is tiny compared to the estimated 2 million slaves that died in the middle passage. Just getting to the Americas was murder on an astounding scale. I do not think we are done yet, paying for these crimes. But I like to think we are beginning to see that what seemed like cheap labor at the time was incredibly costly to our spiritual growth and dignity.

I have rarely felt so certain that God was there, than when watching the documentary and seeing how the North failed again and again to win battles and reunite the Union without facing the issue of slavery. I can not believe anymore that wars are won with weapons alone. In the long run the pen is mightier than the sword and the heart more powerful than the fist.


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