This conflict has kept me up at night for as long as I can remember. Although my earliest childhood memories are about Napoleon’s disastrous retreat in Russia and the Battle of the Little Big horn, as of age 5 or 6, the American Civil War blew me away. It strikes a chord in a way that I can’t explain.
Here are 20 observations after an other year spent reading Civil War books. What caused the conflict? Was a Union victory inevitable? Was Lincoln’s course the right one? How could the Confederacy have won?
1. Seven states certainly seceded over the ‘right’ to extend slavery, and because certain states had laws that were annoying to slave holders. Northern states had a problem with the fugitive slave law. The south wanted the federal government to back slave holders. Four states followed when violence broke out. Three were too divided to secede. Delaware had too few slaves to care. Regions in seceded states with few slaves had either no support for the Confederacy and turned against it or wanted to be left alone. 100,000 southern whites fought for the Union. Slaves sided with the Union in overwhelming numbers, tipping the scales, according to Lincoln himself. Soldiers from slave holding families were more eager to enlist and less likely to desert (see Glatthaar). The south could have easily received the guarantee that slavery would not be abolished where it already existed, but that wasn’t enough. They were also tired of having to seek compromises with their northern neighbours. They enabled Lincoln to win the election, because they -the democratic party- were divided and the slave holders were represented by three different presidential candidates, splitting the votes of the northwest and the south, a combination that often won the presidency.
2. The Confederacy lost the war because of: disastrous strategic decisions, it’s a myth that they had the better generals. They had crippling internal divisions, pro rich policies, loss of morale because of battlefield defeats, the realization that the war had destroyed slavery, whether the Confederacy would win or not, Northern superiority, bad diplomacy, failure to sell cotton for arms, and also lack of discipline, vanity, the unwillingness of Confederate generals to cooperate, failure to use the black population in a more useful way, profit seeking by the planter class, etc That the Confederacy managed to sustain itself for four years is due to the fact of the incredible efforts of those southerners that did support the Confederacy AND because the North never managed to mobilize its full might against the south. For example, Lincoln was forced to give commands to the worst kind of generals because he needed their political support. If the South had been a determined, unified block they would have won. It also failed to keep its population fed, which led to mass desertions. Soldiers went home to protect their families. It could have fed its population if it had been able to steer a different course. Planters were unwilling to grow food and preferred profit. Plus: in the early years certain prominent northern generals refused to wage an all out war against the Confederacy, they were for a limited war to ‘gently’ force the seceded states back into the Union. At first the South could afford to make risky assaults. Lee’s first offensive operations were a bloodbath, but they did the trick. The north retreated. In the last year and a half of the war Lee did not have the manpower for such succesful offensive operations, nor did any other southern army manage to mount a succesful offensive.
3. Why were northern men willing to fight against secession? Some did fight against slavery, but most were motivated to protest against what they saw as a breach of contract, of a violation of democratic principles, and because of southern aggression, although many were just as racist as southerners, they did despise the planters and their slaveocracy and their attempts to dictate the law of the land. Later on in the war more and more soldiers wanted to abolish slavery. German immigrants, of the post 1848 wave, saw their support of the Union as a continuation of the ideals of the failed revolution of 1848 in Europe. This support was significant. Rather incompetent generals of German descent were given important commands to tap into this German manpower pool. Union soldiers felt they were fighting for democratic principles, and for the legacy of the founding fathers, they saw Confederates as arrogant rebels who had to be taught a lesson. If they would just return to the Union, all would be forgiven. The most ‘shocking’ example is how lenient general Sherman was when the Confederacy wanted to surrender. He was willing to fight the most brutal kind of war, but as soon as the Confederates conceded defeat all was forgiven.
4. The south lost the war, but won the peace. Although the war left the Confederacy in ruins, although they had lost their bid for independence and slavery had been abolished and effectively destroyed, Confederates were pardoned and regained political control pretty fast. The idea of the Confederacy became stronger than ever before. It’s like the Confederacy got a remarkable rebirth once it had died on the battlefield. The Myth of The Lost Cause immediately took shape. The idea of a chivalrous south, defeated only by the industrial might of money grubbing yankees with no ideals other than profit seeking.
5. Blacks were more despised than any other minority. Blacks couldn’t serve in the ranks of the Confederate army, not even as a lowly private, whereas the last Confederate general to surrender was a Native American. A jew was the Confederacy’s Secretary of State. The irish were often despised, but Irish born generals served on both sides. Later blacks were still considered unfit to serve in the US army, whereas Native Americans were sought after and valued as soldiers. Also Latinos weren’t segregated. Any minority in the US had a hard time, but blacks were considered to be on the lowest rung of the pecking order. Interestingly enough, this was not necessarily the case in early colonial America, the oppression of blacks got worse and worse over time. For a brief period after the Civil War blacks’ political clout grew substantially, but as soon as the North stopped caring, the South reversed everything, and created a situation of ‘slavery in anything but name’. Presidents usually ignored the struggle for more rights for blacks to keep Southern whites calm. The US armed forces were desegregated and Lyndon Johnson helped the black cause along, but under Nixon the war against drugs was literally invented to oppress blacks, without running the risk of being labelled racist. The prison population of the US is gigantic and the number of blacks is statistically abnormal. In prison they are basically used as slave labor for many well-known companies. Private prisons are also an excellent investment. Blacks are still considered a threat to white women. One of the arguments used to keep slavery going. If we set them free, they will rape white women. Whereas Native Americans were admired as fierce warriors or as freedom loving rebels, blacks were seen as stupid children, not in control of their sexual urges.
6. Slavery was a much more brutal institution than neo confederates want you to believe. Tons of examples possible. Especially the widespread sexual abuse of women and children is denied. Few want to admit that slave holders also ‘bred’ slaves and were in the slavery business to breed and sell slaves. Some large negro men were used like farmers use a particularly strong steer.
7. Lincoln may have been a racist, but he was not a static personality, he came to view blacks more and more favorably. He was also a clever politician who knew he couldn’t abolish slavery with a snap of his fingers. A lot was at stake. He evolved and learned at an astonishing pace.
8. Without the extension of slavery, slavery, especially in the upper south would be dead.
9. Slaves were an excellent investment, their value kept increasing and their combined worth was more than that of any other US asset
10. The South was not for States Rights, but against. It didn’t allow Northern states to have laws that undercut the power of the slave owners. It was only for states rights when it suited them
11. The south said a state could secede from the union, but it didn’t allow people to secede from the Confederacy…
12. The Confederacy liked to paint the North as hessians, murderers, plundering mercenaries, but Confederate raiders burned northern cities and kidnapped blacks in northern states, runaway slaves, but also free blacks
13. The north did have horrible prisoner of war camps, and deliberately made life hard for Confederate prisoners, whereas it seems the south did not deliberately mistreat its white prisoners, they didn’t have the means to take care of them. It did have the official policy of shooting blacks caught in a yankee uniform. Demoralized Confederate units were placed across black regiments, because their racism morivated them to fight harder.
14. It’s likely the Union would have lost more territory or may have fallen apart entirely if Lincoln had deciced to let them go in peace. Perhaps the northwest would also have broken off, New York city might have become an independent city state. If the North doesn’t go to war to preserve the Union, the result has to be chaos, with more regions breaking off and a very expansionist Confederacy. It had mostly been Southerners who had clamored for the war against Mexico, for example. The South was hungry for more land, not so much the North.
15. There were prominent abolitionists in the south as well, such as the Grimké sisters
16. Some southerners were -and they were correct in this- convinced that slavery would be better protected in the Union than outside of it. Not every pro-slavery advocate stood with the Confederacy. When Lincoln abolished slavery in rebellious areas northern enthusiasm for the war took a beating. His move did make sure that England and France would never openly side with the Confederacy
17. I don’t see how Lincoln could have acted differently without making things worse. The Confederate elite dug its own grave
18. Comparisons between Lincoln and Gorbachev are unfair
19. There’s no evidence that ‘tariffs’ played a major role in bringing about the conflict
20. The best chance for the Confederacy to win: concentrate troops in the middle and firmly occupy Kentucky and Missouri. Put the capital further inland, georgia or perhaps tennessee. Lose large parts of Virginia, but hang on to New Orleans, Wilmington, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri. Virginia should not have been the area to concentrate its best forces in. It was logistically difficult to send troops from all over the Confederacy there, a concentration in the middle was easier. When the Confederacy did focus on Tennessee it won its only major battle in the West: the battle of Chickamauga.