“Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?”

My Civil War courses are in the middle of reading two essays about the 1850s and secession by James McPherson and Charles Dew.  It is interesting that every year I end up having to spend the most time on two specific issues at the beginning of the semester.  Even if my students claim not to have spent considerable time studying the Civil War they arrive in my class believing certain things.

The first is that the states in the Deep South seceded over the issue of states rights.  Perhaps that should come as no surprise given the pervasiveness of the Lost Cause, but it is hard to pinpoint where they would have picked this up apart from a previous class on American history.  Why does that particular belief stick?  The tough part is asking students to distinguish between the act of secession and the reasons for it.  Secession was never an end in itself; rather, it was always a means to an end.  Throughout the 1850s white southerners worked tirelessly to maintain control of the federal government as a means to protect the institution of slavery.  They flexed its power during the Compromise of 1850 and its inclusion of a strong Fugitive Slave Act, the debate surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision.  Southerners clearly believed that the protection of slavery was best done by working within the confines of the federal government.  Students are surprised to learn that it was northerners who pushed the states rights argument in response to the Fugitive Slave Act in the form of Liberty Laws.  Sure, we could focus on the “Fire-eaters”, but that would ignore the fact that southerners voiced their preference to protect slavery by working within the federal government through their elected officials.  It was not until Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 that the states in the Deep South took the necessary steps to secede as the only alternative given their perception of Lincoln and the Republican Party as constituting an immediate threat to slavery.  As my students now understand, this is exactly what Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis claimed they were doing in speeches about the purpose of the new Confederate government.

The other issue which we’ve briefly touched on, but will explore in much more detail in the coming weeks, is the reasons why men on both sides went to war.  To the extent that we’ve discussed it students have a much easier time understanding why white southerners joined Confederate ranks early on before the draft.  The threat of invasion and defense of home come easily to mind as well the defense of a new government.  Understanding the place of slavery, of course, is much more difficult for them given that most soldiers were not slave owners.  They’ve been taught that a non-slaveowner had no interest in maintaining a slave society.  I may add a chapter from Joseph Glatthaar’s recent study of the Army of Northern Virginia on just this topic.  On the other hand my students have a real difficulty identifying with northern volunteers.  The emphasis on the preservation of the Union or fighting to maintain the integrity of the nation seems foreign and even a bit naive to some.  I honestly do not know how to explain this.  Perhaps it’s a general mistrust of nationalism and government that can be traced to the Vietnam era.  Our policies in Iraq over the past eight years clearly have not helped to promote confidence in government and pride in country.

Finally, (and I don’t mean to get all political on you) I can’t help but wonder if the rhetoric on the far right is not reinforcing this general mistrust and lack of confidence in the federal government, specifically among younger Americans.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a vigorous critique of federal policies and skepticism since it functions as an important check on the power of government, but much of what I am hearing smacks of fear mongering and outright hatred.  Who in their right mind would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice or identify with nation and flag if even ten percent of Glen Beck’s characterization of our government is accurate?  Even without knowing how much time they spend pondering such things I can’t help but think that it has contributed to a growing difficulty in the individual’s ability to identify with abstractions such as “Union” and “Nation.”

The pervasiveness of our misunderstanding of secession as well as the difficulty of many to appreciate the appeal of “Union” and “Nation” throughout the United States in 1861 is a challenge that any good history teacher welcomes.  It’s in these moments in the classroom that we come to understand our common bonds as well as the distance between ourselves and past generations.

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33 thoughts on ““Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?”

  1. Will Hickox

    Having studied the Civil War since I was seven, I’ve become more and more drawn to the conclusion that it was simply a waste: How many honest young men were left, as the Union veteran William Fox wrote, to “drag their marred and crippled bodies along a lower plane of existence?” How many widows were forced to live off a mightily generous $8 per month? Did six hundred thousand Americans have to die to free a people who would continue to suffer under a form of slavery for another century? Lincoln’s crusade was a godsend for vultures like Jay Gould and JD Rockefeller, but did workingmen–who made up the vast majority of the armies–gained anything by it? These kinds of questions are seldom asked because they seem too depressing to those who want to celebrate the war rather than look at it objectively. Given the awful events of the 1860s, I think students are right to question the appeal of “Union” and “Nation.” (This from a veteran.)

    Reply
  2. Bruce Miller

    Kevin, I think it’s a great question whether the far right rhetoric really does undermine what most of us would think of as American patriotism. With people like Beck and Republican Party head Rush Limbaugh and FOX News in general giving legitimacy to people talking about the need to stockpile guns to fight the socialist-communist-fascist-atheist takeover the far right claim to think is underway, it’s not surprising that a lot of kids would wonder about the whole concept of fighting for the United States and the American way of life.

    I’ve also been seriously wondering what effect all this talk equating liberalism and socialism and communism and fascism and The Terrorists has on the thinking of kids who are surrounded by adults they consider credible who talk this stuff. I mean, how can someone even begin to understand the history of the world in the 20th century without having some basic notion of the differences between those concepts? (Then there’s what “liberalism” means in most of the world versus what in means in the US; I won’t even go there.) What would someone think who merges those concepts in their heads – like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity do on their programs – if they heard someone a literate discussion of the conflicts between the German Social Democrats and the Communists in Germany during the Weimar Republic and what role that played in the process leading up to Hitler’s takeover? How could they process it as anything but gibberish?

    Democrats should be careful about taking satisfaction in the fact that some of the raving at these town hall meetings this past month or what goes out daily on Hate Radio is dumb as it can be, and sometimes downright insane. Because those ideas are firing up activists who may wind up making the difference between meaningful health care reform being enacted or not.

    But that talk really is a severely dumbed-down way of presenting news and political commentary. And it has to be having some kind of educationally retarding effect on a lot of kids.

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  3. Robert Moore

    Kevin,

    I wonder if grasping an understanding of why men fought also entails understandinding why other men did not fight. Perhaps there is something that might help your students understand why Northerners went to war in understanding Southerners who did not embrace secession, but had a greater sense of love for Union. As we know, some of these Southerners took their love of Union to the highest level and enlisted in the defense of the Union. In the minds of these people, their own homes, land, and states had been torn from that which they loved by the secessionist radicals. Ultimately, when we think of the secession in the different states, we have to remember that it was not always a reflection of the public… or more correctly, the common man’s opinion.

    Likewise, after the “fever” had died down a bit, we have to understand what sustained men in the fight (especially Southerners in the ranks of the Confederate army) and what eventually (some sooner than later) broke their initial passion to commit to war. On the other hand, I also believe that there were situations, in the course of the war, that brought men to fight, when initially they had no interest in partaking in the affair.

    Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

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  4. Shane Christen

    I think what the children who are attending school today have seen in our political forum is absolutely shameful. And I don’t much care whether they have seen Democrat or Republican, both are an embarrasment to this nation. 250 million people in this nation and the two yahoos who ran for President last year are the best we could do?

    All of that said, politics in the country hasn’t changed all that much in the last two hundred odd years, scum always has a tendency to rise to the top. It is true that we get the government we deserve.

    IMO the Democratic party has actively been acting against this nation since 1860… and w/ only a little more respect for the Republican I can only be called a cynic. The kids in schoool today look at politics and think this cycle of shrill rhetoric is something new or here people claim it wasn’t like this in the: “good old days.”

    What that means? Is that as corrupt and power mongering as the current administration is it hasn’t brought anything new to the halls of power. In fact it isn’t just an American thing but one of politics in general. Two thousand odd years ago a Roman wrote: “Rome is ruled by those that lurk in shadow.” Politicians… Poli = many, tick = blood sucking insect.

    As for Fox news and Radio talk show hosts; personally I find it disturbing that they are doing the same exact thing their opposition did for the last eight years and it isn’t a new cycle.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Shane,

      With all due respect, this is exactly the kind of nonsense that I am talking about. I’m not interested. Thanks for your understanding.

      Reply
  5. Dan Wright

    I think the Lost Cause crowd has done a good job of selling their mythology to the general public. And they’ve been at it for decades. I’ve had a Lost Causer tell me with a straight face that “We were invaded. We were only defending our homes.” And if I didn’t agree with him it’s because I didn’t know my history. Yours is a difficult job of bringing history to young minds and overcoming that mythology.
    I’ve also come to understand that even non-slaveholding soldiers had a stake in maintaining the social order. If the slaves were freed, the next thing you know they’ll want to vote and then they’ll want to run for governor and before you know it we’ll have a black man in the White House. That’s a scary notion for those who see white privilege slipping away.

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  6. Robert Moore

    Dan,

    You bring up a good point, especially about Southerners who say that “we were invaded.” In the South, “popular memory” has become “Confederate memory.” The thought of anything but “Confederate memory” is often “unpopular memory,” such as in the case with Southern Unionists. Nevertheless, the statement “we were invaded” is sometimes selective memory. All too often some Southerners have sided with the thought that all Southerners were Confederate. Look into the family trees of some of these people, and one might find Southern Unionists, some who even wore blue. Or one might find that some of their Southern ancestors just wanted to be left alone… in the extreme… hoping to avoid participation in blue or gray. Likewise, I find it very interesting to see when some of these people have ancestors in blue (whether these ancestors were from the South or North), they abandon one set of ancestors, while sitting the others on a high pedestal. In the end, it is rarely a case of “WE” were invaded.

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  7. Anonymous

    Kevin,
    I think you dismissed some of what Shane mentioned too glibly. It is a common theme in American politics for one party to accuse the other of trying to destroy the country (back from the first party system down to the present day). So there is that to consider, as Shane mentions (“The kids in schoool today look at politics and think this cycle of shrill rhetoric is something new or here people claim it wasn’t like this in the: “good old days.”). And I think he is also correct in asserting that what Republicans in the media now are doing what Democrats did while W. was in office.
    So, if you think there has been a change recently, it can’t just be on the partisan level. Some political theorists, at least, have pointed out that what has occured in recent years has been too much democracy. In other words, the closer people get to pure democracy, the less they actually have to identify with anything other than themselves (the personal and political become indistinguishable). So if there has been any shift, it isn’t anything that belongs to one political party or the other, but is a structural shift that encompasses both.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Of course it is a common theme in American history. One need only go back to the political disputes of the 1790s. My problem is with the tone of the post and the ridiculous accusations.

      Reply
  8. James Bartek

    Will:
    I think there’s a danger in attributing a contemporary jadedness to Civil War veterans – particular Union veterans. They certainly did not view the war they fought as pointless – far from it. The idea that the working class is often sent to die in a war waged for the benefit of the rich and powerful stems predominately, I think, from the misadventures of the 1960s. While I can think of plenty of pointless, questionable, or unjustified wars (1812, Mexico, any of the Indian wars, the Spanish-American war, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq) I do not include the Civil War among them. Sure, white soldiers thirty or forty years after the Civil War may have questioned why they had been shooting at each other, and with rose-colored (white-colored?) glasses perhaps even considered the conflict a regrettable tragedy. Four million or so African-Americans probably thought differently. Make no mistake – they weren’t exactly “free,” but they certainly were no longer slaves. To discount that attainment would be the real tragedy.

    That said, I agree that abstract ideas such as “nation” should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. With all due respect to the postmodernists, however, I don’t believe the concept of nation, itself, is the real problem, but rather who defines it and to what end. As to what degree the extreme rhetoric of the right and left (but particularly the right) will influence student opinions on the idea, I can’t even guess.

    Excellent post, by the way.

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  9. Robert Moore

    Anonymous,

    I think Kevin did just fine. One might have issues with the Democratic party today, but there is no real connection in what was said and what Kevin addressed in the first place. The Republican party today is not Lincoln’s Republican party of yesterday, nor is the Democratic party today the one that existed (even splintered) in 1860. The suggestion that the Democratic party has historically been the boogyman reflects a misunderstanding of the shifts over time. It shows a disconnect with the reality of historical facts. One might as well begin to say that radical liberalism, therefore, historically lays at the feet of Southerners in 1860. Granted those of the Democratic party weren’t limited to Southerners, but tally the Republican votes for the Republican candidate in the South in 1860 and see what you end up with. The suggestion is just over the top.

    Yet, this, I think (even my comment) strays from Kevin’s post. So, as Forrest Gump said… “that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

    Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

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  10. Shane Christen

    I think there is a tendency among the veteran to become jaded towards politics. Being a veteran who tends to haunt Legion halls that’s my opinion. This is not a new trend but one as old as professional soldiers. Politicians send men off to shed blood while they safely remain at home. This wasn’t new in AD 69 or 1969.

    I’m a jaded cynic and see little to admire in either political party. At one time I believed that to be a new thing but upon studying more and more history I came to the conclusion that politics has been ugly for a very long time and that ugliness in politics is not just an American thing. Whether we talk about the Fremont run on the White House or the Obama run political campaigns have always been ugly. The fella w/ the rhetoric that get across and listened to is the fella that wins.

    Several years ago I began to note a correlation between Lost Cause methodology and modern political activities. There is a connection there, how tennuos it is/was stands upon my own opinon only. But regardless it is history that can show us and our children that no matter how much things change the more they stay the same. Yet those who ignore that history always seem to be the ones to repeat it.

    As to Rush Limbaugh & Glenn Beck. Rush drives me through the roof; I didn’t know it was possible to put that much arrogance in one body. While Glenn Beck scares the hell out of me, not because of what he says but because so much of what he has been saying of late can be verified as legitimate. The attempts to silence him and belittle him seem an affront upon the whole concept of free speech and those attempts come from the same people who screamed the loudest the last 8 years. So I figure bust everybody; neither side has much I’m interested in listening to. So I prefer to stand back and study the Civil War, Rome and my old thesis subject: the Steppe peoples of Asia. At least there I’m not shouted or riduculed by the living, only ghosts proceed to try and kick my heinie.

    If that is nonsense, that’s fine I’ll own up to it. That said I’ve seen modern political discussion destroy many a fine conversation and board.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Shane,

      Let me be clear that I have no problem with your cynicism and skepticism re: politics and government. I just don’t want my blog turned into a forum for emotionally-charged accusations that fail to contribute to the discussion. I appreciate your taking the time to comment on this.

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  11. Craig Swain

    Kevin, I hate to agree with you but I cannot disagree.

    There is certainly a coat of paint, if I may, placed over the entire discussion of the causes of war. If the argument explaining secession is “states right” then the next logical question is “states rights to do what?”

    I guess where I’d depart from your thread is taking the South’s defense of slavery as an institution to its logical end point – it was driven by resource (labor) factors. Sure there was a racial component, but slavery itself was a means to an end.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Craig,

      I am sorry to have put you in a position where you have to agree with me. :)

      I also agree that slavery must be understood as a means to an end, but it contributed to their own definition of themselves as free men.

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  12. Shane Christen

    Kevin thank you for allowing me to clarify my rather rambling initial comment… that’s what I get for posting at 0400.

    I believe there is a tendency today to seperate modern politics from the study of history and thank god for that. Frankly, i don’t care what the politics of an author is, I don’t want to know. That is why I’m so quick to say “prove it” when someone asserts that an author has nothing to contribute because they’re a “left or right wing academic.” Some people cannot do that and insist on pushing their modern political agenda,whatever that may be, into the converstation and that’s the kind of thing that destroys a board in a hurry.

    It’s a legit question about why aren’t our youth all that fired up about being proud of this country. They aren’t shown any good guys anymore, their heroes are sports & music stars and w/ the modern media needing a 24 hour news cycle all the negatives are dug up about anyone. These kids today have a far wider knowledge base than many realize and they are just as curious as my generation or any other. They can connect with someone from Hong Kong or France through the internet as easily w/ their classmates. IMO cultural and social barriers that once caused conflict are being shattered by the prevelence of information on the internet. As an example eager young students can be pointed to the OR’s and texts that were once the prevue of only the academic; and they can do it from their own PC. That realization and knowledge that every generation continues to learn is my hope for the future.

    My fear is that their is a group out there who will stop at nothing to rewrite history andthat one day they may succeed. I have to trust teachers and parents to teach each generation how to think and how to question.

    I hope that doesn’t ramble too much.

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  13. Vicki Betts

    But back to “the Union”…

    I think students have problems with the idea of fighting for the Union *because* it is abstract, while defending a home and property (for Confederates) is physical and immediate. Fighting for emancipation, on the other hand, *is* physical and immediate and easier to understand for modern folks. Students may have problems differentiating between the “sanctity” of Union for the Unites States, while “disunion” from the British Empire was laudable. They may consider that loyalties radiate out in concentric circles, starting with self and family, with nation out beyond state and region. They may be so used to divorce and mobility that the attitude is “good-bye and good riddance” rather than we are in this family/community for the rest of our lives–we have to make this work together. They may look at a map of the Northern and Southern states and say those are still two really large nations in North America–why are two nations bad, and one nation is good–each would still be bigger than England or France. Sometimes I read about Northern soldiers talking about “the Union” and Southern soldiers talking about “our rights” and wonder how many of either camp could truly articulate what they meant beyond the phrases.

    Vicki Betts

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  14. Scott Smart

    I agree with a comment stated earlier that there is too much “black and white” view of Union v Confederacy. That I think drives the need to refer to the “war between the states” which I think is a complete misnomer.

    There might be some mention of northern Copperheads, but no analysis. I see virtually no mention of southern unionists in general histories, though I guess now the “Confederate State of Jones” might stir up that hornet’s nest.

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  15. Craig

    Kevin,
    Slavery may have helped with the definition of “free man.” But I’d say that’s a “beside the point” issue. When you see similar dialog from the poor whites to describe their condition as you do from the poor blacks, there’s got to be something beyond race going on there. I don’t think it is coincidence, nor a case of musical plagiarism that the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis are often cited as being influenced by the Delta Blues style, and came from a poor white background. I don’t think skin color mattered much when one was a tenant farmer bound to the land. Perhaps slavery by another name is all it was.
    Craig.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Craig,

      I don’t think it is beside the point at all. While I agree that there is more going on as you suggest, it seems to me that living in a slave society directly impacts and shapes the way white southerners viewed themselves in contrast to their black neighbors. I don’t think we even necessarily have to look for it in the spoken or written word since it is unlikely that most would have found a need to acknowledge it.

      Reply
  16. Craig

    You said:
    “I don’t think we even necessarily have to look for it in the spoken or written word since it is unlikely that most would have found a need to acknowledge it.”

    You are suggesting we should just extrapolate what must have been? Just want to make sure I understand what you are saying here. We should “assume” something where no evidence exists? That is a far leap there.

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  17. Kevin Levin Post author

    Craig,

    It seems to me that we can approach the issue by looking at a broad range of evidence within a society that draws a sharp boundary between the races. Disciplines outside of history must surely be helpful here. That doesn’t seem to me to be a “leap.”

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  18. Will Hickox

    James: The phrase “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” was not invented in the 1960s. It was uttered quite frequently during the Civil War. Although the book certainly has its flaws, I think David Williams’ “A People’s History of the Civil War” does a good job of detailing lower class resentment toward the people who brought about the war.

    Also, I wasn’t arguing that veterans regarded the Civil War as a waste, but that I do. (I added that I’m a veteran to indicate that I have some small understanding of what I’m talking about when it comes to war.)

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  19. toby

    Many Southern commentators compared the slavery of the South with the “wage-slavery” being practised in Northern factories. They pointed out the comfortable existence of black slaves in the South to that of the Northern slums (like New York’s notorious Five Points).

    Lincoln probably gave the definitive answer to that: if slavery is a good, then why is it never a good that someone wants for himself? No one every voluntarily became a slave. However, there was a debate over the relative merits of the pre-industrial society of the South, and the modernising North.

    I think de Tocqueville in his travels was struck by how many people delivered paeans of praise for the best form of government under heaven. There was a strong streak of Unionism in Jacksonian Democracy, & it is said that every Union cannon was shotted with Webster’s Reply to Hayne (“Liberty AND Union, now and forever …. ” etc.). Kenneth Stampp puts 1833 as the date with the Union became an end it itself for nationalists. He mentions Webster, Livingston (Jackson’s Sec. of State who authored the Nullification Decree), John Quincy Adams, Joseph Story (author of “Commentaries on the Constitution”), Madison and Jackson himself as the representatives of the nationalists who brought into being a doctrine opposed the the “states rights” school.

    Stampp’s essay is called “The Concept of a Perpetual Union”, and is in his collection “The Imperilled Union”.

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  20. Bob Pollock

    Kevin,

    I think there has been so much effort to counter the argument that the war had little or nothing to do with slavery that the cause of “Union” and what that meant to Northerners (and others) has been overshadowed or ignored. I have expressed this opinion here where I work. I try, in the brief time I am with visitors, to explain what I believe Grant thought about the causes fought for. I begin by asking people to answer two questions: What is (or who can be) an American? and What is freedom? I think these are essential questions to ask when trying to understand American history and our current state of affairs. When we focus solely on the issue of slavery I think we fail to engage many people, as you point out. This, of course, is not to say the slavery issue was not the root cause of the war, only that there was much more at stake as well.

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  21. Kevin Levin Post author

    Bob,

    Really good point. We tend to talk about slavery as a cause of secession/war in isolation from Constitutional questions, nationalism, free labor, etc.

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  22. TF Smith

    One thing worth some study in the field of northern and western support for the war effort in 1861 and afterward, as opposed to simply letting the seceeded states “go”, in terms of intellectual underpinnings, is surely is the opinions among (North) Americans of the history of inter- and intra-state conflict in Europe and South America.

    Worth remembering is what men and women in their fifth, sixth, or seventh decade in 1860 had seen in their lifetimes (1790-1860)…

    More than a few had personal memories of invasions of the US by a European power (1812-15; Scott and Wool come to mind); others were refugees from the Napoleonic wars, or one of more authoritarian governments (many of the “German” unionists, the ’48ers, for example, and more than a few of the Irish) that had crushed democratic, regional, and local governments/opposition; and many others were literate individuals who were aware of the collapse of the South American “continental” revolutionary movements into regionalism and then into balkanized dictatorships, often wide open to European (and Southern) interventionists. (The Argentine experience of English invasions in 1804-06 has some resonance with the American experience of English invasions in 1812-15, for example…)

    The judgment that the Revolution had succeeded only because of “Continental” efforts; an understanding that the weakness of the US under the Articles of Confederation and the need for the Constitution to provide a government strong enough for the democratic republic to survive in an era of European great power polictics that frequently reached in the Western Hemisphere; the concept of the Monroe Doctrine and continental expansion as the only strategy that a Western Hemisphere democracy could adopt to survive; these all, I think, had a huge impact on the politic, economic, and strategic underpinnings of the US (Union) war effort.

    “We must all hang together or surely we will hang separately” surely was as well understood in the 1860s, I think, as it has been in the 1770s; given the experience of Mexico, Hispaniola (the DR, expecially), and the Pacific states of South America in the same decade (even Venezuela as late as the 1900s), it seems a reasonable judgment to make…

    One way to look at the US Civil War is in that very “South” American paradigm of a conflict between Liberals and Conservatives; the “atristocratic planter” of the South was not all that far away from the “caudillo” who arose from the pampas or the llanos…or, for that matter, the “junker” in conflict with the liberals of the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848…

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  23. John Buchanan

    A gross simplification on my part, but when I talk abotu the causes of the war in the classes I teach I i refer to the War as a fight by the North and the South over the West. I describe it this way to easily encompass the slavery/states rights/sectionalism issues into a more easily understandable form. I then open my teachings with a review of the Trans Mississippi Theater first.

    I think if you can understand and grasp the concept of the war in Missouri/Arkansas/Kansas you can then easily understand the motivations of the participants in the Mississippi Watershed as well as the East.

    Maybe a gross oversimplification but it works for me!

    Buck Buchanan

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  24. JR Tomlin

    I find the unquestioned assumption that “Union” and “Nation” is an ultimate good an interesting one.

    “We hang together or we hang separately.” Oh, really? In fact, for example, in the Maximilian Affair the Civil War kept the US from intervening except in a rather minor way. The French were defeated by Juarez (who we gave a little aid) not by the US. And if Maximilian hadn’t been defeated considering that had Maximilian had upheld most of Juárez’s liberal reforms I think the benefits of the revolution are to some extent exaggerated anyway. It’s another “the winners get to tell the tale” situation.

    The Monroe Doctrine? And where DID we get the right to enforce this? Except for might makes right?

    We like to think of ourselves as a “world saving” power but we rather conveniently forget our many less than honorable interventions such as the US-Philippine War and the Spanish–American War (which was justified by out-right lies and the most arrant yellow journalism).

    Would smaller nations in this continent have been a bad thing rather than one country gobbling up most of a continent? I am a long way from convinced that the world is actually better off. Maybe your students see more than you do.

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  25. Mark Tueting

    My quick takes:

    Why did nonslaveholders join the Confederate Army?

    A) Religious duty – We read the Reverend Wilson’s Sermon on the Mutual Relations of Slaves and Masters to understand the theology of slavery. Even if I don’t personally benefit from slavery, I will fight for my conception of God’s will. George Fitzhugh spends a good deal of time in Cannibals All defending the religious and moral superiority of Southern civilization.

    B) Haiti and Nat Turner – The fear of uncontrolled black men became pathological in the wake of Haiti’s bloody independence and Nat Turner’s butchery. I may not own slaves, but I don’t want them freed because they’ll murder my kids and rape my wife. This also explains the motivation of many Klan members in the postwar period. The need to preserve the peculiar institution was tied up together with protection of kith and kin – thus the prevalence of odes to the greatness of Southern “domestic institutions.” Fear of slave rebellion ended any internal critique of slavery and ended any discussion – the Gag Rule and postal censorship meant that 20 year olds in Georgia had never been exposed to competing ideas. So B supports the hardening of A.

    C) Roedigger’s concept of the Wages of Whiteness – The Southern culture was very hierarchical. If slavery ended, there would no longer be a bright line between poor whites and freedmen. It’s a sad fact of human nature that we can feel better about our poor position (and poor whites suffered economically under an economic system dominated by plantations) if we have someone below to spit upon. A good analogy would be Indian opposition to ending Apartheid in South Africa. It also partly explains why many Northerners working in the factories were pro-slavery: My life as an Irish immigrant in a textile mill sucks, but at least I’m not a slave…”

    D) At the beginning of the war, a sense of adventure – young men often thrill at the beat of the drums. I don’t think this has much explanatory power when it comes to why the shivering kid at Petersburg kept soldiering on, but it does get boys into uniform.

    E) Later, rage at the invasion of their homeland. Much of the rage was probably also at the North’s goal of upsetting society by freeing the slaves, but there is a stand-alone rage that comes from hearing that your house was burned to the ground.

    F) The Cult of Masculinity – the perverting nature of slavery made it imperative for Southern men to have a “face,” prepared to meet any threat or insult with violence. A military career was held in high esteem. There was a greater martial culture in the South than the North.

    G) Brotherhood – Once they’d seen the elephant, I don’t doubt that many men fought in order to save their blood brothers and to avoid being shamed in front of them. Keegan has some great work on the role of brotherhood in later wars, and it makes sense that the same dynamic would be at work in the Civil War as well. Some recent historians like Chandra Manning have argued that soldiers in the Civil War were much more ideological than their later counterparts, so I think we need to be careful how highly we rank this item.

    Answering the question of why Union soldiers fought is much more complex. The north was much more vibrant ideologically and did not have the same unifying culture as the south.

    A) Religion There is no doubt that many abolitionists joined the colors to accomplish their goals by force (See: Beecher’s “War and Emancipation” sermon in which he is ecstatic about sodomizing the South with the “red hot iron” of war). It was a religious crusade to many.

    B) Many 48ers joined up and their unit mottoes revealed an enlightenment (as opposed to religious) condemnation of slavery.

    C) Lincoln’s “Polking” at Fort Sumter fooled many Northerners into believing that it was a war to preserve the union and had nothing to do with slavery.

    D) I don’t doubt many Northerners joined out of a sense of adventure.

    E) Many Irish immigrants joined up in order to achieve citizenship and as a job.

    F) Many were forced to join when they were drafted.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Nice to hear from you. I assume when you say “we read” you are referring to your classes. It’s nice to know that I have a fellow teacher in Virginia who is doing so thorough a job with this issue in class. I also have my students read from Fitzhugh. As you know the issue of why men fought on both sides is complex. Keep up the good work.

      Reply
  26. David Rhoads

    Kevin, you wrote:

    “To the extent that we’ve discussed it students have a much easier time understanding why white southerners joined Confederate ranks early on before the draft. The threat of invasion and defense of home come easily to mind as well the defense of a new government…. On the other hand my students have a real difficulty identifying with northern volunteers. The emphasis on the preservation of the Union or fighting to maintain the integrity of the nation seems foreign and even a bit naive to some.”

    I just finished reading the April 2010 issue of Civil War Times (the one with your article on Confederate desertions, Kevin–nice article, by the way), which includes a reprint of an 1879 interview with Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who briefly discusses this very issue. Asked if “the Southern troops, in defending their own soil, were inspired by stronger motives than the Northern troops, who were intruders”, Longstreet answers:

    “I think not. The sentiment in favor of the Union and memories that cling about the old flag were just as strong, if not stronger, than the love of the soil of the states and the feeling aroused in defending homes. There were thousands of men in every state who turned against their native states in deference to this love of the Union and joined with the Federals in invading their own homes. It is impossible to overestimate the love that the Federals had for the Union and the old flag. It was a love that was born with the Revolution and cemented with the blood of our fathers.”

    This strikes me as a fairly convincing testament, coming as it does from someone who did his best during the war to help break the Union and achieve Confederate independence, and who was certainly not naive about the desperation of the struggle.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Thanks for the kind words re: my CWTs article. I also read the Longstreet interview and thought it was very interesting. Keep in mind that Longstreet had established close relationships and political connections with the Republican Party by 1879 so that response should be understood in that context.

      Reply

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