So apparently the issue of the day is whether or not Ulysses S. Grant was simply a great American, or the Greatest American. Nathan Newman begins the nomination process here, and is seconded by Barbara at Mahablog here. So I decided to do a bit of reading on the Civil War, and I am once again struck by something that leaves me conflicted.
At the end of the war, when accepting Lee's surrender at Appomatox, Grant was magnanimous in victory, allowing Officers to keep their sidearms and their horses. This was seen at the time as a way of trying to heal the wounds of the war, a sentiment that would later be advocated by the Democrats in Congress (back when the Dems were the bad guys.)
"Radical" Republicans who tried to impose punitive measures on the South, or even enforce the equality of black voters, were effectively blocked by Southerners in Congress and most especially on the Supreme Court. If you want to look at it generously, this was an attempt to try and heal the wounds of war. More pessimistically, it was a way for the South to try and avoid the consequences of their political, military, and moral inferiority. (If we can't all agree at this point on the moral case, something is very, very wrong.)
So here's the question: Would the US have been better off if the Radicals had prevailed, punitive measures imposed, and federally-enforced equality been the rule since the 1870s or so? I'm tempted to say yes, given that the South seems to never have conceded a) that they lost because they were inferior, and b) it was a good thing they lost. Germany and Japan (though less so Japan) have come to terms with their defeat. And here the example is instructive: At the end of WWII, Germany and Japan weren't simply defeated in the battlefield - they ceased to exist as sovereign states for a substantial period after the war. Large portions of their countries had been levelled, and in short it was impossible for anyone but the clinically psychopathic to maintain that the war could have been won, "if only..."
Meanwhile, if you want a further counter-example, Germany's experience of WWI, where German armies were soundly defeated but retreated in order left common Germans with the illusion that Germany hadn't been defeated, but rather had been betrayed by Jews, Communists, etc. Crucially, the German High Command (whose incompetence and idolatry of offensive war had caused so much ruin) explicitly blamed the civilian democratic government shortly after the war. This, arguably more than the Versailles Treaty, led directly to the mythology that Hitler fed on in his rise.
So does this mean that, in victory, it's better to leave no illusion about the virtue of your opponent? That crushing victory is better than a negotiated settlement? That anything less than total victory just paves the way for more war in the future? For reasons that I suspect are obvious, I fervently hope this isn't true.