Debating the causes of the Civil War

The last post in our consideration of Michael Woods’ article, “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians), takes us to a conclusion of sorts about Civil War scholarship in this century. (Read it quickly; very soon it will be displaced by election result analysis!)

It seems the story of almost every historical field in the past few decades is one of adding complexity to the existing analysis. For the topic of causes of the Civil War, this means complicating our understanding of northern and southern attitudes toward slavery, and rehabilitating the idea that slavery was, indeed, the cause of the war. Slavery was behind the tariff debates, the westward expansion debates, the states’ rights debates, and the debates over industrializing the economy, immigration, monetary policy, and just about everything else one can think of.

This does not mean that abolition, the morality of slavery, or the rights of black people were always discussed in these debates. Slavery was not always discussed in its own context—that is, in the context of an argument about whether it was morally right or morally wrong to enslave human beings.  Slavery was often discussed as an economic, social, or political concept; a system that influenced other systems. Its human face, the actual condition of enslaved people, would not take center stage on a regular basis until the 1850s, and even on the eve of the war over slavery the situation of slaves was not as popular a topic for many Americans as the situations of white people living with black enslavement.

But that minority of Americans who focused on the  moral wrong of slavery grew to become the majority population during the war, and even after the failure/sabotaging of Reconstruction, it was never acceptable to question whether slavery had been right or wrong; the stance that slavery was a moral good, once a safe stance to take in public, became the last resort of racists who hid behind white sheets and terror societies.

Looking into recent scholarship on the Civil War is rewarding, as it shows that new understandings can come into view even for the most exhaustively studied topics.

Slavery: tough on white Americans

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on Michael Woods’ article  “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the latest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians). Here we look at ways today’s historians are approaching the convoluted politics of race and slavery in the U.S. before the Civil War, and the insights into the many reasons why white antislaveryites opposed slavery—many of which were about protecting their own interests.

How was slavery a threat to white Americans, as they saw it? Here are the bullets:

  • Slavery as a threat to white jobs: Remember our distinction between abolitionists, who believed slavery was a moral wrong, and antislaveryites, whose problem with slavery was that it took jobs from white Americans and threatened our democratic political system. Antislaveryites did not want slave labor spreading through the country, taking jobs away from the white laboring classes and giving a fractional minority of white slaveholders far more power than they were due in Washington. This takes us to point 2—
  • Slavery as a threat to republicanism: If a handful of plutocrat southern slaveholders controlled most of the U.S. economy through the labor of their enslaved people, they would become “too big to fail” in Congress, and their demands would dictate U.S. policy. This was a threat to republican liberty that was not fantasy, as the south, though the smaller section, lost very few battles in Washington, and often had the federal government bending over backward to placate it. So slavery was a threat to the poor white worker and the white nation as a whole. Sectional conflicts like Bleeding Kansas can be read as “a struggle to secure the political liberties of whites” —the whites who voted to make Kansas a free state, who were threatened literally and figuratively by proslaveryites who killed settlers and overrode the antislavery constitution of the territory to present their proslavery constitution to the proslavery president James Buchanan, who accepted it. [Woods 432]
  • Slavery as a threat to white liberty: the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest and latest move of the slave power to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. If the Fugitive Slave Law was all about black slaves, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as much as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.
  • Slavery as a perverting force on white nature: northerners who read about the inhuman abuses slaveholders inflicted on black Americans, and read proslavery politicians’ own forceful defenses of violence against the enslaved, and read about or saw for themselves the aristocratic lifestyle of major slaveholders, were disgusted at what slaveholding seemed to do to white nature. Slaveholders were not tough, hardworking, honest men, as whites were supposed to be, but lazy and corrupted by power, living lives of ease that made them effeminate and shallow. Slavery had led to the development of a chivalric code that emphasized violence in defense of one’s honor, but no exertions of body or spirit in any other direction. And, as we’ve seen, slaveholding had led wealthy slaveholders to pervert American democracy itself to protect and extend their twisted way of life. Antislavery emotion in the north often called on its followers to counter this perversion of whiteness, and the free soil, free labor ideology (of free, honest, hardworking, muscular farmers) was a direct counterpart to the depraved planter.
  • Slavery as a wedge into the white race: this is directly related to the point above. Rich white slaveholders had long prevented poor southern whites from rising up against their oligarchy by focusing on race instead of class. Don’t focus on how unequal you are to us in every respect, they told poor whites; focus on how superior we all are to blacks. Even the poorest, least educated white man is better than a black man. Focusing the poor white majority on racial solidarity rather than class inequality preserved the unequal social and political system in the south and shored up slavery. Since the vast majority of white southerners did not hold slaves, and had nothing in common with slaveholders, how was it that they were willing to fight a war for slavery? This question has been asked by Confederate apologists for over a century, and had a featured role in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. The answer, that poor white southerners wouldn’t have fought to defend slavery, is used to “prove” the point that the war was not fought over slavery and that southerners were fighting for states’ rights. But the real answer is that poor whites fought the war for many reasons, but one was because rich whites asked them to, and fought alongside them, in a living illustration of the bond of race. Poor southerners, like any human beings, were not about to allow “foreigners” from the north invade their homes and farms without raising a finger to stop them simply because those poor southerners didn’t hold slaves. Poor southerners fought to protect their lands and families. But during and especially after the war, rich southerners put a gloss on that that made the war about whites joining together to fight for white superiority. The horrid backlash against southern blacks after the war sprang in large part from poor whites’ fury at having their racial superiority taken from them, and to prevent blacks from achieving true equality with them. So the white racial “bonding” over slavery was seen by northern whites as another perversion of white identity brought on by slaveholders.

We see from this survey one of the main points of recent scholarship: bringing slavery back to its central role in provoking the Civil War. In the latter part of the 20th century, slavery was de-emphasized as a cause of war, in part because studies focusing on northern racism came to the fore at that time, and the logic ran that if everyone was racist then slavery couldn’t have started the war. This point of view had been popular with southerners since 1865, as they went about the business of recasting the war as a noble fight for states’ rights that had nothing to do with slavery. It caught on with a new generation of non-white scholars who felt white historians gave the north too much credit in saying it fought the war over slavery. This was a necessary correction to the super-noble representation of northern feeling popular in the north since 1863. But as research continues, we begin to see a more complete and complex picture of the truth: slavery was the only issue leading to war, but not just because of its immorality—as Woods points out, “Some forty years ago, Larry Gara urged historians to make a ‘crucial distinction’ between self-interested opposition to slaveholder power and moral opposition to slavery as an oppressive institution.” [Woods 431] But whether you were against slavery because it was cruel or because you felt it robbed you of a job, slavery was your issue going into the war, and, as Woods points out, few people were so black-and-white about the issue. People felt a range of sometimes contradictory emotions about slavery, and those feeling grew and changed during the war. Recognizing human complexity in any field is crucial to truly understanding it.

Next time: still fighting over slavery

Northern Sectionalism before the Civil War

In part 4 of our look at trends in 21st-century Civil War scholarship, we look at the new attention being paid to northern sectionalism. This post, like the others in this series, are informed by Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.”

We tend to learn that in the years before the Civil War, the south became increasingly divided from the rest of the nation, and that southern sectionalism was basically defined by proslavery politics and devotion to a chivalric social ideal and an agrarian economy. This is presented in contrast to the north, which was simply the United States as it had always been, unchanged before the war, unchanging during the war, and triumphantly reimposed on the south after the war. “The North” and “the Union” are used interchangeably by most texts.

But recent scholarship has focused on the north’s own sectionalism—its departure from traditional United States ideas and practices, which was prompted in large part by and was a reaction to southern sectionalism. As the south defined itself as a region, so the north began to define itself as a region, one that was morally and economically superior to the south [Woods 427]

Here are some facets of northern sectionalism:

Free labor, free soil sentiment: As the south pressed a proslavery agenda, the north began to develop a free labor agenda. Neither agenda was original to the founding of the U.S. or its politics and economy until the rise of sectionalism. The U.S. was founded on a mix of free and slave labor. But the north responded to southern proslavery by developing a cult around free labor—the image of the independent, strong, self-sufficient yeoman laborer, be he farmer or industrial worker, who supports his family by the honest labor of his body. Free labor, the north opined, was wholesome and manly, and invigorated the entire nation. This went beyond opposing slavery; many people who opposed slavery did not buy into this romanticized vision of labor, realizing that factory workers had little control over their wages, worked in unsafe conditions for far too many hours, and were actually made up of women and children as well as men. They also knew that farming did not always repay honest labor, being at the mercy of the weather, and, later, railroad shipping costs. But the romance of free labor was a defining feature of northern sectionalism, opposed as it was to slave labor, of course, but also to lazy, weak, effeminate slaveholders who profited from the labor of others.

Manufacturing: The U.S. was not founded on manufacturing. Like all nations at that time, its economy was predominately agricultural. But in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the north identified itself as a manufacturing economy—a modern, exciting, powerful economy of the future that provided a living for unskilled workers and uneducated immigrants and grew the wealth of society as a whole. Again, the reality of dangerous working conditions, exploitive hours, women and child laborers, and no rights for workers was overlooked by those pushing manufacturing as modern and uniquely northern. Southerners who argued that factory workers were basically slaves were ignored.

Disunionism: Like the south, the north had populations calling for civil war. Radical abolitionists declared that the United States was founded on the sin of slavery and could not be salvaged. It would have to be destroyed, and a new nation started from scratch. Like radical proslaveryites in the south, these northerners believed it was their region alone that could do this important work.

Recasting patriotism in its own image: Southern proslaveryites used U.S. founding documents, the Revolution, and hero-Founders like Jefferson to support their proslavery position, using all three to find quotes that supported their position. Thus proslavery southerners could claim to be the real Americans, fighting malevolent attempts to pervert the Constitution by ending slavery. This we learn early and often. But the north followed the same path, using the same three sources to prove that they were the real Americans. Antislavery northerners crafted a position that balancing slave with free states, and not extending slavery into the west, was the dream and purpose of the founders. Abolitionist northerners said that the War was meant to end slavery forever. Free labor northerners claimed that the south was perverting the principles of the nation by tying the economy to old-fashioned, agriculatural labor and halting the Manifest-Destiny possessing of the west. Whichever group you belonged to, you as a citizen of the northern section were the real American.

Woods sums this up well: “Together, recent studies of northern sectionalism and southern nationalism make a compelling case for why the Civil War broke out when it did. If the South was always a separatist minority, and if the North always defended the American way, secession might well have come long before 1861. It is more helpful to view the sectional conflict as one between equally authentic (not morally equivalent) strands of American nationalism grappling for the power to govern the entire country according to sectionally specific values.” [430]

Next time: slavery hurt white people the most   ?

The Peculiar Institution of Disunion

Wlecome to part 3 of our perusal of Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the latest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” Here we’re looking at how the depiction of disunion changed in the 1850s.

In earlier decades, going right back to 1787, any mention of disunion—of breaking up the United States through the secession of any of its member states—provoked real dismay and even horror. It was the threat of last resort, and anyone talking about breaking up the Union was reproached vehemently for even invoking the spectre of civil war. All sides of the slavery debate, from antislaveryites to aboilitionists to prosleveryites, lambasted any opponent who threatened disunion or accused that side of provoking it. Now, proslaveryites in the south often threatened disunion all the same, saying that northern states or the federal government were trying to kill slavery and thus invalidate the Consitution, and that they would rather leave the Union than remain in an adulterated, ruined version of the nation. Disunion here was still threatened as the ultimate evil, and those claiming they might be forced to leave the Union wasted no adjectives in describing the bloodshed and miscegenation that would follow if disunion were forced on the nation. So even as some southerners threatened disunion, they still painted it as an evil they would never willingly embrace, and predicted dire, dire consequences for all Americans if it ever came to pass.

But by 1850, the language began to change, and proslavery radicals began to shift southern public perception of secession and disunion. To set the stage, remember that Southerners immediately after the Revolution, when attacked for their hypocrisy in enslaving people after they had fought for a free republic, had made the case that of course slavery was evil but there was no way to get rid of it right away—it was a regrettable evil that had to be endured until it died away. But in the early decades of the 1800s, slaveholders began to shift that argument, gradually introducing the idea that slavery was not actually evil in nature, because it provided food and shelter and loving care to inferior peoples who could not function in educated society. It also kept those inferior peoples from making trouble in society. Slavery, over a few decades, changed from an unavoidable evil to a positive good. Slavery, from this new angle, was a terrific benefit to the enslaved that also encouraged slaveholders to be kind and loving protectors of the enslaved.

The same odious logic was now turned on disunion. Over the 1850s, secession was transformed by radicals from the worst nightmare that could befall the nation to a positive good. Disunion would preserve the slavery enabling Constitution. Disunion would create a new,  slaveholding American nation that lived up to the principles of the Founders completely. Disunion would leave the antislavery, abolitionist north a weak, isolated half-nation dangling over the abyss of worldwide scorn and shame—and economic collapse. Disunion would protect white southern homes, families, women, children, and race purity. Disunion, eventually, became one’s civic duty as a southerner/real American. Destroying the Union meant destroying the ties that bound the south to scheming, unAmerican northerners.

By the presidential election of 1860, much of the Deep South’s political leadership was ready for secession should necessity (Lincoln’s election) call for it, and the Upper South would be fairly easily persuadable by spring 1861. While most southern citizens did not want civil war, they too would be convinced that there was no alternative for the patriotic southerner.

Northerners up to the last moment before the war rolled their eyes in disgust at southern “bluffing” on secession. They still believed the south would never try to leave the Union, and used the old reproaches against disunion talk as the ultimate evil right up to First Bull Run. But they were no longer reaching their audience. This disconnect was the result, in part, of northern sectionalism, a phenomenon not often fully appreciated by Americans today, and the focus of our next post.

Next time: the North was a section, too

The coming of the Civil War: how disunion evolved over the decades

Welcome to part 2 of our perusal of Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” Here we look at Elizabeth Varon’s book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 and her persusasive argument that cries of disunion evolved in interesting ways between 1789 and 1860.

Disunion, just to be clear, refers to states leaving the United States and, therefore, breaking up the Union. Disunion was a cry heard constantly in the decades in question in the U.S., and was synonymous with civil war.

We should also describe the sides that participated in disunion language. We tend to think there were people for slavery and people who wanted slavery to be abolished, but there were more sides than that. There were proslavery Americans who wanted slavery to remain protected by the Constitution; these split into some who thought slavery should not extend into the west (because this provoked antislavery protests) and those who thought it should. Then there were antislavery Americans who did not support abolishing slavery—slavery could still exist in the U.S.—they just wanted to keep it hemmed in in the southern states where it already existed and keep it out of the west. Antislavery people differed from proslavery Americans in that they did not claim that slavery was a terrific benefit for the enslaved and a mandate from God, as proslavery Americans did. Antislavery Americans would have liked to see slavery disappear but did not want the newly freed black Americans to stay in the country, and since there seemed to be no way to get rid of them all, were content to live with the status quo (which meant stopping the westward expansion of slavery).

Abolitionists wanted to get rid of slavery. They divided into immediatists, who wanted slavery ended immediately, by any means necessary, no matter what, and gradualists who wanted to wait until a good plan to deal with newly freed people could be agreed upon by all. Gradualists would have been happy with a state-by-state progress of states deciding to abolish slavery in their own good time. Immediatists would not accept this, and embraced charges that they would bring about a race war or, even worse in the eyes of proslavery supporters, interracial marriage by immediately freeing black Americans.

In her book Varon describes how each group described disunion over time as, variously,

—a prophecy: proslavery Americans predicted that antislaveryites and abolitionists were bringing about disunion with their attacks on slavery, while antislaveryites foresaw a future where proslaveryites had caused disunion. Prophecy disunion prevailed mostly in the early part of our 1789-1860 time period, when real civil war seemed very unlikely, and was referred to as part of a distant, dystopian future that could never come to pass.

—a threat: proslaveryites were constantly threatening to secede from the Union in response to perceived “attacks” on slavery. If the Constitution was going to be trampled, they said, then there was no valid Union to support. Antislavery Americans swung between fear at these threats and bored eye-rolling at the states who cried secession once too often. On the other hand, immediatist abolitionists in the 1830s began to make their own threats of disunion, saying that any Union that protected slavery was no Union and should be immediately destroyed and a new nation brought forth in true freedom. Angry accusations that they would bring about civil war were happily accepted by these immediatists. Threat disunion came on the scene in the 1820s with the Nullification Crisis and picked up steam after the Mexican Cession in 1848, which brought huge western lands under U.S. control and made the question of spreading slavery into the west the hottest issue of the day. Immediatists threatened disunion if slavery did go west, proslaveryites threatened it if slavery did not go west.

—an accusation: Each of the three sides accused the others of bringing about disunion with their radical talk or stubborn ways. Sometimes the accusation was that one side was unknowingly provoking disunion, sometimes that a side was deliberately and premeditatedly weakening the nation. Accusation, like threat language, picked up after the Mexican Cession as Americans battled fiercely to make the new western states slave or free, and John C. Calhoun’s “Southern Address” is a good example of this language.

—a process: Americans recognized that slavery was an issue carving out factions in the nation, and making the divide of regional sectionism more and more impassable. Whether they supported slavery or wanted it limited or abolished, all Americans saw that the process of debating slavery was creating a deadly us v. them mentality that could only lead to civil war. The process of arguing about slavery had made disunion nearly inevitable, and this was the feeling from the Cession on. Republican Senator William Seward’s “irrespressible conflict” speech is a classic example of process disunion language.

—a program: This was for those Americans, of all sides, who saw the wheels of disunion already in motion because of the evil actions of the other sides. Those who began to favor disunion (the immediatists and proslaveryites) promoted disunion processes as necessary and ultimately for the greater good of the new nation that would be formed once the old Union was torn apart. Program talk was also more common after the Cession and especially in the 1850s.

Next we’ll look at the ways the proslavery stance and its language changed over these decades.

Next time: from unavoidable evil to positive good

Disunion: the battle over slavery before the Civil War

There’s a great article by Michael Woods in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” It is, as it says, a review of current scholarship on disunion and why it happened—why the southern states seceded in 1860-1. We’ll parse what’s in here over a few posts, because this is a topic of evergreen interest to all Americans. All of the quotes in this short series are from Woods’ article (it’s only available online if you’re a member of the OAH so we can’t link you to it).

As Woods says, most scholars agree that slavery caused secession and war, but, as Elizabeth Varon says, “there is still much to be said about why slavery proved so divisive and why sectional compromise ultimately proved elusive.” (Varon’s own book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 is a valuable read that proves definitively that from ratification of the Constitution to the eve of war there was never a time that slavery was not a difficult, divisive, fiery issue that required constant mediation and provoked constant threats and accusations of disunion.) 

The first trend in scholarship since 2000 has been to extend the period under discussion—“antebellum” can now begin in 1789, 1776, or with the arrival of the first slave ship in Virginia in 1619—and to relate the U.S. experience with slavery and war to those of its neighbors: emancipation in the British West Indies, most particularly Haiti’s revolution (1791-1804) impacted the terms of the slavery debate in the U.S. We usually learn that division over slavery did not really begin in the U.S. until the 1850s, after the Mexican War gave us all that new territory in the west to create as free or slave states, but by the 1850s the nation was already well-seasoned in sectional debate, threats of disunion, an attempt at secession by South Carolina, and a major compromise over slavery (the Missouri Compromise of 1820). As Matthew Mason points out, “there was never a time between the Revolution and the Civil War in which slavery went unchallenged.” The Compromise of 1820 was bitterly fought because, as John Craig Hammond points out, “[of the slavery dispute’s] contentious prehistory, not from its novelty.”

Taking this long view of the slavery debate helps us to see that debate as its contemporaries did; Americans who argued antislavy, abolition, or proslavery knew that they were taking up well-established lines of argument and they knew well what had been said and done before them. Both sides, North and South, blamed each other for causing the war with their activism for or against slavery since the Revolution, since the first Congress, since ratification of the Constitution. And they were right.

In our next post we’ll examine the ways the term “disunion” was used over this long time period—the four-score and six years between the Revolution and the outbreak of the war—by the many different sides involved in the slavery debate.

Next time: disunion as prophecy, threat, accusation, and process

Sherman’s letter to Atlanta—the reaction

Welcome to the last post on our series on General William Sherman’s September 1864 letter to the town leaders of Atlanta. We’ve seen that Sherman told the town leaders he would not cancel his evacuation order, which he issued because he planned to enter the city and burn all public buildings and war manufacturing businesses. The fire required to do this would obviously also destroy some homes and damage others, and so Sherman gave the city time to evacuate. The mayor and other officials wrote Sherman asking him to rescind this order because it would harm innocent women and children who would have to leave their homes and have nowhere to go with winter coming on. Sherman replied that he would not rescind the order, and that reply has become infamous to later generations.

That’s because it has been paraphrased as a “war is hell” statement—Sherman saying that because war is about destruction he has no compunctions about destroying civilians. We’ve seen that what he really said was that war is about destroying the enemy’s capacity to make war. The faster he can do this, the faster the war will end and everyone can go back to living in safety and peace. His other point is that the South has not hesitated to make war on civilians in the neutral states, and Atlanta was critical in the attacks on neutral civilians, and so Atlanta cannot now take a pious stance about protecting civilians. War is about suffering on all sides, civilian and soldier, and so the war must end, and so Atlanta must burn. Once this is done, and the march to the sea complete, the war will end and Sherman can go back to what he wants—supporting and helping and protecting the southern states that have returned once more to the Union.

Few people bother to read famous documents, and so few people actually read the text of Sherman’s letter, and so most people believe it expresses a callous or gleeful attachment to war. They think it is Sherman saying, Screw you, rebels—I’m coming for your women and children and you can all burn! The fact that the town leaders refused to evacuate when given the chance meant that there were civilians in Atlanta when it was burned, and there was loss of life. Some vindictive Union soldiers without personal integrity or honor were allowed to set fire to private homes with women and children in them both before and during the official destruction. But the fact that all loss of civilian life could have been prevented was conveniently overlooked by later southern historians, who simply focused on the carnage and helped create the image of Sherman as a south-hating demon whose memory must be reviled in perpetuity.

In fact, a story I have shared before is that I knew an elderly woman who went on a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi River in the late 1970s and she played the big pipe organ on the boat and got a commemorative certificate for her efforts. On the certificate was written: “This certificate allows the bearer to play the organ on any riverboat so long as she shall live—but shall be revoked forever if the bearer is ever heard to play ‘Marching through Georgia.'” “Marching through Georgia” was a song written after the war to commemorate Sherman’s “march to the sea”. So hatred of Sherman was a precious souvenir handed down through the generations in the south, right down to the present-day.

The ironies are many: Sherman offered a chance to evacuate civilians which no southern general ever offered civilians in the neutral states; he burned the buildings he targeted and moved on; he was a loyal supporter of the south before and after the war; and, last, he loathed the song “Marching through Georgia” and skipped many parades of Union soldiers on war anniversaries because the soldiers’ bands would always play it when they marched past him.

We’ll close this series with one bit of truth to counter another myth: Sherman did say “war is hell”—just about. On April 11, 1880, long after the war, he made a speech in Ohio in which he said, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” He can’t have been the first person to utter those words, but his statement is memorable because it is a view he truly held, and expressed in his letter to Atlanta.

Sherman’s letter to Atlanta: what did he say?

In part 3 of our short series on Union General Sherman’s (in)famous September 1864  letter to the city fathers of Atlanta, we take a good look at what Sherman actually said in reply to the Atlantans’ request that he call off the evacuation and occupation of the city. Sherman had ordered the city evacuated before his soldiers came in and burned all public buildings, eliminating the city’s ability to make war. The town leaders wrote back saying that evacuating without a place to go would basically be a death sentence to the citizens of the town, especially the women and children, and that there was no reason to harm innocent civilians.

Now we look at Sherman’s reply, of which only two sentences are usually quoted as summing up his position. Here is the full text of his September 12, 1864 reply to Atlanta:

“GENTLEMEN: I have your letter of the 11th, in the nature of a petition to revoke my orders removing all the inhabitants from Atlanta. I have read it carefully, and give full credit to your statements of the distress that will be occasioned, any yet shall not revoke my orders, because they were not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace, not only in Atlanta, but in all America. To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop war, we must defeat the rebel armies which are now arrayed against the laws and Constitution that all must respect and obey. To defeat those armies, we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose. Now I know the vindictive nature of our enemy, that we may have many years of military operations from this quarter; and, therefore, deem it wise and prudent to prepare in time.

The use of Atlanta for warlike purposes is inconsistent with its character as a home for families. There will be no manufactures, commerce, or agriculture here, for the maintenance of families, and sooner or later want will compel the inhabitants to go. Why not go now, when all the arrangements are completed for the transfer, instead of waiting till the plunging shot of contending armies will renew the scenes of the past month? Of course, I do not apprehend any such thing at this moment, but you do not suppose this army will be here until the war is over. I cannot discuss this subject with you fairly, because I cannot impart to you what we propose to do, but I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away, and I can only renew my offer of services to make their exodus in any direction as easy and comfortable as possible.”

—I have broken this long paragraph in two. In the first, Sherman says he is not concerned with the well-being of Atlantans, but with ending the war, which impairs the well-being of millions of Americans north and south (he is not concerned with “the humanities of the case [of Atlanta alone], but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest”). Achieving peace by ending the south’s ability to make war is the best way to ensure that no more civilians anywhere have to suffer. To win that peace, the southern army must be defeated, and that can only be done by destroying the civilian war effort and war industry that provides those soldiers with food, guns, transport, etc. (“we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose”).

In the second paragraph, Sherman answers the town’s statement that it is civilian, not connected to the war, and innocent of any action that would justify its occupation and destruction, and the evacuation of its citizens. Sherman counters that the business of Atlanta is war—that all of its ” manufactures, commerce, [and] agriculture” are part of the war effort. Shells and ammunition are manufactured in the city by city residents. Goods are sold to the army by civilian retailers. Civilian farmers grow crops to feed southern soldiers. If the city was concerned about protecting its citizens from war, Sherman is saying, it should have made them remain civilians rather than devoting the city to war production. When you fuel the war, you are a combatant. You are making it possible for the war to go on. You know this, Sherman says, so why not take this opportunity to evacuate safely, rather than waiting until soldiers enter the town and there will be unavoidable deaths? You know I’m not going to wait out the rest of the war outside Atlanta; the army is going to move. Get out now before it does.

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. This feeling assumes various shapes, but always comes back to that of Union. Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war, I and this army become at once your protectors and supporters, shielding you from danger, let it come from what quarter it may. I know that a few individuals cannot resist a torrent of error and passion, such as swept the South into rebellion, but you can point out, so that we may know those who desire a government, and those who insist on war and its desolation.”

—The first two sentences are often quoted. Let’s look at the entirety of this passage, in which Sherman makes a few points. First he answers the town’s pleas that civilians will suffer from evacuation. Yes, says Sherman; that’s what war does—it brings destruction and death and there’s no bright side. That’s why he is risking his own life every day to end the war. Second, he reiterates that peace will only come with southern surrender—the U.S. cannot have a peace that allows the Confederacy to remain. Peace means ending the illegal (because unconstitutional) secession of the southern states and restoring the union. The moment any southerner accepts this, and stops making war or contributing to the war effort, s/he becomes an American again and Sherman will support their full rights and defend their safety. But surrender must come first.

“You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

We don’t want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your hands, or any thing that you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and, if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.”

—There is no way to fight a kind and considerate war where no one gets hurt. The only way to live in safety and peace is to not make war. Sherman knows that southerners are naturally resistant to an enemy that comes into their land to take their land and property; but that’s not why he is there. He doesn’t want to possess southern wealth, he wants to destroy it, because it enables the south to make war. Don’t let everyone suffer this destruction just because you are too proud to admit you were wrong to start the war in the first place. (“admit that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride”). Lay down your arms and save yourselves.

“You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better. I repeat then that, by the original compact of Government, the United States had certain rights in Georgia, which have never been relinquished and never will be; that the South began war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or title of provocation.”

—Your own papers have told you the opposite, but secession was illegal, and so the U.S. never gave up its rights to federal buildings in the south. You seized those buildings before the war even began, without provocation (and yet now you resist and complain that we might come into Atlanta and do the same after years of the provocation of war).

“I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds of thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands upon thousands of families of rebel soldiers left in our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes home to you, you feel very different. You depreciate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds of thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance.”

—Here Sherman answers Atlanta’s argument that it is inhumane to make war on civilians. He points out that the south was quite happy to make war on civilians in the neutral states; innocent women and children were forced out of their homes, and Atlanta was not concerned that those women and children had nowhere to go and nothing to eat. You, Atlantan manufacturers and farmers and merchants, sent ammo and supplies into neutral civilian areas to make sure that those peoples’ homes were destroyed (and you didn’t offer them the chance to peacefully evacuate first). The people of the neutral states were actually innocent, because their states were neutral and they were not contributing to the war effort. Justice is a two-way street, Sherman is saying, and you can’t demand it if you don’t respect it yourselves.

“But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.

But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then I will share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.”

—What’s done is done. Sherman is not here to debate with the town. Ending the war demands that Atlanta be rendered unable to contribute to the war effort, and so it will be occupied and destroyed. When peace comes, there will be no lingering retribution—Atlantans will return to their city, rebuild their lives, and enjoy the full protections of Sherman himself, who will support them with the same single-minded determination with which he must now fight them.

“Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes at Atlanta. Yours in haste,

W.T. Sherman, Major-General commanding.”

—The evacuation order is not rescinded, and it’s your responsibility to care for the people as best you can, not Sherman’s. His responsibility is ending the war that is necessitating so much death and violence and grief on all sides.

So we see here that Sherman’s position is not quite that of “war is hell so anything I do is justified”, nor is it a kind of sick glee in the excesses of war, nor a vindictive desire to hurt the southerners in his path. It is rather an extraordinarily practical and objective position: war inevitably causes destruction and death and the only way to end the destruction and death is to end the war. The war can only be ended when the people are unable to make war, and so you must do whatever it takes to stop those who are contributing to the war effort. The more thoroughly you destroy the people’s ability to make war, the shorter the war is, and the fewer casualties you’ll experience overall. If you want to end a war, wage it thoroughly so you will be successful and your enemy will surrender as quickly as possible.

Sherman was a pro-southern man. He admired its society, and he supported slavery of black Americans. On the eve of the war, in 1859, he took a position teaching at a military academy that is now Lousiana State University, and he was very happy there. But he was an American first. When the south broke the law, and disregarded the Constitution by seceding, Sherman left Louisiana and volunteered for the Union army. It seems hard to process, but it was in part Sherman’s love of the south that led him to destroy it—only by ending its capacity to wage war could Sherman win the peace that would enable him to support and help the south once more.

We’ll wrap up next time with later and contemporary assessments of Sherman’s letter to Atlanta.

Next time: Atlanta wins

The City of Atlanta’s Letter to General Sherman

In part 2 of our short series on the (in)famous letter of General William Sherman to the city of Atlanta in September 1864, we look at the letter he first received from the city fathers on September 11. It’s odd that Sherman’s reply to this letter can be so famous while the letter from the city languishes in obscurity.

You’ll recall that Atlanta had officially surrendered to Sherman’s army on September 2nd, after Confederate General Hood had ended his defense of the city and withdrawn his army. Sherman set up camp in nearby Jonesboro, and about a week later let the city know that he planned to burn all public buildings, machine shops, depots, and arsenals in Atlanta, so that it could no longer support the Confederate war effort. Sherman ordered the city to evacuate all citizens.

Atlanta was very important to the Confederacy; it was the largest railroad hub in the South and one of the largest manufacturing centers. It was crucial to moving soldiers to and from battle, and to war production. Destroying its capacity to make war was Sherman’s first priority.

The city fathers responded to the order to evacuate on September 11, stating:

“SIR: We the undersigned, Mayor and two of the Council for the city of Atlanta, for the time being the only legal organ of the people of the said city, to express their wants and wishes, ask leave most earnestly but respectfully to petition you to reconsider the order requiring them to leave Atlanta.

At first view, it struck us that the measure would involve extraordinary hardship and loss, but since we have seen the practical execution of it so far as it has progressed, and the individual condition of the people, and heard their statements as to the inconveniences, loss, and suffering attending it, we are satisfied that the amount of it will involve in the aggregate consequences appalling and heart-rending.”

—In the second paragraph they are saying that they anticipated how hard this would be on the citizens of Atlanta but they went ahead and began the evacuation (“the practical execution of it so far as it has progressed”). But as the evacuees came forward to complain of their hardships and suffering, the city fathers stopped the process because the terrible consequences would only multiply (“aggregate consequences”) as evacuation proceeded, and it would be too appalling too continue.

“Many poor women are in advanced state of pregnancy, others now having young children, and whose husbands for the greater part are either in the army, prisoners, or dead. Some say: ‘I have such a one sick at my house; who will wait on them when I am gone?’ Others say: ‘What are we to do? We have no house to go to, and no means to buy, build, or rent any; no parents, relatives, or friends, to to to.’ Another says: ‘I will try and take this or that article of property, but such and such things I must leave behind, though I need them much.’ We reply to them: ‘General Sherman will carry your property to Rough and Ready, and General Hood will take it thence on.’ And they will reply that: ‘But I want to leave the railroad at such a place, and cannot get conveyance from there on.'”

—It is mostly women and children who are still in Atlanta, in various states of weakness and illness. They have nowhere to evacuate to, and don’t want to leave behind all their possessions, which would leave them as even poorer refugees. If they could at least take some valuables they’d have something to sell to get food and lodging. Promises that their things will be taken to a depot at Rough and Ready, west of Atlanta, are empty because people headed to other places will have no way to get there to pick up their things.

“We only refer to a few facts, to try to illustrate in part how this measure will operate in practice. As you advanced, the people north of this fell back; and before your arrival here, a large portion of the people had retired south, so that the country south of this is already crowded, and without houses enough to accommodate the people, and we are informed that many are now staying in churches and other out-buildings.

This being so, how is it possible for the people still here (mostly women and children) to find any shelter? And how can they live through the winter in the woods—no shelter or subsistence, in the midst of strangers who know them not, and without the power to assist them much, if they were willing to do so?”

—Sherman’s advance over the previous summer has already pushed thousands of refugees south of Atlanta, so there is no room for the entire city to now evacuate as well. Shelter has run out, and thus the evacuation order would be forcing women and children to live in the woods, with winter approaching, and no one able to help them find better shelter or food.

“This is but a feeble picture of the consequences of this measure. You know the woe, the horrors, and the suffering, cannot be described by words; imagination can only conceive of it, and we ask you to take these things into consideration.

We know your mind and time are constantly occupied with the duties of your command, which almost deters us from asking your attention to this matter, but thought it might be that you had not considered this subject in all of its awful consequences, and that on more reflection you, we hope, would not make this people an exception to all mankind, for we know that no such instance ever having occurred—surely never in the United States—and what has this helpless people done, that they should be driven from their homes, to wander strangers and outcasts, and exiles, and to subsist on charity?”

—Here they appeal to Sherman as a soldier and an American. As a soldier, he knows the brutality of war. Perhaps he has not stopped to consider, in his rush to move his army, how brutal the evacuation would be. As an American, he is implored not to execute the first mass evacuation of civilians in U.S. history. What have innocent civilians done, that they should be punished for this war? Let soldiers fight soldiers, and leave the innocent alone.

“We do not know as yet the number of people still here; of those who are here, we are satisfied a respectable number, if allowed to remain at home, could subsist for several months without assistance, and a respectable number for a much longer time, and who might not need assistance at any time.

In conclusion, we most earnestly and solemnly petition you to reconsider this order, or modify it, and suffer this unfortunate people to remain at home, and enjoy what little means they have.”

Respectfully submitted:
James M. Calhoun, Mayor
E.E. Rawson, Councilman.
S.C. Wells, Councilman.

—Most of the population, if allowed to stay at home, could provide for themselves and not be a burden on anyone.

One feels the city fathers are concluding by saying that if he lets Atlanta alone, Sherman could travel east to the sea without worrying about Atlanta rising up. They will be barely surviving, and in no shape to launch any attacks. The city is neutralized—why kill it as well?

The appeal to protect innocent civilians is the strongest, and is the backbone of this letter. In the next post, we’ll see how Sherman answered it.

Next time: Sherman’s reply

Sherman’s Letter to Atlanta: Setting the Scene

Welcome to part 1 of a small series on the letter General William T. Sherman sent to the city leaders of Atlanta, Georgia, in September 1864 before his army advanced on the city. Part of this letter has become famous as both a hard-bitten, honest description of war and an example of Sherman’s intransigence, his unwillingness to back away from inflicting the horrors of war that he so deplored. In general, the letter has the reputation of being unfeeling toward the citizens of Atlanta and blaming Sherman’s own war crimes on his situation.

In this series we will look at exactly what Sherman said in his letter, but first we’ll examine the letter he was responding to on September 12, 1864—the letter from the mayor and city council of Atlanta that Sherman had received the day before, September 11. And we’ll begin here by setting the scene for this famous exchange.

The Battle for Atlanta took place in July 1864, when Sherman’s forces defeated Confederate forces led by General John Hood. Hood had been retreating toward Atlanta from Tennessee just as General Joseph Johnston had done before him, and these months of steady retreat toward Atlanta had the city in a state of extreme anxiety. Hood’s army suffered heavy casualties in the July battles and fell back into the outskirts of Atlanta itself. Sherman besieged the city, firing shells into it while he sent detachments of his army to cut the supply lines between Atlanta and Macon. Confederate units repulsed these attempts, and so Sherman sent his entire army west to Jonesborough, where it finally cut off the line from Macon. Now without hope of new supplies of food, ammunition, or reinforcements, Hood withdrew his army from Atlanta on September 1st. He destroyed existing supply depots and set fire to loaded ammunition cars, leaving the city completely unable to defend or provide for itself.

Atlanta Mayor James Calhoun met with a Union office and surrendered the city to Sherman on September 2nd, asking for “protection to non-combatants and private property”. Sherman accepted these terms and  telegraphed Washington the next day to let the president know that “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won”, and set up his headquarters in Jonesborough. Two weeks later, he ordered the burning of all public buildings, machine shops, depots, and arsenals in Atlanta, and sent word to the city to evacuate all citizens. The burning of the city was the first of many during the “march to the sea” that was meant to destroy the south’s ability to make war by destroying its military industry and its civilian infrastructure.

Thus the stage is set for the two letters between Atlanta and Sherman. In the next post we’ll look at the first—the letter the mayor and city council of Atlanta sent to Sherman.

Next time: Atlanta’s argument against evacuation