I moved most of my historical society links over to Wig-Wags.com today from my old blog site. You’ll find them in the right nav bar of Wig-Wags.com by following down the page a bit. I’m using a new widget, WP Social Blogroll, that pulls RSS feeds for any link I add by checking for a feed via Google Feed Discovery. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that very few of the 50 – some state historical societies have RSS feeds. I realize many history societies are managed by volunteers but believe they are missing some great opportunities for exposure.
Fascinated by all that drove public opinion during the nineteenth century, I recently acquired an excellent book: Conrad Wise Chapman: Artist Soldier of the Confederacy (The Kent State University Press, 1998) Author Ben L. Bassham’s biography includes many of the works of both Conrad Wise and his father, artist John Gadsby Chapman.
This book, while an excellent one, is not heavy on the Civil War experience of Conrad Wise Chapman. For that, I recommend Ten Months in the “Orphan Brigade” : Conrad Wise Chapman’s Civil War Memoir (The Kent State University Press, 1999) also brought to readers by Ben L. Basham. Google Books provides a generous glimpse of Bassham’s introduction and the first few pages of Chapman’s narrative which can be viewed here.
Conrad Wise Chapman returned to America from Europe in 1861 where he joined the Confederate cause. He served in the 3rd Kentucky Regiment and was a part of Albert Sidney Johnston’s ruse in the Western Theater to appear to have more strength in numbers than was the reality. Chapman later served as Ordnance Sergeant in the 59th Virginia Regiment after requesting transfer from “The Orphan Brigade” to a unit in his parent’s home state. It was a transfer that probably saved his life given the casualties suffered by the “The Orphan Brigade.” He participated in the defense of Vicksburg.
See more of Conrad Wise Chapman’s work on “the artists” page under here on Wig-wags. The Museum of the Confederacy has an excellent digital image of Chapman’s “The Flag of Sumter Oct. 20 1863” here. A number of Chapman’s paintings can also be seen at Fine Art-China.com here.
Ben L. Bassham, an Emeritus professor of art history at Kent State University, is the author of The Lithographs of Robert Riggs, The Theatrical Photographs of Napoleon Sarony and editor of Memories of an American Impressionist by Abel G. Warshawsky (The Kent State University Press, 1980). He is also an accomplished artist. I perused his online studio here with great admiration.
Continuing from the post Death and Injury on the Battlefield Part I here, this post deals with battlefield injuries.
Those who were injured on the battlefield first had to either remove themselves or hope they would be helped to a field hospital, usually a tent, house, barn or shed marked by a red flag and located as close to the line of battle as possible.[i] There they might find a surgeon and one assistant surgeon, although there was only one of each per regiment. Getting the large number of wounded to the field hospital was challenging. “Three days after the second battle of Manassas, in August 1862, 3,000 men still lay where they had fallen. The first casualties were not moved until September 9th.”[ii] It wasn’t until after the Battle of Antietam that the Union Army established an ambulance corps for removing the wounded from the field.[iii]
If shot by a Minie ball, a soft lead bullet fired from a rifle musket, a soldier’s wound was likely to be large because these .58 [caliber] bullets would deform and tunnel on impact.[iv] “Dr. E. I. Howard of the Army of Northern Virginia described the effects of Minie Ball on bone: ‘… wounds of bony structure inflicted by this missile are characterized by extensive fissuring and comminution such as was rarely, if ever, seen when the old smooth Bore musket was the weapon of the soldier.”[v] Amputation was the rule for gunshot or shrapnel wounds that involved major blood vessels or large bones. “Roughly 50,000 amputations were performed by both sides during the Civil War, compared to around 4,000 in the First World War.”[vi] Men shot or severely injured in the abdomen or chest wounds almost always died and so were rarely treated.
Erysipelas, pyaemia (clots in the veins) septicemia and hospital gangrene were the four major hospital diseases. Erysipelas, or St Anthony’s Fire, was a common problem. This was several years before Lister’s discovery of germ theory. Surgeons operated in unsanitary and unsterile conditions. The lower incidence of wound suppuration in destitute Confederate hospitals has been attributed to the fact that they closed wounds with horse-tail hair which was first boiled, whereas the Northern Army used surgical silk which, although a better product, was not sterile.[vii]
Those who worked in military hospitals did so at great personal risk. Many of them contracted diseases themselves and perished. Common in the literature is record of the absolute despair that existed there. This would, no doubt, make for a great story in and of itself at some point in the future.
- For more on weapons carried during the American Civil War, see the previous post Civil War Weapons Carried by Soldiers here.
- For good coverage of how amputations were performed during the Civil War, click here.
© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
[i] Penny Johnston, “A Healing History of North and South,” History Today, January 1997 [database on-line]; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000399106; Internet; accessed 29 September 2007. [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid.
JOSEPH T. GLATTHAAR. Partners In Command: The Relationships Between Leaders in the Civil War New York: The Free Press . 1994. Pp. xi, 286. $16.95.
Warriors are at their core human beings who succeed or fail in their endeavors in some part because of the their ability to relate with others, whether peers, subordinates, or superiors. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the interplay between commanders during the American Civil War. The forging of successful working relationships is foundational to success on the battlefield and signals compatibility on some level between the personalities or natures of respective commanders. What does “compatibility” mean when applied to military commanders? What evidence is there that this really matters? What happens when commanders, civilian or military, lack compatibility at senior levels?
Joseph Glatthaar tackles these questions in an insightful and important addition to the study of the American Civil War that focuses on the relationships between several senior commanders. Foundational to his monogram is research conducted from primary sources and used to develop course lectures. Glatthaar first examines Lee and Jackson and their brilliant performance in the eastern theater. He then explores the complicated interplay between McClellan and Lincoln that ultimately resulted in failures at both strategic and tactical execution in the East. Thirdly, Glatthaar examines the relationship between Joseph E. Johnson and Jefferson Davis set against the struggles of the Confederate defense of the West. In a chapter on Grant and Sherman Glatthaar explores how two very different personalities can complement one another and still work together superbly. A chapter dedicated to army-navy collaborations reveals the special bond (soul-mates is used to describe it) that developed between Sherman and Admiral David Dixon Porter. The mutual respect between the two extends to Grant and results in unprecedented cooperation between the army and navy. The book’s final chapter is excellent overview of the command relationships on both sides of the war and his conclusion could inform organizational leaders both inside and outside the military. Compatibility and intimacy are not required. Professional attitudes are key.
Glatthaar provides a solid academic notes section and index as well as a bibliographic essay that is quite informative. Most interesting in the “after“ sections of the book, however, is an appendix in which the author argues that George McClellan’s interpersonal relationships were handicapped by a condition known in today’s psychiatric parlance as “paranoid personality disorder.” He makes a strong case that the disorder undermined McClellan’s ability to successfully lead and manage men in wartime and that the only person with whom he could interact effectively was his wife.
Glatthaar brings to the work the credentials of a historian who has paid his dues. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in American Military History. He received his B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University and M.A. in history from Rice University. At the time of the book’s publication in 1994, he taught history at the University of Houston. Glatthaar is now the Stephenson Distinguished Professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where he specializes in the American Civil War and American military history. Glatthaar has twice taught at the nation’s military colleges, once in 1984-85 as a visiting professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and again in 1991-1992 as the Harold K. Johnson Distinguished Visiting Professor, U.S. Army Military History Institute. He has published extensively with some considerable emphasis on the experience of black soldiers during the Civil War. His has won numerous awards for his work most notably for the 1989 work, Forged in Battle and an earlier work, The March to the Sea and Beyond.
Partners In Command stands out among studies of command and leadership during the Civil War because of a focus not on the tactical execution on the battlefield but rather in the interplay among senior commanders. It complements major General J. F. C. Fuller’s 1982 monograph, Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality (Indiana University Press). Glatthaar’s work is both highly readable and academically rich. Of note, the publishers have made the book available in digital format on the Amazon Kindle platform as well as traditional print.
See more Civil War book reviews here.
I previously posted a piece on the impact of disease on soldiers in the Civil War [see “The American Civil War Experience: Lice, Disease and Quinine” ]. The following discusses the other side of death during the war, the experience on the battlefield. Please be aware the the following is very graphic.
Battle injuries in the civil war were horrific and many led to death. The journals of soldiers and photographs of the dead tell of injury and death caused by cannon balls, grapeshot, canister, musket balls, bayonets, clubbing and more. Men were decapitated, cut in two, blown apart, shot in head, body, and/or extremities, bashed in the face or skull, disemboweled, burned, dragged, drowned, and/or suffered broken bones. John Beatty provided a glimpse of the carnage typical on most Civil War battlefields in a journal entry describing his pass through the battlefield of Stone River in Tennessee, early in 1863.
I ride over the battle-field. In one place a caisson and five horses are lying, the latter killed in harness, and all fallen together. Nationals and Confederates, young, middle-aged, and old, are scattered over the woods and fields for miles. Poor Wright, of my old company, lay at the barricade in the woods which we stormed on the night of the last day. Many others lay about him. Further on we find men with their legs shot off; one with brains scooped out with a cannon ball; another with half a face gone; another with entrails protruding; young Winnegard, of the Third, has one foot off and both legs pierced by grape at the thighs; another boy lies with his hands clasped above his head, indicating that his last words were a prayer. Many Confederate sharpshooters lay behind stumps, rails, and logs, shot in the head. A young boy, dressed in the Confederate uniform, lies with his face turned to the sky, and looks as if he might be sleeping. Poor boy! what thoughts of home, mother, death, and eternity, commingled in his brain as the life-blood ebbed away! Many wounded horses are limping over the field. One mule, I heard of, had a leg blown off on the first day’s battle; next morning it was on the spot where first wounded; at night it was still standing there, not having moved an inch all day, patiently suffering, it knew not why nor for what. How many poor men moaned through the cold nights in the thick woods, where the first day’s battle occurred, calling in vain to man for help, and finally making their last solemn petition to God!
Linderman posits that, even though the men fighting in the Civil War should have been more used to gore and death than those fighting in the next century, “when young soldiers first saw bullets, cannonballs, grapeshot, and canister strike others, their shock was profound. The first surprise was death’s suddenness,” a man alive and animated next to them one moment, and the next, lifeless and shattered. Men splattered with the insides of the man next to them were even more impacted. Also shocking was the magnitude of death. It was not uncommon to see thousands of bodies after a single battle.
Many men died agonizing deaths after lying injured on the field for hours or days. Contributing to this were standing orders that prevented a man from stopping his forward motion to help a fallen comrade. Some men were also fearful that doing so would imply cowardice on their part. Also, rarely could a truce be made to remove the injured and dead from the battlefield. The resulting experience for the injured was atrocious. Methods and procedures that would allow for application of first aid and then rapid transport to field hospitals were simply non-existent.
Disposal of bodies was often done carelessly and with little decorum if at all. Given the magnitude and ghastliness of the task, it is little wonder. Depending on the season, bodies awaiting burial, or even after careless burial, bloated and decayed in the heat and could be eaten by animals and insects. Next installment… “Injuries on the Battlefield.”
© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
Photos from the Library of Congress
 John Beatty, The Citizen-Soldier: The Memoirs of a Civil War Volunteer [book on-line] (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998, accessed 28 September 2007), 211; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=26979264; Internet.
 Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experiences of Combat in the American Civil War, 124.
The statistics of those who died during the Civil War, not from injury but from disease, are shocking. Of the 360,222 men known to have died on the Union side, a quarter of a million were lost due to disease rather than the enemy. While the Confederates didn’t keep records, it is estimated that seventy-five percent of the 258,000 Southern deaths could be attributed to disease.
For many, the cycle of illness started soon after joining up. Those from the less populated countryside found themselves in large groups after mustering in – perhaps for the first time in their lives – and were exposed to childhood maladies like the measles, mumps and smallpox. Confederate soldier William A. Fletcher’s experience appears to be not uncommon. A young man from Texas who first signed on in 1861 as a member of the 5th Texas Infantry of Hood’s brigade, he wrote in his memoirs that in the first large camp he was assigned to after signing up, he contracted the measles. While in the hospital recovering from an associated extremely high fever, he became infested with lice and before being released, he contracted the mumps.
In this camp we suffered a good deal with sickness—the most fatal I guess was measles. I had an attack of measles and was sent to the hospital in Richmond and remained there a few days and got tired of hospital life, so I tried to be a good boy and please the woman who had charge of the ward in which I was. I soon persuaded her to get me a discharge, and I returned to camp one cold, frosty morning; the next day I was hauled back a very sick man; was put in a small room that had a coal grate and was instructed to stay in bed and keep well covered up. I lay there a few days with a burning fever, taking such medicine as was prescribed. I had learned the “itch” [from lice] was getting to be a common complaint in the hospital, and after the fever had somewhat abated, I found I had it, so when the doctor made his next visit I drew my arms from under the covers and showed him the whelps or long red marks of itch, and he said he would send me some medicine that would cure it. [i]
While encamped near Fredericksburg, Fletcher suffered from a severe attack of jaundice and was given a permit of sick leave. Rather than moving with his unit, he took a room in a Fredericksburg hotel where he received no medical care and almost died of food poisoning. [ii] Cases like this – and worse – were common due to a lack of sanitary conditions, adequate food, clean water and trained medical care. Gerald Linderman confirms that “each army suffered two waves of disease,” the first being “acute infections of childhood.” [iii] Because those who survived the first wave developed immunities, the incidence abated over time. But it was followed by a second wave that decimated the ranks in ever increasing numbers. Considered “camp” diseases, dysentery, malaria, and diarrhea, took men in their tents and in hospitals by the thousands, reducing the effective fighting force of many units dramatically. [iv]
John D. Billings, in his memoir Hard Tack and Coffee, brought up two important points about health in army camps. The first was that many men came to the army already ill. This was particularly true of the recruits in 1864 and 1865, “for those who have occasion to remember will agree that a sufficient number of men too old or diseased came to the front in those years – no, they did not all get as far as the front – to fairly stock all the hospitals in the country.” [v] Billings attributed this to both the incompetence of some of the doctors providing physical examinations for enlisting recruits and the desperation of the government willing to use marginal physicians and accept men clearly unfit for duty.
Billings also spoke of the presence in every company of men who feigned illness to escape duty. As might be expected, these men were seen as shirkers who burdened others in the company with the work they did not perform. These “beats on the government” showed up routinely at the sick tent to receive the care and, in some cases, medicine administered by the doctor. Quinine was the drug du jour “whether for stomach or bowels, headache or toothache, for a cough or for lameness, rheumatism or fever and ague.” [vi] Some who feigned illness went so far as to refuse food and so created a real health crisis for themselves with varying consequences ranging from transfer to a hospital and eventual release from the service, to susceptibility to more severe and long term conditions. [vii]
The fact remains that many, many men died of very real and unwanted maladies. Diseases flourished in camp because of poor nutrition, inadequate sewage disposal, dirty water and infrequent bathing. Typhoid, measles, cholera and dysentery killed hundreds. Even General Lee contracted dysentery on his way to Gettysburg. Billings spoke eloquently of his many friends who suffered and died of wasting illnesses, either in the field or in hospitals, away from the families who could have unquestionably cared for them better at home. [viii]
As James I. Robertson, Jr. pointed out in his book, Soldiers Blue and Gray, “more confederates died of illness during the seven week aftermath at Corinth than fell in the two days of intense fighting at Shiloh,” an aftermath not at all uncommon during the war and certainly after every battle. [ix]
Disease was – without question – the war’s biggest killer.
Copyright © 2010 Rene Tyree
i. William A. Fletcher and Richard S. Wheeler, Rebel Private: Front and Rear: Memoirs of a Confederate Soldier, (Meridian: New York, 1995), 7.
iii. Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War, (The Free Press: New York, 1987), 115.
v. John D. Billings, Hard Tack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life (originally published in 1887 by George M. Smith and Company, Boston.), 173.
vi. Ibid., 175-176.
vii. Ibid., 175.
ix. James I. Robertson, Jr., Soldiers Blue and Gray, (University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, South Carolina ), 145.
Men who hurried to sign up for the armies of the North and South in the early years of the American Civil War, joined – to varying degrees – for the follow reasons: out of a sense of duty and honor to country (whether North or South), to feel and prove oneself “manly,” a trait tied closely to notions of courage, and in search of adventure and the glory and excitement of battle. Historian James McPherson’s readings of thousands of letters written by soldiers revealed that duty and honor were closely linked to “masculinity” in Victorian America and war presented an opportunity to prove one’s self a man. [i]
In the South, the ideas of duty and honor were most prevalent in the upper classes while such notions were less class specific in the North. Some men from both sides shared a sense of shame in “not” serving and this need to carry one’s self well remained a motivating factor for many of the men who actually “did” the fighting.
Money was not an apparent motivation for joining the military. Most men – and their families – sacrificed economically as a result of their service. Many gave up the best years of their lives, if not life itself. Later in the war, when recruits were harder to find, motivations broadened. Money may have become more of a factor and was certainly such for those who scammed the system to obtain more than one signing bonus.
Regardless of what brought men to war, their performance as soldiers varied. A good many served well. Others discovered within themselves a lack of courage and joined the ranks of men who shrank into the shadows during battles, assuring themselves safety from injury or death but not from the stigma of “coward” and “shirker.” As the war dragged on, survivors began to change their perspectives on what constituted courage and cowardice as well as their notions of the proper conduct of war.
Copyright © 2010 Rene Tyree
[i] James M. McPherson. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 25.
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art is running an exhibition featuring several artists of the Civil War era including Winslow Homer. The exhibit, titled ” American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915, includes the section Stories of War and Reconciliation, 1860–1877. An audio episode titled, Winslow Homer’s Civil War, accompanies two of the paintings and features scholar James McPherson who comments on Winslow Homer’s paintings: Pitching Quoits (below) and The Veteran in a New Field. I found it informative. The exhibit ends on January 24th so if you live in New York, hurry in. I’m hopeful that the online exhibit will stay up for a while.
I’ve built out a page showcasing the Civil War inspired work of Winslow Homer that you can now access here.
Much has been said about the impact of new weaponry on the tactics employed and resulting casualties of the American Civil War. Contributing to its designation as the first “modern war” (fodder for much debate in class) has been the notion of widespread use of long-range rifled artillery and small arms, and the introduction of breech loading and repeating rifles.[i] Author Joseph Bilby in his work, Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use and Modern Collecting and Shooting, posits that small arms weapons did not shift to rifled technology until mid-war. He argues that “the majority of Union and Confederate regiments raised in the first year of the war carried U.S. pattern .69-caliber smoothbore muskets, primarily Model 1842s and converted flintlocks. Among the arms captured by Federal troops following their February, 1862 victory at Roanoke Island were large numbers of flintlock muskets. Some Confederates, especially those in the western armies, carried flintlocks as late as the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh.
While it is true that the rifle-musket became the standard infantry arm for both Union and Confederate infantrymen in the Civil War, it is less well known that these “modern” weapons were not general issue until the war’s mid-point. As late as the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, 10.5% of the regiments in the Army of the Potomac, the best-equipped Federal army, were still armed, in whole or in part, with obsolete smoothbore muskets. Except for their percussion ignition, these guns differed little in ballistic capability from the weapons shouldered by those Yankee soldiers’ grandfathers in the Revolution and the War of 1812. Smoothbores were common issue in Confederate ranks and in both armies west of the Appalachians well into 1864.[i]
Thus the long range accuracy of the rifle-musket was less a factor in the first part of the war when most men would have carried older smoothbore muskets and a load of “buck-and-ball” consisting of a large round ball and three buckshot. The good folks over at Barry’s Treasures Civil War Relics provided this picture of “buck-and-ball.” Officers frequently had men hold their fire until the enemy came into the range effective for smoothbore firearms as well and, at this range, they were arguably more effective than a rifled musket. Examination of casualty records in Civil War battles reveals that they “were not proportionately heavier than those suffered in the great smoothbore battles of the Napoleonic era. [i]
Bilby believes that of more import than the introduction of the rifled musket and the long range “minie ball,” was the innovation of breech-loading arms, both single shot and repeating. “Single-shot breech loaders were most evident in the ranks of cavalry units, where even conservative ordnance officers, who felt muzzle loaders the best arms for infantry, supported their use since they were easier to reload on horseback.”[i]
However, they lacked the accuracy of the rifle-musket and didn’t stand up well in the field with the exception of the Sharps rifle which was especially highly regarded. Cavalrymen often dismounted to fight and even with breech loaders, their skirmish lines didn’t bode well against masses of men with muzzle loaders. These engagements were thus short. The Sharps rifle was the choice for long-range accuracy and rapidity of fire in the hands of men who knew how to use it, like Berdan’s Sharpshooters. But according to Bilby, it was not in service long enough to make a difference.”[i] [Note: I’ve provided a link over to the Berdan’s Sharpshooters living history group above. Great website. The drawing is a cropped image of Harper’s Weekly VOL. V.–No. 249. dated October 5, 1861 made available by the folks who manage the Civil War site at www.sonsofthesouth.net.]
With the exception of sharpshooters, most soldiers armed with rifle-muskets, breech loaders, repeaters and revolvers knew little of ballistics or even basic marksmanship techniques— and never learned otherwise.[i] While they drilled a great deal, the men rarely practiced shooting and marksmanship. Their officers didn’t know much more and rarely ordered their men to do more in preparation than what is today called “familiarization firing.”[i] Thus even when issued the more technologically advanced weapons, the men didn’t always take advantage of them. There are some notable exceptions. John Singleton Mosby’s guerrillas appear to have understood well the merits of six shot revolvers against the weapons of the Union Army. Mosby’s men, who carried several handguns each, did so with great effectiveness against Spencer-armed Federal horsemen.
“The revolver, which predated the rifle-musket, breech loader and repeating rifle alike, was the one Civil War weapon that completely lived up to its reputation. In a close range melee, nothing proved better.”[i] Patent lawyer Robert Shaver has a great write up on his blog, “Patent Pending” about the handgun carried by John Singleton Mosby, the Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver. David Stroud at Texas Ranger Dispatch Magazine also has a nice write up.
Another notable exception to the rule was Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne. A veteran of the British army, Cleburne “trained his infantrymen in range estimation and target practice at various distances up to and including 800 yards. He also created a sharpshooter detachment, gave them long-range British-made Whitworth rifles, and turned them lose on Yankee artillerymen and officers whom they could easily hit within 1,500 yards of the Confederate lines.[i]
The impact of technological developments in weaponry is an issue still open for debate. Gerald Linderman implies a more direct connection between improvement in weapons and the diminishing success of large scale frontal attacks. The evolution of the role of “sharpshooter” as well as the notion of entrenchment, colored much of the second half of the war.[i] But I’ll leave that for later…
[i] Joseph G. Bilby, Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use and Modern Collecting and Shooting [book on-line] (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1996, accessed 30 September 2007), 11; available from Questia, Internet.
Photo of John Mosby from the National Archives. Mosby, Col. John Singleton; bust-length. 111-BA-1709.
Mackubin Thomas Owen, a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, provides one of the best descriptions I’ve found of Lincoln’s approach as a commander of a military at war. He called Lincoln “an activist commander-in-chief who frequently ‘interfered’ with his generals. [Lincoln] intuitively understood that civilian leaders cannot simply leave the military to its own devices, because war is an iterative process involving the interplay of active wills. He realized that what appears to be the case at the outset of the war may change as the war continues, modifying the relationship between political goals and military means.” (1)
This was the essence of Lincoln’s genius and ultimate success. He was above all intensely engaged. With that engagement came openness to learning and adaptation. Lincoln also brought objectivity and with it the ability to make fact-based decisions. His capacity for overlooking personal affronts was not only a strength, but a clear differentiator between himself and Jefferson Davis. Owen said well that “Lincoln never let sentiment or his personal opinion of an officer get in the way of his assessment of the officer’s military potential.” (2)
In management vernacular, Lincoln was a “facilitative manager;” that is to say a man who treated his senior commanders somewhat differently based on their respective personalities and the circumstances at hand. If micromanagement was required, as was the case with McClellan, this he did.
If he had confidence in a general’s ability to execute a strategy, as was more the case with Grant in the latter half of the war, Lincoln stepped back, never completely but back non-the-less. His skill at facilitative management did not mean that his expectations were not high. Lincoln’s demonstrated decisiveness in releasing generals who did not perform reflected his high standards along with an ability to make tough calls. In my view, he was more than generous in allowing a man time to show his command abilities. The nation needed and Lincoln demanded action and victories and those who delivered rose to the top.
(1) Mackubin Thomas Owen, “Abraham Lincoln: Leadership in Wartime,” Accessed online, December 28, 2009, http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200902.owens.lincolnleadershipwartime.html.
(2) Michael Korda, Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero, (New York: Eminent Lives, 2004) ), 154.
This post concludes a series exploring Causes of the Civil War.
A review of the literature reveals – not surprisingly – a lack of agreement over whether the American Civil War was inevitable. Given the fact that it did occur, the question under consideration might be better stated as “at what point in time” did the American Civil War became unavoidable.
Some would argue that war became predestined at the point when the slave trade was first introduced to the colonies. Others have suggested that civil war became preordained when the founding fathers created a Constitution that professed freedom for all but failed to deal with the country’s practice of chattel slavery (image left of slave auction at Richmond). But portions of the country had demonstrated a willingness to move away slavery. And there was some indication that even slave owners in the south did not expect the practice to go on indefinitely. Certainly the rise of King Cotton, made feasible by the invention of the cotton gin and cotton varieties more suited to the southern climate, slowed the inclination to move away from slavery. Even so, the country had opportunity and demonstrated an ability to find compromise on the issues surrounding slavery time and again and could have conceivably continued to do so had other factors not pushed the country to war.
Sectional differences, well evident even in colonial days, had the potential to make civil war predestined but historian Avery Craven suggests otherwise. “Physical and social differences between North and South did not in themselves necessarily imply an irrepressible conflict. They did not mean that civil war had been decreed from the beginning by Fate.”[i] He points out that the federal system created by the founding fathers had room for differences and that England herself adopted the model of American federalism and used it to manage widely disparate regions.[ii]
Kenneth Stampp in his work, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, suggests that “…1857 was probably the year when the North and South reached the political point of no return — when it became well nigh impossible to head off a violent resolution of the differences between them.”[iii] Stampp identified three primary factors that catapulted the country toward disunion within that twelve month period.
- The first was the increase in sectional conflict centered on Kansas.
- The second was President Buchanan’s fall from grace among most of the Northerners who had voted for him after he supported the Lecompton Constitution and thus broke his pre-election promises. This sparked one of the most vicious debates in Congress and led to…
- the third happening which was the crisis that occurred in the national Democratic Party from which “it did not recover until after the Civil War.”[iv] That schism in the party opened the way for Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency which in turn raised sectional tensions between North and South to new heights.
Civil War historiographer Gobar Boritt suggests that the American Civil War only became inevitable after the attack on Fort Sumter (pictured right after surrender) and with this I agree. “The popular uprising, North and South, that followed the fight over Sumter, combined with willing leadership on both sides, made the Civil War inevitable. It was not that before.”[v] Boritt acknowledges that “the probability of war” continued to grow in the 1850s, but that “the country’s fate was not sealed until the ides of April, 1861.”[vi]
My conclusion is that the American Civil War was not inevitable but was, rather, the result of a confluence of factors which – taken in aggregate and flared by extremists – resulted in a war unwanted by the majority of Americans. Contributory to the war was the influence of specific individuals – not the least of which was Abraham Lincoln himself. Other politicians, by their action or inaction at critical moments, also had part to play in the circumstances that led to war. Debate over the war’s inevitability has been and will continue to be rigorous.
As always, I invite your comments.
© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1830. [Source: University of Virginia]. George Bourne.
Cotton – England’s God [Pictorial envelope] [LOC CALL NUMBER PR-022-3-14-19]
Fort Sumter after evacuation, flagpole shot away twice. 1861. LOC CALL NUMBER PR-065-798-22
[i] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 1.
[iii] Stampp, Kenneth M. America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. Vers. [book on-line] Internet. Questia.com.New York: Oxford University Press. 1990. available from questia.com, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=24268497 (accessed September 1, 2007), viii.
[v] ” ‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 6.
This post continues a series on exploring Causes of the Civil War.
Civil War scholar Gabor Boritt posits a fascinating theory that the impact of an individual can, in fact, be more influential in the determination of history’s direction than the long confluence of time.[i] “…It may be declared with confidence that a giant in the earth, or a crucial moment, weighs more in the scales of history than dreary ages.”[ii] The giant of which he spoke was Abraham Lincoln. His view makes Lincoln a central figure of both American mythology and history. Lincoln’s role in the coming of the Civil War he “divides into four increasingly important stages.”[iii]
- First, in the 1850s as tensions grew, Lincoln was one of many political leaders, familiar mostly in and around Illinois, though as the decade progressed so did his reputation in the North.
- Second, in 1860 he won the presidential nomination of the Republican [P]arty and became a nationally known figure.
- Third, from his election in early November to his inauguration on March 4, 1861, he was the president-elect.
- Fourth, in the White House he presided over events that led to Sumter.
As one stage followed another, Lincoln’s stand changed only gradually, but his voice grew ever more weighty until the end when, together with the voice of President Jefferson Davis, it proved to be decisive.[iv]
I would suggest that there were others whose individual influence – while perhaps not equal to that of Lincoln’s – none the less, impacted the direction of the nation. Key to the South was the “triumvirate of secession” – extremists Robert Rhett, William Yancey, and Edmun Ruffin.
Each, according to his gifts, kept the pressure for secession constant, the evils of the North apparent. In the period after Lincoln’s election, they leveraged the fear, uncertainty and doubt created by Northern and Southern newspapers to move the populous from defeat to secession as the only alternative left.[v] [See more about Rhett, Yancey and Ruffin in my post “The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War” here.]
They fought delay. Many of the leaders had long believed the Union a curse to the South and they feared that if they moved too deliberately the North might offer favorable terms. Others urged quick action lest the people cool off and accept less than justice. They must strike while the iron was hot. Delay was their worst enemy.
By December 17, 1860, Rhett and his followers had secured a convention in South Carolina, composed of those who were ready to stand alone, if necessary, in defense of Southern rights. The next day an ordinance of secession was adopted. Within six weeks, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had followed South Carolina’s example. The Cotton Kingdom was ready to form itself into the Confederate States of America.[vi]
Is it a wonder that Edmun Ruffin was among the first to fire a cannon on Fort Sumter?
At a nearby battery, another fire-eater was ready. Edmund Ruffin, with his long flowing white hair, another momentary exile from a still reluctant Virginia, sixty seven-year-old honorary Palmetto Guard, was ready. Staring into the dark, knowing where the enemy was, he sent the first shot from a columbaid into the fort flying the unseen flag of the United States.[vii]
Key individuals in the North included those who catapulted the Abolitionist message into the public consciousness. For this reason, John Brown must be included. The men surrounding Lincoln – Seward, Chase, Bates, Douglas and Buchanan – also deserve a chair.
And So What the Cause?
The Civil War can be attributed to no single cause. Slavery was undeniably an influencing factor – a common thread – inexorably tied to the sectional crises that evolved as the country expanded. Profound sectional differences – social, cultural, spiritual, economic, political – provided sufficient tender to ignite into violent conflict – given the spark. The “fanatical edge” and our politicians created the sparks that erupted in violence and pushed the nation over the precipice and into war. Several key individuals tipped the balance. Chief among these were: the Southern fire-eaters Rhett, Yancey and Ruffin, abolitionists who turned up the heat of anti-slavery sentiments in the North, and – pointedly – Abraham Lincoln himself.
For more reading, I highly recommend Gabor S. Boritt’s Why the Civil War Came. His essay titled “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility” is excellent. Avery Craven’s The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. provides very interesting commentary on Rhett, Yancey, and Ruffin (and more about their individual strengths) and a wealth of information on Antebellum America and its march toward war.
In the next post, I’ll tackle the second question of the series: The Debate Over the War’s Inevitability.
© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
[i] “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 7., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid.
[v] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 433., [vi] Ibid.
[vii] Boritt, “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 5.
This post continues a series exploring Causes of the Civil War. See the full series here.
Political discord represents yet another candidate for the war’s cause. Late historian William E. Gienapp (pictured right) suggests that “however much social and economic developments fueled the sectional conflict, the coming of the Civil War must be explained ultimately in political terms, for the outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such, the Civil War constituted the greatest single failure of American democracy.”[i]
Gienapp points to the role of slavery as the underlying cause of the sectional conflict. “Without slavery it is impossible to imagine a war between the North and the South (or indeed, the existence of anything we would call “the South” except as a geographic region).”[ii] He also asserts that America’s slave heritage was completely associated with race. That is, had the slaves brought to America been white, the practice would have disappeared much earlier.[iii] But an argument asserting slavery as chief cause of the war neglects the fact that not only was it older than the republic, but “for over half a century following adoption of the Constitution, the institution had only sporadically been an issue in national politics, and it had never dominated state politics in either section.”[iv] What changed? It was the rise of the slavery issue in American society; that is, the heightened awareness of it. This development was rooted in a number of changes in American society in the first half of the nineteenth century already addressed.[v]
As mentioned in previous posts in this series, the abolitionist movement did a great deal to raise that awareness. But Gienapp suggests that “it was the politicians themselves, as part of the struggle for control of the two major parties, who ultimately injected the slavery issue into national politics.”[vi] The key development was the introduction in Congress in 1846 of the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery from any territory acquired from Mexico, by a group of Van Burenite Democrats who were angry with President James K. Polk and his southern advisers. Once the slavery issue, in the shape of the question of its expansion into the western territories, entered the political arena, it proved impossible to get it out. The issue took on a life of its own, and when politicians tried to drop the issue after 1850, they discovered that many voters were unwilling to acquiesce.[vii]
Gienapp makes a good case for the war’s true cause in the following discourse.
A second critical development, intimately related to the first, was the crystallization of rival sectional ideologies oriented toward protecting white equality and opportunity. Increasingly, each section came to see the other section and its institutions as a threat to its vital social, political, and economic interests. Increasingly, each came to think that one section or the other had to be dominant. Informed by these ideologies, a majority of the residents of each section feared the other, and well before the fighting started the sectional conflict represented a struggle for control of the nation’s future.
It fell to the political system to adjudicate differences between the sections and preserve a feeling of mutual cooperation and unity. And for a long time the political system had successfully defused sectional tensions. Because it brought northern and southern leaders together, Congress was the primary arena for hammering out solutions to sectional problems. In various sectional confrontations–the struggle over the admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1819-21, the controversy over nullification and the tariff in 1833, the problem of the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico in 1850, and the struggle over the proslavery Lecompton constitution in 1858-Congress had always managed to find some acceptable way out of the crisis.
Yet the American political system was particularly vulnerable to sectional strains and tensions. One reason was the institutional structure of American politics. The Civil War occurred within a particular political institutional framework that, while it did not make the war inevitable, was essential to the coming of the war.
Integral to this institutional framework was the United States Constitution. While some aspects of the Constitution retarded the development of sectionalism, it contained a number of provisions that strengthened the forces of sectional division in the nation. No constitution can anticipate all future developments and conclusively deal with all controversies that subsequently arise. The purpose in analyzing the Constitution’s role in the sectional conflict is not to fault its drafters or condemn it as a flawed document, but rather to indicate the importance of certain of its clauses for the origins of the war.
One significant feature of the Constitution was its provision for amendment. Lurking beneath the surface in the slavery controversy was white Southerners’ fear that the Constitution would be amended to interfere with the institution. In advocating secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama predicted that the Republicans would quickly create a number of new free states in the West, which “in hot haste will be admitted to the Union, until they have a majority to alter the Constitution. Then slavery will be abolished by law in the States.”[viii]
The fear, uncertainty and doubt associated with this possibility, on the part of the Southern political establishment, pushed the country toward war.
For further reading, I recommend The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt and Why the Civil War Came, edited by Gabor S. Boritt.
© 2010 Rene Tyree
Historian William E. Gienapp. Source: Harvard Gazette Archives, Issue: April 07, 2005.
Poster Announcing Sale and Rental of Slaves, Saint Helena (South Atlantic), 1829. Source: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record., Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Image H003.
President James K. Polk
Cropped image of the constitution of Kansas
Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama. Source: Alabama Department of Archive and History
[i] William E. Gienapp, “The Crisis of American Democracy, the Political System and the Coming of the Civil War,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 82; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., 83., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 86.
This post continues the series Causes of the Civil War.
Historian Gabor S. Boritt asserts that the American Constitution’s “fundamental ambiguity” on a number of matters involving slavery contributed to the sectional controversy that stimulated the growing conflict between the North and the South.[i] The document was vague on the status of slavery in the territories, the power of Congress over the institution in the District of Columbia, whether the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce extended to the slave trade, whether it was a state or federal responsibility to return runaway slaves, and whether Congress could impose conditions on a new state or refuse to admit a new slave state to the Union.[ii] But the most important of these was whether a state had the right to secede from the Union.
Whereas the Articles of Confederation had proclaimed the Union to be perpetual, the Constitution contained no such statement. Indeed, nowhere did it discuss whether a state could secede or not. In the absence of any explicit provision, neither the nationalists nor the secessionists could present a conclusive argument on the subject. In upholding the perpetuity of the Union, Abraham Lincoln conceded that the language of the Constitution was not decisive.[iii]
This didn’t stop either side from finding in these documents justification of their positions.
Topic of the next post: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control.
© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
[i] Gabor S. Boritt, “‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came, ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 85; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet.
This post continues the series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War.
Sectional disputes rose and ebbed numerous times in the years before the war. Modernization created social tensions because, as pointed out by James McPherson, “not all groups in American society participated equally in the modernizing process or accepted the values that promoted it. The most important dissenters were found in the South.”[i] The South’s failure to modernize was perceived by many of her citizens as actually desirable.
Sectional arguments expanded to include topics like internal improvements, tariffs, and whether expansion west and south would upset the parity between free and slave states. Foundational to the latter was the belief on the part of the slaveholder in their right to a slave-based social order and a need for assurances of its continuity. Equal representation in government was perceived as critical to that goal.
The rise of abolitionism – largely in the North – put the proponents of slavery on the defensive. The formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society marked the beginning of militant abolitionism and an unprecedented crusade that would rival any modern national marketing campaign. Barbed attacks against slave-holding southerners were launched. They were called the great enemies of democracy and flagrant sinners.[ii] The anti-slavery crusade thus became both a moral one and imperative for the preservation of democracy. Abolitionists created in a section’s consciousness the belief in a “Slave Power.”[iii] Historian Avery Craven suggests that when politicians successfully linked expansion and slavery, the Christian masses accepted as de facto the Abolition attitudes toward both the South and slavery.[iv] Civil war, he contends, “was then in the making.”[v]
The pro-slavery faction fought back with their own “sweeping ideological counterattack that took the form of an assertion that slavery, far from being a necessary evil, was in fact a ‘positive good.’”[vi] “The section developed a siege mentality; unity in the face of external attack and vigilance against the internal threat of slave insurrections became mandatory.”[vii] To insulate itself from the influence of the anti-slavery North, some in the South called for its citizens to shun Northern magazines and books and refrain from sending young men to northern colleges.
The debate over slavery thus infiltrated politics, economics, religion and social policy. Not surprisingly, those who felt most threatened began to speak more loudly of secession.
Next post: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity
© 2010 Rene Tyree
Library of Congress: The African-American Mosaic.
“Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention Assembled in Philadelphia, December 4, 1833” R[ueben] S. Gilbert, Illustrator Philadelphia: Merrihew & Gunn, 1833 Broadside Rare Book and Special Collections Division
“Anthony Burns” Boston: R.M. Edwards, 1855 Broadside Prints and Photographs Division
[i] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 22.
[ii] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 150.
[vi] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 51-52.
[vii] Ibid., 52.