Another American civil war?

I’ve heard people on the left and right for a few years now threatening or predicting a civil war. If Trump is re-elected. Or if he is not. Sometimes they follow that up with something about the end of the world.

Now, civil war is a ruinous thing to be avoided if at all possible, and we’ve known that since the dawn of historiography. Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War dissects the party politics, passions, even the changes in language, of the civil strife that brought an end to the golden age of Athens. Four centuries later, internal polarization and violence undid late-Second-Temple Judaism: the rabbis later identified the cause of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans as sinat chinam “causeless hatred” – among our fellow Jews. (And how often have we heard that cautionary assessment of late!) Had the losses of World War II not eclipsed it, the Russian Civil War that followed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 would be remembered as the most destructive conflict in history within one country. Its pogroms alone were unprecedented – again, the enormities of the Holocaust were to consign them to near oblivion. What of America?

They taught us something resembling American history back in school and they did it badly. People should know what the terms they bandy about really mean, so I’ve been educating myself recently on the American Civil War of 1861-1865. There is no shortage of good books about it. Drew Gilpin Faust’s masterpiece, This Republic of Suffering, deals with the scale and character of death in the war and how it affected the living. It is one of the best written and most moving books I’ve ever read. Erik Larson’s new book on the war, The Demon of Unrest, is quite good, though it is marred by a wrongheaded and polemical preface about the demonstration of January 6th, 2021 at the Capitol. Iver Bernstein’s classic, The New York City Draft Riots, is an example of how to write political and social history and make them mesh. James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird, which my brother recommended, is told by a Black kid caught up in John Brown’s abolitionist campaign. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a casus belli. The novel is very witty indeed, and in my view is a must read. Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The Civil War,” was justifiably the most popular series of its kind ever. Over a quarter century on, it’s still superb.

Slavery was first and last the cause of the Civil War. This country was founded on the single truth that all men are created equal, but slavery made a mockery of that declaration, and its persistence as the central “peculiar institution” of the Southern states made war perhaps inevitable. The war was the most destructive and traumatic event in American history: the deaths of approximately 800,000 soldiers accounted for two percent of the then-population of the Union and Confederacy. There is no record of the number of civilian deaths, but it was also very large. Are there parallels between American society today and that which existed in the era of the Civil War? Are those factors warning signs? How likely is a civil war now, what would it be like, and what specific dangers would it pose? Can it be averted?

These are very large questions that a brief essay like this cannot hope to encompass; and besides, the predictions one offers, however avowedly speculative, would depart from the sobriety of history and verge inescapably on unlicensed prophecy. Still the topic is of such importance as to justify the audacious risk of an essay. Society is very sharply divided now, though the evil of slavery is, thankfully, no longer an issue. Conservatives today perceive an intrusive and entrenched Federal bureaucracy answerable only to itself, and allied to monopoly capital, engaged in imposing upon the country a radical political, economic, and cultural agenda. This assessment, right or wrong, would correspond, grosso modo, to the way agrarian Southerners and other Democrats committed to states’ rights regarded the over-reaching Republican apparatus and program of Lincoln and the industrial colossus of the North that supported him. Mutual mistrust and belligerence made it impossible on the eve of the Civil War to introduce or even discuss acceptable reform with a view towards eliminating slavery and according civil and human rights to Black Americans. Bellicose rhetoric replaced conversation.

Polarization is nearly as stark now as it was then, and similar battle lines have been drawn: the Northeast and the bi-coastal urban centers versus small-town and agrarian America and the Bible Belt, the latter roughly corresponding to the states of the old Confederacy. Dialogue seems impossible. The recent debate between the two presidential candidates, Biden and Trump, exemplifies the ferocity of the divide. Neither man even pretended the minimal civility one should demand of a public servant, nor was there even the semblance of a conversation, a meeting of minds, a mutual concern about and love for the country itself. One cannot help but compare this to the warlike pronouncements and violence in the decade leading up to Secession – the attack on Sumner on the Senate floor, Bleeding Kansas, the infamous Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s raid.

For five days in mid-July 1863 mobs of New York City industrial workers, most of them young Irish Catholic men, rioted against a new law introducing compulsory conscription into the Union army. They seized and tortured their victims to death by unspeakable means, and burned down homes, shops, and factories. It is a dark episode that still shocks me, a native New Yorker. The rioters refused to be drafted into a war that had come to be defined by the commitment to end slavery: they mistrusted the white, Protestant liberal power elite of Lincoln and the Republican Party. They feared that the emancipation of blacks would end up taking away their jobs. They were already a underclass, and did not want the liberation of the only class that was socially and legally beneath even them. There was another factor reflecting the economic and class divide: the new law provided for exemption from the draft upon payment of $300, a sum then affordable only to the rich.

The racial aspect of the riots of 1863 is perhaps not as pronounced today. Supporters of Trump include many members of minorities in their ranks, and the racial war that one thinks BLM and Antifa and their sponsors tried to stoke has not come about. Yet the resentment of middle-class populists against the wealthy conglomerate of Big Tech, the media, academia, and their ilk today is palpable and perhaps similar. The draft riots ended because the Union victory at Gettysburg a fortnight earlier allowed the government to move military units north from Pennsylvania to New York to suppress them. It is an unsettling consideration.

In the Revolution of 1776, much of New York remained loyal to King George III. Supposing the Confederate army had won the day at Gettysburg: it might have marched on northwards and the city might have welcomed the troops of Robert E. Lee. The Union would have probably lost the war. An American Jew named Ward Moore published a brilliant alternative-historical novel, Bring The Jubilee, in which just that nightmare scenario ushers in a Southern victory. The novel came out in 1947, the year my parents of blessed memory were married. But had he been a generation younger, that fellow New Yorker and Hebrew brother and I could have been friends. He, too, was suspected of Communist leanings, and he, too, migrated here to California as his life lengthened into obscurity after its brilliant dawn.

But Red or not, you’ll not find the NYC Draft Riots praised by Marxist historians. The rioters had class consciousness, all right, but it was of the wrong kind. Lumpenproletariat is the easy, dismissive term with which one might label them. But come to think about it, they were not unique. The Russian urban proletariat half a century later, that “vanguard” of the Revolution, didn’t care about the peasantry out on the farm either. Expropriation of food under “War Communism” and, later, Stalinist collectivization condemned the farmers of Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and other regions of the USSR to a savage new serfdom, a fate grimmer in some respects than that of the Southern Black sharecroppers of the Jim Crow decades here. Today’s Americans need not worry about farmers. They’re disappearing: China’s buying up our farmland and one food factory after another goes up in flames. Soon we won’t have farmers, populist or otherwise, to be afraid of and mistreat.

What would a second Civil War in America look like? Well, for a start, most of the country in 1860 was agrarian. New York and some other industrial powerhouses stood out from the average panorama. The railroad and telegraph existed, but nobody relied upon electric power lines, water mains, or gasoline as we do today: light bulbs, running water, and automobiles were in the future. In most of America, you got water out of wells, grew the food you ate, and rode a horse on dirt roads if you needed to get somewhere. By contrast, the average American today can’t survive without electricity, running water, heat, food from the supermarket and a car to bring it home in. No Amazon? No internet? Try taking away your teenage kid’s cellphone for a day. (That’s only a rhetorical suggestion.)

Add breakdowns of the financial infrastructure, health care, and just about everything else that distinguishes modern man from his medieval forebears. Then add modern weaponry, the only thing that won’t break down in a civil war. How many could die? Half of the population of Leningrad perished during the 900-day Nazi blockade in World War II – just under two and a half years. How long will a new civil war last? Let’s estimate about the same time as 1861-1865: four years. Let’s say two-thirds of Americans die, of violence, starvation, and disease – since, mind you, we are a lot less self-reliant and resilient than we were back then. There are what, 330 million of us? So, 220 million dead. That’s if foreign powers don’t take advantage of our weakness and disunity to invade and spark a nuclear war, in which case the “End Times” and “Apocalypse” one often hears mentioned in the same breath as “Civil War” kick in and the human race, as a whole, either ceases to exist altogether or becomes a very minor species indeed on the ravaged planet. For in 1862, Britain and France looked fair to recognize the Confederacy and intervene in our affairs. It is plausibly argued that Lincoln promulgated the proclamation of Emancipation to forestall such intervention by making the issue of the war explicitly slavery and thereby embarrassing European powers into inaction.

The above considerations lead one to conclude that if this Republic descends into a civil war, the burning issues that aroused convictions of such passionate intensity before it will come in retrospect to be viewed with wistful nostalgia as the quaint and naive luxuries of an unrecoverable, paradisiacal age. The epigones of Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots perhaps thought similarly of their erstwhile ideologies as they contemplated the smoldering embers of the devastated Second Temple, in a city from which our tribe were to be exiled for two millennia. Whatever the issue, it was not worth the cost of civil war.

That is to say, let us stop the loose talk about civil war and try to find common ground while there is still time. We need to learn to act once again as the responsible adults to whom the Founding Fathers bequeathed “a Republic, if you can keep it.” I include myself in this. I am as guilty as any man.

With malice towards none. Surely it was for that our common Creator endowed us, and all His children, everywhere, with certain inalienable rights, amongst which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And that is what a New York Jew growing old here in central California has to say about the shape of things to come. It is a well-founded warning, but it is not without hope.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.