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Exploring Causes of the Civil War – Part VIII: The Influence of the Individual

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This post continues a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, Part IV: The Antebellum North, Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes, Part VI: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity, and Part VII: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control.
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Gabor BorittCivil 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, Lincolnfamiliar 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 (pictured below). 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 Caroline’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?

RuffinAt 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.

© 2007 L. Rene TyreeWhy the Civil War Came
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[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, 19The Coming of the Civil War (Phoenix Books)57), 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.

The Civil War as Revolution – Part I

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[Note: This post is part of a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

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Earlier this month, I posted some thoughts on Abraham Lincoln as revolutionary. It ties to one of the topics we were asked to consider this term, whether the Civil War should be considered the second American revolution. I suspect it is an essay question in many American history programs dealing with the Civil War. I’d like to explore this over the next several posts. A proper place to start is with the question, what is revolution?

Fist [Source Wikopedia Commons]According to William A. Pelz in his study on the history of German social democracy, “revolution” comes from the German word “Ugmwälzung” which means “rotation,” as in the turning of an axle. He posits that “in the socio-political realm, revolution means the displacement of a state, governmental, social and economic system by another, higher, more developed state, governmental, social and economic system… Two things are essential to the concept of revolution: that the rotation (Ugmwälzung) be comprehensive and fundamental–that everything old and antiquated be thrown out, weeds torn out by their roots; that a higher and better state replace that which has been done away with. Both conditions must be maintained.”[i] Thus social revolution results in nothing less than transformation.

Painting by Eugene De la Croix (Charenton-Saint-Maurice, 1798 – Paris, 1863) July 29, Liberty guiding the people. Musée du Louvre. Public Domain

Pelz offers two examples of undisputable social revolution. The first, not surprisingly, is the French Revolution, “…the revolution par excellence…that swept away the last remains of medieval feudalism and created the foundation of modern bourgeois society.”[ii] The second example – though hardly resembling the first – was none the less more profound. It was triggered by “the introduction of machine work, which fundamentally altered the nature of work and thereby the basis of state and social life. Every sphere of human existence was penetrated by this revolution (Umwälzung). These two organically related revolutions (Umwälzungen) born of the same impetus, only manifesting themselves differently, are probably the most important revolutions known to history. They toppled and purged from top to bottom and brought humanity forward with a violent jolt.”[iii]

Revolution in politics has been described as “fundamental, rapid, and often irreversible change in the established order.”[iv]

Wikipedia Commons_Photo by Luc Viatour
Da Vinci

Revolution involves a radical change in government, usually accomplished through violence[,] that may also result in changes to the economic system, social structure, and cultural values. The ancient Greeks viewed revolution as the undesirable result of societal breakdown; a strong value system, firmly adhered to, was thought to protect against it. During the Middle Ages, much attention was given to finding means of combating revolution and stifling societal change. With the advent of Renaissance humanism, there arose the belief that radical changes of government are sometimes necessary and good, and the idea of revolution took on more positive connotations. John Milton regarded it as a means of achieving freedom, Immanuel Kant believed it was a force for the advancement of mankind, and G.W.F. Hegel held it to be the fulfillment of human destiny. Hegel’s philosophy in turn influenced Karl Marx.[v]

Historian James McPherson offers the following as a “common sense” definition for revolution: “an overthrow of the existing social and political order by internal violence.”[vi] With this as background the question becomes, does the American Civil War qualify for revolution status? Was it sufficiently transforming?

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

More in tomorrow’s post but let me leave you with this quote from Mark Twain.
No people in the world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward.
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[Addendum: This series on The Civil War as Revolution continues at the following links:  , Part II, , Part III,, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

[i] Pelz, William A. and William A. Pelz, eds. Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy: A Documentary History. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 264-265, Book on-line. Available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=15096547. Internet. Accessed 13.October 2007.

[ii] Ibid., 265.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007

[v] Ibid.

[vi] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16.

Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as "Revolutionary"

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[Note: This post is part of a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

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Indulge me while I – mull over and expound upon - one of Dr. McPherson’s essays in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution.

If the mantel of “revolutionary” is worn by individuals who – because of their unique presence – drive transformational change, Abraham Lincoln must certainly be considered among them. Such a label might at first seem unfitting in that Lincoln was known for his conservatism. Indeed his early actions reflected caution and a desire for a limited, minimally disruptive war. His journey toward “revolutionary” took a big leap forward when the Border States ignored his repeated offers of graduated and compensated emancipation. His failure to sway them left him angry enough to, as McPherson phrased it, “embrace the revolution.” Lincoln’s “revolutionary” response? He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the final version of which was delivered on New Year’s Day 1863. With it came a new “revolutionary” charter for the war: forceful overthrow of slavery and the South with it.

Emancipation Proclamation
McPherson considers the enabling of black soldiers to fight and kill their former masters “by far the most revolutionary dimension” of Lincoln’s “emancipation policy.” And embrace it Mr. Lincoln did. Over 180,000 black soldiers would serve in Northern armies before the conflict ended. I must agree with Mr. McPherson’s conclusion that Lincoln evolved to fit the pattern of a revolutionary leader and became – once over his initial reluctance – arguably more radical than some of the founding fathers

Troops
District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln
Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 (Library of Congress)
Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

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On Edward C. Pierce and CDVs

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Harry Smeltzer over at Bull Runnings, in his kind mention of Wig-Wags yesterday, provides insight into the photo that tops my blog. He identifies it as being of “the Union signal station on Elk Ridge during the 1862 Maryland Campaign.” He points out that the officer in the photo (middle and seated) has been identified as one Edward C. Pierce. His CDV and story can be read “on the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) website along with the full picture which I’ve also uploaded here for your viewing. Officer Pierce’s vitae is an interesting one and includes participation on Little Round Top at which time he held the rank of Captain. He remained, even though offered promotion in other areas, in the Signal Corps throughout the war.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-B815- 633]
Elk Mountain, Md. Signal tower overlooking Antietam battlefield
O’Sullivan, Timothy H., 1840-1882 photographer.

Dan Sickles CDV

I will set my ego aside for a moment and admit that I had to look up the term CDV. This may be familiar to most of you but since I’m a humble graduate student, I had to do a little research. It turns out that a CDV, or “carte-de-visite” (French for visiting card), is a small albumen print that – if of standard size – would be mounted on a backing card of 2.5 inches by 4 inches. This made them a handy size to use as a “photographic calling card” and they were exchanged and collected in albums. Debra Clifford, the “Town Historian of Ancestorville,” has provided an excellent history of the CDV on the Ancestorville.com site and indicates that “a young Civil War soldier would proudly send his “likeness” home to a waiting beau, mother and family.” 

Albumen (al-bu-men) means, by the way, “the white of eggs.” I assume that egg whites were used to provide a glossy finish to the photo. The technique was developed and patented by Andre Disderi in 1854 and, according to Clifford, introduced in the United States in 1859 which positioned it perfectly for adoption by young men going off to war. “…CDV’s were produced in the millions. The ease of size and paper format of this newfangled photograph allowed the CDV to be sent through the mail, a great benefit from the heavily glassed and protected and cased ambrotype and daguerreotype photos that were previously available.”

This CDV is of Daniel Edgar Sickles is a part of a collection wonderfully preserved and presented for our virtual viewing on the American Memory section of the Library of Congress site along with some two hundred others. These make up the collection of John Hay who was a personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln and so had occasion to receive CDVs from an assortment of people of the era including “army and navy officers, politicians, and cultural figures.”

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-MSS-44297-33-116 (b&w negative)]
Photographer: Sarony, Napoleon (1821-1896)
Collection:
James Wadsworth Family Papers

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The Siege of Charleston – The Stone Fleet

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“The Siege of Charleston” is a fascinating chapter in The Lost Cause: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy (see previous post) by William C. Davis, and provides excellent information about naval operations in the area over the course of the war. I found of particular interest that Lincoln packed a couple of fleets of aged merchant and whaling ships with granite and floated them into the mouth of the harbor where he had them intentionally scuttled. The obvious intent was to foil those who would run the blockade. I found conflicting references as to the utility of the tactic. Davis indicated that the bottom was soft and so they sunk into the muck and accomplished little. But other sources indicate that the main channel off of Morris Island was blocked for at least some period of time. But that didn’t sufficiently slow blockade runners and so a second Stone Fleet was launched in early 1862 and its twenty ships sunk.

The good folks over at sonofthesouth.net have provided a copy of the December 14, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly which features a story about and a sketch of the fleet “as seen by the brig Castillian on Nov. 21.” Dubbed by Harper’s as “The Rat-Hole Squadron,” the story chronicles the sorted history of one of the whaler’s headed for the bottom.the-stone-fleet.jpg

Herman Melville’s poem titled “The Stone Fleet” published in December, 1861, names several of the ill-fated ships. You can read it in its entirety on Print Read. He wrote prolifically about the Civil War and this and other war-related works can be found in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War.

Herman Melville

 Herman Melville

Harry Smeltzer over at Bull Runnings has pictures of the Charleston Harbor in a post on his blog that’s definitely worth a look-see.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

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