With Bulldog Determination: What a Civil War Battlefield Can Teach Pro-life Advocates


In the summer of 1864, as the American Civil War was entering its final phase, things were not going well for the Union. The new overall Commander of the United States Army, General Ulysses Grant, had been charged by President Lincoln with defeating Confederate armies in the field and capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, in order to bring the war to a close. 

The Union Armies launched their new campaigns in May of 1864, leading to multiple clashes as Grant pushed troops closer to Richmond on several fronts, culminating in disaster at the Battle of Cold Harbor. 

At Cold Harbor, just a few miles from Richmond, Union troops charged heavily fortified enemy trenches, hoping that one massive, overwhelming push would allow them to carry the field. 

What followed was a colossal bloodbath, reminiscent of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg the year prior, with Union Forces suffering around 6,000 casualties in the course of an hour. Grant later remarked in his memoirs how much he regretted ordering the charge at Cold Harbor, sustaining much loss and gaining nothing.

In spite of these defeats and setbacks, Grant kept the pressure up on Lee. Recognizing that Lee would fortify his positions yet again in the next engagement and force Grant to attack him, Grant shifted tactics. Instead of relying on a mass charge against an entrenched, fortified opponent, he would settle in for a siege. This was a tactic he knew well, having performed successful sieges earlier in the war, at Fort Donelson in 1862, and Vicksburg in 1863. He was also familiar with breaking up a siege of his own position, as he did in the Chattanooga campaign in fall of 1863. 

He did the same here. Instead of letting Lee decimate his armies on the battlefield by encouraging the Union to attack fortified entrenchments, Grant trapped Lee in the city of Petersburg, Virginia, a major railway hub that supplied the Confederate Capital in Richmond. If Lee gave up Petersburg and retreated west, Richmond would be captured and the war would come to a close. Instead of attempting to destroy the Confederate Army in one massive push, Grant would gradually chip away at it’s ability to fight back until it either ceased to exist or gave up the will to fight. 

We know how the story ended. Lee, realizing the odds, gave up Petersburg and subsequently Richmond, to Union Forces, who pursued what remained of his Army until they surrendered a week later, bring the Civil War to an end. 

Today, you can visit the same grounds at Petersburg where these events occurred. If you walk through the forests surrounding the town, you can easily find the remains of fighting positions left over from the war, set up by both sides as they contended for control of the ground.

While the issue of abortion is not a real life war, there are lessons to be gleaned from the events at Petersburg for pro-life advocates who are facing an increasingly hostile culture. In any circumstance where there is a competition of wills, be it sports, politics, or a clash over ideals, it can be helpful to learn from strategic thinkers.

The chief challenge for pro-lifers is simple: the culture sees legal abortion as reasonable, and laws meant to protect unborn children as outrageous. There are several reasons for this is; reasons pro-life advocates must make an effort to understand and respond to.

For one, there is the issue of worldview. The views that shape the way the culture thinks about issues like abortion, or sexual ethics in general, have been growing and maturing for decades. Two philosophical worldviews in particular stand out: Body-Self Dualism, and Expressive Individualism. Both views can easily go hand in hand. 

Body Self-Dualism essentially states that the person you are, the reader, is not the physical body holding the phone, tablet or computer to read this blog, but essentially the mind that inhabits the body. Before birth, your brain hadn’t developed enough in order for a mind to take shape before you were born, abortion may have destroyed a human body, but it didn’t destroy a valuable “person” because you, the “person”, did not yet exist, and abortion really would have done no harm because there was no one to be harmed by the abortion. 

Expressive Individualism takes things a step further. Applying the assumptions inherent in Body-Self Dualism, Expressive Individualism essentially states that because the person you are is internal, the mind inhabiting the body, then the body is merely the property of the mind or “person” inhabiting it. This means the body can be shaped according to the desires of the person inhabiting it. As regards abortion, Bodily Autonomy is exercising control over the body one owns. 

Other philosophical worldviews come into play as well, in particular Relativism, Postmodernism, Materialism, and others, but the point is, for a culture that has adopted this way of thinking, abortion simply makes sense. 

Second, there are other reasons as well, reasons that have to do more with the emotional aspects of the issue than with the intellectual. 

With over 65 million abortions performed in this country since Roe v. Wade, and abortion being legal for any reason whatsoever in places like California, there are going to be millions of people who have personal connections to the issue, and those personal connections can easily shape the way one thinks about right and wrong regarding abortion. Recognizing abortion as wrong would mean that many people would have to admit they engaged in an act which killed their own child. The psychological barriers to such an admission are obviously going to be immense. 

Lastly, there is a moral reason for why people support abortion, or more specifically, a volitional reason: Abortion exists to sustain the sexual lifestyle choices of selfish adults. In the wake of the Dobbs decision there were a number of abortions activists who declared they would be refusing to have sex until abortion was protected in law. Many outspoken pro-choice activists are also fairly outspoken about their sexual lifestyles. There is often a very deep sense of “Me first, me last, me always” that will drive people in their support for various issues pertaining to sex, and abortion isn’t much different. Put simply, abortion exists to protect the sexual activities of selfish adults.

It’s important to recognize these challenges for a couple of reasons. 

On one hand, there is a growing push among some activists, particularly those who claim the title of Abolitionist, to dispense with incremental pro-life laws(such as heartbeat bills) entirely, claiming that they pick and choose which children live and which ones die. 

Instead, they clamor for a singular approach to law: A complete, total ban on all abortions, with no exception. In addition, there is a demand to include in these laws provisions that allow for women to be prosecuted for undergoing abortions. The reason, we are told, is that if abortion is murder, then it must be treated consistently by the law. 

The demand is more passionate than rational. It’s not hard to see why: Pro-lifers have been struggling to get even basic measures aimed at protecting at least some unborn children to pass, and have faced multiple setbacks when the issue is put to a vote in various states. 

And we’re supposed to just rally behind new laws that are going to be even less popular to a public that has embraced abortion wholesale? 

More can be said on this, but to sum things up, attempting to pass laws that will further alienate people who would support protections for the unborn by making the prosecution of women a key staple in the platform isn’t going to save unborn children. It will help kill them, as the pro-choice movement will be able to find new energy in rallying to protect women from being prosecuted for what they see as no more than the removal of a growth of cells. Anyone who ignores this reality is living a delusion. 

Those who want to see greater protections on behalf of the unborn are up against immense challenges. A basic rule in tactics, as mentioned above, is that when facing an entrenched opponent, a wise commander will settle in for a siege instead of launching costly attacks that will lead nowhere, except even greater losses. 

This brings us back to the actions at Petersburg. Rather than launching a massive, frontal assault which would yet again result in disaster(and cost the Union the war, as many in Washington were demanding Lincoln give up his efforts to defeat the Confederacy), Grant resorted to a siege. While attacks were made along the line over the course of the next nine months, the siege itself proved the undoing of the Confederate Army. Troops deserted and simply gave up trying to hold on to Petersburg and Richmond, finding the cost simply too great. The result was the eventual collapse, retreat, and surrender of the Confederate Army. 

Today, pro-lifers should think of our efforts as a long-term siege rather than an all-out frontal assault. Or, as another saying goes, our efforts should be seen as running a marathon, not a sprint. This means we need to get clever about addressing the reasons why abortion remains reasonable to large numbers of people. For one, we need to address the worldview foundations of abortion through careful arguments and by dialoguing with people. On the other hand, we need to expose abortion to the broader public. To do this, we must show abortion for what it is, by using images to wisely communicate truth to a culture that refuses to believe there is anything morally wrong with the issue. Graphic images of abortion force the heart to see what the mind refuses, by showcasing the human nature of the unborn, and the inhumanity of the abortion procedure. After all, life does not center around us; there are other people involved, including the unborn. 

Furthermore, pro-life advocates need to be quick to challenge the inherent selfishness driving the culture by calling out the self-centered ways of thinking that often drive support for abortion. After all, what do we think of someone who says they don’t care if their actions may hurt or even kill another person? We ought to confront their attitude and suggest they think more about the needs of people around them, especially people who are dependent on them and can’t take care of themselves. Pro-life groups who bend over backwards to be liked by pro-choice activists and refuse to make them uncomfortable with the truth will find themselves irrelevant and useless, whereas pro-life organizations who directly confront the issue should make every effort to do so without being abusive and crass. Both wisdom and intellect go hand-in-hand.

Finally, it needs to be remembered that not every mind will be changed on the spot; to change someone’s mind sometimes takes years. The final result is often not up to us to decide; however, efforts still need to be made. 

The pro-life movement won a great victory by outlasting Roe v. Wade for more than fifty years, now is the time to begin chipping away at the opposing entrenchments in order to help the culture see the reality of what it is embracing in fighting for abortion, and showing the culture that the cost of embracing abortion is too great to be maintained.