The Civil War

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

No need to re-fight the battles and campaigns of the Civil War in these pages. Let’s just note a few important themes.

The Federal forces, or the North as we commonly but inaccurately say, had much the hardest job. Always, except at Antietam Creek and Gettysburg, its armies were fighting in hostile territory. To win, it had to blockade the South, occupy its territory and defeat its armies. That the North was able to win, finally, was due to the fact that the ten years bought for the Union by the Compromise of 1850 (see below) witnessed an explosion of railroad-building in the North, and a corresponding increase in its industrial capacities. Without railroads, and without the ability to continuously repair those railroads after Confederate attacks, the North’s resources would not have been sufficient to conquer so extensive a territory. The South had not used those years in the same way. In fact, the slave economy had fallen far behind the North’s free-labor industrial economy

The South’s task was the same as George Washington’s 90 years before – it had to hold out until its enemy’s war-weariness, or foreign intervention, or some unforeseen combination of circumstances, resulted in independence. (Indeed, all through the war the South was haunted by the memory of Washington’s ordeal, sustaining its own hope in the memory of Washington at Valley Forge. That analogy served them badly. With Lincoln in the White House, they might have had compensated emancipation and easy terms for reunification. He was making generous offers as late as the Winter of 1865, at a secret conference held in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The hopelessness of the Southern situation was abundantly clear by that time, but they clung to the hope that it would all come out for them as it had for Washington, if they only remained steadfast.)

At first the Federal troops and nation expected a quick and easy war, such as the nation would get a generation later in the Spanish-American War. They thought of the improvised Southern armies as mobs, to be dispersed by the regular army. But defeats such as Bull Run in the East and even victories such as bloody Shiloh in the West taught the North that they were facing not mobs but armies, armies led by able officers (many of whom had been trained at national expense at West Point). Both sides settled in for a longer war than either had expected or prepared for.

Slavery was always the root cause of the secession movement, but abolitionists were not much more popular in the North than in the South. Indeed, many northerners blamed a generation of abolition agitation for the crisis. In the first year of the war, the Northern cause was not emancipation but preservation of the Union. Lincoln, that experienced political calculator, knew that the people were not ready for such a move, and he feared lest Western and Midwestern troops abandon the Union cause if they began to perceive it as a war for abolition. So for many months we had the curious spectacle of the South fighting to prevent the North from doing something most Northerners had no intention of doing. Several times, well-meaning Union officers declared abolition in their area of command, and each time Lincoln firmly overruled them.

But with time and the shedding of blood, events educated the people. Runaway slaves, since they were not legally recognized to be human, were declared “contraband of war” – that is, goods that may be seized and confiscated by a belligerent in wartime – and began to be employed, at wages, as Army laborers. The soldiers came to see that these ex-slaves were not figures of fun, but people, and the soldiers’ letters home began to change public opinion. Abolition ceased to be a dirty word, and came to seem closer to simple justice.

In the autumn of 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, saying that in any territory still in rebellion against the United States as of January 1, 1863, any slaves resident there would be henceforth and forever free. He did this under his authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, remaining convinced that he would not have had the legal authority to do anything of the sort had the nation been at peace.

The day came, and a new and better chapter in the history of the American Republic began to be written. Even though the proclamation didn’t actually free anybody (it applied only in the very areas which Union forces did not control), still slavery was dead, and everybody knew it – provided that the South was not allowed to win its independence.

There was blood to be shed, a lot of it, and it took another two years and four months before the war was over, but when it was over, two things had been settled. (1) The Union was not a rope of sand, destined to dissolve at the first tug. (2) The nation would have a new birth of freedom, however long it took to work out the difficult race issue.


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