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 Magazinealso 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…
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.
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, Americain 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.
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 Endnotes:
[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 individualcan, 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’sThe 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.
[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 exploringCauses 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.
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.
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.
[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. [ii] Ibid. [iii] Ibid.
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
Continuing the series on the causes of the American Civil War, this post looks at the Antebellum North. The North evolved from its Puritan roots into a culture driven by a strong work ethic. A man was valued by what he could earn and accomplish. The capital of the north was invested in the engines of modernization. Labor moved from agriculture and artisan to factory as modern farming tools improved productivity. Individuals became more dependent on wages. Material wealth was seen as evidence of good, productive, hard work.
As the country expanded, northeastern populations migrated almost directly west. Foreign immigration increased. With modernization came an extensive transportation system including both impressive roadways and railroads.
New levels of wealth were attained by the leaders of the industrial revolution. A new poor working class emerged but so did a middle class that no longer had to produce large families to work the land. Urban centers developed particularly in the northeast.
Modernization drove social reform including the creation of public education systems in the North and associated high literacy rates. Enlightenment crusades flourished, touching literature and religion. Suffrage and temperance movements formed. Abolitionism became tied with humanitarian reforms driven by Christian crusades.
The North became more and more distinct from the South on many levels, not the least of which was its distaste for slavery. Even so, like white populations in most of western society, northerners considered blacks to be inferior in the antebellum North.
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.
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
In 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.
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]
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.
For further reading:
Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'”
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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)