The American Civil War

Sunday, Dec 04, 2011

The total killed on both sides -- 620,000, with an additional 400,000 wounded -- would rank the conflict as the bloodiest in all of United States history... Many deaths had no grandeur at all. Just as in previous wars, disease -- not enemy fire -- was the primary killer. While 140,000 Union soldiers perished as a result of battle, more than 220,000 died from disease. The same grim two-to-one ratio prevailed in Confederate forces as well.

Historians and buffs debate the fundamental causes of the American Civil War as hotly today as the combatants did then. More has been written on the subject than almost any other event in human history; by one estimate, 50,000 separate books.

Why did the southern states want to leave the Union? And why did the northern states refuse to let them go? The answer to at least the first of these questions necessarily revolves around... black slavery.

Quakers organized the world's first antislavery society in Philadelphia in 1775... Vermont in its constitution of 1777 became the first to abolish the institution... The Pennsylvania legislature enacted gradual emancipation in 1780... State after state followed with either outright abolition or gradual emancipation. The Continental Congress passed the Ordinance of 1787, prohibiting slavery in the western territories north of the Ohio river... Slavery was more economically entrenched in the former southern colonies, where 90 percent of British America's 460,000 blacks had resided...

On the one hand, the Constitution never acknowledged slavery's existence by using the term, and it contained a clause permitting Congress to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade after twenty years. On the other hand, this gave the states of the lower South plenty of time to replenish their slave populations, and during this time imports would exceed those in any other two decades in American history... The Constitution also... in Article IV, Section 2, compelled the return of fugitive slaves even if they escaped to states that had abolished the institution... The Constitution counted three-fifths of a state's enslaved population to determine its representation in the House of Representatives. This... principally increased the political power of slaveholders in proportion to the number of enslaved blacks.

A group of young, radical abolitionists burst upon the scene in the 1830s, exasperated at the betrayal of the Revolutionary promise that American slavery would wither away... The most vitriolic of these abolitionists was William Lloyd Garrison:

"I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm. Tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher. Tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate-- I will not excuse-- I will not retreat a single inch-- AND I WILL BE HEARD." ... "Slavery brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity a lie."

[Garrison] believed that if anything the North should secede. That way it could become a haven for runaway slaves.

Most of the new nations of Central and South America abolished slavery when they gained their independence from Spain. British abolitionists... pressed Parliament into implementing compensated emancipation in its West Indian colonies in 1833; France and Denmark followed in 1844. By 1850, slavery persisted only in the United States, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Brazil.

The South's siege mentality turned it into a closed society. Advocating abolition became a felony in Virginia in 1836. The Georgia legislature offered a reward of $5,000 for anyone who would kidnap Garrison and bring him south for trial and punishment. Louisiana established a penalty ranging from twenty-one years hard labor to death for speeches and writings "having a tendency to promote discontent among free colored people, or insubordination among slaves."... Most northern locales had legally mandated discrimination of some sort. One infamous incident involved a Quaker schoolmistress named Prudence Crandall, who decided in 1833 to racially integrate her private academy for girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. The state legislature passed a special act that threw her behind bars.

Slavery inflicted on blacks tremendous pain, suffering, and sometimes death, along with other more mundane burdens, such as lost income. The American South not only was poorer overall as a result, but non-slaveholding whites were also poorer.

The runaway slave was the system's Achilles heel... [The fugitive slave clause] was the prime way the United States government subsidized the peculiar institution... Not only did the free states willingly cooperate, but many of them allowed Southerners to bring along slaves on visits... Radical abolitionists... illegally evaded it... [leading] to the famous underground rail road, in which white abolitionists and free blacks spirited runaways to freedom in Canada... Since the constitution explicitly required their return, we can now understand why Garrison's call for disunion represented an effective way to eliminate this subsidy to slaveholders... Slavery flourished because the country's political and legal structure socialized its enforcement costs. Like the incomes enjoyed by today's tobacco growers... the economic viability of the peculiar institution rested on political power... All the slaveholder needed to do was present an affidavit. The alleged fugitive enjoyed no right to a jury trial or even to testify. Furthermore, commissioners had a financial incentive to rule against the fugitive. They received a $10 fee from the government for deciding that a black was an escaped slave, but only $5 for not. To enhance enforcement, Congress empowered commissioners to conscript the physical aid of any private citizen... Obstructing the law was subject to a $1,000 fine, six months in prison, and $1,000 civil damages for each escaped slave.

The only fully successful servile insurrection in all of human history was the one in Haiti [in 1791].

Perhaps the United States Supreme Court could settle the matter... involving a slave named Dred Scott... Chief Justice Roger Taney, speaking for the majority, reached two unmistakable judgements. First, Dred Scott could not sue in federal court because he was not a United States citizen, and he could not be a United States citizen because he was black... None of the Constitution's protections therefore applied to blacks, whether enslaved or free... Second was that residence in federal territory could not free Scott because the Missouri Compromise's prohibition of slavery had been unconstitutional.

In the Lincoln-Douglas Debates... Lincoln revealed the limits to his support for racial equality: "I will say then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races-- that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the Negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality; and inasmuch as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white man."

Lincoln's election was a bitter pill to swallow for a section of the country that had hitherto dominated the national government. South Carolina acted swiftly [in December, 1860]. Before the year was out, a state convention unanimously passed an ordinance of secession. Within another six weeks, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had followed South Carolina out of the Union. The South Carolina convention cited northern evasion of the Constitution's fugitive slave clause as its foremost grievance.

Did South Carolina have grounds for its fears? Lincoln, after all, was not an abolitionist... He promised to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and respect slavery in the existing states... Southern fire-eaters, however, recognized that a major faction within the Republican Party did endorse further steps to divorce the general government from slavery.

Union authority evaporated from the deep South. Federal officials resigned in droves. State troops took possession of customhouses, post offices, arsenals, revenue cutters, and military posts... Only Fort Sumter in Charleston and three other forts along the Florida coast had garrisons of sufficient size and determination to keep them in Union hands... President Buchanan slipped out of office still refusing to turn over these last vestiges of federal pressure.

Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union by force if necessary: "I hold that... the Union of these States is perpetual," he asserted in his first inaugural address. "The Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States." The deep South's refusal to abide by the outcome of a fair and legal election struck northern voters as a selfish betrayal of the nation's unique mission.

The day after his inauguration... after extensive and lengthy consultations with his cabinet, the President ordered an armed relief expedition to sail [to Fort Sumter]... With relief pending... Major Anderson refused one final demand to vacate, whereupon the Confederate guns opened fire.

The [Union] military authorities soon began imprisoning prominent secessionists without trial. The writ of habeas corpus was a constitutional safeguard to prevent such imprisonments without sufficient legal cause, and one of the incarcerated Marylanders, John Merryman, attempted an appeal on that basis. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, sitting as a circuit judge, ordered Merryman released, but federal officials, acting under Lincoln's orders, refused... Lincoln also wrote out standing orders for the Chief Justice's arrest, although these were never served... At the state's next election in the fall of 1861, federal provost marshals stood guard at the polls and arrested any disunionists who attempted to vote. The Lincoln Administration imprisoned at least 14,000 civilians throughout the course of the war, and state and local authorities probably seized many more... The federal government simultaneously monitored and censored both the mails and telegraphs, and for the first time demanded passports of those entering and leaving the country. No one eligible for the draft could depart. It also suppressed newspapers. Over three hundred, including the Chicago Times, the New York World, and the Philadelphia Evening Journal, had to cease publication for varying periods. Lincoln repeatedly invoked the war emergency to increase presidential power. He had enlarged the regular army, clamped down the blockade, dispersed government funds, authorized government borrowing, suspended habeas corpus, and instituted postal censorship before Congress even convened.

In Missouri, the Federal military gained nominal control over most of the state... John C. Fremont, who assumed command of the Union's Western Department, imposed martial law at the end of August... On his own authority, Fremont freed the slaves of those in rebellion and confiscated all their other real and personal property... The President countermanded the precipitate emancipation and replaced Fremont in order to placate what loyal sentiment was left in the various border states... "The Kentucky Legislature would not budge till that proclamation was modified," Lincoln confided in private correspondence.

Lincoln had made clear that the war was for the preservation of the Union only. He promised not to interfere with slavery in the states, and many Union commanders during the early campaigns returned runaways to their southern masters in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Law.

The Civil War's impressive medical achievements [of reducing ratio of deaths from disease to battle] can largely be credited to civilian organizations, outside the military bureaucracies. Inspired by the example of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, northern women who had been active in the antislavery movement or other reform crusades began as soon as the war broke out to organize what became the United States Sanitary Commission... Lincoln initially dismissed the organization as "fifth wheel to the coach." The commission did achieve official recognition in June 1861 but remained a decentralized, privately funded, voluntary organization... The story of Civil War medical care is moving testimony to the unmatched courage and efficacy of private action.

By early 1862, Lincoln... promoted, with funds supplied by Congress, the colonization of free blacks to central America. But he publicly warned that he would take whatever action he thought necessary to win the war. "My paramount object in this struggle," the President declared-- replying to Horace Greeley's "Prayer of 20 Million," published in the New York Tribune -- "is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union." Lincoln added, however, that "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free."

The President issued the final Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863. But it technically freed no slaves. As a war measure similar to that of the British during the American Revolution, the proclamation only applied to the areas still in rebellion. It did not emancipate any of the slaves in the four border states. Nor did it emancipate any slaves in those sections of the Confederacy that Union armies had already reconquered, including all of Tennessee and large portions of Virginia and Louisiana. The only slaves covered were the ones beyond the reach of Union authority. This anomaly inspired a cynical retort from Seward. "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them, and holding them in bondage where we can set them free."

The Emancipation Proclamation did offer freedom to those who fled to Union lines. It therefore struck at slavery as effectively as any measure that encouraged fugitives, accelerating a process already well underway. Congress's previous abolition in the District of Columbia had brought slaves flocking in from the surrounding border state of Maryland. Now they crowded into Union camps from all over the South... By early 1865, at a time when Confederate armies were starved for manpower, the Georgia legislature felt compelled to establish a special cavalry battalion for stopping slaves from escaping to the enemy. The numbers reaching the sanctuary of Federal jurisdiction eventually swelled to over half a million... In the final analysis, it was not military conquest but the fugitive slave who brought down the South's peculiar institution. Liberation, so often presented as something the Union did for blacks, was as much something they did for themselves.

Up and down the Union-controlled areas of the Mississippi River, regulations put able-bodied blacks back to work on plantations. Although the former slaves now could choose among employers, some of whom were Yankee lessees and other Southerners who had taken a loyalty oath, contracts lasted for a year with "respectful, honest, faithful labor" enforced by the military. Idleness and vagrancy were crimes, and those found unemployed had to labor on public works. At other locations, Union authorities coercively impressed contrabands to build fortifications or do other military work. Perhaps several hundred thousand labored for the war.

[After the war], new Black Codes established a racial subjugation at least as rigid as the apartheid system developed in South Africa decades later... The southern states also imported the system of tax-supported, compulsory schools... Literacy among white Southerners had exceeded 80 percent before Fort Sumter, slightly below that of Northerners and better than in Britain or any other European country outside of Sweden and Denmark... Fifteen years after the war ended, the literacy rate among southern whites had shown no noticeable gain, whereas 70 percent of southern blacks still could not read... Moreover, the public schools created during congressional Reconstruction were all racially segregated, except briefly in New Orleans... The national government consequently turned its back as white Southerners engaged in a process euphemistically labelled Redemption. The continuing physical intimidation, coupled with social ostracism and economic pressures kept blacks away from the polls... The first southern state to effectively disfranchise the majority of its blacks was Mississippi, in 1890, with a literacy test-- fourteen years after the last federal troops left the South... The country's latest State-worshipping reform movement, progressivism, avidly participated in the wave of Jim Crowe laws.

The total labor supplied by former slaves fell by approximately one-third. Here we encounter a dramatic demonstration of the limitations of economic aggregates for measuring well-being. Income per capita went down because people were better off. They were working less or producing household amenities, both of which represented improvements in the quality of life.

The Civil War represents the simultaneous culmination and repudiation of the American Revolution. Four successive ideological surges had previously defined American politics: the radical republican movement that had spearheaded the revolution itself; the subsequent Jeffersonian movement that had arisen in reaction to the Federalist State; the Jacksonian movement that followed the War of 1812; and at length the abolitionist movement. Although each was unique, each in its own way was hostile to government power... The great irony of the Civil War is that everything changed at the very moment that abolition triumphed. As the last, great coercive blight on the American landscape, black chattel slavery, was finally extirpated-- a triumph that cannot be overrated-- the American polity did an about face.

The fact that emancipation overwhelmed such entrenched plantation economies as Cuba and Brazil suggests that slavery was politically moribund anyway. An ideological movement [abolitionism] that had its meagre roots in the eighteenth century eventually eliminated everywhere a labor system that had been ubiquitous throughout world civilizations for millennia... Slavery was doomed politically even if Lincoln had permitted the small Gulf Coast Confederacy to depart in peace. The Republican-controlled Congress would have been able to work toward emancipation within the border states, where slavery was already declining. In due course the Radicals could have repealed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. With chattels fleeing across the border and raising slavery's enforcement costs, the peculiar institution's final destruction within an independent cotton South was inevitable. Even future Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens had judged "slavery much more secure in the Union than out of it." Secession was a gamble of pure desperation for slaveholders, only attempted because the institution clearly had no political future within the Union.

Just such a process later accelerated the demise of slavery in Brazil. This slave economy was in 1825 the New World's second largest, holding in bondage only slightly fewer than the American South. Yet even before Brazil's abolition, manumission caused free blacks to exceed slaves in total numbers... Brazilian abolitionists succeeded in outlawing slavery in the northeastern state of Ceara in 1884. An underground rail road immediately came into existence. Planters retaliated with a fugitive slave law, but the law was widely evaded. The state of Amazonas and many cities joined Ceara. Slavery rapidly disintegrated in the coffee growing region of Sao Paulo. The value of slaves fell by 80 percent despite the fact that none was slated to be liberated through a gradual emancipation. Finally in 1888 the government accepted a fait accompli and decreed immediate and uncompensated emancipation... [This took about as long - 4 years - as the American Civil War.]

The Fourteenth Amendment's second section... for the first time used the word "male" in the Constitution... Disillusioned, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony organized the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869... It also represented the incorporation of mainstream feminism into the broader drive for enlarged government guardianship... The Leviathan co-opted and transformed feminism the same way it had co-opted and transformed abolitionism... It had acquired for central authority such new functions as subsidizing privileged businesses, managing the currency, providing welfare to veterans... And it had set dangerous precedents with respect to taxes, fiat money, conscription, and the suppression of dissent. These and the countless other changes... mark the Civil War as America's real turning point. In the years ahead, coercive authority would wax and wane with year-to-year circumstances, but the long-term trend would be unmistakable. Henceforth there would be no more major victories of Liberty over Power. In contrast to the whittling away of government that had preceded Fort Sumter, the United States had commenced its halting but inexorable march toward the welfare-warfare State of today.

Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, 1996,