11th Grade: “Fire all of Your Guns at Once”

Greetings to all,

This week we began the actual battles of the Civil War.  In previous years we tended to look at battles as isolated incidents unto themselves.  Last year, I wanted to begin to broaden their understanding of conflict at a deeper level.  We started to do this somewhat when we looked at Napoleon towards the end of last year, and we continue to deepen our understanding as they go farther in the rhetoric stage of learning.

I wanted the students to consider the following:

Who had the most important advantages in the conflict?  The traditional view usually argues that the North, with its larger population, established economy, and industrial might had the edge.  The picture below, for example, shows the differences in respective railway capacity:

Recently, however,  scholarship has tended to see the South as having the strategic edge.  After all, they merely had to ‘not-lose.’  The Union not only had to win, but win to such an extent that the South would not consider secession again.  The South also had a huge amount of territory, along with the psychological edge of defending their ‘homeland.’  A quick glance shows us that the Civil War had some of the same dynamics as the Revolutionary War, with the Americans playing the role of the Confederacy (to some extent) and using their advantages to victory in that conflict.  The North certainly had its hands full.

These respective advantages did not come about via magic, but by the accumulation of various conscious and unconscious choices made by each society.  The South, for example lacked industrial capacity in part because they wanted to avoid the inevitable cultural and political changes that come with industry.

Related to the idea of cultures, I wanted the students understand a few of the dynamics present in the conflict.

For the South:
We discussed that the South’s main advantage was that it could play on the defensive, play up their psychological ‘home field advantage,’ and merely, ‘not lose’ the war.  They would also have to be careful with resources.  They would not want to cede ground in this area to the North, as the North could easily overmatch their industrial production.

So far, so good.  But one of the tensions in this conflict would be how this strategy would fit with the notions of honor usually prevalent in more aristocratic, honor oriented societies.  De Tocqueville reported a conversation that surprised him in his travels in the South in the late 1830’s.  Even for a Frenchmen, the sense of honor he encountered surprised him.  While on a train, he asked the following of a gentlemen next to him. . .

Q. Is it true, then that people in Alabama are as accustomed violence as is said?

A. Yes, there is no one here who doesn’t carry weapons under his clothes.  At the slightest quarrel he’ll have a knife or pistol in his hand.  These things happen constantly, the state of society is half-barbarous.

Q. But when a man kills another like that, isn’t he punished?

A. He’s always brought to trial, and the jury always acquits.  I don’t remember a single man who was at all well-known to have to pay for his life for such a crime.  Besides, I’m no better.  Look at all these wounds [showed the traces of 4-5 deep scars].

Q. But surely you lodged a complaint?

A. My God, no!  I tried to give back as good as I got!

For the North:
No one doubts that there immense advantages of men and material, coupled with the need not just to win but really pulverize the South, should have committed them to a long term ‘anaconda’ like strategy.

But Lincoln, initially at least, eschewed this path, largely because of how he saw secession.  He believed that secession resulted from the manipulation of a wealthy elite — that the average southerner wanted back in the Union, but had been temporarily deluded.  He felt, therefore, that he needed a quick and dramatic victory to prevent the concrete of secession from settling, so to speak.  This victory would also serve as a kind of smelling salt to wake up the south, and bring them back into the fold.

Union General Irwin McDowell told Lincoln that the army stood nowhere near ready for offensive operations, but Lincoln’s political beliefs pushed McDowell to go for a quick victory.  “If you are green, so are they,” he reportedly told McDowell.  But of course, offensive maneuvers are always much more difficult than defensive ones, and the disaster of the Battle of Bull Run ensued, when the Union forces crumbled into nothingness.

Lincoln misjudged the South badly here.  Secession, as we saw last week, was supported by most Southerners, and one victory would not have swung the tide in any case.  Victory, if it came, would have to mean a longer, more rigorous, and grinding conflict.

Bull Run shows that the outcome of battles almost always has deeper roots than the fighting itself, and I hope the students saw this in class.

The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, also wanted compromise at the beginning of the war.  For example, he offered mid-western farmers the use of the Mississippi and pledged them access to New Orleans.  He, like Lincoln, figured that the Union did not really want to go through the trouble of war, and one quick victory would show them the folly of their ways.

But Davis, like Lincoln, misjudged his opponent.  For many in the North the issue went beyond economics or jilted pique.  Many felt at the time that democracy itself would be considered an international and historical failure if secession worked.  If Constitutional democracy meant one leaves the moment things don’t go your way, democracy had no future.  Secession would only serve as the first step in a broader conflict that would only serve, in time, to make America just like Europe, where wars broke out at regular intervals.  The misperceptions of both sides meant in part that the early phase of the war had little overall strategic effect.

When we remember that both the Puritan revolutionaries in England, and the more Enlightenment oriented philosophes in France, both entirely failed to bring about constitutional democracy, this attitude makes more sense.  In 1861 only England, of all European nations could claim some kind of viable democracy.

From the beginning then, Lincoln had a “cause,” or a grand ideal to fight for, but it was abstract.  In time, he would seek to transform the war even more, turning the nation’s eyes toward the slavery question.  This will give the North something more tangible to fight over.  Next week we will examine this as well as Lincoln’s attitude towards the Constitution.

Many blessings,

Dave Mathwin