The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

A paper on the American Civil War

by J F Myburgh


1. One hundred and fifty years ago the United States of America was a democracy. (1) Despite having the means to resolve their political differences peacefully and by compromise in Congress, Americans resorted to the bloodiest war in the history of their country. For four years, between 1861 and 1865, they killed and maimed each other in the hundreds of thousands at a time when the population was a tenth of what it is today.

2. This paper will explore the reasons for the Civil War in detail later. For now, it suffices to say that American society carried the malignant cancer of slavery. While the Declaration of Independence adopted on 4 July 1776 proclaimed:
"[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness", many of those who signed the Declaration were slave owners, as was the main author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, later to become the third President of the United States. By 1860 there were 4 million slaves. " ... the Founding Fathers saw the whole thing coming. They walked away from the Constitutional Convention fully aware that they had planted a time bomb; they hoped future leaders would find a way to defuse it before it exploded. As the Constitution was being written, James Madison observed, 'It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line."(2)

Books and movies

3. Interest in the Civil War is unflagging. More than 50 000 books or pamphlets on the war have been published since 1865. Sixteen thousand books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. From the earliest days of Hollywood the Civil War was a popular subject, culminating in 1939 with Gone With the Wind, one of the most popular movies of all time. More than 700 movies, approximately 500 silent and 200 sound, were made about the Civil War era. More movies about the Civil War were made than about any other war or historical event in American history. Nearly 3 times more movies were made about the Civil War than about the Second World War.(3) After 1945, the Second World War was more topical, but the Civil War continued to be portrayed on the small screen in series such as North and South and on the big screen. In recent years we have seen Glory, Gettysburg and Cold Mountain. About 40 million viewers in the United States are estimated to have watched Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War, first broadcast on PBS in 1990.(4) It was subsequently broadcast by the SABC in the 1990s, and is now available on DVD.

4. So, how does one start to get to grips with the history of a civil war, which lasted for four years, and by its very nature, was controversial?

5. A starting point is to read the best one-volume history of the Civil War, "Battle Cry of Freedom", by James McPherson published in 1988 by Oxford University Press, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. If that whets your appetite, and you want more, I recommend the three-volume history written by Shelby Foote, "The Civil War", which was first published in 1958 and is available in soft-cover.

6. There is modern fiction available which is eminently readable and also informative:
- "Confederates" by Thomas Kenealy, which was nominated for the Booker Prize;
- "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara, which was filmed as "Gettysburg"; and
- "The Last Full Measure" by Jeff Shaara.

7. The documentary referred to earlier by Ken Burns is excellent. One of its surprising features is the amount of photographic material available from the 1860s. The Civil War is described as the first photographed war. There are broadly two types of photographs:
- those for which people patiently posed, such as studio shots of Abraham Lincoln and young soldiers in their new uniforms;
and photographs of battlefields, showing scenes of rural America where the soldiers in the photographs did not move because they were dead.

The most moving photograph in the collection is that of a young Union soldier who is shown naked. His head looks normal, but his body consists of his skeleton covered only in skin. There is no flesh on his body. He has been starved near to death. He was a survivor of the infamous POW camp, Andersonville, in Georgia. Some 13 000 Union soldiers died in the 16-month existence of the camp. It was said that the life expectancy of a young healthy Union soldier who entered the camp was one month. At the end of the war the commandant of the camp, Henry Wirz, was tried, sentenced and executed for war crimes, the only such trial to result from the Civil War.

8. Attached to this paper is another paper, on the story behind the story of three books on the Civil War.

When and where of the Civil War

The when

9. It was against a decade of ever growing tension between North and South that the two parties assembled for their conventions in 1860. The Republican Party voted on the third ballot for Abraham Lincoln. The Democratic Party split into halves, the Northern wing backed Stephen A Douglas; the Southern wing supported John C Breckenridge of Kentucky. A fourth party, the Constitutional Party, 'hoping desperately for compromise and conciliation"(5) nominated John Bell of Tennessee. The two Democratic Party candidates together received a majority of the popular vote. Lincoln received 1 865 908 popular votes, Breckenridge received 848 019, and Douglas 1 380 202 (in total 2 228 221). Lincoln carried every free state, except New Jersey. Although he won less than 40 percent of the popular vote, he won comfortably in the electoral college: 180 electoral votes to 72 for Breckenridge, 39 for Bell and 12 for Douglas. Lincoln did not win a single electoral vote in the South, and no popular vote in 9 slave states:
"The results persuaded the southerners that they had become a powerless minority with no choice but to secede".(6)

10. Lincoln summed up the differences between North and South in this passage in his first inaugural address:
"One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."

11. No sooner had Lincoln been elected President than South Carolina voted on 20 December 1860 to secede from the Union. By February 1861 South Carolina was joined by Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. On 8 February 1861 delegates from the seven seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama, to establish a new nation, the Confederate States of America. On 4 March 1861 Lincoln was inaugurated as the President of the United States. He called for volunteers for an army of 75 000. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennesee and North Carolina, instead of providing troops, seceded; joined the Confederacy; and the Confederacy chose Richmond, Virginia as its capital.

The where

12. The modern United States is a very different country from that of the early 1860s.

13. The United States of today consists of 50 states, 48 on the North American continent plus Alaska and Hawaii. It has a population of approximately 305 million, with substantial minorities, such as African-Americans and Hispanics. The United States economy is the largest in the world. For 45 years after the end of the Second World War, the United States was one of two world powers, the other being the Soviet Union, which conducted the Cold War. Now it is the sole remaining world power. We consume American products, drive American cars, watch American TV shows, go to American movies, listen to American pop music, and read books and magazines produced in the United States. Hollywood is synonymous with the movie industry, just as Silicon Valley is with the IT industry.

14. In 1860, by contrast, there were only 33 states. Kansas was admitted to the Union as the 34th state on 29 January 1861. On the west coast were California and Oregon. Between those two states and the most westerly state to the east, Kansas, were seven Territories which had not yet attained statehood.

The contrast between the United States of today and the United States of 1860 is best illustrated by this description of Washington DC in about 1860:
"Washington lacked the literary salons, studios, universities, and conservatories that distinguished the capitals of Europe. The theaters relied on touring productions from New York; the shops were small and understocked. There was no commercial or manufacturing district such as those found in the new industrial cities, though the levels of violence, drunkenness, and corruption were not dissimilar. There were few cultural amenities save for the Smithsonian Institution ... The majority of the city's permanent residents were civil servants, lawyers, or saloon keepers. When Charles Dickens traveled to the capital in 1842, he thought the city had 'Magnificent Intentions' but little else. It had 'spacious avenues, that begin in nothing and lead to nowhere' and 'streets' [a] mile long, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants.'
Fifteen years later, these intentions remained unfulfilled. 'Most members of Congress live in hotels or furnished lodgings,' wrote an English tourist. 'In consequence, there is no style about the mode of living ... The whole place looks run up in a night, like the cardboard cities which Potemkim erected.' The boundaries of Washington were still ragged and ill defined. A disagreement between the government and a local landowner had stranded the unfinished Capitol on top of a steep hill at the edge of town, facing the wrong way. Washington's smart district lay two miles in the opposite direction, across marshland and noisome swamps that were breeding grounds for malaria in the summer. Elsewhere, the roads were still dirt tracks that frequently ended in piles of rubble or were interrupted by pastures. A pedestrian was in danger not only from one of the city's unregulated hackney cabs, but also from being run over by wandering livestock. 'On nine days out of every ten, the climate of Washington is simply detestable,' complained a British journalist. 'When it rains, the streets are sloughs of liquid mud. In a couple of hours from the time the rain ceases, the same streets are enveloped in clouds of dust.' "(7)

15. The population of the USA was almost 32 million, including 4 million slaves.

16. The major export of the United States was cotton, cultivated in the South using slave labour. In 1800 the country exported $5 million worth of cotton, 7% of total exports. By 1810 this figure had tripled. By 1840 it had risen to $63 million. By 1860 cotton exports were worth $191 million, 57% of all exports.(8) Cotton grown in the South accounted for 75% of the world's supply.(9) In 1858 James Hammond told the US Senate: "The slave holding South is now the controlling power of the world ... Cotton, rice, tobacco and naval stores command the world . ... no power on earth dares ... to make war on cotton. Cotton is king."(10)

17. The balance sheet between the free states in the North and the slave states in the South in 1860 was as follows:-
The population of the North was almost double that of the South:
18 million to 12 million, which included 4 million slaves.
In agricultural products:
the South produced more cotton, tobacco, rice, beef cattle, pigs, donkeys and mules than the North;
the North produced more maize (corn), wheat, oats, horses, milk, cows and sheep than the South.
The North had almost double the railway tracks which the South had (20 000 miles compared to 10 700 miles).
The North had treble the number of factories, 9 times the number of factory workers, and produced almost 9 times the value of products than the South (100 500 factories, 1,1 million workers and $1,5 billion worth of products compared to 30 200 factories, 181 000 workers and $170 million worth of products).
The total value of bank deposits in the North was almost treble that in the South: $189 million compared to $65 million.(11)

18. In 1850 there were 6 million whites in the South. Only a small proportion owned slaves: 5,6% (337 525), and only 37 662 owned 20 or more.(12)
"A caste system as well as a form of labor, slavery elevated all whites to one ruling caste ... "(13)
19. The 15 slave states were all in the South: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

20. The capital of the United States, Washington DC, named after the first President, George Washington, was sited in Maryland, a slave state.

21. After 11 states had seceded, four slave states, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, were left in the Union. They became known as 'the border states'. The Civil War was conducted by the Union from its capital, Washington DC, situated in Maryland, a slave state which did not secede.

22. Directly across the Potomac River from Washington DC was Virginia, a slave state, in which the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, was established. The Civil War was conducted by the Confederacy from Richmond.

23. After Virginia had voted to secede, the citizens of the western part of the state in turn seceded, calling their new state, West Virginia, which was admitted to the Union in 1863, where it remains as a separate state to this day.

24. If one excludes California and Oregon, which were too far away to play any role in the coming war, there were 21 states in the Union, including the 4 border (slave) states, and 11 states in the Confederacy. The square miles of the Confederacy exceeded the square miles of 17 free states in the Union (and that of Europe).

25. The advantage the Confederacy had over the Union was that it was not required to take any further action to remain separate from the Union. The Union, on the other hand, if it wished to reunite the rebel states with the Union states, would have to conquer the South by force and by invasion. It would have to be the aggressor. If it remained passive, the Confederacy would survive as a separate state, and the United States of America would be dissolved.

26. The disadvantages to the South, which on sober reflection should have made secession unattractive, were many:
the North could draw on a population of 18 million compared to the South's 8 million (excluding the 4 million slaves);
of the South's 3 major crops, only one was edible, rice;
the armies of the North would be better fed than those of the South;
the North would be able to move supplies and men more easily than the South by rail;
the factory output of the North guaranteed that its armies would be far better clothed and equipped than those of the South;
the South would be dependant on the export of cotton to Europe to finance its war effort and to procure war supplies: if its exports were cut off, it could not survive for long.

27. The one advantage the South had over the North was the quality of its military leaders: Robert E Lee, Thomas J Jackson (known after the first battle of Bull Run as 'Stonewall' Jackson), Joseph E Johnston, JEB Stuart, AP Hill, DH Hill, Albert Sydney Johnstone, John Bell Hood, and James Longstreet.
Perhaps the greatest of all the generals who served on either side in the Civil War, and one of the greatest American soldiers of all time, was Robert E Lee. Lee was an enigma. In 1856 he described slavery as "a moral and political evil": (14) but "not because of any ethical dilemma. What Lee disliked about slavery was its inefficiency, the messiness of its relationships, the responsibility it entailed, and the taint of it. ..... If Lee believed slavery was an evil, he thought it was a necessary one. The best guardian against any excess of the system was the law. His upbringing, founded on the class and racial prejudices of the day, paralyzed any larger vision."(15) Until Virginia, his home state, seceded, he had spoken against secession. But once Virginia seceded, Lee felt he had no choice but to fight on the side of the Rebels. The General-in-Chief of the Union Army, Winfield Scott, regarded Lee as the most able soldier in the Union army. He persuaded President Lincoln to make Lee field commander of the newly formed Union army. When Scott offered Lee the position on 18 April 1861 Lee declined the offer, mounted his horse, Traveller, and rode across the bridge over the Potomac River to his home, Arlington, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.(16) (Arlington is the famous military cemetery. Lee's home has been preserved on the hill overlooking the cemetery, facing towards Washington DC).

28. While the United States of 1860 was tiny compared to the United States of 2011, the country had seen phenomenal growth in the 84 years after the declaration of independence in 1776. In that period the number of states grew from 13 former British colonies to 34. The original 13 states hugged the Atlantic coast. By 1860 the United States had expanded southwards to include Florida and Texas and westwards, up to Kansas, and then after a long distance, California and Oregon.

29. In the same period (1776 to 1860) the population grew from 2,5 million (including 400 000 slaves) (17) to almost 32 million (including 4 million slaves). The total population had increased tenfold, as had the slave population. The growth in population was due mainly to immigration. Prior to 1830 the American white population was predominantly British and Protestant in heritage. After 1830 the immigrants were mainly German and Irish, and Catholic. The American population grew 4 times faster than Europe's and 6 times the world average. Between 1850 and 1860 the United States surpassed Britain to become the most populous nation in the western world: only Russia and France had a greater population. During the first half of the 19th century the GDP of the United States increased sevenfold.(18)

30. By 1860 the number of free black people was 488 000, 250 000 of whom were in the South.(19)

31. By the 1850s American society was remarkably literate. More than 95% of New England's adults could read and write. 75% of children between 5 and 19 years of age were enrolled in school. The rest of the North was not far behind. In the South 80% of its white population was literate and one third of its children were enrolled in school. Slaves did not attend school. Even counting the slaves, nearly 80% of the American population was literate, compared to 67% in Britain and north west Europe and 25% in southern and eastern Europe.(20)

The impact of the Civil War

32. From a US army of 16 000 at the commencement of the war in 1861, (21) the armies of the Union and the Confederacy fielded a total of 3 million men, nearly 10% of the total population.(22) An equivalent enlistment in the United States armed forces today would be in the region of 30 million. That number should be compared to the troops mobilized by the USA in the two World Wars: the First World War 4 350 000 and in the Second World War 16 400 ODD, a total of 20 750 000. It is estimated that between 850 000 to 900 000 men fought for the Confederacy.(23) One hundred and seventy,..nine thousand (179 000) black soldiers and 10 000 black sailors fought in the Union armies and navy.(24) About 20 000 Native Americans (Indians) fought in the Civil War on one side or the other.(25)

33. Six hundred and twenty thousand (620 000) men, North and South, lost their lives during the four years of the Civil War. [An equivalent death toll today would be approximately 6,2 million.] That figure must be compared to the combined figure of 680 000 Americans who lost their lives in all wars in which the United States participated from independence to 1995, including the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.(26) In the First World War the military dead of the USA was 50 000 and in the Second World War 292 000, a total of 342 000.

34. At the battle of Antietam (called Sharpsburg by the South) there were 23 000 casualties in one day, almost four times the number of American casualties on D day, 6 June 1944. The 6 300 Americans killed and mortally wounded in one day (17 September 1862) near Sharpsburg were nearly double the number of Americans killed and mortally wounded in combat in all of the rest of the United States' 19th century wars combined: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and the Indian Wars.(27)

35. At the Battle of Gettysburg alone on 1, 2 and 3 July 1863 there were 51 000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing in action), 23 000 on the Union side and 28 000 on the Confederate side.(28)

36. I do not have the figure for the number of wounded in the Civil War, but if one conservatively estimates that three men were wounded to every one who died, the number of wounded would exceed 1,8 million (18 million today).

37. Twenty-five percent (25%) of the white men of military age in the Confederacy died during the Civil War. Nearly 4% of the Southern people, black and white, civilians and soldiers, died. This percentage exceeds the human cost of any country in the First World War, with the exception of Serbia (15% of the population died). It has been estimated that two-thirds of all assessed wealth, including the market value of slaves, was destroyed in the South.(29) "Union invasion of the Confederacy and the destruction of southern war industries and transportation facilities, the abolition of slavery, the wastage of southern livestock, and the killing of one-quarter of the South's white man population of military age made an economic desert of large areas of the South."(30)

38. The total value of wealth increased by 50% in the North during the 1860s. In the same period, the value of wealth in the South decreased by 60%. In 1860 the South's share of national wealth was 30%. In 1870 it was 12%. In 1860 the average pro capita income of southerners, including slaves, was 67% of the northern average. After 1865 the southern average dropped to less than 40% of the northern, and did not rise above that level for the rest of the nineteenth century.(31)

39. James M McPherson, one of the leading modern historians of the Civil War, says that "[o]ne reason for our fascination with the Civil War is that momentous issues were at stake: slavery and freedom; racism and equality; sectionalism and nationalism, self government and democracy; life and death".(32)

40. McPherson points out that the Civil War resolved two fundamental questions left unresolved by the War of Independence of 1776-1783:
"whether the United States would endure as one nation, indivisible; and whether slavery would continue to mock the ideals of liberty on which the republic was founded."(33)

41. In 1873, eight years after the war had ended, Mark Twain noted that the Civil War "uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of the people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations."(34)

42. Historians of the Soviet Union visited the United States in 1976, the bicentennial of the American Revolution. On their arrival, they were asked what they would like to see first. They replied, to the surprise of their host, 'the battlefield of Gettysburg'. When they were asked why, they replied that it was the American Stalingrad - the battlefield in America's Great Patriotic War where so many died, or as McPherson describes it, "where so many gave the last full measure of devotion that the United States might not perish from the earth."(35)

Eight minutes of horror

43. When I think of the horror of war, I think of the Western Front during the First World War, when soldiers went "over the top" moving upright to be mown down in their thousands by machine gun fire. The battle which most closely resembles that of Cold Harbor, the Civil War battle described in a moment, occurred on the second day of the battle of Loos on 26 September 1915. About 10 000 British troops advanced on the German lines. The advance had not been preceded by a bombardment. The German machine guns were on a hilltop in protected bunkers behind long lines of barbed wire. According to a German account the British moved forward in ten columns " ... each about a thousand men, all advancing as if carrying out a parade-ground drill. Never had machine guns had such straightforward work to do with barrels becoming hot. .. they traversed to and fro along the enemy's ranks; one machine gun alone fired 12 500 rounds that afternoon. The result was devastating." Out of 10 000 officers and men, more than 8 000 were killed, wounded or missing in less than 10 minutes. As the survivors retreated, the Germans held their fire. "My machine gunners were so filled with pity, remorse and nausea that they refused to fire another shot" said a German officer. (36)

44. Yet it is difficult not to be affected by the waste of human life which occurred during the Civil War. A paper of this length cannot tell the many stories of how men died in the hundreds of skirmishes and great battles, such as the battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Chattanooga, Vicksburg, the Wilderness and Appomattox.

45. Instead I will recount what happened in eight minutes in the early morning of 3 June 1864 at a crossroads called Cold Harbor.

46. General Ulysses S Grant was the supreme commander of all Union armies. He attached himself to one Union army, the Army of the Potomac. His adversary was General Robert E Lee, the commander of a Confederate army, the Army of Northern Virginia. These two competing armies had been fighting each other from time to time since the first battle of Bull Run on 21 July 1861.

47. By mid-1864 a war of attrition was being fought. Grant's strategy was to draw Lee into the open so that his army, which was twice as large as that of Lee's, could use its superior numbers to defeat Lee, and to bring the war to an end. Lee had no intention of obliging Grant, and contrary to his aggressive nature, he adopted a defensive strategy.

48. Lee's men occupied trenches which were described at the time as "intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade opposing lines ... works within works and works without works."

49. The night before the battle a Union officer saw men writing their names and home addresses on pieces of paper and pinning them to the backs of their coats so that they could be identified if they were killed. (This was before dog tags became compulsory.) The men at the front were under no illusions as to what fate awaited them the next day: they had seen the Confederates busily entrenching themselves.

50. A reflection of the gloomy outlook of the Union soldiers was the entry in a diary found on the body of a Union soldier the following day:
"June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed."

51. At dawn 60 000 Union soldiers launched themselves at the Rebel line. They were met by a murderous fire. "It seemed more like a volcanic blast than a battle and was just about as destructive", said one Union soldier.

52. Eight minutes later the assault ceased. Seven thousand (7 000) Union soldiers were killed, most of them in those eight minutes. (The equivalent number today would be nearly 70 000, more than the total number of American fatalities in the Vietnam War.)

53. "The dead covered more than five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid" said a Confederate colonel.

54. The Confederates lost 1 500 men.

55. Shelby Foote, in his seminal history of the Civil War, said: "Never before, in this or perhaps in any other war, had so large a body of troops been exposed to such a concentration of fire power."(37)

56. Grant wrote in his Personal Memoirs in 1884/1885: "This assault cost us heavily and probably without benefit to compensate: but the enemy was not cheered by the occurrence sufficiently to induce him to take the offensive ... I have always regretted that the late assault at Cold Harbor was ever made ... At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages, other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side ... "(38)

The causes of the Civil War

57. That brings one to this question: why did Americans, living in a democracy; sharing a common heritage; speaking the same language; and worshipping the same God; turn on each other and cause death and destruction never experienced by them before or since?

58. In 1820 the slave states in the South and the free states in the North debated the basis on which the new territories acquired from France in 1803, known as the Louisiana Purchase, should be admitted as states. The Missouri Compromise was reached: it was agreed that there would be no new slave states north of latitude 36 36', slavery would be "forever prohibited" there, with Missouri admitted as a slave state as an exception.(39)

59. Between 1846 and 1850 tension mounted between North and South on the issue of the admission of new territories to the Union after the Mexican War. Congressman David Wilmot introduced legislation stipulating that slavery would never be permitted in any of the new territories. Senator Calhoun, in opposing the Wilmot Proviso, warned in 1847 that if the proviso was passed the result would be "political revolution, anarchy, civil war."(40) Threats of secession were made by Southern congressmen.

60. After heated debate in Congress, the Compromise of 1850 was reached: California was admitted as a new, free, state; the slave trade was prohibited in Washington DC; Texas was to be paid US$10 million to settle the border dispute with New Mexico; Utah and New Mexico were organized as territories without restrictions on slavery; and a much more onerous Fugitive Slave Act to govern the return of fugitive slaves was adopted.(41)

61. The Compromise of 1850 did not bring lasting peace.

62. The Fugitive Slave Act engendered huge resentment in the North. Northerners were often compelled to stand by and watch helplessly while slaves who though they had gained their freedom by fleeing to the North, were recaptured, placed in chains and removed to the South, no doubt to face some terrible punishment. Even some who had gained their freedom, and lived in the North for years, were removed to the South. While many people in the North passively seethed at the enforcement of the Act, others resisted the return of slaves who had reached the North, and others rescued slaves who had been recaptured. This in turn inflamed passions in the South.(42)

63. Shortly after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister-in-law wrote to her urging her to tell 'what a cursed thing slavery is'. Stowe obliged by writing Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was published in 1852. Within a year it had sold 300 000 copies in the United States and 3 million the world over. By 1862 it had been translated into more than 25 languages and had sold more than 2 million copies in the United States. When Lincoln met her in that year he commented: "So you're the woman who wrote the book that made this great war". McPherson describes the impact of the book:
"Lincoln's remark was far from facetious. The extraordinary impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin may have done more to arouse antislavery sentiments in the North and to provoke angry rebuttals in the South than any other event of the antebellum era - certainly more than any other literary event."(43)

64. The next major event to inflame passions was the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1854. The main proponent of the legislation was a leading Democrat, Senator Stephen A Douglas of Illinois. His motives were many. One of his main motives was to advance the cause of the construction of a transcontinental railroad along a northerly route. In order to build the railroad, land had to be opened up in the West. The South wanted the route to go via Texas and New Mexico. To gain Southern support for his plan for a northerly route, Douglas did a deal with the Southerners in Congress. They would give up their plan for a southerly route if the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was repealed. Douglas agreed. The bill was passed. The Act contained two provisions, one repealing the Missouri Compromise, and the other introduced the concept of 'popular sovereignty' - people of each territory could decide for themselves, when the time for statehood came, whether to admit or exclude slavery.(44) Slavery to the north of latitude 36 36' was no longer excluded: both Kansas and Nebraska lay to the north of that latitude. Douglas knew that the Act would "raise a hell of a storm". It did indeed 'provoke a hell of a storm that made the debates of 1850 look like a gentle shower'.(45)

65. A leading Civil War historian of his time, Allan Nevins, wrote in 1947, in a passage which resonates with South Africans in 2011:
"Douglas did not realise that far more important than the early settlement of Nebraska and the definition of its railroad routes was the question whether its ultimate institutions would be beneficent or pernicious; an issue on which no avoidable risks were to be tolerated. He did not comprehend that far more important than the unity of the Democratic Party was the unity of the American people. He did not remember that it is the essence of democratic government that a temporary majority shall not abuse its power, nor shall cardinal changes be forced in national policy except after full and free discussion, and by emphatic assent of the people. These were all at bottom moral considerations, and his apprehension of them was cloudy and limited."(46)

66. Besides hardening the polarization of the North and South, the passing of the Act killed the Whig party. Every Whig from the North voted against the bill. Twenty-five (25) out of 34 Southern Whigs voted or were paired for it. According to a Northern Senator: 'The Whig party has been killed off effectually by that Nebraska business." And so it was. The Whig party disbanded and combined with others opposed to slavery to form a new party, the Republican Party, in 1854.(47) Six years later Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party was elected President.

67. The Supreme Court then made its contribution to the heightening of tensions by giving the Dred Scott decision. Scott had been the slave of an Army surgeon, John Emerson. Emerson had taken Scott to posts in Illinois and Wisconsin where there was no slavery. Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds of prolonged residence in a free state and a free territory. An 11 year legal battle ensued, culminating in the Supreme Court in 1857. Chief Justice Taney delivered the majority decision. Scott's plea for freedom was denied. Taney found that a Negro of slave origin was an inferior being who could not be a citizen and hence could not sue anyone; and that Congress had not had the right (in the Missouri Compromise) to prohibit slavery in any territory.(48)

68. In 1858 Illinois held an election for a US Senator. The two candidates were the Democrat, Stephen A Douglas, and a Republican, largely unknown outside of the state, Abraham Lincoln. Douglas was as short as Lincoln was tall. They agreed to 7 public debates across the state. Their debates attracted audiences of 10 000 to 15 000, coming from all walks of life. They debated the great issues of the day: slavery, and in particular the Kansas Nebraska Act, and whether slavery could expand into the new territories and states. The debates were widely published throughout the United States. The debates are 'deservedly the most famous in American History'.(49) Although Lincoln lost the election, he became well known outside of his own state, and identified by members of the Republican Party as a Possible candidate in the 1860 presidential election.

69. One question and answer were to have a profound effect on the 1860 presidential election. Lincoln asked Douglas whether there was any lawful way that the people of a territory could exclude slavery if they wished to do so. The point of the question was to highlight the contradiction between the Dred Scott decision and the doctrine of popular sovereignty propagated by Douglas. If Douglas answered in the negative he would alienate Illinois voters. If he answered in the affirmative he would alienate the South and jeopardise his prospects of gaining Southern support in the 1860 election. He answered in the affirmative. (50)

70. The next event that brought civil war closer was one which occurred on 16 October 1859. John Brown, leading a party of 18 men, including 6 blacks, seized the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, as the first step in a slave insurrection. A force of US Marines, led by a cavalry officer, Colonel Robert E Lee, then still of the US Army, recaptured the armoury. John Brown's effort to free the slaves had lasted less than 36 hours. He was tried, convicted, and hanged on 2 December 1859. To many in the North Brown was 'not only a martyr _ but also a saint'. Southerners were outraged: the raid on Harpers Ferry was what they thought Northern abolitionists wanted - an insurrection of the slaves - a frightening prospect. (51)

71. With the election of Lincoln in 1860, the secession of Southern slave states in the months that. followed his election; and the determination of the North to reconstitute the Union, war was inevitable. And war is what the young democracy got, "in full measure".

JFM 31/5/2012


(1) in the nineteenth century sense of the word in that there was male suffrage.
(2) Time, 18 April 2011, "The Civil War 1861-2011: The Way We Weren't" article by David von Drehle.
(3) Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War, p12.
(4) James M McPherson, Drawn With the Sword, pp55-56 ("Drawn with the Sword").
(5) American Heritage p13.
(6) James M McPherson, general editor, The American Presidents, p369.
(7) Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire (2010) ("Foreman") p l0.
(8) The American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War, narrative by Bruce Catton, p 10 ("American Heritage").
(9) James M McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, p39 ("Battle Cry").
(10) Battle Cry, pl00.
(11) American Heritage, p78-79.
(12) American Heritage, p31.
(13) Battle Cry, p 199.
(14) Lee nevertheless owned "a few slaves" at one time: Gary W. Gallagher, editor, Lee, The Soldier, p20; Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee, p92; Clifford Dowdey, Lee, p113.
(15) "Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E Lee Through his Private Letters" by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, 2007.
(16) Battle Cry, pp280-281; Dowdey, Lee, pp 129-135.
(17) Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789, p36.
(18) Battle Cry, pp6-9.
(19) Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, Prologue to Civil War 1859-1861, P 153 ("Emergence of Lincoln").
(20) Battle Cry, pp 19-20.
(21) Battle Cry, p313.
(22) James M McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, p viii ("Cause and Comrades").
(23) Battle Cry, p306.
(24) Drawn with the Sword, p 108.
(25) Laurence M Hauptman, Between Two Fires, American Indians in the Civil War, p x.
(26) Drawn with the Sword, p56.
(27) Drawn with the Sword, pp56-57; Battle Cry, p538.
(28) Battle Cry, p664.
(29) Drawn with the Sword, pp66-67.
(30) James M McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revoution, pp 11-12 ("The Second American Revolution").
(31) The Second American Revolution, p12.
(32) Drawn with the Sword, Preface viii.
(33) Drawn with the Sword, Preface pviii.
(34) Mark Twain and Charles Dudley, The Gilded Age, quoted in Drawn with the Sword, at pp66-67.
(35) Drawn with the Sword, Preface i.
(36) John Keegan, The First World War, pp218-219; Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars, pp162-165.
(37) Shelby Foote, The Civil War, Red River to Appomattox, vol 3, p290 ("Shelby Foote vol 3"). My description of the battle of Cold Habor is based on Shelby Foote, vol 3, pp288-292; Battle Cry, pp734-735; American Heritage, p462.
(38) Penguin Classics, pp473, 477.
(39) American Heritage, p10; Battle Cry, p8.
(40) Battle Cry, pp57-58.
(41) Battle Cry, p75; American Heritage,p11; Drawn with the Sword, p26.
(42) Battle Cry, pp81-89; American Heritage, p 11.
(43) Drawn with the Sword, p24 and generally pp24-36.
(44) The section on the Kansas Nebraska Act is based on American Heritage p11, Battle Cry pp121-126, Shelby Foote, The Civil War, A narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville ("Shelby Foote vol 1 "), pp26-28, Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, A House Dividing, 1852-1857 ("Ordeal of the Union"), ppl00-159
(45) Battle Cry, p123.
(46) Ordeal of the Union, p108
(47) Battle Cry pp 115-116
. (48) American Heritage, p12; Battle Cry, pp170-178; Shelby Foote Vol I, p29;
(49) Battle Cry p 182.
(50) The section on the 1858 debates is based on American Heritage p 12, Battle Cry, pp 182-189 and Shelby Foote, Vol I, p31.
(51) American Heritage p 12; Battle Cry pp20 1-213; Shelby Foote, Vol I , p31-32


Elizabeth Brown Prior: Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E Lee Through his Private Letters
Bruce Catton, The American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War, ("American Heritage")
Clifford Dowdey, Lee
Shelby Foote, The Civil War, A narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville, vol 1 ("Shelby Foote vol 1")
Shelby Foote, The Civil War, Red River to Appomattox, vol 3 ("Shelby Foote vol 3")
Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire (2010)
Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee
Gary W Gallagher, editor, Lee, The Soldier
Ulysses S Grant, Personal Memoirs
Laurence M Hauptman, Between Two Fires, American Indians in the Civil War
James M McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution ("The Second American Revolution")
James M McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom ("Battle Cry")
James M McPherson, For Cause and Comrades ("Cause and Comrades")
James M McPherson, Drawn With the Sword ("Drawn with the Sword")
James M McPherson, general editor, The American Presidents
Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789
Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, Prologue to Civil War 1859-1861 ("Emergence of Lincoln")
Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, A House Dividing, 1852-1857 ("Ordeal of the Union")


"I rode with Stonewall" by Henry Kyd Douglas

1. Henry Kyd Douglas was born on 29 September 1840 in Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia). He was admitted to the bar in 1860. He practised for a short time in St. Louis, Missouri. When he heard that Virginia had seceded from the Union, he returned to Virginia to enlist in the Virginia Infantry, and subsequently joined the staff of General Stonewall Jackson. After Jackson's death he served as Chief of Staff to various Southern generals. As a colonel he led the Thirteenth and the Forty-ninth Virginia Regiments. He was wounded and captured at Gettysburg on 3 July 1863. He remained a prisoner of war until he was paroled on 18 March 1864. He ended the war as the commander of the Light Brigade. His troops fired the last shot at the battle of Appomattox at which Lee surrendered. He survived the war unscathed.

2. After the war he commenced writing 'the greater portion' of a book from diaries and notes he had kept during the war telling of his experiences during the Civil War. The book, Stonewall Papers, was finished in 1866. He did not publish the book.

3. After the war he resumed practice as a lawyer in Maryland. He served several years as a judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Maryland. He played an enthusiastic part in Confederate Memorial Associations, and rose to the rank of Major General, commanding the Maryland troops during the General Strike of 1894.

4. In 1899 he revised his book. He still did not publish the book.

5. He died in 1903. He left the manuscript and all his papers to his nephew, John Kyd Beckenbaugh.

6. About 35 years passed before Beckenbaugh attempted to have the book published. When the publishers, The University of North Carolina Press, first read the book they 'felt it was too good to be true - yet it had too much the ring of authenticity to be a hoax." They secured the original documents and had them checked by "a competent historian" Any doubt as to the authenticity of the book was removed. The book was finally published in 1940, 100 years after the birth of the author and 40 years after it had been revised by him.(1)

(1) The story of 'I rode with Stonewall', is taken mainly trom a chapter at the end of the book entitled 'The author and his book' by Fletcher M Green written in 1940.

Ulysses S Grant, Personal Memoirs

7. Grant ended the Civil War as lieutenant general, the highest rank in the Union Army, and commanding officer of all Union armies. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on 9 April 1865. Grant was elected president of the United States in 1868 and 1872.

8. After he retired as president in 1877, Grant and his wife, Julia, went on a world tour. On his return to the United States Grant returned to New York. In 1884 he lost all his life savings in a fraudulent scheme on Wall Street. He was left with $180 in the bank and $150 000 in debts. (In those days the president of the United States did not get a pension).

9. Grant thereupon set out to earn a living by writing four articles for a magazine, the Century, for $500 an article. While writing the articles he was diagnosed in October 1884 with throat cancer. The urgent need to earn money to payoff his debts and to provide for his future widow compelled Grant to negotiate with the Century magazine to publish his memoirs. His friend, Mark Twain, persuaded Grant to allow him to publish Grant's memoirs. Mark Twain's experiences with publishers had been so bad that he had established his own publishing company, the first book of which would be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was 'one of the few good business decisions Grant ever made'. (2) A year after the first volume of Personal Memoirs was published Mark Twain presented Julia with a cheque for $250 000,00 "the largest royalty check ever written." (3) (2) Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Personal Memoirs by James M McPherson, p xi.
(3) Jean Edward Smith, Grant, p627.

10. Grant had to race to finish the book. In April 1885 he suffered a hemorrhage. He recovered sufficiently to write with a pencil - he could no longer dictate to a secretary because his throat was too constricted. His memoirs were completed a few days before his death on 23 July 1885.

11. James M McPherson has this to say about Grant's Personal Memoirs:
"And the memoirs are about triumph and success - triumph in war, and success in writing the book in a race against death. They are military memoirs, which devote only a few pages to Grant's early life and to the years of peace between the Mexican War and the Civil War. Nor do they cover his career after the Civil War. But perhaps this is as it should be. Grant's great contribution to American history was as a Civil War general. In that capacity he did more to shape the future of the United States than anyone else except Abraham Lincoln. He earned a secure place as one of the great captains of history, an "unheroic" hero, in John Keegan's apt description. Both in their substance and in the circumstances of their writing, the Personal Memoirs offer answers to that perennial question of Civil War historiography: Why did the North win? Grant completed the last chapter only days before cancer claimed his life. It was his final and greatest victory."(4) (4) Introduction, p xxv.

Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman

12. In 1915 twenty-nine year old Douglas Southall Freeman was signed up to write a 75 ODD-word biography of Robert E Lee by Charles Scribner's Sons. The biography was expected to take two years to write.

13. Freeman received a PhD from John Hopkins University at the age of twenty-two. He chose a career in journalism. In 1915 he became editor of the News Leader, a post he held for 34 years. He awoke each day at 02h30, worked at the newspaper during the day, gave two radio broadcasts every weekday and one on Sundays. He was a member of several boards. He gave many public lectures a year. He was the head of a family of five. And he worked 15 to 20 hours a week on the biography of Lee.

14. It is not surprising that the biography was not completed in two years: the final two volumes, volumes 3 and 4, were published in 1935, 20 years after Freeman had undertaken the task. The biography had grown from 75 000 words to one million words.

15. Freeman won the Pullitzer Prize, received 23 honorary degrees, and next to Gone with the Wind, the biography was "the publishing event of the decade."(5)

(5) The Foreword by James M McPherson p xiii to the 1961 abridged version.

16. In the Introduction to the 1961 abridged one volume version the delightful story told by Freeman's wife is recounted. After handing over his manuscript to the publishers Freeman moved morosely around the house instead of being hard at work as usual Mrs Freeman commented on his restlessness. 'My dear' he said, 'when one has lived with someone as long as I have with General Lee it is a great loss to be parted from him.'(6)

(6) p xvii

17. In his Foreword to the abridged version, James M McPherson asked how Freeman's scholarship stood up to scrutiny after the lapse of 60 years. He answered as follows:
"Freeman's Lee was an unblemished Virginia gentleman who fought brilliantly for a good cause that he might have won had it not been for General James Longstreet's sullen lack of co-operation at Gettysburg. The Lee portrayed by some recent scholarship fought for the dubious causes of disunion and slavery; his aggressive strategy and tactics bled his army dry from the highest casualty rates of any commander on either side in the Civil War; by focusing Confederate resources on the Virginia theater, Lee's narrow strategic vision neglected the western theaters where the Confederacy ultimately lost the war; the Confederates suffered defeat at Gettysburg not because of Longstreet's failures but because of Lee's poor tactics and the Union army's stout fighting .... Lee will remain a titan of American history, a great military leader, an icon to many in the South. Douglas Southall Freeman did more to make him so than any other historian. This abridgement is the place to start for anyone who wants to understand the Confederacy's premier figure; it is still the best onevolume biography of Lee."


A lecture given to the Johannesburg branch of the SAMHS on 14 February 2013

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