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The Civil War

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright October 2013


In the 2010's the American Civil War is often taught as being fought over whether to continue or end slavery, end of story.


Slavery became the hottest issue as the war dragged on, but it was not top of the list when the line was drawn on the Potomac River in 1860 and both sides decided fighting was now better than more talking.

This war was about many issues. And it was about getting scared and panicked, and blundering into a long war. And in the end, as is almost always the case in drawn-out wars, neither side got what they expected, but both sides got big changes in how they lived and conducted their politics.

The lead up to the war

North America is a big place. It's big and there's a lot of diversity from place to place on the continent. The United States was formed from thirteen separate colonies because that size and diversity made these smaller units the most workable arrangement. Each colony started up and ruled its region because doing things that way worked better than trying to unify such a big area in a time before telegraphs, railroads and fast clipper sailing ships.

That diversity didn't go away just because those colonies were united under a single Constitution. These now-united colonies still had much to learn about nation making. And making it even more exciting, the goal was a moving target: Much of the political experimenting going on in the US in the 1770-1850's era was dealing with the effects of a triple whammy:

o The growing size of the United States in land area, number of states and population. The United States started out as just the strip of land on the east coast of North America between the ocean and the Appalachian mountains. First it grew across the mountains into places like Ohio, Kentucky and Alabama. Then the Louisiana Purchase doubled the land area and the Mexican American War doubled it again. The states grew from thirteen to thirty, and the population grew from four million to thirty one million. Huge change. Rip Van Winkle was a contemporary story about all that change. It later became popular as a children's story.

o The changing nature of the technology being used in day-to-day living. This was an age of both industrial and agricultural revolutions. Canals, railroads, steam boats, telegraphs, steel mills and cotton gins all grew from essentially zero to wide spread in this era. This made huge changes in what it was possible for people to do. Cotton growing transformed from something you did where you couldn't grow tobacco or food crops into "white gold" -- the most profitable crop which could be grown in much of the South. Steam boats meant sailing upstream on rivers became as routine as sailing downstream.

o The changing nature of the social structures in all the states. The combination of new technologies and constantly growing immigrant populations meant that the states were never "Old Grandpa's state" anywhere in the US. Dramatic change was the constant. One example: The Washington-Jefferson-Adams style of governing changed dramatically as Andrew Jackson and his Democrats got voted in in 1829.

What the colonies/states/territories had in common over this entire era was a lot of prosperity. Gone were the days of the 1600's when people were coming mostly for religious freedom (Puritans) or to try new, untried styles of living in an untamed wilderness (Quakers). People were coming now because, first the British Empire colonists, then the citizens of this newly created country, were prosperous -- they were doing things right money-wise and invention-wise. This is why the US could afford $15 million to buy the Louisiana Purchase from the French in 1803, and pay the Mexican government $18 million in 1848 to buy California, Texas and the Mountain West. (They paid this even after they had already occupied Mexico City and won the war! Yet another example of how strange this American Way was.)

From Diversity to Acrimony

When it took two weeks to travel from Boston to Washington, it was hard to meddle meaningfully in the affairs of people in other states. This was even more so when the business in Boston didn't depend much on what happened in Washington. And that was the easy trip! Getting from Boston to Cleveland (Ohio was The West in those days) was a harrowing wilderness mountain journey that resembled crossing the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit, and took a month.

But this was a time of change. And... poof! Add canals, railroads and steamboats and all that traveling got a lot faster, cheaper and easier. That's what happened all through the early 1800's. And when a telegraph line was installed another revolution happened: Information could move a lot faster than people could. This was a first for the whole world!

And all this revolutionizing meant that meddling and business relations got a lot easier and more important too! This is what turned the live-and-let-live diversity of the 1780's into the serious-meddling-acrimony of the 1850's.

This unsettling was enhanced by all the other new technologies that were emerging. "How should we do this [X] activity... now that we have [Y] invention available?" was a question that came up constantly. Example: "How should we farm the rivers and build the towns of the Mississippi watershed now that we have steam-powered riverboats available?" And because there was so much new happening "cheap shots" were endemic. (taking unfair advantage in a situation).

One of the sources of acrimony was how to handle slavery. In the 2010's this is described as the highest profile issue of the times. But that isn't so. In those times there were many other equally or more important issues raging. Here are some examples:

o A similar issue in The North was how to handle factory working conditions. The conditions were brand new and not regulated. Child and women labor conditions were as controversial as slavery was in The South.

o Another issue of the time was how to handle customs duties. The North wanted duty structures that would favor building these "new fangled" factories in the US, and textile factories were a hot item. The factory builders came up with the bright idea of putting a tax on exporting cotton. The South thought this was a terrible idea, and a cheap shot being taken by those "damn Yankees" up North. They wanted to sell to all comers, including the equally new and booming English and French textile factories. This category of difference in opinions came to be called the "state's rights" issues.

o Another issue was how to handle money. The Northeast industrialists and traders wanted a strong dollar. That would promote profitable trading. The farmers and settlers wanted the dollars widely spread so they could better develop their farms, which meant a weaker dollar. This issue pitted both the South and the West against the Northeast. And the new railroads and mines of the day gobbled up money as fast as they created vivid dreams of wealth and prosperity. But boom turned to bust, and the bust that started just before the fighting was a doozy. As mentioned in this April 2014 Economist article, The Slumps that Shaped Modern Finance, 1857 was the start of a severe slump in America -- the dreams turned into nightmares. This one changed finance and enflamed separatist passions as Americans, and the world, tried to figure out how to deal with the broken dreams and emptied purses. From the article, "But this time things were different. A shock in America’s Midwest tore across the country and jumped from New York to Liverpool and Glasgow, and then London. From there it led to crashes in Paris, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Vienna. Financial collapses were not merely regular—now they were global, too." Imagine how twitchy you would become if a big chunk of your life savings was wiped out by a string of bank failures, and for the following couple of years politicians were campaigning by finger pointing and shouting about who should keep paying out "to save the rest of us".

o Yet another issue was immigration. Many of those already in the US got huffy about all the newcomers that were following them. The issues brought up at the time were eerily similar to the immigration issues brought up in the 2010's. "Dutch treat", by the way, comes out of this time frame. It was one of a whole series of Dutch jokes about how these newcomer people would say one thing and do another. Dutch in this usage was a mispronunciation of deutsche -- these were mocking German immigrants. The icon for these immigration issues was the Know Nothing movement of this era.

o Still another issue was religion. This was the time of the Second Great Awakening. New religious ideas were spouting up like toadstools after rain. The Southern Baptists formed in this era. The upstate New York region along the newly built Erie Canal became a hot bed that produced dozens of new religions. Some of those that have lasted are Mormonism, Christian Science and Seventh Day Adventism.

Money rights, land rights, human rights... ouch! These are some deeply emotional things to be arguing over. And by the 1850's there were a lot of heated emotions on many sides of many issues, but the North-South issues took the limelight over the others.

Enter Panic and Blunder

The political parties were having a hard time as this acrimony grew. The Whig party had such a hard time it dissolved completely in the early 1850's. The Democrats gloated for only a short time because it was replaced in 1854 by a new, virulent Republican party. This new party was a mix of ex-Whigs, ex-Free Soilers, ex-Know Nothings and anti-slavers. It spread like wildfire over the North and the mix of policies it was advocating terrified the South. And the crash of 1857 mentioned above didn't calm anyone.

The South got so scared it went into a panic. Before the election in 1860 many Southern leaders declared that if a Republican was elected president they would secede. The Republican candidate was Abraham Lincoln, he won, and the southern leaders made good on their promise.

What made this war different

This war has a lot of good military history written about it. It was an exciting war. I will not try to duplicate that here. What I will cover are the highlights of the thinking, and the technologies.

This was a war of many firsts.

o It was the first time railroads and riverboats played a big role. Their effect was to make the battles much bigger than they would have been otherwise. They made it possible to even consider conquering a quarter of a continent -- The South is that big.

o The first battles using steam powered "iron-clad" war ships. This style of ship evolved over the next fifty years into the battle ships of World War One navies.

o The first time so many people of both sides participated so enthusiastically in conducting a war. This is sometimes cited as the first example of modern "total war".

o Late in the war static trench warfare was first conducted.


The Conduct of the War

Like every long, drawn-out war this one changed its nature as it went along.

At first, no one was sure what was going to happen or what had to be done. One example of this was the reaction to General Winfield Scott's plan. Scott was a hero of the Indian wars and the Mexican American war and well respected. But he was now an old man, he came up with this plan, but he would not be the one implementing it. What Scott outlined was a massive plan that called for huge expense, time and effort. It was mocked in the beginning months -- called Scott's Anaconda -- because of that huge expense, time and effort. What everyone wanted was a plan that would be a lightning-fast, highly decisive strike of a much smaller scale. But the winning Northern strategy ended up being much like what Scott forecast.

The big issue for the Lincoln administration was keeping the North enthusiastic about conducting the war. A related issue in the first year of the war was keeping more states from seceding. As I pointed out, there were a lot of issues simmering, and if Lincoln and his freshmen Republican party people got too zealous, too arrogant, and stumbled too badly, other states could easily join the protest.

On the Southern side the big issue was keeping The Confederacy running smoothly while this war was in progress. The Southerners were doing this seceding because they felt the Northerners were seriously crimping their style and taking cheap shots. If Jefferson Davis and his administration bumbled running The Confederacy too badly, this secession would be of no benefit to the Southerners, and they might as well stay in a union.

One historic accident that dramatically shaped the war's destiny was the purely political choice to move the Confederacy's capital from Jackson, Mississippi to Richmond, Virginia. Virginia was an important state, but that move put the North and South capitals only a day's ride apart. This provided the opportunity for the lightning strike everyone in the North was looking for. Fighting to take Richmond competed with the Anaconda Scheme for attention and resources -- it seemed like something that would be a whole lot faster to accomplish than trying to subdue a quarter of a continent.

The first year of the war looked like sparring -- the battles were small in size and the casualties light. That was because both sides were still gearing up, both physically and emotionally.

The battle that made everyone realize this was going to be serious was fought at Shiloh, TN in April of 1862. There were 23,000 casualties over a two day fight. The battle was fought, the casualties reported, and neither side was outraged enough at this casualty count to call for peace. This one was going to be long and hard fought...

The next major change in thinking came at the Battle of Antietam, MD four months after Shiloh. This was another shockingly bloody battle with casualties a bit higher than Shiloh's. But this one was very close to Washington, not in some mid-continent backwater. It got even more attention, and this was when Lincoln pushed slavery up the priority list by declaring the Emancipation Proclamation. He was still being discrete and political. This proclamation only freed slaves in The Confederacy, not in the Union.

In July 1863 the South suffered two harsh blows: the city of Vicksburg was lost on the Mississippi River and the battle of Gettysburg was lost in Pennsylvania. Gettysburg was yet another, bigger, blood-fest, and Vicksburg was the last Confederate hold on the Mississippi, the river was now in full Union control. The Anaconda was squeezing hard now. Lee at Gettysburg had tried to force a spectacular show-down that would seriously discourage the North. It didn't work. The only question now was: Would the North have the dedication to finish this?

Adding to The South's problems was that the Davis administration was not successful at keeping "business as usual" going in the South. The northern blockades of Southern cities were crimping commerce, and the Davis administration was financing the war by printing money, not floating war bonds -- the South was suffering from hyperinflation. This meant the South's armies were shrinking while the North's kept growing.

In 1864 the nature of the war changed again. It got deeply frustrating. "The South isn't going to win... why doesn't it give up or negotiate?" was the feeling of cool-heads in both the North, the South, and those watching in Europe. But this was now a deeply emotional grudge match, the people of the North and the South were ready, willing and able to back their government's conduct of this war. Example: Lincoln was reelected over former general-in-chief McClellan who ran as a peace party candidate.

As a result the conduct of the war became more hot-headed. The icon for this was Sherman's March to the Sea in December 1864 after he took Atlanta, GA. It was bold and audacious military choice, and it was designed to make Georgia civilians suffer as much as their military had.

In April 1865 harsh reality finally caught up and dashed cold water over all this emotional heat. Richmond was lost and Lee could not evade the pursuing Union forces to fight another day -- he did try. He surrendered at Appomattox Court House in western Virginia and the war was effectively over.

The Aftermath

The war was over, but the hard feelings were not -- not by any means! Lincoln was trying to pursue a moderate post-war policy when the hot post-war feelings swept him away: He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth a week after Lee's surrender -- Booth was one of many people who could not accept that The South had lost, fair and square.

The assassination of a beloved war-time leader at such a celebratory moment fired even more emotion and the post-Civil War time -- The Reconstruction Era -- became famous for how badly it worked out.

But that is a story for another chapter.


--The End--

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