In the year 1860 American blacks were locked into slavery. Then the Civil War began which liberated the slaves at the cost of 360 thousand Union lives, mostly whites with ten per cent blacks who had been freed. They died, yes, but usually with the battlefield agony that preceded death. It was not a pleasant thing.
Lt. Colonel Richard Irwin, who participated in the Union capture of Port Hudson in 1863, describes the battlefield: “Our loss in the two assaults was nearly 4000, including many of our best and bravest officers. The heat, especially in the trenches, became almost unsupportable, the stenches quite so, the springs gave out, the creek lost itself in the pestilential swamp and the river fell exposing to the tropical sun a wide margin of festering ooze. The illness and mortality were enormous. The labor of the siege, extending over a front of seven miles, pressed so severely upon our numbers, far too weak for such an undertaking, that the men were almost incessantly on duty. And as the numbers diminished, the work fell more heavily on those that remained. From the first we had nearly 20 thousand men of all arms engaged before Port Hudson and at the last hardly 9000, while every other man might well have gone on sick report if pride and duty had not held him to his post.”
This of course was just one of innumerable battles in the four year war. It was sustained by a cause that was both clear and uplifting – the abolition of slavery, which distinguishes it from current U.S. wars that seem to have no particular purpose and unlike the Civil War don’t end in victory. To be sure, not all who fought necessarily opposed slavery. They reflected northern opinion which was divided. But they fought nonetheless and thereby contributed to the cause that prevailed.
There were other reasons for the war: a need to prevent southern secession and preserve the union and an increasing hostility between north and south. As always, hotheads on both sides yearned for a violence they would not be able to control. But at the heart of the conflict was the issue of slavery. Without that there would have been no war.
The war did not solve all the problems between the races. Years of brutality and discrimination against blacks continued on the long road to equality. But the Civil War set the precedent. There was no going back. The enormous bloodshed – far beyond any other U.S. war – settled the matter. Standards for justice are very high today. No shirking allowed. But what more could be asked of the Union soldiers who gave all they had?