When I was in the USA, I was exposed to parts of American history. It was mostly odd facts like California was once part of Mexico or the history of independence in Boston.
I became curious, especially about the American Civil War, a pivotal event in American history. I’ve just finished reading Battle Cry of Freedom, a fine single volume history of the War by James McPherson.
When reading history it’s sometimes the incidental details that are fascinating. I didn’t, for example, know that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican or that there were Republicans who wanted to abolish slavery and Democrats who wanted to preserve it. It seems incredible given the current leanings of the two parties.
The South are variously described as rebels, secessionists (wanting to break away from the United States), and Confederates. They were pro-slavery. The North (“Yankees”) were generally against slavery and pro Union (keeping the states united). However, this was not universally true, just as some Republicans wanted to keep slavery and some Democrats didn’t (especially Northern Democrats).
By 1819, the US was made of 11 Slave States and 11 Free States. I was astonished to read that slave owners in the South could send men to the North and simply grab free black people, declaring that they were escaped slaves! The courts rarely ruled in favour of blacks. A black man, for example, with a family could be whisked away to the South and become a slave having been free his whole life.
Prior to the Civil War starting, there was much tension between the South and the North, which came to a head when Lincoln became President with a clean sweep of the North and no seats in the South.
The South feared the North wanted to abolish slavery. Although most people in the South didn’t own slaves, many supported it, possibly because they aspired to join the wealthier classes, who were slave owners. Slavery created many millionaires in places like the Mississippi River valley because of the cotton trade. Although the primary reason for wanting slavery was economic (the reliance on slave labour fuelled the southern economy), religious, historical and even humanitarian arguments were made in its favour.
When the South fired the first shots that started the Civil War, it was the start of a four-year war that would claim the lives of more than 620,000 soldiers: 360,000 Yankees and 260,000 rebels. The number of deaths exceeded the total lost in all other wars combined, including Vietnam; this is slightly less than the current (Aug 2021) Covid-19 deaths in the USA (628,000) but doesn’t take into account the current larger population.
Towards the end of the War, as the South were losing and running out of men, they debated the possibility of having blacks fight for them. The North already had black soldiers and recruited some liberated southern slaves. This, however, was a thorny issue for the South. How could they have slaves fighting for the Confederacy? It was incongruous to have slaves fight for the right to preserve slavery! This absurdity was moderated with the idea that slaves who fought for the South would be free after the War. The bill passed in the House (without the mandate to free slave soldiers) but not in the Senate. The policy was never enacted.
It is much debated why the North eventually prevailed. Here are some common reasons and objections:
- The size of the army — The North had twice as many soldiers as the South and three times as many dedicated to the War. It’s possible, as Napoleon said, “that God was on the side of the heaviest battalions”. However, history is filled with example where people have won wars against the odds: Switzerland against the Hapsburg Empire; North Vietnam against the US; and even the US against the British in 1776.
- Division — Internal division in the South was also a possible reason for the defeat; again, however, if the South had won, historians could easily have highlighted all the division that existed in the North.
- Leadership — The North and South had formidable generals: Robert E Lee in the South and Ulysses S Grant in the North (aided by the equally able Sherman). Lee or Grant could have led his side to victory. Equally, there were incompetent leaders on both sides who bumbled their way through the War.
The author, McPherson, believed “most attempts to explain southern defeat or northern victory lack the dimension of contingency — the recognition that at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently”. For him, there were four key events:
- The stopping of the southern counter-offensive in 1862, which had the potential for Confederate success.
- Southern defeats in 1862 forestalled European mediation and recognition of the Confederacy, perhaps preventing a Democratic victory in the 1862 northern elections which would have diminished Lincoln’s ability to carry the war. His election victory was followed by the Emancipation Proclamation, which enlarged the scope and purpose of the War.
- Union victories in 1863 at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga.
- Confederate defeat in Atlanta and destruction of a key part of the southern army when the opposing sides were on the brink of peace negotiations and the distinct possibility of a Democratic president.
It was after these key turning points, according to McPherson, that the South experienced “an irretrievable ‘loss of the will to fight'”.
When the war did end, Northern soldiers were dignified. They did not humiliate the surrendering southern solders: “These enemies in many a bloody battle ended the war not with shame on one side and exultation on the other but with a soldier’s ‘mutual salutation and farewell'”.
Whilst the causes, consequences and reasons for the outcome are still debated, two things are clear: secession was stopped and slavery was abolished.
Lincoln’s position on slavery is complicated. Whilst he was broadly against it, it’s debatable how much we wanted to do to end it. The Civil War, for Lincoln and others, was not primarily about slavery but about preserving the Union. In 1862, Lincoln wrote a letter to the New York Tribune that included the following:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
In a presidential debate, Lincoln asserted that whites were biologically superior to blacks — although he did add that that didn’t justify slavery. But he didn’t want blacks and whites to marry each other or for blacks to be on a jury. His wife herself was from a slave-owning family. It was only later in his second term as President that he supported limited voting rights for some blacks.
Former slave Frederick Douglass, who would become a leading abolitionist thought Lincoln, although subject to the “prejudices of his white fellow-country-men against the Negro”, had two missions as President: to save the Union and to abolish slavery. Douglass felt that Lincoln was wise enough to know that simply proclaiming slavery a crime against humanity was not enough abolish it:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined…
Taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.