The men and women of 1861 lived in the long shadow cast by the events of 1776. Eighty-five years had passed since the writing of the Declaration of Independence, but that document—and the repercussions it caused—echoed for the people about to enter the American Civil War. Even their children, once past the age of nine or ten, were acutely conscious of their American Revolution heritage.
The reason is not hard to find: the grandparents, and in come cases great-grandparents, of the people of 1861 had indeed achieved something remarkable by establishing a true republic against great odds. Whether it was a full-scale democracy could be debated—and still is—but the basis for government by the people had been established. Americans—North, East, South, and West—were justifiably proud of what their ancestors had accomplished. But the interval of three generations had seen visible cracks in the edifice of the young republic, and sectionalism had become nearly as strong as devotion to the Union.
The Union of the thirty-three states, in 1861, was a mystical and marvelous thing, but it was also ineffable: it was neither seen nor heard. The state governments, by contrast, were visible to the average person, and the ramifications of the decisions of local lawmakers were more readily felt. Therefore, when challenged to choose between the two, many people—especially from the Southern states—went with their states, rather than favoring federal power. But even the millions of people who lived in the North and admired the Union often showed their state and sectional loyalties: virtually all the regiments raised in the Civil War belonged to an individual state: the 10th Minnesota or the 27th New York, for example. What it boiled down to, at least for the average white American, was whether his or her loyalty to the Union was as great as the allegiance to the particular state. It was no easy choice.
Many Northerners accurately recalled that between 1776—the year of independence—and 1787—the year the Constitution was written—there had been no serious federal or central government: the state governments held virtually all the power. In the North, the large majority of persons believed that it had been for the common good that those state sovereignties were ceded to the federal government; in the South, by contrast, a significant majority believed that the states never had yielded their sovereignties. At its essence, the conceptual division came down to this: Northerners believed the Union was a solemn compact between the people that must endure regardless of the rights of states, while Southerners saw the Union as a gentleman’s agreement that could be altered, or abrogated, if serious conflicts arose. Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, likened the situation to that of a husband and wife: “Physically speaking, we cannot separate,” he declared.
No one knows exactly why the South—with its vast agricultural land and commitment to the institution of slavery—was perceived as female, or why the North—personified both by the rolling farms of the Midwest and the commercial houses of the East Coast cities—was seen as male, but once the identification was made, it lasted. Thus, the South, which had a powerfully masculine code of dominance by the white man as well as deference to the opinion of the woman of the house, was defined as the rebellious wife, while the North, which had moved little closer to gender equality, was identified as the possessive husband who wanted his wife back. Quite possibly it was the British caricature artists—who had honed their trade for decades—who first framed the conflict in terms of gender; once they did so, the idea stuck. This understanding naturally leads us to an important question: Why not let the woman of the house depart?
To Lincoln, looking from the portico of the Executive Mansion, as the White House then was known, it was obvious that this marriage must endure. If the lady of the house were allowed to leave, the man would soon languish and decay because the home would become a mere boarding-house. Likewise, if the man should leave, the wife would find it impossible to remove all the weeds and till the soil.
But when one added the power of geography to the equation, the necessity of union was even more abundantly clear. Had the Appalachian Mountains run from east to west, or if the Mississippi River flowed west to deposit its silt into the Pacific Ocean, then some sort of division could be made. But given the lay of the land and waters, it was imperative that the two houses of the republic—the husband and wife—remain in concert.
To the average Southerner—and, of course, that term is inadequate in describing many of the people of 1861—the situation was quite different. Whether he saw his nascent nation as male or female, the Southerner was determined to allow it time to breathe. To the Virginian planting tobacco, it seemed an unjust betrayal of the principles of 1776 to prevent any state, or combination of states, from departing the Union. Had the Union itself not been created by separation from Great Britain? And the farther west one traveled, the more aggressive a temperament one found. The Virginia and Carolina gentlemen were insistent enough, but those of Arkansas and Mississippi were even more vehement, and those of Texas even more so. Texas, after all, had been the Lone Star Republic for nine years before joining the federal union: its right to independence was the clearest of all.
Both sides believed the conflict would be intense but gentlemanly, bloody but short. The typical Southerner knew he could lick any three Yankees, while the average Northerner knew he could bring more tools and weapons to bear than his foes had ever seen. And in those early clashes—whether at Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, or Ball’s Bluff—the war was mostly about the single question of Union or disunion. The men from the North were certain that they must fight to hold together that wonderful, even magical thing which had now grown to a total of thirty-four states (Kansas the most recent), while those of the South were adamant that their new confederacy of eleven states must become a free and independent nation.
The conflict became much worse as the year progressed.
There were battles in which people behaved like gentlemen and skirmishes in which they did not. There were surprising acts of chivalry, as well as occasional outbursts of savagery. We can, quite precisely, name the time at which the conflict became bloodier and more intense, however: it was during the spring of 1862. One year into the war, things became more savage at the Battle of Shiloh, a contest almost unrivaled in intensity. The fierce weather, the rain pelting the wounded as they lay on the ground only added to the misery. And, just three weeks later, if we can credit the report of one eyewitness, Confederate cavalrymen fired into a group of New Orleans civilians who dared to cheer when the Stars and Stripes were raised over the Crescent City. That was the month—April of 1862—when the conflict truly escalated.
Lincoln, as usual, read the signs better than most. Though he issued a call for 300,000 more volunteers in the summer of 1862, he knew that the morale of the Union armies was wavering. Despite numerous Northern successes—at Shiloh, New Orleans, and elsewhere—the Confederates fought with an increased level of willpower. If the war had continued in this vein, the North might eventually have tired, and, like a henpecked husband, allowed his wife to depart. Then too, there were outsiders—personified by Britain and France—that seemed to delight at the prospect of a divorce: they had their own reasons for that feeling. Lincoln never used this exact expression (at least not in public), but the only answer was to “double the size” and “double the motivation” for the war. In order to bring a war that had already claimed perhaps 150,000 lives to an end, he was willing to up the ante.
So Lincoln took up his pen and drafted a plan, but he could not act until he learned of the Battle of Antietam. It was not the crushing victory he sought, but it was enough to allow Lincoln to release his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to the public. Once he did that, the character of the war changed.
To be sure, there were some Northern soldiers who deserted in the aftermath of the proclamation. Some of them said to a British observer that they had enlisted to fight for the Union, not for the “n*****s.” At least ninety percent of the Northern men remained in the field, however, and over the next few months they came to see their mission as two-fold: they were there to preserve the Union created by their ancestors and to fulfill the promise of freedom that was in one of the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal.” There it had been contained in those words all along, but it was not until the early part of 1863 that many people began to truly believe it.
Once the question of slavery or freedom was added to that of Union or disunion, the triumph of the North was only a matter of time. Lincoln, who already possessed the bigger armies and the better technology, now added his double motivation for prodding the soldiers forward, and they moved with increasing speed. There still are Confederate admirers who claim that this moment or that would have created the turnaround, but they are all whistling Dixie. Even if Pickett’s Charge had succeeded and Robert E. Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg, the North would not have yielded. Even if Jubal Early had captured Washington, as he attempted to do in the summer of 1864, the Union would not have been imperiled. By 1863, the Union had become doubly strong: it now anchored its cause on the solid rocks of Union and emancipation, while the Confederacy teetered on the shoals of slavery and disunion. And if all that were not enough, the North had new reinforcements on the way: the first black men to serve their nation in war.
There had, of course, been blacks who served in the Revolutionary War—some on the side of independence and others with the British—and there had been those who sought their freedom by joining the British in the War of 1812. Virtually none of these military endeavors had paid off for them, however; on almost every occasion, the blacks who served were defrauded. Some served the cause of revolution only to be returned to their masters when all was over; others served King George III only to be sent to chilly Nova Scotia or the sweltering West Indies. In 1863, for the first time ever, there was a real chance for empowerment. The first major use of black soldiers was on a windswept beach in South Carolina, and though they did not capture Battery Wagner, their sacrifice made all the difference.
By the end of 1863 the war was as good as won, except that the Confederates would not admit defeat. Something deeply stubborn, almost perversely defiant, lived within the hearts of many Confederates. Even when Sherman marched through Georgia, his men noted the contempt with which old women sometimes looked upon them; and even when Lee and his men were bottled inside Richmond and Petersburg, the Southern men fought on. No matter how poorly we may rate their cause, many of them served it with superb devotion.
In the winter of 1865, as the last drama was about to be enacted, Lincoln met with his top commanders and told them to not treat the Southern people harshly. Never in the history of the republic had defeat been so total; it would take everyone years to adjust, he said. By then, Lincoln had fully become the emancipator-in-chief, a role he embraced reluctantly, but in that very reluctance was an authenticity that many black Americans admired. Father Abraham had come through for them.
Was it really just happenstance that Lee surrendered to Grant on Palm Sunday? Was it truly mere coincidence that Holy Week saw the beginnings, however small, of reconciliation between victor and vanquished? And to carry the analogy to its ultimate conclusion, who could ignore the symbolism of Lincoln being shot on Good Friday? To those who believe we overdo our appreciation of Lincoln, think of what the scene might have been like had he lived.
Would North and South have been reconciled if Lincoln had not been assassinated? We cannot say for certain, but we know—deep in our hearts—that there was a decent chance, as long as Lincoln was calling the shots. Was there a chance that blacks would have found a way to truly integrate themselves into the life of the former Confederate states? However slim, there was a chance; lacking Lincoln—especially his spirit of magnanimity—it was nearly impossible.
What made this farmer’s son, this splitter of rails, this failed shopkeeper so great a leader of men? Though thousands of books have been written, and thousands more will come, we may never fully know the answer. Lincoln was, and remains today, a profound mystery. At the time of his death in 1865, he had risen to a level seen only once before: he could be compared only to George Washington. After his death, the nation would not see a leader of his stripe again until Franklin Roosevelt, who, even with all his brilliance, was not as multi-faceted as the man from Springfield, Illinois. Did Lincoln have his faults? Of course he did, not the least of which was his inability to console his wife in the aftermath of Willie Lincoln’s death. Such lapses only underscore Lincoln’s humanity, his availability to us, his spiritual descendents. But we cannot ignore that the situation, in the generation after Lincoln’s death, left much to be desired.
Union had been achieved, and would be questioned or threatened no more. Seven hundred and fifty thousand men—by the most recent estimate—had given their lives that the nation and the ideals behind it became one and the same. Union, which had been so ineffable in 1861, was now transparently real, so real that the word was used much less frequently. The proof was so clear that the word did not have to be employed.
Emancipation, too, was an accomplished fact. More than four million blacks who had previously worked for slaveholders were now free human beings. Though the majority would wind up working for someone—perhaps former masters—in the agricultural South was not indicative of total failure; rather, it served to underscore how difficult it was to take freedom on paper and translate it into material reality. The Russian serfs, by curious coincidence, had been emancipated in 1861, but they, too, would take at least two more generations to attain economic independence.
Along with the obvious successes, however, we have to recognize the failures.
Peace without friendship was the immediate legacy for relations between North and South. Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, had pled for friendship between the two peoples, but it was not accomplished in his lifetime or even that of his sons. The wounds were too deep, and the Northern victory was too obvious for Southerners to shrug it off. Then too, the South was economically prostrate for a full generation.
Citizenship without equality was another legacy, and it lasted even longer than peace without friendship. Citizenship, within the boundaries of what that word meant to the founding fathers, had been the aim of most black Americans. By virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation and the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments, they obtained citizenship, but not the consequent admission of equality. That would take a very long time.
We have to ask ourselves the ultimate question having to do with the Civil War. Was it worth it?
For the Northern soldier who died, and for his grieving wife or sweetheart, the answer was often, but not always, yes. Men and women of the 1860s had a rather different approach to life than we experience today; lacking the wonders of modern medicine, they viewed life as one continuously hazardous adventure. To claim that Billy Yank had died to save the Union and to free the slaves was enough for many to say he had not died in vain. For his children, perhaps the four that formed the statistical average of the time, the question could usually be affirmed in the positive. Our modern-day mindset recoils from the notion, but the great majority of orphaned children—and there were many—proudly spoke of what their fathers had done.
For the Southern soldier who was wounded but lived to tell the tale, the answer was divided about half and half. To be sure, he was proud of his regiment and the burdens they had carried, but he mourned the loss of so many comrades and the collapse of the Southern cause, the dream of Southern freedom. It might be consoling to him to know that his great-great-grandchildren would re-enact his battles, and that people would visit his grave on Memorial Day.
For the black soldier who saw the worst that war had to offer, and who then returned to civilian life, the realities of life were, perhaps, the cruelest. Many a person who proudly carried a rifle and fought under the Star-Spangled Banner later had to sweat away his days on a ruined plantation, where the master awarded him a share of the crop. Even so, we do not imagine that he regretted his experience: only that he lamented the after effect.
The men, women, and children of 1861 were much older in 1865. They had lived, in four years, through events that might have, in more normal times, required the transit of twenty. Many of them continued to revere the events of 1776, but they had to know that the maelstrom that they had endured was at least as great as that faced by the founding fathers.
By 1865 the American landscape and the American character had been remade. The people that Alexis de Tocqueville had described as footloose and unmilitary had become the grimmest, most formidable of “stayers.” The concept of total war had been stamped into the American character, as the nation’s twentieth-century foes would learn to their dismay. Along with the tragedies and the hyper-militarism came something else: a new “birth of freedom” that would echo around the world.
The great crisis of 1861 brought an invigorated patriotism, one that would endure for many years. No subsequent conflict until the Second World War would demand so much from so many Americans, and even that conflict would not claim so many American lives. There is a pathway, though, that can be seen by tracing the events of 1776 and 1861, as well as to 1941. In both of the latter cases, the generation believed it was taking action to fulfill what an earlier generation had not.
The American G.I. who fed candy to starving children in Belgium, Germany, and Japan, as well as the American businessman who attempted to introduce democratic capitalism in Czechoslovakia and Rumania, echoed the men in blue and the warriors in gray. They were all descendants of the great travail of 1861, which was itself descended from the great struggle of 1776.