In the perspective of military history the Civil War is the first modern war. It marked a transition from the older warfare, which involved principally the fighting forces, to the modem which affects in varying degree every group of society and which would demand ultimately a totalisation of national life. The Civil War was a war of material as well as of men. It witnessed the innovation or employment of mass armies, railroads, armoured ships, the telegraph, breech-loading and repeating rifles, various precursors of the machine-gun, railway artillery, signal balloons, trenches, and wire entanglements. It was a war of ideas and therefore of unlimited objectives. One side or the other had to win a complete victory: the North to force the South back into the Union, the South to force the North to recognise its independence. There could be no compromise, no partial triumph for either. In contrast to the leisurely, limited-objective wars of the eighteenth century, the Civil War was rough, ruthless and sometimes cruel.
It was the first great military experience of the American people and their greatest historical experience. The drama, the agony, the valour of the years 1861-5 became a permanent part of the national consciousness. So did a profound realisation of its significance. In American history the Civil War is the great pivotal event, comparable to the revolution of 1789 in France. It settled certain differences, and it settled them permanently. It destroyed slavery, and assured the ascendancy of industrial capitalism. Furthermore, it preserved the Union and stabilised, if it did not indeed create, the modem American nation. Although Americans have continued to argue about some of the problems it left, its great result—the endurance of the Union—has been accepted by all elements in the nation. Since 1865 no party, class, or section has even contemplated the possibility or desirability of dividing the nation.
On the eve of the war it was not certain that the North would win. True, all the great material factors were on its side. The twenty-three states of the North, or the United States, had a greater population and hence a larger manpower reservoir than the eleven states of the South, the Confederate States. The population of the North was approximately 22,000,000; that of the South something over 9,000,000. But in comparing the human potential, several qualifying factors have to be taken into account. The Northern total includes the four slave states that had refused to secede (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri), which furnished thousands of volunteers to the Confederacy, and the Pacific coast states (California, Oregon), which sent no troops to the main theatres of conflict. Both sections contained minority groups opposed to the war: the Peace Democrats in the North and the mountain people in the South. The two groups were perhaps approximately equal in size. Included in the Southern total are some 3,500,000 slaves, leaving a white population of about 6,000,000. Although the slaves were not directly available for military service, it would be a mistake to discount them. Indirectly they provided an important source of strength. Many served as military labourers, acting as teamsters and cooks in the armies and constructing fortifications. The great majority remained at home on the plantations where they performed a vital function in agricultural production. If they had not been present to plant, care for, and harvest the crops, white men would have had to do this work. In short, the slaves freed a large number of whites for military service.
When all the factors in the manpower situation are measured, however, it is evident that the North possessed a definite superiority and was capable of raising larger forces than the South. But this advantage was not decisive. Wars are not won by numbers alone. Furthermore, the North did not attain a clear numerical superiority until the last year and a half of the war. The Confederacy, by resorting early to conscription, mobilised a large proportion of its manpower rapidly. The Confederate armies increased in size until 1863, and then steadily declined. Before 1863 the Union armies were usually larger than those of their opponents, but not vastly larger. At the battle of First Manassas (1861) the two armies were approximately equal in size, 30,000 each. The same was true at Shiloh (1862), where each army numbered 40,000 on the first day. In the fighting in the Seven Days before Richmond (1862) the Federals committed
100.000 troops and the Confederates 85,000. Other battles in which the odds favoured the Federals but not greatly were Stone’s River (1862), 45.000 to 38,000; Gettysburg (1863), 90,000 to 75,000; and Chattanooga (1863), 56,000 to 46,000. At Chickamauga (1863) the Confederates had an advantage of 70,000 to 58,000. There were a few engagements, notably Fredericksburg (1862) and Chancellorsville (1863), in which the odds were greater, approaching two to one, but it was not until the closing months in 1865, when the Confederate armies were depleted by defeat and desertion, that they reached the five-to-one ratio remembered by later generations of Southerners. It was well within the realm of possibility that the Confederacy, during the first two years of the war, might have won its independence by victory on the battlefield.
More important than the manpower differential was the superior potential of the Northern economic system. This became increasingly significant as the conflict settled into a sustained and long struggle. It was apparent in both agricultural and industrial production. At the outset both sides possessed the capacity to produce enough food for their ordinary civilian needs. As the war continued, the North was able to expand its productive capacities to meet the new war demands, while Southern agricultural production declined under the strain of war. The North swelled its production, even though thousands of farm-boys joined the armies, by an increased employment of labour-saving machines like the reaper, thresher, and drill. In the South the food-producing area was steadily reduced by Federal occupation or devastation; and the agricultural labouring force was decreased by the tendency of the slaves to flock to the camps of the invading armies. But even with damaged facilities, the South continued to produce, at least until 1864, sufficient foodstuffs for its minimum needs. Most of the shortages during the last two years of the war were due primarily to inadequacies in the railway system, which could not move supplies where they were needed.
The North’s greater potential was most strikingly apparent in industrial production. On the eve of war the North possessed approximately 110,000 factories, representing a capital investment of $850,000,000, employing 1,131,000 workers, and turning out annually products valued at $1,500,000,000. For the South, the figures were: establishments, 20,000; capital, $95,000,000; workers, 110,000; value of products, $155,000,000. Both sides strove to expand their facilities, but inevitably the North, with its initial pre-eminence and its greater knowledge of industrial techniques, far outstripped the South. In the vital arms industries, for example, the thirty-eight largest gun factories in the North by 1862 could produce 5000 rifles a day; the maximum for Southern plants, which because of labour and supply shortages was not often achieved, was only 300 a day.
Northern industrial supremacy meant that the Northern armies, after the economic system had been geared to war production, would have more of everything than the Southern. In the first year of war both sides purchased large supplies, particularly arms, in Europe. But by 1862 the North was able to provide practically all its material, and dependence on Europe ceased. By contrast, the South, while labouring frantically to expand its facilities, throughout continued to rely on Europe, importing what goods it could run through the Northern naval blockade. Confederate industrial deficiency affected almost every phase of the war effort. Although the ordnance department, headed by the brilliant Josiah Gorgas, accomplished wonders, Confederate firearms were inferior to Northern weapons, and the firepower of a Confederate army was rarely equal to that of its enemy. The Southern economy was unable to provide its military forces with uniforms, shoes, medical supplies—and it was unable to furnish ordinary consumer goods to its civilian population. Its failure hurt the Southern will to fight. After 1863 morale sagged seriously, and one reason was the popular realisation that the South had exhausted its resources, while those of the enemy seemed limitless.
In transport the North possessed a marked advantage. It had more and better inland water transport, more surfaced roads, and more wagons and animals. But its greatest superiority was in its railways. The Civil War was the first war in which railways played an important role. They carried raw materials to factories and finished goods to military distribution centres. They transported recruits to training camps and trained soldiers to army camps. They moved troops long distances from one theatre to another and with unprecedented speed. In 1862 the main Confederate field army in the west was shifted from northern Mississippi via Mobile to Chattanooga, Tennessee, a distance of 800 miles. In 1863 a Federal corps was moved from the eastern to the western theatre in the then unheard-of time of eight days. The North had approximately 20,000 miles of railways; the South, with an equal land-area, had only 10,000 miles. Furthermore, many of the Southern lines, having been built to connect two specific towns, were short; there were long gaps between key points; and the lines had not been built according to a uniform gauge. The few through-lines, like the connections between Richmond and Memphis and between Richmond and the Carolinas, ran close to the land or sea frontier, and hence were vulnerable. Before the war the South had purchased its rolling stock from Northern factories or from Southern plants that during the war were concentrating on armaments. The result was that when stock was destroyed or worn out, it could not be replaced. The railway system steadily deteriorated, and by 1864 it was almost in a state of collapse. Some historians think that the railway breakdown was a major cause of defeat.
The North possessed the great weapon of sea-power. In 1861 the Federal navy was small, numbering only ninety ships of all types and 9000 sailors. Rapid expansion soon made naval power a major factor. By 1864 the navy included some 670 ships and 51,000 men. No average total for the Confederate navy can be given because of the frequent destruction of its vessels; its personnel, however, reached only 4000. Northern sea-power performed two important functions. First, it established a blockade. The mission of sealing off the long Southern coastal line was difficult to execute, and even after the navy attained maximum size, it could not maintain a completely effective blockade. Blockade runners continued to operate throughout the war. Although the effects of the blockade in depriving the South of supplies have been exaggerated, it did, nevertheless, hurt the Confederacy. It hindered the Confederacy from importing bulky goods (the blockade runners were necessarily light ships), it prevented Confederate cruisers from using Southern ports as bases, and it gave the Southern people a feeling of being cut off from the outside world. The second function of sea-power was to aid Federal land forces to subjugate the vast western region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Here the larger rivers were navigable to gunboats and transport ships. Some of the largest operations in the west were joint land and naval movements. Without the employment of sea-power on the western rivers, it is doubtful whether the Federals could have occupied the west.
Some historians, impressed by the North’s material advantages, have concluded that the Southern struggle was doomed from the start. Actually, the odds were not as overwhelming as they appear. As previously indicated, the Confederacy might have won a military decision up to 1863. Not all the advantages were with the North. The South, for the most part, fought on the defensive in its own country and commanded interior lines. The invaders had to maintain long lines of communication and garrison occupied areas. And because this was a civil war, the North had to do more than capture the enemy capital or even defeat enemy armies. It had to conquer a people and convince them that their cause was hopeless. Perhaps the Confederacy’s best chance, after the opportunity for a military decision had passed, was psychological. The South was fighting for one simple objective, its independence; it had no aggressive designs against the North. The North, on the other hand, was fighting an aggressive war to maintain two somewhat abstract principles: the permanence of the Union and, later, the emancipation of the slaves. At any moment the North could have peace and its own independence simply by quitting the war. If the South had been able to convince the North that it could not be beaten, it might, even after 1863, have won its freedom. There would be times, notably in the summer of 1864, when it seemed that the North was discouraged enough to abandon the struggle.
Thoughtful Southerners realised the importance of the North’s superior economic potential. They believed, however, that Southern military leadership and valour would be able to overcome the North’s material advantages. But even if the human factor failed to outweigh economics, there was still an almost certain promise of success—Europe would intervene on the side of the South. The intervention argument, which convinced even the most realistic Southerners, ran as follows: the economic systems of England and France depended on their textile industries, which had to have Southern cotton; England and France, therefore, would force the North to stop the war and concede Southern independence. Diplomacy thus became a major element in Confederate statecraft. The South hoped to receive recognition as a nation, to secure material aid, and to persuade Great Britain and France to break the blockade and force mediation on the North. The United States, believing that it could handle its inner troubles if unhampered by outside interference, strove to prevent recognition and intervention.
In the diplomatic narrative the key nations are England and France. They were the only nations who were capable of interfering in the American struggle, and who felt that their interests might be affected by the outcome. England and France, allied in the Crimean War, continued to act together in many areas, one of their understandings being that questions concerning the United States fell within the sphere of British influence. The French emperor, Napoleon III, would not therefore intervene unless England moved first. The third power of Europe, Russia, like the United States a rising nation, also felt that its aspirations were blocked by England. Because of this supposed community of interests, Russia openly sympathised with the North. In 1863 Russia dispatched two fleets, one to New York and the other to San Francisco. The actual reason for their appearance was a threat of war with England over Poland: Russia wanted to get her navy into position to attack British commerce. But in America it was widely believed that the Russians had come out of friendship for the United States, and a long-lasting legend began that the Russian squadrons had offered support should Britain and France attempt to break the blockade.
When the conflict began, the sympathies of the ruling classes of England and France were for the Confederacy. Although some were motivated by a feeling of cultural kinship with the planter aristocracy of the slave states, they reacted as they did primarily because they disliked the ideal and the reality which the United States represented. European liberals, pressing for a broader popular basis for government, had delighted to hold up the United States as a successful example of democracy in a populous country. It was an argument that conservatives were hard put to answer. John Bright, the great English liberal, eloquently described the nature of American influence: ‘Privilege has beheld an afflicting spectacle for many years past. It has beheld thirty millions of men, happy and prosperous, without king, without the surroundings of a court, without nobles except such as are made by eminence in intellect and virtue.
... Privilege has shuddered at what might happen to old Europe if the great experiment should succeed.’ But the great experiment seemed to be breaking up, and its failure promised to discredit democracy everywhere. Also for many years past the dominant groups in England and France had beheld with uneasiness the growing strength of the American Republic. In an independent Confederacy they saw a check to the young power rising in the west. A divided America would mean that no single powerful nation existed in the western hemisphere. Once started, the process of division might continue. An independent South might be followed by an independent west, and the various American republics would have to seek the support of England or France and would thus fall under European influence. Even anti-slavery liberals in England and France tended to favour the Southern cause. For reasons of domestic politics, the Northern government at first maintained that it was waging war to restore the Union but not to destroy slavery. Many liberals concluded that the South was fighting for the honoured liberal principle of self-determination.
But British and French opinion was never solidly in sympathy with the South. From the beginning some members of the upper classes, particularly in England, spoke out for the North. Liberals like Bright and Richard Cobden foresaw that no matter how the Northern government defined the purposes of the war, it would have to become ultimately a war to destroy slavery. To their working-class followers, they described the American conflict as a struggle between free and slave labour. This seemed plausible to the politically conscious but unenfranchised labourers. Whatever the conservative leaders of the nation might think, the English workers identified the Northern cause with their own. They expressed their sympathy in mass meetings, in resolutions, and, through the speeches of Bright and other liberals, in Parliament itself. When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1 January 1863), they felt that their impression of the war as a struggle for free labour had been confirmed. The proclamation, making emancipation an official objective of Northern war aims, had an enormous influence in turning liberal opinion in Europe against the Confederacy.
At the outbreak of hostilities the British government issued a proclamation of neutrality which recognised the Confederacy as a belligerent. France and other nations followed suit. In the United States the British action was deeply resented. The Northern government contended that it was not fighting a war but repressing an insurrection, and that granting belligerency status to the Confederacy was an unneutral act. Nevertheless, England had proceeded in conformity both with accepted practices of neutrality and with the realities of the situation. No matter how the United States officially defined the conflict, it was actually fighting a war, as Lincoln himself conceded in his proclamation establishing the blockade. The North was convinced, however, that England did not intend to remain neutral and that recognition of belligerency would be followed by recognition of independence.
Yet neither England nor France or any European nation extended diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. Nor did England and France, although on several occasions they discussed mediation, ever seriously consider intervention. Several factors influenced the final outcome of the diplomatic struggle. The personnel of the Northern diplomatic corps was, in general, superior at all levels to that of its rival. Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Secretary of State for the greater part of the war, was clever and able, but he failed to present the Southern cause in terms that would appeal to European governments and opinion. His counterpart in the North, William H. Seward, after some initial sabre-rattling blunders (at first he seemed to think his principal duty was to insult Britain), became an outstanding secretary of state. The North was fortunate in being represented in London by a skilled and distinguished minister, Charles Francis Adams, whose father and grandfather had occupied the Presidency. He easily outshone the Confederate representative, James M. Mason, a genial Virginia country squire of bucolic manner. The Southern diplomats in Europe, reflecting the cultural isolation in which the South had long lived, betrayed an ignorance of European thought; in particular, they underestimated the intensity of the anti-slavery sentiment in most European nations.
Cotton diplomacy failed to exert the decisive influence which the South had envisaged. When the war began, English textile manufacturers possessed a surplus supply of cotton, having imported in 1860 some 2,580,000 bales from the United States. The immediate effect of the shortage created by the war and the blockade was to enable the operators to dispose of their remaining finished goods at high prices. By 1862, when only 70,000 bales were imported, the supply was becoming scanty, and the effects were felt in England and France. Many mills had to close, and in Britain over 500,000 workers were thrown out of employment. The English and French operators managed, however, to bring in enough cotton from Egypt and India to avoid a complete collapse. Perhaps the most significant feature was that the English textile workers, even those without jobs, continued to support the North.
Other economic forces proved stronger than the cotton shortage. A succession of crop failures in England reduced the domestic production of wheat to a point where large amounts had to be imported annually from the United States: King Wheat momentarily seemed more powerful than King Cotton. Important English economic interests found they were making money out of the war. Sales to the American contestants swelled profits in the munitions, textile, linen, and other industries. As Confederate commerce destroyers, some of them built in Britain, harried American commerce from the sea, England took over the carrying trade of her principal mercantile rival. Political and military factors also operated to restrain English intervention. The Emancipation Proclamation caused English opinion to shift markedly in favour of the North. As the greatest naval power, and hence the leading exponent of the weapon of blockade, England hesitated to interfere with the Northern blockade for fear of setting a dangerous precedent. Finally, neither England nor France, even if they had wished to act, could risk intervening unless the Confederacy seemed close to victory; otherwise they would have to fight a North capable of striking back. The South never developed a certainty of victory. There was a brief time in the closing months of 1862 when Southern success seemed assured—and when England and France might have acted —but this moment passed with Union victories at Antietam and Stone’s River and never returned.
During the war three incidents strained relations between the United States and Britain; one assumed the proportions of a crisis and might have resulted in war. The first and most dangerous, known in American history as the Trent affair, occurred late in 1861. The Confederate government appointed two commissioners, James M. Mason and John Slidell, to England and France. Slipping through the blockade to Havana, the commissioners embarked for England on the British steamer Trent. In Cuban waters was a United States frigate (the San Jacinto), commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, who, knowing Mason and Slidell were aboard the Trent, decided, with no authorisation from his superiors, to capture them. Intercepting the Trent after she left Havana, he compelled her captain to hand over the diplomats, and bore them off to Boston. The Northern public hailed him as a national hero: he had arrested the rebel commissioners and humiliated unneutral Britain. Actually, he had placed his government in a delicate position. Denouncing Wilkes’s act as a violation of international law, the English government prepared a demand for the release of the prisoners, reparation, and an apology. As originally drafted, the document was almost an ultimatum, which the United States probably would have rejected. But before it was sent off, the language was toned down, primarily at the urging of the Prince Consort, in order to allow the American government a loophole through which to back out. Lincoln and Seward realised that the North could not afford to become involved in a foreign war; they knew also that the Northern public would be infuriated if the diplomats were released immediately. They spun out negotiations until opinion had cooled, and then returned Mason and Slidell with an indirect apology which satisfied England. Ironically, in the course of the incident both governments had contended for policies which historically they had opposed: Britain for the rights of a neutral and America for the rights of a belligerent. Incidentally, when Mason and Slidell proceeded to their respective posts, they accomplished nothing for their country. Mason was never received officially in London, and in 1863 he left for France convinced that England favoured the North. In France Slidell associated on friendly terms with the emperor, but he too failed to secure recognition or intervention. They were far more valuable to the Confederacy when they languished in a Northern prison.
The second episode intensified American suspicions that England did not mean to observe a proper neutrality. Early in the war the Confederate government, in order to weaken the blockade, decided to buy or have built in Europe fast destroyers to prey on Northern sea commerce. (The Confederate naval department thought that the North would detach ships from the blockade to hunt the destroyers.) Six vessels, of which the most famous was the Alabama, were built or purchased in England, and sailed from English ports to begin their work. Although the United States minister in London, Adams, regularly informed the British government of the projected departure of each ship, the government took no effective action to detain them, usually claiming that it did not possess satisfactory evidence that the raiders were intended for the Confederacy. Before 1863 the United States, for fear of provoking intervention, dared not object too strongly; it limited its protest to charges that permitting the destroyers to be constructed contravened rules of neutrality. After the war these protests formed the basis for the so-called ‘Alabama damage claims’, which the United States served on England—and which England paid.
The third incident, in reality a continuation of the second, was the affair of the Laird rams. In 1863 the Confederacy was beginning to feel the pinch of the blockade; although the commerce raiders had almost swept the Northern merchant marine off the sea, the Federal government had refused to weaken its naval cordon. In a bold move to destroy the blockade, the Southern government placed an order with the Laird shipbuilding company for two powerful ironclads. These rams constituted a potential menace that the North could not ignore: the loss of its commerce it could absorb but the blockade had to be maintained. Furthermore, now that the war was turning in its favour, the United States could speak more firmly. Seward instructed Adams to inform the British government that if the rams, or any other vessels intended for the Confederacy, were allowed to leave British ports, there would be danger of war. Adams delivered the message, but even before it was received the government had detained the rams. In fact, the cabinet some months previously had decided to stop the practice of English shipyards building vessels for the Confederacy. The new policy was apparent to the United States; Adams’s dramatic warning was meant to ensure its maintenance. Suddenly England had realised that for a naval power she had been imprudent. The assistance which she had permitted the South to secure might bring a similar form of retaliation against her in future wars. Hastily she conceded her error before any dangerous precedents were created.
Napoleon III, if he could have followed his inclinations, would have intervened in the American struggle. Forced to follow Britain’s lead, he could only express sympathy for the South and permit it to secure commerce destroyers in France. Primarily he desired a Southern victory because of his ambition to re-establish French colonial power in the western hemisphere; if the United States was split into two nations, neither would be strong enough to block his designs. He seized the opportunity created by the war to set up a French-dominated empire in Mexico. Before the war Mexico had borrowed $80,000,000 from English, French, and Spanish bankers. When the government, nearly bankrupt, suspended payments on the debt, the creditors appealed to their governments for redress and the three powers agreed to send a land and naval force to Mexico. Late in 1861 they occupied several coastal towns, whereupon Mexico proposed to settle her obligation and the invaders began to differ as to their objectives. England and Spain withdrew from the enterprise in April 1862, but the French occupied Mexico City, and in 1863, with the support of one native political faction, proclaimed a new government to be headed by an Austrian archduke, Maximilian, as emperor. Napoleon’s move clearly violated the Monroe Doctrine, but the United States, afraid of provoking French intervention and fully occupied at home, dared only to register a formal protest. Not until after the Civil War had ended could it bring enough pressure to force Napoleon to withdraw his troops (1866-7). Then Maximilian’s government fell, and he was executed by his subjects. The Confederacy, hoping for French aid, voiced official approval of the new satellite state. Southern opinion, however, tended to condemn the French venture as an infringement of the Monroe Doctrine, thereby posing an interesting historical question. If the South had won independence, which American nation would have owned and enforced the doctrine? Or, in such case, could it have been upheld?
The exploits of the Northern economic system, heralding the rise of a new industrial giant, were not lost on European observers. Both industry and agriculture expanded their productive capacities. The Northern economy performed the same enormous feat that the national economy would in the two great wars of the twentieth century. It both supplied the immense demands of modem war and enlarged the national wealth; it created goods faster than war could destroy them. The vast expansion was largely a result of the war, of huge purchases by the government of all kinds of goods. Although the government did not actually intervene in the modem sense to mobilise the economy, its activities stimulated almost every segment of the economic system.
The greatest expansion occurred in industry. Those industries which supplied the needs of the armed forces experienced the most spectacular increase in output: iron and steel, textiles, boots and shoes, arms and munitions, railways, and coal. The annual production of coal jumped from a peacetime figure of 13,000,000 tons to 21,000,000, the annual consumption of wool from 85,000,000 pounds to over 200,000,000. Some railways enlarged their traffic by as much as 100 per cent, and the inland waterways recorded an even greater increase. In part this stupendous expansion was accomplished by remodelling old factories or building new ones, in part by using machines and processes which had been introduced before the war but only sparingly utilised. The Howe-Singer sewing machine enabled the textile industry to meet the demands for uniforms, creating in the process a new business, ready-made suits for men. A similar device in the making of shoes, machine-stitching of soles to uppers, revolutionised the shoe industry. In arms manufacturing, the principle of interchangeable parts was employed with startling results. Before the war the combined output of the two largest arsenals had been only 22,000 weapons a year; by 1862 one alone was turning out 200,000 rifles annually.
Similar feats of production were recorded by Northern agriculture. In addition to satisfying the normal civilian needs, the farmers were called upon to supply foodstuffs to the army and to alleviate the wheat shortage in England. With hardly a sign of strain, the agricultural system was able to meet both domestic and foreign demands. Wheat production leaped from 142,000,000 bushels for the whole country to 191,000,000 bushels from the North alone, and the amount exported increased threefold. Wool production rose from 60,000,000 pounds to 142,000,000 pounds. As in industry, the expansion was partly the result of enlarged facilities— new land brought under cultivation in the west—and partly of the employment of machines introduced before the war but never widely used. Forced into mass-production by the demands of the war, the farmers now resorted to labour-saving machinery: the mower, the thresher, and the reaper. By the end of the war, 250,000 reapers were employed on Northern farms. They were largely responsible for the tremendous expansion in wheat production.
Another stimulus to economic expansion was the legislation enacted by the Republican party during the war. In an economic sense, the Republicans represented the aspirations of Northern business and agriculture; they advocated the old Federalist-Whig doctrine that the national government should foster the economy with subsidies and beneficent laws. With Southern opposition removed from Congress, they proceeded to satisfy the economic expectations of the groups that had put them in power. Most of the laws benefited business and finance, an indication that the eastern wing of the party was acquiring an ascendency over the western-agricultural wing.
The chief gains of the western faction were the Homestead Act (1862) and the Morrill Land Grant Act (1862). By the first, any citizen or any alien who had declared intentions of citizenship could register claim to a quarter section of public land (640 acres), and, after furnishing evidence that he had lived on it for five years, receive title on payment of a nominal fee. After the war thousands of settlers in the west would thus claim ‘free’ farms. The Morrill Act answered a western demand for Federal aid for agricultural education. It provided that each state should receive 30,000 acres of public land for each of its Congressional representatives, the proceeds from the land to be used for instruction in agriculture, engineering, and military science. After the war, the measure provided the basis for the great growth of the so-called Land Grant colleges.
The business wing of the party scored significant gains in tariff, railway, and immigration legislation. In 1861 the Morrill Tariff Act provided a moderate boost in existing rates. Later measures (1862, 1864) raised the average of duties to 47 per cent, double the level of the pre-war rates, and gave industry the protection it demanded from European competition. The promoters of a transcontinental railway (from a point in the Mississippi valley to the Pacific coast) persuaded Congress to enact legislation (1862,1864) creating two corporations, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to construct a line between Omaha, Nebraska, and San Francisco, California. The government was to aid the companies by advancing them loans and making grants of public lands. Work on the line was not commenced until after the war, when other promoters sought and secured similar legislative support. Most of the western railways were built with Federal subsidies. Here were internal improvements on a scale hardly envisaged by the Federalists or the Whigs. When immigration from Europe fell off sharply in the first years of the war, threatening a labour shortage, Congress came to the rescue with a contract labour law which authorised employers to import labourers, paying the costs of their transport, the future wages of the migrants being mortgaged to repay the costs. Largely because of this measure, over 700,000 immigrants entered the country during the war.
The most important legislation affecting business and finance was the National Bank Act (1863, amended 1864) which created a new financial complex, the National Banking System, that endured until 1913. In its inception, the measure was envisaged partly as a long-range reform of banking arrangements and partly as a solution to the immediate money needs of the government. Its architects, one of whom was the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, presented it as a law to restore control of the currency to the Federal government (on the eve of the war 1500 state-chartered banks were issuing notes of widely varying values). They argued that the country needed a uniform banknote currency and that national supervision of the banking system would enable the government to market its bonds more economically. The act outlined a process by which a ‘banking association’ could secure a Federal charter and become a National Bank. Each association was required to possess a minimum capital and to invest one-third of its capital in government bonds. It could issue banknote currency up to 90 per cent of the current value of the securities. To ensure a standard currency and to impel state banks to join the system, Congress placed a prohibitive tax on notes of state banks. By the end of the war the system included 11,582 banks which were circulating notes amounting to over $200,000,000. Although some bankers disliked the regulatory features of the law, the system ultimately benefited primarily the financial and creditor classes; the east continued to have a banknote circulation far in excess of the other sections. Historically, the National Banking System marked a return to the Federalist-Whig idea of a connection between the government and the financial community, the concept which the Jacksonian Democrats had sought to destroy.
With its vast reservoirs of wealth, the North possessed ample resources to sustain the huge costs of modem war. Northern war financing was not, however, particularly efficient. The failure of the governmental and monetary leaders to exploit adequately the existing resources can be ascribed largely to national inexperience in financing anything that was very expensive. It was hard for a people who paid scarcely any taxes to grasp the realities of a war that came to cost $2,000,000 a day. The North financed the war from three principal sources: taxation, which yielded $667,000,000; loans, which brought in $2,600,000,000; and paper currency, of which $450,000,000 was issued.
When the war began, Chase, who thought it would be short, failed to recommend a programme of new taxes. Both he and the legislators thought that the war should be financed mainly from loans. The principal measure enacted in 1861 was a modest income tax, the first in the nation’s history. Not until 1862 did Congress pass an adequate tax bill, the Internal Revenue Act, which placed moderate duties on practically all goods and most occupations. Although the government’s programme did not fully exploit the taxable resources of the country, the war taxes marked a new departure. Through their medium the hand of the government was coming to rest on thousands of individuals who had never paid levies to the central government. The United States was acquiring a national internal revenue system, one of the many unexpected nationalising results of the war. From loans the government secured three times as much revenue as from all other sources combined. The process of selling bonds was, however, hampered by clashes between Chase and the bankers, the Secretary favouring short-term issues at low interest and the financiers holding out for long-term loans at high interest. Both had to compromise. Chase’s most original contribution to bond-selling was in seeking a broad popular subscription to government stocks. The Treasury sold $400,000,000 of bonds to small purchasers, one of the first examples of mass financing of war in modem history. The government resorted to the issue of paper money early in 1862 when tax receipts were small and bonds were selling slowly. The Legal Tender Act authorised the printing of paper currency, which, because of its colour, came to be known as ‘greenbacks’. Because the greenbacks were not supported by specie and depended for redemption on the good faith of the government, they fluctuated violently in value, ranging in relation to a gold dollar from $0-39 to $0-69. They were an easy answer to the government’s need for quick funds, but, by inflating prices, they increased the costs of the war. They had, however, an enduring effect on the economy. Together with the notes of the National Banks, they constituted a large part of the nation’s circulating money supply. The United States was also acquiring a national currency.
A substantial part of the war revenues went to support the large Northern armies. At the beginning of the war, the regular army numbered only 16,000. President Lincoln, without constitutional sanction, authorised increases and called for volunteers for national service. When Congress met in July 1861 it provided, at Lincoln’s recommendation, for enlisting 500,000 volunteers to serve for three years. In the first days of the war, when the country was moved by an outburst of patriotism, the volunteer system brought out enough men to fill up the armies. But after the first flush of enthusiasm the number of enlistments dwindled alarmingly. Finally the government realised it would have to resort to conscription, and in March 1863 Congress enacted the first national draft law in American history, whereby all able-bodied males between twenty and forty-five if unmarried and twenty and thirty-five if married were liable to military service for three years. Although few exemptions were authorised (high government officials and men who were the sole support of dependants), a conscript could escape service by hiring a substitute or by paying the government a fee of $300. These loopholes were bitterly criticised as examples of special privilege, and the cash commutation was repealed.
Actually, the law did not directly draft men; the purpose behind it was to stimulate enlistments by threatening to draft. Each state was assigned at intervals a quota. If it could, by offering cash bounties or other inducements, meet its allotment, it escaped the draft completely; only if it failed to fill its quota did the national government move in to invoke conscription. Despite the peculiar working of the measure, it filled up the armies. The Federal forces increased steadily, reaching a maximum in 1865. Because of the vague statistics kept during the war, no accurate statement of the numbers raised is possible. It is estimated that 1,500,000 served for three years. The casualty rate was enormous, and if the Confederate casualties are reckoned in the total, the Civil War is the most costly American war. The total deaths in the Northern armies numbered 360,000 and in the Confederate armies, 258,000. Of the Northern total, 110,000 were battlefield deaths; the remainder died of sickness and disease.
Before the war the American people had hardly felt the weight of government in their daily lives. Conscription came as a strange and irritating control. Although the great majority submitted to its discipline, opposition was widespread, particularly from labourers, immigrants, and advocates of peace. In some places, notably New York City, it erupted into violence and riots. Some state governors challenged the authority of the central government to conscript, but the Lincoln administration continued to force men into the army. The impact of war was destroying state rights in the North as surely as the war’s result would destroy the Southern concept of state sovereignty.
In its President the North had a leader who was determined to maintain American nationality. Abraham Lincoln possessed the qualities of statesmanship—intellectual and moral strength, a deep understanding of the spirit of his age and of popular thought, superb political skill—and the will to employ those qualities to accomplish his purpose. Lincoln’s task, the most difficult ever confronted by an American statesman, was to preserve a nation. He had to restore the Union, to direct a civil war, and at the same time to sustain a basic unity of purpose among his own people. As Professor Allan Nevins has emphasised, Lincoln was able to perform his great task because he had another element of statesmanship, passion. Lincoln’s passion was for democracy, for the world’s greatest example of democracy, the American Union, for what he called ‘the last, best hope of earth’.
When Lincoln assumed the Presidency he was regarded by most people in Washington as a humble man who realised that he was not big enough for the post. Actually, he was well aware of his great inner powers, and superbly confident in his abilities. His assurance was revealed in his choice of a cabinet, which included four men who had been his rivals for the Republican nomination. The general level of ability was above average, and three of the members, Seward, Chase, and the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, were first-rate men. Although several of the Secretaries thought they were abler than Lincoln, he managed them all for his own purposes. Lincoln’s confidence was also demonstrated by his bold exercise of his war powers. He had an expansive view of the wartime role of the President: in order to achieve his objectives he even violated provisions of the constitution, stating that he would not lose the whole for fear of disregarding a part. He summoned troops to suppress ‘the rebellion’, which was equivalent to a declaration of war; illegally increased the size of the regular army; and proclaimed a naval blockade of the South.
The exercise of presidential war powers that stirred the greatest resentment was the suspension of civil law in areas where resistance to the war appeared. Two groups opposed the war effort: Southern sympathisers in the loyal slave states and the Peace Democrats. Among the Democrats there were three fairly definite factions. The War Democrats, a minority, accepted office and were practically absorbed into the Republican organisation. The great majority of the party, who may be designated the Regular Democrats, gave general support to the war, but retained then-separate identity and reserved the right to criticise the administration. Operating within the framework of the main party was the third faction, the Peace Democrats or ‘Copperheads’, who constituted the strongest organised opposition to the war. Centred in the western states and representing the old agrarian tradition, they feared that agriculture and state rights were being sacrificed to industry and nationalism. They advocated an armistice, the convocation of a convention to which the South would be invited, and amendments to the constitution to preserve state rights. Inasmuch as the Peace Democrats favoured maintenance of the nation, even if by an unpractical and impossible method, they were Unionists. But they were themselves divided. Some supported the formation of a western confederacy, and some organised secret societies which allegedly engaged in treasonable activities. Against opponents of the war Lincoln used the weapon of military arrests. At first he suspended the right of habeas corpus only in specified areas, but in 1862 he proclaimed that all who discouraged enlistments, resisted the militia draft, or engaged in disloyal practices would be subject to martial law. An estimated 13,000 persons were arrested and imprisoned. The arbitrary seizures shocked many Americans, including supporters of the war, but, considered historically, they only symbolised the impulse to enforced unity that modem war demands.
The Republican party also had its factions—the Radicals and the Conservatives. In fundamental agreement on most issues, they differed violently on the policy towards slavery to be adopted as a result of the war. The Radicals, of whom Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania was a typical representative, wanted to abolish slavery immediately. The Conservatives, led by Lincoln, feared the effects of a sudden, violent change in race relations; they favoured a gradual compensated emancipation to be accomplished over a period of years. In the struggle between the two factions the Radicals won, not so much by their own efforts as by the logic of the war situation. The Conservatives, in proposing that the war should be fought to save the Union but not to destroy slavery, were asking the people to fight and sacrifice to preserve the institution that most people believed was the cause of the war. The longer the war continued the more certain Northern opinion was to demand the destruction of slavery. It was moving rapidly in that direction by the summer of 1862. In July the Radicals pushed through Congress a Confiscation Act which declared free the slaves of all persons aiding and supporting the insurrection.
Lincoln, always a superb reader of public opinion, saw the signs of the times. He realised that in order to achieve his larger purpose of preserving the American nation he would have to yield his lesser objective of preventing the sudden striking down of slavery. To save the nation he had to keep the support of the Radicals, who were the unconditional Unionists; and if a majority of the Northern people wanted emancipation as a war aim, he could not afford to divide opinion by resisting their will. He decided, in July 1862, to place himself at the head of the antislavery movement by issuing an executive proclamation freeing slaves in the Confederacy. His decision, resting on the sound principle that a needed change should be made at the right time, was in the best tradition of English-American pragmatism.
Lincoln withheld announcement of his purpose until a favourable turn in the war. On 22 September 1862, after the battle of Antietam, he issued a preliminary proclamation stating that on 1 January 1863 he would declare free the slaves in all states then in rebellion. As no state returned to its allegiance by that date, he published the final Emancipation Proclamation. This declared forever free the slaves in most areas of the Confederacy. Not included were the state of Tennessee, most of which was under Federal control, and western Virginia and southern Louisiana, which were also held by Federal troops; presumably these areas were excepted because they were not enemy territory and hence were not subject to the war powers. The proclamation did not, of course, apply to the four loyal slave states, nor did it abolish slavery as an institution in the region where it did apply. Immediately the proclamation freed no slaves; its enforcement would have to wait until Federal armies conquered the South. But its promulgation meant that the war had taken a new turn—it had become a war to destroy slavery as well as to save the Union. And once the antislavery process was started it could not be reversed. Early in 1865 Congress sent to the states for ratification the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which freed slaves everywhere and abolished slavery as an institution.
In 1864 the United States faced a presidential election, the first to be held during a war. This election is one of the few in the history of democratic governments when a people were offered the choice of continuing a war or abandoning it—and voted for war. After the Congressional elections of 1862, in which the Democrats scored substantial gains, the Republicans attempted to strengthen their organisation by turning it into a coalition of all groups who supported the war. Seeking particularly to attract the War Democrats, they changed the party name from Republican to Union. Lincoln was the Union candidate in 1864, although many Radicals would have preferred a less conservative leader, and Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat, was the nominee for Vice-President. In the summer it seemed that the Republicans would be defeated in the November election. Lincoln himself expected to be beaten. War weariness gripped the Northern people; they seemed ready to concede that the South could not be conquered. This depressed mood would, of course, reflect itself in votes for the Democrats. Oddly, the North appeared ready to give up the struggle at a moment when the exhausted South no longer had the resources to achieve a military decision. Some of the Radical leaders, convinced that Lincoln would drag the party down to defeat, planned to prevent his nomination and to substitute one of their men in his place.
Before they could move against Lincoln, the political picture suddenly changed. The Democrats met in convention and nominated the former general George B. McClellan, whom the Radicals feared and hated. The peace faction got a plank in the platform denouncing the war as a failure and calling for a truce and a national convention. Although McClellan repudiated the plank, the Democrats stood before the country as the peace party. The peace plank and McClellan’s nomination had the effect of causing the Radicals to close ranks behind Lincoln. At the same time Northern armies scored several important victories, notably the capture of Atlanta, Georgia, which rejuvenated popular morale and raised Republican hopes.
When the votes were counted in November, Lincoln had 212 electoral votes to only twenty-one for McClellan. Lincoln’s popular majority, however, was only 400,000; a slight shift of votes in the big states would have changed the result. But a Democratic victory would not have changed the outcome of the war. Even if McClellan had decided to comply with the peace plank, he would not have taken office until March 1865 and by then the South was at the point of collapse.
The Southern nation that came into existence as a result of the secession movement, the Confederate States of America, was a confederation of sovereign states. Delegates from the first seven states to secede met at Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, framed a constitution and chose the executive officers. (The four states that seceded later accepted the Montgomery constitution.) State sovereignty was specifically recognised in the constitution. The powers delegated to the central government were fewer than those in the constitution of the old Union, and the reserved powers of the states were greater. The Southern principle of the concurrent voice, the power of a minority to check the majority, appeared frequently in the document. To enact various types of legislation—to admit a new state, to pass an appropriation bill—a two-thirds vote of the two-house legislature was required. Any three states could demand and force the convocation of a convention of all the states to amend the constitution. The right of a state to secede was implied, but, significantly, was not expressly stated. Like the government of the Union, the Confederate government was divided into three branches: an executive consisting of a President and Vice-President, a two-house Congress, and a National Judiciary.
The govemment-makers at Montgomery were anxious to avoid any impression that they represented a rash, revolutionary movement. As President they selected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, a moderate secessionist, and as Vice-President, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, who believed passionately in the right of secession but doubted there was much cause for its exercise. The choice of Davis was fateful. In contrast to his rival at Washington, whose task was to preserve a nation, Davis’s was to make one. He failed, largely because he lacked many of the elements of statesmanship. He had integrity and intelligence, and he was an excellent administrator. Over-conscious of his intelligence, he was sensitively proud of his opinions and could not brook criticism or contradiction. Over-aware of his administrative skill, he spent too much time on small routine items, and in political thinking rarely rose above the level of a cabinet secretary. He believed in the Southern cause intellectually, but felt no passion for it. His state-papers were logical and correct—and completely unmoving. Perhaps his greatest defect as a leader of a revolutionary cause was his refusal to realise that it was a revolution. He proceeded on the assumption that the Confederacy was an established, recognised nation. When the situation demanded ruthless zeal, he tied himself up in legal red tape. It is a curious fact that Lincoln, heading an established government, displayed more revolutionary vigour than Davis.
Davis’s cabinet was, at the best, an assemblage of only average ability. Several of the members were capable administrators but nothing more. The ablest was Judah P. Benjamin, who held three different positions, finally becoming Secretary of State. He confined his energies to his particular department and never tried to influence Davis in large matters of policy. The personnel of the cabinet changed frequently. There were three Secretaries of State, two of the Treasury, five of War, and four Attomeys-General. The shifting nature of the body indicates Davis’s reluctance to delegate power. The secretaries were, in effect, his clerks. Many of them recognised their status and resigned.
While the Northern economy expanded, the South underwent a period of shortages, suffering and sacrifice. Subjected to the strain of war, the static Southern economic system almost collapsed. The South lacked factories, machines, production managers, skilled labourers, and the resources to create new wealth. Whereas the North created new resources, the resources of the South were quickly consumed by the demands of the military machine. Moreover, the war, and specifically the blockade, cut off the South’s principal source of revenue, the sale of its agricultural products in Europe. The conditions of Southern economic life posed hard problems for the men who had to finance the Confederacy’s war efforts.
Because surplus capital had usually been invested in slaves and land, the amount of short-term assets held by banks or individuals was small. Southern banks, except in New Orleans, the South’s only urban centre, were fewer and smaller than those in the North. The only specie possessed by the government was the $1,000,000 seized at the beginning of hostilities in the United States mints in the South.
The Confederacy drew its war revenue from three sources: taxation, loans, and paper money. Like its Northern counterpart, the Confederate Congress was reluctant to impose rigorous duties on a people unaccustomed to heavy taxes. The first measure, passed in 1861, faded really to tax. It provided for a direct tax on property to be levied by the states; if a state preferred, it could, instead of taxing its people, pay its quota as a state. Most states assumed the tax, which they met by issuing bonds. In 1863 Congress enacted an intemal-revenue tax; a unique feature of the measure was the ‘tax in kind’, which required every planter and farmer to contribute one-tenth of his produce to the government. The returns from the various war taxes were slight. Because of difficulties in fixing the value of the farm-produce received, the exact amount cannot be calculated, but it has been estimated that the Confederacy raised only 1 per cent of its total income by taxes. The government issued bonds in such large amounts that the people came to suspect its ability to redeem them. Some of the loans were in the form of produce, subscribers being permitted to deposit commodities, or the promise of commodities, with the government in exchange for bonds. Often the promises were not fulfilled or the goods were spoiled or destroyed by the enemy. One reason why the government accepted taxes and loans in produce was its desire to escape its own currency. The government started issuing paper notes in 1861, partly because it needed ready-money, partly because this form of currency seemed an easy way to finance the war. Once started, it could not stop. By 1864 a total of $1,000,000,000 had been issued. The inevitable result was depreciation and an astronomical inflation of prices. It was an index of the unstable currency system that Federal greenbacks circulated in the South at a higher premium than Confederate notes. Hit particularly hard by the inflated prices were people with fixed incomes and town-dwellers, who depended on others for their food. They suffered real privation and in the process lost much of their faith in Confederate victory. To protect the government from the effects of its own currency, Congress enacted the Impressment Act, which authorised departments to fix their own purchase price. One result was to cause producers to avoid selling to the government.
The Confederacy first attempted to recruit its armies from volunteers. In 1861 several hundred thousand men enlisted, the great majority for twelve months. Once the initial enthusiasm had waned, volunteering dropped off, and the Confederacy seemed threatened by a manpower crisis. The most ominous feature was that the twelve-months men, the veterans, were not re-enlisting. Accordingly, in April 1862 Congress adopted a Conscription Act declaring that all able-bodied white males between eighteen and thirty-five were liable for three years military service. The twelve-months soldiers were retained in the army but required to serve only two years more. Later measures in 1862 and 1864 extended the age-limits to seventeen and fifty. The original act and those that followed provided for numerous exemptions. It was realised that some men had to be left at home to perform the productive functions. Consequently, many occupational deferments were permitted. The framers erred in allowing too many group-exemptions and in excusing individuals—editors, teachers, printers, and others—who were not engaged in vital work. These exemptions aroused wide resentment on the part of groups not excluded, who felt they were being discriminated against. Some provisions seemed to favour the rich. A conscript could escape service by employing a substitute (eventually this clause was repealed), and one white man on each plantation with twenty or more slaves was deferred. The so-called ‘twenty-nigger law’ angered ordinary folk, moving them to say it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.
Conscription filled up the armies until the end of 1862. As 1863 opened, some 500,000 men were serving. Thereafter the forces steadily decreased in size. Military reverses, war weariness, and the occupation of large areas by Federal armies combined to dry up the manpower sources. At the close of 1863,465,000 men were carried on the army rolls, but only about 230,000 were present for duty. The situation worsened in 1864-5, when an estimated 100,000 desertions occurred. When the end came, all Confederate armies in the field numbered only about 100,000. As with the Union forces, the exact total of men in service is difficult to determine. An approximately accurate estimate is that 900,000 served for three years.
At the outbreak of war the Southern people were almost united in their desire to achieve independence. The only organised opposition to the war came from the mountain areas, particularly in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, whose people constituted less than 10 per cent of the Southern population. Southerners were united in wishing to win the war, but they divided bitterly on how it should be conducted. Some of the differences almost tore the government to pieces. In part, the divisions were the clashes normal in any popular government: people criticised Davis for making faulty decisions or Congress for enacting unwise laws. Other controversies reflected the conditions of Southern culture. Most upper-class Southerners—and men from this caste held most of the high offices—were proud, sensitive, imperious individuals. Perhaps because they were masters of a subject race, they took offence easily when opposed or criticised. They were accustomed to giving orders, but did not submit readily to discipline. Many of the fierce quarrels between President Davis and Congress can be explained by the personalities of the parties involved. In contrast with Lincoln, who vetoed only three bills, Davis vetoed thirty-eight and saw thirty-seven of them repassed.
But the great divisive force was, ironically, the principle of states rights. Southerners had talked so much about states rights that it had become a cult with them, to a point where they resented any kind of control. The supporters of states rights possessed sufficient cohesiveness to be known as a party—the states rights party, headed by Vice-President Stephens. They stood first for state sovereignty and then for a national Southern state. They desired an independent South, but if to achieve that goal states rights had to be sacrificed, they preferred defeat. Passionately devoted to their quixotic principles, they fought almost every attempt of the government to impose centralised controls. They attacked the Davis administration on two main issues: (1) they denied that the government could suspend habeas corpus or conscript soldiers; and (2) they alleged that the administration was refusing opportunities to negotiate peace. Davis, faced by opposition to the war in the mountain areas, asked Congress for authority to dispense with civil law (instead of suspending it himself, as Lincoln did). He received permission to suspend for only a limited time or in a limited place; a bill giving him general authorisation was defeated by the states-righters, who accused him of seeking to establish a dictatorship. Their opposition to conscription was equally violent and, because state officials could hinder its execution, more effective. By the terms of the draft act, governors could certify state militia troops as exempt, and some governors, notably Joseph Brown of Georgia and Zebulon M. Vance of North Carolina, kept thousands of men out of service. In 1864, with Federal armies striking deep into the South, Brown defied the government to enforce conscription in Georgia. The states-righters were fascinated by the idea of a negotiated peace, and brought constant pressure on Davis to make overtures to the North. They never made it absolutely clear whether they wanted a settlement based on independence or on a return of the South to the Union. At different times they urged both alternatives. The evidence seems plain enough that in the later stages of the war they would have accepted a peace without victory, with whatever control over race relations they could have persuaded the North to grant.
An assessment of the Southern failure would have to give weight to several factors—the South’s lack of industrial resources, the inadequacy of its transport system, the collapse of its financial system. Ranking high on any list would be the nature of its political arrangements. The Confederacy was founded on a principle, states rights, that made failure almost inevitable. It is highly doubtful whether a confederation of sovereignties can win a modem war. If it could, it is even more doubtful that such a government could survive in the modem world.
At the outset of the war neither government had a general strategic plan. Strategic designs were worked out in the heat of conflict and in the light of what the planners learned about the military situation. Because the policy of the North was to restore the Union by force, Northern strategy had to be offensive. Federal armies had to invade the South, defeat Confederate armies, and occupy the entire section. The policy of the South was to establish its independence by force. Therefore the government determined on a defensive strategy. This decision was forced on the South partly by the nature of Northern strategy, and partly because a strategy of defence seemed logical for a power that wanted only to be let alone and that harboured no aggressive intentions. With equal logic, the South might have demonstrated that it was too strong to be conquered by going over to the offensive and winning victories on Northern soil.
Geography influenced profoundly the strategic planning of both sides and the nature of the war. The physical features of the South, in which most of the battles would be fought, divided the war into three theatres: the eastern, the western, and the trans-Mississippi. The great Appalachian Mountain barrier, extending from Maryland to Georgia, made impossible any unified conduct of operations east of the Mississippi. The area between the mountains and the sea-coast became the eastern theatre, and the vast region between the mountains and the Mississippi became the western theatre. West of the river, the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas constituted the trans-Mississippi theatre.
Most of the fighting in the eastern theatre occurred in Virginia, where the chief Northern objective was to capture Richmond, which became the Confederate capital after Virginia seceded, and to defeat the defending Southern army. The movements of both armies were largely controlled by the proximity of the rival capitals, separated by a marching distance of only 130 miles. For the Northern invaders, the most obvious route was to strike from Washington or a base in northern Virginia straight southward to Richmond. Once, in 1862, they attempted, unsuccessfully, another possible invasion road, moving on the waterways east of the capital. In western Virginia was a secondary route between the capitals, the Shenandoah valley, running the length of the state and reaching to the Potomac River. Either side could use it for an offensive or for a diversionary movement to deceive the other. The Confederates were particularly adept in manoeuvring their valley forces in a manner to create illusions that they meant to threaten Washington. Not until 1864-5 did the Federals crush Confederate resistance in Virginia and grasp Richmond.
In the western theatre the first strategic objective of the Federals was to seize the line of the Mississippi, thereby splitting the Confederacy into two. To achieve this they moved, with land and sea forces and from north and south, against Confederate strong-points on the river. When they found a particular place too strong to attack, they moved on streams parallel to the Mississippi, thus outflanking the Confederates. By the summer of 1863, with the fall of Vicksburg, the Federals had possession of the river line. They then started operations to secure their next objective, the line of the Tennessee River. This stream, flowing across Tennessee and part of Alabama to the Ohio, was an obvious invasion path into the heart of the South. On the Tennessee the key position was Chattanooga. If the Federals could capture the city, they would have a base from which they could again split the Confederacy. They occupied Chattanooga in 1863, and from it in 1864 General W. T. Sherman moved in the great march that carried him by the end of the war to North Carolina.
Action in the trans-Mississippi area was minor in comparison with the campaigns elsewhere. Neither side committed large forces in this region. Federal forces operating from Missouri occupied the northern half of Arkansas. In 1862 a Northern naval and land expedition seized New Orleans, which with the southern part of Louisiana was held for the remainder of the war. Several plans were broached to occupy the rest of Arkansas and Louisiana and to send a column into Texas, but the Federal high command was unwilling to supply sufficient troops to execute them. It was unnecessary, after the fall of Vicksburg, to conquer the states west of the Mississippi. The Federals, merely by holding the river line, could contain the entire theatre and isolate it.
The strategy of the Confederacy, largely formulated by Davis, was to meet each Northern offensive, to hold every threatened point. It has been called a dispersed defensive. An alternative programme for the side with the inferior forces would have been to guard shorter lines enclosing the most defensible areas or those containing important resources. In deciding to defend the entire South, Davis was partly influenced by practical political considerations. For the new Southern government to abandon any part of its territory would seem an admission of weakness and might deprive it of popular support. But Davis seemed to think almost instinctively in defensive terms; with him the holding of places, many of which turned out to be traps for their garrisons, became an idee fixe. On the few occasions when Southern armies did undertake offensive movements, the thrusts failed—largely because they were made with insufficient strength—because the government refused to add available defensive units to the attacking forces. But Davis and his advisers should not be criticised for adopting a defective strategy. Their military thinking was necessarily limited by the influences of their culture. As Clausewitz said, a nation’s social system will determine the kind of war it fights. The principle of the Southern system was states rights, and the South fought a states-rights war. Southern political leaders were unable to install centralisation in the conduct of government, and Southern military directors failed to establish a unified strategy or a centralised command.
The Confederate command throughout the war consisted mainly of President Davis. For a brief period early in 1862 Davis appointed General Robert E. Lee to act under his direction as commander of all Confederate armies. But Lee, a man of brilliant abilities, was not called upon, except at rare intervals, to formulate strategy; he acted as a mere adviser, providing counsel when Davis asked for it. In the summer of 1862 Lee assumed field command, and Davis did not replace him. Not until February 1864 did he take another adviser, Braxton Bragg, who had failed in field command. Early in 1865 Congress, in a move designed to clip Davis’s powers, created the position of general-in-chief; it was expected that Davis would have to give the post to Lee, the South’s greatest general, and that Lee would take over the direction of military affairs. Davis did appoint Lee, announcing at the same time that he was still commander-in-chief, and Lee accepted the office on this basis. The war ended before the new arrangement had a chance to prove itself. It is doubtful whether Lee could have commanded a field army and also directed other armies. Nor is it certain that Lee, who thought primarily in terms of his native Virginia, could have altered his strategic thinking to include national concepts.
The United States entered the war with an archaic and inadequate command system. Command arrangements in the small peacetime army were performed by an agency loosely referred to as ‘the staff’, which consisted of the general holding appropriate rank in the army and the heads of the War Department bureaux, and which was not a staff in the modem meaning of the word. It held no joint meetings and discussed no common problems. No member or section was charged with formulating strategy. Each official—the quartermaster-general, the head of ordnance, the adjutant-general—administered his department much as he pleased. The senior general at the beginning of the war was seventy-five-year-old Winfield Scott, who, with the exception of John E. Wool, another aged veteran, was the only officer to have commanded troops in numbers sufficient to be called an army. (Scott’s army in the Mexican War numbered 14,000.) None of the younger officers, who would command the field armies in the war, had directed as large a unit as a brigade.
At the head of the military organisation was the constitutional commander-in-chief, the President. Lincoln had a completely civilian background; he had no military education, and, except for an inconsequential militia interlude, no military experience. Yet Lincoln became a great war-President; as a director of war he was superior to Davis, who had received a professional military education and served in the regular army. Lincoln illustrates the truth of Clausewitz’s statement that an acquaintance with military affairs is not the principal qualification for a war director but that a superior mind and moral strength are better qualifications. Because of his mental and moral powers, Lincoln developed into a superb strategist. Recognising that numbers were on his side, he mobilised the maximum manpower resources of the North, and urged his generals to exercise constant pressure on the strategic line of the Confederacy until a weak spot was found. Better than his first generals, he realised that the true objective was to destroy the Confederate armies and not to occupy places. Lincoln has been criticised for interfering with his generals, but most of his interventions were designed to force hesitant or timid officers to act aggressively. And most of his interferences had salutary effects. In contrast with Davis, who interfered with his generals to make a faulty defensive strategy more defensive, Lincoln acted to implement a sound offensive strategy.
During the first three years of the war, Lincoln performed many functions that would now be handled by the chief-of-staff. He framed strategic plans and even directed tactical movements. He assumed an active role because of the inadequacies of the existing command system and because the various officers he appointed as general-in-chief—Scott, George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck—either would not or could not execute their responsibilities. Early in 1864, with Lincoln and Congress as chief architects, the nation finally received an efficient, modem command system. Thereafter Lincoln exercised fewer command functions, although he continued to supervise the general operations of the military machine.
Under the new arrangements, Ulysses S. Grant, who had emerged as the North’s ablest general, was named general-in-chief by Lincoln, with the rank of lieutenant-general created by Congress. Grant was charged with planning strategy for all theatres of the war and directing the movements of the seventeen Federal armies on all fronts. He proved to be the general for whom Lincoln had long searched. He possessed, as did no other general on either side, the ability to see the war as a whole and to devise over-all strategy. Although Lincoln gave him a relatively free hand, Grant always submitted the general features of his plans to the President for approval. Halleck, who had been general-in-chief, now became ‘chief-of-staff’, a post in which he acted as a channel of communication between Lincoln and Grant and between Grant and the departmental commanders. The 1864 system of commander-in-chief to form policy and indicate grand strategy, general-in-chief to frame battle strategy, and chief-of-staff to co-ordinate information was, with the possible exception of the Prussian General Staff, the most efficient then in existence. It was one of the principal reasons why the North won the war.
The Civil War determined many things, both immediately and in its ultimate effects on national and world history. It decided that the United States would remain one nation. It unified that nation as it had never been unified before and placed it on the way to become a great world power. By destroying slavery and by demonstrating that a popular government could preserve liberty during an internal conflict, it vindicated and vitalised the democratic concept everywhere. Lincoln saw the significance of this aspect of the struggle. After the election of 1864 he said: ‘It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility.’ Some of the immediate results of the war were unfortunate and malefic. The nation had to chart a course through the painful ordeal of reconstruction, which was not dealt with on a very high level of statesmanship, and through the booming economic expansion after the war, when material standards seemed to transcend all others. But even then the great idealistic critics of American life saw the war in a long and proper perspective and believed that its results would endure. Revolutions in the interest of society, wrote Emerson, are always remembered: ‘These are read with passionate interest and never lose their pathos by time.’ If the American people marching with ‘a careless swagger to the height of power’ could recover and regulate the spirit which had enabled them to win the war, the United States could become ‘the new nation, the guide and lawgiver of all nations’. And Walt Whitman, who, deeply touched by the impact of the war, understood its meaning and his country better than most, seeing in 1871 many things in America that he did not like, could write: ‘Today, ahead, though dimly yet, we see in vistas, a copious, sane, gigantic offspring.’