BECK index

How Lincoln Could Have Prevented Civil War

by Sanderson Beck

Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary man with many wonderful qualities. He is greatly admired by many and is generally considered one of America’s greatest Presidents. Since the era of the founding fathers, he is certainly one of the most influential Americans. Yet he was President during a brutal Civil War in which an estimated 625,000 Americans died. This is nearly as many as all the Americans who have died in all the other wars of the United States. Although Lincoln was obviously not the only cause of the Civil War, he was probably more responsible for the nature of the war than any other individual.

The purpose of this essay is to examine briefly how President Lincoln handled this crisis and then to learn the lessons of history by imagining how he might have prevented the military conflict that had such terrible consequences. By looking at the probable consequences of other policies we may be able to find ways to resolve conflicts more successfully, especially now in an age when total war could mean mass suicide.

The horrible institution of slavery was obviously the issue that provoked the conflict between the southern slave states and the northern states, where slavery had been almost completely abolished by 1860. Lincoln was a politician, and he did not consider himself a radical abolitionist. Lincoln definitely hated slavery, and he believed it is wrong. He took the political position that slavery was authorized by the United States Constitution in the states where it already existed; but he strongly opposed extending it into the territories of the United States or to other states. He made this policy clear in his speeches and reiterated it in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. By then seven states had already seceded from the United States and had formed the Confederate States of America. It is ironic that the slave states would have had a better chance of preserving their nefarious institution if they had remained in the Union during Lincoln’s presidency. But Lincoln represented the new Republican party that was formed by northerners, and he was the first President to be strongly opposed to the extension of slavery. In the election of 1860 he was one of four candidates and won a majority in the electoral college even though he got less than forty percent of the popular vote.

Many politicians in both the South and the North believed in the sovereignty of the states that had come together after the War of Independence to form a “more perfect Union” under the Constitution of the United States of America. In 1776 the thirteen colonies had essentially seceded from the British empire in order to establish that sovereignty and to make sure that they were not taxed without representation. The US Constitution does not mention secession, does not state that the Union is to be perpetual, and defines no procedure for states to withdraw or become independent. Many abolitionists had advocated that northern states could secede in order to form a nation that would be free of slave states. During the transition between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration the Buchanan administration allowed seven of the southern states to withdraw.

John Pendleton Kennedy, an ex-congressman from Maryland, advocated a “separate confederacy of the border states” in his pamphlet The Border States, which was published on December 15, 1860. On January 2, 1861 Governor Thomas Hicks of Maryland took the position that a central confederacy of border states could solve Maryland’s problems. On that day he met with three members of a Union meeting and wrote to Governor William Burton of Delaware. Hicks also wrote to the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Missouri, and Ohio about the idea of forming a central confederacy if the Federal Union were disrupted. Like many, Governor Hicks opposed the use of force to keep Maryland or any other state in the Union. While the seven states in the deep South were seceding, the border slave states of Maryland and Delaware were considering seceding and forming a Central Confederacy with New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Many Democrats and newspapers in these five states advocated this proposal until Fort Sumter was attacked by the forces of South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Then sentiment in the northern states quickly turned to patriotic support for the Union and its war against the southern rebels. Believing that the war made peaceful secession impossible, they abandoned the plan for a central confederacy.

Then why did seven southern states secede when Lincoln had promised to protect slavery in their states and even enforce the controversial Fugitive Slave Law in the other states? The South also felt exploited by the North because of the high tariffs that were the largest source of Federal taxation that resulted in southern taxes being used in other parts of the country. As a former Whig, Lincoln was a strong advocate of high protective tariffs. The Morrill Tariff Act was passed on March 2, 1861, and tariffs were increased early in Lincoln’s presidency to raise revenues to pay for the war. Politicians are naturally ambitious, and the southern politicians also wanted to control their own destiny. Some had imperial ambitions to enlarge their new nation by expanding into territories and by conquering Cuba and portions of Mexico. They did not want their slave states to be restricted by Lincoln’s policies.

South Carolina seceded on December 24, 1860, and by February 1, 1861 Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had also voted and declared secession. Six days later these seven states adopted a constitution for the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama, and they elected Jefferson Davis president. If these were revolutions, they were quite peaceful so far. They went through some democratic process by conventions and in the state legislatures, and apparently their state governments accepted the new nation with little resistance.

The most difficult bones of contention became the federal forts and installations in the southern states and the collection of tariff revenues in southern ports. The Federal forces in Charleston harbor withdrew from other forts and moved into the most defensible Fort Sumter, which was a customs house used to collect duties. South Carolina had sent three commissioners, who had arrived in Washington on December 26 to negotiate a treaty between the new republic and the United States in order to resolve disputes over the forts, the arsenal, and lighthouses, to divide the public property and apportion the public debt, and to settle any other issues necessary to establishing South Carolina as an independent state. President Buchanan took the weak position that he had no authority to decide any of these questions, and he declined to make any preparations to fight over them. In fact by his negligence some weapons of the United States were moved to the South by their sympathizers in his Democratic administration.

Lincoln took the strong position, which some would call tyrannical, that states have no right to secede from the Union. He believed it was his obligation as President to enforce the laws that would keep the states in the Union even against their will as expressed by democratic conventions and state legislatures. His policy is ironic and even hypocritical because this position conflicts with Lincoln’s own doctrine of the right of revolution that he expressed in Congress on January 12, 1848 during the Mexican War when he said,

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power,
have the right to rise up
and shake off the existing government
and form a new one that suits them better.
This is a most valuable—a most sacred right—
a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.
Nor is this right confined to cases in which
the whole people of an existing government
may choose to exercise it.
Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize
and make their own so much of the territory as they inhabit.
More than this, a majority of any portion of such people
may revolutionize, putting down a minority,
intermingled with or near about them,
who may oppose their movement.
Such minority was precisely the case
of the Tories of our own revolution.
It is a quality of revolutions not to go
by old lines or old laws,
but to break up both and make new ones.

In his inaugural address President Lincoln warned against a civil war while promising that he would not invade the South. Yet he indicated that the Federal Government would continue to occupy its property in the South and would attempt to collect “duties and imposts.” He promised he would not impose “obnoxious strangers” in Federal offices in hostile regions. The mails would continue unless repelled. He called for “a peaceful solution of the national troubles and the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections.” However, in his view this came to mean only by the retention of the states in the Union.

Early in his presidency Lincoln rejected the option of letting the southern states withdraw peacefully. He took the position that secession is illegal and that the use of force against the Federal Government was rebellion and treason against the United States. He refused to recognize the Confederate States as legal entities and would not let anyone in his administration negotiate with their representatives. He also rejected an offer of mediation by Napoleon III of France. In March 1861 Jefferson Davis sent peace commissioners to Washington with an offer to pay for all Federal property in the South and to take on the southern portion of the national debt. However, Lincoln refused even to acknowledge them, thus blocking any attempt to resolve the conflicts by peaceful means. He took the hard line that the southern states must return to the Union. Unless they did so, or unless he relinquished the forts and tariffs, it became inevitable that the two sides would fight. His position has been compared to that of the British empire, which demanded that their American colonists pay their taxes.

Lincoln was careful to avoid beginning the war with an attack. However, he managed to instigate an attack on Fort Sumter by refusing to negotiate with South Carolina or to withdraw Federal forces from there. He informed the government of South Carolina that he was sending in supplies to his besieged men with the warning that he would retaliate against an attack. President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet authorized the attack by the forces of South Carolina that began the fighting. Lincoln had provoked it by insisting on keeping control over Federal forts in their territory. He took the position that a minority who lost an election should not be allowed to withdraw from the nation, and he jumped to the erroneous conclusion that to do so would destroy democracy. Yet from the other point of view, he was denying democracy to the seceding states. If he had recognized their right to be independent states, surely both nations could have co-existed as republics. I do not believe that we should be blind to these democratic rights, as he was, simply because we believe that slavery is wrong or because we have a desire that the Union should be perpetual. Clearly the main motive for the South’s withdrawal from the Union was a bad one, but that does not mean that they did not have sovereign rights as states.

Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for three months to add to the small Union army of 17,000, and he proclaimed a naval blockade of southern ports in May, excluding even drugs and medicine. By June 8 the states of Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee had also seceded and joined the Confederate States. On June 26 the New York Tribune published “The Nation’s War Cry,” urging capture of the new Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The next day the Republican Chicago Tribune repeated the same cry. Nearly four years later on February 23, 1865 when Chicago Tribune editor Joseph Medill and others pleaded with Lincoln not to draft more men, the President reminded them that Chicago was one of the cities that had called for war, and he told them to go home and raise the men. The Union Army began robbing and plundering in the disastrous battle at Manassas (or Bull Run) on July 21, 1861, and the next day Lincoln called for the enlistment of 500,000 men for three years. This military victory gave the South hope that they could win the war despite their disadvantages because they believed the northerners would eventually give up the task as not worth the costs. However, Lincoln had extraordinary determination, and he eventually found generals ruthless enough to win battles while suffering enormous losses. During the Civil War about 2,100,000 men served in the Union Army, and about 850,000 were in the Confederate Army.

On April 22 Rev. Richard Fuller had led a delegation of 35 delegates of the Young Men’s Christian Association from Baltimore, and he asked President Lincoln to avoid war by recognizing the independence of the southern states; but Lincoln obstinately referred to Washington, Jackson, and manhood in refusing to consider a peaceful approach. He complained that people in Baltimore had harassed Federal troops on their way to Washington, and five days later he suspended the writ of habeas corpus so that such people could be arrested without being charged with a crime. Conflicts in Missouri led to the imposition of martial law there. In May a list of more than a hundred newspapers that opposed the war was published, and Lincoln ordered Postmaster General Blair to deny those papers mail delivery, the usual means of circulating newspapers at that time. President Lincoln widened the suspension of habeas corpus, and during the summer of 1861 Maryland legislators who favored secession were imprisoned so that they could not even meet to decide the issue. Lincoln was a pragmatic commander-in-chief, and he was afraid that if Maryland seceded, his capital at Washington would be surrounded by Virginia and Maryland. General Nathaniel Banks reported to Lincoln that every Maryland legislator who advocated peace had been arrested, and in their November elections judges were instructed to disallow votes for candidates who opposed the war. Peace Party ballots were a different color so that they could be thrown out, and those carrying them were arrested. In the first ten months of the war the Federal Government arrested 854 civilians.

After suffering several defeats by the Confederates led by General Stonewall Jackson, General John Pope began waging war on civilians in Virginia. His General Order No. 11 was issued on July 23, 1862 and required men behind Union lines to take a loyalty oath to the United States; those suspected of breaking their oath could be shot and have their property confiscated. Hundreds of southern churches were burned, and ministers who refused to pray publicly for Lincoln were imprisoned. On July 25 Pope issued General Order No. 13 which ordered soldiers not to guard private homes or property of those who were hostile to the Federal Government. This and the previous General Order No. 5 allowed Union soldiers to rob and mistreat civilians.

Two days after he announced the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus throughout the nation. Careful research by scholars, such as Mark E. Neely, Jr., indicates that during the Civil War the Federal Government imprisoned more than 14,000 civilians for opposing the Government or its war in some way. Lincoln authorized military officers to shut down newspapers if they were disrupting recruiting or the war effort. The Provost Marshal General’s Bureau was organized in 1863, and by the end of the war two years later they had arrested and returned to the Union Army 76,526 deserters. During the draft 161,286 citizens failed to report to the Union Army, but how many of them were arrested is unknown.

Lincoln also had imperial ambitions for the United States, and he used Government subsidies to finance the transcontinental railroad to the west coast. In 1862 a crop failure caused starvation among the Santee Sioux because the Federal Government refused to pay them the $1,410,000 owed them from the sale of 24 million acres in 1851. When the Sioux revolted, General John Pope tried to exterminate them. Hundreds of Indians were held as prisoners of war and were given military trials that sentenced 303 to death. President Lincoln commuted most of these sentences, but thirty-nine were put to death in the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. After Lincoln’s death under mostly Republican administrations the experienced military would be used to attack any Indians who were in the way of the railroads and the western expansion of the United States. Lincoln was ambitious on behalf of the United States and did not want to see the empire divided. He developed the power of the imperial presidency as commander-in-chief by arrogating to himself extra-constitutional “war powers.”

In 1863 at Geneva efforts were made to codify an international convention on the conduct of war, and on April 24 President Lincoln issued General Order No. 100 on proper conduct during war. Written by his advisor Franz Lieber, this was issued as “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field.” However, this code allowed military commanders to make exceptions when they believed it was necessary. Specifically the code allowed them to destroy property and withhold the means of subsistence from the enemy and to appropriate whatever the country afforded for the subsistence of the army. This code also endorsed military retaliation, and Union commanders were allowed to take hostages to deter guerrilla action.

While General George McClellan and other generals in the east tended to be more conciliatory, in the west Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and others soon began foraging and burning towns and crops. Sherman declared all people in the South enemies and traitors so that he could justify waging war against civilians. As they closed in on Vicksburg in 1863, the Union Army stripped the surrounding land in Mississippi of crops and burned the houses. Sherman ordered Jackson bombarded every five minutes day and night, and then his soldiers sacked and destroyed the city. Sherman told Grant that they had devastated the land for thirty miles around. Sherman’s forces also destroyed the city of Meridian.

In the late summer of 1864 Sherman’s army bombarded Atlanta and then destroyed ninety percent of the city. As they marched to Savannah robbing and plundering, Sherman ordered randomly chosen civilians killed in retaliation for attacks by Confederate soldiers. Because South Carolina began the secession movement, Sherman ordered his men to pillage, plunder, and sack cities there even more ruthlessly. His chaplain James Stillwell reported that a majority of the cities, villages, and county houses were burned to the ground. In late 1864 the Union cavalry led by Philip Sheridan ravaged the Shenandoah Valley by pillaging, plundering, and burning. Lincoln was overjoyed by the “victories” of Sherman and Sheridan because they assured his re-election that November.


The question I am raising is whether war was the best way to resolve these conflicts. To answer this question as best we can, let us explore various scenarios of what might have happened if Lincoln had allowed the South to secede. In the 19th century most nations in the world abolished slavery by peaceful means. The British freed all the slaves in their empire in six years, completing the process in 1840. Most Latin American nations emancipated all their slaves between 1813 and 1854, and the gradual liberation of slaves in Brazil was completed in 1888. The only other violent emancipation of slaves was the slave uprising in Haiti in 1794.

Clearly the historical trend in this era was toward emancipation and the abolition of slavery. The proportion of slaves in the population had been declining for three decades in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and most of Virginia. The American Civil War, which Lincoln called the War of the Rebellion and others called the War Between the States, cost $6.6 billion and was borne about equally by both sides. The greatest cost of the Civil War was the death of 625,000 people—one-third in combat and two-thirds by disease. In the South one out of four males between the ages of twenty and forty perished in the war. Hundreds of thousands were also wounded, and tens of thousands were crippled. Nearly forty percent of the American economy was destroyed directly by the war. From the monetary costs alone all the slaves could have been freed by compensating their former owners while providing each of the former slaves with forty acres.

If Lincoln had agreed to negotiate the settlement of the Federal installations in the seceded states and their portion of the national debt, and if he gave up the exploitative taxes, then most of the costs of the war probably could have been saved. The remaining northern states may have lost some of the wealth they were exploiting from the South by the tariffs, but that would have been a small loss compared to the war costs. The greatest advantage of a peaceful settlement would have been saving the 625,000 lives that were lost and the other injuries. One can hardly overestimate the psychological trauma caused by young men being forced to kill their fellow countrymen in miserable conditions that caused so many to die of disease. Many civilians were also killed, wounded, or imprisoned.

If some of the slave states had remained in the Union, then they would have continued as before. Gradual emancipation with compensation to the former owners might have been negotiated so that the Union would eventually have become free of slavery. The question is how long the Confederate States would have maintained their “peculiar institution” of slavery against the trend of modern history. Instead of being forced to emancipate the slaves without compensation, they could have worked out some sort of gradual emancipation eventually. Without a war surely almost all those staying in the Union would have been much better off. Also the whites in the seceded states would have been more prosperous and safe compared to the utter defeat they suffered in the war and during the military occupation referred to as “Reconstruction.”

One can argue that the slaves in the seceded states would have been worse off. Yet they also suffered in the devastating war. The southern slaves liberated by the North were given a period of twelve years to reconstruct their lives during which they were favored with exceptional political opportunities because of the Union occupation that disenfranchised the rebels. Yet the resentment of the white southerners to having this forced on them led to a strong reaction after Reconstruction was ended in 1877. The whites then developed the segregation system of Jim Crow laws that perpetuated hatred between the races for the next century. So for several generations this discrimination lowered the quality of life for the slaves’ descendants.

If there had been no war, the northern abolitionists could have found ways to help the slaves in the South, and most likely the Fugitive Slave Law would not have been enforced. If all the slave states seceded, then slaves could have run away to the northern states. One could argue that this might also have led to a war. Yet the North could simply defend its borders. It seems to me that in this situation it would have been much less likely that either side would have significantly invaded the other’s territory. The northerners might have used economic pressures to urge the southerners to emancipate their slaves. Eventually the southern states would have learned what all other countries had found out—that free labor is more productive and more socially desirable than slavery.

After the Confederate States emancipated their slaves, they would likely have wanted to be readmitted into the United States. Thus the nation could have been reunited with less resentment than after a war because the northerners would have respected the right of the southerners to exercise their own sovereignty and learn their own lessons their own way without having them forced upon them. Americans claim to value freedom greatly, but the military tradition of fighting and winning wars is the opposite of the respect for the freedom of others. The history of the United States since then would probably have been more peaceful. The United States might not have gone to war against the Spanish empire in 1898. If the United States had not gone abroad to join the useless carnage of the First World War in Europe, some historians have argued that the peace may not have caused the resentments in Germany that led to the Second World War.

Understanding this tragic flaw in Lincoln’s character that led to the terrible Civil War is especially significant because his virtues of honesty, intellect, integrity, compassion, mercy, humor, determination, diligence, and sense of justice make him one of America’s greatest heroes. His talents would have been much better put to use in using diplomatic and political skills rather than in prosecuting a brutal war. Because of Lincoln’s imperialistic approach to this crisis, the Federal Government of the United States was greatly strengthened and centralized. Without the war the people in the states would have retained more local control. He also developed the role of the President as commander-in-chief in perhaps the largest war in western civilization up to that time. This war was a transition to modern warfare in which the industries of nations are pitted against each other, and millions of people are put in harm’s way.

These lessons are important now when the United States has become bogged down in two unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When are we going to learn that it does not spread freedom to force others to do what we want? Force is the opposite of freedom. If we used a fraction of what we waste on military spending to help people in other nations, they would be our friends as well as being much more prosperous. Humanity needs to learn how to solve its conflicts in peaceful ways because otherwise we are likely to destroy ourselves and ravage the environment of this planet with the possible consequence of leaving a desolate place to those who may survive.

As Americans maybe we need to ask ourselves why we allowed the terrible injustice of slavery to lead to such a destructive war when every other nation except Haiti managed to resolve this issue without horrendous violence. Why is the United States continuing to arrogate to itself the role of policing the world with our military might? Huge military spending since World War II and especially since 1981 has led to a national debt that has passed ten trillion dollars. The United States is now spending more on the military than the rest of the world combined. The United States Government is currently teetering on the brink of bankruptcy because we have been wasting our resources and living beyond our means. Let us pray and work hard in peaceful ways so that the day of reckoning for our country can be faced and resolved without massive violence and suffering. Let us work together for a world that is peaceful, just, free, prosperous, and ecologically sustainable.

Copyright © 2008 by Sanderson Beck

Learning Politics and Law
In Congress and Out
Debating Douglas
Becoming President
Civil War Begins
Proclaiming Emancipation
War by Conscription
Getting Re-elected
Victory and Death

Lincoln Bibliography
Lincoln Chronology

BECK index