“Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts”
In our discussion the other about mobilization following the incident at Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops, and the loss of the Upper South, my students repeated the common assumption that white Southerners were more closely united at the beginning of the war compared with their northern neighbors. A couple of students argued the point that white Southerners were at an advantage owing to the fact that they were motivated to defend their homes and land rather than an abstract idea such as Union. The assumption at work here is that northerners would not have been as excited over an abstract idea as compared with something tangible and more immediate, such as the defense of hearth and home. There does seem to be something to the distinction, but I wonder to what extent such a distinction reflects how far removed we are from the tens of thousands of northerners who rallied to the flag during these early months. Our discussion touched on ways that northerners would have understood their cause. I suggested that identification with the Founding generation, along with their own ancestors who fought in the Revolution, would have been very much in their thoughts. We sometimes lose sight of how close the Revolution was to the Civil War generation.
I had my students read a short section of Lincoln's July 4 speech in which he placed the war in a broader ideological perspective and explains what was at stake for the United States in this struggle:
It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war…
Northerners would not have interpreted their cause as a vague abstraction in the spring of 1861. The act of going to the voting station was a physical act, which was now being challenged along with the possibility of representative government itself. No laws were broken in the election; in short their act of voting would have been deemed meaningless and constitutes one way in which the call for the "presevation of the Union" would have been understood. It wasn't easy for my students to fully grasp the significance of the "ballot", but I suspect that this has more to do with our cynical attitude toward politics in our post- Vietnam/Watergate culture. In short, if Americans don't place a high value on the communal nature of voting (as evidenced by the percentage that turn out on election day) and its connection to the maintenance of civic institutions than it is no surprise that we would impose such a view on the past.
We are going to spend much of next week examining the letters of soldiers at the beginning of the war and will probably read an article by Chandra Manning. I am going to make it a point to look for letters from Union soldiers that will help us fill in some of these gaps.