Nine key books and articles taken together can explain what led to the first sparks of civil violence and how those sparks ignited what evolved into the bloodiest and most important war in U.S. history. A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.
Works reviewed in this essay:
Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2004.
Berlin, Ira. “Who Freed the Slaves? Emancipation and Its Meaning.” Union & Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1997.
Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2001.
Fleche, Andre. The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Gallagher, Gary W. The Union War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians 1861-1865. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009.
Kelly, Patrick J. “The North American Crisis of the 1860s.” The Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 3, (September 2012): 337-361.
McPherson, James. “Who Freed the Slaves?” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 139, no. 1 (March 1995): 1-10.
The crucial story of U.S. history is the Civil War. But too often readers skip right over the significance of the “Civil” and go right to the “War.” When the spotlight shines only on the armies and the navies, glorious battles and inglorious retreats, and the admirals and generals who won and lost, one can lose sight of why hundreds of thousands of Americans slaughtered each other for years.
Readers forget why and how fundamental cultural and political differences swirled like a hurricane into a galaxy of large and small battles, and how such violence was hardly new in a war-torn nineteenth century world. Scholars forget the transnational democratic movements wafting in the political breezes that inspired or terrified citizens desperately committed to their own visions of American freedom. Students forget why the war was key to measuring the republic’s commitment to preserve the wilting blossoms of international democracy. Everyone forgets that slavery – not states’ rights, not economic domination, not debates over big government — is what steadily fractured every element of antebellum American society, government, economy, and future aspirations.
Fortunately, less than a dozen key books and articles taken together can explain what led to the first sparks of civil violence and how those sparks ignited what evolved into the bloodiest and most important war in U.S. history.
I. The sparks and the fire
White Americans owned black Americans. Slavery as an institution predated the Revolutionary War. Moral debates over its place in the new republic were muted throughout the independence era. The U.S. Constitution legalized the institution of slavery and considered blacks only 60 percent human. Slaves were a massive labor force upon which Southerners built their aristocratic society and King Cotton and sugar industries. Slaves were a highly lucrative commodity that Southern states hoped to sell to new farmers in Western states. Worst of all, slaveholders enjoyed and protected their violent sexual control of the women they owned.
No book better illustrates that horror than Harriet Jacobs’ harrowing account of her life as a slave in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Her owner, Dr. Flint, sexually harassed her. Her sexual affair with another white man, which produced two slave children, was a desperate attempt to get Flint to sell her off to her lover. She gave up an opportunity to escape to the North to remain near her family. As Flint hunted for her, she hid in an attic for seven years and watched her community, including her children, from a hole in the wall. Her experiences demonstrated how slave women had no control over their sexual lives, their families, or their futures. Their only weapons were their sexuality, their intelligence, and their will to survive. They were trapped in a slaveholding system upheld by national laws, protected by national political leaders, and perpetuated by economic and racial imperatives. Her book, aimed at Northern women, demonstrated the strong and humanizing commitment of black men and women to their families, illustrated the constant sexual threat slavery posed to black women, and explained to her white readers how slavery also destroyed white families by their action and inaction in service of the slaveholding system.
When a new national party, the Republican Party, challenged in the late 1850s the future of slavery in the United States, some Southern leaders raised the old cry for secession from the Union. Since the 1820s, competing economic interests struggled for control over the direction of the quickly growing country. With every era of expansion came carefully-crafted congressional deals delineating into which areas slavery could expand. Some succeeded and some did not. The Louisiana Purchase saw the Missouri Compromise. Territorial gains from the Mexican War saw the doomed Wilmot Proviso. Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas offered the Kansas-Nebraska Act. With each political generation, the polarization intensified. Southerners were convinced the North sought to contain slavery. Northerners perceived a Slave Power conspiracy that controlled one president after another, dominated both houses of Congress, and infected the Supreme Court’s objective judgment.
Charles B. Dew argues in his slender but powerful Apostles of Disunion that slavery was at the heart of secession. He follows Southern slaveholding speakers as they traveled throughout the South during the presidential election year of 1860, arguing to anyone who would listen that Abraham Lincoln’s election guaranteed the emancipation of the slaves. Emancipation, they insisted, guaranteed race war, racial marriage, and racial equality. Slaves would kill their masters, rape their wives and daughters, and help conceive a nation that held whites equal to blacks. Lincoln’s election marked the end of both Southern civilization and legal subjugation of non-white people, they argued. The only option was Southern separation from a poisoned, doomed republic and the formation of a new one.
After Lincoln’s election, Southern states steadily seceded, and Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Thousands of Northern citizen-soldiers donned the blue Federal Army uniform and prepared to defend their Union. Looking backwards in history with sympathetic eyes, it is too easy to assume they fought to break the chains of slavery restraining their fellow black citizens. Gary W. Gallagher disagrees. He argues in The Union War that Northern soldiers fought not for slavery but for Union. They fought against a slaveholding aristocracy to preserve their republican government for themselves and for the world, brightening the beacon of democracy sweeping across a dark world of empires and kingdoms. Slavery was ended, yes, but only as a result of the Northern will to strip the South of anything that sustained its resistance to moral and military realities.
II. The reasons
The war ended slavery, but where should history lay the credit for emancipation? James M. McPherson argues in a 1995 essay that Lincoln deserved credit for ultimately freeing the slaves because he directed the war that ensured personally self-emancipated slaves would remain free in a society cleansed of the legalized slave system. Without the Union War, McPherson writes, “there would have been no confiscation act, no Emancipation Proclamation, no Thirteenth Amendment (not to mention the Fourteenth or Fifteenth), certainly no self-emancipation, and almost certainly no end of slavery for several more decades. …” Lincoln was the “political denominator in all the steps” that defeated the Southern slave system.
In 1997 Ira Berlin disagreed with McPherson. His essays insists that grassroots social forces freed the slaves. Union forces would move through Southern communities, and slaves would abandon their homes to join them. When soldiers refused to send the runaways back because they found them useful, the slave system was weakened. When soldiers wrote to their families, and those families as voters helped change congressional and presidential opinion, slavery was weakened. If Lincoln led the way nationally, Berlin argues, it was only because people in immediate contact with the slave system cleared a path for him. If Lincoln had not led, someone else would have.
Lincoln was desperate to bring back the seceded states into the South by any political means necessary. One brilliant historian summarized Lincoln’s thinking with brutal simplicity: If the South came back, Lincoln promised to be the greatest fugitive slave-catcher in history. Even when war began, Mark Grimsley explains in The Hard Hand of War, Lincoln took a conciliatory approach. When armies moved through Southern regions, soldiers would not harm civilians, and they would respect all forms of personal property, particularly slaves.
Lincoln gradually realized that nothing he could do would bring the seceded states back. That crushing realization, coupled with the North’s growing list of defeats in the Eastern Theater, particularly throughout the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, hardened Lincoln’s belief in final victory. He aimed for the Confederacy’s jugular — the slaves — with the ultimate war measure. The Emancipation Proclamation was a clarion call to slaves to abandon their masters and let the entire slaveholding system collapse in on itself.
The conciliatory war gradually became a hard war. As Berlin stresses, soldiers did not return escaped slaves. They took pigs. They took chickens. They ripped down fences for fires. They threw railroad tracks — key for moving Confederate men and material — into those fires. The friction and abrasion of Union forces in Southern territory transformed the way the war was fought. In Georgia, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman led the transformation from the top with the policy of directed severity. Barns were incinerated. Homes were destroyed. But civilians were not directly harmed. It was violence against property and not people.
III. The women
The war killed and injured hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Northern women cared for Union soldiers with tireless devotion. Louisa May Alcott joined them, and she collected her memories of the experience in Hospital Sketches. The memoir made Alcott famous throughout the North. The book captures the opportunities the war offered to many Northern women, who were expected under normal circumstances to remain in their patriarchal society’s private and domestic sphere. The public sphere was reserved for men. The war was not revolutionary in terms of gender roles, but the extraordinary circumstances made allowances for women willing to walk through the new social cracks. Alcott did exactly that as she joined a Washington D.C. hospital staff. She entered the public sphere as a nurturer — as a nurse. She infantilized her male patients, calling them her boys, and in this temporary wartime sphere she touched their bodies, cleaned their wounds, and guided them from life to death.
Hospital Sketches contributed to the Northern war effort in unique ways. It illustrated for Northern readers the gruesome suffering their soldiers endured in defense of their democratic republic. It celebrated the material, physical, and psychological sacrifices of citizen-soldiers, ennobling them and the nation for which they fought. Alcott portrays one patient as a Christ-like figure — his death for his countrymen makes it possible for a new nation to arise from the ash and blood of a righteous war.
IV. The world
Northerners and Southerners both saw the Civil War as a struggle for the future of freedom in the world, not simply in the United States. Europe’s nationalist revolts in 1848 — and the subsequent monarchical counterrevolutions that crushed them — burned in their memories as North America’s domestic unrest intensified. Andre Fleche’s The Revolution of 1861 and Patrick Kelly’s 2012 article “The North American Crisis of the 1860s” both demonstrate how political leaders and citizens on both sides, standing at the threshold of the revolution of 1861, attempted to align themselves not only with the U.S. revolutionary legacy of the 1770s but also with the revolution of 1848. An era of nationalist revolutionary spirit that streaked around the world — from the mid-1770s to the late-1860s — began and would end in North America.
Both sides, Fleche notes, perceived the Civil War as North America’s opportunity to fulfill the revolution that Europe began. Northerners wanted to destroy New World slaveholding aristocracy. Southerners wanted to escape Northern radicals ready to shatter their racial order. Northerners, as Gallagher emphasizes, viewed their democratic republic as an island of freedom in a treacherous ocean of imperial oppression. Southerners attempted to portray themselves as the freedom fighters, as Dew implies, struggling to uphold the legacy of the Founding Fathers and rebuild anew a self-governing republic.
Sprinkled among the Americans were refugees of the 1848 revolts, particularly Germans, who understood the difficulty of asserting a democratic nation in the shadow of aristocratic oppression. Their enthusiastic participation in the Union war effort, Kelly notes, essentially amounted to a freedom-fighting army at the center of the blue-coated Federal force and a viable political and moral force in Northern cities that supported Republican goals. Unfortunately, Gallagher spends little to no time exploring the 1848 Germans’ contribution to the Union war effort, despite the supreme importance Lincoln placed on the community as a potent source of political and military support.
The war began with both sides seemingly misaligned, with the North defending the status quo and the South fighting for the freedom to break away. But once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — temporarily in 1862 and then officially in 1863 — the North leapt past the South on the moral spectrum. The North became the revolutionary force, and the South instantly became the archaic aristocracy, defending the past instead of fighting for the future.
Secession was a dynamiting of the linkages Northerners made to the transnational and transatlantic struggles for nationalism and freedom. When imperial France invaded Mexico and placed a French emperor in charge, Kelly explains, the Confederacy allied itself with the new French rulers. Southerners were desperate for foreign recognition, and not even moral hypocrisy was too high of a price to pay for it. The supposed Southern freedom-fighters promised to support the French government in Mexico — the first crashing counterrevolutionary wave in the New World — if France recognized the Confederacy. Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant’s determination to support Mexican revolutionaries highlights the dual advantage of final Union victory: once the New World aristocratic threat was defeated, the United States would join the fight in driving out Old World aristocratic threat and fulfill the goals of the 1848 struggles for freedom.
The Civil War changed the United States in ways historians are still discovering, if only because it occurred in a world as complex if not more so than today’s. War empowered women as it freed slaves. It illuminated sexual abuse, personal bravery, and inextinguishable devotion. It linked desperate defeats in distant foreign lands to the victories of Northern men marching through Southern valleys. It demanded that Americans view war, race, class, and freedom in new ways. The Civil War was the test every citizen had to pass, and its lessons dare every subsequent generation to fulfill the liberties the war was waged to protect.