Mainstream Civil War history

I listened to this podcast (iTunes) from the author of this book the other day.

I think it will be instructive to sketch out his theory of Civil War history.

Goldfield, our author, suggests that the Civil War was caused by religious zealotry in the North. The religious zealots could not stand slavery. Their religiousness made them willing to go to great lengths to perfect their society – this meant ending slavery by force, if necessary.

I’ve covered this before – abolitionism is obviously the cause of the war though it’s currently fashionable to blame “slavery” while ignoring the fact that every other slave-holding country ended slavery without resorting to the mass slaughter of its own citizenry and that slavery had existed in the US for a very long time without requiring mass slaughter.

One point for Goldfield for correctly understanding the causes of the war.

Goldfield’s story gets absurd when he discusses the end of the war. He believes that after 4 years of war that killed the modern equivalent of 10 million people, Northerners gave up their religious extremism, went home, and started the industrial revolution. (Harriet Beecher Stowe became a Episcopalian, he said – which is a lovely anecdote).

That’s mainstream history for you. They prosecuted the war to an incredibly bloody and destructive end in the name of their religion and then decided to drop their religion. How can anyone who has ever met any real-life people believe this?

Instead, what happened was that the Northerners continued to try to perfect the conquered South. The results were devastating and continued for years. Read the intro to this book for the best short description that I’ve found. Only after many more years of failure and destruction – and how could they not fail at making model citizens out of people who were just removed from slavery? – did the Northerners give up. Ignoring the tragedy of reconstruction is fashionable, but inexcusable.

Later Goldfield goes on to suggest that Southerners adopted the Northern religious extremism, as conquered societies often adopt the views of their conquerors. This explains the backwardness of Southerners today, you see. Unfortunately, Goldfield does not consider the much more likely explanation of events. Violently religious people don’t simply stop believing. However, religions may transform over time. The new form of that same old religion is the reason why Goldfield can’t discuss reconstruction and feels comfortable mocking Southerners.


24 Responses to Mainstream Civil War history

  1. Handle says:

    The most under-taught part of American History is the post-bellum period. The rise of Radical Republicans, their finally obtaining true power with Grant’s election after (Democrat) Johnson’s attempt at moderation, the cruel details of Reconstruction and the dozen years of martial law and military occupation, the effect of the economic panic of 1873, the Compromise of 1877, and the Redeemer era.

    In my education – I recall the shortness of the text and curriculum covering the four decades after the war – just a brief mention that there was something called “Reconstruction” and then some of that “Westward Expansion” and “Industrial Revolution” and “Railroads” then “Spanish-American war” and then “Progressive era” (‘natch) and finally the path to WWI.

    At some point though – it’s true enough – a lot of Northern Liberals ceased in their zealous obsessiveness about improving the condition of American blacks and turned their attention to other matters and priorities – not really seriously revisiting the issue with that characteristic religious passion until the post-WWII era. It’s a good question as to why and how this happened.

  2. Fake Herzog says:

    I’m reading this mainstream history right now:

    so this is a fun blog topic.

    I disagree, at least partially, with your analysis of the cause of the Civil War. Of course it is true that if no one in the U.S. wanted to end slavery, there would never have been a Civil War, so in that sense, yes, obviously abolitionism was a huge factor in starting the war. But, you ignore how aggressive the slave states were in wanting to expand their slave power — the real battle in the early 19th century between the North and South was over the expansion of slavery, not whether or not slavery would end in the South. McPherson has some great little sketches of the filibusters who invaded various Central American countries on behalf of the South to establish slave colonies. William Walker was the most famous in Nicaragua. He was a hero in the South.

    Now I suppose you could argue all of that aggressiveness was in response to the North, but it seems like a tough chicken and egg question — after all, you don’t have the British slave colonies aggressively wanting to expand after Britian outlaws the slave trade.

    • Foseti says:

      Did the North invade the South to end slavery or did the South invade the North to keep it?

      I don’t think it’s possible to understand the whole of the Civil War – including Reconstruction, of course – if you don’t answer that question by saying that the North invaded the South to end slavery.

      Or put another way, who is the Southern equivalent of John Brown?

      • Handle says:

        You could make a shaky claim that some of the Missouri Border-Ruffians during the Bleeding Kansas days would fit the bill – and that they are mostly forgotten because we don’t lionize them like we do John Brown. You could get into arguments about who provoked whom, but I think those are unlikely to be productive.

        One of the key issues to addressing your question is to address the sequencing of the beginning of the war. The Southern States (reading the writing on the wall) preemptively succeeded nearly five months before the war began upon the mere election of Abraham Lincoln and four months before he and Republican allies took office and could change any federal laws regarding slavery.

        Buchanan felt that the federal government had no enumerated authority (what a quaint consideration!) to fight the partitioning of the nation (“Civil War” is not quite a technically correct term, since the opposition forces were not fighting each other for exclusive control over a single, undivided entity – one side wanted independence, the other wanted to prevent it). He didn’t comply with Southern demands for all Federal forces to immediately abandon their positions in the newly-formed CSA. And after a siege the foolish Battle of Fort Sumter provoked the greater conflict – and the invasion to “preserve the union”.

        When you look at the initial sequence – I think the origin of hostilities is more than “invade to end slavery” though that’s what it became soon enough. If in some alternative universe the Southerners had merely tolerated and the presence of the small number of federal forces and dealt with the threat of attack by them by building defenses and physically neutralizing the capability for coordinated offensive action, they might have bought enough time to continue the “peace conference” process and arrived at some negotiated compromise of reconciliation.

      • Foseti says:

        Charles Francis Adams makes the case ( that Virginia did not secede until after the North invaded the South. He’s a great source, since he fought for the North.

      • Missouri bushwhackers were the Southern equivalent of John Brown.

  3. dearieme says:

    “who is the Southern equivalent of John Brown?”

    Equivalent, you mean, in the sense of being a terrorist?

  4. Northern abolitonism certainly inflamed the South, but Southern legal aggression- Dred Scott- inflamed the North as least as much. Northerners, and midwesterners and westerners, did not mind slavery in the South, but they wanted to keep it there. Dred Scott made it impossible for them to start and grow a free soil society in the West. Roger Taney was probably going to rule with Lemon v. New York that it was unconstitutional to ban slavery anywhere.

    Slavery represented an existential threat to American society; blacks then as now represent an existential threat to American society. Free soil Americans didn’t want slave-owning Southerners, slaves, or free blacks anywhere near them, for good reason.

    • Eumaios says:

      Would Taney have been, if we deign to consider the actual legal situation, correct?

    • K(yle) says:

      Yeah, there is more than a religious zealot inspiration for not wanting slavery around. The slave-holders represent the pro-illegal immigration business equivalent of their day.

      They stacked the government in favor of their business practices and then compelled non-interested parties to police their labor force in the case of runaway slaves in the name of the law, property rights and freedom.

      Slavery as business most Americans probably didn’t care about, but slavery as a social institution we are all supposed to care about because the slave-holding wealthy control the federal government is a completely different matter.

  5. Fake Herzog says:

    I think thrasymachus33308 makes a number of good points. Let’s imagine an alternate history that has the North allowing the CSA to go their own way. You still have the future fraught with peril as the two side fight over the territories and over slaves who make their way North, which by the way, would be become a huge issue for the North as abolistionist would probably continue to encourage slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad.

    I could see moderate Northerns turning against the abolitionists, but I could also imagine fireeaters in the South overplaying their hand and invading at some point to recover stolen “property” and sparking an eventual war.

    I just don’t see the two sides living in harmony together for long without war…as Lincoln famously argued eventually the U.S. was going to be all slave or all free.

  6. Doug1 says:

    Lincoln was elected on a platform of not allowing any new slave states into the union. They would have to renounce slavery to join. This was widely seen in the north and especially in the south as a strategy of eventually voting slavery out of existence in the Senate – the north already had the House.

    Hence the South decided to secede, state by state, beginning with South Carolina, and then formed a loose confederacy. Lincoln was determined to go to war to preserve the Union if necessary, but he tried to talk southern states out of doing it first. When S. Carolina forces attacked federal Ft. Sumpter in Charleston harbor as a preemptive move, Lincoln got Congress to declare war on the confederacy 1) to preserve the union (this had the most popular appeal in the north), 2) to fight for rights (and wages) of free labor (ditto), and then 3) eventually, to end slavery during or at least immediately after the war, through his Emancipation Proclamation, midway through the civil war.

    Lincoln had pledged not to wage a war to end slavery during his election campaign. But he hadn’t pledged to not wage a war to preserve the Union.

  7. Doug1 says:


    I’ve covered this before – abolitionism is obviously the cause of the war though it’s currently fashionable to blame “slavery” while ignoring the fact that every other slave-holding country ended slavery without resorting to the mass slaughter of its own citizenry and that slavery had existed in the US for a very long time without requiring mass slaughter.

    Only a small percentage of northerners were outright abolitionists, and these were located mainly in New England and New York City. Abolitionism was regarded at the time as extremism, manly because they advocated going to war if necessary to end slavery. Most northerners were against slavery for various reasons – among the more religious that it was morally wrong, and among others that it brought unfair competition to free labor and “free soil”. Northern and western farmsteaders hated the southern slave plantation model.

    The view of most northerners was that slavery was wrong, shouldn’t be extended west, but also that it wasn’t worth fight a huge war with the south over it. That was the platform Lincoln won election on.

    • Foseti says:

      The low percentage of abolitionists doesn’t mean they didn’t win out. How many people are neocons?

      Anyway, Reconstruction clearly demonstrates that radical abolitionists were firmly in control of US government.

      I can’t recommend the Charles Francis Adams speech that I linked to highly enough on these points.

      • Doug1 says:

        There was nothing novel in Sherman’s pillaging and torching plantations in his march to the sea. He didn’t give orders for the killing of women and children or unarmed men, and freeing of slave. It was strategy economic warfare, and effective. The south was running out of everything in the last year of the war.

        Marlborough, Churchhill’s ancestor, did much the same in parts of Germany during the War of the Spanish succession in the late 17th century. He was raised to Duke by the King because of this successful campaign. Similar was done by all sides in the Napoleonic wars. The Brits didn’t tend to do it to us, much, during our war of Independence. Some though in the Carolinas I believe.

      • Foseti says:

        Agreed. I think Sherman may have been the only General who really understood the war. He was certainly the only one who seemed to grasp how horrible it was.

      • Eumaios says:

        Ditto on the Adams speech. Moldbug recommended it as slow history, and I concur. Adams concedes that secession was technically legal, but accuses the southern states of foolhardiness in attempting it, on the grounds that secession must obviously result in war.

        Don’t make me hit you, he explained.

  8. Doug1 says:


    I’ve covered this before – abolitionism is obviously the cause of the war though it’s currently fashionable to blame “slavery” while ignoring the fact that every other slave-holding country ended slavery without resorting to the mass slaughter of its own citizenry and that slavery had existed in the US for a very long time without requiring mass slaughter.

    Haiti ended slavery through a massive civil war/revolution that ending up with blacks genocidally killing or ethnic cleansing all that former colony’s whites off the island, and with the same fate befalling a lot of the islands lighter skinned mulattoes.

    If southern whites weren’t going to give up slavery voluntarily a civil war was inevitable sooner or later. If they hadn’t left the union after Lincoln’s election they probably could have kept slavery for another two decades or more. That’s probably about how long it would have taken for enough new free states to enter the union and install senators that could overcome a filibuster. Then they could have either succumbed to the vote, or seceded and had the civil war then, in 180-85. Slavery really was incompatible with the Declaration of Independence, which was sort of this nation’s mission statement, along with the bill of rights.

  9. Doug1 says:


    Only after many more years of failure and destruction – and how could they not fail at making model citizens out of people who were just removed from slavery? – did the Northerners give up.

    Around the world historically most groups that have been enslaved bounce back to societal normal levels with a couple of generations from what I’ve seen, and I follow history a good lot. I can’t think of any, other than blacks here and elsewhere in the Americas that haven’t. I think it’s largely genetic, which feeds into cultural differences. Part of black culture is a reflection of being on the bottom rug of American society since emancipation, but that hasn’t changed fundamentally because of genetic differences leading to lower IQ, greater aggression, and lower time horizons than other groups in this country. Though heavily Amerindian low slice peasant Mexican illegals are close.

    Left liberal excuse making for blacks which has been promulgated by the MSM since the middle sixties, with it very un PC and “racist, racist, racist” for conservative outlets, which are pretty much limited to Fox News and the WSJ opinion page (not the rest of the paper) among large audience outlets.

    I’ve been moving to a place where I think that most anti discrimination laws should be repealed. I’m not talking about only affirmative action, disparate impact, minority government contracting and hiring set asides, and so on. Not the most clear cut forms of employment or educational discrimination. That should stay. But housing discrimination should go. People should be able to choose to live amongst who they want to, and the government shouldn’t have policies that make it very expensive for whites to price all problematic blacks out of their housing market, and then subvert even that with section 8 housing.

  10. icr says:

    Apparently Nordhoff was a “race does not exist” guy:

    In Mississippi alone did I find politicians
    silly enough to talk about the Caucasian race, and the natural incapacity of the negro for self-government ; and even there the best Republicans told me that these noisy Democratic demagogues were but a small,though aggressive and not unpowerful, minority.

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