Reflection on 1862

War critics offer nothing new in 2006

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

History, the Roman historian Livy said, is the best medicine for a troubled mind. And these indeed are troubling times. Abetted by their shills in the mainstream media, the liberal Democrats are trying to wring every ounce of partisan advantage from the war in Iraq, no matter how much such carping undermines our resolve and comforts the enemy. But as I’m reminded while re-reading the first volume of Shelby Foote’s masterpiece The Civil War, not much of our current crisis is really that new; but what is new is particularly dangerous.

Take the partisan carping first. Nothing we’ve seen in this war comes close to the vicious criticism leveled at Abraham Lincoln’s conduct of the war. Nor was his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, immune from the same sort of impatient nitpicking of every difficult decision. The management of the war, just as today, was constantly second-guessed and criticized, and failure hysterically parsed for causes no matter how fantastical. One of the most frequent charges made after a lost battle was “betrayal,” hollered not just by politicians but also by many a soldier both Union and Confederate while skedaddling from the battlefield. George McClellan, a Democrat opposed to emancipation and a notoriously timid general, was constantly accused of outright treachery by the fire-eating Republican abolitionists.

And this complaining was attended by cruel personal attacks that make the puerile Bush-bashing by Howard Dean and seem complimentary in contrast. One of the favorite insults for Lincoln was “the original gorilla,” an allusion to speculations at the time about the Darwinian missing link. Lincoln’s striking ugliness was a constant source of amusement for his political enemies and even his political kin. The New York Times’ Paris correspondent suggested an embargo on portraits of the president in order to preserve European support for the Union: Lincoln looked like “a man condemned to the gallows,” and some French shopkeepers were selling his portrait as that of a notorious guillotined serial killer. Keep such pictures at home, the reporter advised, for “such a face is enough to ruin the best of causes.”

Partisan attacks aside, the protraction of a war that both sides thought would be over in a month jangled nerves and intensified the demand for reasons why expectations were dashed. Then as now, corruption, incompetence, and bad character, along with treachery, were the easiest explanations. But mostly, the blame was Lincoln’s for spending a million dollars a day for so little result. “The people,” William Cullen Bryant thundered in 1862, “have seen armies unused in the field perish in pestilential swamps. They have seen their money wasted in long winter encampments, or frittered away on fruitless expeditions along the coast. They have seen a huge debt roll up, yet no prospect of greater military results.” Wendell Phillips, the great abolitionist orator, pointed the finger more directly at the White House: “The North has poured out its blood and money like water; it has leveled every fence of constitutional privilege, and Abraham Lincoln sits today a more unlimited despot than the world knows this side of China. What does he render for this unbounded confidence? Show us something, or I tell you that within two years the indignant reaction of the people will hurl the Cabinet in contempt from their seats.”

Phillips’ reference to Lincoln as an “unlimited despot” raises another instructive comparison with the present: the contraction of civil liberties. Despite the hysteria of the ACLU and the civil liberties fundamentalists, nothing we’ve seen so far comes close to the measures taken by Lincoln, which included suspending habeas corpus, closing down opposition newspapers, and jailing editors. Nor was Congress loath to use its power to punish those deemed insufficiently loyal or competent, whatever Constitutional rights were ignored. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, chaired by an ardent abolitionist, summoned generals to its basement meeting room to answer anonymous charges without the benefit of Constitutional guarantees. After the disaster in October1861 at Ball’s Bluff up the Potomac River, where the North lost nearly a thousand casualties (a huge number in those days before the carnage of Shiloh), the general in command, Charles Stone, was accused of outright treachery and then locked away without a trial. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton once told a man demanding release of a friend similarly locked away for treason, “If I tap that little bell, I can send you to a place where you will never hear the dogs bark.” The Republic, of course, survived these temporary assaults on civil liberties, which rather than continuing to contract have expanded over the years to include activities that would have horrified the Founders.

History comforts us with these reminders that the behaviors that so annoy both the supporters and the critics of the current conflict are typical of a society at war, especially a democracy in which the military is subjected to control and audit by civilian power. Thus it has always been, ever since the Athenian people executed eight victorious admirals for failing to collect the dead after the sea-battle at Arginusae in 406 BC. So what we are going through now is what we should expect, particularly in a mid-term election year (as was 1862), when the party out of power is eager for victory, and the party in power is eager for reelection. But history also reveals something novel about our own predicament –– the unrealistic expectations of a therapeutic culture that refuses to accept the tragic limitations of human action and that prizes psychic and material comfort over everything else.

Such attitudes are nowhere to be found in 1862. Whereas contemporary critics obsess over casualties, declare failure halfway through the war, and demand that we give up before the issue is decided, the critics back then for the most part were angry not about soldiers dying but about a lack of aggressiveness. Their carping and nitpicking, as the statements of Bryant and Phillips indicate, were driven by the demand that their side do whatever it took to win and win quickly –– not, as with most of our contemporary critics, by a dissatisfaction with the usual brutal costs of war. McClellan’s caution earned him the love of his troops, but led to his downfall because his lack of offensive aggression, while it kept his men alive, cost several chances for victory, particularly when his army was entrenched before Richmond, faced by a rebel army it outnumbered by more than a fourth. The 2000 dead in today’s war that convinces critics the whole enterprise is a misguided, costly failure are a bit more than the toll of Union dead at one battle: Shiloh, the first of numerous horrendous, large-scale battles that would ultimately cost 600,000 dead and millions more disabled. Our ancestors understood that, as Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest put it, “War means fighting. And fighting means killing.” If we have an army, then at some point it will have to fight, and that means people are going to die.

Many today, however, don’t believe that war is ever justified; their criticisms thus reflect a stealth pacifism that history shows is a luxury purchased by those who will kill for the benefit of those who won’t. Others think that violence can be used to achieve our aims without any mistakes, any setbacks, any bad decisions, or anybody suffering, including our enemies. The messy, unpredictable reality of human nature and action is ignored in favor of a utopian delusion that force can be used with the precision and predictability of a surgeon removing a tumor. More important, these therapeutic utopians demand that suffering be kept to a minimum approaching zero, that no images appear on their televisions and in their newspapers that will make them feel bad. These expectations, of course, set a standard for using force that can never be met, as we see in the current war, where casualties of both troops and civilians have been remarkably low in historical terms, yet nonetheless critics howl over every death as evidence of incompetence or callous indifference.

Lincoln certainly did not have such illusions about war. When people in Union-occupied New Orleans complained about the harsh policies of general Benjamin Butler––he hanged a man who had torn down the Union flag, and he seized the assets and cotton even of pro-Union planters––Lincoln showed no sympathy. “The true remedy,” he wrote, “does not lie in rounding the rough angles of the war, but in removing the necessity of war.” That some suffer, perhaps even unjustly, during the conduct of a war is no argument for not fighting: “Would you drop the war where it is?” he asked rhetorically. “Or would you prosecute it in future with elder-stalk squirts charged with rose-water? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones? Would you give up the contest, leaving any available means unapplied?” He concluded in terms that would horrify our modern tender sensibilities: “ I shall do no more than I can, and I shall do all I can.”

Lincoln was as good as his word, finally getting rid of McClellan and putting in charge U. S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, who like the President understood the tragic nature of war, what Lincoln called the “terrible arithmetic”: killing some today so that more don’t die tomorrow. We, on the other hand, demand that the “rough angles of war” be smoothed away, believe that “lighter blows” are preferable to decisive heavy ones, pretend that we really don’t have to kill some today because we’re ready to gamble that more won’t die tomorrow, and are eager to abandon the struggle because the tragic, eternal realities of conflict disturb our psychic well-being.

This is the difference between 1862 and 2006 that offers little comfort, for we are facing a jihadist enemy fanatical in his devotion to his cause and counting precisely on our failure of nerve to compensate for his military weakness. He knows very well that our therapeutic sensibilities hinder us from doing all we can to win, and from reckoning with the “terrible arithmetic” the cost of achieving our aims. Fortunately, our military is made up of a very different breed, and their skill and devotion still give us a good chance for victory. Time will tell whether or not they are enough.

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