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“The Noblest Cause That Men Have Ever Died For”

July 2024
3min read

In August of 1865, four months after the end of the Civil War, the American minister in Austria wrote to a friend in the distant United States. That diplomat was John Lothrop Motley, the famous historian who had made a life’s work writing of the struggle for independence of another republic, Holland. At this moment, however, the late American conflict was uppermost in Motley’s mind; his observations, slightly edited for clarity, are reproduced here through the courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.


… I can’t very well talk to you of politics for I suppose that chasms wider and deeper than the Atlantic separate your thoughts from mine; and as I always desire to show the respect which I feel for those who are capable of thinking for themselves and from whom I am so unfortunate as to differ I am apt to think it best to hold my tongue. Being one of the most obstinate and infuriated conservatives of America—believing in no government but that of the People, respecting no institutions but democratic institutions, … I have naturally but little patience with those insane radicals who have been trying these four years to uproot the strongest and most reasonable commonwealth that ever existed, in the hope of planting upon its ruins that vilest and most poisonous of systems ever imagined by human creatures, the slave confederacy.

Well, it was a horrible dream of blood and fire from which we have at last awakened, as I for one never doubted even in the darkest hour that we should do.

Thank God Slavery is abolished and the accursed oligarchy based upon it—that hideous caricature of an aristocracy, having all the defects and none of the essentials of an aristocracy—has gone to the nether regions along with it, and we who believe in liberty and civilisation and human progress can look forward through the immediate present to an almost unlimited future of prosperity and power for the great Republic.

I am an optimist, as you see, in regard to the war. If I ever trembled at all it was once in a while at the possibility of peace—before the work has thoroughly done; but my profound faith in the American People always kept me up and made me feel that the danger was chimerical. After all, it is the cheapest war ever waged. The precious blood that it has cost can never be overvalued, I know—but it has been shed in the noblest cause that men have ever died for. … As for the 3000 millions of money, what is that when the only alternative, the only way to save the money, was for our great nation to commit suicide? … How I envy those who have fought—yea even those who have died in this great argument—in this great contest with Lucifer. Next to them, … I think I envy those of the next generation, who will write the history of their deeds when the great results are patent to the world. The truth is that this four years history of ours seems to belittle and to make pale much of previous history, and I begin to look down upon my well-beloved 16th century much as Gulliver did when he came back from among the Brobdingnags and was afraid of walking over the foot passengers and the horses and coaches he met in London streets.

What epoch—what war—ever compared with ours in the vastness of the operations, the immensity of the theatre, the tremendous character of the machinery, the magnitude of the issues, the sublimity of the results and the heroic simplicity of the foremost personages? I am always afraid to express my admiration of Lincoln for fear of overenthusiam. But I am sure that through all future ages there will be a halo around that swarthy face, and a glory about that long, lean uncouth figure, such as History only accords to its saints and its sages. I have got over my grief for his murder in the conviction that he has gained in this sudden departure. His work was done. His wise cheerfulness which the vulgar mistook for vulgarity, his patience and his magnificent simplicity and truth are no longer absolutely indispensable to us.

And what a splendid phenomenon is Grant—the man who, I really believe, has accomplished far more in a military way than any man now living, and as much as any dead man except the very few acknowledged masters in the Art of war. … What could be more heroic than his stupendous bashfulness! I don’t profess to be a judge of military matters, but I can’t help thinking that the campaigns of Visksburg and Chattanooga and of Richmond from May/64 to April/65 will always rank as very consummate achievements. …

I wish you would show me that you pardon me all this rubbish I have been writing by sending me a reply. Don’t be afraid of shocking me by the profligacy of your principles. I know them of old. But I can stand your cynicism as well as you can my gentle enthusiam. … I remain ever affectionately yr friend.

J. L. M.

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