Shifting the Goalposts at Gettysburg

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a magnificent and heartfelt oratory, China Hand says:

It is also a determined piece of goalpost shifting designed to cope with the fact that Lincoln’s Civil War was a bloody, improvised botch that he rescued by abandoning the positions that had won him the Presidency…

…and by redefining not only that war, but all American wars to come.

Both sides expected a short war, as always:

The only administration figure in the North who seemed to have a firm grasp of what was going on was Winfield Scott, an extremely capable but by 1860 superannuated general who had performed with distinction in the War of 1812 and brilliantly in the Mexican War of 1846. He looked at the Union’s untrained armies with disdain and proposed that they be carefully drilled and deployed as part of a three-year navy-based strategy to choke the CSA with an Atlantic/Caribbean/Mississippi River blockade.

This cautious protracted war strategy was anathema to Lincoln’s political team, setting the stage for four years of ineffectual butchery on a truly modern scale.

The Emancipation Proclamation made a negotiated settlement based on the status quo ante impossible:

Instead of letting the South go to seek its own destiny, the United States was committed to destroying it militarily and politically, and undertaking a long exercise of reconstruction in the south—what we now call “nation-building”—that today has still not achieved the seamless and productive political and cultural union of north and south.

And in order to justify a war whose aims were, by any close reading of the constitution as it stood in 1862, unconstitutional and opposed by a vast majority of voters (in a peacetime environment, opposition to emancipation was something that most northern as well as southern whites happily endorsed), it was necessary to stretch the law to its breaking point…and justify the carnage because, well, “Freedom”—an excuse that Lincoln’s successors, including both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have both been most happy to invoke.


Today, the Civil War is regarded as the United States’ first “good war”. It has to be. Because it was America’s bloodiest and least legal war. Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain or justify. And I believe that’s why the Civil War remains a lodestone for American politicians, patriots, and warbirds and the Gettysburg Address is a sacred text. Because if we can justify and exalt the Civil War and its 600,000 dead, we can justify and exalt any war.

When the moral claims are absolute, there are few limits on the bullets, bombs, falsehoods, and lawbending and lawbreaking employed to achieve them—even if the actual victories for freedom are as partial, equivocal, and fleeting as they turned out to be in places like Iraq and Libya.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)


  1. Dan Kurt says:

    Winfield Scott was to Lincoln as the German General Staff was to Hitler.

    Amateurs negate expertise, always.

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