THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

Written by Vladimir Moss

THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

 

     The American Civil War was not unexpected. As early as 1787 Alexander Hamilton “had made a prediction: The newly created federal government would either ‘triumph altogether over the state governments and reduce them to an entire subordination,’ he surmised, or ‘in the course of a few years… the contests about the boundaries of power between the particular governments and the general government… will produce a dissolution of the Union.’”[1]

 

     “Each side,” writes J.M. Roberts, “accused the other of revolutionary designs and behaviour. It is very difficult not to agree with both of them. The heart of the Northern position, as Lincoln saw, was that democracy should prevail, a claim assuredly of potentially limitless revolutionary implication. In the end, what the North achieved was indeed a social revolution in the South. On the other side, what the South was asserting in 1861 (and three more states joined the Confederacy after the first shots were fired) was that it had the same right to organize its life as had, say, revolutionary Poles or Italians in Europe.”[2]

 

     In 1924 the Scottish writer John Buchan wrote that for the South “the vital thing, the thing with which all its affections and sentiments were intertwined, was the State. The North, on the other hand, had for its main conception the larger civic organism, the Nation.”[3] And yet what was “the Nation”? The 1848 revolution in Europe had shown how difficult it was to define a nation, and how people of the same nation theoretically speaking (that is, according to theories of language or blood) nevertheless preferred to remain citizens of States ruled by other nations rather than go to war for the sake of reuniting the “nation” in a single, ethnically homogeneous state. Clearly, there was much uniting North and South in terms of language, culture, religion and race. In his famous Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln emphasized that the United States was single nation, using the word “nation” five times.[4] But if one group of people feels itself to constitute a different nation from another group, this psychological fact alone creates an important difference that cannot be ignored. Thus insofar as the Southerners felt themselves to be a different nation, they were – up to a point - a different nation. And so, if the revolution of 1776 had been justified in the name of the liberty of the new nation called America, although it had previously been one nation with Britain, then that of the Southerners in 1861 was no less justified – not least because, as they argued, the Constitution of the United States permitted the secession of individual States.[5]

 

     For states can create new nations, just as nations – states. As Norman Davies writes, in the nineteenth century nationalism “came in two opposing variants. One of them, state or civil nationalism, was sponsored by the ruling establishments of existing states. The other, popular or ethnic nationalism, was driven by the demands of communities living within those states and against the policy of those governments…. There are as many theories on the essence of nations as there are theorists. But the essential qualities would seem to be spiritual in nature. ‘The nation is a soul,’ wrote Renan, ‘a spiritual principle. [It] consists of two things. One is the common legacy of rich memories from the past. The other is the present consensus, the will to live together…’”[6]

 

     The other main justification for the war from the North’s point of view was the existence of slavery in the South. “Most Northerners,” writes Reynolds, “were not passionate to abolish slavery itself, but there was widespread opposition to slavery’s extension into the western lands because that would undercut free labour and increase the South’s influence in Washington.”[7] Not even Abraham Lincoln was an abolitionist at first. In his inaugural address in March, 1861 he declared: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” And again he said: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” However, the proclamation of emancipation on New Year’s Day 1863 – designed mainly to attract blacks into the Northern Armies - changed the nature of the war, in Yankee eyes, from one of unification (of North and South) into one of liberation (of the black slaves)…

 

     “Today,” writes John Keegan, “Lincoln would be unable to deliver the speeches on which he won the nomination in 1860. Lincoln, as he expressly made clear, did not believe in the personal equality of black and white. He held the black man to be the white’s inferior and irredeemably so. He also, however, held the black man to be the white’s legal equal, with an equality recognised by the founding laws of the United States, a recognition requiring legal empowerment. Blacks must have the same access to the law as whites, and exercise the same political rights.

 

     “Most Southerners held an exactly contrary view and believed that unless the inequality of blacks was legally enforced, their own way of life would be overthrown. Some Southern ideologues argued fervently that slavery was a guarantee of freedom, not only the freedom of the whites to live as they did and to organise the Southern states as they were organised but the freedom of the blacks also, since slavery protected the blacks from the economic harshness suffered by the labouring poor in the Northern factory system. Books were written to argue and demonstrate the case, and Southern polemicists advocated unashamedly with their Northern opponents. There is no doubt that it was believed also, since the spectacle of happy blacks living under paternal care on well-run plantations did seem to support the idea of slavery as a sort of welfare system…”[8]

 

     As an example of this kind of argumentation, we may take the words of Senator James Hammond of South Carolina, who said that the “difference between us is that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated, there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why you meet more beggars in one day, on any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South.”[9]

 

     Hammond chose to ignore certain real abuses in the South – for example, the very liberal use of the whip by slave-owners, their sexual abuse of black slave women, and the fact that they had the power to break up slave families by selling the breadwinner alone and keeping his family (this was the theme of the famous novel of the time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Nevertheless, he had a point, and other observers favourably compared the situation of black slaves in America to that of English workers of the time. Thus Robert Owen noted: “Bad and unwise as American slavery is and must continue to be, the white slavery in the manufactories of England was at this unrestricted period far worse than the house slaves which I afterwards saw in the West Indies and in the United States, and in many respects, especially as regards health, food and clothing, the latter were much better provided for than were those oppressed and degraded children and work-people in the home manufactories of Great Britain.”[10]

 

     Indeed, asks Eric Hobsbawm, was the South a slave society at all, “given that Negroes were always in a minority even in the Deep South, and considering that the majority of slaves worked not on the classical large plantation but in small numbers on white farms or as domestics? It can hardly be denied that slavery was the central institution of Southern society, or that it was the major cause of friction and rupture between the Northern and Southern states. The real question is why it should have led to secession and civil war, rather than to some sort of formula of coexistence. After all, though no doubt most people in the North detested slavery, militant abolitionism alone was never strong enough to determine the Union’s policy. And Northern capitalism, whatever the private views of businessmen, might well have found it as possible and convenient to come to terms with and exploit a slave South as international business has with the ‘apartheid’ of South Africa.

 

     “Of course slave societies, including that of the South, were doomed. None of them survived the period from 1848 to 1890 – not even Cuba and Brazil… They were already isolated both physically, by the abolition of the African slave-trade, which was pretty effective by the 1850s, and, as it were, morally, by the overwhelming consensus of bourgeois liberalism which regarded them as contrary to history’s march, morally undesirable and economically inefficient. It is difficult to envisage the survival of the South as a slave society into the twentieth century, any more than the survival of serfdom in Eastern Europe, even if (like some schools of historians) we consider both economically viable as systems of production. But what brought the South the point of crisis in the 1850s was a more specific problem: the difficulty of coexisting with a dynamic northern capitalism and a flood of migration into the West.

 

     “In purely economic terms, the North was not much worried about the South, an agrarian region hardly involved in industrialisation. Time, population, resources and production were on its side. The main stumbling-blocks were political. The South, a virtual semi-colony of the British to whom it supplied the bulk of their raw cotton, found free trade advantageous, whereas the Northern industry had long been firmly and militantly committed to protective tariffs, which it was unable to impose sufficiently for its desires because of the political leverage of the Southern states (who represented, it must be recalled, almost half the total number of states in 1850). Northern industry was certainly more worried about a nation half-free trading and half-protectionist than about one half-slave and half-free. What was equally to the point, the South did its best to offset the advantages of the North by cutting it off from its hinterland, attempting to establish a trading and communications area facing south and based on the Mississippi river system rather than facing east to the Atlantic, and so far as possible pre-empting the expansion to the West. This was natural enough since its poor whites had long explored and opened the West.

 

     “But the very economic superiority of the North meant that the South had to insist with increasing stubbornness on its political force – to stake its claims in the most formal terms (e.g. by insisting on the official acceptance of slavery in new western territories), to stress the autonomy of states (‘states’ rights’) against the national government, to exercise its veto over national policies, to discourage northern economic developments, etc. In effect it had to be an obstacle to the North while pursuing its expansionist policy in the West. Its only assets were political. For (given that it could not or would not beat the North at its own game of capitalist development) the currents of history ran dead against it. Every improvement in transport strengthened the links of the West with the Atlantic. Basically the railroad system ran from east to west with hardly any long lines from north to south. Moreover, the men who peopled the West, whether they came from North or South, were not slave-owners but poor, white and free, attracted by free soil or gold or adventure. The formal extension of slavery to new territories and states was therefore crucial to the South, and the increasingly embittered conflicts of the two sides during the 1850s turned mainly on this question. At the same time slavery was irrelevant to the West, and indeed western expansion might actually weaken the slave system. It provided no such reinforcement as that which Southern leaders hoped for when envisaging the annexation of Cuba and the creation of a Southern-Caribbean plantation empire. In brief, the North was in a position to unify the continent and the South was not. Aggressive in posture, its real recourse was to abandon the struggle and secede from the Union, and this is what it did when the election of Abraham Lincoln from Illinois in 1860 demonstrated that it had lost the ‘Middle West’.

 

     “For four years civil war raged. In terms of casualties and destruction it was by far the greatest war in which any ‘developed’ country was involved in our period, though relatively it pales beside the more or less contemporary Paraguayan War in South America, and absolutely beside the Taiping Wars in China. The Northern states, though notably inferior in military performance, eventually won because of their vast preponderance of manpower, productive capacity and technology. After all, they contained over 70 per cent of the total population of the United States, over 80 per cent of the men of military age, and over 90 per cent of its industrial production. Their triumph was also that of American capitalism and of the modern United States. But, though slavery was abolished, it was not the triumph of the Negro, slave or free. After a few years of ‘Reconstruction’ (i.e. forced democratisation) the South reverted to the control of conservative white Southerners, i.e. racists. Northern occupying troops were finally withdrawn in 1877. In one sense it achieved its object: the Northern Republicans (who retained the presidency for most of the time from 1860 to 1932) could not break into the solidly Democratic South, which therefore retained substantial autonomy. The South, in turn, through its block vote, could exercise some national influence, since its support was essential for the success of the other great party, the Democrats. In fact, it remained agrarian, poor, backward and resentful; the whites resented the never-forgotten defeat, the blacks the disfranchisement and ruthless subordination re-imposed by the whites.”[11]

 

     The Northerners’ zeal to destroy the patriarchal, agrarian, slave-owning society of the South alienated lawmakers in both North and South. Thus “the lawmakers of Illinois – the president’s home state – called the Proclamation [of Emancipation in 1863] ‘a gigantic usurpation at once converting the war professedly commenced by the Administration for the vindication of the authority of the Constitution into the crusade for the sudden, unconditional and violent liberation of 3 million negro slaves, a result which would not only be a total subversion of the Federal Union but a revolution in the social organization of the Southern States… the present and far-reaching consequences of which to both races cannot be contemplated without the most dismal foreboding of horror and dismay.’”[12]

 

     Again, the famous southern general Robert E. Lee was no savage slave-owner. But faced with the choice between the North’s violent destruction of the South and defending the South from that violence, he felt he had to recommend the latter course to the Confederate Congress. “Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in the country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.” But, he went on, in the present crisis, “I think… we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the rise of the effects that may be produced on our social institutions. My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay,” and the “best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measures with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation…”[13]

 

     Another striking example is provided by General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the South’s best general and, in the opinion of Lord Roberts, commander-in-chief of the British armies early in the twentieth century, “one of the greatest natural military geniuses the world ever saw”. As James I. Robertson Jr. writes, he was a profoundly religious man, who deeply loved his two wives. “He owned two slaves, both of whom had asked him to purchase them after the deaths of their masters. Anna Morrison [his second wife] brought three slaves to the marriage. Jackson viewed human bondage with typical simplicity. God had established slavery for reasons man could not and should not challenge. A good Christian had the twin responsibilities of treating slaves with paternal affection and of introducing them to the promises of God as found in Holy Scriptures. To that end, Jackson taught a Sunday afternoon Bible class for all slaves and freedmen in Lexington.

 

     “Jackson and the VMI [Virginia Military Institute] corps of cadets served as gallows guard in December 1859, when the abolitionist John Brown was executed for treason and murder having seized the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry. As war clouds thickened in the months thereafter, Jackson remained calm. The dissolution of the Union, he told a minister, ‘can come only by God’s permission, and will only be permitted if for His people’s good.’

 

     “Civil war exploded in mid-April 1861, and Jackson promptly offered his sword to his native state. Virginia’s close ties with the South, and its opposition to the federal government using troops to coerce a state, were the leading issues behind Virginia’s secession. The state regarded as unacceptable the idea of federal troops marching through Virginia to wage war on other states. The nation was still so young that the rights of states remains strongly ingrained in political thinking. Jackson had been a strong believer in the union until Virginia left it. When this happened Jackson felt the same as thousands of his neighbours: Virginia, the Old Dominion, had been in existence for 180 years before a ‘United States’ was established. The roots of families like the Lees and Jacksons ran deep within Virginia’s soil. In 1861 an American’s birthright and heritage was his state, not a federation which, during the last fifteen of its seventy-four years, had been in turmoil over the slavery question…”[14]

 

     The cost of the civil war was horrific: 600,000 died on both sides, more than all the Americans who died in the two world wars of the twentieth century (520,000). Many thousands refused to join the Northern armies and draconian measures were applied to fill the draft. Brutalities were committed on both sides, but more on the side of the “liberators”.

 

     The slaves were “freed” to enjoy unemployment, continued poverty and the continued oppression of the whites. “The slaves were freed,” writes Reynolds, “but they did not become equal citizens. The twelve-year Northern occupation of the South from 1865 to 1877, known as Reconstruction, was too short and not radical enough to reconstruct Southern ways; in fact, the South defiantly romanticized the pre-war order as part of its separate identity. From the perspective of civil rights, Reconstruction was therefore a tragic missed opportunity – not rectified until the so-called Second Reconstruction of the 1960s, which depended on an assertion of federal power inconceivable to the still essentially states’ rights mentality of the 1860s. In any case, most Northerners of the late nineteenth century were just as Negrophobe as their Southern counterparts; they had little inclination to force on the South racial policies they rejected for themselves. So, instead of slave and free, the great divide in American society became the one between white and black…

 

     “Freedom is heady stuff but it does not fill stomachs. Frederick Douglass, the Northern Black leader, noted that many a freed slave, after a lifetime of dependence, lacked the means or training to set up on his own. Now ‘he must make his own way in the world, or as the slang phrase has it, “Root, pig, or die”; yet he had none of the conditions of self-preservation or self-protection. He was free from the individual master but the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation’ – but was turned loosed ‘naked, hungry and destitute to the open sky’. And there were 4 million freed slaves across the South in 1865…”[15]

 

     Of course, by comparison with most States, the United States remained a land with a large measure of religious and political freedom. But as a result of the war the power of the State over the individual was vastly increased for all, in both North and South. States can liberate their subjects, as Tsar Alexander II did – much more successfully and humanely, and on an even vaster scale - in contemporary Russia when he freed the serfs. But as often as not liberation by the State leads to greater subjection to the State. And this was perhaps the main lesson of the American Civil War for future generations: that the attempt to force freedom as often as not leads to still great slavery…

 

     As regards a Christian attitude to the war and the institution of slavery, while the Gospel does not endorse slavery, neither does it endorse violent wars to destroy the institution. Archbishop Averky of Jordanville writes: “The epistle [of the holy Apostle Paul] to Philemon vividly witnesses to the fact that the Church of Christ, in liberating man from sin, does not at the same time produce a forcible rupture in the established inter-relationships of people, and does not encroach on the civil and state order, waiting patiently for an improvement in the social order, under the influence of Christian ideas. Not only from this epistle, but also from others…, it is evident that the Church, while unable, of course, to sympathize with slavery, at the same time did not abolish it, and even told slaves to obey their masters. Therefore here the conversion of Onesimus to Christianity, which made him free from sin and a son of the Kingdom of God, did not, however, liberate him, as a slave, from the authority of his master. Onesimus had to return to [his master] Philemon, in spite of the fact that the Apostle loved him as a son, and needed his services, since he was in prison in Rome. The Apostle’s respect for civil rights tells also in the fact that he could order Philemon to forgive Onesimus [for fleeing from him], but, recognizing Philemon’s right as master, begs him to forgive his guilty and penitent slave. The words of the Apostle: ‘Without your agreement I want to do nothing’ clearly indicate that Christianity really leads mankind to personal perfection and the improvement of the social legal order on the basis of fraternity, equality and freedom, but not by way of violent actions and revolutions, but by the way of peaceful persuasion and moral influence.”[16]

 

     On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Although Lincoln, as we have seen, was not a fanatical abolitionist, and was motivated above all by a desire to preserve the Union intact, it is difficult not to see in his death retribution for the evil deed of the civil war, the successful attempt to overthrow the patriarchal society of the South and replace its slavery by the slavery of being at the bottom of the wage-labour industrial system.

 

     On the day following the assassination, April 15, Nicholas Motivolov wrote to Tsar Alexander II informing him that he had received the following revelation from St. Seraphim of Sarov on April 1 about the death of Abraham Lincoln:

 

     The Lord and the Mother of God not only do not like the terrible oppression, destruction and unrighteous humiliation that is being wrought everywhere with us in Russia by the Decembrists and raging abolitionists : the goodness of God is also thoroughly displeased by the offences caused by Lincoln and the North Americans to the slave-owners of the Southern States, and so Batiushka Father Seraphim has ordered that the image of the Mother of God the Joy of all who Sorrow should be sent to the President of the Southern – that is, precisely the slave-owning States. And he has ordered that the inscription be attached to it : TO THE COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF LINCOLN… [17]

 

Vladimir Moss.

January 1/14, 2012.

 

 



[1] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers, New York: Vintage Books, 2002, p. 77.

[2] Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon, 1992, p. 620.

[3] Buchan, in Susan-Mary Grant, “For God and Country: Why Men Joined Up for the US Civil War”, History Today, vol. 50 (7), July, 2000, p. 21.

[4] David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty, London: Penguin, 2010, p. 205.

[5] See James Ostrowski, “An Analysis of President Lincoln’s Legal Arguments against Secession”. Paper delivered at the first-ever academic conference on secession-- "Secession, State, and Economy", sponsored by the Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, held at the College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina, April 7-9, 1995.

[6] Davies, Europe: A History, London: Pimlico, 1997,  pp. 812, 813.

[7] Reynolds, op. cit., p. 155.

[8] Keegan, The American Civil War, London: Hutchinson, 2009, pp. 31-32.

[9] Reynolds, op. cit., p. 175.

[10] Owen, in A.N. Wilson, The Victorians, London: Hutchinson, 2002, p. 89.

[11] Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital (1848-1875), London: Abacus, 1975, pp. 170-173.

[12] Reynolds, op. cit., p. 199.

[13] Reynolds, op. cit., p. 211.

[14] Robertson, “The Christian Soldier: General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson”, History Today, vol. 53 (2), February, 2003, pp. 31-32.

[15] Reynolds, op. cit., pp. 218, 219-220.     “In a sense,” writes J.M. Roberts, “there had been no colour problem while slavery existed. Servile status was the barrier separating the overwhelming majority of blacks (there had always been a few free among them) from whites, and it was upheld by legal sanction. Emancipation swept away the framework of legal inferiority and replaced this with a framework, or myth, of democratic equality when very few Americans were ready to give this social reality. Millions of blacks in the South were suddenly free. They were also for the most part uneducated, largely untrained except for field labour, and virtually without leadership of their own race. For a little while in the Southern states they leant for support on the occupying armies of the Union; when this prop was removed blacks disappeared from legislatures and public offices of the Southern states to which they had briefly aspired. In some areas they disappeared from the polling-booths, too. Legal disabilities were replaced by a social and physical coercion which was sometimes harsher than the old regime of slavery. The slave at least had the value to his master of being an investment of capital; he was protected like other property and was usually ensured a minimum of security and maintenance. Competition in a free labour market at a moment when the economy of large areas of the South was in ruins, with impoverished whites struggling for subsistence, was disastrous for the black. By the end of the century he had been driven by a poor white population bitterly resentful of defeat and emancipation into social subordination and economic deprivation. From this was to stem emigration to the North in the twentieth century and racial problems in our own day.”( op. cit., pp. 621-622).

[16] Archbishop Averky (Taushev), Rukovodstvo k izucheniu Sviaschennago Pisania Novago Zaveta (Guide to the Study of the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament), Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, vol. II, pp. 354-355 . Italics mine (V. M.).

[17] Sergius and Tamara Fomin, Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Moscow: Rodnik, 1994, vol. I, p. 343.

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