The Advantages of Defeat, September 1861

The Advantages of Defeat, September 1861

In these times of mourning and reflection, Americans can look to
their history to see many of the same thoughts and concerns raised
today. Scholar and reformer Charles Eliot Norton wrote a critique
of the North’s loss of Bull Run which offers insight that can just
as easily apply to last Tuesday’s tragedy, though it was written
140 years ago.

On The Atlantic Online Web site, Norton writes: ‘It
is now plain that our defeat at Bull Run was in no true sense a
disaster; that we not only deserved it, but needed it; that its
ultimate consequences are better than those of a victory would have

Throughout the coverage of the terrorist attacks, Academic scholars
and spiritual leaders have been quoted saying that this most recent
disaster was a necessary wake up call to America, that it presents
the country with an opportunity otherwise unavailable. For some,
the tragedy presents a chance for Americans to challenge worldwide
terrorism, for others it’s the prime moment to be the harbinger of

In September 1861, Norton’s writing addressed the need for
consideration, consideration many need today: ‘In this moment of
pause and compelled reflection, it is for us to examine closely the
spirit and motives with which we have engaged in war, and to
determine the true end for which the war must be carried on,’ he
writes. ‘It is no time for indulging in fallacies of the fancy or
in feebleness of counsel.’

Then, as Norton launches into his treatise on the need for the
North’s triumph, an American today can easily imagine President
Bush saying similar words, ‘God has given us work to do not only
for ourselves, but for coming generations of men… We are fairly
engaged in a war which cannot be a short one…. It is for the
establishment of liberty and justice, of freedom of conscience and
liberty of thought, of equal law and of personal rights…. We are
not making war to reestablish an old order of things, but to set up
a new one.’
–Sara V. Buckwitz

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