The Civil War Conundrum, 150 Years Later

Posted on February 9, 2021 By

by Rachel MacNair

My great-grandfather was born a Quaker, but when he married my great-grandmother, he converted to being Methodist for her sake. His parents were Quakers, and once I took an interest in genealogy, I found that, through them I had Quaker ancestors (that is, members of the Religious Society of Friends) going all the way back to the 1600s. The line got broken, and I picked it up again when I was 14.

Hiram Bennett Matthews

My great-grandfather’s father, Hiram Bennet Matthews, was one of those Quakers who thought during the U.S. Civil War that he had to choose between conflicting values: being against war or against slavery. He was one of many Friends who felt this as a quandary at the time. A more famous one was William Jackson Palmer, who became a general and later founded Colorado Springs.


I say to my great-great grandfather: we’ve now traveled in the time machine to see what ended up happening. It’s over 150 years later.

The first few decades after the Civil War, we had sharecropping, plus loitering laws – being imprisoned for being unemployed, and then put to involuntary labor. We had terrorizing and Jim Crow laws. Lynchings were done as public spectacles.

The Civil Rights Movement was an outburst of nonviolence after many decades of nonviolent resistance. It had many great achievements. But it didn’t solve the problem entirely.

Now it’s over 150 years later, and we had an event that brought these points to mind for me: the flag of the Confederacy unfurled through the halls of the U.S. Congress during a riot there – January 6, 2021.

Hiram, your great-great granddaughter still needs to go to protests of police officers killing Black Americans and otherwise targeting them with intense brutality. Along with many other struggles against racism. Over 150 years later.

Rachel MacNair at protest of murder of George Floyd (with Covid protection) June, 2020

The violence of the Civil War, including the intense destructiveness of Sherman’s March to the Sea, and all the hatred this generated has been transmitted through many, many generations. Nonviolent action has blunted much of it, but the amount of violence was so overwhelming that the task of genuine freedom for those whose ancestors were enslaved is still not entirely achieved.

Though the war brought about an official government-ordered end to slavery, in the form of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, more quickly than the slow action of nonviolence would have, the historical evidence is more consistent with the idea that genuine freedom for African Americans might actually have been delayed by that war.

Indeed, the 13th Amendment didn’t even abolish slavery, since it made an exception for those convicted of a crime. Just in 2020, voters in Nebraska and Utah finally got rid of that exception in their state constitutions, but it’s still in several other state constitutions.

We can’t run history over again to see how things might have turned out had those Quakers stuck to pacifism and put their lives on the line in nonviolent actions instead of military ones. History is complicated.

But what we do know is that the sense of a quandary was badly over-simplified. The idea that a war would end slavery didn’t pan out.


For more of our posts on nonviolence against war, see:

Would Nonviolence Work on the Nazis?

Nuclear Disarmament as a Social Justice Issue

For more of our posts on police brutality, see:

Voices on Police Brutality in the Aftermath of the Murder of George Floyd

Tear Gas and Miscarriages

Police Brutality to the Preborn

Police Brutality against Protesters

For more of our posts on consequences of war, see:

Making the Case for Peace to Conservatives

The Wages of War, Part 1: How Abortion Came to Japan

Wages of War, Part 2: How Forced Sterilization Came to Japan 



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  1. When I consider both the horrific loss of life in the Civil War (2-2.5 percent of the American population died, the equivalent in today’s population of losing 6+ million people) and the long, painful, not-yet-completed struggle for racial equality over the last 150 years, I agree that the “accomplishments” of the Union war effort seem very disappointing.

    I also note that similar assessments could be made about nonviolent struggles against injustice. Consider the Indian independence movement. That struggle took a very long time: India didn’t gain independence until 1947, more than 15 years after the height of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns (and certainly other factors, including violent ones, contributed to that final gaining of independence). Further, independence involved partition into two nations, India and Pakistan, which was accompanied by civil strife in which an estimated 1 million people died. India and Pakistan remain at each other’s throats to this day. (See Also, I think it is safe to say that contemporary India, while independent, is very far from the type of society Gandhi wanted to realize. Does this disappointing outcome show that nonviolent resistance didn’t realize its promises?

    As the post says, history is complicated. Both violent and nonviolent campaigns against injustice can have disappointing outcomes. (Also, we rarely get purely violent or purely nonviolent campaigns: most struggles against injustice involve both, making their relative contributions hard to interpret.) Whether disappointing outcomes show the inadequacy of the methods used or the inherent difficulty in overcoming injustice can often be unclear. These are conundrums indeed.

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