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The Civil War Convulsion

1.

“The real war will never get in the books.” This may be the most famous sentence ever written about the Civil War, at least by a writer of literary consequence. But what kind of reality did Walt Whitman have in mind when he made that claim more than 130 years ago? And considering the scores of thousands of Civil War books that have appeared since, how well has the prediction held up?

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Granger Collection
Winslow Homer: Young Soldier, 1864

In the first place, he meant the reality he had seen, heard, and smelled while working as a nurse in a Union hospital: the sight of boys with worms burrowing into their wounds, the sound of their whispers as they dictated letters home, the smell of dysentery and gangrene mixed with chloroform and lime—all of which he tried to capture with phrases (“seething hell,” “butchers’ shambles,” “slaughter house”) whose lameness only made his point.

Even before its official start in 2011, the Civil War sesquicentennial has brought many attempts to prove Whitman wrong. There have been hour-to-hour accounts of the major battles, notably Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg; scholarly studies and popular biographies of key figures (Eric Foner on Lincoln, Michael Korda on Robert E. Lee); an “international history of the American Civil War” as a struggle between North and South for the allegiance of contending European powers (Don H. Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations); assessments of the war’s legal and literary ramifications (John Fabian Witt’s Lincoln’s Code, Randall Fuller’s From Battlefields Rising); as well as sweeping narratives of events before, during, and after the war (David Goldfield’s America Aflame, Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation).1

But perhaps most striking is the surge of books that belong to what might be called the school of gore—exemplified most recently by Mark M. Smith’s The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War—books that almost seem to savor the range of ways in which living bodies were converted into corpses by fire or disease, in mud or in bed, quickly enough to block awareness of death’s arrival, or slowly enough to taunt the dying with false promises of reprieve. The rise of the genre can be dated to 2008, with the publication of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, from which we learn that after three days of fighting at Gettysburg in July 1863, “six million pounds of human and animal carcasses lay” rotting in the sun—a numerical measure to which Faust adds eyewitness accounts of “blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.”2

But Whitman also had in mind another reality: the jumble of grievances, ideals, and conflicting interests that provoked the war in the first place. These he tried to sum up, from the Northern point of view, as

the People, of their own choice, fighting, dying for their own idea, insolently attack’d by the secession-slave-power,…not for gain, nor even glory, nor to repel invasion—but for an emblem, a mere abstraction—for the life, the safety of the flag.

The compound phrase “secession-slave-power” was a slippery one—as if he couldn’t decide whether the Civil War was about restoring the Union or destroying slavery, or, if it was some of both, what exactly was the relation between the two.

Many people in the North wanted to achieve the first without attempting the second. Early in the winter of 1861, the mayor of Brooklyn (not yet a borough of New York) encountered Whitman aboard the Fulton ferry and told him with suitable bluster that if only the Southern “fire-eaters would commit some overt act of resistance…they would then be at once so effectively squelched” that “we would never hear of secession again.” He said nothing about slavery, at least as far as we know. Others hoped for more. After the mayor got his wish with South Carolina’s artillery assault on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Boston abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson exulted that “War has flung the door wide open, and four million slaves stand ready to file through.”

It was a prospect sufficiently alarming to conservative Unionists that one of them, Democratic representative William Holman of Indiana, rose in the House to offer a resolution by which he meant to shut the door. “The sole object of the Government, in its present and future military operations,” he said, “ought to be, to maintain the integrity of the Union…and the protection of the constitutional rights of the loyal citizens of every State”—by which he had chiefly in mind the right to own slaves.

As the war dragged on, its divergent purposes converged, vindicating Frederick Douglass’s belief that by war would “be decided, and decided forever, which of the two, Freedom or Slavery, shall give law to this Republic.” The convergence came despite President Lincoln’s assurance to the South in his first inaugural address that his government would not interfere with slavery in states where it existed. As late as August 1862, in a letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln wrote that “my paramount purpose in this struggle is to save the union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”

But even before composing that letter, Lincoln had drafted a preliminary proclamation warning that slaves in any state still in rebellion at the end of the year would be freed by executive order. When, on January 1, 1863, he made good on his pledge, he did so, according to some scholars, with reluctance overcome only by his conviction that slave labor was an asset of which the enemy must be deprived. No less a historian than Richard Hofstadter, writing in an iconoclastic mood in 1948, when Carl Sandburg’s folksy Saint Abe still dominated the public mind, famously described the Emancipation Proclamation as having “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” This view of Lincoln’s antislavery sentiment as cool and mostly tactical has been endorsed many times since—perhaps because it suits our incapacity to believe that any politician can be motivated by ideals as well as interests.

But two years ago the historian James Oakes, in what is arguably the most significant interpretative work to appear during the sesquicentennial, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865, refuted the straitened view and argued that the Civil War was an abolition war from the start.3 Now, in a shorter book, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, Oakes has written a sort of prequel—showing how antebellum Republicans imagined a strategy for destroying slavery in which war was a last resort.

Freedom National recounted a series of ad hoc decisions whereby local field commanders, some with no previous history of antipathy to slavery, declined to return fugitive slaves to their masters. The first refusal came in June 1861, when General Benjamin Butler (later to become notorious as the Union commander in occupied New Orleans) received a petition from a Confederate officer for the return of three slaves who had fled to Butler’s position at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia. There were practical reasons to treat such fugitives as captured “contraband”—namely, to deprive the enemy of their labor and to put them to work for the Union. Improvised as it was, Butler’s explanation had lasting implications. To the Virginian’s request, submitted on the premise that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required rendition of runaways, he gave a clipped reply that nicely summed up the new situation: “The fugitive-slave act did not affect a foreign country which Virginia claimed to be.”

Here was precisely the reason why Republicans “assumed that the South would never secede,” in Oakes’s words: “Because that would mean war and with war came military emancipation.” His point is that for slave owners, some of whom understood the point very well, war was a staggering mistake, because the protection they enjoyed during peacetime—the almost universally accepted constitutional principle that the federal government had no authority over slavery in states whose laws allowed it—was utterly destroyed the instant the North decided to put down secession by force. Once the first shots were fired, emancipation was only a matter of time.

Why, then, did the South take the risk? This is where Oakes makes a distinctive contribution—by reconstructing the antislavery strategy that, in his view, forced slave owners into rebellion even at the risk of losing everything they were determined to defend. In Oakes’s telling, the Republican plan went something like this. First, slavery would be banned from territories regulated by Congress. This was the main plank of the Republican platform on which Lincoln was elected, and the policy that was most noxious to the South. Republicans also planned to obstruct enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, and thereby to encourage slaves to flee to freedom.

On this point, Lincoln was ambiguous in his first inaugural address, in which he halfheartedly endorsed that law, but Oakes reads the speech as undermining more than supporting it. Abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia was also part of the strategy, whereby freedom would be brought to the doorstep of the South. (Abolition was indeed achieved in the capital, but not until April 1862, when the war had been going on for a year.) Finally, Oakes cites Republican determination to hunt down and prosecute slave traders who violated the ban on the international slave trade, and even to extend the ban to coastal waterways.

By these cumulative steps slavery would be surrounded by a “cordon of freedom”—contained, cornered, and choked until, “like a scorpion girt by fire” (a metaphor commonly invoked at the time), it would go into its final frenzy and sting itself to death. Forced suicide was the denouement of the plan. As slave property in the upper South became insecure and the market for slaves showed signs of imminent collapse, slave owners in the border states would start selling off their human property. With western territories entering the Union as free states, Republican control of Congress (as well as the presidency, and eventually the Supreme Court) would be assured. Even in the deep South, slave owners would see the writing on the wall and give up the unwinnable fight—suing, in effect, for peace before war had begun.

This version of the Republican Party’s position has a certain implausible unity, and Oakes writes, perhaps, with a touch of nostalgia for a time when political parties had coherent platforms and stuck, as it were, to their guns. In retrospect, any expectation that slavery could, at least for many years, be driven down a path to “ultimate extinction” (a phrase used by Lincoln and others) by a combination of external and internal pressure seems improbable. Recent scholars such as Sven Beckert (Empire of Cotton, 2014), Walter Johnson (River of Dark Dreams, 2013), and Edward Baptist (The Half Has Never Been Told, 2014) emphasize the expansionist ambitions of slave owners, who dreamed of a slave dominion stretching not only westward but southward to Cuba and into the Caribbean. The slave power was not about to give up without a fight. If an older generation of historians once regarded slavery as a failing system by which the South was sliding into quasi-colonial dependency on the industrial North, younger scholars tend to stress the huge capital investment slavery represented and the enormous profits it yielded to large-scale owners with decisive political power, especially in the deep South.

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Private Collection/Bridgeman Images
Winslow Homer: Sounding Reveille, 1865

All this might seem to render Oakes’s version of the Republican strategy a fanciful one. But he takes us into an antebellum world where passions and panic on both sides rose beyond the reach of rationality. He shows how and why the war came as a surprise to Northerners who never thought the South would leave the Union or stay out of it for long, and as a shock to Southerners who never thought the North would actually fight (“orators of the South,” General William T. Sherman recalled in his memoir, “used, openly and constantly, the expressions that there would be no war, and that a lady’s thimble would hold all the blood to be shed”).

Although he never quite says so explicitly, Oakes seems to agree with the Republican view that “wartime emancipation imposed by the military was always an option, but nobody thought it was a particularly good way to abolish slavery.” Indeed some of the most rhetorically belligerent Republicans were pacifists at heart. Charles Sumner, for one, declared with characteristic absolutism in 1845, when war was looming with Mexico over the expansionist ambitions of Texas, that “there can be no peace that is not honorable: there can be no war that is not dishonorable.” Fifteen years later, representing Massachusetts in the United States Senate, Sumner discovered an honorable war.

But after 150 years and millions of pages of commentary, how honorable does the Civil War appear to us now? Was it a lamentable necessity, or the horrific price of political failure? Was it avertable, or, in William H. Seward’s memorable phrase, an “irrepressible conflict”? Historians who belong to the school of gore tend to evade these questions by retreating behind descriptive accounts of the savagery—though some, like Harry Stout, in Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (2006), have more or less condemned the war on pacifist grounds, and at least one, David Goldfield, in America Aflame (2011), says without embarrassment that he is “anti-war, particularly the Civil War,” because he believes that “the political system established by the Founders would have been resilient and resourceful enough” to solve the problem of slavery without plunging the nation into an ocean of death, and inciting the bitter racial animus whose long career is in some respects not yet over.

About such musings, one can only say, who knows? What I do know is that reading Oakes in conjunction with Faust and her followers is an oddly unsettling experience. He writes about the war with a distinctive combination of satisfaction and sorrow—as the scourge (Lincoln’s word) that finally delivered on the long-deferred promise of emancipation, but also as the tragic failure to find an alternative path to emancipation through politics. One finds oneself cheering and cringing at once—glad for the folly of the South in deciding to secede, since no one can say how long it would have taken to rid the nation of slavery if war had not furnished the means, but stunned by the scale of the dying (the latest estimate is three quarters of a million, roughly equivalent to eight million in proportion to today’s population), and hoping, as if watching a tragedy watched many times before, that the plot could somehow be revised to spare the numberless young from their predestined doom.

2.

With the sesquicentennial winding down—closing day is April 9, the anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—the task of writing Civil War history with due respect for its moral complexity is as challenging as ever. And perhaps the biggest challenge is to recover some sense of how the world looked in prospect to those who lived without our retrospective knowledge.

What, they must have wondered, if Lee had broken through at Gettysburg to threaten Washington? What if, as Lincoln expected, George McClellan had won the presidency on a peace platform in 1864, and the South had returned to the Union with slavery intact?

For generally good reasons, historians do not like to get entangled in such counterfactual speculation—but to exclude all thoughts of an alternative past is to lose contact with how it felt to peer into the inscrutable future. And so one is grateful for what may be the most valuable scholarly work yet to appear during the sesquicentennial—the four-volume anthology of Civil War writings, published by the Library of America since 2011 at the pace of one volume per year. To read through these pages is to experience something like walking through a museum without benefit of text panels or audio tour. Each volume opens with a short introduction summarizing the main events of the year, and concludes with chronologies, biographical, textual, and brief explanatory notes—just enough to give some context but barely a hint of interpretation. As the great Civil War scholar David Potter once wrote, “hindsight [is] the historian’s chief asset and his main liability.” This is Civil War history without hindsight.

And so, immersed in the rush of events, we witness the war beginning in a mood of collective insouciance. In Charleston, ladies went out under their parasols to watch the shelling of Fort Sumter, and one wrote in her diary that “after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt,” as if she wanted a refund for tickets to a disappointing show. When news of the attack reached Whitman’s New York, volunteers marched down Broadway with dangles of rope hanging from their guns to symbolize their intent to bring back rebel prisoners like trussed hogs.

But once the war got going in earnest, an impassable gulf opened up between observers and participants, as when Sam Watkins, who served the Confederacy in the First Tennessee Regiment, writes: “Now, if you wish, kind reader, to find out how many were killed and wounded, I refer you to the histories.” Professing ignorance of what the reader wants to know, he adds, “I do not pretend to give you figures, and describe how this General looked and how that one spoke, and the other one charged with drawn sabre.”

He writes of an officer “with both eyes shot out” who was found “rambling in a briar-patch.” Who lived and who died seemed a matter of chance:

We helped bring off a man by the name of Hodge, with his under jaw shot off, and his tongue lolling out. We brought off Captain Lute B. Irvine. Lute was shot through the lungs and was vomiting blood all the while, and begging us to lay him down and let him die. But Lute is living yet.

This writing anticipates what Edmund Wilson called in Patriotic Gore, his great literary history of the war, “the chastening of American prose style” that became manifest in the work of such Civil War veterans as Ambrose Bierce and John W. DeForest—writers who realized, long before Hemingway (chastened by a later war), that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” This kind of stylistic stringency, usually associated with such twentieth-century writers as Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway himself, is already evident throughout this anthology—a self-censoring style that reports facts and impressions with minimal interpretation. It is writing that shuts out concepts while delivering sensations—fear, relief, exhaustion, boredom, restlessness—on the premise that larger meanings are retrospective impositions, impertinent and inconceivable to men in chronic shock.

We are reminded, too, of how everyone’s war was a private war circumscribed by unsharable memories, and by the fact, as Wilbur Fisk, a Vermont schoolteacher who sent scores of letters from the front to his hometown newspaper, wrote, that a soldier’s “circle of observation is very limited. He sees but little of what is going on, and takes a part in still less.” Each side was convinced that it was fighting a just war, but each side faced the question of how to wage the war justly with the new technologies.

General Sherman was outraged to learn that “the rebels had planted eight-inch shells in the road, with friction-matches to explode them by being trodden on. This was not war, but murder, and it made me very angry.” With symmetrical indignation, young Watkins reports “one of the most shameful and cowardly acts of Yankee treachery” when a Union sniper, using one of the new rifles with long-distance accuracy, shot a Confederate soldier who had crawled out to give water to a wounded Yankee lying in no-man’s-land. We get, too, a vivid sense of the uncertainty, misapprehension, and mutual ignorance that envelops both sides, as when Confederate troops mistake the Connecticut flag for a flag of truce and walk into a slaughter.

While the anthology is especially valuable for yielding hints of what ordinary soldiers (if any soldier can be said to be ordinary) experienced, it is also a rewarding supplement to political histories that rely on the papers of political leaders, some of which are also included here. The story of Lincoln’s cautious advance toward emancipation, for example, is illuminated in selections from his public writings, as well as in a private letter from Hannah Johnson, the mother of a black Union soldier, who urges the president to stand by the Emancipation Proclamation: “When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises I know it.”

Another text, buried in the endnotes of the third volume, is from Lieutenant John Garland of the 42nd New York Infantry, who denounces the proclamation as unconstitutional and calls the “hearts” of Lincoln and his henchmen “blacker than the ‘nigger’ they are fighting for.” One comes away with a heightened sense of how narrow a path Lincoln had to follow.

Since the editors favor short excerpts, I miss more extended works such as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “My Hunt After the Captain” (1862), in which Holmes reprints the telegram by which he was informed, with an economy that seems a preview of today’s tweets, that his son (the future Supreme Court justice) has been wounded at Antietam:

HAGERSTOWN 17th

To Dr. Holmes
Capt Holmes wounded shot through the neck thought not mortal at Keedysville

WILLIAM G. LEDUC

Here is Dr. Holmes’s recollection of his reaction:

Through the neck,—no bullet left in wound. Windpipe, food-pipe, carotid, jugular, half a dozen smaller, but still formidable vessels, a great braid of nerves, each as big as a lamp-wick, spinal cord,—ought to kill at once, if at all. Thought not mortal, or not thought mortal,—which was it? The first; that is better than the second would be.—“Keedysville, a post-office, Washington Co., Maryland.” Leduc? Leduc? Don’t remember that name.—The boy is waiting for his money. A dollar and thirteen cents. Has nobody got thirteen cents? Don’t keep that boy waiting,—how do we know what messages he has got to carry?

So much is conveyed in these fragmentary sentences: the hyperrational mind trying desperately to parse the phrases, the frantic focus on his own son, the anxiety at keeping the telegraph boy from proceeding on his appointed rounds, carrying news to other fathers dreading news of other sons.

Any anthologist’s decision about what to put in and what to leave out is subject to second-guessing. But anyone who reads this collection will find in it a treasury of evidence, as one Union officer puts it, that “there is much that is beautiful as well as sad in these bloody events.” These books bring us as close to the “real war” as we are ever likely to get, while revealing the untraversable distance still to go.

  1. 1

    For a review of Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, see James M. McPherson, “The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln,” The New York Review, November 25, 2010, and for Goldfield, see McPherson, “What Drove the Terrible War?,” The New York Review, July 14, 2011.  

  2. 2

    On Faust, see the review by James M. McPherson in these pages, “Dark Victories,” April 17, 2008. More recently, in Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War (2013), the medical historian Margaret Humphreys shows how fast and far the new technologies of killing (land mines, repeating rifles, incendiary shells) outstripped the science of healing at a time when anesthesia was primitive and antisepsis almost unknown. Between amputations it was standard practice to wipe off surgical saws with any handy rag, and if a surgeon took time to try to save an arm or leg by extracting shrapnel or bone splinters, the result was likely to be a withered limb as useless as if it were gone.

    Other writers look beyond the battlefield to fill out the casualty lists. In Jim Downs’s Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (2012), we see formerly enslaved children caught between retreating and advancing armies, abandoned and starving, trying to eat the flesh off their own fingers. Jeffrey McClurken, in Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia (2009), recounts how soldiers who came home visibly mutilated could expect the deference accorded to heroes, while those outwardly unscathed but inwardly ruined were regarded as cowards, and he brings into view as well what today might be called collateral psychological damage: mothers and fathers who, having watched their sons march to the killing fields, fell into morbid anxiety or suicidal depression.  

  3. 3

    See David Brion Davis, “How They Stopped Slavery: A New Perspective,” The New York Review, June 6, 2013. For an account that anticipates some of Oakes’s arguments, see Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1970), especially chapter 9.