The war that became a revolution

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The US Civil War began 150 years ago in April 1861. It ended with the abolition of slavery in the Southern states. Mark L Thomas spoke to historian James McPherson about this turning point in US history


To what extent was the Civil War a war to preserve the Union and to what extent was it a war to abolish slavery?

It was primarily a war to preserve the Union and that was the sole objective at the beginning of the war for the North. Indeed President Lincoln said on many occasions in the first year and a half of the war that it was not a war to abolish slavery.

Lincoln was very much concerned about reassuring those slave states that had not seceded - Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware - as well as trying to win back some of the secessionists in the South. So initially it was a war to preserve the Union as it had existed before 1861.

But by the second year of the war it became increasingly clear that Southerners were not going to be wooed back into the Union. It also became increasingly clear that slavery was not only the purpose for which the Confederacy was fighting but was also an asset in the form of slave labour which grew the food crops and the cotton but also provided much of the logistical labour and support for Confederate armies.

So the conviction grew in the North, and Lincoln shared this conviction, that in order to win a war against a nation fighting for and supported by slavery, they would need to strike against slavery itself.

By the fall and winter of 1862-3 when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, I think the two goals of preserving the Union and striking against slavery became merged into one. By the time of his Gettysburg Address in November 1863 Lincoln explained that the war was not only to preserve the nation conceived and born in 1776 but also to give their nation a new birth of freedom by purging it of slavery.

How did the radicalisation of the North's war aims affect the military conduct of the war?

At first the Northern military tried to protect the property of Southerners, including the slave property, when they were in the South.

But it became increasingly difficult to justify protecting the property of a planter whose sons were away fighting for the Confederacy. And to return slaves who had escaped through Union lines, sometimes bringing information of value, became increasingly difficult.

I think by the second year of the war, and certainly by the third, the Northern military was operating in the South on the assumption that almost every white person in the South was the enemy, and that their property, including slave property, was fair game to be seized, confiscated and expropriated.

Indeed by 1863, under the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union army was recruiting slaves to become part of that army, and as a consequence the war increasingly was carried on as what has been called a "hard war" instead of a war of conciliation. It went step by step with the larger transformation of the war into a war not only for the preservation of the old Union but also for a new one purged of slavery.


What role did slaves play in their own emancipation? Around 200,000 eventually fought in the Union armies.

There's a strong current of interpretation now that slaves played a key role in their own emancipation by coming into Union lines from almost the beginning of the war. This forced on the Lincoln administration a series of decisions on what to do about these slaves.

Should they be returned to their masters? Early on they decided that they would not, especially if the slaves had been used in support of the Confederate war effort as labourers. By March 1862 Congress had enacted a new article of war forbidding Union army officers to return any slaves who came into Union lines.

Tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands then did so. In a way you could say they took the initiative from very early in the war to turn this into a war for freedom. Two hundred thousand is about the right figure: 180,000 in the Union army and some 18,000 or more in the Union navy.

Once they became an essential part of the Union war machine it was clear that things could never go back to the way they were before.

So their role, first in forcing some kind of decision about their status on the Union government and army and then eventually their role in helping to win the war ensured that slavery would be, if not completely ended by the war, certainly significantly weakened by it.

Then by 1864 and 1865, when Lincoln ran for re-election on a platform of a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery forever and everywhere, that was the death knell of the institution.

What difference do you think Lincoln made as an individual to the outcome of the war?

In many respects he made a big difference. In the winter of 1860-1 there were plenty of compromise proposals in Congress and elsewhere to try to forestall further secessions and maybe to win back the states that were in the process of leaving the Union.

Lincoln was willing to accept some of these compromises but he stood firm on the principal plank on which he had been elected, which was to exclude slavery from the territories [newly acquired lands waiting to become US states]. That meant that no compromise really was possible, and in that respect I think Lincoln did make a big difference.

If William Seward had been president he probably would have been willing to make some sort of compromise like that early on, maybe at the benefit of avoiding or postponing war but, of course, at the cost of perpetuating slavery.

Then I think during the war itself Lincoln was careful not to get too far ahead of public opinion in the North. He was a little bit ahead but he did not wish to risk a backlash by moving too quickly against slavery and he may even have moved more quickly than the electorate was willing to tolerate in September 1862, with the issuing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The Democrats made that the issue in Congressional elections of that year in which they made some gains, but Lincoln stuck to his purpose despite a lot of pressure to back away from Emancipation and he went ahead and issued the final proclamation on 1 January 1863.

Then he consistently supported that policy even in the summer of 1864 when the war was going badly for the Union and there was pressure for peace negotiations.

When the military situation turned positive for the Union with the capture of Atlanta and Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, Lincoln was triumphantly re-elected and went ahead and completed the victory in the war and the abolition of slavery.

So I think Lincoln did make a big difference.

Do you think the North's victory was inevitable, given its greater industry and resources?

No, I don't think it was any more inevitable than a British victory was inevitable in the American Revolution or an American victory was inevitable in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. In both cases the weaker party won those wars, and one can think of a great many other examples from history as well.

I think the difference in what it meant to win is significant. For the Confederacy to win the war they merely had to wear out the will of the North to keep fighting and to ward off invasion, conquest, occupation of the South and destruction of Confederate armies.

This was a much easier task than for the North to win the war, which had to invade, conquer, occupy and destroy the ability of the Confederate armies and society to continue waging the war - a much more difficult task. And so the Confederacy came close on several occasions to accomplishing the erosion of the Northern will to keep fighting, which would have been tantamount to a Confederacy victory.

What do we know about the views of the ordinary soldiers who fought in the Civil War?

It certainly is possible to know what common soldiers thought through their letters and diaries - there was no censorship of Civil War soldiers' letters and diaries, and there was a high level of literacy, so we really do have a pretty good picture of what they thought they were fighting for.

I've written a book called For Cause and Comrades and those two words I think sum up much of the motivation of these soldiers, most of whom on both sides were volunteers. The draftees really played a marginal role in the war. So these were people who enlisted because they thought that something important was at stake for their society.

In the case of both sides I think they felt that they were fighting for the legacy of what they looked upon as America's greatest generation, the founding fathers of the American Revolution. In the case of the Confederacy they felt they were fighting, just as their grandfathers had done, for independence from an oppressive government. The Northerners thought they were fighting to preserve the nation founded in 1776 from disintegration and destruction.

They all felt they were fighting for democracy and for self-government; that was one of the ironic tragedies of the Civil War. As the war went on and as it became a much more revolutionary kind of war I think Northern soldiers became convinced that they were fighting not only to uphold their government but also to transform it by putting down this, as they would call it, dastardly rebellion.

In the case of the Confederacy it was increasingly a fight for survival, not only for an independent nationhood for the Confederacy but also for the survival of what they would have called their institutions, by which I think they meant primarily slavery and the slave society, but it also involved the agricultural order of the South and its way of life and values.

Were the Civil War and its outcome the completion of the American Revolution of the 1770s?

Well, I call it the "Second Revolution", and I certainly didn't invent that term. In some ways it could be seen as the completion of the revolution. The fatal defect in the revolution of 1776 was that it did not fulfil the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men have the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Slavery was perpetuated and even strengthened during the course of the 19th century and that fatal defect, I think, is what brought on the Civil War. This time around they finally decided they wanted to complete the job.

Do you see the period of Reconstruction in the South that follows the North's victory as a continuation of the revolutionary process that begins in the Civil War? Why does it end in the racist system of Jim Crow segregation?

Certainly the effort in the early years of Reconstruction to define the new citizenship of the freed slaves and what that citizenship would mean was the 14th Amendment to the Constitution [which allowed black people to be US citizens], and then granting voting rights to the freed slaves with the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was an effort to fulfil that egalitarian and even revolutionary promise of the Civil War.

There was really a continuation of warfare through white resistance in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and Redshirts and rifle clubs and so on, and for a while the Union army continued to occupy the South.

But gradually I think the Northern people became tired of trying to enforce change in the South. With the panic in 1873 and the subsequent economic depression, I think there was an increasing desire to bail out from the effort to continue to enforce Reconstruction. A disputed presidential election in 1876 was solved by a sort of compromise under which the ultimate victor in the election, Rutherford B Hayes, promised to withdraw the last federal troops from the Southern states.

The South didn't revert back to the way it was, slavery was not reimposed, and some of the rights which were won during Reconstruction persisted at least for a time. But it was a story of two steps forward, freedom and equality, freedom during the war and equality during Reconstruction, and then one step backward from the equality part of that in 1877 [the end of Reconstruction]. Then you have the caste system, the Jim Crow system, which persisted in the South really until the 1950s and 1960s.

How do we explain the transformation of the Republicans from the party of Lincoln and the abolition of slavery to the party of George Bush and the Tea Party?

That's mostly a story of the 20th century, and even of the more recent decades of the 20th century. I think that up to Theodore Roosevelt's administration [1901-09] the Republican Party retained its progressive character on many issues. But in 1912 the Republican Party split into the progressive wing that ran Roosevelt for president and the so-called "standpatters", or conservative Republicans.

The Republican Party came back together again in 1916 and from then on the conservatives gradually gained control of the party.

When Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal came in the 1930s a lot of the liberals, including the old progressives from the early part of the 20th century, supported him. You began to have the Democratic Party as it is now, the party of the left, and the Republican Party as the party of the right. It didn't take place all at the same time because for a long time the South remained solidly Democratic and it was a sort of conservative anchor for the Democratic Party.

In the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson committed the Democratic Party to the Civil Rights Act, it pretty much drove most whites in the South out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party. Obama broke into it a little bit in the 2008 election by carrying three Southern states but clearly the white South is now pretty solidly Republican and that's a transformation from its solid Democratic status up until the 1960s.

The level of rehabilitation of the old South seems remarkable, with the toleration of flying the old Confederate flag, the sympathy that often seems to be there in parts of Hollywood and in popular music for the old South.

This was true for a while, but I think in the last ten or 15 years the Confederate flags have come down in several of the states. In South Carolina they've come down part way, one's still flying in the State House grounds but at least it's not flying from the Capitol any more. And I think that there's a decreasing of tolerance for neo-Confederate demonstrations.

There's still a die-hard element, and I think that they sometimes give the impression that they're more influential than they really are because they are pretty outspoken and can be quite aggressive.

I think probably that the typical Hollywood presentation now is more likely to fit the movie Glory [which depicts one of the first black units in the Union army during the Civil War] than it would Gone with the Wind, so there's been some change in that respect.

James McPherson is the author of many books on the US Civil War. His best known is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom which is available from Bookmarks bookshop.