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Spectators and re-enactors gathered at Appomattox Court House to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender. CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

ON April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday — Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee negotiated their famous “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of surrender. In the ensuing celebration, a relieved Grant told his men, “The war is over.”

But Grant soon discovered he was wrong. Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.

And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end, a lacuna that has undermined American postwar efforts ever since.

Appomattox, like the Civil War more broadly, retains its hold on the American imagination. More than 330,000 people visited the site in 2013. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as in many other popular portrayals, the meeting between Lee and Grant suggests that, in the words of one United States general at the surrender, “We are all Americans.”

Although those words were allegedly spoken by Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Indian, and although hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fought for the nation, the “we” in the Appomattox myth all too often is limited to white Americans. In fanciful stories of Grant’s returning a ceremonial sword to Lee, or of the United States Army’s saluting its defeated foes at the laying-down-of-arms ceremony, white Americans fashioned a story of prodigal sons returning for a happy family portrait.

civil-war-sumter75-popupGrant himself recognized that he had celebrated the war’s end far too soon. Even as he met Lee, Grant rejected the rebel general’s plea for “peace” and insisted that only politicians, not officers, could end the war. Then Grant skipped the fabled laying-down-of-arms ceremony to plan the Army’s occupation of the South.

To enforce its might over a largely rural population, the Army marched across the South after Appomattox, occupying more than 750 towns and proclaiming emancipation by military order. This little-known occupation by tens of thousands of federal troops remade the South in ways that Washington proclamations alone could not.

And yet as late as 1869, President Grant’s attorney general argued that some rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” When white Georgia politicians expelled every black member of the State Legislature and began a murderous campaign of intimidation, Congress and Grant extended military rule there until 1871.

Meanwhile, Southern soldiers continued to fight as insurgents, terrorizing blacks across the region. One congressman estimated that 50,000 African-Americans were murdered by white Southerners in the first quarter-century after emancipation. “It is a fatal mistake, nay a wicked misery to talk of peace or the institutions of peace,” a federal attorney wrote almost two years after Appomattox. “We are in the very vortex of war.”

Against this insurgency, even President Andrew Johnson, an opponent of Reconstruction, continued the state of war for a year after Appomattox. When Johnson tried to end the war in the summer of 1866, Congress seized control of his war powers; from 1867 to 1870, generals in the South regulated state officials and oversaw voter registration, ensuring that freedmen could claim the franchise they had lobbied for. With the guidance of military overseers, new biracial governments transformed the Constitution itself, passing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The military occupation created pockets of stability and moments of order. Excluded from politics before the war, black men won more than 1,500 offices during Reconstruction. By 1880, 20 percent of black families owned farms.

But the occupation that helped support these gains could not be sustained. Anxious politicians reduced the Army’s size even as they assigned it more tasks. After Grant used the military to put down the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas in 1871, Congress and the public lost the will to pay the human and financial costs of Reconstruction.

Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction between the 1870s and 1890s, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction. By the 20th century, history textbooks and popular films like “The Birth of a Nation” made the Civil War an honorable conflict among white Americans, and Reconstruction a corrupt racial tyranny of black over white (a judgment since overturned by historians like W. E. B. DuBois and Eric Foner).

Beyond the problem of historical accuracy, separating the war and the military from Reconstruction contributes to an enduring American amnesia about the Army’s role in remaking postwar societies. Many of the nation’s wars have followed the trajectory established at Appomattox: Cheers at the end of fighting are replaced by bafflement at the enduring conflict as the military struggles to fill the defeated government’s role, even as the American public moves on. After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the Army undertook bloody campaigns to suppress rebellions and exert control over the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. After World War II, a state of war endured into the 1950s in the occupation of Japan and Germany. And in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military’s work had barely begun when the fighting stopped — and the work continues, in the hands of American-backed locals, today.

While it is tempting to blame the George W. Bush administration for these recent wars without end, the problem lies deep within Americans’ understanding of what wars are. We wish that wars, like sports, had carefully organized rules that would steer them to a satisfying end. But wars are often political efforts to remake international or domestic orders. They create problems of governance that battles alone cannot resolve.

Years after the 1865 surrender, the novelist and veteran Albion Tourgée said that the South “surrendered at Appomattox, and the North has been surrendering ever since.” In so many wars since, the United States won the battlefield fighting but lost ground afterward.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can learn, as Grant did, the dangers of celebrating too soon. Although a nation has a right to decide what conflicts are worth fighting, it does not have the right to forget its history, and in the process to repeat it.

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HISTORIANS NOW: THE FIERY TRIAL BY ERIC FONER

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

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How Cotton Remade the World

The Civil War cotton shock didn’t just shake the American economy

Politico.com January 30, 2015

The American Civil War is one of the best-researched events in human history. Hundreds of historians have dedicated their professional careers to its study; thousands of articles and books have been published on its battles, politics and its cultural and social impact. Discussions of the war permeate everything from popular films to obscure academic conferences. Would we expect any less for a defining event in our history—an event that can persuasively be described as the second American Revolution? Certainly not.

Yet given all that attention, it is surprising that we have spent considerably less effort on understanding the war’s global implications, especially given how far-reaching they were: The war can easily be seen as one of the great watersheds of 19th-century global history. American cotton, the central raw material for all European economies (and also those of the northern states of the Union), suddenly disappeared from global markets. By the end of the war, even more consequentially, the world’s most important cotton cultivators, the enslaved workers of the American South, had attained their freedom, undermining one of the pillars on which the global economy had rested: slavery. The war thus amounted to a full-fledged crisis of global capitalism—and its resolution pointed to a fundamental reorganization of the world economy.

When we look at capitalism’s history, we usually look at industry, at cities and at wage workers. It is easy for us to forget that much of the change we associate with the emergence of modern capitalism took place in agriculture, in the countryside. With the rise of modern industry after the Industrial Revolution of the 1780s, the pressures on this countryside to supply raw materials, labor and markets increased tremendously. Since modern industry had its origins everywhere in the spinning and weaving of cotton, European and North American manufacturers quite suddenly demanded access to vastly increased quantities of raw cotton.

That cotton came almost exclusively from the slave plantations of the Americas—first from the West Indies and Brazil, then from the United States. When American cotton growers began to enter global markets in the 1790s after the revolution on Saint Domingue—once the world’s most important cotton-growing island—they quickly came to play an important, in fact dominant, role. Already in 1800, 25 percent of cotton landed in Liverpool (the world’s most important cotton port) originated from the American South. Twenty years later that number had increased to 59 percent, and in 1850 a full 72 percent of cotton imported to Britain was grown in the United States. U.S. cotton also accounted for 90 percent of total imports into France, 60 percent of those into the German lands and 92 percent of those shipped to Russia. American cotton captured world markets in a way that few raw material producers had before—or have since.

Planters in the United States dominated production of the world’s most important raw material because they possessed a key combination: plentiful land, recently taken from its native inhabitants, plentiful slave labor, made available by the declining tobacco agriculture of the upper South and access to European capital. European merchants’ earlier efforts to secure cotton crops from peasant producers in places such as Anatolia, India and Africa had failed, as local producers refused to focus on the mono-cultural production of cotton for export, and European merchants lacked the power to force them. It was for that reason that cotton mills and slave plantations had expanded in lockstep, and it was for that reason that the United States became important to the global economy for the first time.

Slave plantations were fundamentally different sites of production than peasant farms. On plantations, and only on plantations, owners could dominate all aspects of production: Once they had taken the land from its native inhabitants, they could force enslaved African-Americans to do the backbreaking labor of sowing, pruning and harvesting all that cotton. They could control that labor with unusual brutality, and could deploy and redeploy it without any constraints, lowering the costs of production. With the expansion of industrial capitalism, this strange form of capitalism expanded, and European capital in search of cotton flowed to the slave areas of the world in ever-greater quantities. This world was not characterized by contracts, the rule of law, wage labor, property rights or human freedom—but by the opposite—arbitrary rule, massive expropriations, coercion, slavery and unfathomable violence. I call this form of capitalism “war capitalism”; it flourished in parts of the United States and eventually resulted in civil war.

Slavery stood at the center of the most dynamic and far-reaching production complex in human history. Herman Merivale, British colonial bureaucrat, noted as much in 1839 when he observed that “the greater part of our cotton [is] raised by slaves,” and Manchester’s and Liverpool’s “opulence is as really owing to the toil and suffering of the negro, as if his hands had excavated their docks and fabricated their steam-engines.”

As the cotton industry of the world expanded, with spinning and weaving mills cropping up in fast-industrializing areas, the cotton-growing complex migrated ever further into the American West, to Alabama, Mississippi and eventually Texas, drawing on ever more slave labor. By 1830, one in 13 Americans grew cotton, one million people in total, nearly all of them enslaved. In one of the most violent episodes in American history, one million enslaved workers were uprooted and sold from the upper South into cotton growing states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, where their labor fueled a vast profit-making machine. This machine enriched not just the plantation owners, but also merchants in New York and Boston and Liverpool, as well as manufacturers in Alsace, Lancashire and New England. Slavery in the United States had become central to the functioning of the global economy, as South Carolina cotton planter Sen. James Henry Hammond observed quite accurately when he argued, “Cotton is king.”

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When war broke out in April of 1861, this global economic relationship collapsed. At first, the Confederacy hoped to force recognition from European powers by restricting the export of cotton. Once the South understood that this policy was bound to fail because European recognition of the Confederacy was not forthcoming, the Union blockaded southern trade for nearly four years. The “cotton famine,” as it came to be known, was the equivalent of Middle Eastern oil being removed from global markets in the 1970s. It was industrial capitalism’s first global raw materials crisis.

The effects were dramatic: In Europe, hundreds of thousands of workers lost employment, and social misery and social unrest spread through the textile cities of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Russia. In Alsace, posters went up proclaiming: Du pain ou la mort. Bread or death. Since very little cotton had entered world markets from non-enslaved producers in the first 80 years after the Industrial Revolution, many observers were all but certain that the crisis of slavery, and with it of war capitalism, would lead to a fundamental and long-lasting crisis of industrial capitalism as well. Indeed, when Union Gen. John C. Frémont emancipated the first slaves in Missouri in the fall of 1861, the British journal The Economist worried that such a “fearful measure” might spread to other slaveholding states, “inflict[ing] utter ruin and universal desolation on those fertile territories” and also on the merchants of Boston and New York, “whose prosperity … has always been derived” to a large extent from slave labor.

Yet to the surprise of many, the American Civil War did not result in a permanent crisis of industrial capitalism, but instead in the emergence of a fundamentally new relationship between industry and the global countryside, one in which industry drew on peasant, not slave, produced cotton. Already during the war itself, determined European manufacturers and imperial statesmen opened up new sources for raw cotton in India, Brazil, Egypt and elsewhere. So rapid was the expansion in Egypt, for example, that Egyptian historians consider the American Civil War one of the most important events in their own 19th-century history. New infrastructures, new laws, new capital and new administrative capacities were pushed into the global countryside. Combined with rapidly rising prices for raw cotton, these changes resulted in a world where for the first time ever, peasant producers sold large quantities of raw cotton into world markets, preventing the total collapse of the European industry and connecting the countryside to the cities in ways that had never been seen before.

India provides a good example for these transformations. The British imperial government built railroads into the cotton-growing hinterland. It changed Indian contract law to enable merchants to advance capital to cultivators on the security of their crop and land. European merchants, who had until then played a subordinate role in trading Indian cotton, now moved into cotton-growing regions, advanced capital to growers and built steam-powered cotton gins and cotton presses. The newly invented telegraph enabled price information to travel quickly, and by the 1870s European manufacturers could order cotton from hinterland towns in India and have it delivered to their factories in just six weeks.

Indian cultivators, like those elsewhere, increasingly specialized in the production of cotton for export, moving away from their old domestic industry of cloth production, and replacing food crops with cotton. Many of them turned into sharecroppers, highly indebted to local merchants. This model also travelled to the American South in the wake of the Civil War, when freedpeople’s efforts to gain access to land failed just as much as the efforts of landowners to hire them as wage workers. As a result, in Alabama and Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi, formerly enslaved cotton growers became sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Railroads pushed ever further into the American cotton-growing countryside, bringing with them a new generation of merchants and European and North American capital. So called “Black codes” and new laws regulating advances to sharecroppers attached freedpeople, and, increasingly, white yeoman farmers, to the global cotton empire.

Slavery might have been at the center of the European cotton industry for three generations, but by the last third of the 19th century the new strength of European and North American capital and state power (with its vast infrastructural, administrative, military and scientific might) paved the way for other forms of labor mobilization—solving what was, from the perspective of the Economist,, one of the core problems the world faced at the end of the American Civil War: “It is clear that the dark races must in some way or other be induced to obey white men willingly.”

So successful was the transition of slave labor into sharecropping and tenant farming during and after the war that cotton production actually expanded dramatically. By 1870, American cotton farmers surpassed their previous harvest high, set in 1860. By 1877, they regained and surpassed their pre-war market share in Great Britain. By 1880 they exported more cotton than they had in 1860. And, by 1891, sharecroppers, family farmers and plantation owners in the United States were growing twice as much cotton as in 1861.

As nation states became more central to the global cotton industry, and as the cotton industry remained important to European economies, European states increasingly also tried to capture and politically control their own cotton-growing territories. With the United States now an important—and eventually the most important—industrial power in the world, Europeans wanted to follow the United States model and control cotton growing territories of their own. Pushed by manufacturers concerned about the security of their cotton supply, European colonial powers embarked upon new cotton-growing projects. No one did so more successfully than Russia, which by 1900 already secured a significant share of its cotton needs from its colonial territories in Central Asia. The Germans followed suit in their western African colony of Togo; the British in Egypt, India and throughout Africa; and the French, Belgians and Portuguese in their respective African colonies. Even the Japanese built a small cotton-growing complex in their colony, Korea.

Along with this expansion of cotton agriculture, a new wave of violence descended upon large swaths of the global countryside, as colonial powers forced peasants to grow cotton for export. As late as the 1970s in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, the word cotton still evoked, according to two historians, “an almost automatic response: suffering.” Slavery may have disappeared from the empire of cotton, but violence and coercion continued. Moreover, the post-war reconstruction of the global cotton-growing countryside provided ever increasing quantities of ever cheaper cotton to industry, but at the same time created huge new risks for rural cultivators, as plunging prices and political repression brought extreme poverty. In India, in the late 19th century, millions of cotton growers starved to death because the crops they grew could not pay for the food they needed. The British medical journal The Lancet estimated that 19 million Indians died in the famines of the late 1890s, most of them cotton growers.

The American Civil War thus marked one of the most important turning points in the history of global capitalism. The last politically powerful group of cotton growers—the planters of the American South—were now marginalized in the global economy, a global economy newly dominated by its industrial actors. More importantly, slavery, which had been so central to the first 80 years of the expansion of a mechanized cotton growing industry—and thus to global capitalism—had ended. New ways of mobilizing the labor of rural cotton-growing cultivators—in the United States and elsewhere—had emerged. War capitalism’s core features—the violent appropriation of the labor of African slaves, the violent expropriation of territories in the Americas by frontier settlers and the violent domination of global trade by armed entrepreneurs—had been replaced by a new world in which states structured sharecropping regimes and wage labor, built infrastructures and penetrated new territories administratively, judicially and militarily. This industrial capitalism contained within itself the violent legacy of war capitalism, and was all too frequently characterized by significant degrees of coercion. Still, it was a fundamentally new moment in capitalism’s long history.

And while today the world’s cotton growing countryside has changed once more, it is still often characterized by extreme poverty, political repression and a powerful presence of the state. In many years, huge government subsidies keep American and European producers in business, while a semi-military unit of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is perhaps the single most important producer of cotton in the world today. Children still are forced to harvest cotton in some parts of the world. Extreme poverty characterizes the cotton growing areas of western Africa. As many as 110 million households are involved in the growing of cotton worldwide, testifying to the continued importance of the countryside and of agriculture to global capitalism.

As this episode from the endlessly fascinating global history of cotton shows, the significance of the American Civil War went well beyond the borders of the United States, and indeed, can only be fully understood from a global vantage point. And the same applies to the history of capitalism. Only a global perspective allows us to understand how this vastly productive and often violent new system of economic activity came into being—and only a global perspective allows us to understand the origins of the modern world we live in.

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Could the South Have Won the War?

disunion45By March 1865, it was obvious to all but the most die-hard Confederates that the South was going to lose the war. Whether that loss was inevitable is an unanswerable question, but considering various “what if” scenarios has long been a popular exercise among historians, novelists and Civil War buffs

To explore that question, historians often use a concept known as contingency: During the war, one action led to a particular outcome, but if a different action had been taken it would have led to a different outcome. The problem with each scenario, though, is that although superficially persuasive, it collapses under the weight of contradictory facts.

Perhaps the most common scenario centers on the actions of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Some modern historians have attributed the Confederate defeat to Lee’s aggressiveness, implying that, if he had adopted a more defensive strategy, or even carried out guerrilla warfare after Appomattox, perhaps Lee could have held the North at bay until it tired of the conflict and sought a negotiated settlement.

But was this really possible considering the expectations of the Confederate people? Southerners were convinced they were superior soldiers and expected their armies to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. Politically, Lee could not have adopted a purely defensive strategy because the people would not have stood for it. Nor was guerrilla warfare an option. Events in Missouri, Tennessee and other areas where guerrillas operated during the war clearly showed how such brutal warfare devastated entire regions and broke down morale. There simply would not have been enough popular support to sustain such a strategy for long.

Some argue that the Confederates could have won if they had held Atlanta, Mobile, Ala., and the Shenandoah Valley beyond the 1864 election. Northern voters, dispirited by the stalemate, would have elected George B. McClellan president, and he would have bowed to the Democratic Party’s peace faction and opened negotiations with the Confederates.

Such speculation, however, is not supported by historical fact. In his letter accepting the Democratic nomination, McClellan clearly rejected the peace plank. There seems little doubt McClellan would have continued to fight if he became president, and the Union would still have eventually won. Also, a defeated Lincoln would have had four months left in office to achieve victory by launching winter campaigns. As it turned out, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant forced Lee to surrender just over one month after the inauguration. If a lame-duck Lincoln had adopted a more aggressive policy, Grant probably would have forced an Appomattox-like surrender before McClellan ever took office.

Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendering to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865.

Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendering to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865.Credit Library of Congress


Confederate defeat has also been blamed on King Cotton diplomacy. If the Confederates had sent as much cotton as possible to Europe before the blockade became effective instead of hording it to create a shortage, they could have established lines of credit to purchase war material. This argument is true, but it misses the point. While the Confederates did suffer severe shortages by mid-war, they never lost a battle because of a lack of guns, ammunition or other supplies. They did lose battles because of a lack of men, and a broken-down railway system made it difficult to move troops and materials to critical points. Cotton diplomacy would not have increased the size of the rebel armies, and an increasingly effective Union blockade would have prevented the importation of railroad iron and other supplies no matter how much credit the Confederates accumulated overseas.

Another diplomatic “what if” concerns European intervention. In the fall of 1862, Britain and France were prepared to extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy and offer to mediate a peace, but they backed away when the Union won the Battle of Antietam. In this scenario, if Lee had won the battle, Britain and France would have recognized the Confederacy and secured a peace ensuring Southern independence.

In reality, there is little likelihood the Europeans would have become involved in the war. They had already extended belligerent status to the Confederacy, which allowed it to purchase supplies and use European ports. Diplomatic recognition would have enhanced the Southerners’ prestige — but it would not have materially affected their ability to wage war.

And if the British had offered to mediate a peace, Lincoln certainly would have rebuffed them. Then what? It’s unlikely Britain would have rushed to the Confederates’ aid by breaking the blockade and provoking a war with the Union. By late 1862, emancipation had become a Union goal, and the abolitionist British people would never have supported their government becoming militarily involved to defend slavery. British officials also had not forgotten that American privateers devastated their merchant fleet in the War of 1812. And there was no economic incentive for Britain to become a Confederate ally, because the cotton shortage created by the blockade was soon alleviated by cotton from Egypt and India — and the trade Britain conducted with the Union far outweighed the value of Southern cotton.

Some historians have blamed the Confederate defeat on its strict adherence to states’ rights and a failure to develop a strong sense of nationalism. If the Southern people had been more successful in forming a national identity, Jefferson Davis could have nationalized the railroads and industry, and the governors would have cooperated more with Richmond. A powerful central government and a stronger sense of national identity would also have helped sustain morale when the war began to go badly. Instead, the Southerners’ belief in states’ rights kept the governors at odds with the central government, and the breakdown in civilian morale weakened the army by causing more soldiers to desert.

But that assessment underestimates what the South managed to accomplish. Rather than blaming the Confederates’ defeat on a lack of nationalism, one should marvel that they maintained their government as long as they did. From scratch, Southerners created a functioning constitutional government and a formidable military that included 80 percent of the eligible white males. The Confederates quickly developed a sense of nationalism in the first year of war because they believed they had no choice but either to form a separate nation or to face complete ruin. The string of victories in Virginia in 1861 and 1862 only increased this national pride. Even when the war began to go badly and the enemy occupied large sections of the Confederacy, most Southern whites were determined to fight on because they knew their homes would be the next to feel the invaders’ wrath if they did not.

civil-war-sumter75-popupSlavery and racial views also played an important role in Confederate nationalism. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Southern whites’ resolve strengthened because they realized if they lost the war, the very cornerstone of their society would be destroyed. The sight of black soldiers deep in the Confederate heartland outraged Southern whites, but in the war’s last year those same Southerners were willing to enlist slaves to fight on their side. Confederate emancipation would have been unthinkable earlier in the conflict, but by 1865 many Southerners supported recruiting slaves as a way to strengthen the army and win European recognition. To achieve independence, they were willing to sacrifice the very thing they went to war to protect

There are notable examples in history where a weaker people defeated a stronger one. The American Revolution and the Vietnam War immediately come to mind, but the Americans and North Vietnamese had the military backing of the superpowers France and the Soviet Union, respectively. In virtually all cases where a weaker people have prevailed, they had a greater determination to win and were willing to fight for years and suffer horrendous casualties to wear down the enemy.

The Confederacy had no such backing, and a credible argument can be made that its defeat was inevitable from the beginning. What many fail to recognize is that Northerners were just as committed to winning as the Southerners. Some saw it as a war to free the slaves, while others fought to ensure that their republican form of government survived. Northerners believed that America was the world’s last great hope for democracy, and if the South destroyed the Union by force, that light of liberty might be extinguished forever. Lincoln once said the North must prove “that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

The South may have been fighting to preserve a way of life and to protect its perceived constitutional rights, but so was the North. If the Southern people kept fighting even after the devastating defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, why should we not believe the North would have kept on fighting even if the Confederates had won Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga? The fact is that both sides were equally brave and equally dedicated to their cause. Commitment and morale being the same, the stronger side prevailed.


Sources: Terry L. Jones, “The American Civil War.”

 Terry L. Jones

Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana, Monroe and the author of several books on the Civil War

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The Dred Scott Case Said Blacks Had No Rights the “White Man Was Bound to Respect.” But in the West Things Turned Out Differently

HNN   March 8, 2015

On March 6, 1857, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” St. Louisans Dred, Harriet, Eliza and Lizzie Scott would stay slaves.

And yet, by March 1865, Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, forever banning slavery, as Union armies marched through the Confederacy. Surprisingly, the shape of the freedom that followed emerged more in the Civil War West than from the battlefields of the South.

Most people ignore the West during the Civil War. Yet the conflict engulfed Missouri, Kansas and Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma); it spilled over the borders into British Columbia and Mexico. The Confederacy had high hopes for an invasion of New Mexico, as well as the capture of California; the mechanics of surrender were most urgent in Texas.

Since the very earliest days of the republic, the question of slavery had been tied up with new western lands: banned in the Northwest Territory in 1787; welcomed in the Southwest Territory. The Missouri Compromise split the Louisiana Purchase; slaveholding Texas joined alongside free Oregon. But in 1848 the parallels broke down—the arid Southwest, the fertile lands of California, and the international crowds in the gold fields seemed to require a new system. After a brief try at popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott decision offered an abhorrently simple system—rights for whites, no rights for others.

Throughout the West, Spanish speakers of every hue were suddenly unsure of their status. Chinese miners were hounded, and states passed laws to block free African Americans from moving there. Even before the Civil War, ministers and journalists, among others, fought these efforts to define citizenship in racial terms, and resisted the claims of white superiority.

But in the Civil War West, events challenged the narrow definition of citizenship:

• In 1862, the First Colored Kansas Infantry was the first black regiment to see combat, challenging accusations that African Americans would be unreliable soldiers.

• In Missouri in 1864, Union General Thomas Ewing cleared four western Missouri counties of all Confederate sympathizers, outraging civilians who claimed their rights were violated, and earning a reprimand from his superiors.

• In Indian Territory in June 1865, Cherokee leader Stand Watie became the last Confederate general to surrender, while Cherokees and other American Indians who had sided with the Union were devastated to find themselves punished alongside former rebels.

• In Texas, lessons that were started around a U.S. Colored Troops campfire led to the establishment of Lincoln University in Missouri, while debates among white Texan leaders were essential to the reconstruction of rights for former Confederates.

• In 1869, officials in Wyoming Territory reacted to the passage of the 14th Amendment—guaranteeing the rights of national citizenship to every man born in the United States, regardless of race—by enfranchising women and further extending the promise of equal citizenship rights.

• In 1870, Congress passed the first naturalization law to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” welcoming the children of former fugitive slaves as U.S. citizens—but rejecting a naturalization path for others, most notably Asians.

• In 1883, after the completion of three transcontinental railroads, restrictions were tightened on Chinese workers, to prevent them from becoming citizens or having American children.

• In the greatest irony, American Indians would have to wait until 1924 to be granted citizenship in the United States.

The shape of U.S. citizenship as we know it has been tested and restricted, challenged and expanded, in the West. While Dred Scott died in 1858, his rights still denied, Harriet Scott lived until 1876, long enough to see the changes effected by the Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments. Their youngest daughter, Lizzie, was born in St. Louis in 1855, and hid away in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision. Living quietly with family members, the curtains drawn, she died at the age of 99 in 1954, having witnessed the descent into Jim Crow and the responses of the modern civil rights movement. On this anniversary of the Dred Scott decision, the Scott family provides us a history to celebrate an expanded citizenship to cherish, in the West and throughout the nation.

Adam Arenson is an associate professor of history at Manhattan College and co-editor of the new volume “Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States,” (University of California Press). The exhibition “Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West” opens at the Autry National Center on April 23 and runs through the rest of 2015.

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tornintwo

Debunking the Civil War Tariff Myth

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter

The outbreak of the American Civil War is now more than 150 years past. All the while, the question of what caused the conflict continues to spark disagreement, this despite a longstanding consensus among specialists that slavery – a cultural, political, ideological, and economic institution that permeated (and divided) mid-19th-century American society – was the primary cause of the war. One of the most egregious of the so-called Lost Cause narratives instead suggests that it was not slavery, but a protective tariff that sparked the Civil War.

On 2 March 1861, the Morrill Tariff was signed into law by outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan to protect northern infant industries. A pernicious lie quickly formed around the tariff’s passage, a lie suggesting that somehow this tariff had caused the US Civil War. By ignoring slavery’s central role in precipitating secession and Civil War, this tariff myth has survived in the United States for more than a century and a half – and needs to be debunked once and for all.

In trying to make their case but lacking adequate evidence for the 1860-61 period, “Lost Cause” advocates instead commonly hark back to the previously important role that another protective tariff had played in the 1832 Nullification Crisis. They then (mistakenly) assume the political scenario to have been the same three decades later – that southern secession from 1860-61 was but a replay of the divisive tariff politics of some thirty years before. From this faulty leap of logic, the argument then follows that the Republican Party’s legislative efforts on behalf of the Morrill Tariff from 1860 until its March 1861 passage became the primary reason for southern secession – and thus for causing the Civil War.

Because of the unfortunate timing of the Morrill Tariff’s passage – coinciding closely as it did with the secession of various southern states – this has remained perhaps the most tenacious myth surrounding the Civil War’s onset, and one that blatantly ignores the decidedly divisive role of slavery in mid-century American politics and society. Accordingly, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has  witnessed a slew of ahistorical tariff-centered explanations for the conflict’s causation, articles like “Protective Tariffs: The Primary Cause of the Civil War,” which appeared in Forbes Magazine in June 2013. Although the article was quickly pulled from the Forbes website following a rapid response from historians on Twitter (#twitterstorians), this particular piece of tariff fiction still exists on the author’s website as well as in a local Virginia newspaper, the Daily Progress.[1]

Similar tariff-driven arguments for the war’s causation continue to be given voice in American news outlets, in viral Youtube videos, and even on a recent Daily Show episode: No, not by host Jon Stewart, but by that evening’s guest, Judge Andrew Napolitano, a FOX news analyst and NYC law professor. In response to Stewart’s question “Why did Abraham Lincoln start the Civil War?”, Napolitano answered: “Because he needed the tariffs from the southern states.”[2]

The Civil War’s tariff myth has somehow survived for more than a century and a half in the United States. Let’s put an end to it.

In debunking the tariff myth, two key points quickly illustrate how the tariff issue was far from a cause of the Civil War:

1. The tariff issue, on those rare occasions in which it was even mentioned at all, was utterly overwhelmed by the issue of slavery within the South’s own secession conventions.

2. Precisely because southern states began seceding from December 1860 onwards, a number of southern senators had resigned that could otherwise have voted against the tariff bill. Had they not resigned, they would have had enough votes in the Senate to successfully block the tariff’s congressional passage.

The Tariff Myth’s Transatlantic Origins

Okay. So the Morrill Tariff clearly did not cause either secession or the Civil War. Then how and why did the myth arise?

As I have recently explored in the New York Times (“The Great Civil War Lie”) and at greater length in the Journal of the Civil War Era, the Civil War tariff myth first arose on the eve of the bill’s March 1861 passage. But the myth did not originate in the United States – it first took root in Free Trade England.

Southern congressmen had opposed the protectionist legislation, which is why it passed so easily after several southern states seceded in December 1860 and the first months of 1861. However, this coincidence of timing fed a mistaken inversion of causation among the British public, with many initially speculating that it was an underlying cause of secession, or at least that it impeded any chance of reunion.

The tariff thus played an integral role in confounding British opinion about the causes of southern secession, and in enhancing the possibility of British recognition of the Confederacy. And thus “across the pond” the myth was born that the the Morrill Tariff had caused the Civil War.

Nor was the tariff myth’s transatlantic conception immaculate. As I’ve previously noted, it was crafted by canny Southern agents in the hopes of confounding British public opinion so as to obtain British recognition of the Confederacy:

Pro-Southern business interests and journalists fed the myth that the war was over trade, not slavery – the better to win over people who might be appalled at siding with slave owners against the forces of abolition. On March 12, 1861, just 10 days after the Morrill Tariff had become law, The London Times gave editorial voice to the tariff lie. The newspaper pronounced that “Protection was quite as much a cause of the disruption of the Union as Slavery,” and remarked upon how the Morrill Tariff had “much changed the tone of public feeling” in favor of “the Secessionists.”

The pro-North magazine Fraser’s made the more accurate observation that the new Northern tariff had handily given the Confederacy “an ex post facto justification” for secession, but British newspapers would continue to give voice to the Morrill myth for many months to come.

Why was England so susceptible to this fiction? For one thing, the Union did not immediately declare itself on a crusade for abolition at the war’s outset. Instead, Northern politicians cited vague notions of “union” – which could easily sound like an effort to put a noble gloss on a crass commercial dispute.

It also helped that commerce was anything but crass in Britain. On the question of free trade, the British “are unanimous and fanatical,” as the abolitionist and laissez-faire advocate Richard Cobden pointed out in December 1861. The Morrill Tariff was pejoratively nicknamed the “Immoral” tariff by British wags. It was easy for them to see the South as a kindred oppressed spirit.[3]

As a result, over the course of the first two years of the Civil War, the tariff myth grew in proportion and in popularity across the Atlantic, propagated by pro-South sympathizers and by the Confederate State Department.

Debunking the Tariff Myth

It would take the concerted efforts of abolitionists like John Stuart Mill, alongside Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to debunk the Civil War tariff myth in Britain:

The Union soon obtained some much needed trans-Atlantic help from none other than the English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. By the beginning of 1862, the tariff myth had gained enough public traction to earn Mill’s intellectual ire, and he proved quite effective at voicing his opinion concerning slavery’s centrality to the conflict. He sought to refute this “theory in England, believed by some, half believed by many more … that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of slavery at all.”

Assuming this to be true, Mill asked, then “what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery.” Yet, Mill noted, the Southerners themselves “say nothing of the kind. They tell the world … that the object of the fight was slavery. … Slavery alone was thought of, alone talked of … the South separated on slavery, and proclaimed slavery as the one cause of separation.”

Mill concluded with a prediction that the Civil War would soon placate the abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. That, as the war progressed, “the contest would become distinctly an anti-slavery one,” and the tariff fable finally forgotten.

Mill’s prescient antislavery vision eventually begin to take hold in Britain, but only after Abraham Lincoln himself got involved in the trans-Atlantic fight for British hearts and minds when he put forth his Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.

By February, Cobden happily observed how Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had aroused “our old anti-slavery feeling … and it has been gathering strength ever since.” […] And so, two years after the Morrill Tariff’s March 1861 passage, Northern antislavery advocates had finally exploded the transatlantic tariff myth.[4]

It only took the British public about two years to see through the tariff myth, and to recognize the centrality of slavery. In contrast – and tragically – for more than 150 years afterwards the same tariff myth has somehow continued to survive in the United States.

Dr. Marc-William Palen is lecturer in imperial history at the University of Exeter, and research associate at the U.S. Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He is the author of “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013; “The Civil War’s Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy’s Free Trade Diplomacy,” Journal of the Civil War Era (March 2013).

Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

———

[1] “Protective Tariffs: Primary Cause of the Civil War,” Daily Progress, 23 June 2013. See, also, Mark Cheatham’s critical response to the Forbes piece, “Were Tariffs the Cause of the Civil War?“, showing how slavery overwhelmingly dominated state secessionist conventions; and Phil Magness’s dismantling of both extreme ends of the debate in “Before You Start Claiming that Tariffs Caused the Civil War…” and “Did Tariffs Really Cause the Civil War? The Morrill Act at 150.”

[2] (If you must), see, et al., “Tariffs, not Slavery, Precipitated the Civil War,” Baltimore Sun, 6 July 2013; “Understanding the Causes of the Uncivil War: A Brief Explanation of the Impact of the Morrill Tariff,” Asheville Tribune; The True Cause of the Civil War,” Soda Head, 4 October 2010; “The Morrill Tariff Sparked War Between the States,” Madison Journal Today, 10 March 2014; “Real Causes of ‘The Civil War,’” Youtube.

[3] “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013.

[4] “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013.

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Lincoln’s Failed Peace Process

The New York Times    February 3, 2015

disunion45On Feb. 3, 1865, a lovely false spring day, the president of the United States traveled south by train and steamboat to a spot near the front lines of the Civil War for a peaceful talk with the enemy. Such high-level negotiations in the middle of a shooting war had never happened before, and have never happened since. After nearly four years of battering, the Confederacy was all but broken – and Lincoln was eager to stop the killing and begin to heal the country with a peaceful reconciliation instead of a military conquest. That’s why, that afternoon, Abraham Lincoln welcomed three Confederate leaders to the presidential steamboat River Queen, the Air Force One of her day, and exposed himself to political attack for the mortal sin of compromise.

Though many in the North wanted to end the war quickly, the dominant, radical wing of Lincoln’s Republican Party had long since determined not to negotiate with the rebel leaders but to hang them. The beaten South, they said, would be governed “as England governs India.” When they learned that the president had quietly slipped away to entertain its emissaries without so much as telling them he was going, the radicals on Capitol Hill and their partisan press exploded.

The meeting had been set in motion through a harebrained scheme contrived by Francis Preston Blair, a longtime Washington power broker, an alumnus of Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” a mentor to Lincoln and a father figure to Jefferson Davis. In 1864, while the proponents of the Monroe Doctrine were otherwise engaged, Napoleon III of France had sent 35,000 troops to Mexico, ousted its elected president and installed a puppet emperor. Now Blair conceived a secret choreography. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would retreat southwest from Virginia and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would pursue him all the way to the Rio Grande. Crossing the Mexican border with Grant on his heels, Lee would pick a fight with Napoleon’s army and Grant would jump in on the side of his fellow Americans. Together they would beat the stuffing out of the French, embrace on the fields of the Second Mexican War and proclaim a joyful reunion. Slavery would be exchanged for a chance to loot Mexico, and the Civil War would end with no loss of face for the South.

Francis Preston Blair Sr.Credit Dickinson College

Francis Preston Blair Sr.Credit Dickinson College

Blair proposed the idea in a month of shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Richmond. Amazingly enough, Davis purported to bless it. Though Lincoln dismissed it out of hand, he invited a conversation with “any agent” of the rebellion who was willing to bring peace to “our one common country.” Under irresistible political pressure with the war all but lost, Davis sent to Lincoln three leaders of Richmond’s growing peace movement and gave them a secret mandate to bring peace to “two countries.” Knowing how Lincoln would respond, Davis hoped to kill the peace conference in its crib, discredit the Southern doves he had sent to it and incite the Southern people to a war of desperation.

To the cheers of the combatants on both sides, Grant let the Southern peace envoys across his lines from the rebel fortifications; ignored his orders to keep them there; entertained them profusely at his headquarters; introduced them to his generals, his family and his horses; helped them craft conciliatory messages to the North; and convinced his embattled president that they were ready to accept reunion, Jeff Davis notwithstanding, and give peace a chance. Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, a world-class charmer and a prewar friend and colleague of all three rebel emissaries, joined the president for the peace talks.

The conference on the River Queen was a gathering of old friends. The leader of the Confederate delegation, the 90-pound paradox Alexander Stephens of Georgia, was Davis’s political nemesis as well as his vice president; he was also a friend and ally of Lincoln’s in the Congress of 1848 in a movement against the Mexican War. Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia had been close to Seward in the old Senate. The brilliant Alabamian John A. Campbell, a former justice of the United States Supreme Court, had attended Lincoln’s inauguration and tried to help Seward stop the war before it started.

Their reunion at Hampton Roads began in a glow of nostalgia, descended into threats and ended with a glimpse of Lincoln’s simple compromise: the restoration of the Union, a gradual abolition of slavery, the return of all forfeited Southern property, a $400,000,000 payment to the slave states to offset the loss of their slaves, and pardons for their leaders. The conference ended inconclusively and the participants returned to their capitals, determined to keep hope alive.

But peace was not at hand. As rumors of peace brought hope to their suffering people, militants North and South condemned the very idea of negotiation itself. In the exhausted Confederate capital, The Richmond Sentinel told its readers what peace would bring: “All the dark and malignant passions of a vindictive people, drunk with blood and vomiting crime, will be unloosed on us like bloodhounds upon their prey.” On the floor of the United States Senate, Benjamin Wade, a Republican from Ohio, proclaimed that “this nest of vipers at Richmond” must be crushed, not reasoned with, for negotiation “would be disgrace, dishonor, contamination in the eyes of our own people and in the eyes of the civilized world.”

Explosive though he knew it would be, Lincoln would have brought his generous peace plan to a Congress bent on revenge if a single member of his Cabinet had endorsed it. Not a single member did. “You are all against me,” he said, and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference went for naught.

Its failure had consequences. Some 10,000 men and boys alive and well when their leaders clasped hands on the River Queen were corpses three months later. Instead of a voluntary reunion, the South endured the only existential defeat that Americans have ever suffered. A century of bitterness followed.

James B. Conroy is the author of Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865.”

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A mob attacking the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman in Alton, Ill., where the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837.Credit Corbis

A mob attacking the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman in Alton, Ill., where the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837.Credit Corbis

Was Abolitionism a Failure?

disunion45Jan. 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in America. It was an achievement that abolitionists had spent decades fighting for — and one for which their movement has been lauded ever since.

But before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.

Today, diverse movements cast themselves as modern versions of the struggle against slavery. The former Republican senator Jim DeMint, now the president of the Heritage Foundation, claimed that small-government “constitutional conservatism” has inherited the cause; the liberal TV host Chris Hayes, writing in The Nation, said battling climate change was the “new abolitionism.” That term has become shorthand for “fighting the good fight.” But the long struggle against slavery shows how jerky, contingent and downright lucky winning that good fight was. 

It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.

Even among Northerners who wanted to stop the spread of slavery, the idea of banning it altogether seemed fanatical. On the eve of the Civil War, America’s greatest sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, predicted that slavery might end one day, but “we shall not live to see it.”

In a deeply racist society, where most white Americans, South and North, valued sectional unity above equal rights, “abolitionist” was usually a dirty word. One man who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 complained: “I have been denounced as impudent, foppish, immature, and worse than all, an Abolitionist.”

While we remember the war as a struggle for freedom, at its outset neither Lincoln nor the Republican Party planned to ban slavery. To calm talk of secession, Congress passed a never-ratified, now-forgotten 13th Amendment promising that no amendment could ever end slavery. Lincoln backed it. Going into the conflict, Congress offered to abolish abolitionism, not slavery.

Abolitionism gained strength thanks to the uncompromising stance of radical “fire eating” Southerners. By ostracizing Northern allies, seceding and then starting a war, Southern radicals gave abolitionism gift after gift after gift. When South Carolina militiamen fired on Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass exalted: “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”

The war’s length and brutality gave further fuel to the abolitionist fire. The historian Gary W. Gallagher has argued that the successful generalship of Robert E. Lee ultimately helped emancipation, pushing bloodied and vengeful Northerners to free slaves. Moderates like Lincoln became convinced that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”

Still, the war, not the strength of abolitionism, made the difference. When he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln operated under the president’s war powers. And when thousands of slaves freed themselves and fought the Confederacy, they mostly did so as the Union Army entered their regions. Antislavery blacks fought bravely and lobbied cannily, helped by the radicalism of their former masters.

By January 1865, the tide had turned. Congress moved to ban slavery everywhere (not just in the Confederacy, but in loyal slave states like Maryland and Kentucky). A body that had tried to make slavery un-abolishable a few years before voted to free four million men and women. It could never have passed the amendment if all those Southern congressmen had stayed in Washington to vote against it. Every politician who stormed off to join the Confederacy cast an inadvertent ballot for abolition.

Here’s where the confusion emerges. After the war, many Americans interpreted slaveholder mistakes as abolitionist victories. Abolition looked like a road map for reform. Many claimed to have been on its side before the war. Publishers printed a torrent of memoirs by supposed abolitionists; everyone who ever cast a ballot for the Liberty Party seemed to write a book about it.

The generation of Americans raised after the Civil War modeled diverse movements on abolitionism, from supporters of labor, women’s rights and socialism to opponents of popular democracy and mass immigration. The Boston poet James Russell Lowell even compared a movement to suppress poor voters to abolitionists, writing: “They emancipated the negro; we mean to emancipate the respectable white man.”

Today, we point to abolition as proof that we can improve society by eliminating one glaring evil. This is what unites “new abolitionists” across the political spectrum, whether they’re working to end the death penalty or ban abortion. We like the idea of sweeping change, of an idealistic movement triumphing over something so clearly wrong.

The problem is, that’s not really how slavery ended. Those upright, moral, prewar abolitionists did not succeed. Neither did the stiff-necked Southern radicals who ended up destroying the institution they went to war to maintain. It was the flexibility of the Northern moderates, those flip-floppers who voted against abolition before they voted for it, who really ended 250 years of slavery.

Abolitionists make better heroes, though, principled and courageous and seemingly in step with 21st century values. But people from the past who espoused beliefs we hold today were usually rejected at the time. We can only wonder which of today’s unpopular causes will, in 150 years, be considered the abolitionism of 2015.

Read more about the events of the civil war with this timeline of stories, photos and maps. Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook

Jon Grinspan

Jon Grinspan is the author of a forthcoming book on the role of young people in 19th-century American democracy.

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How an International Perspective Changes Our Understanding of the Civil War

HNN January 25, 2015

“Some of our worst navel-gazing has occurred in connection with the Civil War,” David Potter once wrote. Historians seemed content to see the war as “a conflict all our own, as American as apple pie.” More than any other episode in America’s past, the Civil War has remained firmly encased within a tight national narrative. An earlier generation told the tale of a tragic brother’s war. Now we tend to see it as the painful first step in America’s reluctant reckoning with race. In either telling it lies at the heart of the story Americans tell themselves about themselves.

What value would be added by viewing the war from outside the nation? How does it change our understanding of the war to situate it within a larger international context?

One simple answer is that the war mattered greatly to the world. In newspapers and magazines, in meeting halls, churches, taverns, lecture halls, workers unions, and at posh dinner parties, foreigners followed the war with great interest and they debated what it meant for their future.

It was conservatives who first promoted the idea that the rupture of America’s so-called Great Republic proved the failure of the entire republican experiment. They were delighted with the prospect of a fragmented, weakened United States. Some aristocrats predicted that all the troubled American republics would find their way back to monarchy before long.

Unionists abroad soon embraced the idea that the war would be an epic battle in the historic struggle between reform and reaction, ongoing since the American and French revolutions. Karl Marx proclaimed America’s war the “first grand war of contemporaneous history” in which the “highest form of popular self-government till now realized is giving battle to the meanest and most shameless form of man’s enslaving recorded in the annals of history.” French liberals found la question amércaine a convenient excuse to obliquely criticize Napoleon III’s autocratic empire. For Latin Americans this was more than a parlor debate. Spain and France took advantage of the American debacle to take back American empires and restore the troubled Latin American republics to monarchical order and Catholic authority. Latin America was about to witness a “war of the crowns against the Liberty Caps,” the president of Peru predicted.

My second point is that what foreign observers thought about America’s war also mattered greatly to its outcome. Government leaders in Britain and France remained neutral, but many favored the fragmentation of the United States and were waiting for the opportunity to intervene by mediating peace on terms of separation. Union secretary of state William Seward crafted a foreign policy that combined threats to “wrap the world in flames” if any nation dared lend aid to the rebellion with ingenious efforts to align the Union cause with ideals of liberty, equality, and government by the people. He sent over speakers and special agents and secretly funded history’s first deliberate, state-sponsored public diplomacy program. It succeeded not by propagandizing so much as by “soft-power” tactics that involved enlisting the pens and voices of sympathetic foreign spokesmen. It worked. By early 1863 the growing public support for the Union, solidified by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, imposed a high political cost on any government that dared move to intervene.

My final claim for an international framing of the war is that its outcome also mattered greatly to the world. Once slavery ended in the United States, Spain and Brazil were exposed to new pressures at home and abroad. Spain, responding to promises of emancipation by Cuban revolutionaries, introduced a free womb law in 1870, which effectively put slavery on the road to extinction. Brazil, the last bastion of slavery, followed suit the next year. “We did not need a civil war” to end slavery, one Brazilian politician put it succinctly; “the world laughing at us was enough.”

The Union victory also rescued democracy from extinction. Lincoln was hardly bragging when he called America the “last best hope of earth.” Except for Switzerland, there were no republics of any size in Europe. Latin America’s young republics had been wracked by civil wars, pronunciamentos, and military despotism since independence. Until 1861 the United States had stood as a lonely example of a working republic in a world of empires, monarchies, and military despots.

Against all predictions to the contrary, the Union astonished the world by proving that a democratic society could actually mobilize a massive citizen army, endure four grueling years of war, and even survive an assassination without succumbing to anarchy or despotism. The trial of democracy, it seemed, had returned a very different verdict from the one conservatives had relished four years earlier. One US diplomat wrote from France that the “mysterious power of republican institutions was never so highly estimated here as now, never.”

Quite apart from the resilience of America’s democracy, the years after 1865 witnessed a stunning resurgence of republican success throughout the Atlantic world. European empires retreated from the Americas. Britain set up the Dominion of Canada in 1867 to govern itself. Russia sold Alaska to the US the same year and withdrew from the Western Hemisphere. Spain pulled out of Santo Domingo only to face a fierce decade-long republican insurrection in Cuba. France withdrew from Mexico in 1866 and left Maximilian to face the triumphant Mexican Republic’s firing squad. The shots that ended this European experiment in American monarchy sent a mournful echo across the Atlantic.

The Union’s victory also shook the thrones of Europe. In the face of massive public demonstrations, Britain passed the Great Reform Act of 1867, which vastly expanded the right to vote. Spain’s Glorious Revolution of 1868 deposed Queen Isabella II and launched a brief experiment in popular government. Napoleon III’s Second Empire collapsed in disgrace during his disastrous war with Prussia; France’s Third Republic was proclaimed in 1870. That same year the Italians completed the Risorgimento when they stormed the gates of Rome and reduced Pope Pius IX, the nemesis of liberal Europe, to a prisoner of the Vatican.

The experiment in government by the people survived the crisis of the 1860s only to face far graver challenges in the twentieth century. In 1933 democracy’s most notorious adversary, Adolph Hitler, looked back with regret at America’s Civil War: “The beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by that war, and with them also the embryo of a future truly great America.” That war might have established “a real Herren-class that would have swept away all the falsities of liberty and equality.”

America’s Civil War was much more than just a civil war. It was part of an international crisis out of which the imperiled principles of liberty, equality, and self-government experienced a new birth. The Union’s victory changed the world not only “for todM0Bq.dpufay,” as Lincoln said, but “for a vast future also.”

Don H. Doyle is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He is author of The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (Basic Books, 2015).

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Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD?
One hundred and fifty years later, historians are discovering some of the earliest known cases of post-traumatic stress disorder
Smithsonian Magazine  January 2015

The wounded soldiers above were photographed at a hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia, between 1861 and 1865. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division)

Hildt, a laborer who’d risen quickly in the ranks, had no prior history of mental illness, and his siblings wrote to the asylum expressing surprise that “his mind could not be restored to its original state.” But months and then years passed, without improvement. Hildt remained withdrawn, apathetic, and at times so “excited and disturbed” that he hit other patients at the asylum. He finally died there in 1911—casualty of a war he’d volunteered to fight a half-century before.

The Civil War killed and injured over a million Americans, roughly a third of all those who served. This grim tally, however, doesn’t include the conflict’s psychic wounds. Military and medical officials in the 1860s had little grasp of how war can scar minds as well as bodies. Mental ills were also a source of shame, especially for soldiers bred on Victorian notions of manliness and courage. For the most part, the stories of veterans like Hildt have languished in archives and asylum files for over a century, neglected by both historians and descendants. 

This veil is now lifting, in dramatic fashion, amid growing awareness of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. A year ago, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine mounted its first exhibit on mental health, including displays on PTSD and suicide in the 1860s. Historians and clinicians are sifting through diaries, letters, hospital and pension files and putting Billy Yank and Johnny Reb on the couch as never before. Genealogists have joined in, rediscovering forgotten ancestors and visiting their graves in asylum cemeteries.

Jogues R. Prandoni (above, in the cemetery at St. Elizabeths) helps families locate the graves of their ancestors. (Tom Wolff)

“We’ve tended to see soldiers in the 1860s as stoic and heroic—monuments to duty, honor and sacrifice,” says Lesley Gordon, editor of Civil War History, a leading academic journal that recently devoted a special issue to wartime trauma. “It’s taken a long time to recognize all the soldiers who came home broken by war, just as men and women do today.”

Counting these casualties and diagnosing their afflictions, however, present considerable challenges. The Civil War occurred in an era when modern psychiatric terms and understanding didn’t yet exist. Men who exhibited what today would be termed war-related anxieties were thought to have character flaws or underlying physical problems. For instance, constricted breath and palpitations—a condition called “soldier’s heart” or “irritable heart”—was blamed on exertion or knapsack straps drawn too tightly across soldiers’ chests. In asylum records, one frequently listed “cause” of mental breakdown is “masturbation.” 

Also, while all wars are scarring, the circumstances of each can wound psyches in different ways. The relentless trench warfare and artillery bombardments of World War I gave rise to “shell shock” as well as “gas hysteria,” a panic prompted by fear of poison gas attacks. Long campaigns in later conflicts brought recognition that all soldiers have a breaking point, causing “combat fatigue” and “old sergeant’s syndrome.” In Vietnam, the line between civilians and combatants blurred, drug abuse was rampant and veterans returned home to an often-hostile public. In Iraq and Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices put soldiers and support personnel at constant risk of death, dismemberment and traumatic brain injury away from the front.

Civil War combat, by comparison, was concentrated and personal, featuring large-scale battles in which bullets rather than bombs or missiles caused over 90 percent of the carnage. Most troops fought on foot, marching in tight formation and firing at relatively close range, as they had in Napoleonic times. But by the 1860s, they wielded newly accurate and deadly rifles, as well as improved cannons. As a result, units were often cut down en masse, showering survivors with the blood, brains and body parts of their comrades.

Many soldiers regarded the aftermath of battle as even more horrific, describing landscapes so body-strewn that one could cross them without touching the ground. When over 5,000 Confederates fell in a failed assault at Malvern Hill in Virginia, a Union colonel wrote: “A third of them were dead or dying, but enough were alive to give the field a singularly crawling effect.”

Wounded men who survived combat were subject to pre-modern medicine, including tens of thousands of amputations with unsterilized instruments. Contrary to stereotype, soldiers didn’t often bite on bullets as doctors sawed off arms and legs. Opiates were widely available and generously dispensed for pain and other ills, causing another problem: drug addiction.

Nor were bullets and shells the only or greatest threat to Civil War soldiers. Disease killed twice as many men as combat. During long stretches in crowded and unsanitary camps, men were haunted by the prospect of agonizing and inglorious death away from the battlefield; diarrhea was among the most common killers. 

Though geographically less distant from home than soldiers in foreign wars, most Civil War servicemen were farm boys, in their teens or early 20s, who had rarely if ever traveled far from family and familiar surrounds. Enlistments typically lasted three years and in contrast to today, soldiers couldn’t phone or Skype with loved ones.

These conditions contributed to what Civil War doctors called “nostalgia,” a centuries-old term for despair and homesickness so severe that soldiers became listless and emaciated and sometimes died. Military and medical officials recognized nostalgia as a serious “camp disease,” but generally blamed it on “feeble will,” “moral turpitude” and inactivity in camp. Few sufferers were discharged or granted furloughs, and the recommended treatment was drilling and shaming of “nostalgic” soldiers—or, better yet, “the excitement of an active campaign,” meaning combat.

At war’s end, the emotional toll on returning soldiers was often compounded by physical wounds and lingering ailments such as rheumatism, malaria and chronic diarrhea. While it’s impossible to put a number on this suffering, historian Lesley Gordon followed the men of a single unit, the 16th Connecticut regiment, from home to war and back again and found “the war had a very long and devastating reach.” 

The men of the 16th had only just been mustered in 1862, and barely trained, when they were ordered into battle at Antietam, the bloodiest day of combat in U.S. history. The raw recruits rushed straight into a Confederate crossfire and then broke and ran, suffering 25 percent casualties within minutes. “We were murdered,” one soldier wrote.

In a later battle, almost all the men of the 16th were captured and sent to the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, where a third of them died from disease, exposure and starvation. Upon returning home, many of the survivors became invalids, emotionally numb, or abusive of family. Alfred Avery, traumatized at Antietam, was described as “more or less irrational as long as he lived.” William Hancock, who had gone off to war “a strong young man,” his sister wrote, returned so “broken in body and mind” that he didn’t know his own name. Wallace Woodford flailed in his sleep, dreaming that he was still searching for food at Andersonville. He perished at age 22, and was buried beneath a headstone that reads: “8 months a sufferer in Rebel prison; He came home to die.”

Others carried on for years before killing themselves or being committed to insane asylums. Gordon was also struck by how often the veterans of the 16th returned in their diaries and letters to the twin horrors of Antietam and Andersonville. “They’re haunted by what happened until the end of their lives,” she says.

Gordon’s new book on the 16th, A Broken Regiment, is but one of many recent studies that underscore the war’s toll on soldiers. In another, Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War, historian Michael Adams states on the first page that his book describes “the vicious nature of combat, the terrible infliction of physical and mental wounds, the misery of soldiers living amid corpses, filth, and flies.”

Not all scholars applaud this trend, which includes new scholarship on subjects such as rape, torture and guerrilla atrocities. “All these dark elements describe the margins not the mainstream of Civil War experience,” says Gary Gallagher, a historian at the University of Virginia who has authored and edited over 30 books on the war. While he welcomes the fresh research, he worries that readers may come away with a distorted perception of the overall conflict. The vast majority of soldiers, he adds, weren’t traumatized and went on to have productive postwar lives. 

Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and wrote for the New Yorker. He is the author of Baghdad without a Map, Midnight Rising and the digital best seller BOOM.

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