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America Against Itself

Most historians of the Civil War today would agree with McPherson’s conclusion that the war was revolutionary in nature. A turning point came when General George B. McClellan failed in 1862 to capture Richmond, Virginia, by advancing up the peninsula between the York and James rivers—the disastrous Peninsula campaign. McClellan’s withdrawal was a bitter and sobering occasion. Nearly a quarter of his unwounded men were sick from malaria, typhoid, and dysentery. After his defeat, McPherson writes, “the North would fight not to preserve the old Union but to destroy it and build a new one on the ashes.” In the end four million slaves were liberated at a cost of about 620,000 lives. David Potter remarked that “for every six slaves who were freed, approximately one soldier was killed,” and suggested that this was a rather high price.3 Was it? McPherson does not say; he simply reminds us that “in 1865 few black people and not many northerners doubted the answer.”

Many Confederates, too, eventually came to believe that defeat was for the best. But why did Confederates lose their bid for independence? McPherson hedges, but largely rejects the standard explanations. He reminds us that few historians believe southerners were so foolish as to enter a war they must inevitably lose and that other countries have achieved victories against equally overwhelming odds. He also suggests without much commentary that internal dissent may have weakened the rebels, perhaps fatally.

Surely growing resentment of the planters by southern yeomen helped to undermine the will of the southern forces. One southern woman informed the Confederate secretary of war that “thare is no use in keeping a man thare [in the army] to kill him and leave widows and poore little orphen children to suffer.” Such appeals were useless, remarks McPherson, “so thousands of husbands discharged themselves.” Political differences related to past politics also eroded morale. But to the extent that McPherson argues that the states’ rights activities of certain governors crippled the southern effort, he over-states the case. It is true that when Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina and Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia attempted to supply their own troops, they seemed to threaten the supremacy of the central government. But as a practical matter, they helped to maintain the army, and far from subtracting from the total resources of the Confederacy, they added to them. They were also criticized for upholding local prerogatives, but no one did more to head off serious local disaffection than Vance and Brown, who initiated badly needed relief efforts for the benefit of soldiers’ families while Davis’s government did little for them. Some historians claim, with justice it seems to me, that southern morale was undermined and individual and national will was destroyed by the disillusion and suffering of the yeomen and their families. But the governers helped them when the Confederacy would not, or could not.

McPherson is certain that defeat was not simply a question of morale or will, because the North had the same problem, as in truth it did. But this is very much like arguing that if both sides had been short of ammunition, lack of munitions could not be one cause of the outcome. The deeper question that must be asked is which side was most deficient? Which would have run out of bullets and shells—or the will to win—first? McPherson believes that the southern leadership may very well bear some responsibility for defeat, but he asserts that explanations involving leadership, morale, and will commit “the fallacy of reversibility—that is, if the outcome had been reversed some of the same factors could be cited to explain Confederate victory.”

However, a recent study, in which this reviewer had a hand, has suggested that the Confederacy lacked a sufficient sense of nationalism to support national will, and that when victories became infrequent and the Confederate war goal changed from maintaining slavery to achieving independence for its own sake, many Confederates felt betrayed. They resented a war that was no longer intended to save their domestic institutions; their will to continue the war crumbled as they watched the casualty lists lengthen.4 A small part of this argument pointed to the Paraguayan war of 1865–1871 as an example of what a country could do if it had sufficient commitment, for almost every male between the ages of twelve and sixty served in the army, and 56 percent of the Paraguayan population perished. McPherson seizes upon this minor part of the argument, and wonders whether the authors of Why the South Lost believe that Confederates should have done what the Paraguayans did. But the case of Paraguay was used merely to point out that the South could have done more, had it had the desire to do so.

It is to the credit of Confederate leaders that they did not fight after April 1865, either in conventional or guerrilla warfare, although the latter, which could have been damaging, was suggested. McPherson provides numerous examples of how southern guerrillas became expert in causing trouble for the Union army. Lee and Johnston, and others as well, rejected the proposal. As one former Confederate wrote after the war was over—underlining the obvious, one would think—the “soldier in the trenches, knee-deep in blood and mire, has the right to look to the statesman and require him to act his part.” 5 Throwing in the towel when all reasonable hope of success is gone, when the people’s will is dissolved, and when bloodshed is the only sure result, is a sign of wisdom and humanity.

McPherson is reluctant to assign Confederate defeat to any single reason, believing that at several points the war might well have gone the other way. He calls this “contingency.” McPherson sees four of these “major turning points,” or “contingencies.” He seems to suggest that a shift in local circumstances or in leadership could in each case have produced a different outcome, with the result that the South might have won. The first was the summer of 1862, when Confederate counteroffensives in both eastern and western theaters prevented Union victories. Other “turning points” were the Confederate setbacks at Antietam and Perryville, which postponed the possibility of European recognition of Davis’s government; the Union victories at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga in the summer and fall of 1863; and the events of the summer of 1864, when Federal casualties undermined Union morale and will, and gave some hope for the defeat of President Lincoln in the fall elections. “But the capture of Atlanta and Sheridan’s destruction of Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley clinched matters for the North,” McPherson writes. “Only then did it become possible to speak of the inevitability of Union victory.” He claims that “the loss of will thesis” puts “the cart before the horse. Defeat causes demoralization and loss of will; victory pumps up morale and the will to win.” But the point of the thesis that the loss of will caused the South’s defeat is that the Confederates started out with weaker morale and less will to fight than they should have had. Once defeat began to erode that will, it brought further defeat.

As if to disprove his own thesis, moreover, McPherson discusses the deep problems of southern morale. He gives vivid accounts of the bread riots in Richmond, Davis’s gloom after Bragg withdrew from Chattanooga in 1863, of desertion in the army, destitution on the domestic front, the disaster of Confederate finances, the development of peace movements, and the feeling that God had forsaken the South. These are not mere contingencies. They spring partly from military defeat, as McPherson believes; but they also caused military defeat, because Confederate morale and will were sustained only by military victories, not by an enduring sense of nationalism that could have withstood ever more frequent bad news from the front. So many Confederate deserters went home by 1863 that they were looked upon by Jefferson Davis as a promising source of man-power. By the middle of 1864 the Confederate army had only about 257,000 men in uniform out of a paper strength of over 400,000.6 This was not just a contingency either. What better demonstration could there be of the destruction of Confederate will?

The notion of contingency also reminds us of the role of chance in history. Historians generally do not like to talk about chance. They like to ascribe effects to precise causes, or at least to possible causes. Contingency therefore runs against the grain of most historians, although that does not mean there may not be something to it. The difficulty is that contingency works both ways. What if the Union had captured Richmond in the summer of 1861, or the spring of 1862? What if Lincoln’s mistaken belief in the strength of southern Unionism had been an accurate assessment of the situation? What if…. But this is the trap into which “contingency” leads us.

Grant is one of McPherson’s heroes. Guilty at Shiloh of overconfidence and failure to entrench his troops, he also tended to drink too much. McPherson turns that to the advantage of Grant, believing that it forced the general to “struggle for self-discipline,” while his prewar humiliations “gave him a quiet humility that was conspicuously absent from so many generals with a reputation to protect.” Grant also understood the political implications of what he was doing. McPherson gives Lincoln and Lee the respect that virtually all Civil War historians seem bound to accord them—how convenient for us historians; we allow each section to take pride in the self-immolation of the dreadful war.

McPherson’s praise is not unqualified, however. He finds that during the secession crisis Lincoln failed to comprehend the conditional character of southern Unionism—conditional on Lincoln’s not being elected or not attempting to force back into the Union any states that tried to leave—but he grew in wisdom and self-confidence. Lee was successful in much that he attempted, notably at the battles of Chancellorsville and Second Manassas, and in his successful use of entrenchments, which forced Grant to fight the war of attrition that he had hoped to avoid. Lee nevertheless has some faults to answer for. He had as much trouble as other generals in comprehending the new weapons and other new military realities. Quoting Lee’s complaint after the defeat of McClellan in the summer of 1862 that the Federal army “should have been destroyed,” McPherson remarks that “this Napoleonic vision” characterized Lee’s thought until after the blood-bath at Gettysburg taught him to be more careful of his men. Lee’s successes were costly, for of the major commanders on both sides, his casualty rate was the highest.

Jefferson Davis is the prime scapegoat. McPherson does not think much of the distant and austere Confederate president, but his objections are on grounds not of personality but of lack of managerial skill. In 1863 when General Joseph E. Johnston called during the battle of Vicksburg for reinforcement of General John C. Pemberton by troops stationed in Arkansas, Davis merely suggested it be done, rather than ordered it done. Davis quarreled with Johnston and Pierre G.T. Beauregard, and he made a “maladroit visit” to the West in 1863 to investigate dissension in General Bragg’s top command. He declined to make difficult decisions, and “left behind a sullen army” when he returned east. He also lacked finesse. When Governor Vance of North Carolina suggested that Davis open peace negotiations in order to quiet the Confederate peace movement, Davis completely missed the point of Vance’s “Machiavellian subtlety.” Most historians have missed the point as well, and it is to McPherson’s credit that he understands Vance’s scheme. It is basic to our interpretation of the North Carolina governor, who was more loyal to the Confederacy than some historians believe.

One of the most useful aspects of McPherson’s work is his frequent discussion of the views of other historians on controversial questions. He neatly summarizes the debate over why the South failed to industrialize, for example, and on the much argued question of the profitability of slavery he does not openly take sides but gives a persuasive summary of the skeptical argument of historians who suggest that

investments in railroads and mills might have yielded higher returns than agriculture, that cotton was living on the borrowed time of an almost saturated market, and that whatever the rationality of individual planter reinvestment in agriculture the collective result inhibited the economic development of the South as a whole.

He also discusses the evidence for and against the existence of Confederate and Copperhead schemes for an uprising in the North, concluding that although nothing much ever came of the plots, “there was some real fire under that smokescreen of Republican propaganda,” a conclusion supported by Eli Evans’s recent biography of Judah P. Benjamin.7 The valuable bibliographical essay is nicely supplemented by shorter comments in the footnotes, dealing with such issues as the origins of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln’s decision to supply Fort Sumter, and Grant’s drinking problem. Indeed the footnotes are a survey of the literature of the Civil War era and suggest how comprehensively McPherson has combined his own research and interpretations with those of two generations of other scholars. He demonstrates a remarkable command of standard as well as recent bibliography.

There are some problems of emphasis here, although they pale beside McPherson’s achievements. Perhaps he could have devoted a little more attention to the problem of southern honor, which Bertram Wyatt-Brown has demonstrated to be so important in understanding the South.8 Some Confederates fought for honor in the first place, and others continued to fight at the end because honor seemed to require it. To fight valiantly and lose was honorable; not to fight at all would have been dishonorable. And McPherson’s claim that “the old federal republic in which the national government had rarely touched the average citizen except through the post-office” was replaced by the modern bureaucratic state seems exaggerated. The “weakened spring of government” (the phrase is Wallace D. Farnham’s9 ) was strengthened only temporarily; the government of the Gilded Age retreated to the normal condition of somnambulant torpor.

Whatever the reasons for Confederate defeat, McPherson believes, the consequences are unmistakable. In the first place, slavery was destroyed and secession ended, and “the several states bound loosely in a federal Union…[were fused] into a new Nation.” It also caused a dramatic shift in political power from South to North. He believes that before the war “it was the North that was out of the mainstream, not the South,” and that it was the war that “destroyed the southern vision of America and ensured that the northern vision would become the American vision.” The argument is persuasive. “Thus when secessionists protested that they were acting to preserve traditional rights and values,” McPherson concludes, “they were correct.”

The South’s concept of republicanism had not changed in three-quarters of a century; the North’s had. With complete sincerity the South fought to preserve its version of the republic of the founding fathers—a government of limited powers that protected the rights of property and whose constituency comprised an independent gentry and yeomanry of the white race undisturbed by large cities, heartless factories, restless free workers, and class conflict. The accession to power of the Republican party, with its ideology of competitive, egalitarian, free-labor capitalism, was a signal to the South that the northern majority had turned irrevocably toward this frightening, revolutionary future. Indeed, the Black Republican party appeared to the eyes of many southerners as “essentially a revolutionary party” composed of “a motley throng of Sans culottes…Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists.”

It would have been appropriate for an expert synthesizer like McPherson to give us a little more of his thoughts on the significance of the war. Each of the points he makes in the passages I have quoted could use some elaboration and no one is better prepared than McPherson to explore the meaning of the “Revolution” and “Counterrevolution” he believes took place. Two paradoxes are involved. First, Americans generally believe in a people’s right of self-determination, but that right was effectively suppressed by Abraham Lincoln. In spite of this, the “northern vision” eventually became the “American vision” and southerners adopted it as their own. Few southerners in the twentieth century seriously wish the Confederate counter-revolution had been successful. The second paradox lies in the observation that the suppression of the right of white southerners to chart their own future also made it possible for black southerners to enjoy some measure of self-determination—if not full democratic freedoms, blacks at least had more opportunities to realize their own hopes and dreams after the war than before it. Of course, many of the implications of McPherson’s closing remarks did not become clear until later, and he builds on the bases of earlier eras. It may be that editorial agreements with the authors of the prior and following volumes of the Oxford History preclude extended discussion of those brief remarks.

Certainly the war is the central event in our history, our most searing national experience. We can still feel its repercussions and will continue to do so for generations to come, yet the questions of its revolutionary character that McPherson poses remain to be fully investigated. But I do not mean to demand that excellence be improved. Whatever disagreement one may have with Battle Cry of Freedom, it is a masterful work that cannot be ignored by anyone who wants to consider how the young country managed to enter and then wage suicidal war with itself.

  1. 3

    Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, 2nd ed. (AMS Press, 1962), introduction.

  2. 4

    Beringer et al., Why the South Lost the Civil War.

  3. 5

    Selma, Alabama, Times (October 19, 1865), quoted in Thomas B. Alexander and Richard E. Beringer, The Anatomy of the Confederate Congress (Vanderbilt University Press, 1972), p. 342.

  4. 6

    Beringer et al., Why the South Lost the Civil War, pp. 479–480.

  5. 7

    Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate (The Free Press, 1988).

  6. 8

    Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 1982).

  7. 9

    ” ‘The Weakened Spring of Government’: A Study in Nineteenth-Century American History,” American Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 3 (April 1963), pp. 678–679.

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