Drew Gilpin Faust
One of the remarkable aspects of the Civil War is that it was fought at all. Even when sectional discord culminated in Southern secession in the winter of 1860-61, many Americans remained confident that military conflict could be avoided. Sen. James Chesnut of South Carolina dismissed talk of war by pledging to drink whatever blood might be shed. And in his March 1861 inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln insisted that “there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority.”
Even those who did expect armed conflict thought hostilities would be brief and losses minor. At the war’s outset, it seemed almost unimaginable that the North would be willing to fight so long and hard to keep the Southern states in the Union. Confederate military strategy, in fact, came to rest on an assumption that the North would not sustain its commitment to war in the face of escalating sacrifice. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s search for the decisive battle, his invasions of the North, the Confederacy’s eager anticipation of Lincoln’s electoral defeat in 1864 — all represented a costly and fatal underestimation of the commitment of some 2.2 million Northern soldiers, overwhelmingly volunteers, to the preservation of the Union.
Faust is the Lincoln professor of history and president of Harvard University and author of “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” The Washington Post