The Civil War for Non-Americans

battle-of-gettysburg-war-is-hellThe essential point of my father’s article from a few days ago (“Were the Southerners Duped?”) was that prevailing attitudes in the United States are mainly due to social manipulation by the ruling class, or more precisely, by different factions of the ruling class, which is done to preserve and improve their own profit and power. Because this month marks the 150th anniversary of the month that is generally considered to be the turning point of America’s Civil War[1], Dad briefly describes how the way that conflict developed and was conducted by the leaders on both sides has led to certain unpleasant character traits America now has, such as the casual racism exemplified by the likes of celebrity chef Paula Deen and murderer George Zimmerman, and the lingering sectionalism to which much of America’s south still clings.

The Civil War is not well-understood outside of the United States, but it ought to be, particularly in places like the Philippines, which has its own unique, complex history and relationship with America. The reason why is that America as it is now, with which the Philippines has its history and love-hate relationship, is the way it is, warts and all, because of the Civil War. Understand the Civil War, and you understand America.

Besides, I just like talking about it. I have had an obsessive fascination with American history in general, and the Civil War in particular, from the time I was old enough to comprehend what the word “history” means, and it takes very little encouragement to send me into an enthusiastic – and to others, perhaps slightly disturbing – monologue on the topic. To me, even though I am only a third-generation American (my great-grandparents were part of the vast influx of European immigrants who arrived in America at the beginning of the 20th century), I have always felt a personal connection to the Civil War. Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I attended John F. Reynolds Junior High School, named for a Lancaster native who happened to be one of the Union’s best generals – his grave (Reynolds was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg) was a few blocks from my house. I have visited most of the better-known Civil War battlefields many times, and even some of the obscure ones; I’ve stood in Antietam’s Sunken Road, looked over the stone wall on Fredericksburg’s Mayre’s Heights, and followed the trail of Sherman’s March to the Sea. And in between these opportunities to personally touch and be moved by history, I’ve spent close to 40 years reading and studying it – and still I learn something new, every time I pick up a book or visit a website.

Was the Civil War fought over Slavery? Yes, but…

In his article, Dad briefly explains that the Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery, which is a common point of view held these days by historians and non-Southerners, but was fundamentally an economic conflict, of which slavery was a critical part. That explanation is essentially correct in the sense that if slavery was not critical to the Southern economy, the South probably would not have fought so hard to retain it. The problem with the “slavery or other causes” dichotomy is that focusing on other reasons for the Civil War tends to downplay the huge social and moral crisis slavery really was for 19th century America; on the other hand, focusing on slavery overlooks the deep economic divide between North and South that was responsible for making slavery such an issue in the first place.

As a moral issue, conflicting views on slavery predated the American Revolution. The first slaves were sold in Virginia in 1619, although they were originally treated as indentured servants; English law limited outright slavery in some respects but over the next 50 years, the American colonies passed their own laws legalizing slavery for life. Ironically, the first of these laws was passed by the Calvinist-founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641. Resistance to slavery first arose among Pennsylvania Quakers in 1688 when they held the Germantown Protest, declaring slavery to be immoral and “un-Christian” and calling for its abolition.

The seeds of the conflict that would eventually erupt into all-out civil war were actually planted during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, where three key actions were taken with regard to slavery:

  • The delegates agreed that the slave trade, i.e. the importation of slaves, could not be regulated by the Federal government for at least 20 years. This would allow the major slave-holding states to increase their slave populations much more rapidly than would be possible through normal population growth.
  • The Northwest Ordinance was passed, banning slavery in new Federal territories.
  • The Three-Fifths Clause was enacted, allowing 60% of the slave population of states to be counted towards the states’ representation in Congress. This increased the number of Congressional representatives for the otherwise comparatively thinly-populated Southern states.

While slaves were important to the agrarian Southern economy at this point, it was the invention of the cotton gin in 1794 that really made slavery economically indispensible to the South. This machine greatly increased the processing speed of raw cotton, and made cotton a viable large-scale crop, which in turn led to an explosion in mill construction in the northern US and Europe, primarily in England. The South now had a massively profitable export crop, which thanks to the use of slave labor, could be cultivated on a vast scale.

But now the moral issue of slavery began to cause friction. The numbers of “abolitionists” – which were present in both the North and the South, although in far fewer numbers in the latter – were not as great as history may lead us to believe, but they were influential in the North. Not among the common people – racism was a deeply-ingrained part of the American psyche, and it was a pretty crappy time to be an African-American  no matter what part of the country one found himself in – but among the Northern leadership. It was both an economic and political consideration. The industrial-based Northern economy didn’t need slaves, what it needed was economic protection for its industries. Protectionist tariffs enacted in the 1830’s hurt the import-dependent South, and almost led to a breakup of the Union then[2].

As the country expanded westward, the issue of slavery essentially became a contest between North and South as to who could exercise more control over the national government. Because the two economies were incompatible – efforts to protect one would unavoidably harm the other – political leaders on both sides strove to prevent the other from holding too much power in Washington. Although there were a few leaders in the North who did seek to abolish slavery, these men were largely pushed to the fringes by a more pragmatic view: Because of the reverence the Constitution held for “state’s rights”, most did not dare suggest its abolition where it already existed, but instead put their efforts into preventing it from spreading, and thereby keeping Southern political power at the national level (which would have led to policies unfavorable to Northern economic interests) in check.

Bleeding Kansas and Republicans: The Sparks that Lit the Inferno

In 1820, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, a measure that was intended to maintain a balance between “slave” and “free” states. The Compromise stipulated that states admitted to the Union after Missouri (which became a state in 1821) would be “free states” north of Latitude 36°30’ (the southern border of Missouri), and could be “slave states” south of that line. In 1854, however, the Missouri Compromise was superseded by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed each new state regardless of its location to decide whether or not to permit slavery. The territories of Kansas and Nebraska were preparing to enter the Union at that time, and while Nebraska was almost certainly going to be a free state, the question was still very much undecided in Kansas. Both pro- and anti-slavery advocates poured into the territory in an effort to influence the territorial elections, and it was not long before tempers flared and extremists on both sides started fighting, a brutal and chaotic period known as “Bloody Kansas.”[3] Because of atrocities committed by both sides, both the North and the South began to realize that the conflict between the two halves of the country could not be solved by compromise.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also provoked the formation of a new anti-slavery political party, the Republican Party. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, the party’s nominee for the Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas[4], kicked off what would ultimately be a losing campaign with his famous “House Divided” speech:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Although Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, his eloquence in debates catapulted him to national prominence and sent a clear signal to the slave-holding South: the decades of tenuous compromise were coming to an end. Thus when Lincoln was elected President two years later (defeating the Democrat Douglas and two others), Southern leaders felt the only course of action left to preserve “their way of life” was to secede from the United States.

Fighting the Rich Man’s War

The point made in Dad’s earlier article that the lower classes were duped into fighting (and dying) for the benefit of the ruling classes is sadly accurate, more so for the South than for the slightly more egalitarian North. Only about 7% of the Southern population (roughly 384,000 of a non-slave population of 5.6 million) even owned slaves, and of those, only about 12% (about 46,000 households) could be considered large slaveholders, owning 20 or more slaves. The vast majority of the Southern population were small, non-slaveholding farmers, merchants, and workers, thoroughly ordinary people for whom the matters of slavery or the slave-based economy were completely irrelevant. In order to gather the support of this large, and largely disinterested class, a great deal of propaganda effort had to be applied.

The situation was a little different in the North, but the same kind of appeals to patriotism, to “protect our way of life” were often used. In reality, the typical Northern worker or farmer was not much better off than the average poor Southerner or even most slaves, and so it took some imaginative effort to personalize the war for them.

Did the South Have a Right to Secede?

Quite simply, no. This argument is often made by contemporary Southern sympathizers, and was even made when the 11 states that formed the Confederacy seceded from the Union in 1860-1861. The argument is based on the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which provides that “Any powers not specifically granted to the Federal government are reserved for the states.” Ergo, since the Constitution does not give the Federal government the power to prevent secession, and since the very existence of the Federal government derives from the authority of the states, any state can leave the Union as it sees fit; this basic argument is the one that backs up the periodic calls for secession in places like Texas, where they judge intelligence based on how loudly someone can say something outrageous.

The “states’ rights” argument is basically flawed logic. The right to exercise power as a state only lasts as long as the state is a party to the Constitution and part of the Union; the state could justify secession – perhaps, but probably not, as I’ll explain below – based on the 10th Amendment, but the instant it secedes that law no longer applies to the state, and the Federal government can treat it as it deems appropriate. In the case of the secession of the Confederate states, the Federal government under Lincoln deemed it appropriate to treat them as rebels (and not as a sovereign power, which is what the Confederacy was hoping for), and regard the seizure of Federal installations and property as rebellious acts of war.

The “right to secede” also falls apart with respect to the Constitution’s “supremacy clause” (Article VI), which places Federal law above state law as the supreme law of the land, and the “guarantee clause” (Article IV), which guarantees a republican form of government for every state; the act of secession removes that guarantee, and so the Federal government has a constitutional duty to enforce it.[5]

Could the South Have Won the War?

The only strategy available to the Confederacy was one of attrition; if the Confederate forces could stay in the field long enough to make the Union reluctant to continue, they could hope for a negotiated end to the war. Much is made of the possibility that England or France – both key markets for Southern cotton – might have intervened on behalf of the Confederacy, but that was always unrealistic; neither country was anxious to challenge the might of the Union forces (the US would have been at some disadvantage, at least against England, but would have still been a formidable opponent), and the Union was just as important a trading partner, if not more so, as the Confederacy was. Plus the idea of European intervention overlooks the rivalry between the European powers – if the Confederacy had gained the support of either England or France, it would have most likely incurred the enmity of the other. As it was, Confederate leaders overestimated the importance of their one export – cotton – to European industry; once war broke out and the flow of goods was severely restricted by the Union blockade of the South, the European countries turned to other sources, such as Egypt and India.

There was one point at which the southern strategy might have paid off, the US election of 1864. Lincoln’s Democratic opponent was the popular former general, George B. McClellan.[6] The Democratic Party was pushing for an armistice and end to the war, and during the campaign seemed to gain some popularity because of bad news from the battlefield; the summer of 1864 saw the worst fighting and biggest losses in terms of casualties of the entire war as Union General U.S. Grant slowly clawed his way closer to the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia in a series of savage battles. By late August, however, the port of Mobile, Alabama, the last significant haven for Confederate blockade-runners, was captured; on September 2, Atlanta, Georgia fell to forces under Union General William T. Sherman; and on October 19, barely three weeks before the election, General Philip Sheridan crushed the Confederate army under General Jubal Early, ending Confederate control of the strategically-vital Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. On the back of these successes and boosted by overwhelming support among soldiers voting in the election, Lincoln was reelected in a landslide, thus dashing any Southern hopes of negotiating an end to the war.

As the following graphic shows, in every meaningful indicator the Confederacy was thoroughly outmatched by the Union:

IllllIn terms of troop strength (keeping in mind that at the war’s height, the Union still only deployed less than half its manpower potential), the Union outnumbered the Confederate forces by about two-to-one. Given its overwhelming advantage, then, why did it take the Union so long to finally defeat the Confederacy?

There are a couple explanations for this. First, the Civil War was fought at a time when technology had rapidly evolved beyond tactics. The classical battle line tactics that most of the officers – many of whom had served together in the Mexican War in 1846-1848 – on both sides used had not changed much since Napoleon’s time, when the primary weapons of infantry and cavalry were short-ranged, smoothbore muskets and sabers. The main infantry weapon of the Civil War, however, was the rifled musket, which was more reliable, could be reloaded and fired more quickly, had about three times the effective range of a smoothbore, and instead of a round ball fired a .58 caliber expanding-skirt bullet called a Minie ball (after its inventor) – a devastating weapon that could literally tear man apart. Cavalry troops were armed with six-shot revolvers, and from the middle of war onwards, repeating rifles that did not need to be reloaded after each shot were introduced. Artillery for the first time began to be almost as important – and deadly – as small arms in battle as well. Combining these modern weapons with outmoded, close-quarters tactics and primitive sanitation (two-thirds of the 625,000 military deaths during the Civil War were attributable to disease and infection), and the armies of both sides incurred appalling losses.


A dead Confederate soldier at Gettysburg. Personally, I find the enthusiasm of overgrown children who like to play dress-up and reenact battles (such as several thousand recently did to mark the Battle of Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary) where this was the fate of so many to be disrespectful to the fallen and offensive to their historical legacy.

Second, the war inspired as much innovation in fighting techniques as it did in murderous technology, because the unsuitability of old tactics became quickly obvious to officers on both sides, some of whom were able to adapt rather quickly. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and later in the war, of all the Confederate forces, has a reputation that is historically unjustified to some extent – in his two invasions of Northern territory in 1862 and 1863, he was reckless and ineffective while on the offensive – but was a brilliant defender, and preserved his army in the field for far longer than it should have been able to survive; the trench warfare that turned World War I into a long, bloody stalemate half a century later could largely be attributed to a defensive philosophy and tactics first developed by Lee. His chief adjutant, the famous Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson[7], was on the other hand a brilliant attacker, and established much of the doctrine of strategic mobility that led to the successes of future generals like George S. Patton in World War II, and the brilliant maneuver of General Norman Schwarzkopf that ejected the Iraqis from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. On the Union side, generals like Ulysses S. Grant, his friend and favorite subordinate William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and Philip Sheridan, who perfected the tactical use of mixed infantry-cavalry forces, conducted brilliant offensive campaigns of sweeping maneuvers, and introduced the doctrine of “total war” – not only seeking to trap and destroy fighting forces, but also to devastate the enemy’s resource base and demoralize his population.

If it were only these talented, professional soldiers fighting the war it might not have lasted as long, but the third factor that prolonged it was the political interference that affected the leadership of both military forces. Political appointees served as officers in both armies, and very few of those were suited to their positions. On the Union side, most of the interference came from the Federal government; on the Confederate side, because of the greater power of state governments (an arrangement that turned out to be completely counterproductive for the management of the war or the Southern economy), individual states were able to exert undue influence to favor their native troops and officers, leading to a certain amount of disunity and disorganization in the Confederate forces.

And finally, it was the comparative lack of development in the South that ironically proved to be a handicap for the better-equipped, better-organized, and more numerous Union forces. In order to end the war, the Union had to invade and take control of the rebellious states, but once they entered Southern territory, poor infrastructure – bad roads, and fewer, less-reliable railroads than in the North – made it difficult to maintain offensive movements, a problem that only grew worse as the war went on in areas like Northern Virginia, where repeated campaigns and battles devastated the countryside.

The Civil War’s Legacy

The outcomes of the Civil War greatly reduced the power of the individual states, and are largely the reason the rest of the world naturally thinks of “America” as a single entity rather than “The United States” as a collective. On the positive side, industrialization exploded during and after the war, and spread (albeit much more slowly) into the South, finally diversifying the Southern economy; the economic power of the US began to grow to what it is today because of the Civil War, and would not be what it is if the South had been victorious.

On the negative side, the aftermath of the Civil War in many ways aggravated and prolonged deep social divisions in the country. Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, five days after the surrender of Lee’s army eliminated any hope of friendly treatment of the defeated South, and the harsh measures imposed by Reconstruction – as well as the brutal exploitation of the people of the South, especially recently-freed slaves – left deep resentment in its wake, which has never completely disappeared. Racist attitudes in both the North and the South did not end with the end of the war, either; in many respects, blacks bore the brunt of the resentment in both parts of the country for in some way being the cause of the terrible conflict. And because the South lost, this resentment lingered there for a lot longer – and as illustrated by the likes of the careless-tongued Paula Deen, it continues at an uncomfortable level even today.

[1] The Confederacy suffered two strategically-crippling defeats in July, 1863; the first at the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended with the famous (and utterly disastrous) “Pickett’s Charge” on July 3, and the second the following day when the last Southern stronghold on the Mississippi River, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, finally surrendered to the forces of Gen. U.S. Grant after a siege lasting about six weeks. Between July 12 and 15, New York City was thrown into chaos by the Draft Riots, which had escalated from a protest against the drafting of soldiers by the U.S. government into a racially-motivated attack against blacks across the city. About 120 people – nearly all of them blacks, and many of them women and children – were killed before 4,000 troops fresh from the Gettysburg battlefield were rushed to New York to restore order.

[2] The first tariff enacted was the “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828; tariff rates were reduced in 1832, but not enough to satisfy South Carolina, which threatened secession and passed a “Nullification Act” declaring the tariffs would not be collected in its ports. Further compromise in 1833 avoided conflict, but increased the intensity of political maneuvering between North and South.

[3] Because of the trouble in Kansas and the intervention of the war a few years later, statehood for Kansas and Nebraska was delayed; Kansas became the 34th state in January, 1861, while Nebraska became the 37th state in March, 1867.

[4] Douglas, a nationally-prominent Democrat from Illinois, was the principal author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

[5] This was a key argument made by Lincoln (after all, he was a lawyer) in justifying armed intervention against the South.

[6] McClellan, a good military organizer but an utter failure as a commander whose reputation far exceeded his courage or skill, was not personally a supporter of the Democrats’ armistice plans, but agreed to run primarily because of his deep animosity towards Lincoln (who had sacked him after his failure to follow up on his victory over Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam in 1862).

[7] Jackson’s death from wounds suffered in a “friendly fire” incident during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 was probably a fatal blow to Lee’s army; Lee had a special rapport with Jackson and relied heavily on him, perhaps more than he ought to have done, and was never able to establish the same responsive relationship with his other commanders after Jackson’s death.