Sherman and the Hard Hand of War: “…she deserves all that seems in store for her”

Cover of sheet music for “Sherman’s March to the Sea”, 1965: Byers & Rockwell

In The Hard Hand of War, Mark Grimsley addresses the evolution of Union military policy towards Southern civilians and specifies three separate phases of policy: conciliatory, pragmatic, and hard war. This policy changed with the Union’s changing war aim from the defense of the Union to the abolition of slavery and every stepping stone in between. The hard war policy came to a head after the failure to break the Confederacy by both respectful occupation and concentration on the battlefield. For hard war, the focus shifted to the destruction of the Confederate infrastructure and the confiscation of private citizens’ property, especially those who outright supported the Confederate cause.

The hard hand of war came down after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. With the legalization of black troops, the Union had motivation to bring the backbone of the Confederate infrastructure into the Union’s grasp and thus completely undermine the economic structure of the Confederacy. The loss of the slave power and support of the war effort not only hurt the Confederacy, but also helped the Union when those slaves joined Union military ranks. The Union further attempted to put an end to Confederate progress by enacting preventative measure by the way of raids ensuring the inability of Confederate troops to acquire necessary provisions, most famously done by Major General William Sherman. Most importantly, emancipation was seen as the best way to dismantle Confederate infrastructure and unless the Union destroyed the Confederacy, they would “become slaves themselves” (141). The goal now was to conquer the Confederates by any means necessary, including the confiscation of property from all civilians, regardless of their level of affiliation or support of the rebellion.

In 1863, the United States War Department published General Order No. 11, also known as Lieber’s Code. This publication provided the justification of hard war by means of military necessity – the harder the war, the shorter it will be. It did not permit “wanton destruction”, which inhibited the return to a state of peace and reconciliation (150). More importantly, the Code left the acceptable range of actions taken against civilians considered as rebellious enemies, and thus the distinction of pragmatic war versus hard war, up to the discretion of military commanders.

Lieber’s Code/General Order No. 100

For General Sherman, hard war was embodied in the strategy of raids employed by Grant in 1864. Chevauchées aimed provide for the pillaging troops, improve their will to fight, decimate the enemy’s land, and destroy the enemy both politically and psychologically.  Sherman’s aim for his March to the Sea was to show Jefferson Davis the Union power “which [he] cannot resist” by marching through his territory and “desolating the land” (191). Originally, Sherman was not completely comfortable with the idea of hard war and pillaging as a military necessity. He saw pillaging as a crime punishable by death, an opinion shared by Francis Lieber, the namesake of the Lieber Code. Lieber, however, saw a difference between pillaging done by uniformed troops and pillaging done by “self-constituted guerrillas” – only the latter is punishable by death. The former would be treated as “ordinary belligerents” (148). However, Sherman became accustomed to hard war tactics and supported them as retribution for the Confederacy forcing the Union into a war.

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No Place For The Sick: Environment, Institutions, and Self-Care

Four Humours Diagram

Antebellum health care was, in comparison to today’s modern scientific discoveries, rather unsophisticated. Most health care professionals still adhered to the Hippocratic Theory of the Four Humors, which claimed that disease or sickness happened to a person when their humors were out of balance and the best treatment usually involved purging the body by way of bleeding, sweating, or vomiting. Usually, those who fell ill were treated in their own home rather than at hospitals, thus giving them a predisposition towards self-care – the practice of “personal hygiene, supplementing one’s diet with fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, protecting oneself from the elements, eradicating pests, and consistently communicating with loved ones.” (177).

Kathryn Meier addresses the issue of self-care and the effect of the environment on soldiers in their article “No Place for the Sick”. The Peninsula and Shenandoah Valley Campaigns exposed soldiers to an environment which many of them had never experienced before. In general, the South was regarded as sickly due to a harsh, rural environment filled with swamp, insects, and bacteria. Soldiers did recognize a relationship between their environment and their physical and mental health, and believed their “exposure….to inclement weather, roily water, dangerous ‘airs’…a new climate, harsh seasonal changes, and pests” were the reasons for their physical and mental ailments. Exposure to these threats was believed to be the cause for physical sickness, while inclement weather was usually linked to poor mental state (178). Physical and mental health were “very much interrelated in Civil War soldier experience”, for those who were often physically sick fell into a state of melancholy. Surgeon Alfred L. Castleman drew a correlation between positive mental attitudes and physical health by claiming that “nine causes out of ten whenever a sick soldier yielded to the idea that he would not recover, he would certainly die” (179).

Despite a slight improvement in medicine during the war, partly due to the efforts of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the sanitation movement, the field healthcare infrastructure of both the Union and the Confederacy were weak and generally unreliable, further pushing soldiers to a policy of self-care. Men had to learn how to take care of each other, for their traditional female caretakers were not available to them on the battlefield. According to Meier, the decision to adhere to self-care “was far more important to overall health than where [an individual] was stationed” (178). The process of

“THE SURGEON AT WORK AT THE REAR DURING AN ENGAGEMENT” Winslow Homer (Harper’s Weekly: July 12, 1862, p. 439)

decisions made by soldiers in the field is known as “seasoning”. During this time, soldiers adapted to their surroundings, and often depended on and helped each other stay healthy.  This dependency on comrades came from the sense of dread a man felt when condemned to the field hospital. Hospitals gave preference to the wounded, and care for the sick was seen as impersonal and neglectful – a long shot from the home-care they were used to and the self-care they adhered to.

What I found particularly interesting was Meier’s section on the impact of battlefields on soldiers’ mental health. The sight of hundreds of dead bodies caused mental anguish, but the thought of death in battle “was preferable to death by disease”. Perishing from a disease “[robbed] the men of a chance to fulfill their sense of duty” (184). Thus, soldiers who were more aware of their environment and who practiced self-care were less likely to succumb to disease and were therefore “more valuable to the cause” (200).  In order to be useful in battle, a solider had to be in good health. Otherwise, he would not be able to fully dedicate himself to battle.

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A King’s Cure for All Evils: Lincoln, the End of the War, and Slavery

Before the Civil War, Lincoln was staunch in his antislavery beliefs and denied access to equal rights for African Americans. Throughout the war, his views evolved considerably. He denied Frémont’s 1861 call for military emancipation because he did not see it as a necessity, but by 1862 he began to see slavery as intrinsically linked to the war cause. In a December 1862 address to Congress, he said “without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” and outlined his ideas for emancipation, which included gradual and compensated emancipation (146). This proposal was to further the war cause and quicken reunion, not necessarily to give the salves the freedom they deserved. However, Lincoln never abandoned his personal moral opposition to slavery. In the Gettysburg Address of November 19th, 1963 he reminded the nation that the war advanced the notion of equality between blacks and whites.

http://www.lionword.com/?page_id=142

“Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” by Dan Duffy. From http://www.lionword.com.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. In December of the same year, he addressed Congress and outlined the effectiveness of emancipation on the war effort. He emphasized that the “full one hundred thousand” (186) black men now enlisted in the Union military provided both manpower and worked against the Confederacy by taking away their slaves and employing them against the Confederate war effort.  White soldiers, though originally reluctant to embrace emancipation as a war aim, began to support it once they saw that it would be the best way to dry up the support system of the Confederacy. By 1864, Lincoln began calling for voting rights for the “very intelligent” blacks as well as those who fought for the Union (193). In April, he said: “I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” (194).  He presented his opposition to slavery as not only one that is morally right, but one that is inherent in man’s sense of justice and righteousness, as well as one ordered by God. He claimed that emancipation became a military necessity not only due to the manpower crisis, but also due to the refusal of Border States to voluntarily accept gradual emancipation. Previously, Lincoln kept this personal view of slavery to himself, but the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the general acceptance of black troops gave Lincoln the green light to announce his personal opinions.

Lincoln did not sway from this position – he used previous actions such as the Militia Act of 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment as well as the views of the people (213) to validate and further his views on slavery. In his Second Inaugural Address, he cited slavery as the cause for the war and without its abolishment, the war would continue forever. Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved due to events outside of his control, and he eventually supported complete emancipation and eradication of slavery and suffrage for certain blacks, but his opinions on equal rights remained unclear, for he never said anything directly about black equal rights except in relation to their status as prisoners of war, specifically at Fort Pillow (197). However, his plan of extending suffrage towards some blacks could have evolved into a plan of extending suffrage to all black men during the journey of Reconstruction.

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“I saw no dead man that night whose pockets had not been turned inside out”

Frank Wilkeson (Mathew Brady: c. 1864)

Frank Wilkeson has provided a first-hand account of a rank-and-file Union soldier in his memoir Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac. In his preface, he immediately states that the purpose of his memoir is to show what the war was really like and that he was not “inspired by vanity or jealousy” or to “repair damaged or wholly ruined military reputations” (xiii) like the well-known histories of the war. He acts as the spokesman for the men who he believes truly fought and won the battles: the private soldiers. He specified two main grudges he held against the war the Union conducted the war: the use of volunteers instead of inscription, and the very existence of West Point officers in the field. He emphasized fully on his hatred of West Point and its officers. His vendetta against West Point is chilling and blunt. He denied the soldiering abilities of the West Point officers and went so far as blaming the failures of the Union during the war on these men who, in his eyes, “were commanders, but they were not soldiers”, for soldiers “are not the products of schools” (xvii).

The chapter in which he described the Battle of the Wilderness provided a particularly interesting insight to the war. Wilkeson knowingly left his battery due to lack of action and went towards the battle. He graphically described the moment when he “saw the elephant” – a phrase for the awesome and gruesome experience of the soldiers’ first exposure to war as presented by historian James McPherson in the book’s introduction – and realized that he was in danger when he heard bullets hitting the trees next to him and saw the of a dead officer who had a bullet hole in his forehead out from which his “brain oozed” (62). This first-hand account is indispensible to accounting the story of the Civil War and adds a personal note to the total casualty count that is simply recited as if those numbers were only numbers, and not the lives of men.

“ARMY OF THE POTOMAC–BARTLETT’S BRIGADE OF WARREN’S CHARGING THE ENEMY” (Harper’s Weekly: May 28, 1864 p. 339)

Later in the same chapter, Wilkeson described the Confederate men he saw slain on the ground. He seemed to pity their lack of resources and their poverty, but stated, “they fought…like men of purely American blood” (70). This sentiment, along with the chilling account of facing battle, adds a personal note to a part of history that is so deeply studied. Wilkeson felt a bond with his fellow common soldier, albeit that other soldier was his enemy. This kind of identification with a Confederate solider from a Union one should be scrutinized, seeing as it was accounted after the war and Wilkeson’s opinions may have changed.

Wilkeson’s memoir shows a gritty personal experience in comparison to the laudable accounts of military generals. He provided his own brute honesty and supposed true emotions and accounts of events he experienced. His memoir is a bottom-up view of the war instead of a top-down down one, and despite personal bias, limitations due to memory loss, change of opinion, or simple mistake, his accounts of his time as a private solider in Grant’s Army recounted what seemed to be the experience of many of Grant’s men in his 1864 Overland Campaign.

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Animals, Cannon Fodder, or Men?

Currier & Ives, “Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment”

To the slaveholders in the South and to many whites in the North, African Americans were not regarded as people, but as property. This was a heavy blow to the black society as a whole, but was especially troublesome to black men. The denial of their manhood by white society proposed the question of what manhood really was.  Was it someone “born…with manhood” or was it earned? Did it mean something different to black men than it did to white men (77)? How did fighting in the war entitle black men to a label of manliness? Jim Cullen addresses these questions in his essay “’I’s a Man Now’: Gender and African American Men” in Clinton and Silber’s Divided Houses.

The scholarly study of gender is largely a modern phenomenon, but it is helpful to lay the groundwork of gender studies while reading a source dealing with 19th century gender constructs. Sex is biologically determined due to the presence of XX/XY chromosomes and the function of sex organs (usually determined as male or female, with a small percentage of people being born as intersex), while gender is the social construct, norms, and behaviors associated with a sex. Gender is a fluid spectrum and not just male or female, allowing a full scale of options for identification. A person may choose to be gender fluid or gender queer if they feel that they do not fully identify with the male or female gender. Further, a person who is biologically male and identifies as so may also choose to identify as “femme” – a term often used to describe homosexual males who identify as male but are more effeminate than what is deemed normal for male gender identification by greater society. This normalization is based upon structured gender roles: men are strong defenders of the family while women swoon into men’s arms and take care of the children and the home. During the Civil War, many men enlisted and went off to fight, fulfilling the expectations of the male gender. However, these men were always white men, fighting a “white man’s war” (78). How did the black men feel about their denial of manhood and male identification?

Black males were not completely ignored in the war effort, for they found work in the Confederate war machine…yet were denied admission into the Union forces. Why, then, would a black man ever choose to fight at all? The North offered a life of privileges that must “be guarded, if not expanded” and if one were to refuse to fight, it would be “unpatriotic, nay mean and unmanly” to do so (79). The very concept of battle was manly, and the best way for black men to show white men that they were “equal in war as well as peace” (80) was to enlist, but this action was still barred until the First Confiscation Act of 1862. Regardless of official policy, many black men chose to weaken the Confederate infrastructure by engaging in guerrilla warfare, escaping plantations, and/or becoming “contraband” under Butler’s 1861 decree. After Lincoln’s 1862 preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, African American status became the pinnacle of the war effort.

Black men now joined the Union forces with deliberate speed, “possessing the means – and promised a worthy end” (81), finally able to prove themselves to the rest of America. Frederick Douglass promoted enlistment as a surefire way for African American men to obtain citizenship as well as secure “manhood and freedom” (81). The issue of black enlistment was both supported and rejected by the white masses. Those who supported it did so either because they truly believed in the right to fight, or would rather just see black men die in place of white men. Those who opposed enlistment felt in such a way due to racism and their refusal to treat blacks as victors and with “all decent and becoming respect” (82). Many African American soldiers were not allowed to become commissioned officers and received about one-half of the salary attributed to whites. A black commander wrote to the Governor of Massachusetts telling him that he and his men would rather fight without payment if it meant having to “acknowledge that because they have African blood in their veins, they are less men, than those who have saxon” (84).

Men of Color! To Arms! To Arms! (Philadelphia, 1863)

The metamorphosis of a black man turning into a “man” nullified the belief that such a person could be considered property or an animal – an enormous blow to the peculiar institution of slavery. Further, it changed the African American family dynamic. The black man’s newfound manhood would strengthen his authority in his home and allowed him to practice the “intellectual, emotional, and temperamental traits of manhood” (90) previously denied to him in slavery, where he had lost the ability to control his own life. Now, he had the ability to control not only his life, but to oversee his family.

Cullen’s piece highlights the dehumanization aspect of slavery and how desperately black men wished to be seen as humans in the eyes of whites. These men fought “for the right to kill and be killed” (82) and despite all of their mortal sacrifices, which were seen as the “zenith of manhood”, black men “were still dismissed as less than men” (88). Finally, with the removal of enlistment restrictions and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, black men finally staked their rightful claim as men, not slaves, not animals, but American men who fought and sacrificed to save the Union and free themselves while struggling to live up to the social constructs of manhood and the male gender identity.

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From The Soft Finger to the Hard Hand: The Evolution of the Union’s Civilian Policy

Atlanta ruins after Sherman’s March (George Bernard, c. 1864)

In The Hard Hand of War, Mark Grimsley addresses the evolution of Union military policy towards Southern civilians and specifies three separate phases of policy: conciliatory, pragmatic, and hard war. This policy changed with the Union’s changing war aim from the defense of the Union to the abolition of slavery and every stepping stone in between. The hard war policy came to a head after the failure to break the Confederacy by both respectful occupation and concentration on the battlefield. For hard war, the focus shifted to the destruction of the Confederate infrastructure and the confiscation of private citizens’ property, especially though who outright supported the Confederate cause.

By definition, conciliation means to placate or pacify, and the Union military policy aimed to do just that. Under the advice of the “slavocracy”, or the Slave Power Conspiracy, the one-fourth of the white population that owned slaves had the rest under their rule and were forcing them into agreeing with secession and diminishing their already small voice in the matter. Thus, “[invading] the South with fire and sword” (9) was an unnecessary action, seeing as the power resided in the Southern planter class. Furthermore, it was believed that the “rebellion lacked popular support” (10) and the Union military had to be soft towards the general Confederate civilian so that they would not be fueled against the Union and begin to support the rebellion. The guidelines established in Emmerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations also prescribed a conciliatory policy towards civilians, especially if the Union wanted their support and their willingness to come back. He warned against devastation, for “those who tear up the vines and cut down the fruit trees, are looked upon as savage barbarians…They desolate a country for many years to come, and beyond what their own safety requires” as well as “inflame the minds of the contending parties with increasing animosity.” According to Vattel, all that could be taken from enemy civilians was that “which may augment his strength and enable him to make war” (15). This was, for the most part, observed by Union troops. After the Seven Days Battle for Richmond in the summer of 1862, the Union government as well as the morale of the people needed a new policy that would call for a harder military strategy.

The Stampede (Casemate Museum: Harper’s Weekly, August 17, 1861)

The pragmatic period of military strategy focused on the battlefield rather than the civilian. Much policy was up to the discretion of the commanding officer and depended on what worked best in a current situation with an eye towards military necessity. In 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler extended refuge towards runaway slaves at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He claimed these slaves as “contraband of war” and gave military necessity to the confiscation of slaves “used in direct support of the Confederate war effort” (123) as codified in the First Confiscation Act. However, when Major General John Frémont ordered the confiscation of property and complete emancipation of slaves from those supporting the Confederacy by use of guerrilla warfare, Lincoln completely rejected his actions, citing the lack of military necessity to permanently confiscate their slaves. While Butler deemed his refugees “contraband of war”, it gave the feeling of impermanence while also benefitting the Union’s war aim but the permanent solution for slavery must be addressed “according to laws made by law-makers, and not by military proclamations” (124). The respect previously held for the property of private civilians had diminished and emancipation had finally become intertwined in Union military policy. These two elements called for an even more intense military plan.

The hard hand of war came down after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. With the legalization of black troops, the Union had motivation to bring the backbone of the Confederate infrastructure into the Union’s grasp and thus completely undermine the economic structure of the Confederacy. The loss of the slave power and support of the war effort not only hurt the Confederacy, but also helped the Union when those slaves joined Union military ranks. The Union further attempted to put an end to Confederate progress by enacting preventative measure by the way of raids ensuring the inability of Confederate troops to acquire necessary provisions, most famously done by Major General William Sherman. Most importantly, emancipation was seen as the best way to dismantle Confederate infrastructure and unless the Union destroyed the Confederacy, they would “become slaves themselves” (141). The goal now was to conquer the Confederates by any means necessary, including the confiscation of property from all civilians, regardless of their level of affiliation or support of the rebellion.

The difference Grimsley draws between hard war and total war is imperative to understanding the 19th-century hard war philosophy. Though hard war does involve all aspects of a society, it denotes the destruction of all of these societal aspects, while total war denotes the mobilization. It also embodies the elements of war with the goal of the “erosion of the enemy’s will to resist by deliberately…subjecting the civilian population to the pressures of war” (5).

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Lincoln’s Military Necessity for Emancipation

Lincoln revokes Fremont’s Emancipation Proclamation (c. 1861) “I’m sorry to have to drop you, Sambo, but this concern won’t carry us both!”

Before the year 1861, Abraham Lincoln had crusaded for the anti-slavery cause and did his best to separate himself from the abolitionists. In September of that year, he revoked Union Major General John C. Frémont’s statute declaring the emancipation of slaves of citizens in rebellion, claiming it was “purely political, and not in the range of military law, or necessity” (110). In December, he requested Congress to approve a plan offering compensation to any state that agreed to gradually free its slaves. Although Congress did not initially approve it, Lincoln got his way in March of 1862. He issued a plea to Congress stating that the purpose of gradual and compensated emancipation of border states is to deprive the Southern states of the hope of Northern slave states leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy, thus “substantially [ending] the rebellion” (119).

Clearly, Lincoln did not choose to propose compensated emancipation because his moral standing on slavery changed, but rather the military necessity of emancipation increased. However, in May, when Union General David Hunter ordered all slaves in the occupied areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Lincoln overturned his proclamation. Lincoln claimed that emancipation would be acceptable only when he issued it and when it was “a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government” (123) and furthermore, he had already established an offer of compensated gradual emancipation that required action only on the part of the states, not by the Union’s military commanders. Unfortunately, the Border States did not take up his offer, despite his warnings that otherwise they would lose slavery altogether and “have nothing valuable in lieu of it” (126).

In August of 1862, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, urged Lincoln to integrate slavery with the war effort. Lincoln replied and declared that his “paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery” and that all he does about slavery is “because [I] believe it helps to save the Union” (135). Exactly one month later, on September 22nd, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This came after the Union’s good-enough victory at Antietam, and gave the rebellion states 100 days to return to the Union, after which he would free the slaves in rebelling areas, but would continue offering compensation to the Border States and to those “who shall have remained loyal thereto throughout the rebellion” (137). This escalation of the war was again justified by the goal of “practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States” (136) – a goal which could not be reached without the threat of the abolition of slavery which, in turn, inflamed Confederate sentiment against the Union even more. In December, Lincoln stated “…Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” and “the proposed emancipation would shorten the war, perpetuate peace, insure this increase in population, and proportionately the wealth of the country. With these, we should pay all the emancipation would cost, together with our debt, easier than we should pay our other debt, without it” (146). He now directly linked slavery to the cause of the rebellion, but also showed that reunification would benefit the entire country by repaying Union debt as well as emancipation compensation, but omits any mention of how emancipation would help pay back Confederate debt.

President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom (David Gilmore Blythe c. 1862)

On January 1st 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in which he declared “all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward, shall be free…and…that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service” (152). The areas excepted from the proclamation were those already in Union possession, where gradual, rather than immediate, compensation would be enacted. He defended the act, citing his 100 days warning and continuing the offer of Union rights to states not included in the proclamation, so long as they agree to systems of gradual emancipation and establish apprenticeships for former slaves. In July, he responded to the Confederate action of enslaving any captured black troops and the execution of their white commanders by threatening mirrored retaliation against Confederate soldiers. In the same order, he stated that every government had the duty “to give protection to its citizens, whatever class, color, or condition…especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers” and “the law of nations…permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war” (169). This statement is extremely interesting, as it could suggest equal rights and treatment under law for blacks – despite his early denial of the establishment of such equality between the races (30).  August he wrote to General Grant and defends the use of black troops in the war as “it works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us” and allows the “relieving (of) all the white troops to serve elsewhere” (172). He again defended his proclamation to his fellow Republicans and claimed that the use of black troops was “the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion”. He also tells the men that if they will not fight for the freedom of the slaves, they should “fight…then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union” because the use of black troops would leave “so much less for white soldiers to do” (178).

Thus, Lincoln’s strategy against slavery evolved from one echoing the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the concept of equality to one imploring the military necessity of emancipation – the eventual weakening of the Confederate forces by using the same people who had previously fueled their society and war machine to literally fight against them. These black troops would also be used in place of the seemingly more valuable white troops. On November 19th 1863, Lincoln harkened back to the basic principles he had previously depended on when he issued his Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (184). Here, Lincoln returned to the reasoning that the war was for equality between blacks and whites due to moral and historical standings, not due to military or political necessity.

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Lincoln’s (and the Founding Fathers’) Moral Opposition to Slavery

Footrace political cartoon lithograph, 1860 (Library of Congress)

Throughout his political career, Abraham Lincoln consistently denied claims of being an abolitionist as well as denouncing the establishment of “political and social equality between the whites and the blacks” (30) but rallied the cry for the restriction of slavery in new states and territories while letting it be in places it was already established. Lincoln was steadfast in his views on slavery but his arguments against it developed throughout his career. By the 1860s, he had a full arsenal to use against the perpetuation of slavery, primarily concerning the obvious moral issue of one man enslaving another as well as the denial of the founding principles of America by those who wish to preserve slavery.

In his speech given in Peoria, Illinois in 1854, Lincoln attested that blacks are men and therefore have the right to govern themselves as individuals. Thus, when a white man governs himself plus another man he exceeds the limits of self-government and becomes a despot. The clincher of his argument regarding self-government is this: “no man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent” (32). He supported this claim by using one of the most famous phrases in American history – “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (32). The relationship between slave and master was in violation of this basic principle of the United States and was therefore immoral and in direct disparity with the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln further pushed the importance of adhering to the country’s founding principles by repeating the founding fathers’ only supporting argument for slavery: it was for necessity only.

He delved further into the hypocrisy in the fundamental arguments for slavery in a fragment written in the late 1850s. He addressed three prongs of the pro-slavery argument and turned their own logic against them. The logical fallacy of the color argument was that whites could enslave blacks so therefore someone, perhaps another white person, with a lighter skintone could enslave white people. The second point was based on the assumption whites were more intelligent than blacks and due to this superior intelligence, whites could enslave blacks – but then a person who was more intelligent than a white person could enslave them by the same method. Finally, pro-slavery arguments contended that if it was in your interest, then you could enslave someone. Again, Lincoln took this logic and turned it against the pro-slavery faction and said that if another man “can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you” (42). Here, Lincoln emphasized that institution of slavery was potentially harmful to all and that if the slaveholders truly believed that they could have their slaves due to superiority in color or intelligence or because it was in their interest, then someone else someone else who was superior to them, according to their own terms, could enslave them as well. Lincoln’s destruction of these principles seemed to denounce white supremacy, yet in 1858 at the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate he said “I am not…in favor of bringing about…the social and political equality of the white and black races…while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race” (57).

Lincoln and Douglas, November 3, 1903. Creator: Jaspard, J. M. (Chicago Historical Society)

Lincoln continued to place the utmost importance on the principles and decisions of the founding fathers. At the seventh Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, he argued that the founders prohibited the spread of slavery into new territories and banned the slave trade in 1808 because they believed “that it was in the course of ultimate extinction” (59). In his speech at the Cooper Union in February of 1860, he referenced the Constitution and its lack of the word “slavery” as well as the restriction of establishing slavery where it had not been before in order to counter the pro-slavery side’s claim that the Republicans made slavery the hot issue by trying to restrict it and “[discarding] the old policy of the fathers” (73).

Lincoln kept the basic stance of being anti-slavery, but his reasoning evolved. By the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he believed that slavery was not only morally wrong but that it also undermined the core American belief that “all men are created equal” (32), including blacks, despite his inherent racism. By the end of the decade, he criticized the reasons for which slaveholders defended the right to own slaves by demonstrating the way those reasons could be used to enslave the slaveholders by others who were deemed more superior according to the holders’ own defense. By the year of his Presidential nomination, he had mastered the use of the common principles shared among all Americans – the ones declared in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence – as evidence supporting the Republican cause and the freezing of slavery in the states where it already existed and was deemed, just as the founding fathers did, a necessity.

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Why Are We Still Arguing Over This? (or: It Wasn’t Just Slavery, Now Stop It!)

Currier & Ives political cartoon, 1864 (Library of Congress)

Growing up on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, I learned quite a bit about the Civil War, most of it revolving around the mantra: “The South will rise again!” and the notion of Northern aggression. But why it fell in the first place is a question that not one of my peers who proudly attached Confederate flags to their trucks could answer with full confidence. “It was slavery!” they would exclaim, “The Northerners wanted to take away the backbone of our economy!” Funnily enough, most of these proud Sons of the Confederacy were Northern transplants with parents in the military stationed at Norfolk or Oceana. Nevertheless, it isn’t just in sweet old Chesapeake (boasting proximity to the famous Battle of Ironclads in 1862) that slavery was the accepted answer for why the Civil War happened. In his article entitled “What Caused the Civil War?” Edward Ayers explains why, as a society, we accept the most simple and sensible answer as legitimate. He then explores the truly multifaceted answer of what really caused the Civil War and why it happened when it did.

Ayers begins the piece with recapping a scene from The Simpsons where a character is asked to answer the question of what caused the Civil War. He begins to explain it in detail, but is interrupted and asked to just say slavery. With the use of this cultural staple, Ayers reiterates his point that we know the Civil War was caused by more than just slavery, but we’ve accepted it because there are so many correct answers, but slavery is the easiest for us to understand. Ayers addresses the difficulty in reaching a consensus on a comprehensive answer by exploring two different schools of thought: fundamentalist and revisionist. The fundamentalists hold strongly onto the driving force of slavery as the cause of the Civil War and that such a conflict was inevitable (132). Revisionists, however, focus on other facets of Antebellum society such as the fragmentation of the Democratic Party (and thus the true two-party system) and the election of anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln as President as some major events leading to the tipping point. Both of these groups are correct, but not correct enough.

Walt Handelsman, 2000

Ayers presents the case that the Civil War was a result of many different issues – all intertwined. Slavery was “the most profound [problem] the nation has ever faced’ (134), as it encompassed so many other facets of Antebellum society. In order to understand the causes of the Civil War, one must study history from that time’s perspective, not a modern one. Ayers calls this “deep contingency” (143) and emphasizes the necessity of understanding Antebellum society as a whole in order to truly know what caused the Civil War. One cannot simply answer the question of “what caused the Civil War?” especially with just one phrase such as “slavery” or “states rights”. As Ayers says, “History does not fit on a bumper sticker” (143).

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