I’ve been catching up on my history, and now I know far more about the American Civil War (1861-5) than most Brits. Prior to that, I made an effort to try and understand the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) – and that too is below the British radar, although it forged modern Germany out of a collection of mediaeval statelets: the wreckage of the old Western Roman Empire.

It also led to the present-day European Union, via two ghastly world wars. That surely is the business of Britons to know something about. Even if their preoccupation right now is trying to squirm out of it tidily, just as they tried to squirm out of the British Empire tidily after WWII (…with equally impoverishing results for the nation, I predict).

After the shock-and-awe induced in Europe by the Battle of Waterloo, Great Britain enjoyed nearly a hundred years of peace within its shores, leaving it free to keep its world-straddling empire on-side with numerous colonial wars, none of which were the slightest risk to anyone at home, except maybe to their investments. Neither the Franco-Prussian War, nor the American Civil War, was any of its business, and uncharacteristically it forbore to meddle. Which probably accounts for Brits’ lack of knowledge or interest in either conflict.

Such ignorance does not serve us well. Particularly as the issues surrounding both wars have a surprisingly present-day feel about them. In the intervening century we’ve been dazzled by the clash of titans: vast superpowers who have prepared meticulously for a looming world conflict – and in so-doing have entered a sort of stalemate. Now, it seems,  we’re back to more limited conflicts, breaking out suddenly among ill-prepared neighbours due to sheer bad temper, or civil wars erupting after riots and sucking in the forces of neighbouring countries.

But when you fight ancestral local wars with modern global weapons, the casualties can be anything but small-scale.

The Franco-Prussian War (FPW) led to 183 thousand war-related deaths on both sides, the French losing about three times as many people as the Germans. It was traumatic for both sides: the biggest upset since the Battle of Waterloo, 55 years earlier.

The American Civil War (ACW) led to an estimated 620 thousand to 750 thousand war-related deaths (the uncertainly in the figure being due to loss of accurate records with the collapse of the South). Even with the lower figure it is more than all other USA wars put together (prior to the Vietnam War).

The ratio of casualties, ACW-to-FPW, is about 4-to-1. But that’s roughly the ratio of durations: 4 years to 1 year. Which makes the annual casualty rates broadly the same.

Both wars were triggered by relatively minor upsets, easily patched-up given a modest amount of forbearance. But both sides in both wars were spoiling for a fight – and boy! – did they get one! Neither side in either conflict expected the staggering rate of blood flow that ensued.

Some attribute the egregious casualty rate to the passion with which each war was fought. But people can get wild enough with swords and spears, or even their bare fists. I’m not alone in believing it was all down to rapid advances at that time in weaponry, which made rifles and guns far more deadly than the military tactics of the Napoleonic Wars had been founded on. The French had the Chassepot rifle, which was halfway between a Napoleonic musket and a modern assault rifle. The Germans had steel breech-loading gunnery: more like a modern field gun than the cast-iron cannons of Waterloo, scarcely-changed since Henry VIII. American weaponry had similarly advanced since the War of Independence, especially in small-arms, for which every citizen was a legitimate customer. Repeating firearms made their debut on the battlefield, as did machine guns, neither of which were to play a significant part in the European FPW.

Back to Abraham Lincoln, and the lead-up to the war. Since all parties were part of the same exemplary democracy, the nature of the dispute was recorded in detail by the many well-argued speeches. They had much to argue about, because for all the clear-sightedness that went into the crafting of an ideal state based on the Rights of Man rather than the Divine Right of Kings (the pervasive European model), there were fundamental flaws in the Declaration of Independence. Of the thirteen original signatory states, twelve were slave-owning. Yet they had seen it as “self-evident” that…

all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Who were these “all men” who were endowed with these unalienable Rights?

  • If you were a slave-owner, it excluded blacks whose fathers had been brought to the USA as slaves.
  • If you were a Know Nothing (a term referring not to your intellect but to what you were told to say if challenged about your political stance) it excluded Catholics and foreigners.
  • If you were a woman, it excluded you.

Abraham Lincoln was having none of it. Others have seen his position as fuzzy and confused, at a time when all the issues were being argued out in Congress – sometimes ad-baculum. He didn’t seem to believe that a black man (nowadays, in the hindsight of modern statistics, we’d say “the average black man”) was his equal in every respect: his skin was a different colour for a start. And his intellect might be inferior (Lincoln used the conditional) – it was a fair bet though, due to the difference in upbringing and opportunities, and it didn’t deny that some black men might be outstanding men of intellect.

But as you read Lincoln’s speeches – all very eloquent and precisely argued – it’s clear that he held firmly to this one principle in the Declaration of Independence, which he took to begin and end with equality in rights before the law. Rights which included Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. All of which were necessarily denied to a slave.

I agree with Judge Douglas, he is not my equal in many respects. Certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

Abraham Lincoln, debate at Ottawa, Illinois (21 August 1858).

Now I’m addressing myself to the British reader. All this is so well-known to an American, right from his or her school days, that I wouldn’t presume to “teach my granny to suck eggs”, as the British saying goes.

But as I read Lincoln’s speech, I’m struck by the simple integrity of his outlook. And I’m happy to confine what I mean by “integrity” to what he is recorded as saying on a given subject, though I imagine it spilled over into other areas of his life.

What a contrast with our own slimy, mealy-mouthed politicians! We need a Lincoln of our own someday, to redeem the standing of the British legislature.

Our Poem of the Week is based on a prose-piece attributed to Abraham Lincoln.