Causes of the American Civil War – 3: The Antebellum South

Monticello

The Southern man aspired to a lifestyle that had, as utopian model of success, the English country farmer. Jeffersonian agrarianism was valued over Hamiltonian industrialization.
To achieve success, cheap labor in the form of slavery was embraced.

Monticello
Watercolor View of the West Front of Monticello and Garden (1825) by Jane Braddick. Peticolas. The children are Thomas Jefferson's grandchildren.
Inspection of slave
Inspection and Sale of a Slave. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Digital ID: cph 3a17639

The capital of the south was invested in slaves even after modernized farming equipment became available. More land was needed to produce more crops which required, in turn, more slaves. This cycle repeated until some 4 million slaves populated the South by mid-century. The system became self-perpetuating because – as posited by historian James McPherson – slavery undermined the work-ethic of both slave and Southern whites. The slave obviously had limited opportunity for advancement. Manual labor became associated with bondage and so lacked honor. The result was a limited flow of white immigrants to the south who could provide an alternative labor force and an increase in the migration of southern whites to free states.

Simply stated, the South chose not to modernize. It hosted little manufacturing. It also lacked a well developed transportation system (a fact that would prove key to the conduct of the war).

White supremacy was simply a fact. Part of the responsibility of owning slaves was to care for their material needs as you would children. White southern children grew up with a facility for “command” and became a part of what was viewed by many as a southern aristocracy.[ii]

According to historian Avery Craven, “three great forces always worked toward a common Southern pattern. They were:

  • a rural way of life capped by an English gentleman ideal,
  • a climate in part more mellow than other sections enjoyed, and
  • the presence of the Negro race in quantity. More than any other forces these things made the South Southern.”[iii]

Next post – The Antebellum North

For additional reading on Jeffersonian Agrarianism see the University of Virginia site here

[i] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10., 41.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 33.

Causes of the American Civil War – 2: Antebellum America

Image of escaping slaves

The ConstitutionIn the last post, I kicked off a series looking at the causes of the American Civil War. Study of 19th century Antebellum America reveals a young country experiencing incredible change. Its rate of growth in almost all measures was unrivaled in the world. Its population was exploding through both immigration and birth rate. The push for land drove expansion of its boundaries to the south and west. Technological development enabled modernization and industrialization. The “American System of Manufactures” created the factory system.[i] People became “consumers” rather than “producers” of goods and this changed many social aspects of society.

Geneva Bible
Geneva Bible

The majority of Americans held a Calvinist belief structure. Puritan influence was strongest in New England. Immigration of large numbers of Catholic Irish created new cultural and ethnic tension. Irish Catholics tended to oppose reform and clustered in the lower classes of the North while native Yankee Protestants predominated in the upper and middle-classes.[ii] The century was marked by enthusiastic evangelical reformation movements. [Note: Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]

A two-party political system had emerged by 1830. “Issues associated with modernizing developments in the first half of the century helped to define the ideological position of the two parties and the constituencies to which they appealed.”[iii] Democrats inherited the Jeffersonian commitment to states’ rights, limited government, traditional economic arrangements, and religious pluralism; Whigs inherited the Federalist belief in nationalism, a strong government, economic innovation, and cultural homogeneity under the auspices of established Protestant denominations.[iv]

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

The fight for democracy and the fight for morality became one and the same.[v] “The kingdom of heaven on earth was a part of the American political purpose. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Scriptures were all in accord.”[vi]

Distinct Northern and Southern cultures began to emerge early in the country’s history. These differences became more marked as the pressures that accompanied the nation’s incredible growth, territorial expansion and social change manifested themselves. Sectional identities and allegiances became increasingly important.

Next post – the Antebellum South.

American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of IndependenceFor further reading:

[i] Historian James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10, [ii] Ibid., 23, [iii] Ibid., 25, [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., 13, [vi] Ibid.

Causes of the American Civil War – 1

Image of slaves on Smith's Plantation
Dred Scott Image
Photo of Dred Scott. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-5092CE

To celebrate the opening of Wig-Wags.com, I’m republishing a  series of posts on the much debated topic of the causes of the American Civil war. Let today’s post serve as its introduction. I’ll attempt in the series to address two questions. The first is whether economic interests, political agitation, and the cultural differences between North and South did more to bring about the Civil War than the issue of slavery. The second is whether the American Civil War could have been avoided. Was it inevitable? Underlying both questions is the matter of causation of the war. If there was a singular, definitive reason for it the task would be easier. But deliberation over its cause has continued for almost a century and a half and will no doubt carry on into the future with little hope of achieving clear answers. Scholar Kenneth M. Stampp summarized the challenges of the quest well. [Image of Dred Scott .]

As one reflects upon the problem of causation one is driven to the conclusion that historians will never know, objectively and with mathematical precision, what caused the Civil War. Working with fragmentary evidence, possessing less than a perfect understanding of human behavior, viewing the past from the perspective of their own times, finding it impossible to isolate one historical event to test its significance apart from all others, historians must necessarily be somewhat tentative and conjectural in offering their interpretations.[i]

He concluded, and with this, I whole heartedly agree, that even though the ongoing debate over the causes of the war remains inconclusive, the effort of examination brings increased clarity.[ii]

More in the next post.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

Kenneth Stampp
Kenneth Stampp

[i] Kenneth M. Stampp, ed. The Causes of the Civil War, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 17-18.The Causes of the Civil War
[ii] Ibid., 18.
Photo of Dred Scott. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-5092CE

On General Grenville M. Dodge

Peter A. Hansen

One of my readers is researching General Grenville M. Dodge and asked for information. I, of course, turned promptly to my buddy Peter A. Hansen who knows more about rail history than anyone I know. Pete writes for most of the major rail history magazines, consults with museums and rail companies, speaks regularly on rail history, and is currently editor of Railroad History, the scholarly journal of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society. Pete has also been an on-camera source for CBS News and NBC News. More about Pete here.

Fun Fact: It’s an indisputable fact that Railroad History is the oldest (and still the most scholarly) rail history journal, but it is also believed to be the oldest industrial heritage journal of any kind in the U.S.

The information below is all Pete’s.

“You’ve seen Dodge many times, though you may not have known it. He appears at the center of what’s arguably the most famous photograph in American history (below). Two men on the ground are shaking hands; Dodge is the one on the right.

Golden Spike Ceremony
Golden Spike ceremony; 16-G-99-1-1, Still Picture Records; Photographs and other Graphic Materials; Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture; Record Group 16; National Archives.
Thomas C. Durant

Thomas C. Durant

Dodge was born in Danvers, Mass. in 1831, and educated at New Hampshire’s Durham Academy and Vermont’s Norwich University.  Upon receiving his engineering degree, he did what many ambitious young engineers did in the 1850s:  He went to work for a railroad.  He started with the Illinois Central, and later went to the Chicago & Rock Island and the Mississippi & Missouri.  It was during his service to the latter two roads that he met Thomas C. Durant, who would later become the driving force behind the Union Pacific, the eastern half of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

Abraham Lincoln

Dodge’s relationship with Lincoln stemmed from a chance 1859 encounter on the front porch of the Pacific House hotel in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Lincoln was in town to inspect some real estate that had been offered as collateral for a loan requested by a friend, and he was also due to make a speech there.  (He wasn’t yet an officially-declared candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, but he was at least considering it.)  Dodge had just returned from a surveying expedition in Nebraska’s Platte Valley, seeking a route for an eventual Pacific railroad.  Lincoln, a frontiersman by birth, was intensely interested in the subject of internal improvements, and particularly in a line to California.  During their two-hour meeting, Lincoln did most of the listening, and Dodge, the talking.  “By his kindly ways,” Dodge would recall, “[he] soon drew from me all I knew of the country west, and the results of my reconnoisances. [sic]  As the saying is, he completely ‘shelled my woods,’ getting all the secrets that were later to go to my employers.”

A few years later, when President Lincoln needed impartial advice on the Pacific Railroad, the greatest non-military undertaking of his administration (or indeed, in all of American history, up to that point), he turned to Dodge.  Apart from his unquestioned abilities, it may have been Dodge’s relationship with Lincoln that made him a favorite of Sherman and Grant.

Dodge began the war inauspiciously enough, as colonel of the Fourth Iowa infantry regiment.  He was to make his mark at Pea Ridge in early 1862, where he sustained multiple minor wounds and had three horses shot from under him.  He was promoted to brigadier general in April of that year, and was commanded to rebuild the Mobile & Ohio Railroad between Corinth, Miss., and Columbus, Ky.  Despite continual harassment by Nathan Bedford Forrest, he got the job done by October.

His performance did not go unnoticed.  Grant’s chief of staff, John Rawlins, sent for him that month, and he was given a divisional command with the Army of Tennessee.  He became something of a spymaster during the Vicksburg campaign, where he also covered Grant’s left during the final stages.

Brig. General Grenville M. Dodge circa 1863

It’s also worth noting that Lincoln sent for Dodge during the Vicksburg siege, seeking his advice on several matters related to the Pacific Railroad Act.  In particular, the Act had authorized the president to name the eastern terminus of the line, and Lincoln wanted to hear more about Council Bluffs.  Also, certain provisions of the 1862 Act had scared private investors away from the project:  Lincoln sought Dodge’s advice on how to redress them, but ultimately rejected Dodge’s advice on the finance question.  Dodge thought the government should simply build the railroad itself;  Lincoln favored a revised Pacific Railroad Act in which government bonds would take second position to private issues – a reversal from the original Act.  Lincoln’s view prevailed in Congress, and a second Pacific Railroad Act was passed in 1864.  Lincoln did follow Dodge’s advice about Council Bluffs, however, and to this day, the city is Milepost 0 on the Union Pacific’s line west from the Missouri River.

Grenville Dodge

Dodge went on leave after Vicksburg, and Durant lobbied him vigorously to resign his commission and return to railroading.  Durant saw an opportunity in the young engineer for unparalleled Washington influence, and offered him the generous salary of $5,000.  Nonetheless, Dodge remained in uniform for the rest of the war, though he would never again attain the distinction of the early campaigns.  He served under Sherman during the siege of Atlanta, where a bullet fractured his skull, after which he was effectively out of the war.

Incidentally, Dodge’s papers can be found at the Iowa State Department of History and Archives in Des Moines.  Do take his writings with a grain of salt:  Dodge was not above embellishing his record.  His home in Council Bluffs is now a museum, and it’s well worth a visit.  While you’re in town, you might also check out the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, which tells the story of the first transcontinental railroad, and of Dodge’s role in it.
Two additional footnotes:

  • One of the perks of being a railroad construction engineer, especially in virgin territory, was the ability to name places.  Thus, the highest point on the first transcontinental line was at Sherman, Wyo., 8013 feet above sea level.  Some 120 miles west, another Wyoming town bears the name of Rawlins.
  • Some of Dodge’s history with Lincoln is recounted in my February 2009 Trains magazine feature, ‘The Rail Splitter and the Railroads.'”

Many thanks to Pete for the information above!

For more on Grenville Dodge, I recommend:

On Braxton Bragg – 1

Braxton Bragg

W. J. Wood called Braxton Bragg the “most complicated of all the Confederacy’s generals.”(1) A graduate of the academy, where he excelled, he displayed skills as an administrator and adept trainer of troops. He had seen action in the Mexican War and was heralded as a war hero for his actions commanding artillery during the Battle of Buena Vista. Bragg was a stern disciplinarian, which Wood attributes to his experiences in Mexico where volunteer units ran when under fire from the enemy. He could be brusque even to the point of being rude.(2) He also shared his opinions freely, often too freely.

Library of Congress: Battle of Buena Vista, fought Feb. 23rd, 1847. Lithograph by N. Currier, 1847. Reproduction number: LC-USZC4-2957

(1) W. J. Wood, Civil War Generalship: The Art of Command [book on-line] (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997, accessed 29 November 2009), 118; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=30549970; Internet.

John Woo’s Epic Film…Red Cliff. Civil War in Ancient China

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that takes the visual depiction of battle to a new level (Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan).  John Woo’s epic film, Red Cliff, does just that. Based on the actual Battle of Red Cliffs (see the Red Cliff Wiki here) that took place in the winter 208 CE, the film depicts the conflict between northern Chinese Prime Minister Cao Cao, and a coalition of southern forces led by Liu Bei and Sun Quan. While fact and fiction undoubtedly blur, the film is based on Records of Three Kingdoms, which provides a more historical view of the epic battle than that depicted in the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Its American distributor is Magnolia Pictures who kindly sent me a review copy last week.

This film demands your full attention. It depicts both land-based and naval warfare in an age when weapons included sword and shield, bow and arrow, spear, and fire bombs. Woo went BIG in imagery and battle size. Cao Cao was reported to have brought 800,000 soldiers to invade the south on twently thousand ships so Woo used Army soldiers to supplement extras. Animators did the rest. Those interested in the animation techniques used in creation of the film will find interesting Bill Desowitz‘s article “The Battle of Red Cliff — John Woo Style!,” on the Animation World Network here. Pay particular attention to the Tortoise Shell Formation battle (below), one of the highlights of the film.

Turtle Formation Battle Scene

Animator’s also created the immense fleet of ships on which Cao Cao transported his army south. The climatic naval battle is beyond anything I’ve seen on film. Your attention is also required because the film, made in Mandarin, uses English subtitles that are occasionally difficult to see.

Red Cliff Trailer from Magnolia Pictures

Wildly popular in China since its 2008 release, Red Cliff is now available to American audiences in select theaters and through video on demand (VOD) in a abridged format (the original film is in two parts and runs over four hours).

The cast, while perhaps less familiar to American audiences, includes some of the most popular actors on the planet.

Zhang Feng-Yi (Prime Minister Cao Cao)
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Strategist and warrior Zhou Yu (Ye))
Takeshi Kaneshiro (Shu strategist Zhuge Liang)
Yong You (Liu Bei)
Chang Chen (Sun Quan)
Vicky Zhao Wei (Wu princess Sun Shang Xiang)
Lin Chi-Ling (Zhou Yu’s wife, Xiao Qiao)
Shido Nakamura (Gan Xing) [also appeared in Letters from Iwo Jima]
Hu Jun (Zao Yun)

HIGHLY RECOMMEND