What they thought of the Civil War as depicted...


October 06, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ASK PEOPLE what they thought of the Civil War as depicted on the PBS series, and they say, "great!" "terrific!" "wonderful!" They should say "awful!" "horrible!" "sickening!"

More Americans died in the Civil War than in World War II, and our population was only a fifth as large. There were about a million casualties in a nation of 31 million.

But the war was inevitable, some say. And its goal was so noble! And the long-range outcome was to save the world for democracy! So it was worth the carnage!

Maybe, maybe not. Historians have been arguing for over a century if the war was, in their favorite term, "irrepressible." Nobody knows. I agree with what one of my favorite historians, T. Harry Williams, once said: "Perhaps it was an irrepressible conflict. There may have been no other way to remove the evil of slavery than by a collision of the sections. But still we must think the war might have been averted by some compromise before it started. Admittedly a compromise would have only bought time, but time can be vital in the settling of disputes." And in the saving of young lives.

Many historians believe slavery would have soon ended without war. Lincoln offered to live with it till the Twentieth Century. I doubt if I would have given my life to abolish or to preserve it. I know I wouldn't have given a son's life.

The other argument is that the North fought not for Abolition but Union, and that if there had not been a mighty United States of America today, a brutal Imperial or Nazi Germany might rule the world. I just want to say two words about that: bah loney. No one can predict with confidence how history would change over a century if this or that had been different.

But if you like to play this game, I recommend the 1931 book, "If, Or History Rewritten." Various essayists pretend how history would have turned out if. Winston Churchill twisted the joke around a little in "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg." Churchill's "real" world had developed this way (but would not have if Lee had lost, which, of course, in reality he did):

The South won the war. It promptly abolished slavery. Then it conquered Mexico. The North meanwhile became ever richer and stronger. The two countries grew fond of each other again. In 1905, the presidents of the two countries, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and Britain's Prime Minister Arthur Balfour signed the Covenant of the English-Speaking Association. This created an entity known popularly as the "Re-United States." It was so powerful and wise that by military preparedness and diplomacy it prevented World War I. It would, of course, also have prevented World War II.

Some such history may not have occurred if Lee had won at Gettysburg, or if war had never come at all because there had been a compromise solution in 1861 or because there had been peaceful secession. But it may have. Nobody knows.

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