150 years ago this April, the Union went to war with the Confederacy. Ever since, Americans have been debating the causes of that war. Most historians today agree that it was fundamentally about slavery. And so what are we to make of the fact that most Southerners didn’t own any slaves, and most Northerners were not abolitionists?
In this hour of BackStory, the Backstory hosts turn the question of the war’s causes on its side, asking instead why Northerners and Southerners took up arms to fight one another. What causes, in other words, were they willing to die for? Were families on the home-front united in their commitment to war, or were there differences of opinion? Who didn’t want to fight? What did slavery mean to white people on both sides, and what role did enslaved and free African-Americans play in the liberation of slaves? How much did Americans’ reasons for fighting change between 1861 and 1864? And finally – how have intervening wars altered the ways we interpret the motivations of Civil War soldiers?
“Why They Fought” is Part II of a three-part BackStory series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
View Full Episode Transcript
Tape: From VFH Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, this is “BackStory.” [music]
Peter Onuf: Liberty and union. Liberty and union. That was the refrain across the American North as Civil War broke out one hundred and fifty years ago.
Ed Ayers: But the phrase doesn’t mean what you might think. Most Northerners were not very concerned about the four million people still held in bondage.
Tape: Liberty is often tied now to your attitude towards slavery. That is not how they would’ve deployed that word for the most part.
E. Ayers: Southerners, on the other hand, were very much thinking about those four million enslaved people and specifically what it would mean if they were all freed.
Tape: The fear and paranoia about what that represented is almost impossible for us to capture today, but it certainly inspired most of them fight much harder.
P. Onuf: We’re the American Backstory hosts and today on our show, what motivated people, North and South, to take up arms. That’s all coming up on “BackStory” after this news. [music]
Tape: Hi, I’m Tony Field, the producer of “BackStory.” I just wanted to let you know that today’s Podcast is the second installment in our new three-part series on the Civil War. You’ll find the other two parts on our website and on iTunes. If you like what you hear, please consider a contribution to help us out with some of our production costs. There’s a link to give in the bottom right hand corner of our website, backstoryradio.org. Fifteen dollars would amount to a dime for each year since the Civil War began and we’ll take any donation of that amount as a endorsement of our work on this series and, remember, you can also help out by sharing links to our shows with your friends and by leaving a review on our page in the iTunes store. Thanks for listening. Now, back to the show.
P. Onuf: Major production support for “BackStory” is provided by the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Support also comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities. [music] This is “BackStory,” with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century guy.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy. [music] How might America be different today if the Union had not won the Civil War? What legacies of the Civil War have an impact on your life? These are a couple of the questions posed by curators at the American Civil War Center in Richmond, Virginia. Visitors are encouraged to answer each question on a post-it note, and stick it to the wall there before they leave.
Tape (Christy Coleman): We had a post up there one time. The person actually used like four post-it notes to get their point out and [laughter] one of the things that they went on about was here again is another example of how the haves managed to convince the have nots to fight their battles for them.
E. Ayers: That’s Christy Coleman, President of the American Civil War Center. She says that the notes visitors leave often reflect their regional affiliations. Northerners, for example, tend to answer that question about the war’s legacy with a certain amount of, well, triumphalism.
Tape (C. Coleman): You know, if it wasn’t for this war, we wouldn’t have expanded the rights to so many and opened our gates and broken down the power structures that would have us all truly slaves, etc. etc.
P. Onuf: This April marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s beginnings. But despite the passage of all that years, Americans in many parts of the country are still trying to understand what the war really meant. Go ahead—Google the recent controversy over Virginia history textbooks or the dust-up over South Carolina’s commemoration of that state’s secession. Or just spend some time with Christy and those post-it notes in Richmond.
E. Ayers: In our last show on the Civil War, we looked at how the election of Abraham Lincoln set off a cascade of events that resulted in war. Today, we’re going to pick up where we left off, but we’re going to shift our focus from the politicians to the ordinary men and women who, in the spring of 1861, found themselves staring war in the face. In the South, most of these people did not own a single slave. And in the North, only a small minority were committed abolitionists. All of which leads us to our central question for today’s show—what motivated these people to pick up weapons and fight one another in the Civil War?
B. Balogh: We’re going to return now to Christy Coleman, the president of the American Civil War Center in Richmond. When we spoke to her, she told us about another one of those post-it notes, another question that yields particularly interesting results.
Tape (C. Coleman): “Where do you consider your strongest allegiance— to your state, to your nation, or some other place.” And it’s interesting that you can always tell when there’s a political upheaval going on in our current society, because the percentage of those answers shifts dramatically. You know, prior to the 2008 elections, for example, you had a lot of people identifying themselves very strongly as Americans. I am an American, this is the U.S.A., I’m very proud of it. And then in 2010, you see a shift, and people are identifying via their states, you know, I’m a proud Virginia, I’m a proud Texan, I’m a proud, you know, what-have-you, and 9 out of 10 times, it’s Southerners that are identifying via their state.
B. Balogh: So Peter and Ed, I know this is going to shock you, but, you know, it sounds like these folks leaving their post-it notes are applying their biases from today’s world imposing it on history, so I’m curious to know have Americans done this specifically to interpretations of the Civil War.
E. Ayers: Well, you know, it’s not just Americans but it’s historians, too.
P. Onuf: Oh, oh, oh.
E. Ayers: I know. I’m sorry, Peter. I hope you can keep your sobbing to a minimum, but, you know, as long as there’s been a professional historical set of organizations since the late 19th century, we’ve been able to see the academic historians sort of shifting their interpretations of the Civil War as their own times changed. Let me just give you a thumbnail sketch of how that has been. After World War I, widely seen as a war without purpose, the American Civil War was interpreted by our predecessor historians as a war without purpose. The leading historians of the Civil War talk of a blundering generation that got us into that mess. World War II comes, immediately revised our understanding of the Civil War.
P. Onuf: Yeah, a good war.
E. Ayers: Exactly. Sometimes there’s evil in the world. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., says, “and you have to rise up to defeat it,” and that’s what the Civil War as well as World War II was all about. Then Vietnam comes along and we might expect that we would go back and reinterpret the Civil War as a big mess, but instead, historians are saying, ahhh, look, what else is going on now in the ’60s and ’70s, the civil rights revolution, let’s go back and look at the abolitionism and reconstruction and focus on that and then when you get into sort of the very frustrating, sort of decentered wars like the 1980s and 1990s, there’s a real disillusionment among a lot of scholars with the Civil War in general and we start discovering guerilla fighting and all kinds of breakdowns of morale and all that sort of stuff, so that’s kind of where we’ve gone. Every single stage of our own warfare experience in the 20th century had disrupted our understanding of the American Civil War.
B. Balogh: Well, Ed, your summary of 20th century developments being read into the Civil War is terrific, but it strikes me that one of the key 20th century developments is people are drafted for wars in the 20th century and I know there was a draft in the Civil War but how did that actually play out, this tension between all those folks who volunteered and the eventual draft in both the North and the South?
E. Ayers: You know, the draft is important but we’d have to acknowledge that both the North and the South benefited from enormous degree of voluntarism.
P. Onuf: Right, right.
E. Ayers: You know. Both armies were filled with men who could not wait to show their dedication to their nations.
P. Onuf: Yeah, but we could go back further to the Revolution, to the first American war.
B. Balogh: Let’s do it.
P. Onuf: Yeah, the wars that in effect define American political culture, that idea that Jefferson articulated in his first inaugural address that we are the strongest government on earth because of the devotion of citizens to defending the country. It’s the idea of the citizen soldier that our country’s wars are our wars. This is a free country and we die freely for our country.
E. Ayers: Well, as a matter of fact, it strikes me, Peter, that the war driven by popular commitment that Jefferson dreamed of didn’t actually happen until the American Civil War.
P. Onuf: Right.
E. Ayers: Because the War of 1812 and the Seminole War, the Mexican War, all those were deeply compromised, deeply conflicting, disappointing, those kind of wars, right?
P. Onuf: Yeah, that’s a good point, but what I would say is that Jefferson wasn’t really inventing the citizen soldier. What he was doing was creating a political culture, a civic culture in which there was a lot of vicarious fighting and that is that the party formation in the antebellum period before the Civil War in effect mobilized people in a semi-quasi-proto-militant way. They would march to the polls. They would feel righteous anger at enemies, even with the other party but nonetheless it was that belligerent frame of mind, the idea that it’s incumbent on you as a good citizen to be ready to fight at the polls or wherever the fight is taking place because fundamental issues are at stake and I think that helps explain the amazing preparedness of the American people to slaughter each other in the Civil War.
E. Ayers: I could argue that this is actually what brings on the Civil War. If you think about the timing of the coming Civil War, it’s determined a lot more by what you’re talking about, Peter, than by any change in the actual status of slavery.
P. Onuf: Yeah, yeah.
E. Ayers: Or, it’s not that the North becomes modernized enough to fight against the South.
P. Onuf: No, no.
E. Ayers: What it really is about is the party system because for the last 30 years, people have been used to thinking of two parties: the names of the parties and the identities of the parties change but what happens is this two-party system which had been around now for decades really just begins to unravel in the 1850s. First, you have the Whig Party begin to show signs of weakness. Then the Know Nothings emerge and the Democrats splinter apart. Then the Republicans arise and once this sort of bipolar, in both senses of the word, party system shatters, you have all that sort of polarizing energy built up.
P. Onuf: That’s exactly right, Ed. That’s exactly right.
E. Ayers: Everybody’s used to thinking, us or them.
B. Balogh: Yes, so help me, guys. Let me try to understand this. All of these passions are rattling around but in the past, they’ve lined up through the mechanism of parties and those parties have been distributed roughly evenly between North and South so the passions don’t get channeled into these sectional rivalries. Is that what you’re saying?
P. Onuf: Right. Well, I think the key thing, Brian, is we shouldn’t imagine that there’s something going on in individual people’s minds and that there’s a flashpoint or a threshold that people cross. They say, I’m going to fight now. I propose when you think about the run-up to the Civil War that there is an excess of patriotic feeling and it’s not necessarily focused and that’s the whole point of it, it’s only in the process of mobilizing for the war that this ambient patriotism that Americans North and South share becomes focused in a particular way.
B. Balogh: So where was Cuba when we needed it?
P. Onuf: Well, [laughter] that’s a great point.
B. Balogh: To use a late-19th century example.
P. Onuf: Well, yeah, yeah. No, that’s what Americans were looking desperately for some kind of war to fight elsewhere and we had Mexico. I mean, that proved to be problematic, but it—
B. Balogh: It bought us a few years before it blew up in our face.
E. Ayers: But, you know, I think the strange thing is you go back and look at the mobilization of the Confederacy, there is no new language, there’s no new idea that the very people who had been for the Union and who’d been all about loyalty and sacrifice and fealty to the fathers and to one another, just switched the entire apparatus of loyalty from the Union to the Confederacy literally overnight.
P. Onuf: Yeah, yeah.
E. Ayers: And this patriotism you talked about could be directed toward an entirely different and new and warring nation and so that’s another thing that makes it a fight inside the family is that there is no warring ideology except that one family possesses slaves and the other does not.
P. Onuf: Yeah, and you know, we talk a lot about war weariness imagining that somehow there’s only a certain amount of enthusiasm and it’s spent. It plays out over time. Instead, it’s almost as if that energy, that original commitment, in some ways it grows.
E. Ayers: The cause becomes more coherent in both the North and the South—
P. Onuf: I think that’s a great point.
E. Ayers: And so that’s the thing is we don’t want to think about it as, okay, I’m doing an inventory of my emotions and loyalties. Yep, there’s adequacy supply—
P. Onuf: [13:23 / __________] [laughter]
E. Ayers: To go fight and die. Instead it’s like, yeah, I’ll go fight this one battle or I’ll join every other young man in my community going off for this, and so the initial motivations don’t become—
P. Onuf: [13:38 / __________]
E. Ayers: What James McPherson called the “sustaining motivations” and one of the things we have to do about the entire Civil War is remember that it’s an unfolding story with different kinds of motivations and contexts and not just one monolithic substance that we kind of analyze like a chemical ingredient
B. Balogh: Right, so we should be asking why they fought when.
E. Ayers: Exactly. They’re constantly playing catch-up with events. They act and they go, okay, what did that mean? [laughter]
P. Onuf: Yeah.
E. Ayers: And so the Civil War is not driven so much by ideas as it is interwoven with them.
P. Onuf: Yeah.
B. Balogh: So, I think it’s great that we’ve entered the time dimension into this discussion and I’m going to enter another time dimension and that is it’s time for a short break.
[music—“when Johnny comes marching home”]
B. Balogh: When we get back, we’ll hear why the word Union quickened the heartbeats of men in the antebellum North.
P. Onuf: You’re listening to a special Civil War anniversary edition of “BackStory” with the American Backstory hosts. We’ll be back in a minute. [music] This is “BackStory,” the show that takes a topic and considers it from the perspective of three different centuries. I’m your 18th century guy, Peter Onuf.
E. Ayers: I’m your 19th century guy, Ed Ayers.
B. Balogh: And I’m the 20th century guy, Brian Balogh. Today on our show, we’re exploring the motivations of soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. Most people agree that slavery was at the root of why the war started, but if most Southerners were not slaveholders, and most Northerners weren’t abolitionists, then why were so many thousands of people willing to put their lives on the line?
E. Ayers: That’s a question that’s really challenged historians for many years in large part because there’re so many answers that are at least partially right. Now, there’s a historian Adam Goodheart who’s the author of a new book called 1861: The Civil War Awakening. He’s also one of the main contributors to “Disunion”—a New York Times blog that chronicles the events of 150 years ago. And in his research for both projects, Goodheart had discovered that there was an enormous range of considerations that factored into people’s decisions in the lead-up to the war.
Tape (Adam Goodheart): I found a letter in a sort of a bundle of letters in an attic a few years ago on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a bundle of letters from an Army officer from the spring of 1861 trying to decide which side he was going to go with and on the one hand, he was a slave-owner. He was from a slave owning family. He’s grown up in the Southern state of Maryland. On the other hand, he’d been an Army officer. He’d been under the Stars and Stripes since he was a 14-year-old cadet at West Point and he’s having a correspondence. He’s stationed out at a fort out in Indian territory in what’s now Oklahoma and he’s corresponding with his wife and his brother back East and some of the decision has to do with slavery. Some of it has to do with the Union and some of it has to do with which way Maryland is going to go but then he’s also talking about, well, what’s this going to mean for my own career. His wife writes something that really stuck with me. She said, “It is like a great game of chance.” And I thought, well, gosh, he’s trying to decide, well, if I join this Confederacy will I end up as one of the founding fathers of a new nation or will I end up as a traitor being tried for treason.
P. Onuf: In the end, that officer decided to stand by the Union or at least by his career in that Union, and if his choice about which side to fight for seems like a tough one, then what about all the ordinary civilians in the North who had to decide whether to fight at all? Joining the Army would mean leaving their jobs and yet tens of thousands of them flocked to answer Lincoln’s call for men. So how do we explain that?
B. Balogh: Well, fortunately, Peter, we don’t have to explain it. We brought in our colleague Gary Gallagher, University of Virginia historian who wrote a book on this very issue. It’s called The Union War and it argues that while the Southern states went to war to protect slavery, the vast majority of Northern men who volunteered to fight did not oppose slavery. Even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Gallagher says that ending slavery was for most of them purely a military strategy. That’s why they went along with it. He says that if you asked these guys what really compelled them to take up arms, they would have answered that it was their deep commitment—hold your breath—to Union. Now, if you’re scratching your head on that one, you’re not alone. I was a little confused by it also.
B. Balogh: You know, Gary, that I’m the 20th century guy on this show.
Gary Gallagher: I’ve heard that.
B. Balogh: And I just can’t understand how all these men could fight and many of them die for something as abstract as Union. Can you explain to our listeners what Union meant to these men?
G. Gallagher: I think what Union meant at the absolutely base for the mass of white Northerners was it meant a small “d” democratic republican system that gave a common person a voice in his own government—men are voting. Only men are voting. We know that—in his own government and it provided economic opportunity, not a guarantee for economic success, but much greater economic opportunity than any aristocratic or oligarchic society had and that was something that they treasured and they had imbibed Daniel Webster’s great rhetoric. It’s everywhere. It shows up in advertisements—Liberty and Union, Liberty and Union, and what they meant by liberty is not what we would normally think about. Liberty is often tied now to your attitude toward slavery. That is not how they would’ve deployed that word for the most part. Liberty for them meant freedom to enjoy these political rights and a chance to move ahead in an economic sense.
B. Balogh: And I’m really struck by the comparative nature of your answer. We think today we live in a world of globalization—
G. Gallagher: Right.
B. Balogh: But you were saying that these people woke up thinking I may not have much money, I may not have much education right now, but I’m special because I can vote and I can have a say in my government and millions of people around the world don’t have a chance at that. Am I getting that right?
G. Gallagher: That’s absolutely right and they not only thought it, they wrote it down and they wrote it down sometimes in language that makes it clear they had very little education. They’re literate but barely literate and they had a poster example of this in the presidency. Abraham Lincoln literally did what they believed this system allowed people to do, literally go from—
B. Balogh: That’s the opportunity part.
G. Gallagher: That’s the opportunity. That’s the opportunity and they compared themselves again and again and again to Europe and they were well aware of the failed revolutions of the late 1840s in Europe. They believed that if the Union failed, if after an election, a legal election, if the party that lost that election could simply destroy the nation because they weren’t happy with the result, then the aristocratic oligarchic monarchical Europeans could look and say we told you a democratic republic could not work.
B. Balogh: So it’s almost as though they viewed those slaveholding aristocratic-leaning Confederates as the kind of shock troops of the aristocratic model around the world that was just waiting for America.
G. Gallagher: They wouldn’t have said aristocratic-leaning. They would’ve said the words they used, the word “oligarch” came up a stunning number of times to me. I was really struck in doing the research for this book how often the word “oligarchy” was applied to the slaveholding class of the South. They called them aristocrats. They called them oligarchs. They said they were absolutely inimical to what the United States was about.
B. Balogh: So, in a way, you’re saying they were fighting against those slaveholders.
G. Gallagher: They were, yes.
B. Balogh: They just weren’t fighting against slavery. They weren’t terribly upset by slavery per se, except that to have slavery, you needed slaveholders which defied the very concept of a democratic republic.
G. Gallagher: That’s absolutely right and they sought to punish the slaveholding class which had caused the whole problem in the first place, they believed, and there’s no better way to punish the slaveholding class than to take their slaves away from them because they’re property and slaves was the basis of their power and so get rid of them.
B. Balogh: Yeah. Well, Gary, let’s get down to brass tacks. What public opinion polls did you consult for your study?
G. Gallagher: I used the three major ones that were available in the mid-19th century. [laughter] There’re no public opinion polls.
P. Onuf: Oh, God.
G. Gallagher: What I did was try to put different kinds of evidence in conversation with one another. For example, I read— There were two major illustrated weeklies at the time, equivalent of Life and Look really, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. I read every word of every issue of those for the whole war to see how this sentiment—
B. Balogh: That’s why I haven’t seen you for years.
G. Gallagher: Yes, I’ve been— Yeah, I don’t have a tan anymore. I also looked at soldiers’ letters. I looked at letters from people behind the lines. I mean, I used different kinds of evidence, fully aware of the fact that this is not a science. There’s nothing scientific about this and anybody who pretends they can get a scientific sample of letters from the Civil War is either deeply ignorant or dissembling because it just can’t be done. It can’t be done.
B. Balogh: Well, this has been so informative. We have a guy on the show who claims to know about the 19th century, Ed something. Ed Ayers, that’s right.
G. Gallagher: I’ve been one of Ed’s admirers since I was a little boy. I mean, I grew up sort of idolizing Ed. [laughter]
B. Balogh: Now, he is getting up there in years. Now that you’ve explained to us why the North fought, I felt we could bring Ed in. He just happens to be standing outside looking just so anxious to get into this conversation. Ed, come on it.
E. Ayers: [sound effect] Hey, everybody. It’s good to see you. I didn’t know how long you’d leave me with my face pressed up against the glass there.
B. Balogh: I know. I know you’ve been listening in and I’d just be curious to get your thoughts about what Gary’s had to say, especially about Union and about why men in the North fought for Union.
E. Ayers: Well, you know, it takes a little bit of the drama out of it to say that I think he’s exactly right about the motivations of people at the beginning. I do think, though, if you read our textbooks, there is a general sense embodied in Abraham Lincoln of a sense of a moral growth over the course of the war and that is Northern soldiers come into contact with enslaved people as African Americans fight 200,000 strong in the United States Colored Troops, as people begin to wonder if this amount of bloodshed must not have a larger redeeming purpose as Abraham Lincoln says, some kind of providential reason to obliterate slavery. People often think that the white North develops a greater understanding of slavery and its injustice over the course of the war. Would you agree with that or not?
G. Gallagher: Not in the way you put it. I think the big problem we have is not accepting the fact that for most of the white North Union was a completely sufficient reason to fight the kind of war they fought. Union meant so much to them. I mean, a number of historians have said Union wasn’t worth the loss of a single life. Well, that would’ve been stunningly wrongheaded to people who lived in the loyal states. I don’t think there was a great moral shift. I do believe that some Union soldiers surely changed their views about African Americans when they saw slavery up close, but many others had earlier notions about black people actually confirmed and their letters make that clear. The prejudices came out more on the wrong side of things from our point of view. I think there’s quite a variety of reactions to seeing slavery and seeing African Americans up close.
In terms of Lincoln, Lincoln’s second inaugural, of course, is the place that we go to see this change in this almost spiritual take on what the war was about, but Abraham Lincoln’s message to Congress in December 1864 which is after the elections—there’s no reason for him to pitch this to the loyal population if he didn’t think that most of them still focused on Union—he said in a great war such as this, you need to have one thing (I’m paraphrasing him) which everybody believes and he said, in our war, it’s Union. He said killing slavery is one of the means to achieve that great end that we all agree on. That’s December of 1864, so I just think that Union is most important in 1861, ’63 and ’65.
E. Ayers: So, Gary, since we know that we’re writing history for today to help us understand what the Civil War means for us, you are taking advantage of the fact that we’ve now recovered the African American component of the war and you don’t try to displace any of that, but you’re trying to restore an understanding that in alliance with that was a dedication to Union. Does that speak to our current time in some way that we need, you think?
G. Gallagher: Well, I guess my principle goal isn’t to speak to our current time. I think it’s important in our current time to understand the complexity of our past and I think that if we’re going to come to terms with the Civil War, we have to understand that it isn’t exactly what we wish it had been, but one of the points I make is that it’s sort of miraculous that a mass of white Northerners who were as racist as they were would be transformed by this giant military event into a population that believed slavery must be killed and I think that is a radical transformation within a mid-19th century context and I think it shows the capacity for growth and change in the direction we would say is the right direction even if it’s not for exactly the reasons that we would prefer that it had taken place. I think that’s important to know.
B. Balogh: That’s Gary Gallagher. He’s a colleague of ours in the History Department at the University of Virginia and his book is called The Union War. If you’re just joining us, this is “BackStory,” and we’re talking about the reasons soldiers on both sides of the Civil War were motivated to fight. We’ve already heard that most white Northerners did not go to war in order to end slavery, even if they ended up supporting that as an eventual outcome. But Peter, Ed—what about black Northerners? I mean, a lot of our listeners have probably seen Glory, the movie about the African Americans who fought on behalf of Massachusetts and on behalf of the Union. I want to know more about those guys.
E. Ayers: Well, you know, the first thing to understand is they were not permitted to fight until 1863.
P. Onuf: Right.
E. Ayers: So, the war ultimately is half over before African American men are allowed to fight and there’s widespread skepticism in the white North that many of them will, but what happens is as soon as they open the doors to black recruitment, African American men of all kinds of backgrounds surge into service. Black men who could’ve sat out the war put themselves in harm’s way to help make sure that this war is a war that does fight against slavery and this strikes me as one of the great miracles of American history, frankly, that these thousands of African American men whether previously held in slavery or born free or having made themselves free, go fight for a nation that has held them in slavery, you know, and why? Because they have the idea—
P. Onuf: Yeah, yeah.
E. Ayers: That fully extended to its logical conclusion, to its consistent meaning, the federal nation of the United States would guarantee even their freedom.
P. Onuf: Well, I think that’s a great point, Ed. There are values that Northerners are invoking about freedom and liberty and about the reason that we need to fight for the survival of the Union and African Americans, free and enslaved, take those ideas seriously in a way that most white Northerners don’t take them seriously, that is, they make a local application. Northern whites are saying our freedom is what’s crucial. Well, those ideas once they’re in the air, even Jefferson the slaveholder said “all men are created equal,” that idea is hard to put down and all of a sudden in the midst of war, it seems to have this power. It’s really the story of imagining an America that could be but that wasn’t.
E. Ayers: You know, in this moment, there’s an incredible quote from Frederick Douglass who goes into the Civil War deeply suspicious of Abraham Lincoln, of the Republican Party, even of the Union cause. Why are we fighting to maintain a Union with slaveholders?
P. Onuf: Right.
E. Ayers: He does say now that black men, black families, can fight for not just their freedom, but for the very survival of the United States, this changes everything. He says, “once put an Eagle put on their buttons and a rifle on their shoulders and things can never go back to the way they were.”
B. Balogh: And what difference did this make in the actual prosecution of the war.
E. Ayers: Well, you have 200,000 African American men fighting on land and sea that you would not have had otherwise and they come into the United States purpose just when the North really really needs men. As a matter of fact, let’s not fool ourselves. That’s why they are enlisted in the first place.
B. Balogh: Right.
E. Ayers: Is that despite all this language of Union and self-sacrifice, not enough Northern men stepped up to sustain the purpose.
Reading: Dear Wife i have enlisted in the army i am now in the state of Massachusetts but before this letter reaches you i will be in North Carlinia and though great is the present national dificulties yet i look forward to a brighter day When i shall have the opertunity of seeing you in the full enjoyment of fredom i would like to if you are still in slavery if you are it will not be long before we shall have crushed the system that now oppresses you great is the outpouring of the colered peopl that is now rallying with the hearts of lions against that very curse that has seperated you an me yet we shall meet again and oh what a happy time that will be when this ungodly rebellion shall be put down and the curses of our land is trampled under our feet i am a soldier now and endeavoring to strike at the rebellion that so long has kept us in chains tell Eliza I send her my best respects and love Ike and Sully likewise your afectionate husband until death-SAMUEL CABBLE, Private 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863
P. Onuf: It’s time for another short break. When we get back, we’ll shift our focus to the South, and ask why so many white men who did not own slaves were willing to lay down their lives in defense of a nation that was based on slavery. You’re listening to “BackStory,” and we’ll be back in a minute. [music] We’re back with “BackStory.” We’re the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, otherwise known as the 18th century guy.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, “BackStory’s” 19th century guy.
B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, representing the 20th century. Today on the show, we’re marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s beginnings by asking what motivated people on both sides of the conflict to take up arms. Before the break, we were looking at the Union cause. Now we’re going to shift to the Confederacy.
Tape (Aaron Sheehan-Dean): You know the old saw is that the Civil War was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, and that actually turns out not to be accurate.
P. Onuf: This is Aaron Sheehan-Dean, a historian at the University of North Florida. A few years ago, he published a book called Why Confederates Fight, a book that also answered the question of who those Confederates were.
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): Wealthy men and wealthy counties send much higher proportions of men than do poorer places and the Army is also different in ways that we might not imagine. We would assume that this army would be composed of younger men, of unmarried men. In fact, a majority of the soldiers in the Confederate Army are married and they have families, so they’re deeply invested in protecting their families and in preserving the society as they know it in 1860 and 1861.
P. Onuf: So what about all the men who did not own any slaves? Why would they have flocked to enlist, and continued to enlist, even after the initial excitement of war had worn off? This is the real million dollar question for Sheehan-Dean. After all, slaveholders may have been over-represented in the Confederate army, but they still made up a minority of the ranks.
B. Balogh: After spending a lot of time with letters that Virginia soldiers sent home to their families, Sheehan-Dean concluded that there were three main reasons why non-slaveholders felt that they, too, had something worth fighting for. The first was political—recent democratic reforms had given white men new voting rights that they worried could be undone by the Lincoln administration. The second was economic—they realized that the strength of the Southern economy depended on slavery, and in classic American fashion, many of them aspired to join the ranks of slaveholders one day. It was aspirational. But the third—well, that one’s a lot trickier. And so I asked Sheehan-Dean to explain himself. [music—banjo] So, I’m familiar with people fighting for political rights and their economic stake in society, but here’s one that really threw me for a loop, Aaron. Maybe you can help me out. Companionate marriage— I didn’t even know what term meant.
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): Yeah, now we just call it love. [laughter]
B. Balogh: I don’t know what that means either, Aaron.
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): It’s the job of historians to muddy the waters. The notion of a companionate marriage, of a marriage built on love, though, is actually a pretty recent thing in the middle of the 19th century. We tend to assume that emotions are the same and that families are the same because they’re such bedrock parts of our lives but, in fact, the notion of how families are constituted and how people within them relate to one another was changing in the 18th and 19th centuries and we were moving from a period in which the model of the family was as a microcosm of the state in which the father was the king and you obeyed him because it was God’s law, to a model in which husbands and wives came together because they loved one another and they respected one another and even more importantly, that parenting absorbed the same ethos—that parents should love and respect their children and children should respect their parents because they love them. And this creates, I think, a much stronger and more intimate kind of bond within these families and so as the war grinds on and particularly in parts of the upper South like Virginia and Tennessee, as the North wages a hard war which imperils their loved ones and puts greater hardships on women and children at home, soldiers talk about the necessity of protecting their families because of their love for those families, and I think we’ve tended to talk about the motivation of soldiers in terms of hate and in terms of hating the Yankee but, in fact, what I saw in these letters over and over again was that many more men spoke about love and the love of their families as the primary reason that they were fighting.
B. Balogh: One of the things you stress in your book is how the motivations for fighting change as the war drags on. Could you tell me how Lincoln’s Proclamation freeing the slaves changed things?
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): Yeah. Well, it fundamentally changes things because up to that point the Union Army had been quite inconsistent in terms of its policies on slavery and in some places under some commanders had returned slave and in other places, it emancipated them and the Emancipation Proclamation then makes quite clear that if the Confederates lose, whatever society they will return to will be completely different than the society that they’d left so it means now that particularly non-slaveholding men are going to be competing with enslaved men who are now freed. They will be competing with them at all levels and the fear and paranoia about what that represented is almost impossible for us to capture today, but it I think certainly inspired most of them to fight much harder because now there was no going back. There was no finding a peace that would allow them to have the Virginia they used to know if they failed.
B. Balogh: And did those fears extend beyond the political economy? In other words, were these soldiers worried about this post-apocalyptic society with slavery ending in which there was actually social mixing among the races?
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): They are. I mean, certainly the rhetoric of what would happen socially in the event of emancipation that had been used extensively by Southerners and Democrats in the years before the war then bloomed during the war and non-slaveholders as well as slaveholders imagine that black men once emancipated are going to be out to capture their wives and their daughters and there’s a long, long rhetoric of really vile kind of racialized, sexualized imagery about what black men are going to be doing to white women and that threat is a much more immediate social threat to a homefront that’s largely undefended in most parts of the upper South because the rates of enlistment were simply so high. Seventy, eighty percent of white men, eligible white men, would’ve been in the armies and serving away from their home communities so that’s really the immediate threat is what’s going to happen in the wake of emancipation and, you know, decades of hysteria and sort of fear mongering about that possibility then produce a great deal of anxiety among those soldiers who are now not at home.
B. Balogh: Let me ask you about all of these causes. When we ask why did the Confederate soldier fight, you’ve now laid out a number of them. I’m just curious on the ground level, how did individuals integrate balance, deal with these competing motivations ranging from it’s my obligation to protect my wife who, by the way, wasn’t imposed on me, but I chose and I love, to states rights?
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): Yeah. Well, they struggle with them all the time and particularly when they come into tension when the collapse of slavery creates insecurity and fear that might compel them to go home and there’s a great letter from a soldier named John Jones whose wife has written to him. His wife’s name is Molly, saying you need to come home, we need protection here and he says to her, I’m going to stay in the Army. He says, this is the best place to protect you and it’s important that we strike now. He says, we need to get the Yankees now while they’re organizing. I’m afraid they might come home and get my boy. That is, what had been in the pre-war period would’ve been envisioned as a kind of a personal effort to repel, honor you. You’d use violence to protect your family becomes a corporate form during the war and a recognition that the Army is the best way to do this, but there’s this tension and they are basically arguing with and trying to convince their wives, in many cases, that this is in fact the best decision because a lot of the wives weren’t at all convinced.
B. Balogh: Yeah. Now, you know I’m a 20th century guy. I think of the literature that comes out of World War II and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all this complaining about the boredom and bureaucracy. Do you come across a lot of that, too? I mean, in all of this emphasis on why they fought, do we sometimes kind of lose track of the fact that often they weren’t so keen on fighting?
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): No, they’re not keen at all. I mean, that’s in fact all the letters are are long complaints and I have to imagine, you know, they often—soldiers often complained to their wives—your last letter was three days late, why haven’t you written? And I think if I received your letters twice a week and it’s just three pages of complaints, I probably wouldn’t be eager to respond either after six months of that. [laughter] Soldiers had a great deal to complain about. I don’t begrudge them their complaints. You know, the food is both bad and scarce. Dysentery and diarrhea are rampant. Every man would’ve been infested with lice and had scabies and all sorts of sort of kind of routine physical problems that you 20th century guys don’t have to worry about, you know, we’ve got clothes and shoes and socks and a lot of these men marched barefoot up to Antietam in the fall of 1862.
B. Balogh: Yeah, it’s incredible.
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): And a lot of them felt like the Army was poorly run and poorly managed and poorly supplied and they complained bitterly and always and it’s not an expression of disloyalty. It’s an expression of frustration and anger over the fact that they aren’t being provisioned the way they need to be provisioned if they’re going to be able to do their jobs and they’ve signed a contract to fight for the Confederacy, the least the Confederacy can do is get them some rancid corn and mealy meat or something.
B. Balogh: Yeah, and you mentioned loyalty which is so important. If I read your book correctly, that loyalty actually grows and deepens over the course of the war in spite of what we might call the complaining or that classic Civil War term, kvetching.
Tape (A. Sheehan-Dean): Yeah, and I think you’re absolutely right that it deepens which is surprising. We would anticipate and the traditional story gives us a story of sort of kind of waning morale. The morale deepens as the crisis of what failure, of what defeat looks like, looms larger for these men. They certainly wear down and they wear out in many cases and I think ultimately that’s what accounts for Confederate defeat is simply wearing out, but in the process, these men have committed themselves very very deeply to a Southern nation, to the Confederacy, but a Southern nation that lives on beyond the Confederacy. It’s the Confederate state that is destroyed by the Civil War but I think unfortunately not a very deep sense of sectional loyalty that presents enormous problems for post-war America, for reconciling these men. This is one of the classic problems of Civil War and one that Lincoln recognized, that the harder you fight and the more bitter and the longer the fight goes on, the more difficult that post-war reconciliation is going to be. [music—banjo]
[E. Ayers]: Aaron Sheehan-Dean is an historian at the University of North Florida and author of the book Why Confederates Fought. Thank you so much for joining us, Aaron.
B. Balogh: Thanks, Brian. That was great. [music—banjo]
E. Ayers: So, Aaron does a great job of evoking for us the central idea of home—
P. Onuf: Yeah.
E. Ayers: And the motivations of Confederate soldiers and their understanding that is what they are sacrificing their lives for. And you might ask, what did this look like from the perspective of those for whom they were sacrificing their lives. What was it like for the women who lived in those homes that the Confederate soldiers were defending? No one has thought about this more thoroughly than Catherine Clinton who has written about women in the war before and after for a long time, and she told me that when you look really closely at the lives of women in the Civil War era, Northern and Southern, white and black, a lot of the easy stereotypes and generalizations begin to fall away.
Tape (Catherine Clinton): Men were coming home maimed. Men were coming home scarred. Men were coming home psychologically damaged and then, again, men weren’t coming home. There were small towns in Wisconsin where marriageable-age men were simply wiped out, an entire generation and the young women became skilled at the rituals of mourning. And I think this really deeply affected their outlook on life. It scarred an entire generation of young women.
E. Ayers: So, it sounds like you would emphasize in some ways the commonalities perhaps that we’ve overlooked between Northern and Southern white women.
Tape (C. Clinton): Right, and also the way in which war and men marching into war can create a commonality between women, black and white, in the South. When we look at matters of war unleashing violence against women, war unleashing men’s restraints during war time, I was struck by the fact that Jefferson Davis was someone who spoke about rape as a fate infinitely worse than death, so we look at the way in which gender and sexual politics during the war affected very dramatically how women lived the war and that a woman alone, black or white, might be in fear of soldiers marching through. Maybe they were supposed to be liberators, maybe they were our own boys, but in both cases, war can unleash terrors and cause a gender divide that was quite dramatic.
E. Ayers: So, the more we look at the Civil War, as Catherine Clinton shows us, the more you see that the humanity of the people at the time stretched over four years, dying in incomprehensible numbers, in incomprehensible ways, for causes that had been unimaginable, it’s going to require every skill the historian has to try to make sense of this thing.
P. Onuf: Right. And I think, Ed, Catherine tells us something important, reminds us of something that is omnipresent in the experience of people in war and that is here we are fighting on behalf of civilization, however we define it, yet just beneath the surface of civility and law is the reality of violence and as Catherine quite rightly points out and this is what Southern soldiers feared, as Aaron told us, when the forces of war are unleashed on your home, then the laws of war are hanging in suspense and that is the whole notion of laws of war which is the whole basis of modern international law, that you can somehow create conventions and standards of how you fight. Well, actually killing people blurs the distinction between barbarism and civilization and it’s that dissent into barbarism that is the threat of all wars.
B. Balogh: Yeah, and Peter, with that phrase, “the threat of all wars,” we really must confront this question of ultimately how different—
P. Onuf: Yeah, yeah.
B. Balogh: Is the Civil War from all wars. Now, I who know the least about this so I’ll listen to your answers, but for me, it remains very distinctive, primarily because we did this to ourselves. We fought this—
P. Onuf: Yeah.
B. Balogh: On our own homeland, so to speak, and that certainly makes it distinctive, but listening to you guys, especially about the number of young men who signed up without being coerced and their sense of patriotism, either to the Union or to their home state and the larger Confederacy, really underscores this notion of doing this to ourselves—
P. Onuf: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right.
B. Balogh: And that remains distinctive to me, but I’d be curious to hear where you and Ed come down on this question.
P. Onuf: Well, Ed—
E. Ayers: You know, I think it was an exceptional moment in American history but I guess I’d argue that this is our version of something that all nations seem to go through at some time, right? They’re fighting over who are we really.
P. Onuf: Right.
E. Ayers: And unlike other countries where they might be fighting over a religious difference or a longstanding who owns that piece of turf, here this was all about a future. There was not anything immediately at stake because the North didn’t think that it could abolish slavery in the Constitution, but Americans projecting themselves across space and across time were fighting in many ways over what the future of America would be.
P. Onuf: Yeah, and I do think, I mean, you’re exactly right. There’re been so many civil wars. There’s been so much slaughter in world history. We’re not special in that regard, but what makes this special for us is that the United States was founded on the notion of a vision of peace, that is, that republican government would end conflicts within nations, that this was a model for the world, that the Union was a way to transcend the problem of war that had scarred the European continent for centuries, that the Americas had the hubris, the pride, to think that they had discovered the formula for progress and perpetual peace and prosperity and that is republican government and that’s why there’s so much pathos in Lincoln’s Civil War rhetoric about the meaning of the war, about the meaning of republican government, because what the war was really demonstrating was the failure of that dream.
B. Balogh: Well, guys, one thing is not exceptional and that’s that once again we’ve run out of time, but we want to know what our listeners think about all of this and we want them to continue the conversation online. You can find us at backstoryradio.org. And while you’re there, have a listen to the first installment in our Civil War series, “The Road to War.”
P. Onuf: Again, that’s backstoryradio.org. We’re also on iTunes, Facebook, and Twitter. Don’t be a stranger.
E. Ayers: “BackStory” is produced by Tony Field, with help from Catherine Moore. Dylan Keefe mastered the show, and Gaby Alter wrote our theme. Our interns are Jose Argueta and Miriam Kaplan. Special thanks today to Clinton Johnston. “BackStory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Production support for “BackStory” is provided by Cary Brown Epstein and the W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, James Madison’s Montpelier, Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Austin Ligon, and an anonymous donor.
Tape: Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.