Civil War Thoughts

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader has been thinking & reading about the American Civil War a lot recently. He supposes that some of this comes from the whole outcry over the Confederate Battle Flag. Of course, he’s already blogged about that subject. Although he should note that he’s been thinking about the comments to that post a bit. He’ll come around and mention some of those thoughts in a moment, but he’ll also add here that he’d love to get together with his friend Robbo and discuss how some of our historickal gloss might differ. (Over adult beverages of course.)

All that said… Here are some random Civil War thoughts in no particular order.

Your Maximum Leader would like to take a moment to address some posts by our friend Bill. He was kind enough to comment on the flag post (below) and asked that we take a moment to read over his recent posts on the Civil War. (They are here and here.) Your Maximum Leader’s comments may seem somewhat short (and perhaps dismissive). They are not meant to be so. It comes down to a few points with which your Maximum Leader must quibble.

The first is the States’ Rights/Slavery point. Bill’s comments read, to your Maximum Leader at least, as an argument laying out thusly: 1) Slavery was the locus of the States’ Rights argument, but the States’ Rights argument is still the primary cause of the war. 2) That war was the result of the ossification of the abolitionist position vis-a-vis the previous attempts at compromise over the expansion of slavery. 3) The war started as a fight over the practical limits of Federal vs. State power and was then transformed into a moral fight over slavery. 4) The Confederacy was conquered because they couldn’t continue the fight, but they still held fast to the ideas that prompted the war. 5) The Union didn’t have a rebuilding plan and that lead to problems.

Your Maximum Leader will start by agreeing that the full causes of the war are many. That being said, all of those causes come down to slavery. Would slavery continue in states where it existed? Would it expand westward? Every single argument about the power of the States versus the Federal Government all come down to slavery. The secession documents of every single state of the Confederacy all specifically state that the reason for secession is slavery. (Here is South Carolina’s. Here is Georgia’s. Here is Mississippi’s. Here is Virginia’s.) The reason for going to the States’ Rights argument was to preserve slavery. Every single state of the Confederacy disseminated as their full and public rationale for secession the issue of slavery. As many other reasons as there were, and as many rationales as were given, the reason for all the intellectual energy and rationalization was slavery. Because the heart of the matter is slavery, the primary cause of the Civil War is primarily a moral one.

(NB: For what it is worth, your Maximum Leader is saddened by the fact (and it is a fact) that the well that is the “States’ Rights” argument is a poisoned well. He really does wish that we could use the State vs. Federal power argument more in America in the 21st Century. But sadly whenever you try to pull out “State’s Rights” one has to remember that the only two times in American history that States’ Rights have been used to justify policy were to preserve slavery and to deny equal rights to Americans. He wishes that it were otherwise, but it is not. Thus, your Maximum Leader has to argue that we need to do more to empower the 10th Amendment. But most smart people can see through that camouflage.)

Your Maximum Leader agrees with Bill that the Abolitionist position in the North had grown harder and eventually got to the point where compromise was not possible. Your Maximum Leader would point out that the ossification got just as hard on the Southern side. For every William Lloyd Garrison there was a James Henry Hammond. We need to recognize that both sides dug in and no one was going to move from their entrenched position.

Bill notes that the failure of compromise is deadly for democracy. Broadly speaking, your Maximum Leader agrees. The problem in this case is can you compromise on what is essentially a moral issue. And issue that comes down to a fundamental breakdown between something being good or evil. If you believe slavery is evil, how can you compromise about it? We deal with this same issue every day in the United States. It is the pro-life/pro-abortion problem. If abortion is evil, you can’t compromise about it can you? (No, you really can’t.) The situation in the United States in 1860 was essentially split into groups that wanted the abolition of slavery, the continuation of slavery, or those that wanted to let things ride as they were (more or less). Abraham Lincoln, though the candidate of the anti-slavery Republicans, was trying to let things ride. Lincoln, as anyone who has read any history book knows, wanted above all to preserve the Union. As Lincoln himself said as late as 1862, if he could preserve the Union and free no slaves he would. If he could preserve the Union and free some slaves he would. If he could preserve the Union and free all the slaves he would. Preservation of the Union was the heart of the matter for Lincoln. Events would, however, run on their own. The question became what type of a Union would be preserved. By the time 1862 came to a close it was clear to everyone in the North that the Union was to be preserved through the abolition of slavery throughout the land. The broad point your Maximum Leader is making here is simply that once the two sides became ossified there wasn’t an alternative to war. Once war began, it was going to become a moral crusade.

(NB: Your Maximum Leader read, years back, a book or essay (perhaps by Victor Davis Hanson?) about how modern wars waged fully by democracies become moral crusades. The cost of war in blood and treasure is so great that people/voters can’t accept a result that returns everything to the status quo ante. That might have worked for conscripted armies fighting for a king; but when voters decide to go to war they want change as a result. Once it became evident that the Civil War was going to be bloody (possibly after 1st Bull Run/Manassas, but definitely after Shiloh) the people in the North were not going to accept the South back with slavery. If Northern boys were going to die in the numbers they were dying, there was going to be change.)

Bill’s essays make mention that the Confederacy was conquered but they didn’t surrender their ideology. Bill also states that the Union didn’t have a plan for rebuilding the South. There is a lot to those two points. Yes, the South was conquered. That was the only way to preserve the Union. Through conquest. But, your Maximum Leader would say that there was a plan for rebuilding the South. In fact there were lots of different plans for rebuilding the South. Lincoln had one. Congressional Republicans had another. Congressional Democrats had another. Your Maximum Leader will not go into too great a detail here, but he will recommend “Reconstruction” by Eric Foner. All the different plans for reconstructing the South failed as a result of political forces in America in the 1870s. Those forces ended Reconstruction and allowed the South to try to revert back to the status quo ante to the extent that they were able. So, broadly speaking, Bill is right in that the conquered people didn’t surrender the ideas that that they had fought over, and that ideology came back to cause many modern problems. Your Maximum Leader will not, at least at this time, comment on where Bill takes his argument after the Civil War…

Anyhoo…

Your Maximum Leader has finished the first volume of Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative.” He last read Foote’s work in high school. So it has been at least 25 years (probably more like 30 years) since he last read over this great work. In those years, your Maximum Leader has changed a bit. Broadly speaking many of his thoughts on the war, the causes and courses of the war are unchanged. But many are open for some reinterpretation and expansion. Among the items that your Maximum Leader is finding out about himself and the Civil War are these: 1) he appears to have forgotten most of what he ever knew about campaigns west of the Appalachian Mountains; 2) many of the “characters” of the war are pretty interesting with varying shades of nuance to them - but there are many very colorful ones, 3) his view that the war was lengthened by the ability of Southern generals and the incompetence of Northern ones has been modified to one where Southern generals were able and audacious and Northern generals while generally able were awfully cautious and feared audacity, and finally 4) both sides could have used some serious improvement to intelligence gathering.

Your Maximum Leader should also say that the major change in his thought about the Civil War has been about how many people are so drawn to the war. Until a few weeks ago, your Maximum Leader would have said that he didn’t really understand why some people (particularly some Southern people) are so involved in the Civil War. It is like their whole lives (or at least a significant part of their free time) is spent thinking about, reenacting, and otherwise rehashing the Civil War. But now, he sort of gets it. He thinks he understands why so many people are so personally invested in the Civil War.

Your Maximum Leader has always thought, and frankly continues to think, that the Civil War was inevitable and its actual outcome was just as inevitable. No matter how you want to argue it, the North had more men, more factories, more farms, more everything. In fact they had so much more that it is embarrassing to actually contemplate. (Your Maximum Leader pondered every time he’s read, in Foote, that a Confederate army captured a Union supply stockpile and got so many thousands of uniforms, thousands of rifles, hundreds of field guns, millions of rounds of ammunition, millions of pounds of rations, thousands of wagons and hundreds of horses. He’s pondered that these captures were windfalls for the Confederates who desperately needed them. He’s also pondered how their loss was nothing more than a momentary blip for the Union.) When you look at the indicators that directly correlate to victory in a war (economic, industrial, agricultural, and population indicators) there is no way that the South could have prevailed and remained an independent nation. There is always lots of talk about foreign intervention, but when you stop to read British and French sources one realizes that foreign intervention wasn’t a real possibility. All that being said, the Civil War is fascinating.

Yup. The Civil War is fascinating. Your Maximum Leader is getting it. Specifically, what he is getting is that there are so many compelling narratives through the Civil War it is possible to get engrossed in them. It is easily to become emotionally invested in the political figures, the generals and the soldiers. It helps that everyone in the war is American and that we can still see our present selves projected back onto our ancestors. Your Maximum Leader knows someone who will not eat pepper in their food. He just recently read that Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson believed that peppering his food made his leg ache. Your Maximum Leader sees the caution (the overabundance of caution in fact) of George McClellan in many people he knows. There is something eminently relateable about the Civil War. At least something relateable about the Civil War as written by Shelby Foote & Bruce Catton.

Anyway… Your Maximum Leader is getting it.

Off for vacation next week. Your Maximum Leader may bring his computer and blog some. Then again, he might just read. He’s taking his Kindle, Vol 2 of Shelby Foote’s “Civil War” and a novel his mum gifted him for his birthday (Wolf Hall) to the beach with him. That should be sufficient.

Carry on.

2 Comments »
Bill said:

I have been rereading an excellent book, “The Death of Slavery” by Elbert B. Smith, which is long out of print. I will have to agree with my Maximum Leader’s view that slavery was the issue, and that war was inevitable given the political climate of the time. I failed to see the first time I read it, that the South made slavery an issue even where it was totally impractical. I find it interesting that his take on the generals is that both sides had competent generals but the North suffered from a lack of boldness. I would agree, though I had never approached it from that view before. Catton’s book, “The Glory Road” which covers Fredricksburg to Gettysburg, constantly was showing a lack of boldness cost the North many possible victories, some which could have greatly shortened the war.

I realize my projections of the foundations laid during the Civil War are highly speculative, but I stand by them. I am currently thinking along the lines of the inherent conflict between effective nationhood, especially in the modern world, and the federation form of government.

Enjoy your vacation!



Thank you Bill for your kind comments. I will finish Shelby Foote’s “Civil War” and then I might put aside Civil War reading for a little while and do something different. I will note down the Smith and Catton books for future reading.

As you mention, and as I mentioned in the post, my thinking about Union Generalship is what is really changing so much in my reading about the war now. The story of the war is replete with examples of Union Generals not following up and gaining great victories and possibly ending the war sooner. Of course, these are what if scenarios and completely speculative, but they’re out there. The most striking one, fairly early in the war, is Antietam. I didn’t realize that McClellan kept a full 25% of the Army of the Potomac in reserve and never (NEVER) committed them to the fight. Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson were amazed that there was no counterattack after the first (and only) day of battle. Lee was badly outnumbered, had spent his reserves, was backed up to the Potomac with no room for escape under pressure and short on ammo. If McClellan had attacked on September 18 it is quite possible that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would have been eliminated as a fighting force and McClellan could have marched to Richmond with impunity.

But, what ifs are just that and history reads differently.

As an aside related to your final comment point, without going into a philosophical discussion… If you had to guess at a model of effective nationhood in the early 21st Century, I think you’d have to look at China. Stable political system that regularly changes leaders but the oligarchical nature of the party gives the governors of the nation the ability to plan for the long term in a way that (generally) benefits the national interest. They manage their economy pretty well. They are mildly responsive to the citizenry - at least in as much as they keep everything running in a way that pleases the most people so that they don’t have to worry about widespread unrest. There is a lot to say is working well there…

That said… I’m still not a fan… But as objectively as possible I would say that they have a lot of things figured out in an effective way.



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