Memorial Day offers an annual remembrance of courage and sacrifice as well as the all-too-frequent foolish and counterproductive effusion of American blood. Most of the conflicts in which so many Americans died were fool's errands, wars which the U.S. should never have fought.
Few were as tragic or unnecessary as the American Civil War, which 150 years ago was grinding through its bloody final full year. Today most Western governments would not use force to stop peaceful secession -- it is impossible, for instance, to imagine the British military occupying Scotland to prevent the latter's departure from the United Kingdom. But in 1861 mystic nationalism combined with practical politics to impel President Abraham Lincoln to call out northern troops to coerce southern residents to remain in the Union. Abolition only became a war measure as the conflict proceeded.
The first year resulted in mere skirmishes compared to the battles to come. The next two years saw combat of increasing intensity, with the conflict's result seemingly in the balance. In the east Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania before being turned back at Gettysburg in July 1863. Two months later in the west the Confederates won at Chickamauga in Georgia before tossing away the advantages gained from that victory.
While the conflict out west remained one of maneuver in 1864, in the east Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac battered their way past successive confederate defensive positions at huge cost. For instance, the battle of the Wilderness, from May 5 to 7, caused almost 30,000 casualties. Although Grant had both flanks smashed in and suffered much more heavily than Lee, he moved forward. That resulted in the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, which ran through May 21st. Fighting was even more savage at times, with a similar 30,000 toll. The Bloody Angle entered American lore for the horrific close-in combat.
The armies moved again, ever closer to the Confederate capital of Richmond. On May 23 Lee entrenched, creating an inverted V defensive line anchored to the North Anna River. As a result, he could easily reinforce his own forces while Grant had to split his army, leaving both wings vulnerable to a concentrated strike by the Army of Northern Virginia. But what then ensued may have been the most important battle not fought during the Civil War.
Lee was sick with an intestinal illness, unable to command. From his bed he murmured: "We must strike them a blow," but he could not order it done. And no subordinate general could substitute for him. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson had died the previous year. James Longstreet had been wounded while directing an attack in the Wilderness. Richard Ewell, A.P. Hill, Richard Anderson, and Jubal Early all were sickly or otherwise ill-prepared for command.
A big victory for Lee would not likely have changed the war's ultimate outcome -- the North's advantages were too great at that stage -- but, argued Dana Shoaf of Civil War Times, had Lee "succeeded in crushing half of the army of the Potomac, it would have changed the tenor of the war in the east." Grant likely would have had to retreat, giving the Confederacy some time to recover; another command shake-up might have occurred, given tension between Grant, who oversaw all Union armies, and George Meade, who led the Army of the Potomac under Grant. Any change would have further delayed northern operations.
But no attack came and on May 26 Grant moved again, leading to one of his worst defeats, at Cold Harbor. On June 3 Grant suffered around 7000 casualties in just a few minutes when assaulting Lee's nearly impregnable position. The night before the attack pessimistic northern soldiers pinned pieces of paper with their names to their jackets, an informal "dog-tag" to identify their corpses after the attack. It was the one battle about which Grant expressed regret in his memoirs.
The campaign then moved on toward Richmond and became a siege of Petersburg, to the capital's south. That lasted until March 1865, with Lee's surrender in early April. The war soon ended.
The country was again unified, but at the cost of 620,000 or more dead, tens of thousands maimed, vast wealth squandered, and much of the southern states devastated. The federal government had been vastly strengthened, creating the opportunity for even more abusive future expansions of national power. The one indisputable benefit was the end of slavery, which ironically, was a consequence rather than objective of the conflict. Had Lincoln made that a war aim to start, he would have divided the north and might have lost the war.
The satisfaction of having ended the horrid practice was tempered by the fact that only one other country uprooted slavery through violence: Haiti, in which a slave revolt ousted French overlords and gained independence. Every other slave society peacefully abolished the practice -- among them Great Britain, which did so three decades before, and Brazil, which did so two decades later. War likely was not necessary to eliminate this great evil from America.
If not abolition, then for what was the war fought? Southern partisans argue for the constitutionality of secession, but there is no definitive answer. The more important question is: what justifies killing those seeking to leave a political community? What kind of a republic with a limited government kills dissatisfied citizens to prevent them from leaving? Today most people in the West express horror at the thought of forcibly suppressing peaceful secession.
Indeed, many Americans who supported the Union opposed coercion. For instance, famed editor Horace Greeley declared in the New York Tribune: "We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets." Col. Robert E. Lee, offered command of the North's armies, voiced similar sentiments when his home state of Virginia chose to secede:
I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union... Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.
Moreover, while slavery impelled the seven inner-southern states to leave the union, the outer four, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, acted only after President Lincoln called on them to provide troops to invade their neighbors. Most southern unionists then switched sides -- they wanted no conflict, but if forced to fight it would be to protect their southern neighbors from their northern neighbors.
Unfortunately, many people in both sections gaily went off to war believing there would be little bloodshed. Young men raced to join lest the fight be over before they could win glory and impress the folks back home. Three years of bloody combat irrevocably shattered such illusions. After the carnage of the Wilderness campaign, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts observed: "If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said: 'The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace'." Had he and others like him done so, more than 600,000 brave soldiers on both sides would have lived.
Unfortunately, the Civil War was not America's only unnecessary war. In 1898 the U.S. charged into the Spanish-American War and then spent three years killing Filipinos seeking the very independence that early Americans had won in combat. World War I was a foolish imperial slugfest with nothing at stake warranting U.S. intervention. World War II grew out of the one-sided peace imposed through American arms after WWI. Vietnam confused vital and peripheral interests. More recent conflicts, such as Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have been almost frivolous, wasting thousands of American lives for infinitesimal geopolitical gains.
Memorial Day always is an appropriate moment for serious reflection. But it is not enough to affirm the obvious bravery of U.S. military personnel. It also is necessary to expose the recurring misbehavior of U.S. government officials. Sometimes war is a sad necessity, but most often not. This Memorial Day offers an appropriate moment to not just reflect, but act. And insist that statesmen treat military intervention as a last resort, reducing the casualty toll to be commemorated on future holidays.