This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War

By James M. McPherson | Go to book overview

14
No Peace Without Victory, 1861–1865

FOR AT LEAST THE PAST TWO CENTURIES, nations have usually found it harder to end a war than to start one. Americans relearned that bitter lesson in Vietnam and, having apparently forgotten it, were forced to learn it all over again in Iraq. The difficulties of achieving peace are compounded when the war aims of a belligerent include regime change in the enemy polity. In the Napoleonic Wars, the coalition forces finally managed to end the conflict when they forced Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to abdicate—twice. In World War I, Woodrow Wilson insisted that the Allies would negotiate only with a democratic government in Germany, and the armistice did not go into effect until the kaiser abdicated. In World War II, the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Axis governments in order to destroy those governments and install new ones in their place.

Both sides in the American Civil War feared that regime change would be the result of losing the war. Defeat would blot the Confederate States of America from the face of the earth. Confederate victory would destroy the United States and create a precedent for further balkanization of the territory once governed under the Constitution of 1789. Both antagonists foresaw these potential consequences in 1861 and embraced war as the only alternative. By 1863, however, the death or wounding of half a million soldiers had replaced the rage militaire of 1861 with a longing for peace. This longing was expressed in music, especially the songs “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” and “When This Cruel War Is Over.” Both evinced a profound desire for an end to the killing and suffering. “Weeping, sad and lonely,” begins the refrain of “When This Cruel War Is Over.” “We are tired of war on the old camp ground,” sang those at home and in the armies. “Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, Wishing for the war to cease.”1 Yet the war did not cease; many wondered whether this cruel war would ever be over.

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