A Brief-ish, Modestly Revisionist History of the American Civil War
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
–L. P. Hartley
Today is Memorial Day, when all of us collectively honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s veterans by firing up the ol’ grill, swilling a few cold ones, and then heading on over the Home Depot for that great Holiday Sale Extravaganza. Movie channels will run all the old favorites, and there will, of course, be the requisite tributes, the “Thank a Veteran” PSAs. It’s all quite sincere. “Thank you for your service” and while you’re up wouldja mind getting me another beer.
Memorial Day is meant to be an occasion for solemn remembrance. Yet in common usage, we do not “observe” or “mark” Memorial Day, we “celebrate” it. In some ways I am an old-fashioned person, and so the notion of “celebrating” something so very serious seems a minor profanity. I would no more do this than I would take a selfie at a funeral. And I say this recognizing that a small but growing minority would not get the reference.
In its original incarnation Memorial Day was set aside to honor the dead of the American Civil War. Favoring neither North nor South in that horrific conflict, it was, nevertheless, spurned by the losing side, still reeling from the effects of total defeat and the imposition of massive retribution masquerading as Reconstruction. Decoration day, as it was originally known, was not acknowledged in a single state of the former Confederacy until after the Great War of 1914-18, when it was renamed and repurposed as a day to honor the dead of every American war, not just the Civil one.
It is altogether right and proper that we remember the Civil War because it was arguably the most important event in American history. It was certainly the bloodiest. It changed the course of the Nation forever. Billions of words have been written on its behalf. Herewith a few more.
It is standard practice to simplify complex events so as to more easily understand them. And so our official version of the history of the Civil War has settled, more or less, on this: The South started the war by seceding, which it did in order to “preserve slavery,” and the North finished it by fighting to preserve the Union and end slavery. The end. By this mainstream version, those who fought for the South were either racists seeking to perpetuate a white-supremacist system or ignorant tools of their slave-owning masters, while those who fought for the North were motivated by a sincere desire to put an end to the abusive system.
An alternate, slightly more nuanced version allows that maybe, in some very minor way of course, a few Southern patriots may have possibly been motivated by the understandable if misplaced desire to defend their homeland, or by quaint notions of “honor.” Whatever that is. And perhaps Union troops were just following orders.
As with few other subjects, the Civil War fairly staggers under the weight of critical judgements, rendered retroactively with the piercing clarity of twenty-twenty hindsight. A primly censorious air hovers over the subject like a lingering malodorous fog. Many interests invest heavily in the Civil War as a symbol.
Because of our uniquely distorted political climate, anyone who wishes to write or speak objectively about the Civil War must walk a very fine line or risk reaping the whirlwind. Among the cultural elite it is essentially mandatory to view the Civil War as having been nothing less than a Manichean struggle between the darkest evil and the purest good, no shades of gray allowed. Any deviation from that script, any perceived expression of empathy for the “Lost Cause” and those who fought for it, no matter how carefully couched, stands a good chance of triggering a blast of harsh condemnation and charges of racism from the many zealous moral guardians who police the national conversation.
Yet it neither excuses the blight that was slavery, nor dishonors the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve their respective notions of nationhood, to acknowledge that the Last Battle of the American Revolution, as some have called it, had complex causes, and was driven by motivations base and noble alike all the way around.
A Study in Contrasts
In retrospect, almost every historical event seems inevitable, and the American Civil War is no exception. This thing was years in the making. Here you had two societies with very different histories, cultures, economies, and worldviews, and massively conflicting visions and imperatives, by fate having to share the same continent, resentfully co-dependent, each unable to escape the other. They were simply fated to clash.
The ending seems tragically preordained as well, because the War was in no way whatsoever a contest between equals. In every way you can measure such things, the South was completely outclassed from the very beginning. The North had twice the population, ten times the number of factories, three times the railroads, thirty times more firearms, twenty times more raw iron, fifteen times more finished textiles. At the outset of the war, the South had not one factory producing cannons, while the North had more than a dozen. You get the picture.
And so perhaps inevitably there was also a sharp disparity in the degree of sacrifice rendered by each side. For the South the commitment was absolute. For the duration of the war the South endured total mobilization. Every bit of blood and treasure that could be spared, was. For Southerners the War was a daily existential threat, like a hurricane bearing down. And for four long years this tempest swept back and forth across Dixie, leaving wreckage, ruin, and agony in its wake.
From beginning to end, the American Civil War was fought almost entirely on Southern territory. Of the one hundred and fifty or so major engagements, exactly two were fought in the North, and these just barely, as they were in the southernmost parts of border states. There’s a reason the Civil War was known in some circles as The War of Northern Aggression.
And as you might expect, South and North ended the War in very different shape. By the time the War whimpered to a conclusion in the spring of 1865, the Confederate States of America were bled dry, destitute, wrecked, and exhausted. For the North, not so much.
For the North the War was always a faraway thing, like a storm well over the horizon, an occasional, soundless flash of light, and maybe once or twice the faintest rumble of distant thunder. Northerners talked about it, read about it in their newspapers, saw the weekly roll of dead and wounded, but never directly bore the war’s wrath. For most Northerners throughout the War life went on more or less as normal. You get the sense that the North never fully committed to the War, and fought it, in the words of historian Shelby Foote “with one hand tied behind its back.”
The American South was essentially an agrarian, traditional society, with comparatively little industry and few large cities. In the days before mechanization, agriculture was a labor-intensive business. Crops had to be planted, tended, and harvested by hand. This system required cheap labor to be sustainable. Slavery was, of course, the ultimate cheap labor. At least in theory.
But free labor isn’t really free if you have to feed, clothe, house, and tend to the needs of your workers. And in reality slavery was more or less naturally withering away throughout the United States by the end of the 18th century because, aside from that fact that sentiment was building against it, slavery had become an economically unsound proposition. And absolutely no one mourned its presumably imminent passing.
And then came the invention of the cotton gin, in 1793, by Northerner Eli Whitney. This invention revolutionized the cultivation of cotton, a crop suitable only to the South, by automating the removal of the seeds from the mass of cotton fibers, previously an arduous, time-consuming–hence expensive–process. Suddenly, the large-scale cultivation of cotton became economically viable. And slavery right there with it. So a moribund institution was belatedly given new life, and its seemingly inevitable demise postponed into the indefinite future.
It was obvious to most persons of the era that in many important ways, South and North were quite dissimilar. Thinkers and social critics spent much time and energy debating the root causes of this divide. Eventually there emerged a consensus that for these two distinct sections, demography had been destiny.
As in the North, most Southerners could trace their ancestry to immigrants of English origin. But historians and social observers of the time made a point of differentiating the social and philosophical roots of this group with those who founded the Northern branch of the American Nation.
Part myth, part reality, by this reckoning the founders of what became the South were primarily “Cavaliers,” a loosely defined collection of English country gentlemen, yeoman farmers, and tradesmen. The Cavaliers, so went the thinking, came to the New World motivated less by lofty philosophical considerations than by a yen for adventure, or the desire to make a fortune. Daring, on the make, and far from abstemious, these people dreamed of making it big in the New World, and having grand time doing it. Their descendants, it followed, were cut from the same cloth.
Seasoning the stew, large swaths of the historical South were also settled by descendants of Scots-Irish refugees, whose distinctive culture came to imprint itself heavily on what eventually became the Confederacy, an influence that lingers to this day.
The Scots-Irish were a poor but proud people, talented and flawed, stubborn and defiant, inured to a hard life, with an inveterate underdog mentality. Theirs was an honor society, tribal in outlook, with a culture and code of conduct forged by centuries of mistreatment at the hands of ruthless foreign overlords. Historically denied the right to own land in their ancestral countries, the Scots-Irish eagerly settled American lands that others did not want, putting down roots in the remote, comparatively infertile hinterlands of Appalachia, far from the thickly settled coastal regions.
The Scots-Irish were, it has been said, “born fighting.” So when Northern troops invaded their homeland, these hard, proud people rushed with righteous fury to repel them, just as their ancestors had fought the Romans, the Saxons, the Normans, and the English. There is the famous story of the Confederate soldier, captured in battle, who when asked by his Yankee captors why he fought, said simply: “Because you came here!”
As in other traditional societies, the South lived a life defined by the organic cadence of the sun and the seasons. Sunrise, noon, sunset; planting time, harvest time, fallow time. Accustomed as they were to life at a more leisurely pace, Southerners were not especially envious of the North, which they often characterized as a den of pinch-faced scolds and pushy, impatient arrivistes. To many Southerners, to be always in a hurry was unseemly, and evidence of ill-breeding.
By contrast, the North was initially settled almost exclusively by English Puritans and their ideological kin, who, unlike their Cavalier cousins, came to the new land not for material gain or adventure, but to escape oppression and find religious and social freedom.
That’s one way to put it. Another would be to say that Puritans, as a rule, did not work or play well with others, and had an unfortunate habit of wearing out their welcome wherever they happened to be.
Though industrious and self-reliant, Puritans were not exactly warm and fuzzy types. Grim, prim, obsessively religious, sartorially austere, and given to spartan ways, Puritans did not fit in well in their homeland, which they found insufficiently pious. And since that homeland stubbornly refused to get with their program, Puritans thought it best to shake the the dust of it from their feet and make a fresh start elsewhere. And no one attempted to dissuade them.
They settled first in Holland, but as a wise man once said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” So they quickly found themselves on the outs yet again. Having heard about this place across the water, the thought occurred that it might make a pretty good New Eden, where finally they could realize their Godly vision, unhindered but for a few inconsequential savages. So off they went.
Guided by only the vaguest of plans, the Puritans headed westward across the storm-tossed ocean, eventually coming to rest on the shores of what we now call Massachusetts, where they spied a lone boulder, a glacial erratic, on an otherwise featureless beach and called it a sign from God.
Thanks to the timely intervention of the locals, who took pity on this odd and clueless tribe from across the sea, the Puritans beat the odds and survived the first couple of shockingly harsh winters. With that helpful assist they soon found their footing in the strange new land, and promptly, squarely repaid the providential act of kindness by driving off those natives they did not kill outright. It was all good, of course, having been carried out in the name of God.
After a rocky start, the new arrivals flourished. The apple did not fall far from the tree, and an ascetic, disciplined, no-nonsense culture descended from this astringent root stock.
Beginning in the middle part of the eighteenth century, this culture came to be leavened with a substantial infusion of Germans, a group largely absent from the South. Related peoples, with similar cultures and habits, they blended easily together in the new land to form a uniquely American breed. Disciplined, hard-working, and endlessly opportunistic, these people everywhere prevailed through sheer persistence. And wherever they went, there was prosperity. Protestant work ethic and all of that. Ever mindful of the need to produce produce produce, they lived and died by the merciless dictates of clocks and calendars, schedules and quotas.
Hard-nosed and pragmatic, this culture had little use for sentiment when there was work to be done. Anyone or anything that got in the way was simply pushed aside, or, if foolish enough to resist, destroyed. With determination, grit, and “Yankee ingenuity” these ambitious, driven people transformed their part of the world into a marvel of enterprise, on a scale never seen before in the history of humankind. In many ways, when we think “American,” this is what we mean. And to this group’s way of thinking the South was as an unruly child, who needed only to be brought into line.
The end result of the clash between these two very different worlds was a foregone conclusion. Tradition, ardor, and honor were simply crushed beneath the pitiless wheels of progress.
Often, armchair historians will point to this or that historical document in order to prove conclusively, once and for all, that the desire to perpetuate slavery alone motivated the South to fight. Case closed. Simple cause, simple motivation; no need to discuss further.
But while you could certainly argue that slavery was probably the dominant issue, and the final straw that made conflict inevitable, it hardly muddies the water to consider also the lengthy history of provocation and reprisal leading up to the War, much of which had little or nothing to do with the “peculiar institution.”
For more than a century leading up to the War, the South had essentially been an economic colony of the North, and was treated as such. Southerners rightfully nursed the grudge that they were little more than a source of cheap labor and raw materials for the far more developed North. Southerners frequently noted the irony of a North that endlessly criticized slavery, yet eagerly gobbled up the products of the slave economy, such as cotton and sugar. The South’s principals product, cotton, was an enormously important part of the overall American economy, the country’s chief export for more than seven decades running, and a commodity valued all over the world.
Other economic factors sharpened the divide. To protect the nascent manufacturing concerns of the young United States, beginning in the late 18th century Congress passed a series of Tariff acts, which placed heavy taxes on all manner of imported goods. For decades, these taxes were the primary source of revenue for the Federal government. Having little manufacturing of its own, yet needing reliable supplies of finished goods, the South faced a choice. It could purchase inferior, domestically made products at great expense due to deliberately inflated shipping costs, or it could purchase superior, foreign-made goods at prices only slightly less extortionate because of punitively high tariffs. As a result, the burden of paying these tariffs fell much more heavily on the underdeveloped, comparatively poor South. As a further indignity, much of the revenue generated by the tariffs was earmarked for the construction of railroads, canals and roadways in the North, which only served to enhance the developmental disparity.
The issue came to a head with the passage of the Tariff Act of 1828, which threatened to cripple the Southern economy by triggering a sharp hike in the cost of living. At the same time, the Act protected the interests of ultra-wealthy Northern industrialists, a serious provocation to millions of Southerners effectively living under the heels of this distant ruling class. So in an instant, long-simmering Southern resentment turned to white-hot rage. The Tariff of Abominations, as it soon came to be called, is widely regarded as the point of no return in the long march to war. After its passage, some kind of armed conflict was essentially only a matter of time. The State of South Carolina, under the leadership of John Calhoun, threatened to secede if the Tariff was not repealed. And with the issue of secession now on the table, other Southern states, nursing grievances of their own, took note.
The actual effect of the Tariff on Southerners was arguably less important than the attitude it seemed to symbolize. There was something rather contemptuous in the way the Tariff so blatantly favored Northern interests over Southern, and this contempt was duly noted by Southerners.
As you might imagine, Northerners had a different take on the matter altogether. As they saw it, tariffs were simply part of the master plan. If American manufacturing was ever to come into its own, it would need to be protected from predatory foreign competition during the critical formative years. Northerners could not understand why Southerners did not get this, and resented their stubborn resistance to the necessary course of progress.
Southerners also wearied of the endlessly simplistic, overwhelmingly negative depictions of their society that were a staple of the Northern press. Depending on the day of the week, Southerners were either ignorant, gap-toothed hicks living in tumbledown shacks out in the boondocks, or cruel and heartless oppressors of poor downtrodden Blacks, debased and wicked, living fat while their slaves suffered. By this narrative the South was primitive and underdeveloped, and Southerners were lazy and violent, obsessed with honor, and fixated on the past. Southerners, understandably, did not recognize themselves in these unflattering portrayals, and took serious umbrage.
What little positive coverage there was tended to be patronizing. There emerged a whole genre of folksy-yokel puff pieces, in which eccentrically quotable sorts drawled screwball homespun wisdom from rocking chairs on the veranda, clad in tropical white, mint juleps in hand, a nineteenth century version of Hee Haw.
Southerners had their own bogeymen, of course, and were much given to gesturing vaguely northward while hyperventilating about “damned Yankees,” in their minds the source of all ills. This epithet actually had a very specific subset of Northerner as its target. The classic Yankee was member of the upper class, Anglo-Saxon, a native of New England, and for good measure an arrogant, humorless, puritanical, money-grubbing, hypocritical prick.
The South had since colonial times possessed a strong sense of regional identity, around which its citizens could and did rally. To be a “Southerner” evoked a stirring array of images and attitudes among those who so identified. By contrast, throughout the antebellum period the North had yet to develop a coherent self-image. To be a “Northerner” meant nothing beyond a simple geographical affiliation.
But as tensions mounted in the pre-war years, goaded by a press that was by turns hostile and condescending toward the South, Northerners came increasingly to identify themselves through their opposition all things Southern. Northerners were industrious, whereas Southerners were indolent; Northerners were democratic, Southerners, oligarchic. Northern society was “modern” and forward-looking; Southern, stagnant. Northerners valued the labor of free men; Southerners grew fat and lazy as indentured Blacks did all their heavy lifting. Over time, an overweening sense of superiority crept into Northern thinking.
Northerners eventually came to think of Southerners as a bad influence, to be avoided in the way that a prudent person shuns the company of disreputable sorts. Barrels of ink were spilled in the Northern press over the possibility, much dreaded, that the South’s dissipation and moral laxity would come to taint the North’s orderly, progressive culture.
The emergence of the Republican Party in the 1850s, a sectional party openly hostile to Southern interests, accelerated this trend. It came to be perceived by Northerners that for the United States to take its rightful place as leader among the nations of the world, Southerners would have to be “northernized.” Southerners took note of this attitudinal shift with a mixture of resentment and resolve, and positions hardened on both sides.
For their part, Northerners objected to what they saw as disproportionate representation of the South and its interests in Congress and in the Oval Office. Northerners became convinced that the progress of the Nation was being held hostage to regressive, exclusively Southern interests.
At the same time, Southerners perceived an out-of-touch, heavy-handed Federal government that was increasingly unresponsive to legitimate Southern concerns. Frustration mounted as talk of secession, once little more than background noise, grew steadily louder.
The evolution of secession from drawing-room theory to fait accompli was long and gradual. At first little more than a rallying cry of hotheads and hopeless romantics, with each fresh provocation the idea accrued legitimacy, until eventually it seemed inevitable. There were many minor points of friction, but also a few quite large ones.
For decades, as the United States steadily expanded westward, pro- and anti-slavery forces hotly contested over the extension of slavery into new states and territories. Amid the purely political wrangling were nested a host of highly symbolic social and moral issues. For advocates of slavery, it was a largely a straightforward matter: Slaves were property; property rights were sacred; a prohibition of slavery was a denial of these sacred rights.
Anti-slavery forces were motivated by a mix of moral and economic considerations. For some slavery was wrong, period; end of discussion. But the more pragmatic, economically minded arguments against slavery focused on the suppression of free labor that would inevitably follow the introduction of slave-centered labor system, with a multitude of cascading deleterious effects far into the future. The persistence of this issue reminded North and South of their disagreements on a daily basis.
But sometimes events occurred that were more like a slap to the face than a dull daily bulletin. In 1856, an ugly incident in the Nation’s capital shocked the country as it symbolized for many the irreconcilable differences that had come to exist between North and South. On May 20 of that year, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, gave a fiery speech in which he denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and in very personal terms criticized its authors, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, and Representative Stephen Butler of South Carolina. The personal attack on Butler enraged Preston Brooks, a South Carolina Representative and Butler’s cousin, who felt that Sumner had insulted Butler’s honor, and in so doing had crossed a fatal line.
In retaliation, Brooks attacked Sumner on the floor of the US Senate, striking him repeatedly about the head and shoulders with a walking stick, with such force that the cane broke into several pieces. The attack nearly killed Sumner, who was left with permanent debilitating injuries. Brooks was arrested and eventually fined $300 for the assault (roughly $9000 modern equivalent,) but not jailed.
South and North reacted very differently to the incident. Northerners came to see it as a symbol of Southern barbarity and unreasonableness, and regarded Sumner as a martyr. Southerners hailed Brooks as a hero, and cheered the comeuppance of an arrogant and insulting petty tyrant. He received hundreds of replacement canes as gifts, one bearing the inscription: “Hit him again.” The incident was front-page news for weeks, and with every fresh reverberation North and South inched measurably closer to a complete rupture.
The penultimate blow fell when John Brown, a radical and murderous abolitionist, with a band of eighteen co-conspirators attacked and captured The United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, on October 17, 1859. Fanatic, delusional, and given to grandiose conceits, Brown fully expected an army of rebellious slaves and working-class Whites to arise spontaneously once word of the raid spread. The huge cache of arms captured from the arsenal were to supply that home-grown army.
Brown’s long game was to ride this coming wave of revolt, striking towns and plantations across the South again and again until the back of slavery was broken and the South collapsed. But there was no uprising, and Brown and almost all of his men were either killed or captured within 48 hours by a mix of Federal troops and local militia. But not before a number of innocent bystanders were killed.
As with previous high-profile incidents, South and North exhibited strikingly different reactions to the raid at Harper’s Ferry. Initially the raid was met with mild reproach from anti-slavery forces. “Right idea, wrong execution” seemed to be the consensus. But sustained and intense media coverage transformed the highly unsympathetic Brown into an unlikely folk hero to Northerners. His execution by hanging for the crime of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, less than two months after the raid, cemented his status as a martyr.
The South, meanwhile, found proof in the episode of Abolitionism’s long-suspected genocidal intent. Enraged by the perfidy of the Abolitionists and by the outpouring of Northern adulation for this genuinely detestable individual, what minor lingering trust the South might still have had in the Union was shattered, and the divide between North and South became a virtual chasm.
The modern American viewpoint regards secession as almost an unthinkable act, a civic Nuclear Option. But in the early- to mid-nineteenth century the American nation was still very young, and the concept of it as a single indivisible entity, rather than a collective of independent semi-nations, had not yet firmly taken hold. You see this in the language of the time, in which “United States” was commonly used in the plural sense. People said the United States “were,” or “are,” this or that, not “was” or “is.” And the legality of secession was, in fact, an unsettled question, with many reputable scholars accepting that it was perfectly lawful under the American Constitution, a view echoed by dozens of editorials in respected Northern newspapers.
The Elephant in the Room
Mainstream accounts of the Civil War tend to soft-pedal the economic angle, preferring to place the issue of slavery front and center as a proximate cause, an approach that provides comforting simplicity as well as moral clarity.
This compulsion for clarity is understandable. After all, slavery was such a repugnant institution from our modern perspective that whatever it took to bring it to an end would, in retrospect, seem to have been justified. And if the cost of correcting the historical atrocity was a South reduced to smoking ruin, its population starving and in tatters, its institutions demolished, its young men dead or maimed, its society disrupted for generations, millions of former slaves suddenly having to fend for themselves, then so be it. After all, they had it coming.
But Americans of the early- and mid-nineteenth century did not have the benefit of our superior moral acuity. And for most of them the matter was a murky one and a cause of much vacillation. For decades leading up to the outbreak of War, slavery was the elephant in the American living room.
In the North, opinions ran the gamut, from kinda sorta supporting slavery to violently opposing it. History has given a lot of ink to the abolitionists, with the result that they are often erroneously seen as representing the prevailing Northern viewpoint. But for much of its history the Abolitionist movement was very much of the fringes, and its adherents generally regarded as do-gooders, flakes, fanatics, or worse. But as is often the case with true believers, this odd amalgamation of zealots, dreamers, would-be social engineers, and ambitious opportunists eventually made up for very small numbers with very loud and persistent voices.
For the first twenty years or so of its existence, the abolitionist movement steered a mostly conciliatory course, favoring gradual emancipation and minimal disruption. The tone changed radically, though, in 1831 with the founding of The Liberator, the fiercely anti-slavery weekly newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison. A deeply unhappy, rather disagreeable man, Garrison was a study in contradictions. Retiring and passive in person, his writings crackled with incendiary hyperbole. A dedicated pacifist, he longed for violent insurrection. An uncompromising advocate of immediate and total emancipation, he favored disunion to avoid the taint of any association whatsoever with slavery. And in a sharp break with his predecessors, Garrison also claimed to favor political and social equality for Blacks, a position so extreme at the the time that it was regarded as lunacy.
Garrison and his followers were not the type to mince words, and even liberal-minded Southerners found their special blend of inflammatory rhetoric and unflattering, exaggerated characterizations to be deeply offensive. Southerners began to believe, with good reason, that this new breed of Abolitionists wished them dead, preferably by way of a universal, murderous slave uprising.
This radical new, take-no-prisoners style of advocacy wasn’t initially much of a hit with Northerners either, and for a time abolitionists could scarcely hold a public event without causing a riot. Many property owners would neither rent nor sell to abolitionists, so they often ended up having to build their own meeting spaces. In July of 1838, following the public dedication of one such facility in Philadelphia, a crowd of thousands gathered to burn it down, as the Fire Department stood by and did nothing. Eventually, Garrison’s followers learned to keep a lower public profile, and the more overt expressions of disapproval began to taper off.
It was, in a sense, a contest of competing story lines, with the South’s version–happy darkies singing and dancing in the fields–ultimately eclipsed in the public imagination by the lurid and hellish depictions put forth by Garrison and company. Through a network of dozens of publications and hundreds of local chapters, they skillfully kept The Cause before the public eye for years, gradually building support.
A breakthrough of sorts occurred in 1852 with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel by the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sappy and relentlessly melodramatic, replete with cartoonish stereotypes, widely panned by critics, Uncle Tom’s Cabin nevertheless became a runaway bestseller, and galvanized a previously ambivalent audience of millions against slavery as it hardened the opposition of an already jittery and defensive South. Widely serialized in the popular press, virtually every literate person in the United States read all or part of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at some point. President Lincoln paid Stowe the ultimate compliment, when upon meeting her in 1862, said dryly: “So you’re the little lady who started this great big war.”
Southern partisans had for years defended slavery on the grounds that Blacks were better-treated and materially better off than most of the world’s laboring classes, an argument that for a time resonated powerfully with a large plurality of Northerners, especially those personally acquainted with the ravages of poverty.
Basically nobody disputed that the original slave trade had been a crime. But that was a done deal and ancient history, beyond resolution. “We’re doing the best we can” summarized, more or less, the Southern position on slavery as a continuing institution. Nevertheless, as the Abolitionist narrative, with its disturbing depictions of flagrant cruelty, gained the upper hand, Northern tolerance of slavery began to waver.
To a certain extent, Northerners may have been compensating for past sins, as every single Northern state had at one time or another legally practiced slavery. In 1777 Vermont became the first state to outlaw slavery for anyone over the age of 21. But there was no attempt to enforce the law, so its effect was largely symbolic. In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state to put some skin in the game, banning slavery outright and providing the means for enforcement. Others Northern states followed, though it took a while for them all to fall in line. New York did not make slavery illegal until 1827, and Connecticut held on until 1848. But like alcoholics turned teetotalers, newly free states lost no opportunity to critique those malingering holdouts who stubbornly refused to quit the wretched vice.
By the eve of the Civil War the tide of Northern public opinion had turned decisively against slavery. The consensus emerged that slavery might have once had its day but was now done. Slavery was seen as, at best, an anachronism, both socially and economically, incompatible with the Republic’s founding principles, and for added measure rather embarrassing in the manner of an offensive habit. Northerners grew impatient with what they saw as Southern intransigence on an issue that was, to Northern minds, firmly and finally settled.
In many ways, however, Northern opposition to slavery was only marginally concerned with those most directly affected by it. In the main, Northerners cared little for actual Black people, of whom they held a generally low opinion. Of more immediate import was slavery’s supposedly debilitating economic, moral, and social effects on the nation as a whole. By the 1840s the idea had become widespread that it was the fate of the United States to become a world leader, and slavery was seen as insurmountable obstacle to achieving this manifest destiny.
What is often overlooked, though, is that many Southerners were not exactly thrilled with slavery, either. The moral queasiness of it was basically beyond dispute for all but a hard-core few. Laboring-class whites certainly had no love for it, as it put them at a severe competitive disadvantage. Middle-class Whites, very few of whom had slaves, widely resented the tawdry one-upmanship of the slaveholding class. The Southern intelligentsia largely regarded slavery as an unhealthy dependency that weakened one as it debased the other. In a widely quoted open letter to President Franklin Pierce written in 1856, none other than Robert E. Lee had this to say:
There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.
Significantly, the reaction of Lee’s fellow Southerners to this very public apostasy was muted, and mostly along the lines of acknowledging, perhaps a trifle grudgingly, that the guy definitely had a point.
But while the average American, Northerner or Southerner, would certainly have had an opinion about slavery one way or the other, he would not have been much inclined to take decisive action in its name. Moreover, the idea of granting Blacks full economic and political equality was taken seriously by almost no one, and would have been an absolute nonstarter in all but the most radical circles.
In reality, White Southerners and Northerners held generally similar views about the place of Blacks in the world. Blacks were almost universally perceived to be simple, childlike people, impulsive and irrational, who could not possibly survive on their own in a modern society. Many Northerners deeply resented their presence on American soil, and regarded them as intractably problematic. Most supporters of Emancipation explicitly favored resettling freed slaves in any other country that would have them. One well-known Northerner, whose name may ring a bell, had the following to say:
You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.
-Abraham Lincoln, addressing a Committee of Freedmen, 1863
The Walls Close In
In the middle part of the 19th century the idea that slavery was a moral affront was a relatively new one. The Enlightenment, that explosion of revisionist thinking about Man and his place in the world, was triggering a reassessment of many core beliefs dating to antiquity.
Stripped to its essentials, American slavery was simply a local, late variant of an ancient practice, whose origins were rooted in the idea that there are certain people whose natural place is to rule, and others whose natural place is to serve. This philosophy held a central place in cultures great and small dating back to the dawn of civilization.
It is hardly surprising that many people, mostly descendants of the losers, feel compelled to frame the Civil War as having been about anything but slavery. And you really can’t blame them, given the low regard with which the practice is now held. But this viewpoint is basically feel-good nonsense. At the macro level, the War had very much to do with slavery, and understandably so, because the entire economy and way of life of the South had come to be based on it. The millions of slaves and the infrastructure they served represented a colossal capital investment, equivalent to trillions of modern-day dollars, every bit of which stood to be lost if slavery were simply abolished.
Personal feelings about slavery aside, the hard truth was that its sudden forced abolition would have caused chaos, ensured financial ruin for millions, and would almost certainly have triggered the collapse of the Southern economy, with damaging repercussions for the entire Nation and all its trading partners. It would also have essentially thrown Blacks to the wolves by destroying what tenuous security they had. Cognizant of this unpleasant reality, even the most liberal Southerners would have had to take pause at the idea of immediate, unconditional emancipation.
As tensions escalated over slavery, the South’s social institutions responded defensively, actively reinforcing the idea that it was simply part of the way things should be. For decades leading up to the outbreak of war, wherever people came together, wherever they got their information, people of the South were likely to hear a common message: Slavery is beneficent; slavery is necessary; Blacks cannot fend for themselves; they need us as much as we need them.
But for all the moral justifying, which feels at times like so much nervous pep-talk, hovering beneath was the lingering fear that if Black people were ever granted freedom en masse, their natural passions might be unleashed in a frenzy of murder and rape–emphasis on rape.
So by the middle of the nineteenth century the South had kind of painted itself into a corner, with no easy way out. Following no real plan, Southerners had, over generations, passively allowed a complex, bizarrely retrograde socioeconomic system to evolve. This system, despite its many shortcomings, worked, more or less, because it had to, given that the whole of Southern society was based on it. There was no ready alternative.
Many Southerners could never quite shake the nagging sense that they had been made scapegoats for the tar baby that was slavery. After all, they had simply inherited it from their ancestors, who had themselves had slavery thrust upon them by their Colonial masters. Southerners of the mid-1800s often felt, with reason, that it was not their fault that the institution still existed, and they resented being blackballed for something no living member of their society had any part in creating. A sizable minority of Northerners agreed, but their voices became lost in the general clamor.
Regardless of who was responsible, in a world that was rapidly changing, there was simply no way slavery could last. And secession, even if successful, would only postpone the inevitable. Southern society was fated to be turned upside-down sooner or later, and at some level, every thinking Southerner knew it. There was going to be hell to pay. And as the walls closed in, a kind of group denial set in, increasingly delusional and desperate.
In a last-ditch bid to avert a showdown, Southern leadership floated the idea of graduated emancipation, which was, at least in theory, acceptable to almost all. But no one was ever able to articulate a clear plan for achieving it, so the movement eventually petered out. With the South unwilling to commit economic suicide, the two sides became hopelessly deadlocked. Increasingly, secession seemed the only way out. The November 6, 1860 election to the presidency of the Abraham Lincoln, widely perceived to be hostile to Southern interests, essentially sealed the deal. Within three months, seven states voted to secede. Four states soon followed, and the Confederate States of America were born.
Ironically, the Southern perception that Lincoln was irredeemably hostile to slavery was a complete misread. From the very beginning, Lincoln’s paramount concern was simply preserving the Union, period. And he was willing to bear almost any cost to do it. In an 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the influential New York Tribune, Lincoln famously wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
By early 1861, tensions had reached a breaking point, and rumors of war flew thick and fast. In expectation of imminent hostilities, Confederates seized, without resistance, a number of Federal forts in territory they claimed. The powder keg lacked only a spark to ignite it.
That spark was supplied on April 12, 1861, when Lincoln, who had publicly pledged not to initiate a war, shrewdly maneuvered Confederate forces into attacking the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The siege ended peacefully the following day without the loss of even a single life. But the gauntlet had been tossed. The only question was: Would the Federal government respond to this affront with lethal force?
This question was answered, forcefully and in the affirmative, when two days later Lincoln issued a call for seventy five thousand militiamen and summoned Congress to a special session. Hoping to quickly destroy the rebellion with overwhelming force, Congress authorized the raising of an army of half a million. The War was on.
Robert E. Lee, widely considered by contemporaries as America’s most gifted General, was offered command of Union forces but declined when his home state of Virginia joined the Confederacy. “I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children,” he proclaimed before returning to Richmond to accept command of the Confederate Army.
Hoping to end the war quickly with a decisive knockout blow, Lincoln dispatched 35,000 Federal volunteers to attack the main body of the Confederate force, camped near Manassas, Virginia. Expecting an easy win, the overconfident Federals were taken by surprise when their attack was repulsed. Uncertainly led and lacking a backup plan, the inexperienced Federals retreated to regroup. And in the confusion, thousands of Confederate reinforcements from nearby detachments moved in to exploit the sudden turn of fortune. In the ferocious counterattack that followed, Union forces broke and ran, many flinging off their arms and equipment in their haste to get away. Hopes of quick victory dashed, the defeated Federal Army staggered back to Washington in a driving rain, a vanquished miserable rabble, sick with the awful realization that the war now just begun was destined to be horrific, bloody, and long.
The First Battle of Bull Run, as it came to be known, was the first of many clashes. Across the South, sleepy hamlets and country crossroads became killing fields, on which the flower of a generation was sacrificed. Their bucolic names are burned now into the very fabric of history: Shiloh, Antietam, Chickamauga, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Gettysburg.
The duration and sheer bitterness of the War surprised almost everyone. Most people expected the South to put up a good scrap for a short while and then sue for peace under honorable terms, having made its point. But this did not happen. Years of accumulated animosities and resentments spilled forth on both sides, and the conflict took on a deadly life of its own.
The American Civil War was the first “modern” war, employing mass-produced weapons of fearsome lethality. And the results were grimly predictable, with atrociously heavy losses on both sides. More Americans died in the Civil War than in every other American war combined.
Major battles were scenes of extraordinary violence. The mind reels at the sheer, ghastly waste of humanity. At the Battle of Petersburg, Rebels and Federals shot, stabbed, and blasted each other day after pointless day, from trenches mere feet apart, until the ground was literally saturated with blood. Bull Run was the the scene of two epic battles, the second and larger of which was fought on a nightmarish landscape littered with wreckage and rotted corpses from the first battle two years before. The Battle of the Wilderness concluded with days of savage hand-to-hand combat, which left layers of dead, blue and gray and blue and gray all jumbled together, their bodies turned to unrecognizable bloody mush by the unending rain of lead and steel. In some battles the exchange of fire was so intense that bullets actually collided in mid-air.
The Civil War was also the first major war to be documented photographically. By the time of the Civil War, the young but fast-evolving technology had advanced to the point that a complete photographic workshop could fit into a carriage. Photographers trailed the combatants like camp followers, ready to capture the gruesome aftermath of every battle. Americans were horrified by the unspeakably graphic images, which made real the brutality of combat, yet could not turn away.
For two years, the South fought to repel the invading Northern armies, whose largely ineffective leadership squandered an overwhelming advantage. Despite their clear superiority as a fighting force, the Northern invaders were fought to an overall draw by tenacious Confederate defenders. The North’s failure to subdue the South was, in effect, a Southern victory. The tide began to turn, though, with a series of victorious Union campaigns in the vicinity of Vicksburg Mississippi, which ended the South’s command of the Mississippi River, over which it had moved men and supplies at will, and effectively split the Confederacy in two.
The high-water mark of the Civil War came in the spring of 1863, when General Robert E. Lee took the fight to the enemy for the second and final time. In June of that year, Lee’s Army of the Potomac crossed the frontier into Pennsylvania, pursued by Union General George Meade. Buoyed by a handful of recent Southern battle victories, Lee gambled that a decisive win on Northern soil would convince Lincoln to negotiate for peace.
Blue met Gray near the little town of Gettysburg. Confederates forces easily bested Union in a series of preliminary engagements, but ran hard aground against entrenched Federals on the heights of Cemetery Ridge, a short distance north of town, and Little Round Top, a few miles south. Pickett’s Charge, the fight to take Cemetery Ridge and the climactic battle of the Gettysburg campaign, is widely considered to be the turning point of the War.
Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the futility of the War than Pickett’s Charge, in which a large force of Rebels marched across nine hundred yards of open field, uphill, against entrenched Federals holding the high ground, as volley after volley of rifle and cannon fire poured down upon them. Twelve thousand began the march, but only five hundred survived to pierce the Union lines, where they were cut to pieces.
One hundred and seventy thousand fought at Gettysburg, and sixty thousand were killed, wounded, captured, or missing, the majority of them Southern. Gettysburg was a decisive defeat for Southern forces, and a blow to the Confederacy from which it would not recover.
In the aftermath of Gettysburg the Union army, sensing the change in fortune, altered its strategy. With Ulysses S. Grant now in overall command, the limited war the North had waged up to that time, aimed at restoring the Union, came to an end. In its place was a new strategy of total war, whose purpose was to destroy the South so that it could be rebuilt in a “new birth of freedom.”
Black and White and Gray
To the extent that we think about American slavery at all, we typically visualize a mass of wretched people endlessly beaten down by a relentlessly cruel and uncaring system of institutionalized oppression, as the whole world watches in horror. Not much gray area there.
As if to summarize the unmitigated cruelty of it all, there is that famous image of an elder male slave, his back covered with thick ropy scars from years of savage beatings. We’ve all seen it. And because it is so very flagrant it inflames our emotions, and we remember it. For millions of people that photograph eloquently symbolized the horrors of slavery better than any Abolitionist tract ever could.
But the lurid imagery belies a complex actuality. Slaves were, in reality, treated as variously as you may imagine, because people happen to behave as variously as you may imagine. If you want to understand how slaveholders behaved, perform this little thought experiment: Think about every boss you have ever known, and remember how they behaved. Then imagine them as masters. There was that one guy who was a total bastard, another who was off his rocker, yet another who was an autocratic asshole, one or two who tried their best but were in over their heads, the one who was a real gem, a few who were actually pretty good, and a few others who were tolerable.
The idea has taken hold that slaves lived in a climate of unending brutality, subject to frequent, painful punishments. This too is a lurid exaggeration. More common was a life marked by routine drudgery, not violence. Harsh physical disciplining of slaves, though hardly unknown, was neither routine nor ubiquitous, and was typically reserved for hard cases. Masters were of two basic types: those who claimed to favor physical discipline and those who did not, with the latter type always outnumbering the the former, especially in the later years. And many of the former type were more talk than action.
This is not to say that some slaves didn’t have it pretty rough. There were certainly more than a few hard masters, cruel and often virulently racist, and woe be to anyone unlucky enough to be under their thumb.
Ironically, some of the most flagrant abusers were Northern transplants. Ambitious and in a hurry to make their fortunes, these outsiders often bridled at the typically languorous pace of Southern life, and used force, liberally applied, to speed things along. In acknowledgement of this very real syndrome, Simon Legree, the villainous overseer of Uncle Tom’s cabin was a native of Connecticut.
Though obviously very much on the short end of the stick, slaves were not without recourse. Slaves who were unhappy with their treatment could express that displeasure in a myriad of ways, subtle and not. Most masters had some version of an open-door policy, and many an overseer was sent packing after the complaints became too numerous to ignore. And by the unwritten rules, slaves were expected to tolerate only so much. The thrashing or worse of an especially abusive master or overseer by a slave who had simply had enough–in theory a capital offense–might be met with little more than a collective shrug. Well, he did have it coming.
Our post-modern thinking recoils in horror from the casual violence common to that era, forgetting that at that time it was simply a part of the social order; the rule, not the exception. It was not at all unusual for people to settle their disputes physically, with fists or clubs or knives or guns. White children of all classes, especially boys, could expect lashings every bit as rough as those meted out to field hands if they stepped too far out of line. An ethos of harsh physical discipline was actually very common in this country until only quite recently, as most adults over the age of fifty, myself included, can attest.
And slaves certainly experienced their share of violence, though perhaps no more so than other members of the working classes. Allegations of widespread, institutionalized, continuous abuse are almost certainly highly exaggerated. Had such cruel treatment been the norm, it would follow that we would be swimming in a sea of contemporary sketches and photographs documenting the results of such abuse. But such images are actually comparatively rare. When you search for them, you find only a mere handful. This is telling, because after the Civil War, the South was virtually engulfed in a crush of outsiders brimming with moral certitude, obsessively intent on proving to the world exactly how very sick and twisted was old Dixie, as they made fortunes picking apart its carcass. They were mostly disappointed.
However, lest we give too much credit to the humanitarian impulse, it is important to remember that there were powerful economic incentives for treating slaves with at least some consideration because they were, after all, an investment, and only a foolish person willingly damages his investments.
Savvy masters instinctively understood that unhappy slaves made poor workers, and took concrete steps to make life tolerable for them. Sunday was universally recognized as a day of rest, but many slaveholders went the extra step, ending the workweek at noon on Saturday. A common saying among planters was that “a man will produce more in five and a half days than in six.” Slaves were often granted small plots of land they could use as they pleased. Slaves were generally allowed to visit friends and relatives who lived nearby in their free time. Frequent parties and celebrations brought together people, Black and White, from miles around. At such occasions the rules were typically forgotten and Blacks and Whites mingled more or less freely.
There were powerful social disincentives against treating slaves poorly as well. In general, people who treated Blacks badly were regarded as low persons of unsavory character. As in every society past or present, righteous pricks and scoundrels and flakes and abusers could be found in the antebellum South. And just as now, such people were regarded unfavorably by polite society.
When we think “South” we imagine a land of plantations stretching to the horizon, but this picture is inaccurate. Plantations were mostly confined to the lower South, defined as the Mississippi Delta and the coastal plains of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The inland regions and the upper south were largely devoid of plantations, and were instead dominated by small farms. Slavery existed in both systems, of course, but took distinctly different forms in each. Plantations were essentially communities organized around an operation, somewhat like company towns. Individuals each had their distinct roles, although those roles could change over time. By contrast, on those small farms that did have slaves, and most did not, Blacks and Whites tended to live and work in very close association, and Black and White lives were intimately blended to a surprising degree.
In the popular imagination, Blacks were little more than cheap, expendable labor for the Plantation system, a highly inaccurate view that greatly understates their actual importance. In reality, Blacks were deeply enmeshed in Southern society, and performed all manner of work, not just field work. On the plantations they were, in addition to being field hands, mechanics, carpenters, blacksmiths, cobblers, housemaids, cooks, nursemaids, and attendants. In the cities they were craftsmen, artisans, masons, teamsters, deckhands, gardeners, cooks, maids, footmen, managers, and foremen. On small farms they performed all manner of work as conditions required, side by side with their masters, and usually lived under the same roof and ate at the same table.
Slaves in cities such as New Orleans or Charleston were often supervised very lightly or not at all, moving about as they pleased, taking the company of whom they wished, effectively free. Blacks were integral parts of many households, loved and trusted, and much relied upon. Though officially taboo, it was hardly unheard of for socially prominent White men to have, sometimes openly, a Black or mulatto mistress. On occasion, a cherished mistress might even be upgraded to wife if chance allowed it. Masters were often grief-stricken at the death of a favorite slave, and mourned as they would at the passing of a close friend or family member. It was not uncommon for slaves to be freed by their masters upon their deaths, often with some kind of stipend. Official invitations were often written to specifically include the recipient’s “family, White and Black.”
Slave children on the plantation typically had the run of the place until they were eight or ten years old, at which time they might be given some light, occasional duty as an introduction to working life. During this time Black children and White usually played together. At the age of twelve or thirteen, slave children often began working half-time at whatever would be their future occupation, with full time work typically beginning at age 15 or 16.
As slaves aged, their workloads changed accordingly. Hard work was expected of the young and fit, but as slaves got older, they were given gradually less-demanding tasks. By the time they reached elder status, slaves were often effectively semi-retired, with only light duties, if any.
It is a commonly held belief that the United States was perhaps the prime mover in the slave trade, and slavery’s most enthusiastic practitioner. This is a major misconception. Over the life of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, only about four percent of African captives ended up in what became United States territory. The rest were scattered across Central and South America and the Caribbean, where conditions were uniformly harsher.
Without question, the Black experience in the United States was, by and large, strikingly different than that of slaves elsewhere in the Western hemisphere. Raw statistics bear out the sharp contrast in working and living conditions: Of all the places where slavery was practiced, only in the United States did the slave population sustain itself naturally.
And then some. Indeed, American slaves were remarkably prolific. Between 1809, when Congress banned further importation of slaves into the United States, and the conclusion of the War in 1865, the slave population increased nearly tenfold, from around half a million to almost four and a half million. That probably deserves an exclamation point. By stark contrast, unremittingly brutal conditions caused persistently high death tolls among the slave populations throughout Central America, South America, and the Caribbean during this time. And it was only through continued importation of African captives that the populations were maintained.
Against such a backdrop it becomes a little easier to accept the protestations of Southern apologists that American slaves were, generally speaking, relatively well-treated. Emphasis on relative. Certainly it would have made little sense to treat cruelly those who were indispensable to you, or more pointedly, who might up and kill you in your sleep if they became seriously unhappy. Which becomes a vivid concern when you consider that in some parts of the South Blacks well outnumbered Whites. In summer, plantations in the hotter parts of the South often had only one or two White persons managing a small army of Blacks. In such situations, with help far away, it would have been foolish to rule by intimidation alone.
The American version of slavery evolved over time into a classic paternalistic system. American Planters often thought of themselves as benevolent patriarchs, great men dispensing largesse to grateful subjects, and would make a point of boasting of the happiness and loyalty of their slaves to anyone who would listen. Which was, in a way, a form of posturing, because a master’s benevolence could be seen as both a testament to his superior character and evidence of his skill at a complicated game. By implication, any slaveholder who had to rely on force to keep his charges in line was a obviously of a lesser sort, crude and unsophisticated, inept in the challenging business of managing fickle and prickly Africans.
Recognizing the importance of this self-perception, slaves often became adept at manipulating their masters with flattery and exaggerated displays of gratitude. So when seemingly loyal and trustworthy servants said “See ya” after the War, their masters were often taken completely by surprise. Letters and journals of the post-war period practically pulse with the indignation of former slave owners, seething at the ingratitude of servants who simply up and left without so much as a word after years of faithful service.
Much has been made of the tightly limited legal status of American slaves. Formally, they were no more than possessions of their masters. Formally, they could not marry, be educated, earn wages, avenge an injury, travel, reject an unwanted sexual advance, or own property. Yet in reality these things happened all the time. Inevitably, the theory and the practice of slavery became two very different things. Perhaps because in the real world, ruling over others with an iron hand is really hard work, a dreary task that most people aren’t all that good at and cannot sustain for long. In the real world, good behavior, talent, and initiative are generally rewarded, regardless of the rules. In the real world, those who stand up for themselves are respected. And in the real world, over time informal systems, methods, and procedures invariably overtake formal ones.
Within this informal framework it became possible for individual slaves to do quite well. A talented, capable slave with a good reputation and a master who trusted him could reasonably expect to be given very wide latitude. He might manage his own time, have a side business, possess property, or even earn his own freedom. The stature of the master tended to transfer to his slaves, so trusted servants often served as emissaries for their masters in social or business matters. And in what is perhaps the ultimate irony, more than a few enterprising former slaves, having earned their freedom, actually acquired slaves of their own.
If at times there was tension between formal and informal systems, this tension resolved mostly in the slaves’ favor. Over time, there came to be a consensus that slaves were human beings who had certain basic rights, and this consensus came to have the force of law. Legal rulings in multiple Southern states affirmed slaves’ rights to self-defense, to be free from excessively cruel and unjust treatment, and to receive continued care in times of sickness and old age. The idea took hold that slaves, having forfeited their freedom, were at least entitled to some form of lifelong care.
An elaborate unwritten code regulating the interaction of Black and White developed over time. General Order number one held that Whites must at all times avoid becoming overly familiar with Blacks, lest the master-servant relationship become blurred. Right up there in importance was the permanent, ironclad prohibition against interracial sexual entanglements, a constant temptation. It should not surprise you to learn that these prohibitions were frequently overlooked.
Blacks and working-class Whites frequently spent time together in the off-hours, drinking, gambling, swapping stories, occasionally fighting. And many masters made it a habit to drop in on their charges from time to time, often with little brown jug in tow, to schmooze or patch up disputes, and to get the low-down on whatever was happening in the quarters.
It axiomatic these days that any sexual encounters between White men and Black women in the antebellum South had to have been acts of force. But this assumption grossly oversimplifies what was, in fact, an often complicated business, sometimes delicate, but sometimes quite mundane. While there was undoubtedly much crude asserting of masterly privilege, far more often than not, a man who sought the favor of some Black girl he fancied would court that girl, not coerce her, preferring a willing companion to an unwilling one. And many recipients of such attention were not at all offended to be so favored. There were many liaisons, not always covert, and a great deal of looking the other way.
Furthermore, Blacks were universally much more open about sex than generally uptight Whites, regarding it as a joyous thing and a normal part of life. Blacks were quite capable of indulging in it with their masters without seeing it as an act of oppression. And for many it was just not that big a deal. Any children that might result from such couplings were likely to be welcomed, not rejected, by what was, in effect, an extended family.
Relations between Black and White in the South were to a great extent the product of conflicting impulses, over which individuals had little control. There is in humans an instinctive wariness of The Other, a vestige of countless generations of evolutionary history, which asserts itself at every turn. It flares at the slightest provocation but fades reluctantly. It dictates that those who are different are to be kept at arms’ length and regarded suspiciously. And it never, ever goes entirely away. Black and White, being very different, were completely, mutually in the thrall of this powerful organic impulse.
Opposing this native wariness, but never quite overcoming it, was the familiarity that inevitably comes of close association. With repeated exposure Black and White came eventually to see the humanity of the other. But the gulf was simply too wide, and in spite of constant, often lifelong interaction, these two peoples never completely “got” each other. Whites frequently claimed to be confounded by the behavior of Blacks, and tended to regard them as inscrutable exotics. We can assume the reverse was also true.
And because there was as yet no such thing as Political Correctness, it would never have occurred to a person of that era to minimize or ignore these differences either, which were, by common assent, obvious and large. In many ways Black and White regarded each other almost as alien beings, and this thinking colored every their every interaction. Yet because the two groups lived in such close association, accommodations had to be made. Deals were struck, understandings reached, bonds formed. And intentionally or not, Black and White became intertwined in a way that could not be easily undone.
Such intertwining was all but absent in the North, though, where Blacks were largely shunned by a society that mostly seemed to wish that they would just go away. Virtually everywhere deprived of the right to vote, subject to a withering array of legal and social barriers, by law and custom forbidden to live among the majority, regarded with suspicion if not hostility, Northern Blacks endured a permanent halfway status on the margins of society, ignored where not altogether forgotten. Although, inevitably, some did well, the average Black Northerner lived a hard life of backbreaking toil and dispiriting social ostracism. More often than not his home was a crowded, reeking slum or some ramshackle hovel in a blighted area out by the swamp on the edge of town, safely out of sight and mind.
Any nuanced account of slavery must acknowledge its essential indecency, its unending low-level grind, its frequent brutality, its debasing pettiness. Even so, there is a tendency to over-generalize about the quality of life for slaves. While it was obviously no cakewalk, neither was it uniformly awful. Rather like life itself, to a certain extent it was a matter of luck. If fortune favored you, if you were intelligent, personable, had a good master, life could be tolerable, even comfortable, if limited. But if the gods cursed you with a losing hand–dullness, a sour disposition, a harsh master–your life could be a living hell.
But even under the best circumstances, slaves were still effectively inmates of an institution, with few options and comparatively little control over their fate. And though he might become free and go elsewhere to begin anew, a Black person was always still Black, and as such was forever confined by a web of social proscriptions and expectations that kept all but an extraordinary few very much in their place.
But in fairness, we must also acknowledge that it was a very different, very un-gentle time, and slaves hardly had a monopoly on misery. Indeed, unless you were part of the aristocracy, you probably had a pretty tough life with little hope of deliverance.
It is human nature to pass judgement using whatever protocols we have at hand, and so by default we evaluate societies of the past using the standards of the present. We sincerely wonder: How could they not have known? But this is flawed thinking, driven by a cognitive illusion, which perceives a symmetry that does not, in fact, exist. We understand that the past shapes the future, and so we instinctively yet illogically think that somehow the reverse must also be true. But time is an arrow, which flies in one direction only, without so much as a backward glance.
Thus, from our comfortable perch in the early twenty-first century, we are quick to render all sorts of judgements upon people of the Civil-War era, conveniently forgetting that their reality, which informed their every action, was very, very different than our own.
We forget, for example, that in the South of the mid-nineteenth century, as in other traditional societies, the social fluidity that we now take for granted essentially did not exist. Every single person was subject to a system that sharply defined their place in the world. A rigid code of conduct held everyone accountable, regardless of their rank in society, to a social contract that all understood to exist. It was a much smaller, far more intimate world than the one we live in now, a world in which everyone knew everyone else, all knew their place, and stepping out of line could have severe, lifelong consequences.
We also forget that for almost everyone of that time, life was more or less a vale of tears, quite often harsh, frequently short, and replete with all manner of tragedies, cruelties, and indignities. By present-day standards, it would have been a pretty miserable existence. By the same token, to a person of the mid-nineteenth century, our world, which we accept as the permanent norm, would seem impossibly abundant and luxurious. Simple things like hot running water, electric lights, and motor vehicles would have been the stuff of fever dreams, and the Internet as incomprehensible as Electromagnetic Field Theory.
People of that era lived close to the bone. Life had a permanent uncertainty about it that would shock our modern sensibilities. Even if you were lucky enough to be flush, you were never, ever completely out of the woods. There was basically no insurance; there were no government bailouts or handouts. A fire, a flood, a financial panic, a crop failure, a bout with any one of dozens of common illnesses, a random stroke of bad luck–any one of these could take everything you had in an eyeblink. Your wife and children might be fine one week and be dead of cholera the next. Death in childbirth was tragically common. People lived with the pervasive sense of mortality.
It’s all about your frame of reference. For us, living as we do in an affluent, comfortable, safe, relatively free society with high social mobility, the idea that an entire race of persons could be held in permanent bondage seems preposterous, so remote is it from our daily experience.
But if your life is and always has been hard, beset with inequities, ever uncertain, and circumscribed by a rigid social code, it’s much less of a stretch to come to terms with the idea of a permanent servant class, especially if this is the way it has always been for you, as it was for your grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents. Who are you to question these things?
We imagine the great mass of Black people bristling as one with indignity, hungering for liberty, aching to burst the cruel shackles of bondage. And we wonder: Why did they not rise up? They had the numbers!
What we fail to understand is that for most people of that time, Black or White, freedom was little more than an abstraction, a glittering gem of an idea for sure, but one with innumerable downsides. Because to be “free” meant that you and you alone were responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing yourself and your dependents, for the rest of your life, an unending, formidably difficult challenge. To be free meant that you and you alone were responsible for carving out a place for yourself and your loved ones in a hostile, rather unforgiving world. There was no safety net, there were many more ways to fail than to succeed, and the ultimate penalty for failure was untimely death, which occurred often.
In the caste system of the antebellum South, the White laboring class, not the slaves, formed the bottom rung. Black people had only to look at the state of this group to understand what “freedom” might well hold for them. Blacks were horror-struck at the meanness of the lives of laboring-class Whites, whom they regarded as “trash.” Though nominally free, life for this benighted group was unrelentingly miserable, filthy, steeped in ignorance, hard, uncertain, violent, disease-ridden, and short. It was not an appealing option. The painful realization that such a life might well be the cost of freedom caused many slaves to swallow hard, and to accept, with fatalistic resignation, their flawed yet comparatively secure life of servitude.
The reality is that for most people, the sure prospect of three hots and a cot wins out every time over promising but seriously risky alternatives. This gains extra resonance when we consider that in the antebellum years, as throughout most of human history, economic opportunities were relatively limited, and that securing food, clothing and shelter were perennial concerns for the vast majority. Our way of life, with its surfeit of choices and extravagant abundance would have been simply inconceivable. It is telling that approximately eighty percent of slaves either stayed with their masters or kept close contact after Emancipation.
If all of this sounds like a justification for something that was, in fact, pretty harsh, it isn’t. It is an explanation. If we want to understand this important period of history we need to see it clearly and in context, divorced of modern-day–hence irrelevant–socio-emotional baggage. The first step in this process it to pry its history from the grasp of the politically correct, agenda-driven classes who wish very much to own it.
They are never so crass as to say it out loud, of course, but our society’s self-appointed moral arbiters expect us to reach certain pre-approved conclusions. For example, we are expected to see the American Civil War as a historical correction, as a contest between one side that was fundamentally right and one that was fundamentally wrong, with the “right” side ultimately, perhaps inevitably, prevailing. And because we are perceptive, and because we have read the official histories and seen the movies and read the novels and textbooks and sensed the subtext, we have picked up on these subtle expectations and faithfully assigned black hats and white as required. So the North shines as a beacon of enlightenment and freedom as the South–anachronistic, ignorant, cruel, retrograde, and debauched–slinks away into the sunset of history, and good riddance.
As with few other subjects, the American Civil War is viewed through the distorting lens of Political Correctness. The bane of our age, Political Correctness does nothing to improve our understanding of anything, anywhere, at any time. Political Correctness is no more than a vehicle for moral pretenders and grievance-peddlers, a calculated display of conspicuous virtue, whose primary purpose is to disingenuously elevate its advocates. Look at how very enlightened I am!
But if we truly wish to be objective we must run, not walk, from such facile pretension. If we are to see the Civil War era clearly, fairness also demands that we suspend our ingrained indignation with the losers for a moment and direct our scrutiny toward the winners, who, after all, wrote the history we now take as gospel.
The Northern Colossus
At the time of the Civil War, the North was a society in flux, its formerly stable culture giving rapidly away to an industrialized, “modern” society driven by manufacturing and various forms of industry. The Northern landscape was dotted with densely populated urban centers, which teemed with factories and workshops tended by men, women, and children as young as eight, who labored 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week to satisfy the insatiable demands of commerce. For this they were paid typically fifty cents a day, roughly equal to $15 today, a wage that barely kept them fed and housed, typically in some wretched, overcrowded, vermin-infested tenement.
Working conditions were often harsh and frequently dangerous, and the work back-breaking, exhausting, tedious, and demeaning. It was more than many could bear, and it was not uncommon for workers, desperately seeking a few minutes of precious rest, to purposely halt the machinery they tended by jamming it. A favorite way to do this was to toss a type of wooden shoe, called a sabot, into the works, a practice that came to known as sabotage.
Like most exploitative systems, Northern industries preyed on the the weakest, most vulnerable populations: immigrants, widows, the desperately poor, children. There were no labor laws, no unions, no OSHA, no minimum wage, no restrictions whatsoever on what kind of conditions a manufacturer might impose upon his workers. An employer had no responsibility to feed his workers, nor to house them, nor to provide them with safe working conditions, nor to tend to their needs or those of their children. A worker could be discharged at any time, for any reason. And when the workers filed out the door at the end of their 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift, exhausted and aching from head to toe, they were absolutely on their own. A worker had one and only one right: to quit. Not an appealing option if starvation and eviction were the likely consequence.
Yet this abusive, deeply unjust arrangement aroused no official disapproval whatsoever. Powerful, immensely wealthy industrialists used their considerable clout to ensure that they could operate with an absolutely free hand, untroubled by intrusive government oversight.
Official apathy aside, the turbulent, highly competitive, fast-changing nature of Northern urban life also strongly inhibited the formation of any cohesive social order, which might have served as a corrective mechanism on the more flagrant abuses.
Because there were no laws to safeguard workers’ rights or hold employers responsible, there was no formal accountability. And because so many workers were unappealing types–foreigners with funny names, or desperately poor, or just plain desperate–and because so much of the industrial apparatus was hidden behind walls and guarded factory gates, neither was there much informal accountability in the form of scrutiny from the press or public. As a consequence, horrors were commonplace.
In this harsh environment, life was more or less an endless mad Darwinian scramble to survive. Resentments blossomed between different ethnic and religious factions as they competed fiercely for a seat at the table. Occasionally tensions exploded into spasms of violence.
In the spring of 1863, the Federal government imposed a draft to replenish the ranks of an Army decimated by a series of bloody campaigns. This was a hugely unpopular move among a public that had begun to sour on the war, now entering it’s third grinding year. The draft fell most heavily on working-class men, who could not afford the $300 “commutation fee” (over $9000 modern equivalent) that would spare them.
Much grumbling and scattered unrest accompanied the numerous public draft lotteries, and rumors of rioting abounded. On July 13, at a public lottery in Manhattan, a surly crowd turned violent. Police who rushed to quell the outburst were attacked and disarmed, and some were beaten very badly. The rioters, mostly ethnic Irish, soon turned upon nearby Blacks.
Working-class Northern Whites had long resented and distrusted Blacks for their customary willingness to work for much lower wages. Resentment turned to rage when it became known that Blacks had been specifically exempted from the Draft. In three days of violence, which came to be known as the New York Draft Riots, least 11 Black persons were lynched, and possibly many hundreds of others murdered. The exact number of victims is unknown. In the turbulent aftermath, thousands of Blacks found themselves evicted and unwelcome. Facing hostility and homelessness, Blacks fled Manhattan in droves, never to return, until almost none remained.
In the current narrative, the Northern armies played the role of liberators, driven by an abhorrence of slavery and the purest devotion to Liberty and the Rights of Man. Indeed, if you look closely at wartime photos, you can just about make out the halos adorning Northern troopers.
The mundane reality was, of course, that Northern motives and behavior were often murky and conflicted, which is to say, human. And lofty ideals frequently foundered on the shoals of harsh experience. Coarsened by the grueling, basically miserable life of soldiers on campaign, many Federals came to be less than welcoming to those they liberated, whom they tended to see as the source of their torment.
Seduced by rumors and by Union propaganda, Blacks by the thousands crossed Union lines seeking freedom, only to meet with bitter disappointment. If they were lucky they were simply ignored or waved on, to become someone else’s problem. If they weren’t they might find themselves pressed into service on kitchen crews, labor gangs, or on the unspeakably noxious burial details. Slave women could expect especially rough treatment, and were often badly exploited.
Eventually word filtered back home of the harsh treatment frequently accorded defecting slaves, and the flood of runaways slowed to a comparative trickle. Too late, the realization dawned that the North did not always bring deliverance, but rather often simply imposed a new, heretofore unfamiliar flavor of subjugation.
By 1864, Northern leadership had decided that the South would have to be destroyed in order to be saved. In keeping with this principle the full weight of the North’s industrial might was brought to bear upon the Confederacy, battered and bruised but still resilient in spirit. Under the new policy, the South was to be ground into dust under relentless, merciless Union assaults.
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said “War is hell.” He would know. Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea wrought damage that took decades to heal, and is often cited as a monument to pure destructive spite. What they didn’t steal, they broke. What they didn’t break, they burned. If it moved, they killed it. Every trace of infrastructure was demolished beyond the possibility of repair. Southerners nearing starvation after four years of sacrifice were left with nothing, and prospects as bleak as the ruined landscape that stretched to the horizon.
But in many ways history has given Sherman a bad rap. He was not exactly photogenic, and the scowling image of him that most of us have seen, which chills the blood even at a distance of 150 years, seems to capture the essence of a remorseless and brutal killer. But this depiction erases the complexity of the the man, who personally hated having to kill Confederates, many of whom had been his friends before the War. The March to the Sea had been a form of psychological warfare, the original Shock and Awe, designed to force the Confederates to face the harsh reality of their defeat. It’s intent was to spare lives in the long term, not take them needlessly. To speed the process, Sherman habitually offered generous treatment to any Confederates willing to surrender.
And it worked. Sherman’s March severed the links between the Southern Army’s remaining main bodies, and effectively broke the back of the remaining resistance. With their economy a shambles, their cities aflame, and their communication and transportation networks completely disrupted, Southern resistance rapidly collapsed. Yet even in the face of total, overwhelming defeat, a substantial minority of diehards did not want to quit, and urged the leadership to retreat to the woods, swamps, and mountains to wage guerilla warfare. But cooler, more sensible heads prevailed.
The bloodiest and most destructive war in American history ended quietly, on April 9, 1865, with a cordial meeting between two distinguished gentlemen in the parlor of a simple country home by a crossroad. They had met before, Lee and Grant, during the Mexican war, twenty years before. Both remembered meeting the other, and so they chatted amiably about the shared recollection for a half hour or so before turning, reluctantly, to the business at hand. Lee requested Grant’s terms, and after a brief delay to give the document a final review, Grant provided them.
They were excellent terms. Southern officers and men were to be paroled, free to return to their homes. They could keep their horses, their sidearms, and their personal effects, including their rifles. They were required to surrender only arms and equipment belonging to the Confederacy. Effective immediately. When Lee mentioned that his men had been without food for several days, Grant arranged on the spot for 25,000 rations to be distributed among them. Lee sincerely thanked Grant for his exceptional generosity, and the two men parted ways with a handshake. Lee road away, alone, to pass the word on to his men.
Because of poor communications it took nearly a month for news of the surrender to reach the farthest corners of the Confederacy. But by early May all but a few holdouts had surrendered, and the War was declared to have ended on May 9, 1865.
Sometimes history turns on the smallest details. Almost anyone else would have given in to the little voices demanding blood, and would with grim satisfaction have visited righteous vengeance upon the vanquished, prostrate foe. But Fate had chosen a man of higher caliber, whose gruff exterior belied a compassionate, sensitive, and discerning nature, a nature very much on display that fateful day. A model of magnanimous forbearance, Grant’s surrender agreement did much to win over uneasy and suspicious Southerners, who had fully expected to receive a stiff dose of victors’ justice. And so, improbably, the surrender went forward with barely a ripple of discontent. And the prospect of reconciliation, once inconceivable, suddenly seemed possible.
History turned again a few days later, on April 14, 1865, with the egregious, utterly pointless murder of Abraham Lincoln as he enjoyed a rare night out to see a play, a light comedy called Our American Cousin. Southern firebrand John Wilkes Boothe, a famous actor and well-known man about town, was instantly identified as the killer.
Twelve days later, following a massive manhunt, Boothe was cornered on a farm in rural northern Virginia. Refusing to surrender, he was shot through the neck and fell, paralyzed. As he lay dying, he asked a soldier to lift his hands so that he could see them. Boothe stared at them intently for a few moments, whispered “useless . . . useless,” and then died as dawn was breaking in the east. He was twenty-six years old.
Lincoln, who had strongly opposed punitive terms of reconciliation for the defeated South, had not yet formulated a comprehensive plan for enacting this vision. But his cowardly assassination enraged Northerners, and set the stage for eventual harsh retributive measures.
Lincoln’s successor, Vice-President Andrew Johnson, also favored a conciliatory policy. But this approach was soon rejected by a Congress bent on vengeance, which in 1866 passed the Reconstruction Act over over a presidential veto, a historical first. This act divided the South into five military districts and imposed harsh terms that lasted for years.
Rejecting any expression of leniency, Radical Republicans in Congress, led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, teamed up to form an insuperable obstacle to Johnson, who nevertheless gamely continued asserting presidential authority. Stevens, a narrow, uncompromising man known for his very personal style of hardball politics, took this stubborn persistence as an affront, and with his Radical cohorts arranged for Johnson’s impeachment in 1868 on fabricated charges. After promising not to interfere further, Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote and remained in office, effectively powerless, for the remainder of his term.
Johnson was succeeded in 1869 by Ulysses Grant, who had run on a Republican platform that advocated forcing former Confederate states to grant suffrage to Blacks but deny voting rights to former Confederates. The same platform invited Northern states to consider the issue of Black suffrage at their convenience. The handful of referendums that actually took place all failed by lopsided margins, and Blacks remained disenfranchised.
With the South subdued, a newly energized Union Army embarked on a series of brutal campaigns against the American Indians of the Western territories, resulting in the forced relocations of tens of thousands and the deaths of thousands more, many of them women and children. Treaties were made and broken, then made and broken again as the cordon grew ever tighter around the hopelessly overmatched aboriginals. The magnanimity accorded the recently defeated rebels was not extended to the Natives, who, oddly, often resisted the invasion and occupation of their homelands. General Sherman, once again in a starring role, pithily summarized the overall mood thus: “I met a good Indian once. He was dead.”
In the turmoil following Civil War, suffering was widespread across the South, with none faring worse than newly emancipated slaves, who had no preparation whatsoever for a life of freedom, and who often failed miserably. Many found themselves in situations far worse than slavery. Seeking better conditions, many migrated to the North, where they were not exactly welcomed with open arms.
With the South’s flawed but stable social order in ruins, Southern society dissolved into chaos. And in the violent and lawless conditions that followed, Blacks frequently suffered at the hands of vengeful Whites, who blamed them for their misfortunes. Terror stalked the land, and lynchings, once quite rare, became tragically commonplace.
Healing came slowly, and reconciliation was many decades in the making. A large step in that direction occurred with America’s participation in the Great War of 1914-1918, which brought Southerners and Northerners together under a common banner as never before. The healing was nearly complete when that collaboration was repeated two decades later, in the second Great War, during which North and South joined together once again, this time to defeat two formidable enemies on opposite sides of the world. In the wake of that global conflagration, which saw the full and final realization of America’s long-anticipated Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, though not forgotten, came to be put away once and for all in the American imagination, like a memento of the long-ago past it had in fact become.
This essay represents the culmination of months of research, and many sources were consulted writing it. Rather than list them all here, I will cite a few that I found useful and interesting, and share others upon request.
Crucial in providing detail about slaves’ daily life was Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, 1976, by Eugene Genovese. This groundbreaking, scholarly masterpiece rewrote the book on the complex and dynamic institution that was slavery.
The Civil War Trust was indispensable in providing detailed descriptions of major battles, plus pertinent historical background. The product of many dedicated volunteers, this website is a masterpiece of clarity and unbiased, thoughtful exposition.
Another rich online resource was etmyonline, with a trove of unbiased, warts-and-all scholarly articles about virtually every aspect of the American Civil War.