The Politics of War
Civil War 150 has reached its “high water mark.” The commemoration of the most tragic event in the history of the United States now stands at the point, one hundred fifty years later, of the most crucial, dramatic year of the American Civil War: 1863.
A year marked by many “red letter” dates, 1863 began with the Emancipation Proclamation and ended with President Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” at the memorial service at Gettysburg. Epic battles and sieges at the war front dominated newspaper headlines. Political dissension wracked both the Union and the Southern Confederacy. The revolutionary nature of the Civil War was underscored by the first use of African American troops in combat and the outbreak of protest in New York City against military conscription, which disintegrated into a brutal racist pogrom. These deeds and misdeeds were the labor pangs of America’s “new birth of freedom.”
So far, Civil War 150 has failed to spark a widespread renewal of interest in the momentous events of 1861-1865 comparable to the sensation created by Ken Burns’ television documentary series, The Civil War, shown on PBS in 1990.
Has America outgrown its obsession with the Civil War? Could the effect of prolonged economic crisis and the erosion of a sense of America’s security, despite its global military power, have diminished our capacity to grasp the enduring importance of the Civil War?
A sampling of new or recent books on the Civil War suggests that this bygone conflict is still relevant to the lives, hopes and fears of the American people in the twenty-first century. If anything, some of the new research and analysis of the Civil War shows that the terrible ordeal of 1861 to 1865 is more meaningful than it has ever been.
To begin with, the American Civil War was not one war but three, interrelated struggles.
There was of course, the military conflict, divided into geographic theatres of operation. In 1863, these battle fronts focused on the Union attempt to seize the strategic Confederate fortress of Vicksburg, the key to controlling the Mississippi River; the struggle to drive Confederate forces from the pro-Union regions of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee; and the grand arena of combat that lay between Washington D.C. and the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. In a dramatic bid to turn the tide of the war in the South’s favor, the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, extended this theater of war to the Union state of Pennsylvania. The resulting three-day bloodbath is the subject of Alan Guelzo’s riveting battle study, Gettysburg: the Last Invasion, which will be reviewed in the second part of this essay.
The two other “battlegrounds” were equally vital to the outcome of the conflict. These were the scenes of internecine political warfare, North and South. In many respects, the Civil War was determined by the speed with which the Union and Confederate camps tore themselves apart – from within. It was a close race, especially during the early years of the war, to see who would be the first to fall on its own sword. But as Bruce Levine shows in The Fall of the House of Dixie, the internal conflicts in the Confederacy ultimately doomed the South’s bid for secession and self-government.
The story of the Confederacy’s self-immolation is ably recounted in Levine’s book, along with detailed evidence in Guelzo’s Gettysburg on the effect of regional feuds among the rank and file of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Instead of a “solid South” united against the Yankee invaders, the Confederacy’s obsession with its “rights” – states’ rights and the right to own slaves – fatally compromised its ability to prosecute the war.
The surreal lengths to which Southern leaders took their mania for autonomy and self-interest is aptly summed up in the statement of Georgia’s governor, Joseph E. Brown, in response to the 1862 military conscription law passed by the Confederate government, led by Jefferson Davis.
“I entered into this revolution to contribute my humble mite to sustain the rights of the states and to prevent the consolidation of Government,” Brown declared, “and I am a rebel till this object is accomplished, no matter who may be in power.”
Confederate states like Georgia kept substantial numbers of soldiers and large stockpiles of a precious weapons and supplies at home rather than contribute towards the needs of the troops of other states. To make matters worse, the Confederate conscription law exempted the owners of twenty or more slaves form serving in the army on the grounds that their managerial skills were essential to the war effort. This understandably infuriated the poor whites of the South, drafted to fight in this “rich man’s war.”
Given the striking defensive victories won by Lee and his army early in the war, this internal Confederate dissension seemingly had little effect on his operations. In fact, Lee’s forces, starved of men, equipment, supplies and horses, were facing logistical disaster by the early summer of 1863. Most of all, as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia prepared to invade Pennsylvania, the Confederacy was running out of time.
Along with his new book on Gettysburg, Guelzo also wrote an excellent single-volume study, Fateful Lightning, a New History of the Civil War. In both books, Guelzo provides startling insight into the Union’s “suicide attempt.” He shows that resistance to Lincoln’s policies, especially the abolition of slavery, was not confined to political foes in the South. Clement Vallandigham, the charismatic Ohio congressman, led a wing of the Democratic Party known as the Copperheads, who fiercely denounced Lincoln. “To maintain the Constitution as it is,” Vallandigham proclaimed, “and to restore the Union as it was.”
An even more dangerous current of opposition to Lincoln swept through the Union officer corps. The first commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George B. McClellan, represented an especially grave threat to Lincoln. A conservative Democrat from Philadelphia, McClellan fought only to preserve the Union, not to emancipate African American slaves. “Little Mac” had many like-minded disciples among the officers of “McClellan’s Bodyguard,” as Lincoln wryly referred to the Army of the Potomac. The malign influence of McClellan haunted the Army of the Potomac, long after he was dismissed from command in November 1862.
As a minority president, elected by only thirty-nine percent of the popular vote in the 1860 election, Lincoln could not have been surprised to face partisan opposition in the North after taking office. But two new books provide intriguing insights into the Civil War from the Union perspective. These works reveal the extent of the fundamental split in the Union ranks between those who primarily fought, as McClellan did, to save the Union, and the idealists and foes of slavery who pressed to use the war as a means to create a truly democratic nation.
The first of these books is The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a Biography of the Song That Marches On. This fabled anthem, as authors John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis note, began life as a Methodist hymn popularly known by one of the lines of its lyrics, “O brothers will you meet me, on Canaan’s happy shore.”
In 1861, soldiers in a Union regiment preparing for war, the Twelfth Massachusetts Volunteers, conjured-up new lyrics for the hymn, pro-Unionist in theme. The Twelfth’s marching song, John Brown’s Body, threatened rough handling of the Confederate president, “They will hang Jeff Davis to a tree!” There was an inside joke to this new version, as one of the regiment’s troopers was named John Brown, no relation to the anti-slavery leader of the 1859 raid on the Federal arsenal of Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
The joke was lost on Julia Ward Howe, wife of one of the “Secret Six” who had supported the raid on Harpers Ferry. Julia Ward Howe was the very embodiment of the Abolitionist wing of Union supporters. Howe and other kindred spirits (Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame was another) viewed the United States as the “Redeemer Nation,” the Union cause thereby enlisting the Almighty’s “fateful lightning” and “terrible swift sword” among its formidable array of weapons.
As the Union war effort gained momentum, the ardor of Howe’s Battle Hymn spread to many who had joined the cause to defend the Union or from a sense of adventure, “to see the elephant,” as the jocular contemporary phrase expressed it. But the longer the war lasted, it became an abiding concern if this new-found idealism would endure. When the Twelfth Massachusetts was mustered-out of service in 1864, only 85 men of its original 1,040 remained. Called upon to sing John Brown’s Body on their return to Boston, the survivors sullenly refused. The regiment’s John Brown had been killed in 1862 and now lay “a mouldering” in his grave. Nobody felt like singing.
It is perfectly understandable that combat troops, after suffering terrible privation and loss of comrades, should balk at singing about truth “marching on.” The subsequent career of the Battle Hymn of the Republic shows how this disillusionment with the redemptive, crusading ideals of the Union cause was paralleled by changed attitudes to the controversial song.
Stauffer and Soskis show in fascinating detail how post-Civil War performances of the Battle Hymn had to be prefaced with disclaimers of adulation for the Abolitionist John Brown. The Battle Hymn was nervously reformulated, removing its Civil War connotations so as not to offend the white citizens of the re-admitted Southern states. During the 1890’s new patriotic rituals and songs replaced the Battle Hymn of the Republic in popular appeal. Then, in 1898, with shrill, anti-Spanish feeling gripping the United States, the Battle Hymn was dusted off for use in the Spanish-American War.
Mark Twain, who took a dim view of military heroics during the Civil War, rewrote the lyrics of the Battle Hymn to suit the reality of America’s Gilded Age:
In a sordid slime harmonious, Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom – for other’s goods an itch;
Christ died to make men holy; let men die to make us rich;
Our god is marching on.
During the Civil War’s aftermath, the United States descended from the altar of patriotism to wallow in the pigsty of greed and graft of the era of the Robber-Barons. Idealism died with the fallen heroes at Gettysburg and at Ford’s Theater with Abraham Lincoln. Or did it merely seem to?
A remarkable biography, Donn Piatt, Gadfly of the Gilded Age provides insight into the way that idealistic support for the Union took on a shape-shifting form throughout and after the Civil War. Piatt’s biographer, Peter Bridges, justly describes Piatt as “a muckraker a quarter century before Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell were given that name for blasting abuses and corruption in America.”
Largely – and unjustly – forgotten today, Donn Piatt came from a prominent family in Cincinnati, Ohio, served in the U.S. diplomatic service before the war and numbered Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war, among his friends. He acquitted himself bravely at the battles of First and Second Bull Run. Yet, he only achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. Part of the reason for Piatt’s poor showing stemmed from his highly-developed individualism. As this was a character trait Piatt shared with many of his generation, a more likely factor was that he had served on an official commission investigating the alleged misconduct of General Buell, commander of Union forces in Kentucky and Tennessee in 1862.
If there is one figure held in low esteem by fighting troops, it is that of a staff officer overseeing their actions far away from the battle-line. After the war, Piatt was castigated by General William T. Sherman, as belonging to “that noble army of martyrs who suffered as provost marshals, judge advocates and sutlers at the rear.”
Viewed more as a political soldier than a fighting one, Piatt should have been on his guard. Yet, he made the fundamental mistake of antagonizing President Lincoln by actions relating to the operation of the Emancipation Proclamation in the slave-holding state of Maryland, which remained neutral during the war. The loss of Maryland by the Union would have gravely endangered Washington D.C. Therefore, Lincoln exempted slaves in Maryland from emancipation to maintain the state’s tenuous loyalty.
Piatt, an ardent Abolitionist, thought he saw a way to resolve this “legal technicality” during the autumn of 1863. Serving as acting-commander of the military district administering Maryland, Piatt began enlisting slaves into one of the new regiments of African-American troops. Perhaps Piatt thought that since the Emancipation Proclamation was a military statute, he could use the recruitment of slaves into the U.S. Army to outflank Maryland’s border state exemption. If so, he was soon disabused of this notion. According to Piatt’s unsubstantiated account, President Lincoln exploded in anger during a personal interview. Stanton, after the war, stated that when he brought a list of officers for promotion to brigadier generals, Lincoln crossed-out Piatt’s name.
“Knows too much,” Lincoln tartly remarked.
On January 2, 1864, a few months after Piatt rashly crossed swords with Lincoln, another commander recommended a bold initiative to free slaves and win the war. This officer, however, wore a gray uniform. Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie brilliantly analyses this belated attempt to prod the Confederate government to arm freed slaves as soldiers in the army of the South.
This proposal was made by the Irish-born Confederate commander, General Patrick Cleburne, one of the finest tacticians in either army. Disaster loomed in the aftermath of Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863. Cleburne counseled that by emancipating African American slaves, the Confederacy would knock the Union off the moral high ground of Abolitionism. Enlisting these freed slaves would revive the flagging military strength of the Confederate forces. It is surely significant that this sensible and far-sighted plan was conceived by a capable military officer who was not a member of the slave-owning aristocracy of the South.
The response to Cleburne’s plan was neatly summarized by a comment recorded by Mary Boykin Chestnut in her famous diary, “If we are to lose our Negroes, we would as soon see Sherman free them as the Confederate government.”
Later, after the war was clearly lost, a weakened version of Cleburne’s proposal was passed – by one vote – in the Confederate Senate on March 8, 1865. Raising the expected 300,000 Black troops for Confederate service would be achieved through a “free-will offering” by the South’s slave owners. These African-American recruits would receive their freedom as a reward for defending the South, but only if their masters agreed. With one foot already over the abyss, the Southern elite refused to rip the moral blindfold of slavery from its eyes.
Only two small units of Black Confederates, drawn from hospital workers in Richmond, reached the front-line trenches just before Grant’s Union forces launched the overwhelming offensive that resulted in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
And the war came to an end.
Americans, north and south, hoped for a return to an idyllic, agrarian society as depicted in the concluding frame of the 1870 print, The Wheel of Time. Their hopes were to be cruelly disappointed. Slavery was dead. But the unresolved legacies of slavery, especially the failure to maintain full equality and human dignity for those who had been slaves, were very much alive.
Slavery’s destruction, this “new birth of freedom,” was achieved only through unprecedented loss of life. The war witnessed shocking acts of cruelty and an unimaginable scale of violence, leaving Americans of the post-Civil War era stunned and embittered. The second part of this essay will survey books dealing with the “trial by combat” that took place from 1861 to 1865 – an ordeal which has never stopped disturbing the soul of the America nation ever since those tragic years.