Chandra M. Manning on Soldiers and Slavery: Part 1

This semester is a bit more relaxed in my Civil War class. I have four students who are all dealing with various forms of second-semester senioritis. Still, we are making progress and having some very interesting discussions. Today we started reading a recent North and South article by Chandra M. Manning titled, “Our Liberties and Institutions: What Union and Confederate Soldiers’ Thought The Civil War Was About.” (Vol. 7, No. 6) Manning’s research fits neatly into recent studies by James McPherson, Earl J. Hess, and George Rable which emphasizes the ideological convictions of Civil War soldiers. The article’s appearance in 2004 sparked a great deal of criticism, which I will touch on later. For now, it is enough to say that studies of ideology and politics within the ranks are troubling for many people outside academic circles.

Manning’s argument is best understood as a form of reductionism:

“…the Civil War was nothing less than a clash between competing ideas about how Americans should interpret and enact their founding ideals. The problem, as soldiers on both sides saw it, was that the opposing section posed a threat to the practice of self-government, the principles of libert and equality,the virtue necessary to sustain a republic, and the proper balance between God, government, society, the family and the individual. At the heart of the threat, each side believed, was the other’s stance on slavery.”

Manning’s argument can be characterized as reductionist owing to its tendency to interpret a range of what appear to be specific reasons for joining the ranks as an extension of one basic motivation. While both sides claimed to be fighting for freedom and their understanding of the Revolution, Confederate notions could not be divorced from “individual interests, or from slavery.” Manning provides ample evidence of how various arguments can be understood within the context of slavery. “Slavery played many roles,” according to Manning, “that nonslaveholders considered vital to themselves and their families.” (No doubt, the author is anticipating the standard response that since my great grandfather did not own slaves he did not fight to defend slavery.)

Even the argument that Confederates were defending hearth and home must be understood ultimately as a defense of slavery. Few southerners believed that the war would drag on to a point where “yankee” invaders actually penetrated into the Confederacy. Accordingly, letters including “pledges to defend home and loved ones dramatized a concept more than explained the war.” Manning concludes that Confederates were committed to defending their property as an expression of his “understanding of liberty.” Nonslaveholders did not have to own slaves to understand the necessity of its survival. Their individual freedom was guaranteed only with continued enslavement of southern blacks. The institution of slavery guaranteed ideas of liberty since it guaranteed white egalitarianism and prevented the amalgamation of the races. “Nonslaveholding Confederate soldiers fought to safeguard slavery,” according to Manning,”because they believed that survival–of themselves, their families, and social order–depended on its continued existence, and because they believed that otherwise, race posed a dangerously insoluble problem.” The survival of their families also included the hope of one day becoming a slaveowner.

Confederate soldiers also viewed slavery through the lens of religion and what they assumed was God’s divine order. Northern abolitionism reflected “heresy” and a threat to hearth and home, and according to Manning “amounted to a social earthquake that rattled every single social relation.” Arguments surrounding honor are also interpreted through the lens of slavery–as a “demonstation of authority over subordinates, including women, childeren, and African-Americans whether or not a man owned slaves.” Throughout the article Manning utilizes letters, diaries, and newspapers to support her conclusions. Her sources cover a wide spectrum of the social/economic/political spectrum. Manning’s Confederates are hyper-sensitive to slavery and are animated by a commitment to preserve the political and racial status quo.

It is easy to see why so many readers were upset with her portrayal of why Southerners went to war in 1861. What is interesting is that the letters to the editor expressed frustration over her interpretation of Confederate and not Union soldiers discussed in the article. Somehow the political convictions of Union soldiers are not as troubling as Confederate soldiers. Manning’s conclusions do not represent a step in a new direction, but it does go furthest in examining the ways in which slavery touched southern whites and their reasons for going off to war. Ultimately, the frustration over Manning’s article is more a reflection of our tendency to remember these men as fighting for values beyond the political and racial realm. In a sense, our frustration is our problem not theirs. More on Manning tomorrow.

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