Healing, Heritage and History:
"Citizen Soldiers of the Civil War: Why They Fought"
James M. McPherson is considered one of the leading historians of the American Civil War: His book, Battle Cry of Freedom, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for history, is considered the finest one-volume work on that war: In his extensive studies of the war, he continually asked himself what made Pickett's men march into a maelstrom of bullets at Gettysburg, or what made the 15th New Jersey regiment face similar odds at Spotsylvania. In his own words, he wanted to understand "what made these men tick?" From hundreds of letters and diary entries, he found that soldiers on both sides fought for their side's cause and for their comrades.
Introduced by Robert K. Sutton,
I take many groups around Civil War battlefields. On all of those occasions, at the very places where great events happened, at some point we feel a sense of empathy with the people who carried out those events on the battlefield. There is a sense that there are ghosts who are with us as we walk around the battlefield. I can tell you, that standing up here on the stage at Ford's Theater looking up at the Presidential box, one is certainly aware of the ghosts that are with us here. The way in which a place where, in this case, a tragic event occurred can evoke a sense of direct relationship with the past. This is exactly what we are trying to evoke when we go to a Civil War battlefield or any other historical site.
Much of what I am going to talk about this evening has actually grown out of my experience of touring Civil War battlefields and trying to answer the questions of students and alumni of Princeton, as well as other groups that I have guided around these battlefields. Many of these questions have to do with the issues of the war, the causes of the war, and the consequences of the war, as well as the details of a particular battle. We've heard a great deal from the excellent talks that have occurred at this conference about the issue of slavery and how it can be incorporated into the interpretation of Civil War battlefields. I will have something to say about that this evening. But what I'm also going focus on are some of the consequences of the war and their impact on our society, even down to today and the way in which sometimes that can also be brought into the interpretation of a specific site-related battlefield.
Let me start with a quotation from none other than Mark Twain, who co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner in 1873, a book whose title gave the name to a whole age, The Gilded Age. In that book, Mark Twain wrote that the Civil 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 national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations." And here we are five generations later still trying to measure that impact.
Northern victory in the war did, I think, resolve two fundamental festering issues that had been unresolved by the other most formative experience in our history--the American Revolution. Those two questions were, first, whether this fragile republican experiment called the United States would survive as one nation indivisible; and second, whether the house divided would continue to endure half-slave and half-free. Both of these issues had remained open questions until 1865. Many Americans had doubted whether the republic could survive. Many European conservatives had gleefully predicted its demise. Some Americans had advocated the right of secession and periodically threatened to invoke it. Eleven states did invoke it in 1861. But since 1865, no state or region has seriously threatened secession, not even during the decade of massive resistance in the South to desegregation from 1954 to 1964. That issue was really resolved by the war, presumably for all time.
Second, before 1865, the United States, which was wont to boast of being the freest country in the world--a beacon light of liberty to the oppressed of Europe--had in fact been the largest slave-holding country in the world. This fact caused Lincoln in a famous passage in his Peoria speech in 1854 to describe slavery as a "monstrous injustice" that enables the enemies of free institutions (he meant European reactionaries), "to taunt us, with plausibility, as hypocrites." Well, since 1865 that particular monstrous injustice and hypocrisy has existed no more. As Ira Berlin pointed out this morning, slavery was definitively ended by the Civil War. There were no serious attempts to re-enslave African Americans. The Civil War did not, however, resolve the issue of race, which was one of the principal factors underlined by slavery.
In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed this nation. Before 1861, the words United States were a plural noun. The United States have a republican form of government. Since 1865, the United States is a singular noun. The United States has a republican form of government. The North went to war to preserve the Union. It ended by creating a nation. This transformation can be traced in Lincoln's most important wartime addresses. His first inaugural address contained the word "union" twenty times and the word "nation" not once. In Lincoln's first message to Congress on July 4, 1861, he used union thirty-two times and nation only three times. In his famous public letter to Horace Greeley of August 22, 1862, concerning slavery and the war, Lincoln spoke of the union eight times but the nation not at all. But fifteen months later in the Gettysburg Address he did not refer to the union at all but used the word nation--in that short address of 272 words--five times. In the second inaugural address, looking back over the trauma of the past four years, Lincoln spoke of one side seeking to dissolve the union in 1861 and the other side accepting the challenge of war to preserve the nation.
The decentralized antebellum republic, in which the Post Office was the only agency of national government that touched the average citizen, was transformed by the crucible of that war into a centralized nation that taxed people directly and created an internal revenue bureau to collect the taxes. It expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, created a national currency and a federally chartered banking system, drafted men into the army, and created the Freedmen's Bureau as the first national agency for social welfare. Eleven of the first twelve amendments to the U. S. Constitution had limited the powers of the national government. Six of the next seven, starting with the thirteenth, vastly expanded the powers of the national government. The first three of these post-war amendments transformed four million slaves into citizens and voters within five years. This was the most fundamental social transformation in our history, even if the nation did backslide on part of that commitment for three generations after 1877.
The Civil War also settled another major question that had remained in dispute during the first seventy years of the republic. Which form of economy, social relations, and culture would emerge triumphant from the contest between two distinct ways of life? Would it be the southern rural agrarian plantation society dominated by a country gentry, commanding slave labor and professing values of hierarchy, deference and noblesse oblige patriarchy? Or, would it be the dynamic northern urbanizing, egalitarian, restless, free labor, commercial, and industrializing system of capitalism? The latter prevailed, of course, and after the Civil War, the northern model of free labor capitalism became the American way. The southern way of life was gone with the wind. But as we have heard today, not entirely. It lingered on in the nostalgia of the lost cause and especially in the form of racial subordination that emerged after Reconstruction and persisted until the years of the Civil War's centennial observations, the 1960s.
Edward Pollard, who was mentioned this afternoon, editor of the Richmond Examiner during the Civil War, foreshadowed and in a way helped to create this nostalgia and racial subordination in the two-volume work that he wrote only a few years after the war. This first real history of the Confederacy, Pollard appropriately entitled it the Lost Cause. There may not be an independent political South, Pollard admitted in this work, but there can be a distinct social and intellectual South. "It would be immeasurably the worse consequence of defeat in this war that the South should lose its moral and intellectual distinctiveness as a people and cease to assert its well-known superiority and civilization over the people of the North." The war may have decided in the negative the questions of slavery and Confederate independence, Pollard conceded, but, as he put it, "it did not decide Negro equality. This new cause, or rather the true question the war revived, is the supremacy of the white race," and this issue of course is still very much with us today. It helps to account, I think, for the continuing high level of interest in the Civil War and its contemporary relevance. We have heard a great deal about that today. The Confederate battle flag dispute in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and elsewhere in the South is a powerful symbol of this continuing relevance. To one side the flag represents a proud, though lost, heritage. To the other it represents slavery, racism, and oppression. To one side the flag represents liberty, to the other it represents the denial of liberty. At its core, that is exactly what the Civil War was all about.
I personally became interested in the Civil War during my years in graduate school just forty miles from here at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in the early 1960s. Those were, of course, the years of the Civil War Centennial Commemoration but that is not what attracted me to the subject. Rather, it was the Civil Rights Movement, the confrontation between the North and South, between black and white, between the federal government and southern political leaders vowing massive resistance to national law, widespread violence, federal troops being sent into the South. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged President Kennedy to issue a new emancipation proclamation on the 100th anniversary of the first one. When the president refused to do so, King proclaimed "freedom now" in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963. I was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and the 1860s, and I then made the commitment to learn about the historical roots of my own time in the sectional conflict that became America's biggest war. It was only a matter of time before my interests in the causes and results of the war developed into an interest in the motives of the three million plus soldiers and the goals they thought they were fighting for.
What really sparked this interest more than any other single factor as I mentioned at the outset were questions that students asked me while we toured Civil War battlefields like Antietam, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and many others. And the questions I asked myself as I visited these sites were: what made these men tick? What enabled them to go forward into a hailstorm of lead and iron as Pickett's men did at Gettysburg or the 15th New Jersey did at Spotsylvania, knowing that their chances of coming out unharmed were slim? These questions led to a broad investigation of soldier motivation, which resulted in my book For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought In the Civil War. Over a period of several years of research, my wife and I read some 25,000 or more letters from 800 soldiers, North and South, and another 250 or so soldier's diaries. These letters and diaries are an unmatched source for getting at what these men thought and did. Because there was no censorship of soldiers' letters in the Civil War as there has been in more modern wars, and because the Civil War soldiers were more literate than the armies that had fought up to that time, these sources are very enlightening.
When I began my research in these letters and diaries, I was guided in what to look for by a substantial literature on combat motivation and combat behavior of soldiers in war. Much of the work grew out of research done by American and British social scientists in World War II, which produced, among other things, a four-volume study that still provides wonderful information, published in 1949 as The American Soldier. And particularly relevant is Volume II, entitled Combat and Its Aftermath, which is a study of combat motivation and of the soldier's psychological mechanisms for coping with the fear and stress of combat. This volume addressed the questions I was often asked by students and others during battlefield tours. This study was based on questionnaires and interviews done with thousands of GI's during and after World War II. At the same time an army historian, Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall, carried on similar research and published his findings in 1947 in the book that has become a classic--albeit controversial--entitled Men Against Fire. There have been many other studies of soldiers in the British and German armies as well as the American army of allied soldiers in Korea, American soldiers in Vietnam, and so on. So I had access to a fairly large body of literature about how men behave under extreme stress, and how they deal with that stress in combat.
1863: NEWSPAPER VENDOR AND CART IN CAMP.
These studies investigated the traditional assumptions about what motivates soldiers to fight, including patriotism, ideology, religion, ideals of duty and honor and manhood, a quest for glory and adventure, leadership, training and discipline, and coercion. They found that while some or all of these factors, either alone or in combination, may have been important for some soldiers, for most, the key factor was what the experts called "primary group cohesion," a kind of jargon phase. What does it mean? The soldier's primary group consists of his comrades in the squad or the platoon or the gun crew bonded by the common danger they face in battle. They become literally a band of brothers whose mutual dependence and mutual support in combat create the cohesion necessary to function as a fighting unit. The survival of each member of the group depends on the others doing their jobs. The survival of the group depends on the steadiness of each individual, so does their individual and collective self-respect. If any of them falters, is paralyzed by fear, runs away, or, to use a Korean war phrase, bugs out, or even to use a Civil War phrase, skedaddles or skulks, that person not only endangers his own and the others' survival, he also courts the contempt and ostracism of his comrades. He loses face. He loses self-respect as a man. In other words, these studies found that the compulsion of the peer group is a greater force than coercion by officers or by the state. Or as S. L. A. Marshall in Men Against Fire responds to his own rhetorical question: "No man wants to die. What induces him to risk his life bravely?" It's not belief in the cause. When the chips are down, "the man fights to help the man next to him. Men do not fight for a cause, but because they do not want to let their comrades down."
There is a universality about this argument. It could apply to any war or to all wars. Given the prominence of this theme in the literature about World War II and about other modern wars, it was one of the first things I looked for when I began my research. And I found a lot about it, which I think enabled me to offer some corroborative insights on the question of primary group cohesion among Civil War soldiers. Many soldiers echoed these words of enlisted men from Texas, Massachusetts, and Alabama respectively. The Texan: "We seem almost like brothers. We have suffered hardships and dangers together and are bound together by more than ordinary ties." The Massachusetts man: "I have now spent a whole year with my comrades in battle, and having been with them in all circumstances, I must say that everyone of them is as a brother to me." Or the Alabamian: "A soldier is always nearly crazy to get away from the army on furloughs, but, as a general thing, they are more anxious to get back. There is a feeling of love, a strong attachment for those with whom one has shared common dangers that is never felt for anyone else or any other circumstances."
As I suggested a moment ago, the fear of appearing to be a coward in the eyes of your buddies, the fear of fear itself, and fear of the shame of cowardice in the eyes of your peers was a very powerful motivator in Civil War armies. I think it has been a strong force in other armies as well. S. L. A. Marshall, for example, said "personal honor is the one thing that is valued more than life itself by the majority of men." That is your honor as a man among men, the shame of being known as a coward and letting your comrades down. I think the greatest part of Steven Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage, is the portrayal of how a young Civil War soldier, Henry Fleming, doubts himself and fears that at the moment of truth in combat, he would run away. Of course, he did run away. But he overcame that fear. Civil War veterans thought that Crane had portrayed this accurately and brilliantly.
After reading soldiers' letters about this same issue, I believe Crane was on target. A Connecticut private for example, wrote just before his first battle: "I am so afraid I shall prove a coward. I can hardly think of anything else." Afterwards, he uttered a figurative sigh of relief in his diary and agreed that he, in fact, had passed this test. "I was a little shaky at first, but soon got used to the music." The music, of course, was shells exploding, bullets going by his head and so on. "I know that no one will say that I behaved cowardly in the least." An Ohio soldier confessed in this diary that he was shaking like a leaf before he first went into action at his first battle but he was determined nevertheless as he put it "to stand up to my duties like a man. Let the consequences be as they might, I'd rather die like a brave man than have a coward's ignominy cling around my name and live. Of all names most terrible and to be dreaded is coward." In 1864, a New York veteran of two years responded to his sister's question. She had asked him: "aren't you scared when you go into combat? Don't you want to run away?" And he replied to her: "you ask me if the thought of death does not alarm me. I will say I do not wish to die, but I have too much honor, too much courage to hold back while others are going forward." I, myself, "am as big a coward as any could be," that is, if I were alone. "But give me the bullet before the coward when all my friends and companions are going forward."
One crucial factor I think that made this motivation stronger in Civil War armies than in American armies since World War I is that, as you know, Civil War units, most of them, were geographically recruited from the same community or region. Many of the men in a regimental company in these volunteer regiments had been friends and neighbors back home. Their families knew each other. Thus, any reports of cowardice, or bugging out, or skulking on the battlefield not only would ruin a man's reputation among his comrades, but if the news reached home, it would bring disgrace to him and his family. He could never hold up his head again at home or in the army. An Ohio officer wrote to his wife about another officer from their town who had, as he put it, "proved himself a coward on the battlefield. What a stigma for men to transmit to their posterity: 'your father was a coward.'" A Pennsylvania soldier wrote to his mother that "as Will"--Will was his brother--"says he would rather hear of my being shot than of being a coward. So I will stand up to the work I have commenced." A North Carolina sergeant said, "if any man showed the white feather, he should never return to live in North Carolina." White feather was a Civil War slang expression for bugging out or running away. This relationship between the behavior of soldiers on the battlefield and the communities from which they came is something that can be pointed out in battlefield interpretation.
As I said, there is a kind of universality about this as a motivation for men not to run away in combat, but to go forward against the enemy. It would apply, I think, just about as much in other wars, not necessarily because of local recruitment and the family or the community dimension, but certainly in the primary group--the soldiers' buddies. But for the Civil War, I found that there were some special factors, not so much in what I call combat motivation, but what I would call initial motivation or sustaining motivation. The reasons they enlisted in the first place and the reasons that these volunteer armies stuck together were in considerable part the result of ideological conviction. In much of the earlier literature on Civil War soldiers, one might get the impression that such function did not exist. There is, or at least was, a common impression that most Civil War soldiers had little or no idea why they were fighting. In William Faulkner's novel, Sartoris, someone asked the Confederate veteran many decades after the war what the war had been about. He scratched his head and then replied: "damned if I ever did know." A few years ago, the commander of the New York branch of the Sons of Union Veterans said: "It wasn't because our fathers knew what they were fighting for that they were heroes. They didn't know what they were fighting for exactly and they fought on anyway. That's what made them heroes."
Bell Irvin Wiley, in his two classic works, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, reflected on that theme in his discussions of soldiers' perception of the issues about which they were fighting. Wiley was writing under the influence of a lot of literature on combat motivation in World War II and in other modern wars, which argued that patriotism and ideology ranked almost last among several factors in combat motivation for World War II soldiers. Some World War II veterans agree with this, while others vigorously disagree. I watched some of the television commemorations on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, and was struck by one veteran who said that the closer he got to the beaches of Normandy the less patriotic he felt. A British officer in World War II said: "It would be foolish to imagine that the average British or American soldier was thinking that he was helping to save democracy. He never gave democracy a thought."
Well, I don't want either to challenge or reaffirm the truth of this argument about World War II soldiers. What I am concerned about is its validity with respect to Civil War soldiers. I am aware, as you are, that most soldiers in World War II and other modern wars have been draftees or long service regulars, while most Civil War soldiers were volunteers from civilian life who continued to consider themselves as citizens and voters in uniform rather than as professional soldiers. Knowing this, I wondered whether the denial of a strong ideological conviction that studies of World War II soldiers seemed to provide would apply to Civil War soldiers. But on the other hand there was Bell Irvin Wiley and others who claimed that it did.
Jumping off the pages of many of these letters and diaries is a contradiction to this assertion about Civil War soldiers. I was really unprepared for the prevalence of ideological themes in many, obviously not all, of the letters and diaries I read of Civil War soldiers. Many of those soldiers were intensely aware of the issues at stake in the war and were passionately concerned about them. Their expressions on the issues ranged from simple but heartfelt vows of patriotism, like "I am fighting for my country," to well-informed and often quite sophisticated discussions of the Constitution, states rights, nationalism, majority rule, self-government, democracy, liberty, and slavery.
To provide some background and context for understanding this, let me remind you again that these were the most literate armies in history to that time. In 1860, 94% of whites in the North could read and write and 83% of whites in the South could read and write. They also came from the world's most democratic and highly politicized society. Their median age at the time of enlistment in 1861 or 1862 was twenty-three-and-a-half, which meant that most of them had voted in the election of 1860, the most heated and contentious election in American history, which brought out nearly 85% of the eligible electorate. These young men had come of age in the intensely passionate and polarized politics of the 1850s. This was a period when, in seven Illinois towns, thousands of people turned out for seven three-hour-long debates to hear Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas address great national issues. This is just one example of the way in which politics, journalism and the very life of the country in the 1850s was overwhelmingly infused with the issues over which the war a few years later was fought. And these citizen soldiers continued to vote during the war, not only electing some of their officers in these volunteer regiments, but also voting in state and national elections by absentee ballot.
Americans were the world's preeminent newspaper reading people in the 19th century. As I think most of you are well aware, soldiers continued this habit during the war when they eagerly snapped up newspapers available in camp a few days after their publication from major cities such as New York and Richmond. Here are just a few examples from many I could quote to illustrate these points. A Mississippi private wrote in his diary during the winter of 1861-62 when he was stationed in Leesburg, Virginia: "Spend much time in reading daily papers and discussing the war question in general." Two years later, an Alabama officer in the trenches at Petersburg wrote to his wife "we have daily access to the Richmond papers. We spend much of our time in reading these journals and discussing the situation." A New York captain wrote home in 1864, just a couple of months before he was killed in action: "It is a very great mistake to suppose that the soldier does not think. Our soldiers are closer thinkers and reasoners than the people at home. It is the soldiers who have educated the people at home to a just perception of our duties in this contest. Every soldier knows he his fighting for his own liberty but even more for the liberty of the whole human race for all time to come."
Several units established debating societies during less active times in winter quarters. An Illinois sergeant's diary describes some of these debates in camp near Vicksburg during the winter of 1863-64, and these are just some short excerpts from several diary entries: "Took part on the affirmative of ‘Resolved that the Constitutional Relations of the Rebel States Should be Fixed by Congress Only.'" Another debate, he wrote, "discussed the question of reducing Rebel States to territories." In still another, "Sergeant Rollins and Need discussed ably, the rights of the South." (As you know in a debate, somebody has to take the unpopular side.) "Sergeant Miller expanded upon the revolution of ideas."
The following winter a New York private recovering from a wound described the debating society among convalescent soldiers which discussed among other subjects the following: "Resolved that the present struggle will do more to establish and maintain a republican form of government than the Revolutionary War." This debate theme was referenced in other letters and diaries from other Union Army units. Thus, I think this suggests that one of the dominant themes in Civil War ideology was the self-conscious awareness of parallels with the generation that fought the Revolution and gave birth to the nation. Americans in both the Union and Confederacy believed themselves custodians of the legacy of the founding fathers. The crisis of 1861 to 1865 was the great test of their worthiness of that heritage. They felt that, metaphorically, the founding fathers, a generation that was almost deified by the 19th century, were looking over their shoulders to see whether they were worthy of the heritage that those founders had left them. Soldiers on both sides felt intensely this honorable burden on their shoulders, and, of course, the tragic irony, one of the tragic ironies of the Civil War, is that Confederate and Union soldiers interpreted that heritage in precisely opposite ways. In the image of the founders, Confederates professed to fight for liberty and independence from a tyrannical government. Unionists fought to preserve the nation created by the founders from what they regarded as its dismemberment, destruction, and ruin.
A Virginia officer filled letters to his mother with comparisons, as he put it, of the North's war of subjugation against the South to England's war against the American colonies. He was certain that the Confederacy, like the earlier Americans, would win what he called this "Second War for American Independence, because tyranny could not prosper in the nineteenth century against a people fighting for their homes and liberties." That's exactly what John Wilkes Booth meant when as he jumped to the floor of this stage (at Ford's Theater) and limped across it shouting to the audience, Sic semper tyrannis--thus always to tyrants. He was fighting for liberty just as his Confederate friends had fought for liberty. An Alabama corporal referred in his diary to the Confederacy's struggle, as he put it, "for the same principles, which fired the hearts of our ancestors in the Revolutionary struggle."
On the other side of the lines, a Wisconsin private considered what he called "this second war equally as holy as the first by which our fathers gained those liberties and privileges, which have made us a great and prosperous nation." Justifying to this wife his decision to stay in the army after a more than a year of fighting instead of accepting a medical discharge, which he could have done, a thirty-three-year-old Minnesota sergeant and father of three young children, wrote home from an army hospital where he was recovering from wounds: "My grandfather fought and risked his life to bequeath to his posterity the glorious institutions now threatened by this infernal rebellion." He continued, "it is not for you and I or us and our dear little ones alone that I was and am willing to risk the fortunes of the battlefield, but also for the sake of the country's millions who are to come after us." Many Union soldiers also echoed Lincoln's words that the Union cause represented the last best hope for the survival of republican government in the world. I found many examples of that. My favorite has remained the expression by an Irish-born soldier, a corporal in the 28th Massachusetts of the famous Irish Brigade. He was thirty-three years old, married, a carpenter. In letters to his wife in Massachusetts and to his father-in-law back in Ireland, both of whom had questioned his wisdom--even his sanity--for enlisting to fight for the black Republican Lincoln government, this soldier wrote in some exasperation, especially toward his father-in-law: "This is my country as much as the man who is born on the soil. This being the case I have as much interest in the maintenance of the integrity of the nation as any other man. This is the first test of a modern free government and the act of sustaining itself against internal enemies." This sentiment was almost an echo of a similar statement that Lincoln had made in his first message to Congress. The soldier continued: "If we fail, then the hopes of millions fall and designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed. The old cry will be sent forth from the aristocrats of Europe that such is the common end of all Republics. Irishmen and their descendants have a stake in this nation. America is this Ireland's refuge, Ireland's last hope. Destroy this Republic and Ireland's hopes are blasted."
The convictions of Union soldiers, as well as Union leaders, often tended. to focus on what seems to us as rather abstract principles--national unity, constitutional liberty, survival of the republican experiment, the principle of majority rule, and so on. Abstract principles of liberty and self-government were, of course, important in Confederate ideology as well. Many southern soldiers were able to tie these principles to the more visceral, concrete, and, I suppose, more understandable motive of defending their land and homes against the hated invader. They believed the Yankees had come south to despoil and enslave them. Hatred and revenge became an increasingly dominant motif, I found in Confederate soldiers' letters as the war went on and as suffering and destruction escalated in the South. As a Louisiana lieutenant wrote to his mother from Virginia as early as 1862: "No union can ever exist between us and the barbarous loathsome and hateful Yankees." A Texas officer told his wife to teach their children "a bitter and unrelenting hatred to the Yankee race that has invaded our country, devastated and murdered our best citizens." Osmun Latrobe of Maryland, grandson of the famous architect Benjamin Latrobe, who designed the U. S. Capitol, fought in the Confederate army as a staff officer in Longstreet's corps. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Latrobe directed artillery fire from Marye's Heights against the attacking Union soldiers. Afterwards, he rode over the battlefield and wrote in his diary that he had, as he put it, "enjoyed the sight of hundreds of dead Yankees. Saw much of the work I had done in the way of severed limbs, decapitated bodies, and mutilated remains of all kinds, doing my soul good. Would that the whole northern army was such and I had my hand in it." Now there is naked hatred and desire for revenge.
Southerners related this hatred and revenge to more abstract ideological principles. If one word occurred more than others in Confederate ideological rhetoric, it was the word "liberty." And of course, the opposite of liberty was slavery. Southern soldiers talked of escaping enslavement to those hated Yankees. A Mississippian from a slaveholding family said he was fighting to help "drive from our soil the ruthless invader who is seeking to reduce us to abject slavery." A Georgia soldier wrote to a friend that "the deep, still quiet, peace of the grave is vastly more desirable than slavery."
Now these Confederates were using the word "slavery" in the same sense that American Revolutionists of 1776 had used it. Some of them could go on in the next sentence to assert the protection of property rights in black slaves as a reason for fighting. I think that the leaders of the revolutionary generation, Jefferson, Madison, George Mason, George Washington, and others saw considerable incongruity and felt considerable embarrassment about fighting for their own liberty while continuing to hold blacks in slavery. That sense of embarrassment and awkwardness in the revolutionary generation did not exist among most Confederates, as far as I have been able to determine. I think that a generation or more of the pro-slavery defense of the institution as a positive good had actually caused southerners of the Civil War generation to believe deep in their bones that slavery was a good. Therefore, they saw no hypocrisy, no inconsistency, no incongruity about saying they were fighting for liberty at the same time they were also fighting to preserve slavery. As a Texas officer put it that "if we lose this war," this was in 1864, "we will lose slavery, liberty and all that makes life dear." A Georgia captain who owned forty slaves, wrote to his wife in 1863 from the front in Virginia of "the Arch of Liberty we are trying to build." And several sentences later he advised her to sell a troublesome slave. Three weeks later, he reassured his wife, who had expressed doubts about the survival of slavery as an institution after the war, that if the Confederacy won the war, "slavery is established for centuries." A Georgia officer fighting in the Atlanta campaign during 1864 wrote to his wife: "In two months more we will perhaps be an independent nation or a nation of slaves. If we lose, not only will the Negroes be free but we will all be on a common level."
This equation of emancipation with black equality was common in the South. It was one of the fears that kept so many non-slaveholding whites on the firing line. One of them, a Texas private, remained confident even as late as 1864 that Confederate victory would prevent the freedom of the slaves, and that Confederates had a greater motive to fight hard than did the Yankees because, as he put it, "we are fighting for matters real and tangible, our property and our homes. They, for matters abstract and intangible for the flimsy and abstract idea that a Negro is equal to an Anglo-American." He wasn't really right about that. Relatively few Yankees professed to fight for racial equality, and, in the early part of the war, not many white Union soldiers claimed to fight solely or primarily for emancipation.
What united Union soldiers was the cause of Union. For a long time the issue of emancipation sharply divided them. There were a good many northern soldiers from early in the war who did see it as a war that linked Union with the freedom of the slaves. That produced a kind of ideological mix of liberty and union, one and inseparable. A Massachusetts private told his parents in early 1862 that he considered, as he put it, "the object of our government is one worth dying to obtain. The maintenance of our free institutions--the Union--which must of necessity result in the freedom of every human being over whom the stars and stripes wave. Who can desire peace while such an institution of slavery exists among us?"
But there were soldiers in the Union army in 1862 who felt just as strongly on the other side. And indeed, this issue badly divided Union soldiers, especially during the six or eight months surrounding the time that Lincoln issued the preliminary and the final Emancipation Proclamation during the winter of 1862-63 and helped to contribute to a severe moral crisis in union armies. A New York artillery officer wrote in 1862 "the war must be for the preservation of the Union, the putting down of armed rebellion and for that purpose only." He went on to write that if Lincoln gave in to radical pressure to make it an abolition war, "I, for one, shall be sorry that I ever lent a hand to it." In the officers' mess of a New York regiment, a lieutenant in January 1863, after the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued, took part in "several pretty spirited, I may call them hot, controversies about slavery, the emancipation edict and kindred subjects." Obviously, within his mess, there was a sharp division of opinion. "It is not a very acceptable idea to me," he wrote, "that we are Negro crusaders." But then, interestingly enough, he concluded, "anything, as I often said, to crush the rebellion and give us back the Union with all its stars would be desirable."
This last sentence, I think, provides a key to understanding a significant change that occurred in the Union army after about mid-1863. One can trace the turning point to the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Up until that time, defeatism and incompetent leadership and the idea that the soldiers were risking their lives to free the slaves had contributed to a severe morale crisis in the Union armies. After the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, with the accompanying sense of elation, that sentiment radically changed and the degree of anti-emancipation grousing, dissent, and disaffection in the Union armies sharply declined. Many soldiers previously opposed to emancipation came to accept it--not so much as an ideological war aim--but rather as a means to weaken the Confederacy by taking black manpower and bringing it over to the side of the Union. One of the best examples of this was a colonel from Ohio, Marcus Spiegel. He came from a Democratic background, and in January 1863 he wrote to his wife: "I am sick of this war and I do not find a want to fight for Lincoln's Negro proclamation any longer." Only a year later, shortly before he was killed in the Red River Campaign in Louisiana, this colonel who had been in Louisiana now for several months, told his wife "I have learned and seen more of what the horrors of slavery was then I ever knew before. I am now a strong abolitionist." I think as most of you are aware, when Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864 on a platform that pledged a thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery forever, which provided the sharpest contrast between the Republicans and the Democrats in that election, he received nearly 80% of the soldier vote.
These two themes of soldier motivation--patriotism and ideological conviction, on one side and primary group cohesion or solidarity with your buddies as a second motivation--are the "cause and comrades" in the title of my book. In discussing these themes, I also distinguish between what I call sustaining motivation and combat motivation. Ideological conviction was a crucial component of sustaining motivation. That was the glue that kept these largely volunteer armies together through the hardest and most dangerous soldiering Americans have ever done. Solidarity with your buddies, the fear of appearing a coward in their eyes and those of friends and family at home, were the principal factors in combat motivation--the courage that enabled men to go forward in that hail of bullets. In my book, I try to tie these two factors together. There would not have been fighting soldiers and cohesive armies without both a commitment to the cause and a commitment to your comrades. And when I take students and other groups around Civil War battlefields where these very questions and motivations first surfaced with me, I also try to tie together both of these factors. In turn, I try to link them to the larger themes, that I discussed at the beginning of the lecture, in order to place that particular battle in its context of the war as a whole and that war in its larger context of American history.
Questions and Answers:
Question: Do you believe that Lee's aggressive offensive strategy, which was very costly in lives lost, ultimately led to the defeat of the Confederacy?
Answer: During the 1990s, there has been a major debate among military historians concerning Lee's offensive strategy, that was very expensive in terms of casualties for the Confederate army. As a number of historians have been arguing in recent years--there are a half dozen books that make this case now--Lee adopted the wrong kind of strategy for the Confederacy. In short, this argument states that Lee's strategy cost them a great deal in casualties rather than conserving their limited manpower. They further suggest that the Confederates should have adopted a strategy something like George Washington did in the American Revolution to keep the army together, minimize casualties, be less aggressive, and not fight a battle unless there was a reasonable chance of winning it.
I am more inclined to agree with the people who challenge that idea; principally, I agree with Gary Gallagher who has spoken on and written a great deal about it. Yes, while Lee's strategy was expensive in terms of casualties, Lee is the one commander who won a lot of battles and came close on more than one occasion to winning the war. He was also nearly successful in convincing the northern people that they could never overcome the rebellion. That this happened in 1862, again in 1863, and even in 1864 when he was fighting on the defensive because he no longer had a choice but to do so. Lee was the one Confederate commander whose success nearly won the war. Here, winning meant that he was close to discouraging the North from trying to conquer and subdue the South and destroy its armies.
Many who criticize Lee's strategy point to Joseph Johnston as the finest Confederate strategist. Johnston adopted the Fabian* strategy of protecting his army, preserving it for another day, and avoiding a battle in which he might lose everything. That Johnston lost Vicksburg, might have lost Richmond in 1862 if he hadn't been wounded, and to a large degree was responsible for the ultimate loss of Atlanta does not speak well for his strategy. Certainly, Jefferson Davis looked upon Johnston as being responsible for these defeats and he thought that Lee's strategy had a real possibility for winning the war. Thus, I am inclined to agree with Gary Gallagher. I know far less about the Confederate strategy and leadership than he does or a lot of others do, but I have been persuaded by that argument.
Question: Do the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans have a positive role to play in American life today or do they stand for white supremacy? And, do you think the Confederate flag has a place in military parks?
Answer: I would like to take the second part of that question first. I think the Confederate flag does have the place in the museums of military parks because it is an artifact of Civil War battlefields. The controversy is about the battle flag and not the Confederate national flag, so the context in which it has a genuine legitimacy and relevance is in a battlefield context.
As far as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, I was a strong supporter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans effort to erect a statue of General James Longstreet. I agreed with the North Carolina Chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans slogan that "it's about time." I lent my support to that effort and gave them some money, and now that one and only monument to General Longstreet is at Gettysburg. I think that has been a positive contribution. I think they have made other positive contributions. The United Daughters of the Confederacy are playing an effective role in the creation of the National Park Service's Soldiers and Sailors database. So, yes I do think that they can play a constructive role helping to understand all sides of this highly controversial and highly divisive issue of what the Civil War was all about.
Question: What direct role did slaves play in battles?
Answer: In many of the battles, they did not play a direct role as soldiers but they did play an important role on both sides in the early parts of the war with their labor power, especially with the Confederacy. Antietam offers an easy example. The limited Union victory at Antietam provided the occasion for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It is easy to interpret slavery and black troops at Petersburg at the Crater, for example, or at other parts of the Petersburg battlefield because black troops fought there. This would be true on other battlefields as well. Some of these sites are managed by the National Park Service and some are not.
But how would one interpret slavery or the contributions of African Americans at Kennesaw Mountain? Well, who dug all the trenches and the elaborate fortifications that Johnston set up as he retreated southward from Rocky Face Ridge to the outskirts of Atlanta in the spring and summer of 1864? Every one of those defensive positions including the ones at Kennesaw Mountain had been prepared in advance by slave labor impressed or conscripted into the Confederate Army. Slave labor was crucial as teamsters, as laborers, as cooks, sometimes as musicians, as nurses, and in every other way you can imagine. Body servants accompanied most Confederate officers, thus there is a story for any battlefield. And as is well known, as the war went on, the Union army came to rely increasingly on contraband slave labor to do much of the work. They, for the most part, did not dig trenches, although they did in some instances, but they served as teamsters, as laborers, as cooks, and any number of other capacities. Without them, both armies would not have been able to function. Of course, in the latter part of the war at many battlefields there were black soldiers on the Union side.
I think the issue of slavery and race can be presented in many different ways. At Gettysburg, for example, in a kind of way that may not appear very obvious, there was a fairly sizeable free black community. There were several free black farmers who had small farms on the land that is now part of the Gettysburg National Military Park. The most familiar one is the Bryan House right near the High-water mark. Well, where were all those blacks when the Confederates came to Gettysburg? They had all taken off. They had fled because they feared they might be captured and sent south into slavery because they heard well-founded rumors and stories that as the rebels came north they did seize those they claimed escaped from slavery from Virginia and Maryland. Well, that's a way to interpret the issue of slavery at Gettysburg. There are many different ways if you carefully and conscientiously dig into the relationship between slavery, freedom, black labor and black soldiers in the war. These stories can be included in almost any of the battlefield parks.
Question: For the past two decades, I have been either with or connected with the National Park Service. Implementation of this Congressional mandate is the first time in my memory I have seen such a productive alliance between the agency and academia. Do you see an integration of academic historians and the interpretative process continuing or corning to an end when the mandate has been satisfied?
Answer: I see it continuing. I hope it will continue. I think conferences like this are one way of continuing it. Several years ago the Organization of American Historians, which is the leading professional association of academic historians who write about history of the United States, worked out an agreement with the National Park Service for evaluation of their interpretation at all of the historical sites. I was on the visiting committee for Gettysburg. That is a relationship that I look forward to continuing, as the Gettysburg National Military Park continues the process of interpreting the battle in its new visitor center and putting the battle into the larger context of the issues of the war such as we have been talking about in this conference. I think that is a relationship that should continue. I have long been an advocate of the responsibility of academic historians to a larger constituency than their colleagues and their students. Their responsibility to the public sphere is a wonderful way for academic historians to contribute their knowledge and expertise.. So, I look forward personally to a long, and I hope productive and cooperative relationship with the National Park Service. I hope that many of my other colleagues will do so as well.
Question: What can you tell us about the white southerners who remained loyal to the Union and actually fought in the Union army?
Answer: Richard Current who wrote a book about eight years ago called Lincoln's Loyalists, discussed precisely this subject. Many who read Current's book were a bit surprised. Counting West Virginia, which of course was part of Virginia when the war started, close to 100,000 whites from Confederate states fought in the Union army. Most were from Tennessee--some 40,000 to 50,000--and the next largest number came from West Virginia. But as you suggest, from every Confederate state, except South Carolina, there was at least a battalion or regiment of whites who fought in the Union army. Yet there is very little known about this and I do not know whether there are any monuments in West Virginia or East Tennessee to these loyalists.
How do you interpret that? Well that's a good question. I think that issue ought to be interpreted at the parks where it's relevant. Chickamauga and Chattanooga would be a good example. In the Atlanta Campaign there were many white Tennessee regiments in those operations. It raises the question of the concepts of unionism, of loyalty, of nationalism, and the way in which the Civil War is commemorated and remembered in the South.
Suggestions for further reading:
Catton, Bruce. Mr. Lincoln's War. Garden City: Doubleday, 1951.
______. Glory Road. Garden City: Doubleday, 1952.
______. The Stillness at Appomattox. Garden City: Doubleday, 1957.
Daniel, Larry S. Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Davis, William C. Lincoln's Men: How President Lincoln Became a Father to the Army of the Potomac. New York: Free Press, 1999.
Dean, Eric T. Shook Over Hell: Post Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Frank, Joseph Allan. With Ballot and Bayonet: The Political Socialization of American Civil War Soldiers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Glatthaar, Joseph. The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolina I.
Hess, Earl J. Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union. New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.
______. The Union Soldier in Battle. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.
Jimerson, Randall C. The Private Civil War: Popular Thought During the Sectional Conflict. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers. New York: Penguin Press, 1997.
______. The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Power, Tracy J. Lee's Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Robertson, James I., Jr. Soldiers Blue and Gray. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier in the Union. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
______. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier in the Confederacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.