Chandra Manning on Civil War Soldiers and Slavery

My Civil War class just finished reading and discussing a very interesting article by Chandra Manning on how slavery entered the decisions of men on both sides to enlist and remain in the ranks.  The article appeared in North and South Magazine back in 2004.  This is the second time I’ve used the article and since I blogged about the piece this past February I thought it might be appropriate to run the two-part post again.  Manning’s dissertation is set to be published in 2007 and is titled What This Cruel War Was Over.

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.

We finished our discussion of Manning’s article on Thursday. The students generally agreed with the argument, but noticed a few places that seemed to lack sufficient evidence. In the first part of the article Manning argues that explanations of hearth and home as a reason to join Confederate ranks should be interpreted as a concern with property and livelihood which connected directly to the preservation of slavery. My students thought that while Manning may be right they felt that the conclusion went too far beyond the evidence she provided. In other words, they wanted more proof.

We spent some time trying to make sense of Manning’s claim that while many Union soldiers were “abolitionized” by direct encounters with slavery in the South this “did not necessarily mean support for racial equality.” (James McPherson emphasizes the growing commitment to abolition among Union soldiers in his, For Cause and Comrades.) Manning goes on to emphasize that “white Union soldiers strove mightily to keep the issue of slavery and race separate.” This is a difficult distinction for students to grasp as they assume that one’s view of slavery and race is one and the same.

Perhaps the most controversial claim that Manning makes is that while Union soldiers identified in numerous ways with the nation as a whole, Confederates were routinely distracted by more local concerns such as the conscription bill, taxes, and impressment. This distinction is not designed to make a point about whether Southerners forged bonds of nationalism, but to emphasize that it was the preservation of slavery that could and did unite them. “Potential conflicts between personal interests and Confederate necessities were troubling, but resolvable,” argues Manning, “as long as Confederate troops remembered that the Union meant abolition, and abolition was worse than anything even the most disappointing Confederacy would impose.” And it is a short jump to the debate over black Confederates. Confederates could not fathom the recruitment of black soldiers given their commitment to white supremacy. Manning’s short analysis compliments the much more thorough interpretation by Bruce Levine in Confederate Emancipation. She is correct in noting that the proposed enlistment of only 25% of black male slaves between 18 and 45 was designed to guarantee that slavery would continue; this was not a debate over the future of the institution. The Union army’s decision to enlist black soldiers served to unite Confederates because they understood that it meant-nothing less than the leveling of the racial hierarchy. My research on Confederate reactions to black Union soldiers at the Crater confirms this beyond any doubt. (See my upcoming article on just this topic in the magazine America’s Civil War.)

I look forward to reading Manning’s dissertation in book form. It is sure to spark debate, not with academics who understand the centrality of slavery to the war, but with many lay readers who continue to imagine or wish for a sanitized narrative.

7 thoughts on “Chandra Manning on Civil War Soldiers and Slavery

  1. GreenmanTim

    A fascinating post. I hope your class discussion was as stimulating. I’ve been spending a good deal of time thinking about the motivations of one northern soldier in particular and writing about it in posts at Walking the Berkshires. Slavery certainly entered into his essays as a high school senior prior to enlisting in what became the 1st ME Heavy Artillery, but he spends far more time decrying what to him was the senseless and wanton pulling down of an advanced civilization and a Union that he felt assured prosperity for north and south alike. Not mentioned in his writings, but what I have deduced through my research, was the financial imperative along with his patriotism that also motivated him to enlist. His father was unable to support a large family and the soldier’s pay of the two elder brothers its their primary source of income. The pension records for this young author turned soldier, James Elijah Tinker, are particularly revealing as his mother filed a surviving Dependant’s claim on James after he died of disease in 1863.

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  2. Ken Noe

    Tim:

    My work with 1st Wisconsin pension applications revealed the same pattern: young men who joined the ranks at least in part to provide for parents (more often just parent) and siblings.

    Ken Noe

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  3. Will Hickox

    William Marvel’s “Mr. Lincoln Goes to War” contains a long and fascinating section on the financial issues that spurred many Northerners to enlist, especially Massachusetts shoemakers.

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  4. elektratig

    Kevin,

    I have not read the article, but from your description the discussion as to why southerners chose to fight in 1861 sounds like a simplification of the more complex motivations discussed in a number of regional studies that have examined why yeoman farmers in particular areas of the lower south eagerly embraced secession. If you haven’t seen them, I’d recommend J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama 1800-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1978); Lacy K. Ford, Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry 1800-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press 1988); and Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press 1995). I have tried to summarize what these books have to say about the motivations of southern farmers at http://civilwartalk.com/forums/showthread.php?t=25034 .

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  5. Kevin Levin

    I don’t think Manning is oversimplifying at all since she is not suggesting that abstract ideas and slavery constitute the only reasons for going to war and remaining in the ranks. A better way to think about this is that she is highlighting one factor that up until recently has been overlooked – and that is the idea that these soldiers were highly political and committed to abstract notions of freedom and liberty. Remember that it wasn’t that long ago when Bell I. Wiley denied that Civil War soldiers thought along political lines. In recent years McPherson, Hess and others have offered correctives to this interpretation and Manning is the latest to enter the debate. The article mentioned above and a more recent N&S article on Union soldiers’ committment to Lincoln are well worth reading. I am very interested to hear what you think and thanks for the above references.

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  6. dan Chambers

    Now that you have had the opportunity to read “Manning’s dissertation in book form”, is a new critique forthcoming?

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  7. Kevin Levin

    Hi Dan, — Well, I’ve read about half the book and will definitely have some things to say about it given that it elaborates on many of the themes contained in her articles. Actually, I would like to go back and read the dissertation. It looks like much of the revisions involved shifting the historiographical discussions to the footnotes, which are quite extensive and informative.

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