This blog was originally posted on my Facebook page on Tuesday, April 12th, 2011.
Today is Tuesday, April 12th, 2011. It was on this day a hundred and fifty years ago that the American Civil War began with the firing on Fort Sumter by Confederate Forces in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. During the 34-hour bombardment, not a single man on either side was killed, wounded or captured. After the battle, an exploding cannon killed or wounded four Union soldiers during a 100-gun salute they were allowed to fire before evacuating the fort. It was a nearly bloodless beginning to the bloodiest conflict in American History.
Regardless of which side of the conflict you sympathize with, there is no question that the issue at the heart of the conflict was the issue of slavery. The Confederates were fighting for States’ Rights (Which did include the right to continue slavery), and many of the common soldiers in the ranks were not fighting to preserve slavery, but to defend “home and hearth.” And it can also be said that not all Union soldiers were willing to lay down their lives to free the slave. All of that is true. But there is no denying that slavery was the central issue that drove the South to secede from the United States, and plunge the country into civil war.
One of the things that deeply saddens me about this war is how it could have possibly been avoided. When one looks at the history of Europe in regards to slavery, you see that cooler heads were able to prevail for the most part in that part of the world. The greatest example of this is in Great Britain. In 1807, after a twenty-year battle in Parliament, William Wilberforce and his followers were successful in seeing the British Slave Trade abolished. Twenty-six years later, three days before Wilberforce’s death, the government of Great Britain abolished slavery itself throughout their empire. The rest of Europe would eventually follow suit, and slavery was ultimately defeated with little or no blood spilled to do so. The voices of reason, stating that there was no need for force, allowed for a more peaceful end to the institution.
But here in the United States, slavery ended at a terrible cost: 620,000 dead, another half-a-million wounded, millions of dollars worth of destruction, and a nation scarred forever. Why did the abolition of slavery here in America come with such a high price? The simplest answer is this: the voices of reason, which had prevailed in Europe, were not listened to in this country. Radicals on both sides of the issue prevailed in this country. Radical secessionists and abolitionists alike helped push the country into a bloody conflict. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, with an armed group prepared to use force to free the slaves, was the harbinger of what was to come. After that raid failed, and John Brown executed, there was possibly no turning back from war.
I think now of the final scene at the end of North and South: Book One, where Orry and George, two friends from South Carolina and Pennsylvania, discuss the coming conflict. Orry asks George if there is any way they could have prevented the war from occurring. “I think we had a chance somewhere along the line” George replied, “and we missed it.”
“Or threw it away” Orry comments.
This is just one of the reasons that the American Civil War is one of the most tragic episodes in our history. While almost all of Europe was able to abolish slavery with little or no fighting, the freedom for Blacks here in America was paid at a terrible price. If cooler heads had prevailed, slavery could have come to an end with no need for a war. But those voices of reason were swept away, as radicals on both sides took over, and any chance of going about it reasonably was thrown away, setting the stage for the bloodiest four years in America’s history.
Steven Hancock, Civil War Diary