The War That Forged a Nation; Why the Civil War Still Matters by James McPherson. Oxford, 2015.
In Charlottesville, Virginia Robert E. Lee’s statue was recently pulled down and partially destroyed. In Gainesville, Florida a statue of a Confederate soldier was given back to the original donor organization to be displayed at a less public venue. It isn’t much of a task to argue as James McPherson does, that the Civil War still matters. But McPherson’s book was published in 2015. Half the chapters are his reviews of books published over the last several decades and before the campaign against Confederate soldiers and leaders go under way.
As a result of the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848), our Nation had acquired new Southwest territory. Would that lead to the expansion of slavery? Would the expansion of a mining industry in the West lead to an exploitation of slave labor? Northern Abolitionists were determined that this would not happen.
McPherson reminds us that dominance of a southern slave-owning elite in the young Republic would need to be reversed. For two-thirds of the years between our independence in 1789 and the Civil War in 1861, the residing U.S. presidents had been slave owners. Moreover the economy of the Southern economy remained dependent upon one cash crop, cotton. The North, on the other hand, was becoming a diversified economy directed by an industrial elite.
One comforting thought for both sides was that they were fighting a jus ad bellum, a just war. The seven states that had withdrawn from the Union were justified in defending themselves in the face of the continuing Northern disruption of their slave economy. They were fighting a jus ad bellum, a just war. The North believed its effort to end that disunity a defensive war and equally just.
In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in territory held by the U.S. army. McPherson contends, however, that the issue for most of the War and its participants was not about slavery but about succession.
It became obvious that the War would not end in a victory for the North – or South – without resorting to “total warfare.” The resources of the Northern economy was eventually harnessed for a total victory. The South “must feel the hard hand of war.” Hence General William Sherman’s “march to the sea”, looting and burning as he proceeded.
One surprise for this reviewer: you might call the spiritual enthusiasm on both sides, a renewal. Many soldiers and their leaders “got religion” on the battlefield; Jefferson Davis received baptism in May 1862! Religion, at least the belief in a hereafter, was, McPherson argues, a comfort to the wounded and dying. The most accepted number who died on both sides in the War was 750,000. How a soldier’s death was dealt with is wonderfully described by Drew Faust in her This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War. She argues for 6,000,000 if an equivalent proportion of today’s population died in the war.
The American Civil War caused much confusion and hand-wringing on the part Europeans, and particularly the British. Their textile industry was dependent upon cotton from Southern fields. British ship yards were constructing “blockade runners” for the Confederacy. On the other hand, the Brits could not in good conscience embrace a country that embraced slavery. But even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Britain held to a policy of neutrality.
In April 1861 Lincoln’s Administration declared a blockade of all Confederate Ports. That provoked an international incident out of the seizure of a British ship transporting two Confederate envoys to Britain and France. They were removed from the ship as contraband of war. There will always be controversy about how successful the blockade of Southern ports was. It may have kept many small operators from participation.
Contraband was also the term applied to escaping slaves upon their entering Union lines. They were property and hence viewed in the same way that any confiscated property is during wars.
Lincoln observed that these ex-slaves were assisting the Union cause which was increasingly being waged in the name of Slave Emancipation. The Confederacy felt differently about the matter and refused to exchange black POWs for white captives in Federal prisons. There were instances in which these black POWs were executed when captured.
The North had not yet clarified the status of black soldiers now participating in the Civil War. But the growing trouble over the Civil War’s conscription caused Lincoln to think more carefully about black soldiers. Hence the Emancipation Proclamation recognized not only Lincoln’s evolving views about the War’s objectives but also the fact that by 1864 over 109,000 black soldiers had found their way into the battlefield in support of the North.
The Union was unwilling to offer any terms other than unconditional surrender, and so the bitter war continued. It lingers. We have not found a reconciliation of diverging war remembrances.