• Email
  • Print

Goodbye to All That

The book that Edmund Wilson published a few years ago on the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore, threatened to say the last word on that subject. It was rich, ample, and diverse, full of good portraits and good narrative; it teemed with intuitions and insights. Still, I have always thought the book gave less than it promised. There is no way of extracting from it a usable theory of the Civil War’s consequences, of just what changes the war worked upon the American imagination, sensibility, and intellect. George Fredrickson’s The Inner Civil War—far shorter, more modest, less diffuse, more programmatic, and in many ways imaginatively less free—is nevertheless a highly successful effort to do just that. Wilson’s individual studies are often flashingly suggestive; some—those on Grant and Holmes—are so fine on any grounds that the question of a comprehensive pattern may on those points become impertinent. But his long covering essay—the scandalous “sea slug” piece, which was intended in some way to unify all his perceptions and show how little dignity the war had as a collective experience—is more effective in paralyzing our thought than in liberating it. Fredrickson’s occasional individual portraits are somewhat lacking in contour. Yet his analysis of what the war did to the minds of those individuals, and to the intellectual setting of their generation, is brilliant; it opens a range of possibilities for understanding the remainder of the nineteenth century. There are grave questions as to where, beyond Wilson, one is to go; upon Fredrickson’s perceptions, one may build.

For example, what exactly have our major wars done to exhibit the “conservative” side of the American psyche? Why would a civil rights movement not have been likely to occur directly after World War II? What would have been incongruous about a temper of political and social radicalism after World War I? Why no “Progressive Era” in the wake of the Civil War? On this last question at least, there is much to be learned from Fredrickson. It is not really a question of “reaction.” It has less to do with going sour than with a major displacement and reallocation of the imaginative energies, a rearrangement of Americans’ conscious relationship to their institutions.

FREDRICKSON IS CONCERNED with the drama of what happened to two kinds of pre-war sensibility. One was the Transcendental sensibility of such figures as Emerson, Garrison, and Theodore Parker. The other was that of such Brahmin intellectuals as Francis Parkman, Charles Eliot Norton, and the Holmeses, representatives of a class for whom an elite of culture and an elite of money still could, or should, go hand in hand. His major theme is the radical anti-institutionalism of that generation, its condemnation of civil, religious, or military establishments of any sort as stultifying to creative life. The Transcendentalist concern for humanitarian reform was not inconsistent with an ideal of privacy, detachment, and cultivation of the individual’s “mental and moral powers.” Most of the diverse objectives of reform had by the 1850s been absorbed into the dominant obsession of slavery, and the abolition movement was promoted not so much through institutions—Garrison was a “no-government” man as well as an abolitionist—as through a call for individual purgation from the national sin of slaveholding. The South’s response to the call was of course violent, furious, and intransigent.

The Brahmins as a class had little use for the egalitarian side of reform, but they found the self-culture side of Transcendentalism hard to resist. The patrician class, supposedly emasculated by luxury, suspected itself of losing its qualities of leadership. It was this preoccupation that led Francis Parkman, for one, to seek solitary communion and self-renewal by plunging into the rigors of the wilderness. Whether the masses would accept patrician leadership any more—even if available—short of some noble occasion, was problematical. It was as though men of sensibility, all over the North, ached for a great unifying national crisis. When one came, at any rate, they welcomed it with almost unanimous ardor.

A remarkable thing about the John Brown affair of 1859 was the effectiveness with which it fused so many kinds of emotion and blurred so many intellectual distinctions. Theodore Parker, the foremost liberal clergyman of his time, could endorse the actions of an unhinged fanatic and think of Brown both as an Old Testament prophet and as one who embodied the enlightened principles of the American Revolution. For Emerson, the “American Scholar” was apparently no longer a withdrawn and harmless figure; he was John Brown, “an idealist whose inner voice commanded him to shed blood.” Norton thought Brown had raised the tone of the national character. To humanitarians and friends of order alike, Brown’s civil disobedience was as nothing to the barbarity, expansionism, and lawlessness of the South that had provoked it. All they could see was a superb contempt for death in the face of the whole fury and arrogance of the Slave Power. By April 1861, the secession crisis having culminated with the firing on Sumter, men of the widest variety of temperament were already psychologically prepared for an armed crusade.

VIRTUALLY the entire intellectual community of the North supported the Republican party (Bronson Alcott went to the polls for the first time in his life to vote for Abraham Lincoln), and war came as a release for a reservoir of pent-up feeling. For the reformer it promised the final assault upon slavery and the bloody chastisement of an unrepentant South. For the Brahmin, it was a call to austerity, self-sacrifice, and duty, the chance to reveal to the nation its natural leaders in its hour of need. Emancipation, which came in 1862, was welcomed by both. William Lloyd Garrison, who in his time had inveighed against government, laws, and institutions, was seeing an ideal of thirty years being enacted through government auspices. By now a solid Lincoln man, he was ready to close up shop. Even conservative elements supported emancipation as a stern military necessity. Negro rights, indeed, became almost fashionable after the despicable behavior of the Irish in the 1863 draft riots. The martyrdom of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, killed while leading the Negro 54th Massachusetts in battle, was a symbol and a purgation. A gallant officer could die in the cause of Negro freedom and at the same time show that the upper class could produce a Christian hero.

A number of very strong convictions were overcome amid the demands of war. The non-resistant and non-violent strain in humanitarian thought had become a thing of the past; the inconsistency of coercion with moral reform was no longer a difficulty; the Declaration of Independence, insofar as it meant unqualified government by consent and the legitimate right of revolution, was ruthlessly redefined for the crisis at hand. Such a “right,” according to Wendell Phillips, was not being exercised legitimately. Phillips declared, in effect, that there were good revolutions and bad, and that this was a bad one. Loyalty to the national state became a new and absorbing doctrine. Meanwhile the anti-institutionalism, the radical individualism, and all the anarchic shapes which humanitarian attitudes had once assumed were submerged and transformed. The national crisis had made them somehow irrelevant.

In all such respects the career of the United States Sanitary Commission provides a neat case study, and Fredrickson’s chapter on it is rather a tour de force. The Sanitary Commission, which was “the largest, most powerful, and most highly organized philanthropic activity that had ever been seen in America,” performed a variety of functions. It coordinated relief for the sick and wounded, and augmented the work of the Army Medical Bureau in providing nurses, hospitals, and ambulance service, inspecting camps, and gathering statistics. Its accomplishments were enormous, and historians have generally tended to think of the Commission as a “kindly beacon” of benevolence, a splendid quintessence of the American humanitarian spirit in action amid the grim bleakness of war. To examine the actual philosophy of the Commission, however, and the quality of the satisfactions derived by its leadership from their efforts, is to modify that legend in certain interesting particulars.

THE COMMISSION was dominated by intellectuals of the highest social class, such as George Templeton Strong. Henry Bellows, and Frederick Law Olmsted. To Charles J. Stillé, a member of the executive committee and chronicler of the movement, “humanitarianism” was a highly repellent word. Their objectives were sternly tough-minded. They did not believe in playing on the public’s sympathies, nor was the alleviation of suffering an end in itself. The main concern was efficiency in conserving “the life and strength of the National soldier.” The movement was a high opportunity, moreover, for educating the nation in the values of order, duty, and purposeful work. Suffering itself could be a useful discipline. The strictest procedures were insisted upon in the distribution of supplies, often to the point of hard-heartedness. The Commission had little faith in well-meaning volunteers who endangered the discipline of the hospitals; it preferred to depend on paid agents with professional standards.

The experience of the Sanitary Commission had certain clear by-products and after-effects. The ground had been prepared for many of the later notions of scientific welfare; a changed attitude toward suffering would permit a certain callousness toward the discomforts of the poor in peacetime; and there was a proven basis upon which upper-class activists might carry on philanthropic work for practical, non-utopian, even conservative purposes. Above all, the movement had been representative of a “new willingness of Americans to work in large, impersonal organizations.” The case of Josephine Shaw Lowell, sister of the martyred colonel and widowed bride of Charles Russell Lowell (who also died in battle), is paradigmatic. Josephine Lowell—stoic, regal, and terrifying—served in the Sanitary Commission and was to become the philosopher of the charity organization movement of the 1880s and ‘90s, having herself founded the New York society in 1882. It too was superbly organized. The new movement insisted that all public and most private relief was demoralizing to the poor and undermined their character. For almsgiving it substituted “friendly visiting,” with advice on selfhelp and moral improvement. Mrs. Lowell pictured it always not as a ministry to the suffering but as a veritable military challenge—as a ruthless, pitiless war on poverty and vice.

Fredrickson shows very convincingly what happened to the prewar intellectual modes of individualism and anti-institutionalism. Emerson himself, who in 1861 had welcomed the war spirit because he thought there was nothing institutionalized about it, would in time join the Union League Club of Boston, serve as chairman of the school committee of Concord, become a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and accept an official visitorship to West Point. And yet in the last analysis all this does not mean what it seems to mean. Fredrickson is too circumspect an observer to argue that there was, in any simple sense, a reaffirmation by Americans of institutional connections and institutional loyalties. Knowing that his story cannot be made to turn out that way—that despite enormous changes there never was a clear re-vindication either of upper-class leadership or of anything like an organic social and political institutional establishment—he ends it on other themes. Social Darwinism, dangerous sport for the young and organized college athletics, an emerging preoccupation with “social science”—all are themes that have a clear development from the transformed concerns of the Civil War experience. But how does this relate back to institutions? What sort of turnabout, in this respect, did occur? Perhaps the key must come from Tocqueville, who perceived a profound distinction in American life between institutions and organizations.

CERTAIN FEATURES of American culture have perennially both fascinated and frightened Europeans. One is a kind of individualism and disrespect for institutions that seems to border on anarchy; another is an almost phenomenal capacity for organization. The unnerving thing about the organizations Americans create is that they are so stark. They are developed for a concrete particular purpose; they do not in themselves generate any great loyalties; the very features that endow European institutions with a corporate life of their own—habit and tradition—have next to no authority here. There is nothing at all sacred about the T/O of General Motors—and not very much, even, about that of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

The “institution” with which the North won the Civil War—the Army of the United States—was in no recognizable sense an institution at all, nor was it ever treated as one. It started out with some 16,000 regulars and a small number of Regular Army officers whom the commanding general, Winfield Scott, did not spread around but kept together. Most of the West Pointers had either gone into business or (many being Southerners) entered the Confederate service. But what in time came out of this, in personnel, techniques, and habits of mind, was something dramatically new and different: a huge and formidable ad hoc organization built up with rising energy in response to a specific challenge. Then in May, 1865, only weeks after Lee’s surrender, the whole juggernaut was dismantled and dispersed with not a regret.

For those directly engaged in this and other organized aspects of the war effort, the psychological mechanism that enabled such a transition to be made partook only in a limited way of the philosophical. There was something typically hard-boiled about it, the expression of which was hardly limited to such upper-class folk as Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes. Corporate loyalty was the lesser side; the dominant side was something that might be called the morality of the job. Adjusting to the task immediately before them, the principal standard being little more than a kind of stark efficiency, enabled people of amazingly diverse temperaments in an egalitarian and individualistic culture to discipline themselves and work in a highly organized setting.

WHAT THEY CAME OUT WITH was a profound impression, through direct personal experience, of how much widescale organization just in itself could accomplish. The impression was so pervasive that both the specific means and the ultimate ends were almost irrelevant. When we think of the country’s prodigious industrialization in the three decades following, this is what we should be referring to when we say that it got its first real thrust—not so much in technology as in sheer psychic energy—from the Civil War. The quality of that thrust is well known. It was characterized by organizations without traditions, unencumbered by old habits, with few overriding standards, without higher social or even economic purpose, and with very little in the way of clearly articulated moral or intellectual rationale. The men who controlled them could do so without inhibitions and without scruple. The result was Union Pacific, Standard Oil, Homestead Steel.

The experience with organization, and the adjustment to individual distress that had to be made in the face of suffering on a scale no American had dreamed of, may do something to account for the special qualities—the moral self-containment, the self-righteousness, the insensitivity—that characterized the Civil War generation as it moved through maturity and middle age during the remainder of the nineteenth century. It seems to have been these qualities, as much as anything, that formed the point of resistance for intellectuals of the Progressive generation that followed. Their revolt involved both a return to humanity and a specific rejection of the more fearsome organizational feats of their fathers.

  • Email
  • Print