“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.

Any suggestions?

9 comments… add one
  • Mark Sep 16, 2008 @ 19:16

    Hi Kevin,
    Not sure if it’s still useful, but David Detzer, in his book “Allegiance” explores this issue and describes the Confederate troops firing on Federal forces at Fort Sumter as launching a massive patriotic outpouring and explosion of enlistments. His discussion of this in the last few chapters of the book may be helpful.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2008 @ 14:02

    Thanks so much for the comment. In re: to the issue of West Point grads I highly recommend an article written by Wayne Hsieh in _Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia From Secession to Commemoration_ (UVA Press): http://www.amazon.com/Crucible-Civil-War-Secession-Commemoration/dp/0813925525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1221588039&sr=8-1

  • tf smith Sep 15, 2008 @ 23:10

    Remember, it was not just memories of the Revolutionary generation for the Union men; in 1861, there were men who had fought the British in 1812-15 at the highest levels of the United States Army (Scott, Wool, Dix, Totten, & Patterson, among others); in addition, there were huge numbers of men (most of the West Pointers who returned to the colors in 1861, for example) who had come of age during the expansion of suffrage and the Jacksonian Era. They would, I expect, have seen the planter elites of the South as anti-democratic/anti-meritocratic in the extreme.

    Also worth considering is how the 1st generation immigrants to the US, notably the Irish (Patterson, Corcoran, Meagher, etc); Germans of the ’48-er type (Sigel, Schurz, Willich); and the French of republican or even Orleanist leanings (de Trobriand, Joinville, the Orleans brothers, etc), would have perceived the South as anti-republican, especially given its dalliances with the British and French.

    I’d also suggest focuusing on the very real differences in the 19th C. context between liberalism (ie, small-d democrats and small-r republicans) vis a vis conservatives (ie, proponents of autocracy, oligarchy and absolutism); this certainly played out in many locations other than the United States between 1861-65 and shows a shared Western value that brought men as diverse as Willich, an actual self-avowed Communist, and those with the attitudes and background of Winfield Scott or John Wool together in the same Army.

    Scott is another interesting case; the loyalty of older southern-born regulars (Farragut comes to mind) as opposed to the disloyalty of the younger southerners (Jackson, Longstreet, etc.) There have been some interesting studies of generational differences between Southern-born West Pointers and professional naval officers in terms of whether they remained loyal or went south. Terrill (spelling?) is an interesting case study among the younger southerners.

    Sounds like you have some very bright students.

  • Craig Sep 15, 2008 @ 7:17

    Any “copperheads” around in 1861?

  • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2008 @ 6:12

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    Chris, — If you ever find yourself in the C-Ville area you are more than welcome to stop by.

  • Chris Sep 12, 2008 @ 23:28

    Kevin, great stuff. I would love to come to your classroom and spend some time there observing… hmmm…

  • Robert Moore Sep 12, 2008 @ 19:20


    I’m just getting into this part of the field (letters of Union soldiers), but what about the early letters of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr. or Robert G. Shaw? Or, are both of these leaning too much in one direction (the ties being too tight with the Mass. abolitionist crowd)?

    Another possibility might be in the wartime letters of Charles W. Wills. He was from Illinois. The book in which his letters were placed (incidentally, he survived the war) can be found online at Google Books… http://books.google.com/books?id=s349lI7F_H8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=charles+w.+wills&ie=ISO-8859-1&output=html

    Without doing too much work away from the computer, Google Books might be a key to finding what you need.

  • Scott Smart Sep 12, 2008 @ 17:34

    I also had a problem with the “abstraction of union” as a motivator. Manning’s “What This Cruel War Was Over” does a nice job of trying to explain that for many in the north, it was no mere abstraction but a fundamental concept of American identity. Manning lays out a case of why American identity in the north was seen differently than in the south. Her methodology leaves open the question of how representative her source data are of overall feelings, but for me it made the concept of “rallying for the Union” more believable.

  • Richard Williams Sep 12, 2008 @ 9:51

    “We sometimes lose sight of how close the Revolution was to the Civil War generation.”

    Excellent point Kevin. 1776 to 1861, just 85 years. Now think about this. I was born in 1958, just 93 years after the end of the Civil War. My father (born in 1935), as a boy fed the horse of an old Confederate veteran who lived nearby and there were men who fought in the Civil War who were alive when Thomas Jefferson was still living.

    We’re not as far removed from previous generations as we sometimes think.

    Richard Williams
    Old Virginia Blog

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.