The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War


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


All revolutions require revolutionaries. If the American Civil War was, in fact, a second American Revolution, who were its revolutionaries?


William L. Yancey

The Confederacy as a Revolutionary ExperienceEmory Thomas in his work The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience suggests that Southern “fire-eaters” should be included on the roll call of revolutionaries because they “used radical means to achieve conservative ends and therefore began [my emphasis] the Confederate revolutionary experience. Their role was reactionary – to preserve the Southern way of life. Yet in pursuit of this goal, the fire-eaters acted in ways commonly associated with revolutionaries.” [i] First on the list would be the triumvirate whose voices for southern unity, independence, and succession were the loudest and of longest duration: Robert Barnwell Rhett (dubbed the father of succession), William Lowndes Yancey (secession’s orator), and Edmund Ruffin. All had connections to South Carolina which proved the hottest bed of Southern revolutionary thought. But, points out Thomas, “fire-eaters cut a broad swatch across many professions and every state in the antebellum South.” [ii] Influential clergymen like James H. Thornwell and Benjamin M. Palmer used their pulpits and pamphlets to “deepen the sentiment of resistance in the Southern mind.”[iii] Men with control of the editorial content of widely read publications added their voices including: James D. B. DeBow (DeBow’s Review), Roger A. Pryor, editor of the Richmond Enquirer newspaper, William Gilmore Simms (editor of the Southern Quarterly Review), and various editors of the Southern Literary Messenger. <[iv] Teachers in the classroomsJames DeBow of schools and colleges taught “Southern Nationalism” and impressed on the minds of students the “standard ‘line’ on the issues of slavery, politics, and economics.”[v] The system also expunged itself of faculty members who dissented. Taken in the aggregated, these activities resulted in what Thomas rightly labels an “intellectual blockade” as the Southern rights mantra came to dominate press, pulpit, and classroom.”[vi] Was this revolution or defending Southern institutions? The line between the two is admittedly a fine one. [vii]

It can also be argued that some from the Southern political elite, while advocates for Southern rights, did their advocating within the Union and so are not so easily labeled revolutionaries. Jefferson Davis falls into this camp as does Calhoun, Alexander H. Stephens and R. M. T Hunter. [viii] These men moved into the secessionist camp once it was a “fait accompli.” Were they, along with many of those who would take up arms on behalf of the South, thus revolutionaries or were they simply caught up in the fray? Jefferson Davis considered the use of the label revolution “an abuse of language.”[ix] “‘Ours is not a revolution.’ We left the Union ‘to save ourselves from a revolution’ that threatened to make ‘property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless…Our struggle is for inherited rights.’”[x]

The Black Republicans were the real revolutionaries, southerners insisted, “a motley throng of Sans culottes…Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists…active and bristling with terrible designs and as ready for bloody and forcible realities as ever characterized the ideas of the French Revolution.” Secession was therefore a “political revolution,: explained a Georgian in 1860, to forestall the “social revolution” sure to come if the South remained in the Union.[xi]

Can Northerners be assigned the label of revolutionist? Certainly extremists like James Brown [photo to right], Abolitionist James Brownwho resorted to violent acts to try to force social change, qualify as radicals. Harriet Beecher Stowe influenced social change by reaching hundreds of thousands with abolitionist sentiments through the power of popular literature. See an excellent summary of her writings here.

Representative James A. Garfield and contemporary William H. Seward considered the rise of the Republican Party to be a “revolution.”[xii] Garfield studied the French Revolution and found striking parallels with mid-19th century America. He became an ardent voice of revolution and “one of the most radical of the radical Republicans.”[xiii]

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips was considered by historian James McPherson to be “the most articulate spokesman for a revolutionary policy,” pegging Civil War as social revolution and calling for the “taking to pieces” of the whole social system of the Gulf States.[xiv] Similarly, Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of radical Republicans in the House, asserted that “‘we must treat this [war] as a radical revolution…and free every slave–slay every traitor–burn every rebel mansion, if these things be necessary to preserve’ the nation.”[xv]

Activists from both the South and the North could agree that secession was a counterrevolution to the revolution of 1776. But their frames of referenced were completely opposite. Secessionists saw it as a counterrevolution against the anticipated revolutionary threat of slavery.[xvi] Northerners saw secession as “not a just revolution, but an unjust counterrevolution.”[xvii]

For consideration of Abraham Lincoln as “revolutionary,” please see my previous post “Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln on Revolutionary.”

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree
[i] Emory M. Thomas, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1971), 24., [ii] Ibid., 30., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., 35., [v] Ibid., 34., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 32.,
[ix] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press), 26. [x] Ibid., 26., [xi] 3., [xiii] Ibid., 4., [xiv] Ibid., 5-6., [xv] Ibid., 30., [xvi] Ibid., 27., [xvii] Ibid., 28.


The Civil War as Revolution – Part III


[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.]

Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldiers in "the devil's den." LOC Digital Ref#: (LC-B811-0277A) Gardner, Alexander, 1821-1882, photographer.

Barrington Moore “sees the revolutionary dimension of the American Civil War not simply as a triumph of freedom over slavery, or industrialism over agriculture, or the bourgeoisie over the plantation gentry – but as a combination of all these things.” He saw it as“a violent breakthrough against an older social structure.”[i] In this Moore is in agreement with James McPherson that the American Civil War qualifies as an upheaval of the period’s status quo by intense domestic violence. As historians have pointed out on numerous occasions, the Civil War is unsurpassed in its degree of violence in the American experience. As to the overthrow of the “existing social and political order,” a survey of the changes driven by the war makes the point for the Civil War as revolutionary. External Changes Driven by the Civil War McPherson categorizes the transformations resulting from the Civil War as revolution in an external and internal sense.[ii] He considers external revolution to be “the sweeping transformation in the balance of economic and political power between North and South.”[iii] Sweeping political change occurred at the point of “withdrawal of southern representatives and senators from Congress when their states seceded.”[iv] It made possible the passage of Republican-sponsored legislation that promoted economic development in line with the Republican agenda, legislation that had been continually blocked by the southern-dominated Democratic Party. During the war, Congress “enacted:

  • land grants and government loans to build the first transcontinental railroad
  • higher tariffs to foster industrial development
  • national banking acts to restore part of the centralized banking system destroyed in the 1830s by Jacksonian Democrats
  • a homestead act to grant 160 acres of government land to settlers, and
  • the land-grant college act of 1862, which turned over federal land to the states to provide income for the establishment of state agricultural and vocational colleges, which became the basis of the modern land-grant universities.”[v]

East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail. Source: Public Domain: Wikipedia Commons

These changes were made possible because the war had changed the long-term sectional balance of power.[vi] It broke the domination of the country’s leadership by members of the slave-holding elite of the South.

In 1861 the United States had lived under the Constitution for seventy-two years. During forty-nine of those years the president had been a southerner-and a slave-holder. After the Civil War a century passed before another resident of the South was elected president. In congress, twenty-three of the thirty-six speakers of the House down to 1861, and twenty-four of the thirty-six presidents pro tem of the Senate, were from the South. For half a century after the war, none of the speakers or presidents pro tem was from the South. From 1789 to 1861, twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices had been southerners. At all times during those years the South had a majority on the Court. But only five of the twenty-six justices appointed during the next half-century were southerners.[vii]

In the next post, I’ll take a look at internal changes driven by the American Civil War.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[i] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 9

[ii] Ibid., 13, [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., 12., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid., 12-13.


The Civil War as Revolution – Part I


[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.]


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.