Saturday, March 21, 2015

The War, 1861 - 1865

Battle of Spotsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup (Public Domain)
On my recent trip out to California, I picked up a book in the airport at Phoenix. I have just finished reading that book. You can probably guess what the book was about by the topic of today's post.

An excellent read. Though a mite depressing. This topic always leaves me somewhat confused as to how I'm supposed to feel about it.

Growing up we were taught a few things about the conflict which began in April of 1861 and ended four years later.
  1. It was called the Civil War.
  2. It was about slavery.
  3. The North won because it was larger, had more people and industry.
  4. Northerners weren't natural soldiers but learned.
  5. Southerners were all outdoors-men and crack shots.
  6. The South had better military leaders
  7. People thought the war would end after one big battle
Before I address those points you need to remember that when I was a young lad we were celebrating the centennial of the war. I turned 10-years old in 1963. Two days after my tenth birthday was the centennial of the death of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. An event which was not remarked upon at all when I was a boy. After all, he was on the "wrong" side.

So I was young and impressionable and there was a great deal of interest in the war at that point in time. I remember attending a fireworks display in July of 1963, a hundred years after the battle of Gettysburg. There were some young men dressed as Union soldiers in attendance. My kid brother, The Olde Vermonter and I were amazed, at the fireworks and at the guys in blue who, to our young minds, had emerged from the mists of time.

To put things further in perspective, we are now in the midst of the centennial of another great conflict from the past, World War One. When I was born, there were many WWI veterans still alive. There were also a number of Civil War veterans still alive.

They're all gone now. Even World War Two vets are getting scarce!

Okay, point (1) - One of the first things I learned about the war was that the South tended to name the battles differently from the North, for instance
  • North: First and Second Bull Run, South: First and Second Manassas
  • North: Antietam, South: Sharpsburg
Of course, that's not atypical. The Battle of Waterloo had three names, depending on which army you served in: Waterloo (Anglo-Allies), La Belle Alliance (Prussians) and Mont-St-Jean (French). Having more than one name for the war itself? Makes perfect sense viewed in that light.

Point (2) - Yes, slavery was a causative factor, but not the reason for the war. A trigger yes, the reason, no.

Point (3) - Well sure, that has a lot of bearing on the outcome. But the South almost drove the North to be tired of the cost of the war. Especially the cost in lives. (Something we forgot a number of years later. You don't have to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. In fact, you can win most, if not all, of the battles and still lose the war. Defeat the will to continue and you will win the war.)

Point (4) - Many Northern troops were from the cities, but not all. One thing the South forgot from the Revolution, fight enough battles and you learn to be a soldier. You don't have to be born to it.

Point (5) - No, not really. Many were small time farmers, the South was more rural than the North. Farmers are excellent material for soldiers. That's been true since war began. That's only an advantage early on, experience of battle will make up the difference between a country boy and a city slicker soon enough.

Point (6) - The South did get a lot of West Point graduates. Even now, a large chunk of the American officer corps comes from the south. (That might have something to do with having a large number of military bases in the south. The weather is better, you can train more of the year.) Over time the Northern officers learned the brutal trade of warfare. Some of them got very good at it.

Point (7) - As late as World War One people thought that one big battle would decide everything. Everyone remembered Waterloo, one big battle did end Napoléon's attempt to retake the French throne. But that was an anomaly. Everyone forgot (I guess) the long bloody struggle to get him off that throne in the first place. (Over ten years!) Then, as now, people have very short memories.

I consider my education, with all its perceived flaws, to be much superior to what is on offer these days. At least we learned about the war. Not sure history is even taught anymore. At least not real history.

One can understand why there might be more than one name for a war. Many Southerners, I learned as a teenager, call it The War Between the States. I've even heard it called The War of Northern Aggression. That latter name I don't care for, call me a fossil if you will but P.G.T. Beauregard's guns started the war when they opened fire upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Seems aggressive to me. But I can entertain arguments to the contrary point of view. The folks in Northern Virginia and in Georgia still have less than fond memories of the armies clad in blue who destroyed their homes and crops.

Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (Matthew Brady photo)

But, as I learned growing up, the South had their reasons for opening fire on Sumter. Just want to acknowledge that. I've been there and walked the ground, the passions of the time used to escape me. Not so much these days.

When I was a boy, another man I had issues with was Robert E. Lee.

Robert Edward Lee by Julian Vannerson

Superintendent of West Point, a superb record in the Mexican-American War and arguably one of the best field generals ever produced by our country.

However, he swore an oath, an oath not much different than the oath I myself first swore long ago. He violated that oath. He turned his back on the United States and later took up arms against that nation. When I was a lad, there were still those who named him "traitor."

While that's not a stance I ever really held, his actions made me uneasy. "How could he?" I asked myself many times. How could this great man do what he did?

As you get older, you begin to understand things a little better. Especially in these days when the Federal government is throwing its considerable weight around. Makes me nervous it does. Nervous indeed.

I have stood on the grounds of General Lee's home, at Arlington. For whatever reason, it gives me pain when I consider how that beautiful place came to be. A place where I wish to be buried someday is there because the government seized it from the Lee family. From my readings on the subject, there was a great deal of hatred of General Lee in the North, at least amongst the political classes.

Robert E. Lee's citizenship was finally restored in 1975, over a hundred years after his death.

All I really know about the time is that political interests on both sides were determined to have their way, regardless of the outcome.

I would be willing to bet that very few politicians died in that war.

No surprise there.

The cost of that conflict was high, very high. It deeply affected the psyche of this country. There are some, particularly in the South, who are still bitter about the outcome.

There is an old saying, attributed to George Clemenceau (who's bitterness towards Germany at the end of WWI gave us Hitler, World War II and many other wonders, at least in my reckoning):

La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.

Which has come down to us as "War is too important to be left to the generals."

I would make the argument that it is too important to be left to the politicians.

What say you?

Dead Confederate soldiers from Starke's Louisiana Brigade, on the Hagerstown Turnpike, north of the Dunker Church.
Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg)
Photograph by Alexander Gardner


  1. I have always thought that the Civil War was the stupidest thing this country has ever done. If we had let the south leave the union what would have happened? A large portion of the population wold not have been decimated, slavery probably would have lasted for an extra 10 years, but having that institution die of natural causes and not be thrust upon them probably would have led to faster acceptance of all people. The south probably would have reunited with the union somewhere down the road. Nothing was really solved by that war.

    1. You make some good points Joe. You're not alone in that regard.

  2. To my shame, I must admit to knowing almost nothing about this war. But I know next to nothing about the Spanish civil war either - nor even our own English civil war! I must do something about all that ignorance. One day.

    1. The English civil war, cavaliers and round heads, Cromwell, there's a topic for a post right there.

      As to the Spanish civil war, Communists, Franco, Fascists and others, a very bloody event and a test bed for certain things used down the road in WWII. Another good topic for a post.

      Thanks for the ideas BP. (Now I need to do the work!)

    2. I've done a little bit of reading about the Spanish Civil War.
      My conclusion is nobody was right and there was absolutely nothing romantic about it.

    3. True Skip. It was an absolutely hideous affair. Spain suffered a long time from that particular nastiness.

  3. "I would be willing to bet that very few politicians died in that war".

    As ever. As a small child, listened to the adults discussing the subject, All were strong Unionists. A grandfather was orphaned because of the war although he never discussed the details. He married into a family that claimed a Medal of Honor winner. Another in that family participated in the Battle at Glorieta Pass in then New Mexico Territory.

    1. Family lore has a great-grandfather in the Union Army. We have letters from a great-great-uncle who served in a New Hampshire regiment, took part in one of the assaults on Fort Wagner made famous in the movie Glory. Many families who've been here for a while can find an ancestor or two who was either in the war or touched by it. It was a seminal event in our history.

  4. I had confederates on both sides of my family. Maternal great great grandfather was captured at Corinth fighting with Gen. Sterling Price. Repatriated from Ohio prison camp, he WALKED all the way back to home in Missouri, then on to Tarrant County, Texas. Paternally, great great uncle/grandfather (not sure which) that died of dysentery and is buried in Arlington. (Confederate section, as I have been told).

    I was 10 or 12 before I found out damn-yankee was 2 seperate words. You didn't mention Sherman under ANY circumstances. Family land in Alabama was carpet-bagged, and my penniless family migrated to Fort Worth, TX.

    This war still defines the country.

    I realized early on that the Civil Rights Act of the 1960's was enacted because the war wasn't about giving equal rights to slaves, it was really about maintaining the Union / States Rights brought on by the subject of slavery.

    I didn't know what to think about slavery until I read: Deuteronomy 24:7 If a man is found kidnapping any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and mistreats him or sells him, then that kidnapper shall die; and you shall put away the evil from among you. I realized that the entire business was evil. The tribes that captured others for sale deserved to die. No matter how good or poorly a slave in the South or North was treated, it was based on kidnapping.

    I even reject the notion of 'race'. We are all children of Adam's race. Skin color isn't important, culture IS.

    Thanks for posting your understanding and journey on this subject.

    1. Excellent commentary STxAR!

      That link you provide makes my blood boil. The "people" (I use the term loosely) who destroyed those records are no better than the Taliban. Bastards!

      You make a number of superb points, all of which are educational and things I need to think on.

      Thanks for your contribution, once again my readers educate and illuminate. You made my day.

  5. I grew up with the clear notion that the Union were the good guys in that war. Over time, I began to learn that there are always two sides to any story. Subtract the issue of slavery and it does appear to be a case of "State's Rights" being violated. I do know that that war defines us to this day.
    From my blog:

    1. Good post Snuffy, old memories sometimes die hard.

      It really was, at its core, a war over what the scope of Federal authority was going to be. What happened after the war is what sealed the bitterness and hatred which still lingers in many quarters.

  6. Well done. I'm glad to see someone cover some of the real reasons for the Civil War. As a young lad I studied the war extensively because the majority of
    my family on both sides came from South Carolina and Louisiana before ending up in Oklahoma. There were still some pockets of bitterness held by some
    of my older relatives about the war and it's outcome. The things I heard from them and the things we were taught in school were at such odds that I was
    determined to find out the facts for myself. Neither side was entirely right and the truth's were somewhere in the middle. (Although trying to convince my
    elder relations just got me in a lot of hot water and I became the black sheep of the family for many years!)

    "I would make the argument that it is too important to be left to the politicians." I think you are entirely correct!!

    1. Politicians who want war should be made to fight in that war. If they're too old, perhaps they should leave office, BEFORE voting for war.

      There was enough right and wrong on both sides to fill volumes. Bottom line is, if the politicians had done their jobs the way the Founders intended, who knows what might have been avoided.

  7. Re: The Oath. He, as did Lincoln, You, I and the current occupier, swore to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I think Lee felt, after exhausting all means provided within the Constitution to support it and being no longer able to do so with those means, extreme measures must be taken. We can discuss at great length whether he was right or wrong, but I don't feel "traitor" applies. And as I view current events, I feel less and less so.

    1. I concur. With all the water which has flowed under the bridge, I have a much greater understanding of the actions of General Lee, and others, back in those times. Extreme measures. The turmoil experienced by Lee has been written about and speculated upon. I have no doubt that his decisions in 1860-1861 were difficult and not taken lightly. General Lee has my respect.

  8. Put the damn politicians in the front line with the troops. THEN we'll see how long they want to 'have' a war. Agree with Juvat on Lee. This was also still a time when States and states rights were an important part of the calculus. I think that is one reason VA stayed out of the war as long as it did. Lee was pursuing those alternatives...

    1. I've come around to the belief that the Federal government has far too much power. The rights of the individual states are important. We're losing that.

  9. I think that there is a good chance that the country would have ended up being Balkanized as there were more than a few foreign countries that would have loved to step in and "help" the South and those parts of the countries not yet States.

    Slavery was most assuredly an issue, though not THE issue for the war. For Territories wanting to become part of the USA, the issue of whether slavery would or would not be allowed was a significant political issue.

    The States Rights issue is another reason not often discussed. With our current Boy King/Dictator in the White House, and the extremes to which the current Democrat Party supports him, causes me great concern. We may yet be called upon to fulfill the oath we took by taking arms against the Federal Government. The Founding Fathers never intended for the Federal Government to become this strong, this invasive in every part of our lives -nor did they think that the States would allow the Feds to become so powerful. It may be that a true Republic cannot survive in a country as large as we are with a population of 300 million plus. Every day that the United States of America continues to exist it sets a new Historical Record.

    1. The more rights we take away from the states, the less recognizable our country will be to those who founded it.

      Great points Ron.

    2. Nullification was the Legal Theory that I was unable to remember. Realistically the only way to stop the growth of the Federal Government, and that is the #1,2 and 3 purpose of the current Federal Government, is by Force of Arms. Yes, yes, one could "theoretically" pass another Constitutional Amendment, though the odds of that happening are infinitesimal. Barack Hussein Obama is as close to a Dictator, and I do believe he is a traitor to America, in our history. If I had to pick States that would start that movement it would be, not necessarily in order, South Carolina, Texas, Wyoming, Montana.

  10. I'm in agreement with juvat on the matter of Lee's swearing of the Oath, and when one reviews his life before, during, and after the war, his personal honor is beyond reproach, even for all the disrespect he received during the latter two periods.

    (Aside: I always love stumping the ignorant on the facts of his honor with the response- "if he (Lee) was worried about maintaining slaves, why'd he free those he was bequeathed from his father in law during the war?")

    Comparatively, the one that always surprises me by maintaining near-Messianic status is Lincoln...

    1. Lincoln's stature amongst part of the citizenry is not so Messianic. I see it from time to time in the blogoverse and hear it first hand from some folks I know.

      I have no problem with the man personally, he did what he thought was right. I do have a problem with too much authority in a central government. Lincoln represented that government. Would have been interesting to see how he would be remembered had he not been assassinated.

  11. I wonder if the bitterness would have remained for so long if the winning side hadn't insisted on exacting revenge?

    (that would apply to both the War Between the States and World War One)

    1. Precisely my point Skip.

      Revenge is a dish best tossed out the kitchen window and not sampled.

    2. Had Lincoln not been assassinated, at least from I've read, he had no intention of taking revenge against the South as he knew the terrible results that would entail.

    3. That's my understanding as well Ron. Pity we didn't get the chance to find out.

  12. I find it hard to disagree with any of your contentions, Sarge. My mother is from WV with roots going way back in VA (West Virgina became a state I'm told because Lincoln needed the B & O railroad line). Even within what became West Virginia, half the counties (up towards Wheeling and PA) were for the north the other half - towards KY - the southern area of the state - were for the South.

    I think Ron is right about Lincoln and a wonderful book on John Wilkes Booth and his 12 days as a fugitive is here

    On Lee my my contention is that before the War, the United States was a confederation of independent states who agreed to form a Union. There is nothing in the Constitution that I am aware of requiring them to stay in the Union.

    It was after the War's conclusion that the United States became thought of as a single entity. Perhaps you are thinking in this context, as Lee considered himself first and foremost, a proud Virginian.

    On slavery even Lincoln said that if he could preserve the Union and have slavery, he would do so. Most of the Confederate soldiers were poor and simple farmers with no interest in slavery - they just did as their states expected them to do.

    You ask people today "What was the costliest war in US history?" most will say WW2 - a few would even say Vietnam (not knowing any better, I would think).

    The costliest war by far was the Civil War.

    BTW I think the Southern term, war between the states, might be more accurate as the South had no interest as far as I know in capturing Washington - they just wanted to leave.

    At least that is my impression.

    BTW for some reason this blog isn't allowing me to post to my Wordpress ID - which it did before. So it posted something from my Google ID.

    Who knows - next week you may see me as.....

    El Mystico

    1. Good points William.

      As far as commenting goes, Blogger has a mind of its own. I allow everything except "Anonymous" comments, yet there are days when Blogger blocks all non-Google accounts. I am stumped. I will keep an eye open for "El Mystico," a very nice alias indeed.

  13. " P.G.T. Beauregard's guns started the war when they opened fire upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor."

    Nope. They didn't just go out one fine day and start shooting. Lincoln was attempting to reinforce what SC, which had left the Union in Dec, 1860, saw as her property (and if you go the "Well, the federal government owned the fort" route, then the English Crown owned all the military establishments after Independence Day). Lincoln had plenty of chances to withdraw the troops without a shot being fired, The only reason the War (I tend to call it "The War of 1861") was fought, if you read Lincolns 1st Inaugural address, was because about 3/4 of federal revenue came from tariffs and duties on goods passing through southern ports and the feds needed the revenue. Here is part of the GA document of secession:
    " The material prosperity of the North was greatly dependent on the Federal Government; that of the the South not at all. In the first years of the Republic the navigating, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the North began to seek profit and aggrandizement at the expense of the agricultural interests. Even the owners of fishing smacks sought and obtained bounties for pursuing their own business (which yet continue), and $500,000 is now paid them annually out of the Treasury. The navigating interests begged for protection against foreign shipbuilders and against competition in the coasting trade. Congress granted both requests, and by prohibitory acts gave an absolute monopoly of this business to each of their interests, which they enjoy without diminution to this day. Not content with these great and unjust advantages, they have sought to throw the legitimate burden of their business as much as possible upon the public; they have succeeded in throwing the cost of light-houses, buoys, and the maintenance of their seamen upon the Treasury, and the Government now pays above $2,000,000 annually for the support of these objects. Theses interests, in connection with the commercial and manufacturing classes, have also succeeded, by means of subventions to mail steamers and the reduction in postage, in relieving their business from the payment of about $7,000,000 annually, throwing it upon the public Treasury under the name of postal deficiency. The manufacturing interests entered into the same struggle early, and has clamored steadily for Government bounties and special favors. This interest was confined mainly to the Eastern and Middle non-slave-holding States. Wielding these great States it held great power and influence, and its demands were in full proportion to its power. The manufacturers and miners wisely based their demands upon special facts and reasons rather than upon general principles, and thereby mollified much of the opposition of the opposing interest. They pleaded in their favor the infancy of their business in this country, the scarcity of labor and capital, the hostile legislation of other countries toward them, the great necessity of their fabrics in the time of war, and the necessity of high duties to pay the debt incurred in our war for independence. These reasons prevailed, and they received for many years enormous bounties by the general acquiescence of the whole country. " Too many people conflate secession with the war.

    Good points on the need to break the will of the enemy to fight. Basically, by not following the federal army into Washington City after First Manassas and demanding surrender, the South lost the war with that victory. Got the dander of the northerners up enough to keep the war going. Once it got started, and obvious that it wasn't going to be a three month war, it was almost a given that the north, with a huge advantage in manpower, raw materials, and industrial capability, would win.

    1. Technically speaking, you start the shooting, you start the war. But really it's all about why they started shooting. You explain that very well.

      Good stuff Joe.


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