" ... the only standard of virtue is power. The strongest is the best. As Cousin [History of Modern Philosophy, translation by Wight, New York, 1852, vol. i. pp. 182-187.] says, the victor is always right; the victim is always wrong. The conqueror is always more moral than the vanquished. Virtue and prosperity, misfortune and vice, he says, are in necessary harmony. Feebleness is a vice (i.e., sin), and therefore is always punished and beaten."
Systematic Theology - Volume 2 - Page 134
Charles Hodge - 1872
A Neccessary War ?
Few things ever happen for just one reason. The sources of the Civil War are complex. In particular, it is important to disambiguate the sources of secession and the causes of the subsequent military conflict. Recognizing that slavery was the central cause does not entail the belief that it was the only cause. The civil war was like the schisms in the Baptist and Methodist churches a decade before secession.
The preservation of the American system mandated presevaton of the Union. Lincoln faced a bleak future in which a small rump Federal Union would be surrounded on all sides by powerful states hostile to freedom. The slave-holding South, the newly installed French Empire in Mexico, and the British Empire in Canada, were all hostile to the American political system, and over time they could combine to the detriment of the Federal Republic. Lincoln's seemingly mystical attachment to "the Union" reflected cold, hard geopolitical realities.
Public opinion as the proximate origin of the war, specifically its acquisition by 1860 of a polarized, paranoid character, pitting Northerners’ fear of “slave power” against Southerners’ terror of a "servile insurretion" sparked by Northern abolitionists (John Brown was their nightmare made real).
The final straw was the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Declaration quoted Lincoln's statement that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, and half free," to argue that Lincoln planned to abolish slavery in the South (despite Lincoln's repeated assurances that he only sought to prevent the extension of slavery into the Western territories). Lincoln's Republican Party, the Declaration claimed, sought not only to exclude slavery from the territories; it wanted to wage war "against slavery until it shall cease to exist throughout the United States."
While Lincoln and most members of the new Republican Party did not initially seek to abolish slavery in the South, but rather only wanted to prevent the extension of slavery into the territories, the several declarations of secession make it clear that the southern states interpreted Lincoln's election as a threat to the institution of slavery, not states' rights. This resolution, therefore, is based on the well-documented historical interpretation that the "lost cause" of the Confederacy was principally, if not exclusively, the defense of slavery.
Despite frequent claims that the Confederate side in the Civil War fought to protect states' rights, the declarations published at the time make it clear that the primary issue in the Civil War was slavery and the South's determination to preserve it. When states' rights were invoked, it was most often to defend a state's right to maintain slavery and the social structure that it supported.
South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, announced its decision to the world with a "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina," in December of 1860. The Declaration's central contention is that the Union should be dissolved because the federal government had failed to live up to its promise, especially by failing to force Northern states to comply with the federal fugitive slave law. After Northern states started to follow Story's advice by passing laws to prohibit the use of state courts and county sheriffs to enforce federal law, the South demanded a stronger federal law to compel Northern assistance and override Northern state laws. They effectively obtained this with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, as part of the compromise that brought California into the Union as a free state. But even this law was not strong enough for South Carolina, as South Carolina's Declaration alleged that Northern states continued to behave in ways that skirted the force of federal law.
The view that the Confederacy fought to protect states' rights rather than preserve slavery emerged only after the Civil War. According to a number of historians, the argument that the South had fought the Civil War to protect "states' rights" did not emerge until the 1880s or 1890s. In separate works, historians David Blight, Thomas Brown, Cecilia O'Leary, and James Loewen suggest some possible reasons for this reinterpretation. First, these historians argue, late-19th century efforts at national "reconciliation" between North and South required a changed understanding of the cause of the war. The South could only be reconciled, and the efforts of its troops honored, if the war was about something other than slavery. By the 1890s, it was easier to honor the South and its Confederate soldiers if they had fought for constitutional principles, as opposed to slavery.
Though slavery was the root and cause of the war, the immediate issue did not turn directly on slavery. The South took its stand on the right which, it alleged, each State possessed.to withdraw from the Union.
No political party advocated freeing the slaves in the presidential election of 1860. The Republican Party platform opposed the expansion of slavery to the western states, but it did not embrace abolition. The immediate cause of the war was a dispute over money and self-determination. Before the Civil War, the South financed most of the federal government—because the federal government was funded by tariffs, which were paid disproportionately by the agricultural South that imported manufactured goods.
Yet, most federal government spending and subsidies benefited the North. The South wanted a more limited federal government and lower tariffs—the ideals of Thomas Jefferson—and when the South could not get that, it opted for independence. Lincoln was unprepared when the Southern states seceded, and force was the only way to bring them—and their tariff money—back. The British thought the war was about tariffs and free trade and the slavery issue was a bogus moralization of an unjust war. Lincoln's Chief economist thought the cause of the war was tariffs and free trade.
While the declarations issued by the Southern states at the time of the war claimed that the war was about the preservation of slavery, histories written between the 1890s and 1950s greatly diminished the role of slavery and suggested that the war was about states' rights and Southern honor. (See e.g. David Blight, Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory; Thomas J. Brown, Public Art and the Commemoration of the Civil War; Cecilia O'Leary, To Die For: the Paradox of American Patriotism; James Loewen, "Five Myths About Why the South Seceded," Washington Post, February 26, 2011.)
The North rested its case on the paramount necessity of maintaining the Union. And it was this issue which affected the decisions of men on either side in the terrible struggle which was beginning. Buchanan, the ex-President, and Douglas, who had been a candidate for the Presidency, were both men who sympathized with the South on the slavery question; but both threw in their lot with the North, and decided on following the flag.
Lee, on the contrary, whose achievements as a general were to make his name a household word, thought slavery a positive evil, and the Union a glorious result of Washington's labours. But he considered that his first allegiance was due to his own State, and, when Virginia seceded from the Union, resigned his commission in the United States Army, which he might otherwise have commanded.
Thus, as sometimes happens in affairs, each of the parties to the quarrel ignored the cause which had brought matters to an extremity, and rested his case on other ground. The South hesitated to estrange European and English opinion by ostensibly proclaiming that it was fighting for slavery. The North equally refrained from alleging that it was attacking an institution on whose continuance opinion was divided, and asserted its intention to maintain the Union, on which opinion in the North was unanimous.
Believing firmly in the sovereignty of the State, there was never an idea among the masses of the people of the South that secession would entail war. A few of the prominent leaders and profound thinkers foresaw the consequences, still peaceable secession was the thought uppermost. Coercion, "vi et armis,'" was not dreamed of; and these ideas were not confined to the Southern people. The opinion had always prevailed throughout the Union that secession was a right vested in each separate State, and that an attempt to coerce a sovereign State would be unwarrantable and unconstitutional.
John Quincy Adams gave expression to this universal sentiment when in a speech delivered April 30, 1839, on the occasion of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of our government under the Constitution, he said: "But the indissoluble union between the several States of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the right but in the heart. If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give way to cold indifference, or collision of interest shall fester into hatred, the bands of political asseveration will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited States to part in friendship from each other than to be held together by constraint."
Throughout 1855-57, Lincoln traveled extensively giving political speeches. On June 16, 1858, he accepted the Republican nomination to run against incumbent Stephen A. Douglas for the U.S. Senate, and delivered his famous "House Divided Speech" in the Illinois state house: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved--I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South."
Horace Greeley, the noted abolitionist, one of the fosterfathers, if not the parent of free-soilism, perhaps the most widely popular and best informed of the Northern journalists, who must be regarded as an able exponent of the sentiments of the people, was outspoken even to rashness in upholding the doctrine of the right of secession. the New York Tribune, Mr. Greeley's paper, beginning with the date when it was first known that Mr. Lincoln was certainly elected. New York Tribune, November 9, 1860: "If the cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace. The right to secede may be a revolutionary one, but it exists nevertheless." [And again in the same issue of his widely-circulated and influential paper, Mr. Greeley said:] "We must ever resist the asserted right of any State to remain in the Union and nullify or defy the laws thereof. To withdraw from the Union is quite another matter; and whenever a considerable section of our Union shall deliberately resolve to go out, we shall resist all coercive measures designed to keep it in. We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets."
New York Tribune, November 30,1860: "Are We Going to Fight?-But if the cotton States generally unite with her in seceding, we insist that they cannot be prevented, and that the attempt must not be made. Five millions of people, more than half of them of the dominant race of whom at least half a million are able and willing to shoulder muskets, can never be subdued while fighting around and over their own hearthstones. If they could be, they would no longer be equal members of the Union, but conquered dependencies."
The power and policy of coercing the seceding states back to their allegiance was freely discussed, and was held by a large party at the north as well as an undoubted majority at the south, impracticable and impossible. Even the New York Tribune said : "whenever a considerable section of the union shall deliberately resolve to go out, we shall resist all coercive measures designed to keep it in. We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets." Ex-president Franklin Pierce wrote to a friend on the 28th of Nov., 1860. "One decisive step in the way of coercion will drive out all the slave-labor states. Of that I entertain no doubt."
The president of the United States, Mr. Buchanan, after putting the question, "has the constitution delegated to congress the power to coerce into submission a state which is attempting to withdraw or has actually withdrawn from the confederacy?" Answered it by saying, "after much serious reflection, I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to congress or to any other department of the federal government." The fact is, he added, "that our union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation ; but the sword was not placed in their hands to preserve it by force." Mr. Buchanan acted honestly no doubt up to this belief to the last hour of his official life, and witnessing state after state dissolving, by ordinance, their connection with the union without attempting to restrain them, turned over a divided and distracted country to his successor. It required the attack upon Sumter to arouse the people and cut the gordian knot of political policy and opinions.
Prof. S.F.B. Morse, the originator of the Electro-magnetic telegraph in the United States, was an earnest pleader against coercion, and a conspicuous opponent of the war measures of the government during the entire conflict. On the adjournment of the peace convention, he was elected president of The American Society for the Promotion of National Union, and worked zealously for the promotion of measures that might satisfy the demands of the slaveholders, before "that most lamentable and pregnant error of the attack on Fort Sumter " had been committed. While war was confined to threatening and irritating words between the two sections of the country, he suggested two methods by which our sectional difficulties might be adjusted without bloodshed, and thus stated them in a paper drawn up when the project of a flag for the southern section was under discussion in the journals of the south :
"The first and most proper mode of adjusting those difficulties is to call a national convention of the states, to which body should be referred the whole subject of our differences; and then, if but a moiety of the lofty, unselfish, enlarged, and kind disposition manifested in that noble convention of 1787, which framed our constitution, be the controlling disposition of the new convention, we may hope for some amicable adjustment. If for any reason this mode cannot be carried out, then the * second method is one which circumstances may unhappily force upon us; but even this mode, so lamentable in itself considered, and so extreme, so repulsive to an American heart, if judiciously used, may eventuate in a modified and even stronger union. This is the temporary yielding to the desire of the south for a separate confederacy ; in other words, an assent to negotiations for a temporary dissolution of the present union. My object in this mode is to secure, in the end, a more permanent perpetual union. I well know that this is a startling proposition, and may seem to involve a paradox; but look at it calmly and carefully, and understand what is involved in such an assent. It involves, as a paramount consideration, a total cessation on our part of the irritating process which for thirty years has been in operation against the south. If this system of vituperation cannot be quelled because we have freedom of speech ; if we cannot refrain from the use of exasperating and opprobrious language towards our brethren, and from offensive intermeddling with their domestic affairs, then, of course, the plan fails, and so will all others, for a true union. If we cannot tame our tongues, neither union nor peace with neighbors, nor domestic tranquility in our homes, can be expected."
This apostle of peace then proceeds to notice some of the formidable difficulties in the way, such as fixing the boundary line between the two confederacies, and the weighty necessity of maintaining in peaceful relations, a standing military army and an army of custom house officials. These considerations, he believed, would cause a perception of the necessity for compromise," which embodies a sentiment vital to the existence of any society." There then would be the difficulty of an equitable distribution of the public property, as well as an agreement upon the terms of a treaty " offensive and defensive between the confederacies." " Coercion," he said, "of one state by another, or of one federated union by another federated union," was not to be thought of. "The idea is so fruitful of crime and disaster that no man, in his right mind, can entertain it for a moment."
The southern members did not commence withdrawing from congress until January 12, 1861. The Mississippi delegation was the first to withdraw, though Jeff Davis did not leave until the 2ist, when he made a farewell speech. The same day the representatives of Alabama and Florida withdrew; a week later the senators from Georgia, and on the 4th of February, the senators from Louisiana. The day the senators from Louisiana withdrew, a peace convention or congress assembled at Willard's Hotel, Washington, in which twenty-one of the states, viz: fourteen of the free and seven of the slave were represented. John Tyler, expresident of the United States,1 was appointed to preside. Nothing however resulted from its conference, and the failure occasioned much disappointment.
On the 4th of March, 1861, Lincoln took the oath and assumed the duties of the presidential office. At the time of Mr. Lincoln's inauguration, under the directions of the authorities of the rebel confederacy, nearly all the forts, arsenals, dock-yards, custom-houses, etc., belonging to the United States, within the limits of the seceded states, had been seized and were held by the representatives of the rebel government. The only forts in the south remaining in the possession of the union, were Forts Pickens, Taylor and Jefferson on the Florida coast, and Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Agents of the Confederate government were in Washington, hoping to arrange peaceably the machinery of separation, to secure the evacuation of Fort Sumter and Sumter to adjust accounts. Seward promised them or allowed them to infer, apparently on his own responsibility, that Fort Sumter would be evacuated.
On April 8, however, relief ships sailed for Charleston. The President had made up his mind. The news reached Charleston, and soon General Beauregard, in command of the forces in Charleston, demanded the surrender of the fort. Major Anderson asked three days, agreeing to surrender on April 15, unless reinforced, or ordered otherwise by his superior officers. General Beau regard's aides, without referring the answer to him or to President Davis, ordered bombardment to begin about 4.30 A.M. on the morning of April 12. Apparently they feared a peaceful solution of the difficulties. After thirty-four hours the fort was severely damaged both by shells and by fire, and a part of the magazine had blown up. Major Anderson accepted General Beauregard's previous offer, and marched out with the honors of war on April 14, 1861.
Not a man had been killed on either side, but never was a battle more important. The effect was electrical. The North was convinced that the time for discussion was ended. The South had been the aggressor and now war must come. Many thoughtful men had had serious doubts about the right of the national government to coerce a state, but the bombardment of Sumter had changed everything. The Northern Democrats rallied to the defense of the Union. Douglas issued an appeal urging all his friends to stand by the flag.
The people of the two sections did not understand each other before the war, and probably neither section regarded the other as seriously in earnest. The wide difference existing in social organization and habits had much to do with this. In the South the habit of carrying, and using on slight provocation, deadly weapons, the sparse settlement of the country, the idle and reckless habits of the majority of the illiterate whites, the self-assertion natural to the dominant race in a slaveholding country, all conspired to impress them with an ill-founded assumption of superior worth and courage over the industrious, peaceful, law-abiding Northerners. On the other hand, the men of the North had become somewhat habituated to the boastful assertions too common among the Southerners, and had learned to believe that no real purpose of using force lay concealed beneath their violent language. Both were mistaken. The Southerner, with all his gasconading, was earnest in his intention to fight to the last for slavery and the right of secession. The peaceful Northerner, unaccustomed to personal warfare and prone to submit his disputes to the regular ordeal of law, was ready to lay down his life for the cause of the Union.
In the summer of 1861, General Irvin McDowell led the Union soldiers south from Washington, D.C. with all expectations that it would be a ninety day war. McDowell's devastating defeat at the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861, ended that notion and left Lincoln to search for a new general. In September of 1862, McClellan successfully defeated Lee at Antietam, although he failed to pursue Lee as Lincoln had wished, causing the President to remove McClellan from command again.
Grant included his views on abolition in a November, 1861 letter to his father: "My inclination is to whip the rebellion into submission, preserving all constitutional rights. If it cannot be whipped in any other way than through a war against slavery, let it come to that legitimately. If it is necessary that slavery should fall that the Republic may continue its existence. Let slavery go. But the portion of the press that advocates the beginning of such war now, are as great enemies to their country as if they were open and avowed secessionists."
Lincoln wrote a response to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, a response almost identical in sentiment to Grant's: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union."
Early in the war, Lincoln only wanted to restore the Union, but he continued to push for compensated emancipation with colonization. By the summer of 1862 Lincoln told a group of border state representatives: "If the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion--by mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it. Much of it's value is gone already. How much better to thus save the money which else we sink forever in the war. How much better for you, as seller, and the nation as buyer, to sell out, and buy out, that without which the war could never have been, than to sink both the thing to be sold, and the price of it, in cutting one another's throats."
The term "Copperhead," which originated in the autumn of 1862, was used freely during the next year. It was an opprobrious epithet applied by Union men to those who adhered rigidly to the Democratic organization, strenuously opposed all the distinctive and vigorous war measures of the President and of Congress and, deeming it impossible to conquer the South, were therefore earnest advocates of peace. It might not be hardly exact to say that all who voted the Democratic ticket in 1863 were, in the parlance of the day, "Copperheads," but this sweeping statement would be nearer the truth than one limiting the term to those who really wished for the military success of the South and organized or joined the secret order of Knights of the Golden Circle. In the Western states, the words "Democrat" and "Copperhead" became, after the middle of January 1863, practically synonymous, and the cognomen, applied as a reproach, was assumed with pride.
One fact they ignored, that peace was impossible unless the Southern Confederacy were acknowledged and a boundary line agreed upon between what would then be two distinct nations. They pretended to a belief, for which there was absolutely no foundation, that if fighting ceased and a convention of the States were called, the Union might be restored. Hence proceeded their opposition to the President's emancipation policy as being an obstacle to the two sections becoming re-united.
There were a large number of stay-at-homes who, as the war dragged on and the issue seemed doubtful, became bitter opponents of Lincoln's administration. The "Knights of the Golden Circle" was the leading Copperhead organization in the northwestern states. After it was found necessary by the administration to pass a draft law to fill the depleted ranks of the volunteers, the opposition to the war became very pronounced; threats of what might be deemed open rebellion were frequently heard.
General Robert E. Lee’s success in 1862 and 1863 challenged the will of the Northern public to continue the war. He knew, the world knew, that more victories in 1864 would threaten the re-election of Republican President Lincoln and bring to power in the North a Democratic party more inclined toward a negotiated peace—and Southern independence.
The progress of the Union armies slowed following the two victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. A growing weariness of the war and dissatisfaction with its progress developed, and the tenuous alliance of northern war Democrats, abolitionists, and former Whigs that helped to elect Lincoln in 1860 began to unravel. The astounding duration and carnage of the war had made the Northern citizenry “wild for peace,” declared Thurlow Weed, a prominent Republican.
By the summer of 1864, the Union war machine included, by Lincoln’s estimate, close to 150,000 black soldiers, sailors and laborers. There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South,” Lincoln told two visitors to the White House. “I should be damned in time and in eternity for so doing.”
In mid-August 1864, after a northern politician questioned the president’s insistence on abolition, Lincoln drafted a letter that suggested that he remained flexible on the issue: “If Jefferson Davis wishes, for himself, or for the benefit of his friends at the North, to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and re-union, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me.” But Lincoln did not mail the letter. And by then Davis and other Southern leaders wanted permanent independence. There was never a deal to be had.
When the Democratic national convention met at Chicago in 1864, it denounced the war as a failure and as unnecessary. It denounced, also, the violation of constitutional rights in the North; but it nominated for its candidate General McClellan, still serving in the army, whose letter of acceptance repudiated the most extreme charge, and pledged him to a vigorous prosecution of the war.
The Democratic party went before the country with a platform designed to win votes from copperheads, and a candidate to win the support of loyal Democrats and critical Republicans. The peace platform said Lincoln had been unable to restore the Union by “the experiment of war,” and called for “a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that at the earliest practicable moment peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.”
By August of 1864, Lincoln's political insiders advised him that his reelection was in jeopardy. Republican leader Thurlow Weed wrote to Secretary of State William Seward, "I have told Mr. Lincoln that his re-election was an impossibility."
The lack of Union success in the fighting of the year brought the President to the extreme of discouragement, which he recorded in a memorandum on August 23, "... it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected."
Ten days later Lincoln's gloom was gone. On August 5, 1864, in the Battle of Mobile Bay, a Union fleet under Admiral David Farragut had steamed into Mobile Bay outside the city of Mobile, Alabama, defended by two strong forts and a small southern flotilla, including the formidable ironclad CSS Tennessee. Farragut's ships defeated the Confederate ships and bypassed the forts, capturing the important southern port. On September 1, 1864 Confederate troops under General Hood evacuate the city of Atlanta. General Sherman's army occupied the city and its defenses the following day.
On September 3, Lincoln proclaimed a day for national thanksgiving, while Seward was able to declare from the stump that "Sherman and Farragut have knocked the bottom out of the Chicago nominations." In November he was elected for a second time, by a plurality that showed how many of his fellow citizens were not satisfied; 2,200,000 votes were cast among the states for Lincoln, 1,802,000 for McClellan.
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