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Springfield Civil War Symposium

Ethan and I were among the speakers at Saturday’s Springfield (Ohio) Civil War Symposium.  Here’s the write-up in the local paper.

From the Springfield News-Sun, May 8:

Civil War panel examines causes, effects
About 130 attend the presentations at the Clark County Heritage Center.
By Tom Stafford

SPRINGFIELD — “I don’t like to think anything is inevitable,” said Nicole Etcheson.

And because the thing on her mind was a conflict that killed 620,000 Americans, the Ball State University historian was particularly hesitant to say the matter had been beyond human control.

But during the panel discussion that concluded a Civil War seminar on Saturday at the Clark County Heritage Center, Etcheson admitted “it’s terribly difficult to figure out how things might have gone differently.”

Like Etcheson, who addressed the secession crisis from 1850-60, her fellow panelists made individual presentations to the 130 in attendance earlier in the day.

Author Fergus Bordewich discussed the roots of disunion from 1800-1850 and the Underground Railroad.

Ohio State University professor Mark Grimsley reviewed the election of 1860.

Ethan Rafuse spoke about the 1861 campaigns of Union Gens. George McClellan and Irvin McDowell.

Reports on their presentations will appear in Monday’s News-Sun.

The presenters then took up what moderator and Wittenberg University history professor Thomas Taylor called “one of the hardest questions in American history.”

Rafuse, who teaches at the U.S. Army Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said he has his students examine battles and often discovers “the historic actors made the best decisions they could have made at the time.”

In the Civil War, “It’s hard to see how the events could have played out differently,” he said.

To strike a compromise acceptable to the South before Fort Sumter, the newly elected Lincoln would essentially have had to ignore the platform on which he had run and been elected, he said.

That would have been impossible “unless you want to throw out that in a democracy elections have consequences.”

Taylor raised an either/or question: Did the nation’s centrists (who entered the Civil War not to end slavery but to preserve the union) lack numbers to support their position or was “American politics is structured in a way that couldn’t get us through that?”

On that score, Etcheson pointed out that the United States is the only nation that resorted to war to settle the slavery issue.

Bordewich called the war “necessary,” said “morally, it was long overdue” and put the blame squarely on the stubbornness of Southern slave owners.

Had a program in which slaves were freed and their owners compensated been carried out in the South, “it would have taken place at a far, far lower price in dollars and a lower price in human lives,” he said.

Grimsley suggested that whether the gains of the war were worth the overall sacrifice depends.

If seen as a conflict that emancipates its citizens, it’s one matter, he said; if seen as a blood letting that merely gets the United States from slavery to the racially repressive Jim Crow laws that followed reconstruction, it’s another.

But Bordewich said the international consequences of the North’s victory also must be considered.

Only that victory could have created an America that rejected slavery and grew into an international force for freedom and democracy.

Such questions will be taken up again when the Clark County Historical Society hosts the second of its Sesquicentennial Civil War Seminars April 14, 2012.

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