Sunday, July 4, 2010
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR AND THE “LOST CAUSE” WRITERS
A Pennsylvania sun sets over Little Round Top, where on July 1st, 1863, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and the men of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment saved the Union line at Gettysburg from being flanked and rolled up.
The American Civil War – or what is still called “The War of Northern Aggression” by my friend from Louisiana, and many other southerners, was arguably the most impactful event in U.S. history; so much so that some historians think of it as our “second revolution”. To this day, it remains one of the most researched, studied and written-about chapters in the whole wide sprawling story of America. More than any other conflict, it defines not just the geography of our land, but the question of who we are and how we got this way. That being so, why do so many today accept so readily the idea that “it was inevitable that the North would win”, and “it wasn’t really about slavery” ? My life-long interest in this part of our unique history has not only led me to the battlefields and burial grounds of that cataclysmic contest, but to the diaries, journals and writings spawned by it, and thereby to some conclusions relative to the topic I write about today. I do not accept as holy writ that the North was “bound” to win, and I believe that in the final analysis, it certainly was about slavery.
It is often stated that war histories are written by the winners, and certainly a number of observers from the North chronicled the Civil War from the victors’ viewpoint. There was a strong motivation in the post-war North however, to work toward rebuilding and reconciliation, and to “get on with life”. In a war which had cost everyone something, there was not a great deal to be celebrating, especially after the assassination of the President within days of Lee’s surrender. Most of the scholarly writings from a Union perspective were yet to be written in the future; certainly Grant’s reminiscences fell short.
In the former Confederacy, on the other hand, there was a mad scramble to put a positive “spin” on what some feared would be said of them by writers and historians of the future. Jubal Early was the most prolific and strong-voiced of a whole battery of chroniclers who would become known as “The Lost Cause School”, a group which included former President Jefferson Davis, with no less a figure than Robert E. Lee himself furnishing constant encouragement (although his own book would never see print). Recognizing the political corner into which the war and the context within which the North had pursued it had painted them, the gist of their writings posited three principal ideas: (1) The Confederacy fought to preserve constitutional liberty, and slavery was never the main reason (Even Gen. Lee, they insisted, was against slavery). (2) Robert E. Lee was a great patriot, the greatest General in America, and a personage in the very flawless image of George Washington. And (3) The North was always destined to win, due to its great technological, industrial, transportation and manpower superiority, (and knowing this inevitability from the start, “wasn’t our cause brave and noble” !)
Many school books over the years, have been influenced by historical accounts based on the numerous and earlier “Lost Cause” quotations. A more careful study of original material would argue that the public support in the North essential to “buying into” a war policy and support for the new Republican Party would not have taken shape without a strong anti-slavery constituency. After all, the Confederacy had existed as a full-fledged and separate nation, with a functioning constitutional government for a full year prior to Fort Sumter without provoking the firing of a single shot, so “preservation of the union” was clearly not a sufficient goad by itself.
Despite the obvious fact that the northern states had the advantage of industrialization and a larger population upon which to base a war economy, it faced the daunting task of blockading thousands of miles of southern shores and hundreds of potential ports; denying use of the Mississippi, the Cumberland, the Ohio, the Tennessee and other river systems; fighting its battles almost entirely in enemy territory at the end of long supply lines and surrounded by a distinctly unfriendly public, and the need to occupy or otherwise manage a civil population spread across the vastness of eleven states. At the same time, Lincoln had to fight off the growing enmity of a U.S. Congress just waiting for a reason to defund his war efforts, while hanging on to the presidency in an 1864 election in which the war itself threatened to unseat him. Only the win at Gettysburg saved his presidency, and only the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after Antietam reinvigorated a war-weary and disillusioned populace.
In the South, a slave-based economy permitted a far greater percentage of draft-age men to serve in uniform, while the Confederate armies enjoyed the advantage of fighting from defensive positions, with internal supply lines much of the time. It can be argued that all the Confederate States had to do to win was not lose, while Lincoln’s Armies must win the big campaigns, in order not to forfeit Congressional support.
Lincoln would never have come to power without the backing of New England’s staunch anti-slavery Republicans, and the support needed to see his military through the first two years of mostly-lost battles came from the hatred of slavery which burned in a key majority in Congress. And as much as I find to admire about Robert E, Lee and as much as I am impressed by the genius of his leadership, I am not persuaded that he held strong anti-slavery views prior to emancipation.
Between battlefield casualties, illness, accident and disease, somewhere around 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War, Blue and Gray – more than in all our other wars combined, and from a combined national population of only 31 million.
In the end, the Union was preserved, and a new amendment was added to our Constitution which said that it was not right for one man to own another. America is not where slavery began, but it is where slavery ended, and a great deal of blood was shed to make that true.