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On its 150th anniversary, US Civil War matters more than ever

The conflict between North and South stands as one of the only civil wars in human history that did not end in monarchy or dictatorship. Its lessons hold enduring value for the modern struggle to defend liberal democratic principles without compromising them in times of existential crisis.

By Franz-Stefan Gady / December 30, 2010

Lebring, Austria

When recently discussing the war in Afghanistan with a former high-level Pakistani official, I was whisked from the streets of Kabul by my interlocutor’s jaunty conclusion: “We’ve had the devils own day, haven’t we?”; to which I instantly replied: “ Yes – lick’em tomorrow though.”

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With this brief, apparently enigmatic, exchange we both acknowledged our membership in a rather obscure subculture: non-American Civil War buffs. The dialogue we quoted was an actual exchange between Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman after the first day of the battle of Shiloh, the bloodiest battle fought in the western theater of the war.

Rather than further musing on the progress of the war in Afghanistan, we spent the next two hours talking about Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Gettysburg campaign, the siege of Petersburg, and Stonewall Jackson’s bold exploits in the Shenandoah Valley. Before we parted, my companion confessed that the US Civil War was the conflict he studied most for one simple fact: It is virtually the only civil war in human history which did not end in dictatorship or monarchy. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the last "gentleman’s war," this fact is often forgotten.

There is indeed no equivalent in European history to parallel how democratically elected governments handle internal strife without becoming autocratic. Ancient Rome’s civil war ended after Octavian declared himself emperor. The English Civil War ended with Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship. The French Civil War resulted in the first Empire. Francisco Franco established a fascist government in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War, as did Austria at the end of a brief war in 1934.

Enduring lessons for democracies in times of war

Consequently, the Civil War in the United States holds valuable lessons for democracies in times of war. It answered fundamental questions about the durability and resiliency of democratic governments in times of existential crisis.

Fought primarily by amateur soldiers, neither side questioned the inherent truth of democratic government in spite of military commanders publicly displaying their reservations regarding government’s conduct of the war. For example, Joseph “Fightin Joe” Hooker, the momentary commander of the Army of the Potomac, advocated dictatorship to end the military cul-de-sac into which the Union had wandered. Lincoln famously replied: “I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator…. Only those generals who gain success can be dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”


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