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Why A Second US Civil War Would Be Far Worse Than the First

Civil War M4 Carbine
A Class of 2023 new cadet familiarizes herself with the M4 carbine as part of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Cadet Basic Training July 9, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Matthew Moeller)

Why a US Civil War could be even more disastrous than the first: When NPR beings to weigh in, it is safe to say that talk of a second American Civil War has officially gone mainstream. Shockingly, however, given the gravity of the topic, much of the current, rancorous debate appears to underestimate the long-term damage that would ensue following a second Civil War. It is therefore crucial that we clarify the reasons why a new Civil War could lead to a far more enduring disaster, for America and the world, than the War Between the States.

The problem with the recent discussion is that, while most analysts correctly point out that a new war would look very different from the last, they draw the wrong lessons from this observation. As the political scientist Barbra F. Walter has recently noted, in a 21st-century war there would no longer be two large armies, wearing uniforms, facing off on the battlefield. Instead, as we have seen in countless civil conflicts around the world since WWII, the environment would be dominated by fluid complexity. Much of the violence would come from ununiformed fighters, motivated by divergent ideologies but fighting for overlapping goals, committing sporadic acts of terror. “Think about Northern Ireland,” Walter said recently on CNN, drawing comparisons to a conflict responsible for approximately 1,900 deaths over the course of several decades.

Yet, we should recognize that highlighting Northern Ireland, or the Ukrainian separatism that has killed 15,000 people since 2014, or related contemporary examples may unintentionally cause the American public to miscalculate about just how dangerous a war would be in the current context. After all, the American Civil War that erupted in 1861 caused over 600,000 deaths and 1.5 million casualties, and many citizens continue to feel that this astronomical price was justified to produce a decisive end to slavery and Southern threats of secession.

The risk is that a considerable segment of public opinion might come to believe that a much smaller price in lives would be equally justified in order to achieve lofty political goals such as, for example, protecting some version of “the American way of life” or “defending our democracy.” Indeed, polls now suggest that as many as 1 in 3 Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, may be sympathetic to this instrumental view of political violence. This is why it must be made clear that a second Civil War, even if it did prove less deadly – something that cannot be guaranteed – could produce a long-term disaster from which the nation might never truly recover.

First, the international situation is far more precarious than it was in 1861. At that time, many observers expected Great Britain to intervene on behalf of Southern secessionists to protect its cotton supply. Some thought Tsarist Russia would then feel compelled to support the North in order to exert geopolitical pressure on Britain, its rival in Central Asia. In the event, for reasons that remain poorly understood, both European powers declined to become involved in America’s fraternal bloodshed; if they had, the war could have been far more costly and the outcome more ambiguous.

Conditions have changed. Decreases in the cost of international transportation and the evolution of global finance mean that it has never been easier to provide support for groups fighting abroad. Scholars have shown that, in the hundreds of civil wars since World War II, over 60% have been subject to outside intervention.

Outside meddling fractures contemporary civil wars into multiple competing factions, producing conflicts that are nasty, brutish, and long. This is why the average contemporary civil war now lasts over twice as long as civil conflicts did in the past, and four times as long as an average conventional interstate war. It also frequently produces massive civilian death tolls. In the 1860s, America was fortunate, but today foreign rivals that struggle to match the conventional power of the US military appear eager to fan the flames of our domestic political strife, up to the point of domestic collapse. Our febrile latticework of economic, political, and ethnic resentments make this a far easier task than many would care to admit.

Second, unique historical factors limited the economic damage from the first Civil War. For one thing, the major battles were fought mostly in the South, not in the Northern industrial heartland, and the war itself was largely financed by domestic borrowing in the form of “Union bonds” bought by American citizens. Most importantly, the American economy in the 1860s could generate rapid growth simply by building out a basket of technologies that had already been invented in prior decades. For example, the modern railroad was invented in 1825, but construction of the transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869. The telegraph was invented in 1837, but the first viable transatlantic lines were not laid until 1865 and 1866, respectively. Taken together, these factors meant that, following a Union victory, industry was poised for an enormous expansion.

Again, the situation is more fragile today. The centers of American production and innovation would no longer be geographically immune from violence; indeed, they would be prime targets. The economy writ large is also far more dependent on flows of foreign capital and the ability to attract top global research talent. Widespread instability would certainly raise the cost of borrowing and servicing the United States’ $29 trillion-dollar national debt. It could also make the country less attractive to the best foreign researchers. All this matters because the technologies that will provide economic growth in the near future – things like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and quantum computing – are still in the early stages of innovation and subject to intense international competition. Civil war now would be a long-term economic catastrophe; it might also give authoritarian rivals such as China an insurmountable lead on the technologies that will dominate the future.

Deadliest Guns of the US Civil War

Civil War Era Cannon Firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

All of this means that, no matter how dysfunctional the political process seems to have become, civil war today will never produce a durable solution to the issues that divide Americans. There can be no rerun of 1865, when basic disagreements about slavery and federal power were permanently laid to rest.

This fact bears repeating. As the great military historian John Keegan reminded usWestern thought from the Greeks to Clausewitz and beyond has evinced a fascination with the idea of decisive wars that settle lingering political disputes once and for all.  Alas, history is seldom this tidy. Most wars drag on while the underlying issues remain unresolved. Exhaustion may force a temporary hiatus, but festering hostilities lurk just below the surface. This is especially true of civil wars in the contemporary world. The stark reality is that no political goal worth achieving can be won through a civil war in the 21st century, and the costs would be far greater than many seem to imagine.

Christopher M. England received his PhD in political science from Johns Hopkins University. In addition to academic articles, his writing has been published by The Atlantic Council, The National Interest, RealClearDefense, and The American Conservative.

Written By

Christopher M. England received his Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University. In addition to academic articles, his writing has been published by The Atlantic Council, The National Interest, RealClearDefense, and The American Conservative.

33 Comments

33 Comments

  1. Commentar

    January 28, 2022 at 10:31 pm

    Hmm, civil war? Unlikely. More likely is pronounced general breakdown of social norms and civil behavior – leading to huge increase in numbers of mass shootings and acts of crime.

    Also, increase in fringe groups and increase in their influence like those calling for rahowa campaigns.

    And increasingly worse conditions in US federal and state prisons. These places are already quite famous and many of them are similar to or above level of abu ghraib.

  2. Dan Tanner

    January 28, 2022 at 11:23 pm

    China killed 5 million people with their virus. And we financed it.

  3. Tregonsee

    January 29, 2022 at 8:35 am

    More likely a relatively peaceful separation into a Red USA and a Blue Peoples States of America. The second would eventually fail, leaving the USA to pick up the pieces as did West Germany after the Wall fell, and as South Korea worries about doing if/when the North falls. Kurt Schlicher has a nice portrayal of this in his “Kelly Turnbull” series.

  4. Rascal

    January 29, 2022 at 8:47 am

    And we’re not already well on our way? Democrats have abandoned the rule of law. How do you expect order to be restored?

  5. Doyle

    January 29, 2022 at 9:44 am

    I would posit that the restoration of the rule of law is every bit as important as ending slavery and keeping the country whole.

  6. DeltaFiveBravo

    January 29, 2022 at 9:50 am

    In a civil war, national, state and local infrastructure would be targeted and disrupted to create a political crisis and demonstrate the inability of the government to protect the people and turn the people against the government. There’d be no electricity, natural gas, clean water, food, sewer, gasoline, garbage pickup, communications (internet, cellphones), banking, travel, medical care, fire services, law enforcement, employment. Major cities could be blockaded to create rioting and disorder.

  7. Andy

    January 29, 2022 at 10:23 am

    Your comment that American was fortunate in regards to loss of life in the first civil war is where your argument started to fall apart. You grossly overstate the abilities of other nation states and grossly understate the abilities of the American psyche and intellect to recover lost momentum and a technical frontier. Other than that, an interesting article. Just need to study your American Civil War history a little more.

  8. Bart DePalma

    January 29, 2022 at 10:56 am

    The U.S. has engaged in a cold civil war for over a generation.

    On one side is a credentialed mandarin caste which dominates the unaccountable public and private bureaucracies that perform most governance, finance, media, professions and academia. Their ideology is totalitarian and they hold a pre-French revolution aristocratic disdain for the common people occupying “flyover country.”

    On the other side, are the remaining supporters of our constitutionally limited liberal government. These are the primarily working class and small business folks who are increasingly falling behind in our new “meritocracy” and correctly believe their government no longer represents them. Despite “conservative” voter rebellions in 1980, 1994 and 2010-2016, nothing really changes politically.

    More than one pollster has commented the overwhelming majority of voters now disapproving of their government and believing things are going in the wrong direction is pre-revolutionary.

    Yes, freedom and representative government is worth going to war to obtain and defend. However, Dr. England is correct in his intuition a guerrilla civil war could not easily achieve these goals in our situation. We are not facing a single predatory monarch to overthrow. The public and private bureaucracies who rule by decree are faceless and diffuse. Most of those who would consider going to a military civil war to restore our constitutional republic could not even identify the enemies of that republic.

    A better remedy to restore our constitutional republic is a constitutional convention amending our basic law to prohibit the government licensed guilds providing the mandarins with their power base, stripping the bureaucracies of all but ministerial powers, then expressly and comprehensively limiting general government powers.

  9. Daniel Davis

    January 29, 2022 at 11:01 am

    Well, Democrats seem hell-bent on destroying this nation. They’ve stolen our elections, indoctrinated American youth with Marxism, and are currently purging the military of Conservatives. No one wants a civil war, but unless Democrats are stopped, this country is doomed

  10. Chris

    January 29, 2022 at 11:06 am

    Sadly some form of separation is inevitable as the two sides have irreconcilable differences. One side will never accept open borders, millions of illegal aliens, profligate spending/socialism/marxism leading to runaway inflation and eventual economic collapse, collapse in the family unit, and general wokeism stupidity and the other side will insist on it. There is no middle ground here.

    I suspect the next phase is for states to start to break up along red and blue lines and reform in to more and more monolithic entities. Over time, and hopefully peacefully, the two will separate. Who knows, Canada might get in to it as well leaving two new nations broken down by right and left. That would be the best possible outcome.

  11. j fleming

    January 29, 2022 at 11:56 am

    A Dr? Kind of like Dr. Jill….. you got a degree from Johns Hopkins??? argument/article filled with straw men, logical inconsistencies, general nonsense and false equivalencies – kind of like listening to an Obama speech. Using NPR as a definition of “mainstream” shows the author’s complete separation from reality.
    Excellent comments section though that don’t need repetition.
    Worrying continued debasement of the currency, lack of opportunity for regular folks, concentration of power, lack of accountability for those in power, invasion from the south, govt run schools….
    I fear for my children, but then, being an optimist, think that if they can just show up and pass a drug screen, they will be the boss in a few years wherever they are….
    crazy times.

  12. TrustbutVerify

    January 29, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    First, the separation that would solve and save things is called Federalism and it is a part of our Constitutional DNA…if the Dems would follow it and quit trying to impose their opinions, culture, and urban infrastructure demands on everyone else. Generally, if we allowed for Dems to do what they wanted in big cities and left the rest alone, a lot of this would go away…with the stipulation being THEY have to pay for their “special” demands. The blue cities are already sinking and this would just hasten it.

    Having said that, I would also say that a Civil War today would be just as likely to involve a massive wave uprising to restore the government and Constitution. If the cities tried to resist, they would be isolated from food and water (no trucks, no trains, no planes of supplies to bring in food)…they would capitulate.

    After that, there would no doubt be follow on leftist attacks much like the 60s groups with bombings etc. They are already in bed with the Chinese and Russians, so that support would likely happen (as it did with funding and support in the 60s, just more circumspect) – but let’s just say the other side would be in a less forgiving mood in trying to deal with their groups this time around.

    There is a large portion of the population in the middle that would just shrug…they have no fundamental guiding principles. They just want to go to work, have money for their family, and watch TV. Remember that the Revolutionary War was fought by a minority of the populace…the majority did nothing or were Tories.

  13. Bart DePalma

    January 29, 2022 at 12:34 pm

    Chris,

    Secession is geographically unworkable because one side is concentrated in a relative handful of large cities. Neither the cities nor the rest of the nation can survive economically or militarily without the other.

    More importantly, I’ll be damned if we let the totalitarians destroy the union and leave with some of our prime territory. Defeat them.

  14. Paul

    January 29, 2022 at 12:34 pm

    The current regime goal of grinding the people into the dirt so they beg for relief isn’t working. I don’t see armies facing off across a battlefield. I see a pogrom to eliminate dissenters and opposition. A purge to remove those who refuse to comply. Then the fighting begins. Small unit actions, citizen-operated units, guerrilla warfare led by the best SOC soldiers in the world. Our military leadership has been reduced to namby-pamby woke officers who know nothing but the liberal party line and what is left of the military will be ineffective against us. Open, large unit civil war? No. Small coordinated actions that result in success against the oppressive regime of the left.

  15. Charles B. Van Duzer

    January 29, 2022 at 12:58 pm

    As the propaganda arm of the dims, NPR rates, at best a C- for its’ efforts. This is the typical ‘you can’t do anything because there will be problems’ approach. Poorly thought out article with the sole objective of dissuading anyone from seeking to end the constant dim undermining of the Constitution.

  16. JamesBen

    January 29, 2022 at 1:39 pm

    Ya, naw. The Left is pushing, pushing, pushing its luck. The vast majority of weaponry is owned by Red State Patriots.

    They’re holding innocent people hostage as political prisoners, and flouting illegally obtained political office.

    The time draws near…stop antagonizing us.

  17. Christopher Cryan

    January 29, 2022 at 2:36 pm

    When NPR starts talking about it, expect a significant pullback and recalculation from the left of all but the “fringiest” of fringe groups (Antifa.) They know that the majority of police, firefighters, first responders and most importantly, combat veterans and active duty military personnel lean conservative or libertarian and are disgusted with the direction of the Democrat party in recent years. We have the weapons, skills, training, moral compass, bravery, capability and will to organize to eliminate Marxism within the US.

  18. TAL

    January 29, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    Rather than a an 1860s-type civil war, I think it would look more like the American Revolution or Ireland’s War for Independence. Things would simmer for a long time, but with incidents increasing in frequency. Once the FBI could no longer infiltrate “radical” right wing groups, liberal-only government forces would be hard pressed to effectively mount a defense against widespread “hit & run” campaigns. Key people would be targeted for assassination, key facilities taken over or destroyed. Whole states would be conservative sanctuaries. There might even be an outflow of the left to Canada, like happened with American Tories after the American Revolution, and even during the Vietnam War.

  19. Johnathan Galt

    January 29, 2022 at 4:41 pm

    Let’s try a peaceful divorce first.

  20. Leonard Bosinski

    January 29, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    In this climate where both Conservatives and Liberals fret over “disinformation”, I have to call BS over this little gem:

    “After all, the American Civil War that erupted in 1861 caused over 600,000 deaths and 1.5 million casualties, and many citizens continue to feel that this astronomical price was justified to produce a decisive end to slavery and Southern threats of secession.”

    The Civil War pitted brother against brother, father against son, and we are told that the principle reason 600,000 brave soldiers fought and DIED was ….to free the slaves?

    There are many valid reasons for one party to cancel/renege on a contract, particularly when one side holds all the cards and votes their interests. The minority may wonder if there is any point in continuing an agreement freely entered into, or withdraw and form an association of like minded states.

    The North had good reasons for preserving the Union. The South saw very little advantage and failed to understand that the North saw this Union as binding and irrevocable, one which was systematically destroying the economic basis of the southern economy.

    We have heard that very few of those that died on the southern side actually owned slaves. But it seems to be common knowledge that soldiers of the north were willing to die in order to free the south’s slaves. Everybody knows that Lincoln’s proclamation only freed southern slaves and not slaves held in the north. The southern states thought; Nice try, Abe!

    I am not a hard core “state’s rights” proponent, but the south had legitimate issues and the north had a huge advantage and saw no reason to change. Lots of partnerships don’t work out and the weaker party files for divorce rather than dueling shotguns at ten paces. Now, after 157 years, can we use a little common sense?

  21. Jim Denton

    January 29, 2022 at 6:07 pm

    You forget one factor: one side or the other will decide to nuke their opposition after a while. The other side WILL retaliate.

    Don’t imagine that the party “in power” will be able to control the entire stockpile,especially if General/Admiral X (in the opposition) learns his hometown has been vaporized. A nuclear strike could also come from a foreign actor (Russia, China, No. Kor., ISIS, PLO, etc.) seeking to gain from our weakness. A hot civil war in any major nuclear power could end in global catastrophe.

  22. Philip Lee IRELAND

    January 29, 2022 at 6:41 pm

    Do you actually believe the crap you write?

    Read ‘The Civil War’ by Shelby Foote in Three Volumes. It should take you about 3 months. Then when you are enlightened try again.

    Philip

  23. Mikemccann

    January 29, 2022 at 9:56 pm

    You don’t start a war!
    You take out the Shepard’s and the flocks will scatter.
    Any suggestions?

  24. Richard Young

    January 29, 2022 at 10:40 pm

    Many believe it will be like Columbia’s Xurb Civil War. The conservative rural areas v the Marxist Cities with the Suburbs being the battle grounds. If the Marxist Democrats keep pushing their Marxist Agenda and violating laws, cheating to win elections, flooding the Nation with illegals then yes Civil War is more likely. Much like the 1st Civil War it rests with the democrats. So informing conservatives how bad it will be is fruitless. Maybe the American Pravda should be informing the left what their actions may bring America and the potential outcome.17 States have now voted for a States Constitutional Convention once we hit 34 State Legislatures authorizing the Constitutional Convention it begins.

  25. Pertinaxjak

    January 29, 2022 at 11:12 pm

    ANd since the democrats are already in bed with the CHinese, they would hesitate, but only briefly to call them in, thus nullifying patriotic Americans who own weapons. This would be a horrendous development. Notice that the author of this piece mainly put the blame on the conservatives and not on the leftists for formenting strife and causing much of the issues: open borders, lockdowns, a two-tier justice system, weaponizing federal agencies, and attacks on religious freedom (other than islam), the voting integrity, favoring mass indoctrination instead of education.

  26. Tom

    January 30, 2022 at 12:15 am

    The author, it would seem has it backwards, or at least skipped a step. While the IRA version of civil war could come to pass, that version would demand an occupying force of tyranny as the predicate. The IRA could function because such a large percentage of the population in Northern Ireland was sympathetic “to the cause.” So the author is ignoring “the cause” that would get us there. And, if there such a cause, then the effort would justify the actions and be more unifying than divisive.

    Thankfully, the political pendulum swings back and forth in America. Now, say a political DC takeover of elections that would deny local Democracy to ever let the pendulum swing, then people would be left with the belief that they have no other choice but to be violent. If you take away the political voice of elections, people will act with what’s left.

  27. truthalwayswinsout

    January 30, 2022 at 4:13 am

    There are just 15000 people causing the current problem. Once they are gone there will no longer be a problem with anything.

    That is what Civil War II will look like.

  28. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    January 30, 2022 at 4:52 am

    I am French. I remain bewildered to read people from a civil war as from a benign event. Don’t think of Northern Ireland, think instead of bankrupt Lebanon. A comment that speaks of ”stolen elections” while it is a grotesque Fake News, see the investigations of the Republican administrations, shows that the repeated lies of some prevent from seeing the reality of the facts. You have fanatics on both sides. The censorship of the graphic novel Mauss announced yesterday, the fact that in education Darwin’s evolution is blocked in by religious people, while on the other side classics like Greek and Latin are slandered shows that America loses its common sense.

  29. Church Heyward

    January 30, 2022 at 5:27 pm

    Sheer madness.
    I know that columnists have to write and express a variety of opinions, but this is way over the top.
    This is the United Sates of America and yes we have our fringe elements both on the left and the right, this will to happen.
    The Center will hold and move slightly left and slightly right, it will keep America on course.

  30. dave

    January 30, 2022 at 7:21 pm

    Whole generations have lost all faith in the institutions of the country. From banks to healthcare we avoid it all like the plague.

    We need to reconstitute our institutions or the country is likely not going to hold together. Sadly they are stuck with bureaucracy and corruption.

    I think we need to find a path that reforms and modernizes government while also protecting our freedoms and rights – thats difficult when both party’s have become some extreme.

  31. ColdSteel1983

    January 30, 2022 at 9:36 pm

    “There can be no rerun of 1865, when basic disagreements about slavery and federal power were permanently laid to rest.”

    Slavery there can be no doubt about.

    The extent of Federal Power is probably the leading cause of instigation for these feelings, so I’d say pronouncing Federal Supremacy may be a bit premature.

  32. john chastain

    February 12, 2022 at 10:02 am

    It’s not a coincidence that the majority of the comments are clearly written by conservative Trumpian trolls. Most of them compromise the usual disingenuous nonsense and bombastic alt right whining about “rights” and “freedom” unmoored by reality and written by weekend militia warriors types who missed the entire point of the article. Unsurprisingly shallow and dismissive of the cost of their obsession with the mostly illusionary nature of their complaints they would make good canon fodder for their plutocracy minded masters. Sad

    • Henry Porter

      June 9, 2022 at 8:12 am

      John Chastain’s comments seem beside the point. A 2nd American Civil War would be much more devastating for the average citizen than the 1st American Civil War, since it would likely be an insurgency complete with IEDs and a total war mentality that didn’t really cross the minds of the 19th Century American soldier.
      A 2nd American Civil War, no matter the motivations or your opinion of those motivations would likely kill 100 million Americans, both from direct action and from starvation.

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