Civil War History and Inevitability

I’ve been on a bit of a history kicker lately, particularly Civil War history, even if by chance. On successive occasions I read Tony Horowitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, followed by April 1865: The Month that Saved America by Jay Winik. It was purely coincidental that I read those books back-to-back, though they serve as proper bookends to Civil War history. I also happened to finally see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. 

First a review of the works themselves. Midnight Rising is an excellent recounting of the events leading up to John Brown’s raid, the raid itself, and of course the fallout. Horowitz’s account is fairly straight, though one can’t help but detect a bit of admiration for Brown peeking through his narrative. You can probably make a good argument for both the proposition that Brown was a complete lunatic and that he was a hero who stood on principle (though probably more the former).

Winik’s narrative is engaging, and if you are unfamiliar with many of the details of not just the events of April 1865, but of the Civil War in general, then Winik’s book is a very good primer. Unfortunately it suffers from a few severe, though hardly fatal defects. First of all, Winik litters his story with repeated digressions, filling in biographical details of the main figures – Lee, Grant, Lincoln, Davis, Forrest, Sherman, Booth, even Johnston. Again, this may or may not infuriate the reader depending upon his knowledge of Civil War history. It felt like padding to me, and unnecessary padding at that.

Second, while he gets his history mostly right, there are a few notable lapses. Most grating to me was his discussion of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and their respective writings on nullification. Like many other writers, he contends that Madison supported nullification in the Virginia Resolutions, when in point of fact Madison completely rejected the doctrine of nullification throughout his life and merely argued for a concept known as interposition in the Virginia Resolutions. This is a relatively minor point, but Winik makes a handful of errors, especially with regards to Lincoln’s attitudes towards having extra protection on the day of his assassination. Winik makes Lincoln seem callous about his own security, but it was Edwin Stanton who denied him an extra bodyguard.

Finally, Winik’s fundamental thesis is overstated (and also restated repeatedly in a  seemingly unending epilogue). Though the conclusion of the war was a momentous occasion in American history, Winik overstates the willingness and the capability of the south to engage in guerilla warfare to prolong to conflict. Certainly Lee could have decided to rebuff Grant’s peace overtures, and Johnston could have listened to Jefferson Davis’s appeals to continue the fight, but would the south have kept the Union at bay as effectively and as long as Winik speculates?  I suppose that is a matter of some conjecture, but I think Winik drastically overestimates the ability of any sizable confederate band to harass the Union for much longer.

As for the movie Lincoln, I’ll largely second Donald’s review. It was an epic film, and Daniel Day-Lewis was simply outstanding. I’ll admit I even got choked up at the end – a rarity for me as usually only Field of Dreams ever makes me cry.

Beyond the merits of these works, I wanted to explore some of their themes – or at least some of the thoughts that they inspired in me directly or indirectly.

First and foremost, both the movie and Winik’s book – which together cover the final months of the war – bring home the point that we tend to look back upon these final months with some sense of inevitability. We fail to appreciate that both the outcome of the war and the abolition of slavery were not necessarily settled matters. Spielberg’s movie in particular drives home the fact that it was still possible for the Union to emerge victorious with slavery not abolished.

We forget that though anti-slavery sentiment was strong throughout the Union, abolitionist sentiment was not, particularly among the Democratic party. To the extent that abolitionist sentiment had gained steam since the outset of the war, we can pinpoint one action: the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is a recurring theme in anti-Lincoln literature that the Proclamation accomplished nothing, freeing not a single slave. What the critics fail to appreciate is that the Proclamation changed the very nature of the war, transforming it from a war to preserve the Union to a war of both preservation and emancipation. Lincoln had, to borrow a phrase, set slavery on a course for ultimate extinction. As Winik puts it:

[T]he Emancipation Proclamation was the most revolutionary document in the country’s history since the Declaration of Independence; it truly began the end of slavery, in the North and the South. The psychological impact of the proclamation cannot be underestimated: Lincoln, in a masterful stroke, had become a personal emblem of freedom, and the Emancipation Proclamation was its parchment. As a war act, it was also a stunning measure, imbuing the Northern war effort with a larger moral purpose without overshooting its mark.

Without the Emancipation Proclamation it is doubtful we get a 13th Amendment.

As for the cessation of hostilities, only with nearly 150 years of hindsight does it seem so manifest that April 1865 would have seen, effectively, the end of the war (save for some skirmishes that took place in Missouri and Texas). Certainly Jefferson Davis wasn’t prepared to give up the fight, and Robert E. Lee and/or Joe Johnston could have decided to continue skirmishing for many more months, if not longer. Had Johnston not engaged in what amounted to insubordination, the war would have lingered on. Winik may have overestimated the Confederacy’s ability to effectively engage in guerrilla warfare, but at the very least such a fight would have only dragged the already staggering body count even higher.

Finally, getting back to John Brown, one can’t help but wonder if – deluded though he was – he helped spark a conflagration that carried out his ultimate designs. Oh, the war would likely have come with or without John Brown, but his actions swayed many a southerner towards the conviction that the Yankees were nothing but anti-slavery radicals who could not be trusted with the governance of an entire nation. He may not have caused the war, but he helped give it a push.

21 Responses to Civil War History and Inevitability

  • Ah, John Brown.

    Our history has its share of odd characters, but surely none odder than John Brown. An Old Testament prophet somehow marooned in Nineteenth Century America, John Brown preached the wrath of God against slave holders and considered himself the bloody sword of the Almighty. It is tempting to write off John Brown as a murderous fanatic, and he was certainly that, but he was also something more.

    The American political process was simply unable to resolve the question of slavery. Each year the anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces battered at each other with no head way made. Bleeding Kansas was the result of Stephen A. Douglas’ plan to simply let the people of the territory resolve the issue. Where ballots cannot, or will not, resolve a question of the first magnitude in a democracy, ultimately bullets will. A man like Brown, totally dedicated to the anti-slavery cause, was only too willing to see violence resolve an issue that the politicians would not.

    Brown attacked a great evil, American slavery, but he was also a murderer, as the five pro-slavery men he had dragged from their houses at night and hacked to death at Pottawotamie in Kansas with home made swords would surely attest. His raid on Harper’s Ferry was a crack-brained expedition that had absolutely no chance of success, and yet his raid helped bring about the huge war that would ultimately end slavery.

    After his mad and futile attempt to start a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Brown was tried and hung for treason against the state of Virginia. He considered his trial and treatment quite fair and thanked the Court. Brown impressed quite a few Southerners with the courage with which he met his death, including Thomas Jackson, the future Stonewall, who observed his execution.

    Brown of course lit the fuse for the Civil War. He convinced many moderate Southerners that there were forces in the North all too ready to incite, in the name of abolition, a race war in the South. The guns fired at Harper’s Ferry were actually the first shots of the Civil War.

    Brown, as he stepped forward to the gallows, had a paper and pen thrust into his hand by a woman. Assuming for the last time the role of a prophet, Brown wrote out, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

  • “Winik may have overestimated the Confederacy’s ability to effectively engage in guerrilla warfare, but at the very least such a fight would have only dragged the already staggering body count even higher.”

    A low level guerilla war ultimately convinced the North that it was not worth continuing the fight in order to maintain civil rights for blacks in the South. That took 12 years. A guerilla war to gain independence for the South would have been far bloodier and much more resisted by the North. However if the white Southerners had been willing to fight it out for 30 years or so, I think it entirely possible that the North might have decided that the South was never going to be pacified and that it simply wasn’t worth it. However, after perhaps 750,000 dead by the most recent estimates, both the North and the South simply were not ready for continued large scale fighting.

  • I think both sides had had enough, none moreso than the leaders in the field who had seen the horrors of the war up close. But that was another point I was going to raise in the post but forgot to mention. We probably think it inconceivable that we could have had this perpetual mini rebellion with a band of insurgent fighters being a persistent thorn in the side of the federal government. But hasn’t that been more the norm through world history than the perpetual internal peace that has reigned here for 148 years?

  • The EP’s “changing the course of the war” from union-preserving to slave-freeing is oft-repeated, but, imho, arguable. Lincoln publically pressed it as a necessary military measure more than anything else. And he was careful, along with the Union generals, to sell the fighting men that they weren’t now fighting to “free the slaves”, lest they lose their motive to fight (their prejudice. I assure you, not mine.) While Abe might have had the private intent all along to free the slaves, the public case and public aftermath of the EP was not a clarion call of a changed war.

  • “But hasn’t that been more the norm through world history than the perpetual internal peace that has reigned here for 148 years?”

    Indeed. Condsider ETA of the Basque, still fighting the Spanish Civil War more than 77 years after the start of the conflict. Perpetual Irish rebellions against the Brits for centuries is the classic example.

  • Slavery was the underlying cause. For the South it provided the economic driver – King Cotton – to the elites. The South was intent on preserving slavery (and its economy) and extending it. The north’s elites were intent on limiting and abolishing slavery (arguably supporting the South’s economy).

    The radical differences in their societies and economies led to an absence of unified, much less cordial, “intercourse” between the two sections. They became two different peoples – jealous and suspicious of each other.

    Publications of sectional books and demagogues, on both sides, added to sectional hatreds.

    Brown’s raid brought to the surface the sectional hatred on both sides. It inspired the North’s demagogues/elites and terrified the South’s demagogues/elites.

    That being said, somebody please tell me how was OT Dispenser of Almighty God’s Just Retribution, John Brown, different from Nate Turner?

  • “That being said, somebody please tell me how was OT Dispenser of Almighty God’s Just Retribution, John Brown, different from Nate Turner?”

    Almost three decades more of time. The country was ready to split over slavery at the time of John Brown as it was not at the time of Nat Turner. Interestingly enough, Turner’s Rebellion occurred at the same time that an ultimately unsuccessful movement to abolish slavery was gathering steam in the Virginia legislature. Opponents and proponents of slavery both pointed to Turner’s Rebellion, drawing opposite conclusions from the event.

  • Slavery had become more than an economic driver. The South was riding the tiger, and they knew it. There were four million (presumably angry) slaves in the South. In Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, the slave population was comparable to or greater than the white population. The Southern whites were fully aware of what had happened in Haiti. It’s all well and good to be a Bostonian who opposes slavery, but when you’re living in Atlanta you’ve got a lot more at stake. Then some lunatic tries to stir up a slave revolt? You can bet that there was a lot of tension.

  • I love Horowtiz! Confederates in the Attic and Baghdad without a map are both hilariously entertaining yet deeply revealing travelmentaries. A great story teller who ties the past to the present in a supremely enjoyable.

  • There are two portions of “April 1865″ which made the biggest impression on me. One is Winik’s blow by blow account of the fall of Richmond, from the Sunday morning church service at which Jefferson Davis received word that it was time to evacuate the capital, through a day and night of chaos, flames and terror, to the arrival of the Union troops and, finally, the arrival of Lincoln himself, bringing great joy to the newly freed slaves. When I finished reading it, I could not help but think that perhaps, this is what Judgment Day and the Second Coming will be like.

    The other, which I have mentioned before on this blog, is Winik’s account of the guerilla war in Missouri, where it was at its most brutal and where Union troops took some of the harshest measures against civilians (e.g. Gen. Ewing’s Order No. 11) in an attempt to quell the violence. He quotes a Union military official as saying “there was something in the hearts of good Christian people which had exploded.” Ever since, I have wondered, if “good Christian people” not that much different from you and I, who could have been my ancestors (or yours), and who were raised in a far more “Christian” society than us, could be literally at one another’s throats over the issue of slavery, what’s to prevent it from happening again over an issue like abortion, gay marriage, gun control, or something else?

  • Indeed. Condsider ETA of the Basque, still fighting the Spanish Civil War more than 77 years after the start of the conflict. Perpetual Irish rebellions against the Brits for centuries is the classic example.

    I think ETA has closed up shop and never amounted to much. The Provisional IRA was much more consequential. British Ulster comprehends about 3% of the population of the UK. For all that, the number of lives claimed over a generation by the most recent Troubles amounts to about 4 years worth of common-and-garden social pathology in Coleman Young’s Detroit.

  • John Brown made his solemn oath to destroy slavery in a church in Hudson, Ohio, which is five miles west of where I grew up.

    Spain, Portugal, France, Holland and England all brought slavery to the New World.
    England was the most effective in building an economy dependent upon slave labor, which remained in place after the War for Independence.

    Brazil, which has the most slaves, freed them in 1871. Brazil did so peacefully by compensating slave owners. It is to our shame as a nation that the South would not consider seriously such a move.

  • I get the following from a 1961 HS AP American History textbook.

    Nat Turner’s slave revolt was a tragic coincidence with Garrison’s start of his uber demagoguery, “The Liberator.” The combination of the two killed southern anti-slavery societies. Turner was a fanatical, semi-educated preacher who had “visions.” He and his gang butchered 60 white Virginians. Coincidentally, Georgia offered a $5,000 reward for Garrison’s arrest and conviction. LIke southerners, I sleep with a weapon under my pillow.

    John Brown was a fanatical, semi-educated lunatic preacher. He had innocent blood on his hands from KS. His plan was to invade the South, raise up the slaves and seize an area as a negro free state. He was backed by thousands of Northern terrorist dollars. He seized Harpers Ferry arsenal with 20 other bloodthirsty terrorists, killing seven innocents.

    In the Brown trial, 17 of Brown’s friends and relatives attested to his insanity. Thirteen of his relatives, including his mother and grandmother, had been insane. VA Governor Wise was so unwise as to send him to the gallows instead of an insane asylum. And so, the abolitionists had their martyr, the South was lost, and 600,000 men died.

    PS, I will never again read anything R. W. Emerson. He compared Bloody Brown to Jesus.

  • Your analysis T.Shaw ignores the violence of the slavery system, and that one reason for the vanishing of southern abolitionism was that most Southern states made it illegal. In some Southern states it was a prison offense to merely possess abolition literature. People merely suspected of being anti-slavery were routinely mobbed in the South, tarred and feathered, and run out under threat of being lynched.

    In regard to Brown he was hardly the only man to resort to violence in regard to the slavery question in th 1850s. I direct your attention, for example, to the Marais des Cygnes massacre:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marais_des_Cygnes_massacre

    When peaceful means do not resolve a question like slavery, violence inevitably will.

  • Mac,

    I love you, man.

    That was one reason it was called “Bloody Kansas.” The Missouri terrorists hadn’t read Marx. They didn’t ride East and try to radicalize underpaid Northern factory slaves, nor try to assassinate Garrison or the New England plutocrats.

    The cited infringements on free speech were engendered by (Bless their hearts!) Nat Turner; the radical fringe abolitionists’ desire to incite mass murder; and the growing potential for thousands of other such crimes. Why did similar “mobbings” of abolitionists also occur in the North?

    Supposedly, the slavery dispute had been settled when the various states ratified the Constitution in 1789.

    I was trying to be factual (added floral phrases).

    A super-majority (about 76%, almost eight in ten) of white southerners did not own one slave. Fewer than 14% (one in eight, lawyers) of white Southerners owned five or more slave. Another 10% owned four or less.

    Why did the south fight for a small minority of evil rich southerners? The Shadow knows.

    One may weigh the facts and make a determination. If one exaggerates and omits the result is opinion, about which Plato wrote, “Opinion is not truth.”

    You and I are entitled to our opinions.

  • “The cited infringements on free speech were engendered by (Bless their hearts!) Nat Turner”

    Some of them pre-dated Nat Turner and most of them were based on the simple human refusal not to stop engaging in manifest evil which is deemed profitable.
    “The Missouri terrorists hadn’t read Marx. They didn’t ride East and try to radicalize underpaid Northern factory slaves, nor try to assassinate Garrison or the New England plutocrats.”

    Marx in America was only known at this time as an occasional European reporter for Horace Greeley. The most ultra of the pro-slavery advocates did say that slavery would expand throughout the country and one day they would sell slaves on Boston common.

    “Why did similar “mobbings” of abolitionists also occur in the North?”

    In the case of the murder of Elijah Lovejoy it was because Alton, Illinois was settled by Southerners and was a hotbed of pro-slavery sentiment. Most of the Democrat party in the North was pro-slavery, and those who were not eventually helped found the Republican party. This ensured that there was going to be anti-abolition sentiment throughout the North. However no Northern state restricted the civil liberties of either the proponents or opponents of slavery.

    “Why did the south fight for a small minority of evil rich southerners? The Shadow knows.”
    Because the average poor white Southerner was afraid of what would happen if slaves were freed and placed on an equality with himself. If it had been simply a matter of keeping slavery so Scarlet O’Hara could continue sipping mint juleps on the veranda, I doubt if the Civil War would have occurred.

    “You and I are entitled to our opinions.”

    Everyone is entitled to his opinion T.Shaw. No one is entitled to his own set of facts.

  • Mindsets definitely chanbged and hardened between Turner and Brown. David Downing points out in his “A South Divided” that in the early 1800s, the majority of abolitionist newspapers and organizations were based in the States that would comprise the Confederacy.

    By 1850, they had vanished.

    I also think its safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Confederate soldiers didn’t enter the war for slavery per se–they followed their States.

    But there was considerable ambivalence about the Cause within Dixie, and it only grew as the war dragged on. After all, the phrase “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” originated in the South.

  • Mac,

    Apparently, you rely on wikipedia and other propaganda for your “history.”

    “In the case of the murder of Elijah Lovejoy it was because Alton, Illinois was settled by Southerners and was a hotbed of pro-slavery sentiment. Most of the Democrat party in the North was pro-slavery, and those who were not eventually helped found the Republican party. This ensured that there was going to be anti-abolition sentiment throughout the North. However no Northern state restricted the civil liberties of either the proponents or opponents of slavery.”

    First off, it WASN’T A MURDER. L. AND ABOUT 20 OTHER ARMED ABILITIONISTS/INSURRECTIONISTS WERE IN A BUILDING DEFENDING THE FOURTH PRINTING PRESS HE HAD BROUGHT IN (THE OTHERS WERE ALSO DUMPED IN THE RIVER). FOUR OF THE UNIONIST MOB WERE KILLED FIRST.

    THE MOBS IN VARIOUS NORTHERN STATES AND THE DEM PARTY WERE NOT PRO-SLAVERY. THEY WERE PRO-UNION AND PRO-CONSTITUTION. The lunatic abolitionists were intent on mass violence/civil war and lower class people knew it.

    The slavery question had been decided in 1789 when the various states voted to ratify the Constitution. See Daniel Webster, et al on the sanctity of the Constitution. Such men as Webster had convinced most of the country that the Union was inviolable. The abolitionists preached insurrection and secession. Lovejoy constantly stated the Constitution was evil and the Union must be destroyed.

    Don’t go to wikipedia. Find a history written before the re-writes and look up “broadcloth mob.”

    I could go on, but I’m at work.

    In conclusion, your above slander (“No one is entitled to his own set of facts.”) is evidence of untoward reliance on others’ distortions, omissions, and fabrications to support your rank Lincoln idolatry.

  • Apparently, you rely on wikipedia and other propaganda for your “history.”

    Donald can defend himself, but this is mind-bendingly stupid. As is obvious to anyone who reads this blog, Donald clearly reads a wider selection of Civil War history than anyone, including you, T Shaw.

    It is sometimes true that the widely accepted narratives about history are mistaken or overblown. When it comes to the Civil War; however, there is a concerted effort to rewrite history so as to blur reality and make the Confederate cause just. So before throwing out accusations about others relying on Wikipedia, why don’ t you do a little original research yourself and rethink the neo-confederate propaganda.

  • “Apparently, you rely on wikipedia and other propaganda for your “history.”

    That is the funniest, although not the nuttiest, thing you have written on this blog T.Shaw.

    “First off, it WASN’T A MURDER.”

    It certainly was murder T.Shaw. Not liking someone’s opinions is not a license to attack them.

    “THE MOBS IN VARIOUS NORTHERN STATES AND THE DEM PARTY WERE NOT PRO-SLAVERY. THEY WERE PRO-UNION AND PRO-CONSTITUTION.”

    Putting a statement in caps T.Shaw does not make it any more convincing. Being pro-slavery was not being for the Constitution or the Union, since that august document placed no restrictions on laws being enacted on the state level freeing slaves, as demonstrated by the fact that such laws were passed in many states. Additionally, contrary to the wrongly decided Dred Scott decision, Congress had the power to legislate in regard to slavery in the Federal territories. By constitutional amendment Congress could end slavery at any time. These were uncongenial facts to pro-slavery advocates, hence their ultimate resort to secession and war to protect their sacred right to treat other Children of God as chattel.

    “your above slander’

    Truth is an absolute defense to a charge of slander T.Shaw. When it comes to the Civil War you choose to believe in neo-Confederate myths rather than deal with the actual historical record. I will call you on it every time you choose to comment on the Civil War and slavery on this blog.

  • “In the early 1800s, the majority of abolitionist newspapers and organizations were based in the States that would comprise the Confederacy. By 1850, they had vanished.”

    The hardening of Southern opinion on slavery in the 19th century seems to have followed a trajectory roughly similar to the hardening of liberal/Democrat opinion on abortion in the 20th and 21st centuries. Pro-life liberal Democrats today are as scarce as anti-slavery Southerners were in the 1850s.

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