Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Was the Civil War a Good Thing?

Having completed the two essays in Why the Civil War Came that deal with what they called the failure of the American political system, I have to ask myself "was the Civil War a good thing?"

It seems to me that you can only say the political system failed if you assume that the coming of the war was something negative and something not to be desired. My first reaction upon coming to that conclusion was that the coming of the Civil War was not a bad thing and therefore maybe the political system did end up working out. After all, perhaps the most disenfranchised people in the country, African-Americans (I guess you could argue women were more disenfranchised, but that's for another discussion) had helped overcome their almost total lack of any civil, social or political rights, especially in the South, but even in the North, and had contributed to the downfall of American slavery. That's certainly a good thing and if such a group could rise up and achieve something so remarkable, isn't that a sign that the political system was working?

And, let's face it. The Civil War ended slavery, the most accursed institution in American history. That certainly is a positive and anything that accomplishes something as monumental and lasting as the removal of human slavery must have some redeeming qualities, must it not?

It also preseved the Union, keeping alive a country based on democratic principles and which at least tried to offer freedom and liberty to its citizens (despite the struggle to define what "citizenship" truly meant.) Keeping such a form of government alive, and this nation together, was certainly another postive outcome of the war.

But, the price of that newfound freedom was over 600,000 dead men, leaving behind millions of grieving relatives – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandpas, grandmas – and friends. Such suffering, sadness and agony is not good. The thousands of bodies never identified or never sent home to loved ones are another sign of tragedy.

What about the numerous men who lost arms or legs or suffered other indescribable injuries or illnesses (imagine those who actually survived prison camps and field hospitals)?

On top of the human suffering, how about the animals that got killed in combat? What about the property damage to homes, barns, farms and other structures? How many forests or cornfields were crushed by the armies and their equipage? Millions, likely billions, of dollars of damage took place east, west, south, north throughout the land (though the southeast did seem to take more than its share.) How is that a good thing?

As much as I enjoy studying the Civil War, collecting books and artifacts about it and hope to visit more hallowed ground in the future, I just cannot in good conscience say it was a good thing. Maybe some good can come out of a tragedy and the ending of slavery amidst such terrible carnage may be the ultimate example of such, but that does not make 4 years of suffering, pain, loss, grieving and mourning into something good.

And if I can ever convince myself that the coming of the war was bad (something inside me now keeps wanting to insist it was a good thing, despite my attempts to use logic to show that this war, like others, was, at the very least a negative occurrence, or, perhaps, some personification of pure evil -or at least a sign of the evil that humans can do to fellow people, even fellow countrymen). Why cannot I convince myself that this was all a tragedy? Is my enjoyment of this era so much that I am actually glad it happened so that I have something I enjoy so much? I truly hope that is not the case, yet something in the pit of my stomach is trying to lead me to say that the Civil War was a good thing. Why?

I suppose that is something I will have to keep on pondering as I continue on this voyage of exploring why I enjoy the Civil War so much and what about it fascinates me so. This may not be something I can resolve – if it was so terrible why do I enjoy studying it so much? Why don't I move on to something not so negative? I've always loved sports, and despite the unpleasant happenings that show up on the sports page, at least over half a million people don't lose their lives in those fields of competition. Why has the passion I had for reading the sports page or listing to sports talk when I was younger been replaced by this new hobby? I still like baseball, football and basketball, but my passion, or, perhaps, my obsession, is the Civil War. I don't mean to complain about it, for I truly enjoy reading and studying about the battles and personalities of the war, but I do wonder exactly why I have so much enthusiasm fo something so terrible that brought so much pain to so many for so long.

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