Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing about whether the Civil War should be considered a tragedy or not (his take is emphatically on the ‘not’ side of the ledger). One way to think about this is to think about what would America have looked like if the Civil War hadn’t taken place? This is the kind of counter-factual that both philosophers and science-fiction writers use – and as it happens, there’s a fine and moving short story by the science fiction author Robert Charles Wilson on this topic, “This Peaceable Land: Or The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe.” (it’s first published in the Other Earths anthology, and also available in a couple of ‘Best of 2009’ round-up SF collections). The story takes place in an America where the Civil War was barely averted, and where the South saw a gradual depopulation of African Americans, hastened greatly by a kind of quiet Holocaust in which many of them were murdered as slavery ceased to be economically viable. The nub of the story is precisely the difficulty that white abolitionist liberals have in seeing that the war that was avoided may have been a lesser tragedy than the unheralded war that was not.
“That is a decent white woman,” Ephraim said when he had heard the letter and given it some thought. … “But I don’t know what she’s so troubled about … This idea that there was no war. I suppose there wasn’t, if by war you mean the children of white men fighting the children of white men. But, sir, I have seen the guns, sir, and I have seen them used, sir, all my life – all my life. And in my father’s time, and before him. Isn’t that war? And if it is war, how can she say war was avoided? There were many casualties, sir, though their
names are not generally recorded; many graves, though not marked; and many battlefields, though not admitted to the history books.”
Or as Coates puts it:
Taken together, the slave system was, itself, a Leviathan—a force with deep roots in the economic, social and political system of this country. From the black perspective it was the nation-state mobilized for more than two and half centuries as a war-machine against that which so many regard as the foundation of humanity, itself—the family. And I do not merely mean the biological nuclear family: The slave system subjected family, in all its permutations—adoptive, same-sex, parent-less, child-less—to consistent, if capricious, violence. If there is such a thing as an African-American people—and I believe there is—then it must be said that that for 250 years, that people lived in a state of war.