The Tough Questions

At the end of What This Cruel War Was About Chandra Manning offers some final thoughts about the challenges that the war presented to Americans in 1865 and by extension to the way we remember.

First, Confederate soldiers’ admirable devotion to their families and abhorrent attachment to the enslavement of other human beings sound a cautionary note because those impulses were so closely related.  There is little doubt that most white southern men cared first and foremost about the well-being and material advancement of their loved ones, and the steadfast love so many displayed for their families surely stands among the noblest of human emotions.  Yet that love led otherwise good and ordinary men to embrace and fight for an institution that stole the lives and bodies and families of other human beings.  Clearly, the connection between soldiers’ attachment to their families and the institution of slavery does not suggest that love of family is to be disparaged, or that it inevitably leads to an atrocity like slavery, but it does raise sobering questions about the ills that human beings will justify when they convince themselves that they owe no obligation to anyone beyond those to whom they are related or who are like themselves.

Second, astonishing changes took place in many white Union men’s ideas about slavery and eventually, if more fragilely, about racial equality.  When ordinary men, many of whom began the war without a single black acquaintance but with plenty of prejudice toward African Americans, actually met black people face to face and often came to rely on the aid, comfort, and military intelligence that former slaves offered to the Union Army, they found reason to discard old views.  Those changes remind historians of the power of events to rearrange even the most seemingly immovable cultural ideas and attitudes among people in the past, and they alert all of us to the dramatic changes in attitude and achievement that can take place when people who think they have nothing in common find themselves thrust into interaction and interdependence.

Finally, the vision of a very different United States could be seen clearly by men like David Williamson in the spring of 1865 but had faded tragically by the turn of the twentieth century.  Taken together, the vividness of the vision and its eventual fading challenge historians to investigate more rigorously exactly how the United States could in the crucible of war create such vast potential for change and then, in the end, fail to fulfill it. (pp. 220-21)

I can remember reading one of Manning’s North and South articles last year with my Civil War class and wondering how she would end this study.  After reading this book I am more convinced the Manning is going to divide Civil War enthusiasts right down the middle.   That divide will be drawn between people who are comfortable discussing the way in which Union and Confederate soldiers thought about race and slavery over the course of the war and those who will interpret Manning’s conclusions as an indictment of the Confederacy or perhaps “Pro-Union.”  Another way of framing this is that Manning risks having the contours of her preferred debate relegated to Robert Penn Warren’s wonderful distinction between “the great alibi” and the “treasury of virtue.” That would be unfortunate as Manning has given us a very thoughtful and analytical study with a great deal of wartime sources to think about.  It is one of the most complete accounts of what soldiers thought about race and slavery published to date.  In some ways I can’t help but think of this book as a challenge to our Civil War community – broadly understood.

It seems clear to me that we can have this discussion without it being reduced to a childish debate about which region of the country can claim moral superiority.  And the reason is because the nation as a whole moved in a direction that did not include reinforcing or protecting the Reconstruction amendments.  The national agenda changed owing to the reconstruction agendas of white southerners, the Republican Party (by 1877), and the federal government.  By 1900 GAR camps in the North were largely segregated.  That said, I find that Manning’s emphasis on contingency in 1865, or the claim that the future could have been different, is enough to force readers to move away from a more defensive posture that involves interpreting the past in ways that reinforce contemporary political, cultural, and racial assumptions.  In other words, there was a salient distinction between the way that Union and Confederate soldiers understood race and slavery and it is our job as serious students of history to deal with it regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us.

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2007 @ 11:21

    Hi Rob, — Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. According to Manning the war brought about drastic changes in the way the men in the ranks understood race and slavery and in ways that few could have anticipated at the beginning of the war. As to your second point re: the Redeemers I think it is very complicated issue as to how specific state governments were overturned. I don’t think that Manning is suggesting that the war dealt a “crippling blow to northern racism” but the war did bring about notable change first over slavery and even in racial perceptions – even if changes with the latter were not as apparent. You will have to read the book. I will be interested to read what you think.

  • Rob Wick Apr 12, 2007 @ 11:08

    Reading your post (and I’ve got to finish “Gettysburg Gospel” so I can start reading Manning’s book!) makes me wonder–how much did the war actually change the way our society looked at race. I wonder if we look at the example provided by Lincoln, who certainly moved from a benign paternalism toward a deeply held respect, and put that on the nation as a whole. Even Lincoln realized as his own views changed that societal differences between the races wouldn’t die an easy death. If such a radical change had taken place, wouldn’t there have been a massive vocal uprising when the Redeemers began to take over southern state governments after the Compromise of 1877? I’ve never been convinced that the war dealt such a crippling blow to northern racism. Realizing that a black man would indeed fight for his own survival and freedom is far removed from accepting that person as an equal. I realize the points I’m making are very simplistic in nature, and I realize I’m prone to bouts of cynicism, but I can’t shake the view that our society will never find a answer to this question, especially if the radicals on both sides continue to frame the debate.


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