Two issues that have generated the most animated debates among historians of the American Civil War are the causes of the war and the causes of Confederate defeat. Indeed, these are among the most important questions in all of American history. If the war had never happened, or if it had occurred but the Confederacy had won its independence, the United States would be an incalculably different country today. As Mark Twain put it a few years after Appomattox, the war “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”1 Five generations later, historians are still trying to measure its influence and explain its origins and outcome.
In his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln looked back over four years of war that had cost 620,000 lives. Everyone recognized, he said, that the institution of slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war.”2 Most historians have agreed with Lincoln. Fifty years after the war the leading Civil War historian of his day, James Ford Rhodes, expressed this consensus: “Of the American Civil War it may safely be asserted that there was a single cause, slavery.”3 Three quarters of a century later, Ken and Ric Burns’s enormously popular PBS television documentary The Civil War and the accompanying book made the same point. Slavery was the “one issue that more than any other divided North from South,” they wrote. Slavery “is the heart of the matter in any explanation” of the decision by Southern leaders for secession and war.4
Yet from the first some of Lincoln’s contemporaries and some historians have resisted this thesis. Most of them have been white Southerners. The president and vice-president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens, set the tone for these dissenters. In books written soon after the war, both made the same point: Southern states did not secede and go to war to protect slavery, but to vindicate state rights. The Confederacy, Davis insisted, fought solely for “the defense of an inherent, unalienable right…to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered…. The existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”5 Stephens likewise insisted that “Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles… of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other…were finally brought into… collision with each other on the field of battle.”6
When Davis and Stephens wrote these apologias, slavery was a dead and discredited institution. To concede that the Confederacy had broken up the United States and launched a war that killed 620,000 Americans in a vain attempt to keep four million people in slavery would not confer honor on their lost cause. But in 1861, when slavery flourished and was considered by most Southern whites to be divinely ordained, they had spoken differently. Then Jefferson Davis, a large slaveholder himself, had justified secession as an act of self-defense against the new Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln, whose policy of excluding slavery from the territories would make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless…thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”7 And in a famous speech at Savannah in March 1861, Stephens proclaimed the Republican threat to the future survival of slavery to be “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution” of Confederate independence. The old Union had been founded on the false idea that all men are created equal. The new Confederacy, said Stephens,
is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.8
Over the years since the war many Southern whites have preferred to cite Davis’s and Stephens’s post-1865 writings rather than their claims of 1861. After watching The Civil War on PBS, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans complained about its emphasis on slavery. “The cause [of the war] was secession,” he said, “and the cause of secession could have been any number of things. This overemphasis on the slavery issue really rankles us.”9 Anyone who has spoken before such groups as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Civil War Round Tables in the South, and the like can offer anecdotal evidence of their insistence that slavery had little to do with secession and the Confederacy. For them the cause of secession was “any number of things”: the tariff, state rights, Northern aggression, defense of home and hearth, tragic misunderstanding—anything but slavery.
It is not hard to understand the reluctance of Southern whites to believe—or at least to admit—that the noble Cause for which their ancestors fought might have included the defense of slavery. That is why they have embraced other interpretations of the origins of sectional conflict that have flourished at one time or another. From the 1920s to the 1940s the “Progressive school” dominated American historiography. This school posited a clash between economic interest groups and classes as the central theme of American history: industry vs. agriculture, capital vs. labor, producers vs. consumers contending over such issues as tariffs, taxes, land policy, subsidies, and the like. According to this interpretation, the Civil War transferred to the battlefield the long-running contest between plantation agriculture and industrializing capitalism. Slavery happened to be the principal form of labor for plantation agriculture, but the real struggle was not freedom against slavery but a manufacturing economy against an agricultural one.
The principal sponsor of this thesis was the midwestern Yankee Charles Beard, but because his sympathies lay with the planters and farmers who lost the war rather than the industrial robber barons who won it, Southern whites latched onto Beard’s interpretation as a godsend. None stated his support more forcefully than Frank Owsley, an Alabaman and one of the most influential historians of the South from the 1920s to the 1950s. The Civil War, wrote Owsley in 1930, resulted from the “fundamental differences” between the “agrarian South and the commercial and industrial North.” Slavery
was part of the agrarian system, but only one element and not an essential one…. The fundamental and passionate ideal for which the South stood and fell was the ideal of an agrarian society…the old and accepted manner of life for which Egypt, Greece, Rome, England, and France had stood.
Such a civilization stood in the way of Northern capitalism with its “doctrine of intolerance, crusading, standardizing alike in industry and in life. The South had to be crushed out; it was in the way; it impeded the progress of the machine. So Juggernaut drove his car across the South.”10
It was no coincidence that this interpretation flourished during the same years that the novel and movie Gone With the Wind were becoming the greatest popular successes of all time. History and popular culture on that occasion marched hand in hand. Gone With the Wind still evokes rebel yells and tears of nostalgia in certain quarters. But few serious historians share that viewpoint any more. The primacy of the slavery issue—in particular the issue of the expansion of slavery into new territories and states after 1845—has reemerged in modern historiography as the principal cause of secession.
Michael A. Morrison’s Slavery and the American West shows in exhaustive detail just how the controversy over the expansion of slavery grew increasingly bitter and divisive until it provoked the departure of the lower-South states in response to Lincoln’s election in 1860 on a platform of containing slavery. But the distinction drawn by the spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans between the causes of secession and the cause of the war is a valid and important one. Maury Klein’s new study of the background to the Fort Sumter crisis shows how the secession of seven states transformed the main question from freedom vs. slavery to union vs. disunion.
The density of Morrison’s treatment of the territorial issue is both a weakness and a strength. His speech-by-speech account of congressional debates and political campaigns from 1844 to 1861 makes the book hard going for even the most dogged reader. But this heavyweight presentation of evidence certainly supports the author’s conclusion that “the issues of expansion and slavery extension were critical to the destruction of Whiggery, the resonance of Republican and fire-eater appeals, the disruption of the Democracy, the election of Lincoln, and the secession of the South.” From the election of 1848, when an Illinois Whig observed that “nothing is talked of—but Slavery—free territory—& the Wilmot Proviso,” to the fateful election of 1860 when it was “the only question entering the canvass,” according to a Kentucky Democrat, the issue of slavery in the territories drove a wedge between the free states and slave states that finally split them in twain.
Nor was the territorial controversy an abstraction—a quarrel over “an imaginary Negro in an impossible place,” as historians who dismissed the substantive importance of the issue once maintained. Between 1803 and 1845 the United States nearly tripled in size with the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of Florida, and the annexation of Texas. Thomas Jefferson, who began this process, expected the new lands to become an Empire for Liberty. But every state that came into the Union by 1845 from these territories was a slave state: Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas plus the southern portions of Alabama and Mississippi. The acquisition of California and the Southwest from Mexico in 1848 opened a vast new region to American settlement and provoked corrosive debates over slavery in these and the Louisiana Purchase territories where slavery was made possible by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. While slavery seemed unlikely to take root in Nebraska or Oregon, it did become legal for a few years in the territories of Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah and in Indian Territory (most of present-day Oklahoma). And one reason for diehard Southern opposition to the admission of California as a free state in 1850 was a conviction that slavery could flourish in the mines and agriculture of that region.
A key to understanding the substantive urgency of the territorial debate in the 1850s is a recognition that it concerned not only the boundaries of the existing United States but also potential future acquisitions. Many Americans in 1850 had seen the size of the country quadruple in their own lifetimes. There was little reason for them to expect this process to stop. The most likely direction for future expansion was to the south. Southern Democrats pressed for the acquisition of Cuba in the 1850s. If they had succeeded, another 400,000 slaves would have entered the Union. Southern adventurers also invaded Nicaragua and northern Mexico in efforts to aquire these regions for the United States—and slavery. In 1856 the Tennessee native William Walker proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua and issued a decree reestablishing slavery there before he was overthrown and driven out. Although none of these schemes succeeded, they exacerbated the slavery controversy more than Morrison acknowledges in his brief and inadequate reference to the matter.
In another respect that may seem an abstraction today but was very real to antebellum Southern white men, slavery in the territories was a central issue. For Northerners like Abraham Lincoln to brand slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and “unqualified evil” that should be excluded from the territories was to insult Southerners by damning their “peculiar institution” as immoral and unworthy. This impugned their honor, and as Bertram Wyatt-Brown has shown, honor was the central value in Southern white male culture; for them it was not merely the symbol of their manhood and reputation; it was the essence. 11
To say that a slaveholder could not carry his property to the territories was, according to an Alabama editor, to say “that a free citizen of Massachusetts was a better man and entitled to more privileges than a free citizen of Alabama.” Supreme Court Justice Peter Daniel, a Virginian, resented this “insulting exclusiveness…which says in effect to the Southern man, Avaunt! You are not my equal, and hence are to be excluded as carrying a moral taint with you.” When Lincoln was elected president by exclusively Northern votes, Southerners, as one newspaper editorial put it, considered this outcome “a deliberate, cold-blooded insult and outrage” that must be replied to by the challenge of secession. “No other ‘overt act’ can so imperatively demand resistance on our part,” declared a North Carolina congressman, “as the simple election of their candidate.”12
But the resistance he had in mind, secession, did not necessarily mean war. The incoming Lincoln administration could have repudiated the platform on which it was elected and granted the Southern states every concession they demanded. Or Lincoln could have “let the erring sisters depart in peace,” as some in the North advised. But Lincoln did neither. Worse, he compounded the insult to Southern honor and Southern rights by maintaining a garrison flying the American flag at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor. In Days of Defiance, Maury Klein presents a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of how “the oldest, deadliest, most divisive conflict of a proud nation [came] down, after decades of bitter strife, to a dispute over an insignificant fort squatting on a hunk of rock in the harbor of the South’s oldest and most defiant city.”
It is mostly a familiar story but it is told here in greater depth and detail than ever before. If anyone still has doubts about the salience of slavery as the root of secession, Klein’s evidence should remove them. One after another in the weeks following Lincoln’s election, secessionists made clear their fears and intentions. “The issue before the country is the extinction of slavery,” proclaimed a South Carolinian. “The meaning of Mr. Lincoln’s election,” declared a Georgian, “is the abolition of slavery as soon as the Republican party shall have acquired the strength to abolish it.” We must decide, added a Virginian, “whether the institution of negro slavery on which the social and political existence of the south rests, is to be secured by our resistance, or…abolished in a short time, as the certain result of our present submission to northern domination.”
It mattered little that the Republicans pledged to respect the institution of slavery in the fifteen states where it existed, and intended only to prevent its expansion into the territories. That was the rub, for as Lincoln had said in his House Divided speech two years earlier, such restriction would place slavery “where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction.”13 All efforts at compromise proved futile; a manifesto signed by thirty congressmen and senators from the lower South declared on December 13, 1860:
All hope of relief in the Union, through the agency of committees, Congressional legislation, or constitutional amendments, is extinguished, and we trust the South will not be deceived by appearances or the pretense of new guarantees…. The honor, safety, and independence of the Southern people are to be found only in a Southern Confederacy.”14
By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, seven states had formed the Confederate States of America and inaugurated Jefferson Davis as provisional president. But eight slave states remained precariously in the Union, awaiting events. Any attempt to “coerce” the Confederate states—by trying to repossess the federal arsenals, mints, and forts they had seized, for example—was sure to provoke at least four of those states into secession. As Klein notes, “for decades the contest had been over slavery; now it shifted inexorably from the reasons for secession to the act of secession itself.” Lincoln’s close ally, Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, put it most succinctly: “The question is no longer about African Slavery, but whether we have a government capable of maintaining itself.”
By March 1861 that question had become narrowly concentrated on what would happen at Fort Sumter, where eighty-odd soldiers maintained a precarious symbol of American sovereignty in what Jefferson Davis declared was no longer the United States. Lincoln appeared to have two choices: he could withdraw the troops from Sumter, thereby averting war but also conferring legitimacy on the Confederacy; or he could send the navy into Charleston harbor to reinforce and resupply the troops before they were starved out, thereby starting a war. After a month of indecision in which Lincoln was pushed this way and that by conflicting pressures in this greatest crisis of American history, he evolved a third alternative: to send in unarmed ships with supplies only, holding warships and reinforcements outside the harbor with orders not to open fire unless the Confederates fired first. And he would notify Confederate officials in advance of his intention. This was, in Klein’s words, “a brilliant gambit like a chess player escaping a trap by springing one of his own. Forced to pick between evacuation and war, he offered [Davis] the choice between war and perpetuation of the status quo.”
Davis chose war. Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumter before the supply ships arrived. They thus incurred the onus of starting the war in a manner that united the North, even though four more slave states joined the Confederacy. The four years of conflict that followed preserved the United States, destroyed the Old South, and liberated four million slaves at the cost of at least 620,000 lives. Next only to the literature on the war’s causes is the volume of scholarship on “Why the North Won the Civil War” or “Why the Confederacy Lost,” to cite the titles of two of many studies that address the issue directly or indirectly. Such studies run from analyses of strategy and tactics, resources and leadership, mobilization and logistics, and discontent and demoralization at home and in the army to micro-narratives of military campaigns and battles. Most interpretations of the larger issue fall into one of two categories: internal or external. Internal explanations are mainly concerned with the Confederacy and usually phrase the question as “Why Did the South Lose?” External interpretations look at both the Union and Confederacy and often phrase it as “Why Did the North Win?”
Robert E. Lee offered the first external explanation in his farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox: the army, he wrote sadly, “has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”15 Given the North’s greater population and superior economic capacity, this has remained a popular interpretation. Shelby Foote reiterated it in the PBS documentary The Civil War. “The North fought that war with one hand behind its back,” he declared. If necessary, “the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”16
The “overwhelming numbers and resources” that supposedly made Northern victory inevitable were as apparent to Southern leaders in 1861 as to Lee in 1865 and Foote in 1990. Yet they went to war confident of success. Do we therefore brand them criminally arrogant or stupid for bringing on a bloody war they could not win? As they have pondered this question, many students of the Civil War, most of them Southerners, have concluded that overwhelming numbers and resources were not the answer. After all, small nations had won or defended their independence against greater proportionate odds than the Confederacy faced in 1861. Southerners often cited the examples of the Netherlands against mighty Spain in the sixteenth century, Greece against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, and of course the fledgling United States against the world’s greatest naval power in 1783. Two of the Confederacy’s leading military commanders maintained after the war that the Southern people had not been “guilty of the high crime of undertaking a war without the means of waging it successfully,” in the words of General Joseph E. Johnston. And General Pierre G.T. Beauregard added: “No people ever warred for independence with more relative advantages than the Confederates.” 17 Americans who remember the war in Vietnam are painfully aware that overwhelming numbers and resources do not guarantee victory.
Recognition of this truth has coincided with the emergence of social history as the most dynamic field of American historical writing. The lives of previously neglected people—women, minorities, immigrants, workers, the poor—have become the principal subjects of much historical writing in which concepts of class, gender, race, and ethnicity are used to analyze the divisions among Americans. Much of this writing emphasizes the alienation of these groups from mainstream white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant American culture and the conflicts that resulted from their challenges to its domination. The effects of such studies can be seen in the search for “internal” explanations of Confederate defeat. Many challenging books and essays portray a Confederacy riven by internal conflicts and discontent that inhibited unity, undermined morale, prevented the development of Confederate nationalism, and doomed the South to defeat.18 Non-slaveholders (two thirds of white Southern males), women, and the slaves themselves have received a great deal of scholarly attention, most of it arguing that many members of these groups turned against a war to preserve a patriarchal society based on slavery and ruled by the planter class.
Other internal explanations of Confederate defeat have concentrated on inept leadership, faulty military strategies, and the inability of a staple-crop agricultural economy to sustain a modern war against such an industrial power as the United States. Much of the ammunition for these internal explanations was furnished by a small book first published in 1944, long out of print, and now republished by Louisiana State University Press: Behind the Lines in the Southern Confederacy, by Charles W. Ramsdell. The author, a white Southerner who admired and honored the Confederate military effort, maintained that the failure of the Confederate leaders to solve the problems of economic mobilization and war finance produced widespread shortages, runaway inflation, transportation breakdowns, and charges of corruption that alienated the homefront population, especially the nonslaveholding class, from the war effort. These failures “so weakened and demoralized the civilian population that it was unable to give effective support to the armies,” wrote Ramsdell. The Confederacy therefore began “to crumble, or break down within, long before the military situation appeared to be desperate.”
If we were to accept all of the internal interpretations of Confederate defeat at face value, we could scarcely understand how the Confederacy could have lasted four weeks, let alone four years. These homefront problems and divisions have been exaggerated out of proportion, writes Gary Gallagher in The Confederate War, and “have mesmerized historians for too long. The time is ripe to consider the more complex and fruitful question of why white southerners fought as long as they did.” That is precisely what Gallagher does in his scintillating study, which is the best thing that has happened to Confederate historiography in many years.
Gallagher has a more thorough command of the sources for Confederate history than any other historian I have read and he brings that mastery to bear in a concise, hard-hitting book that makes at least three important contributions: 1) it deftly summarizes various internal explanations for Confederate defeat; 2) it refutes most of them; 3) it is written with such lucidity and economy of expression that it is a pleasure to read. Gallagher maintains that most historians, looking back from Appomattox, have asked the wrong question: What factors explain this failure? The right question is, what social forces and military strategy enabled the Confederacy to perform as well as it did and to persist as long as it did? Instead of weak nationalism, the Confederacy developed a remarkably strong sense of national unity and patriotism; instead of sharp internal divisions that weakened the Confederacy, the South demonstrated a remarkable unity in the face of a determined adversary; instead of a faulty and costly military strategy, Confederate leaders pursued an “offensive-defensive” strategy that held out the best hope for success and came remarkably close to achieving it on more than one occasion. Two Confederate armies invaded Maryland and Kentucky in September 1862 in an effort to win these border states for the Confederacy, gain British and French diplomatic recognition and mediation, and sway the congressional elections in the North. In drawn battles at Antietam and Perryville this Confederate threat was repulsed, but as Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo, it was a near thing. Again in the summer of 1863 Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia seemed poised to win a victorious peace until the third day of Gettysburg—another near thing.
Gallagher does not minimize the divisions of class and race within the Confederacy, or its weaknesses and failures of leadership. But he notes, correctly, that the North suffered from similar or even greater divisions and weaknesses. For example, while the bread riots of 1863 revealed threatening fissures in the Confederacy, draft riots in the North, especially in New York City, betrayed ugly class and ethnic divisions that posed an even greater danger to the Union war effort. Confederate armies suffered proportional casualty rates twice as high as Union armies, because of their smaller numbers and their soldiers’ longer terms of enlistment, and several times greater than American armies in any other war this country has fought. Yet the Confederacy continued fighting until it almost literally had nothing left to fight with in 1865.
Why then, did the South lose? There is no simple answer to that question, but Gallagher points in the right direction: “Defeat in the military sphere, rather than dissolution behind the lines, brought the collapse of the Confederacy.” The question cannot be answered by large generalizations implying that the outcome was inevitable. It can be answered only by a narrative and analysis of the unfolding events on the battlefield and the home front—of both sides—which give due weight to such factors as political and military leadership, economic mobilization, logistics, strategy, war aims, morale, ideology, social strains and cohesion, diplomacy, and the sometimes fickle fortunes of battle.
In the fall of 1863, for example, Confederate leaders made an important decision to transfer two divisions from Virginia to Georgia, where they helped win a tactical victory at Chickamauga. Northern leaders recaptured the initiative with a smashing victory at Chattanooga after an even more ambitious transfer by railroad of four divisions to that city. These movements, like others during the war, involved a complex interplay of contingencies that belie generalizations that imply inevitability to the outcome.
What stands out for Gallagher after considering these factors is the determined persistence of the Confederate effort in a war to defend a society based on slavery, an effort repugnant to the sensibilities of many in our time. “It defies modern understanding,” he concludes,
that any people—especially one in which nonslaveholding yeomen formed a solid majority—would pour energy and resources into a fight profoundly tainted by the institution of slavery. Yet the Confederate people did so. Until historians can explain more fully why they did, the story of the Civil War will remain woefully incomplete.
This book makes an excellent start toward such an explanation.
October 23, 1997
Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age (New American Library, 1969), pp. 157-158. ↩
Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 volumes (Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955), VIII, 332. ↩
James Ford Rhodes, Lectures on the American Civil War (Macmillan, 1913), p. 2. ↩
Geoffrey C. Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns, The Civil War: An Illustrated History (Knopf, 1990). The second quotation is from the essay in this volume by Don E. Fehrenbacher. ↩
Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 2 volumes (D. Appleton and Co., 1881), I, v, 80; II, 764. ↩
Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, 2 volumes (National Publication Co., 1868-1870), I, 10. ↩
Dunbar Rowland, editor, Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches, 10 volumes (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), V, 72. ↩
Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, March 30, 1861. ↩
Newsweek, October 8, 1990, pp. 62-63. ↩
Frank Owsley, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” in Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand (Harper and Brothers, 1930), pp. 68-91. ↩
Basler, editor, Collected Works of Lincoln, II, 255, III, 92; Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 1982). ↩
New Orleans Crescent, Nov. 9, 1860; Congressional Globe, 36 Congress, 1st Session, p. 455. ↩
Basler, editor, Collected Works of Lincoln, II, 461. ↩
Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America During the Great Rebellion, second edition (Philip and Salomans, 1865), p. 37. ↩
Douglas Southall Freeman, R.E. Lee: A Biography, 4 volumes (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934-1935), IV, 154. ↩
Foote quoted in Ward, Burns, and Burns, The Civil War, p. 272. ↩
Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations (D. Appleton and Co., 1874), p. 421; Pierre G.T. Beauregard, “The First Battle of Bull Run,” in Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel, editors, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 volumes (Century, 1888), I, 222. ↩
For two examples, see Paul D. Escott, After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism (Louisiana State University Pres, 1978), and Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hallaway, Archer Jones, and Willian N. Still, Jr., Why the South Lost the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 1986). ↩