Anticipations of War, 1858–60

Since the campaigns of Austerlitz and of 1807 Rostov knew by experience that men always lie when describing military exploits, as he himself had done when recounting them; besides that, he had experience enough to know that nothing happens in war at all as we can imagine or relate it.

LEO TOLSTOY, War and Peace1

This chapter is the first of two analytical approaches attempting to answer the question why the American Civil War broke out when it did. The ‘models’ that the two chapters seek to develop will abandon the more traditional kind of political history. Previous historians have relied too heavily, and exclusively, on its insights in seeking an explanation of the origins of the war. The main theme of this chapter is an exploration of what James Joll once called the ‘unspoken assumptions’ that men of power rely on when deciding whether to go to war or not. These are the views, myths and thoughts, that compound of education, prejudice and opinion, that shapes a perspective on the rush of political events and determines the course of action, the decisions, which political crises demand.2 Consequently, the chapter will be organized around the relationships arising from how men feel, how they think and how they act. It is not claimed that any direct teleological links exist between these impulses, but they do have the advantage of drawing out consistent themes about how and why decision-makers reacted to the possibility of war.

How men felt

To men of the 1840s the Union was not just a nation-state like any other, it was very special. It was ‘the Palladium of our National happiness’; in the words of Richard Carwardine, it was the ‘handiwork of God’.3 It exemplified a mission – the spread of a republican democracy as the form of democratic practice – and a civilizing quest to conquer the wilderness. During the 1850s – especially after the Mexican War – political commentary was full of worries not only that the young republic was failing to live up to its early shining promise, but also that the generations of politicians who succeeded the Founding Fathers were not displaying levels of genius and probity comparable to theirs. It was to the need to guard against this danger that many men’s thoughts returned again and again, shaping their sense of urgent ‘crisis’. There are five important sub-themes to be considered that complement (and occasionally contradict) one another: revulsion against corruption, fear of partisanship, a desire to uphold ‘honour’, suspicion of conspiracy, and finally, a growing impatience.


A major element of American exceptionalism was the notion that the United States experiment in democracy was pure; indeed that it had thrown off the corrupting and decadent embraces of Great Britain. ‘Corruption stalks abroad. Nobody is honest but ourselves,’ explained a newspaper. ‘We alone can save our fellow-citizens from forty thousand horrors’. But the huge creation of wealth in the thirty years before the Civil War greatly increased the temptations. Corruption was a lurking danger that threatened to enfeeble the new republic. ‘Our foundations are crumbling’, warned Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. Such anxieties were accentuated after Andrew Jackson’s rise to the presidency and the introduction of the spoils system. Government clerks were replaced by party nominees at all levels of governments. This had the advantage of checking centralization, ridding government of the petty tyrannies of bureaucrats, and protecting the rights of states and the prerogatives of local political leaders. In short, it guarded against the ‘insolence of office’. But the spoils system led to a revitalization of party as the means of government, and the growth of a class of politicians who depended on securing ‘spoils’ won at elections. Such a system released all kinds of tensions within the political culture which it was designed to protect. Where did sensible compromise begin and plunder end? Or to quote Jane Austen, where does prudence end and avarice begin? Republican values were demoralized and sullied by the means relied upon to nurture them.4

Such tensions had a major effect on the reputation of the political system and the trust invested in it. Newspapers were dismissed as mere ‘hirelings’ and editors as corrupt. Increasingly, the very mechanics of the democratic process became suspect. Examples of ballot box corruption and the purchase of the people’s will, a suspicion of partisanship, and the violence it provoked, led to much denunciation. As Martin Van Buren said, it was ‘sickening’, and it contributed signally to the feeling of political crisis in the 1850s. The people remained virtuous and high-minded, for the evil men could be removed. Thus each election offered the chance of restoring the old standards, but disillusionment increased as these opportunities were squandered.5

Thoughtful citizens feared that republics were delicate flowers which were vulnerable to parasites within as well as contamination from without. The American experiment was endangered by its very success. Wealth was discolouring the pristine white of republican purity. Gideon Welles wrote of his fellow countrymen that ‘Ours, I fear, are beginning to value wealth more than freedom’. This idea was given additional point by the assumption that greedy northerners were more prone to corruption than southerners – a view with which southerners emphatically agreed. The slave power had lined the pockets of northern congressmen and extended its influence within the space of one generation. The South had her views and stood by them unreservedly and incorruptibly. The South, moreover, exploited this northern weakness ruthlessly. Such fears were given a new dimension when the Buchanan Administration employed bribery to get its pro-southern legislative programme through Congress. Congressmen were bought, it was claimed, for $5,000 apiece. The corrupt activities of the Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, and the Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Toucey (who distributed shipbuilding contracts on the basis of which employer could increase its labour force and ensure it voted Democrat), gave the Buchanan Administration the unenviable stamp of unprecedented corruption. At least Franklin Pierce had been honest, whatever his other numerous deficiencies.6

By the end of Buchanan’s term, many agreed that the country and its governing system were in crisis. It also added to the apocalyptic, melodramatic atmosphere that prevailed by 1860. Indeed, this assumption, namely, that the Federal government was sinking into a putrid sea of corruption, strengthened the secessionist argument that the South needed to start anew, and that it might persuade some Border and northern states to leave the Union and join a new republic. Hence the (ironic) southern dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party that had been tainted by Buchanan and his ‘buccaneers’. Buchanan’s corrupt activities (through he was probably personally honest) simultaneously revitalized northern opposition to the slave power and agitated fears that a sickness was being pumped through the body politic by personal greed and ambition. Hence fears about corruption blended with other anxieties to prompt George Templeton Strong to warn in his diary in December 1858 that ‘Our civilization is decaying. We are in our decadence. An explosion and crash must be at hand’.7


This feeling is closely associated with a reaction against corruption. Joel Silbey may be right that politics in this period was governed by a ‘partisan imperative’. This might account, too, for the power and intensity of political debate, whose practitioners ‘were schooled in certain unyielding truths’. He argues also that ‘Moral commitments were particularly strong in the 1850s. Spiritual values, religious metaphors, and ethnic awareness abounded in everyday life’. The outward signs of political debate and division reflected these, so that Tarty rhetoric [was], therefore, structured around different perspectives which became the centre of bitter, sustained conflict’.8 But Silbey overlooks the possibility that one important way in which these moral imperatives were expressed was essentially anti-party.

By 1860 the term ‘party politician’ had become a term of abuse used by party politicians themselves to describe those who were unscrupulous, selfish and unprincipled. The Democratic Party came badly out of any comparison because it was tainted by ‘machines’, such as New York City’s Tammany Hall, that were associated with immigrant voters in the big cities and the corrupt antics of the Buchanan Administration. Indeed, ‘parties’ in the general sense were thought to be no longer purveyors of ideals and ideas. An intense dislike of the so-called ‘practical man’ of the spoils system was often manifested. Parties were often assumed to be temporary arrangements that came and went on the political landscape. The reputation of party politicians was low. In March 1855 the New York Tribune wrote of the Thirty-Fourth Congress, that ‘a Congress so prodigal and unfaithful – never before assembled in this country’. The Republican Party, of course, strongly benefited from its novelty and lack of association with political corruption and the besmirching of earlier party politicians. Lincoln’s initial popularity arose from his image of honesty and simplicity; he would return the government of the country to a less partisan, less selfish system like that ‘purity of practice and principle which characterize its early days under the administration of the Revolutionary patriots’.9

A consensus developed by 1859–60 that standards of public life were so low, its motives so base and the quality of appointments so inadequate, that the crisis of the Union was caused by party politicians. They had betrayed the principles of the American Revolution and Founding Fathers. Abraham Lincoln came to accept this view. The coming to power of the Republican Party was therefore represented as a veritable cleansing of the Augean stables. Room for manoeuvre was therefore limited because of the association of compromise not just with financial graft, but with the abandonment of political principle.10

These attitudes contributed later to a determination to stand up and be counted robustly. This was one of the reasons why Fort Sumter came to assume a symbolic importance in 1861 out of all proportion to its military value. It came to assume the embodiment, in the North, of selfless patriotism untainted by graft and party. Moreover, the most articulate came to look for an ‘inner power’ which would overcome the frustrations, tensions and littleness that they thought blighted their lives and ideals. The United States deserved purging and punishment for the iniquities into which it had sunk, and this coercive instrument could be provided only by violence. John Brown was described by the abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, as ‘the impersonator of God’s law, moulding a better future, and setting it for an example’. Under these circumstances, men who might (one would have thought) have been natural pacifists were those who actually looked forward to civil war. In the spring of 1861 Phillips wrote to Gerrit Smith, ‘I trust events. The Adm[inistration] means war. … There must be bloodshed. Did you ever expect to see such a day – we truly are blessed to see the fruits of our toil’. This is an extreme opinion but one that would gain more support as crisis followed upon crisis.11

Such attitudes among intellectuals and abolitionists were a very strong reaction against the constraints imposed on American politics by the rigidities of the two-party system, an intense and formal legalism, and Constitution-worship. All three of these aspects were given expression in the ‘partisan imperative’. Significantly, because American parties were weak and not ideologically riven as they were in Europe, the antagonisms over slavery intensified as divisions on other issues were dissipated.12 William H. Seward had warned as long ago as 1850 that there was a ‘higher law’ than the Constitution. This was a prophetic warning that the most idealistic of political systems cannot be used indefinitely to give legal and constitutional protection to a perversion of those ideals, namely, an extension of the slave system in the name of ‘freedom’. A narrow, obstinate defence of constitutional forms relying on the letter rather than the spirit of the law stimulates violence, not respect for the Constitution. Where else but in the United States could Constitution-worship justify a revolutionary and secessionary movement? The southern states seceded in defence of their constitutional rights. Jefferson Davis wrote in his post-war apologia that ‘It is a satisfaction to know that the calamities which have befallen the southern states were the result of their credulous reliance on the power of the Constitution, that if it failed to protect their rights, it would at least suffice to prevent an attempt at coercion, if, in the last resort, they peacefully withdrew from the Union’. What is so extraordinary about this passage is that an appeal to the Constitution seems to carry its own justification. Davis makes no appeal to great ideas, heroism, or the swell of public emotion or expectation, but to a narrow legalistic formula.13


If one feature is associated with the southern planter class, it is honour. The courtly, impeccably attired, considerate and well-mannered southern gentleman has acquired almost legendary status. Though the cult of the gentleman is hardly unknown in the northern states, it has been most fully developed in the South. The original model is English.14 In Henry James’s novel, The Bostonians, the hero Basil Ransome, a southerner, persists in courtly politeness, even when it is shamelessly exploited by the ghastly Mrs Luna. There can be no doubt that the gentlemanly code can bring out the best, as well as the worst, in men. But in this chapter we need to consider the cumulative affect on group behaviour of those who subscribe to the code of honour, and that is rather less praiseworthy than its influence on the behaviour of individuals. Don E. Fehrenbacher, in an appropriate metaphor, likens the emotions demonstrated by southerners during the secession crisis to the sun’s rays focused through a magnifying glass – they became scorching and intensely concentrated.15 One explanation for this acute emotion might be sought in the notion of honour.

Group sensation and activity tends to exaggerate and distort individual behaviour and attitudes. Bertram Wyatt-Brown characterizes the worst side of the code of honour as ‘excessive touchiness, uncontrolled ambition, shameless servility to a fickle public, [and] self-destructive hospitality’ – a pattern which accurately represents southern behaviour in 1860–61. It is, in short, a reflection of ancient localism, and it can be highly aggressive. Aggression is worked out through duelling rather than in any natural penchant for the military life. William Garrett Brown in 1903 offered a cogent explanation of the relationship between the cult of honour and parochialism. ‘To the southerner’, he wrote, ‘liberty meant nothing less than the right of himself and his community to be free from all interference by the peculiar outside world’.16

Honour, as an expression of the social order, is intimately connected to community. It is designed to bring some sort of structure to life by emphasizing self-dependence. In a society based on slavery the virtues we associate with honour – especially in small, compact, cohesive and homogeneous slaveowning, patriarchal communities – could be transformed into vices. Loud boasting and haughtiness could be fashioned under pressure into condescension or blind arrogance. The resulting violence could be unjustified, flagrant, unpredictable, anarchic, and even self-defeating. It is a peculiar characteristic of southern honour that it placed great faith on judging the external features of behaviour – the spoken word and physical gesture, in particular.17 Yet southerners knew little of the world – including the North – outside of their own communities and were absorbed in their own narrow concerns. Their judgements on the outside world and its behaviour towards them were uniformly disastrous. As the 1850s drew to a close, southern behaviour became increasingly erratic. The possibility of a Republican in the White House in 1860 summed up an apocalyptic threat and brought to the fore a provincial, paranoid surge of frustrated emotion and aggression. The qualities of inner serenity and reason seem to have deserted that self-consciously honourable group of southern political leaders that precipitated the secession crisis.


One of the most powerful emotions felt during the secession crisis was that southern secession was the result of a deep-seated, well-laid plot. Jefferson Davis specifically denied in his memoirs that any plan of secession existed.18 In part, this fear was an extension of the slave power conspiracy. It was also an expression of long-running suspicion of other ‘aristocratic’ institutions, such as the United States Military Academy at West Point. In January 1863 Senator James H. Lane of Kansas claimed that if the North was defeated, its epitaph would be chiselled, ‘Died of West Point pro-slaveryism’. Hinton Rowan Helper in his controversial book, The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), argued that the Federal government had been penetrated by the slave power and its sympathizers. In December 1860 secessionist cockades could be bought virtually on the steps of the Congress. Belief in the plot was given substance by John B. Floyd’s corrupt activities and numerous resignations of southern officers from the US Army (though 275 out of a total of 1,033 does not appear excessive).

The only other evidence that credulous conspiracy theorists could find was Nathaniel Beverly Tucker’s 1836 novel, The Partisan Leader, which predicted the coming of civil war; the rebels, commanded by a West Pointer, defeat the federal army. Seven thousand copies of this novel were circulated in New York in the month after Fort Sumter. But the paucity of this ‘evidence’ did not discourage the frantic search for agents of treason in all departments of state in the first year of the war.19


One of the most underestimated aspects of the final crisis that culminated in civil war is the understandable, human desire to see the crisis over and done with. The contemporary correspondence is frequently marked by the wearing effect of continual tension; better that civil war come than the tension continue indefinitely. This is, also, a characteristic of a political culture hardly noted for its forbearance. Therefore, a desire to bring matters to a head underlined the whole crisis like a red thread. Yet, we should also recall, even when contemporaries were reminding themselves of the need for reason and prudence, that as Cyril Falls well said: ‘Impatience affects the power of reason’.20 It is now appropriate to turn to consider the ideas that mid-nineteenth-century Americans entertained about war.

Thinking about war

All of these feelings contributed to a universal expectation in April 1861 that war would be short and abrupt. American military experience in the nineteenth century led all to believe that wars were short – the War of 1812 (1812–15) and the Mexican War (1845–48), in particular. Of the former, Americans chose to remember the final, climactic Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, in which almost 2,000 casualties had been inflicted on the British at virtually no cost to themselves. The battle was, alas, fought after the Treaty of Ghent of December 1814 had been signed and thus had no strategic significance; the earlier indecisive and humiliating phase was overlooked.21 The Mexican War, likewise, was seen as an outlet for excess energy in which rapid movement would inflict severe losses on the enemy, while sustaining few American casualties. ‘Never since the days of Washington’, a writer perceived of the Mexican War, ‘has an excitement, so wild and universal, thrilled in the souls of free men’. These wars were also seen as validating, indeed forging anew, the triumphant heritage of George Washington and the Founding Fathers, and thus had a determined nationalist, later sectional, function.22

A sentimental, nostalgic coating was ladled over war, and this was personified in the figure of George Washington. The grandeur of Washington’s memory, and all the ideals that it enshrined, concealed the realities of the war he had actually fought. War was conceived as essentially a contest of heroic generals. This is confirmed by the rising cult of Napoleon that excited nineteenth-century America which has yet to be documented adequately. The figure of Andrew Jackson assumed such Napoleonic proportions that it was at times difficult to see when ‘Old Hickory’ began and the Emperor ended. In addition, the romance of war was injected into these conflicts by analogies drawn from antiquity, but especially the Middle Ages. Through the novels of Sir Walter Scott, mid-nineteenth-century Americans – the great majority of whom had not experienced its brutalities in 1812–15 or 1846–48 – came to envisage war as a chivalrous sport, an ideal counterpoint to the grubby, corrupt and materialistic ethos of the age.23

Occasionally in 1861 doubts surfaced about this essentially optimistic view of war. J. E. B. Stuart confided to George Cary Eggleston that, T regard it as a foregone conclusion … that we shall ultimately whip the Yankees. We are bound to believe that, anyhow; but the war is going to be a long and terrible one, first. We’ve only just begun it, and very few of us will see the end’. Benjamin F. Butler was also to argue in April 1861 that if his 25,000 men should ‘die … a quarter of a million will take their place’ until ‘women with their broomsticks’ would ‘drive every enemy into the gulf. One wonders whether ‘long’ here is not a relative term? If the war was expected to be over in a matter of weeks, then a year was a very ‘long’ time, and ‘terrible’. This kind of rhetoric has a much closer relationship with ‘blood-curdling’ pre-war rhetoric than it does with any prescience over the harsh realities of 1861–65. It was habitual for the men of the 1850s to speak and write of war in terms of extreme hyperbole as they themselves had not experienced it, and Stuart and Butler’s expectations fit this pattern.24

Groups who are confident in their cause usually expect success to come rapidly. The overwhelming force of received wisdom in 1861 was that a battle, and a campaign, let alone the war, were synonymous. Therefore, to win one great battle at the beginning would be sufficient to bring the war to an end. Here it might be pointed out with profit – in contradistinction to the customary generalization that Americans are excessively passionate in their warmaking, and too prone to transforming their wars into ventures with unlimited objectives – that most Americans have entered them – especially in the nineteenth century – thinking they would be short. Their expansion into brutal wars to the finish, as in 1861–65, was as much a product of disillusion with initial failures as from any inherent penchant for crusading.25

The second crucial element that underlines any thinking about war in these years is that it would be essentially unorganized, and fought with volunteers. That is to say, any war fought in the Americas would not be the exclusive province of standing, regular armies commanded by professional officers. The volunteer regiments were carved from the militia system that demanded universal military service, though such far-reaching demands were theoretical rather than practical. The volunteers could indeed be militia regiments but they were more frequently spontaneous gatherings of men eager to serve, to regulate their own affairs and dress, and participate in a military adventure that was called for by some urgent crisis. They were often excited by a feeling of corps d’élite and extravagant uniforms. They were more common in the North than in the South, and were increasingly associated with immigrant groups – often as expressions of urban ethnic identity.26

These regiments (who chose their own officers) were a fine testimony to a sense of ‘community’ and a passion for picturesque adventure that was so prevalent in ante-bellum America. Most significantly, these units contributed to a growing sense of state patriotism and also to an expansive restlessness.27 The contrast between the boasting of the volunteers and their egregious appearance was often the object of scorn among regulars, as during the Mexican War.28 Volunteers indeed may not have assumed any recognizable ‘military’ form at all. Here the experience of unorganized and vigilante action in Kansas is most significant. The Missourian ‘ruffians’ that swaggered into Kansas in 1854–55 were mobilized by the Platte County Self-Defensive Association. ‘Self-defence’ in this case required driving Free Soil settlers from their farms and burning their towns. Both sides in this dispute believed that the other benefited from a secret military organization, which did not exist, but the pattern of the violence was hardly ‘military’. It was sporadic and on a tiny scale. The killing of one young man was sufficient to spark the ‘Wakarusa War’. Twelve hundred Missourians gathered to attack Lawrence, though they held off. In May 1856 Lawrence was indeed ‘sacked’ – one man was killed and a pro-slavery raider was killed when a brick fell off the roof of the Free State Hotel. The much denounced, brutal murder of five pro-slavery supporters committed by John Brown’s gang at Pottawatomie Creek was small beer, even by comparison with the twentieth century’s more notorious ‘serial killers’.29

The violence in Kansas – which was a series of exaggerated descriptions of frontier brawls – contributed powerfully to a view after 1858 in both North and South that the war, if it came, would not be of significant intensity. We should not confuse the rhetoric employed to describe this militarily insignificant activity with the conclusions drawn as to its future importance.30 Thus ‘drenching the Union in blood’, to cite a metaphor much favoured by southern spokesmen, actually meant ‘violence as described in Kansas’. It should not be construed as meaning that southerners expected any sustained or prolonged form of civil war. In the North, a view prevailed that should war be necessary, and the majority hoped that it would not, then it would resemble an affray like Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786. Then the militia dispersed effortlessly a body of discontented and truculent farmers who threatened to seize a federal arsenal at Springfield. Similarly, during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 in Pennsylvania a force of 13,000 men was mobilized to suppress a rebellion of farmers who refused to pay an excise on the products of their whisky distilleries. The 7,000 rebels lacked organization and clear aims; they were easily dispersed with trifling casualties. It was in this spirit that Lincoln moved to suppress the Confederacy in 1861.31

In a society as idealistic as the United States, thoughts of war had to be geared to higher aspirations or rationalization. By 1860–61 both sides thought they had right on their side. One side felt it was defending the Union against the depredations of traitors – it was the duty of the North to defend the integrity of the democratic process and the precious indivisibility of the American experiment in democracy. The other felt that it was defending the true heritage of George Washington and asserting just (and constitutionally justified) southern rights – the constitutional right to extinguish the constitution should southern interests demand it.

These feelings were perhaps stronger in the North than in the South. The United States was considered a very special polity – one blessed by providence. Not only did that providential example – as a beacon of democracy – need to be protected, but it was also right that, as this special polity had not reached, let alone maintained, the standards required of it, the United States be purged and be subject to divine punishment – war. ‘Our present civilization is characterized and tainted by a devouring greediness …’, wrote William Ellery Channing. ‘The passion for gain is everywhere sapping pure and generous feelings’. The northern economy was regaining strength after the recession of 1857, but many politicians, Lincoln and Seward among them, thought that this was being achieved at the expense of moral values. Similarly, in the South men (and women) were prepared to acquiesce in the coming of war in the mistaken view that it would resuscitate ideals and a sense of community and obligation. War, therefore, became a stern test through which society should pass – a ‘fiery trial’ in Lincoln’s words. This attitude, in short, contributed to a frame of mind that believed that the coming of war would not be an unmitigated evil.32

How men acted

It should not be assumed, of course, that a rigid distinction can be drawn between how men think and how men act, as there is an intimate relationship between them. The most important feature of ante-bellum military attitudes that shaped conduct was the belief that if there was a single region in the United States that enjoyed a coherent, impressive military tradition, it was the South. According to one historian, the southern character exhibited great belligerence: indeed ‘almost universal acknowledgement of their remarkable spirit and will to fight’. Southerners congratulated themselves on their ‘indomitable energy in battle, humanity and moderation after victory … and the storm of war which shook Mexico to her foundations [in 1846–48], roused not the slightest ripple upon the smooth waters of our internal repose’. Such martial confidence, a zeal for war, and record of success, helps explain why the South did little to prevent the coming of war in 1861, and why her armies were so successful in 1861–63.33

Or does it? The great majority of the literary efforts that try to define southern ‘character’ distinguish firmly between ‘the South’ and other sections. They are largely a post-1865 development – they often seek to justify (or damn) the nobility of the southern cause and explain its martial record in the Civil War. Does all this, therefore, constitute a southern ‘military tradition’ before 1861? The answer must be that warnings of a southern military tradition have been greatly exaggerated, and that this must be consigned to the long list of southern myths designed to promote some sense of southern identity.

On close investigation, all the elements of this so-called tradition demonstrate that attitudes to soldiering were broadly comparable North and South. The existence of the tradition was believed in, and acted upon, by contemporaries – but this does not render it valid. Enthusiasm for the novels of Sir Walter Scott and their romantic air of martial adventure was shared equally by northerners; there was no great domination by the South of military academies, though those in the South have become more famous; there was little sophisticated military thought in the nineteenth century, but what did appear was written by northerners; in terms of proportionate numbers to varying sectional populations, the United States Military Academy did not graduate more cadets from the South than the North. In an eloquent speech attacking secession, Alexander H. Stephens, pleaded the case for remaining in the Union because of southern dominance of federal institutions, including ‘a vast majority of the higher officers of both army and navy’ in 1861. This was not due to the innate excellence of southern generals, but because of promotion by strict seniority, so that after 1840 the highest positions in the army remained in the same hands for decades at a time when the population balance was changing drastically in favour of the North. Highly organized minority opinion in the United States can gain great power over federal patronage, particularly if it is conservative in tone; the South was highly successful in asserting and protecting its interests in this regard.34

What, therefore, remains of the tradition? All accounts stress the importance of casual violence, vigilantism and duels as important elements of the southern outlook; this has more to do with the pattern of frontier violence than anything inherently southern. The slave system certainly nurtured a strong vigilante tradition and stimulated militia activities closely related to police functions – the ‘Slave Patrol’, for instance. These grew up in the eighteenth century, but they were not ‘military’ in import. In the various Indian Wars and in the Mexican War, southern commentators stressed the highly individualistic, adaptable, unfettered, unaffected ‘natural’ genius of their soldiers. This is not uniquely southern and is typical of the rhetoric of the 1840s celebrating the great talents of American warriors. But again, does all this constitute a military tradition as opposed to a taste for casual violence? Certainly not. Those countries with the most impressive military traditions, Russia, Germany and Japan, have been highly deferential to the prestige of the army, have not approved of lawlessness and individualism, nor (until recent times) have they been very democratic.35

A penchant for violence is not, of course, irrelevant, but we should be very careful not to confuse violence with war, as so many Americans did in 1861 – and some historians do to this day. It is striking that critics of Marcus Cunliffe fault him on the grounds that he underestimates a southern taste for brawling, duelling and tarring and feathering, especially of strangers or those who threatened the southern way of life. An account of a tarring and feathering occurs in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), when the ‘king’ and the ‘duke’ are discovered at their swindling tricks, and suffer for them. But all these writers who seek to find something exceptional and distinct in southern behaviour overlook an elementary but fundamental point, namely, in Bruce Collins’s words, that ‘habits of violence acquired in dealing with slaves and in maintaining personal codes of honour had no direct bearing on the disciplined mass behaviour demanded of Civil War armies’.36

Southern ‘filibustering’ can be fitted into this tradition of casual violence. The most famous filibuster was William Walker, the so-called ‘gray-eyed man of destiny’. Walker was prone to gathering small groups of men, calling this band an ‘army’ and launching it on raids in Central America, such as that inflicted on Mexico in 1853 and Nicaragua in 1855. The ambitions of these ragged groups of free-booters and plunderers were completely out of kilter with their discipline and martial prowess. And though Walker, briefly, made himself dictator of Nicaragua in 1855, he was shot dead the following year. This pattern of casual ill-discipline is so pervasive that it was carried over into the Civil War itself. If there is a southern military tradition – which is doubtful – its true exemplar is Earl Van Dorn, a romantic, vainglorious, empty-headed adventurer, in the spirit of Walker, rather than the studied professionalism of Robert E. Lee or Joseph E.Johnston.37

Yet even if the notion of a southern military tradition is rejected we cannot brush aside this confusion of riot, widespread disorder and violence (and the southern attachment to the belief that they had a rare talent for it) because it had an important bearing on southern conduct in the final crisis that led to civil war. William Howard Russell was shocked during his visits to the South in the early months of 1861 by the casual assumption of martial superiority based on the most spurious grounds. He recorded a number of conversations with southerners who asserted ‘that the white men in the slave states are physically superior to the men in the free states; and indulged in curious theories in morals and physics to which I was a stranger’. Moreover, the great majority of southerners seemed to maintain that warfare was simply a brawl, or a duel on a larger scale (this last was certainly an unintended paraphrase of Clausewitz). Moreover, moral superiority in war was proven by instances of personal confrontations with northern representatives in Congress. The caning of Sumner was an especially comforting example.

The notion that the northern men are cowards is justified by instances in which Congressmen have been insulted by southern men without calling them out, and Mr Sumner’s case was quoted as the type of affairs of the kind between the two sides.

Russell included a conversation with a somewhat inebriated Senator (then also Colonel) Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, a noted duellist, who compared Sumner’s caning ‘as a type of the manner in which the southerners would deal with northerners generally … [and] in which they would bear their “whipping”’. Indeed Wigfall upheld his view that war represented some kind of sporting pageant, when during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, he had himself rowed out to the fort in a frantic attempt to persuade the garrison to surrender because they had proved their courage; his exhortations were ignored, yet it was typical of the shallow (and ignorant) southern view of war that he should make them.38

The whole notion of ‘manliness’ is thus wrapped up in the web of unspoken assumptions that men fell back on instinctively when teetering on the brink of war. It became an article of faith that southerners exhibited a high degree of manliness, and they also argued that the northerners lacked it. Some northerners agreed. They believed that an urban, industrialized society was at a disadvantage when set against a rural, outdoor one. George Templeton Strong was tired of hearing of the need for placating the South. What ‘could stiffen up the spiritless, money-worshipping North? Strange the South can’t kick us into manliness and a little moderate wrath. Southerners rule us through our slaves of Fifth Avenue and Wall Street’. Thus under the pressure of the secession crisis the myriad of unspoken assumptions came together in a complex and often contradictory matrix. The contempt for partisan attitudes, materialism and corruption, the fear of conspiracy and a dedication to honour, were compounded into a vision of short and bloodless wars. Many agreed that the South had a monopoly of martial virtues, and that northerners were only interested in making money; they were degenerate, and lacked patriotism and guts. This in turn persuaded numbers of northern politicians that they needed to ‘stand up’ to the South and be ‘tested’. The impatience which these attitudes generated tended to result in a kind of fatalism. Let the matter be put to the ultimate test. As Jefferson Davis complained, he ‘would rather appeal to the God of Battles at once than to attempt to live longer in such a Union’.39

Yet it was characteristic of the contradictions that can easily be found under the confident surface of southern attitudes that simultaneously with their denunciation of northerners as degenerate cowards, they were thrown into panic by the impetuous action of one northern man, John Brown, and a tiny group of his followers.

John Brown’s raid, 1859

The famous but ill-starred attempt by John Brown to seize the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry represents, in so many ways, all the themes that have been discussed in this chapter. To the South, it demonstrated the manner in which, should civil war come, northern fanatics and ‘abolitionists’ would attempt to destroy their society. It was imperative that the South act quickly and decisively, and if necessary brutally, to confront and stamp out this danger. Resolute, anti-slavery northerners expressed views that were often contradictory: as contradictory as Brown’s raid was in representing them. Those who saw slavery as an unutterable evil that could be destroyed only by force, envisaged war in the form of a more ambitious Kansas incursion. Those who saw the possible use of force as a police exercise in returning seceded southern states to the Union envisaged military action as rapid, settling the matter before abolitionists of John Brown’s temper could escalate the levels of violence and disrupt the existing pattern of race relations in the South. But in 1859–60 the great majority of northerners believed that a resort to force was unnecessary and that a further compromise agreement could be reached.

So much of this contingency revolved around one extraordinary and eccentric man – John Brown. Brown was born in 1800, the son of a tanner. He was restless and continually on the move. He was not well educated; he was a semi-trained schoolmaster, who had dabbled in farming, failed at business and had fallen into bankruptcy. He exhibited all the certainties of the self-educated. He was arrogant, self-righteous, stern and unbending. Brown tended to be obsessive, and was consumed by religious feeling. He read the Bible with all the zeal of the late convert, and its imagery permeated and directed what passed for his thought. He did not know the meaning of self-doubt, and appeared to bookish abolitionists as the very embodiment of the warrior. Yet it was typical of these mid-nineteenth-century attitudes that this ‘warrior’ knew nothing about war – though he knew something about killing, having murdered pro-slavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek in 1856. This was ‘war’ to mid-nineteenth-century America – the death of one man was ‘one of the sure results of Civil War’.40

The most attractive side of Brown’s personality was his complete absence of any racial prejudice. He treated blacks with unaffected simplicity – like he would anybody else; he did not patronize or condescend to them, and developed a close friendship with the black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. He sought out his advice and attempted to involve him directly in his violent activities. Yet there is something chilling about the smooth, shining surface of Brown’s moral certainties: only a man with no very clear understanding of means and the ends could launch an ‘army’ of twenty-two men to attack slavery in Virginia, as Douglass belatedly realized.41

Brown first believed that ‘the great drama will open here [in Kansas], when will be presented the great struggle in arms, of Freedom and Despotism in America’. Then in 1858 he began to think in terms of founding a separate, black republic in the Appalachian Mountains, and beguiled Douglass with his plans. He spent time, too much time, drawing up a constitution for this chimera; he was not the first, nor the last, would-be American revolutionary, who thought that the first priority of setting up a new polity should be constitutional regularity.42 Then he considered setting up bases for escaped slaves in the mountains through which fugitives could be funnelled towards Canada. Brown seemed to think that just willing these grandiose schemes was enough; exactly how they were to be protected in the absence of armed strength never seems to have agitated his imagination. ‘The Plan’ which he finally settled on was equally grandiose, and egregious. He would take the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry, whereupon he expected the slaves to join him ‘in a mighty black stampede’. The South would be paralysed with fear, the weapons would be handed out, and Brown and his joyous host would plunge southwards, liberating slaves, destroying plantations and securing more weapons from arsenals en route.

This escapade (which resembles many a plan concocted by ambitious generals North and South 1861–62 whose ambitions outran their military knowledge) was a vision in which the enemy had no place. Regrettably for him, Brown had chosen a part of Virginia with fewer than 5,000 slaves, though it had a white population of over 100,000. How, in any case, the slaves were to discover that their self-appointed liberator had arrived is quite unclear, as he had no means of communicating with them.43 What was extraordinary, as Brown’s raid was continually being discussed in nearby Chambersburg (and also in Philadelphia), was that he took the Virginian authorities completely by surprise. The details of the raid need not detain us. On 16 October 1859 Brown and his small band rode into Harper’s Ferry as if intent on robbing a bank. On the contrary, Brown hoped (as he had explained to his northern admirers, known as the ‘Secret Six’) to provoke a sectional confrontation that would result in the destruction of civil war. Brown’s ‘raid’ was therefore one of the defining moments of American nineteenth-century history. It symbolized the haphazard and careless thinking about war that characterized this society, which envisaged conflict as essentially unorganized and civilian in scope. To collect a group of men intent on violence, it was complacently assumed, was to raise an army. Furthermore, Brown’s raid enshrined that faith which so many evinced (even if they were not yet in a majority), that cataclysmic violent acts were a positive instrument for good. This was a mode of thought that contributed to the idée fixe that any war would be short and decisive.

Frederick Douglass had predicted, should Brown attack Harper’s Ferry, that he would throw himself ‘into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would not get out alive’. The whole escapade was idiotic, but it does illustrate a number of aspects of American violence that would recur in 1861–65. In the first instance, once Brown’s attempted insurrection was discovered, popular, savage emotions were released. Stephen Oates has observed that ‘By late afternoon the town [Harper’s Ferry] was in chaos as half-drunken and uncontrolled crowds thronged Potomac and Shenandoah streets’. No slaves came to Harper’s Ferry to be liberated, for confusion reigned and nobody knew what was going on. Brown had succeeded in getting into the armoury and was under siege in the engine house; with him were thirteen hostages. All around were militia and over-anxious half-armed farmers who shot at anything that moved – including themselves. Some regular units commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee brought some restraint to the sea of confusion, and the engine house was stormed by a party led by Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart; Brown was captured and the hostages released.44

As soon as things began to go wrong, Brown assumed a heroic pose. At his subsequent trial, he perfected this role of noble martyr. His conduct and demeanour throughout the case and execution perfectly suited his own histrionic skills and it transfixed both sections. But the significance of the raid transcends the political, sectional confrontation that is usually attributed to it. The raid served as a portent of the future rather than the climax of past rivalries. Historians have tended to emphasize the hysteria that gripped the South – as the frenzied emotions of the citizens of Harper’s Ferry spread like a contagion throughout the slave states. This may account for the appeal of secession after 1859–60 and a desire to act quickly and put matters to the proof. But historians have been less successful in explaining why speed was so insisted upon.45

Once a raid like Brown’s had happened, the realization dawned that it might happen again – the next time on a greater scale and perhaps with better leadership. This added a further fear to the litany that southerners were chanting of the dangers they faced should the Republicans win the 1860 presidential election. ‘Cohorts of Federal office-holders, Abolitionists may be sent into [our] midst’, one southern senator warned after the election; another southerner was even more explicit: ‘Now that the black radical Republicans have the power, I suppose they will [John] Brown us all’. A further deduction was made. The stronger the denunciation of Brown, and the more frantic the desire to bring Brown’s northern admirers and backers to justice, too, the more powerful was revealed an underlying assumption that should civil war come, it would begin with raids, like Brown’s, led by northern abolitionists, designed to provoke slave insurrections. As the secession crisis intensified there were more attempts to control the movement of free blacks, remove any anomalies in their position (so that ‘nominal’ slaves would lose their liberties), and if possible return them to slavery. The loyalty of free blacks could not be counted on, as their alliance with free white wage labour in southern cities might prove disastrous.46

The linkage in southern minds between slave insurrection and civil war may explain why so many sceptics who were not persuaded by secessionist arguments, hurriedly supported the Confederacy once the die was cast. The best evidence of this process occurred in Adams County, Mississippi in October 1861. A rebellion was planned by trusted slave drivers to coincide with General Winfield Scott’s scheme to advance from New Orleans up the Mississippi River. The slaves planned to murder their owners, take up arms (mostly farm tools) and join Scott’s forces. The ‘whipping business would stop’. The plot was discovered, and the planters of Adams County acted with peremptory brutality. Few of these had been supporters of secession but now rallied loyally to the Confederate cause. The slaves were whipped until they confessed and then, without due process of law, twenty-four were hanged. The speed with which this conspiracy was crushed is evidence of a pre-existing urgency given further point by the crisis of civil war and the expectation that more John Browns would hurl themselves on the South. Certainly, his raid shattered any chance that a united opposition to secession would form in Virginia that was prepared to cooperate with the Republican Party. The fear of slave rebellion was never greater in southern history than after John Brown’s raid of 1859.47

1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (London: Macmillan, 1943) p. 712.

2. James Joll, 1914: The Unspoken Assumptions (Inaugural Lecture, London School of Economics: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1968).

3. Richard J. Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1994), p. 181.

4. Mark W. Summers, The Plundering Generation: Corruption and the Crisis of the Union, 1849–1861 (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), pp. 3, 16–18, 32–5, to which this discussion owes much.

5. Ibid., pp. 49–50, 53–61, 80, 109.

6. Ibid., pp. 168–73, 216–217, 224–5, 245–6, 253–4, 256, 259; Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1991), pp. 54, 60–1.

7. Quoted in Marcus Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians: The Martial Spirit in America, 1775–1865, 3rd edn, with a new preface by Brian Holden Reid (London: Gregg, 1993), p. 376.

8. Joel H. Silbey, The Partisan Imperative (New York: Oxford UP, 1985), pp. 61, 171, 174, 175.

9. Summers, Plundering Generation, pp. 175–9, 184, 202, 299. Seward’s association with the corrupt ‘wizard of the lobbies’, Thurlow Weed, was a major disadvantage in his hopes for the 1860 nomination. See ibid., p. 270.

10. Summers, Plundering Generation, pp. 213, 229, 291; William E. Gienapp, ‘“Politics Seem to Enter into Everything”: Political Culture in the North, 1840–1860’, in Stephen E. Maizlish (ed.) Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840–1860 (College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1982), pp. 43–5.

11. James Brewer Stewart, Wendell Phillips: Liberty’s Hero (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1986), pp. 68, 202–6, 219.

12. Summers, Plundering Generation, p. 184.

13. Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 2 vols (London: Longmans Green, 1881), I, pp. 228–9.

14. See Philip Mason, The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal (London: André Deutsch, 1982).

15. Don E. Fehrenbacher, The South and Three Sectional Crises (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980), p. 63.

16. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York: Oxford UP, 1982), pp. 22, 75, 111, 113, 168, 350–61, 438.

17. Ibid., pp. 9–10, 45–7, 59–60, 113, 138–40, 369–80; Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones and William N. Still, Jr, Why the South Lost the Civil War (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986), p. 401.

18. Davis, Rise and Fall, pp. 207–9.

19. Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, pp. 374–5; Michael C. C. Adams, Our Masters the Rebels (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978), pp. 60–2.

20. Cyril Falls, The Place of War in History: An Inaugural Lecture (Oxford: Clarendon, 1947), p. 10. I am grateful to Major P. A. Fox, RA, for bringing this lecture to my attention. See below, pp. 196, 352.

21. Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, p. 53; J. W. Ward, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (New York: Oxford UP, 1955), pp. 5–10, 101–3; J. C. A. Stagg, Mr Madison’s War (Princeton UP, 1983), pp. 496–500.

22. Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination (New York: Oxford UP, 1985), p. 61.

23. Ibid., pp. 59–60, 70–1; Ward, Jackson, pp. 182–9; Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, pp. 348–9; Gary Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (London: Robert Hale, 1984), pp. 122, 167, 171–2.

24. Quoted in Emory M. Thomas, Bold Dragoon: The Life of J. E. B. Stuart (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 97; Richard S. West, Lincoln’s Scapegoat General (Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1965), pp. 73–4.

25. Marcus Cunliffe, ‘The Formative Events from Columbus to World War I’, in Michael P. Hamilton (ed.) American Character and Foreign Policy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), pp. 10–11.

26. Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, pp. 216–18, 220–6; Brian Holden Reid, ‘A Survey of the Militia in 18th Century America’, Army Quarterly (Jan. 1980), pp. 49, 53–4.

27. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas, pp. 26, 29, 63; Anne C. Rose, Victorian America and the Civil War (Cambridge UP, 1992), pp. 86, 99, 110.

28. See The Mexican War Diary of General George B. McClellan, ed. William S. Myers (Princeton UP, 1917), pp. 28, 38, 43.

29. James A. Rawley, Race and Politics: ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and the Cowing of the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969, 1979), pp. 85, 96–8, 132, 134.

30. Rawley, Race and Politics, p. 160, estimates the total casualties 1855–56 at 200 and property loss at about $2 million: this is a maximum rather than minimum estimate.

31. Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, pp. 42–3; Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion (New York: Oxford UP, 1986), pp. 181–2, 188–9.

32. Phillip S. Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence; KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994), p. 11; Rose, Victorian America, pp. 19, 100–2, 106, 252.

33. John Hope Franklin, The Militant South, 1800–1861 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1956), pp. 2–3, 10.

34. Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, pp. 342–4, 347–55, 360–6, 368–70.

35. Bruce Collins, ‘The Southern Military Tradition, 1812–61’, in Brian Holden Reid and John White (eds) American Studies: Essays in Honour of Marcus Cunliffe (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 31, 135.

36. Differences of interpretation may be traced in Collins, ‘Southern Military Tradition’, pp. 130–5; Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, pp. 192, 484–5, 533–5; G. McWhiney, Cracker Culture (University of Alabama Press, 1988), pp. 147–57, 159, 169–70; James M. McPherson, ‘Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism’, Civil War History 29 (1983), pp. 230–44. McPherson claims that more southerners entered West Point, but Cunliffe had never denied this: see Soldiers and Civilians, p. 361, also Brian Holden Reid, ‘New Preface to the Gregg Revivals Edition’ (1993), p. xiii; this edition also includes Cunliffe’s own (1973) response to his critics, pp. xvii–xxiii.

37. Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union (New York: Scribner’s, 1947), II, pp. 368–74, 405–8.

38. W. H. Russell, My Diary North and South, ed. Eugene H. Berwanger (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), pp. 61–3, 89 (entries for 5 Apr., 17 Apr. 1861); W. A. Swanberg, First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter (New York: Scribner’s, 1957), pp. 318–20.

39. William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and his Hour (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 268.

40. Stephen B. Oates, To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, 2nd edn (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970, 1984), pp. 108, 132–7.

41. William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: Norton, 1991), pp. 186–7, 195–7.

42. See below, pp. 297–301.

43. McFeely, Douglass, pp. 193–4; Oates, Purge this Land with Blood, pp. 278–9; Allan Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln (New York: Scribner’s, 1950), II, pp. 74–8.

44. Quoted in McFeely, Douglass, p. 196; Oates, Purge this Land with Blood, p. 296; Emory M. Thomas, Bold Dragoon.

45. David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 completed and ed. by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper, 1976), pp. 381–4.

46. Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 1992), pp. 234–5; No Chariot Let Down: Charleston’s Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War, ed. Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pp. 143–7.

47. Winthrop D. Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993), pp. 90, 237, 257; Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), pp. 70–2.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!