AMERICA IS DIFFERENT. Today, when American “exceptionalism,” as it is called, has become the subject of academic study, the United States, except in wealth and military power, is less exceptional than it was in the years when it was to be reached only by sailing ship across the Atlantic. Then, before American culture had been universalised by Hollywood, the technology of television, and the international music industry, America really was a different place and society from the Old World, which had given it birth. Europeans who made the voyage noted differences of every sort, not only political and economic, but human and social as well. Americans were bigger than Europeans—even their slaves were bigger than their African forebears—thanks to the superabundance of food that American farms produced. American parents allowed their children a freedom not known in Europe; they shrank from punishing their sons and daughters in the ways European fathers and mothers did. Ulysses S. Grant, the future general in chief of the Union armies and president of the United States, recalled in his memoirs that there was “never any scolding or punishment by my parents, no objection to rational enjoyments such as fishing, going to the creek a mile away to swim in summer, taking a horse and visiting my grandparents in the adjoining county, fifteen miles off, skating on the ice in winter, taking a horse and sleigh when there was snow on the ground.”1 It was a description of childhood as experienced in most prosperous country-dwelling families of the period. The Grants were modestly well-to-do, Jesse Grant, the future president’s father, having a tanning business and also working an extensive property of arable land and forest. But then most established American families, and the Grants had come to the New World in 1630, were prosperous. It was prosperity that underlay their easy way with their offspring, since they were not obliged to please neighbours by constraining their children. The children of the prosperous were nevertheless well-behaved because they were schooled and churchgoing. The two went together, though not in lockstep. Lincoln was a notably indulgent father though he was not a doctrinal Christian. Churchgoing America, overwhelmingly Protestant before 1850, needed to read the Bible, and north of the Mason-Dixon line, which informally divided North from South, four-fifths of Americans could read and write. Almost all American children in the North, and effectively all in New England, went to school, a far higher proportion than in Europe, where literacy even in Britain, France, and Germany lay around two-thirds. America was also becoming college-going, with the seats of higher education, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, the College of William and Mary, established and flourishing. America could afford to fund and run colleges because it was already visibly richer than Europe, rich agriculturally, though it was not yet a food-exporting economy, and increasingly rich industrially. It was a newspaper country with a vast newspaper-reading public and a large number of local and some widely distributed city newspapers. Its medical profession was large and skilful, and the inventiveness and mechanical aptitude of its population was remarked upon by all visitors. So too was the vibrant and passionate nature of its politics. America was already a country of ideas and movements, highly conscious of its birth in freedom and its legacy of revolution; anti-imperialism had been its founding principle. During the decades before the Civil War, America was experiencing an industrial boom and its own distinctive industrial revolution. England’s industrial revolution had taken its impetus from the development of steam power, fuelled by the island’s abundant deposits of coal and directed to the exploitation of its large deposits of metal ores. Early-nineteenth-century America was also beginning to dig coal and iron ore, of which its soil contained enormous quantities, but at the outset it was two other sources of power which drove its proliferating factories and workshops: waterpower and wood. The rivers of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania were harnessed to turn water-wheels and its extensive forests to supply timber for burning. In Europe the days were long gone when forests could be cut down to supply heat. The Continent, outside Scandinavia and the Russian interior, was highly deforested. In America, trees were still an encumbrance which had to be felled to provide land for farming, but which also, when sawn, provided the raw material for every sort of building and manufactured item. America needed deforestation if its soils were to be farmed in the future, and in that process industrialisation and land clearing went hand in hand. During the 1830s and later, New York City consumed several million loads of wood every year, cut and stripped from Maine and New Jersey. It was only gradually that mines were dug and extended, originally by immigrants from the English coalfields and Welsh valleys, but by 1860 production in the Pennsylvanian anthracite fields had increased fortyfold in thirty years. By that date a distinctive economic geography of the United States could be discerned, with expanding industrial regions centred on New York and Philadelphia, exploited coalfields in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Allegheny region of the Appalachians, a developing industrial region around Pittsburgh, and a thriving textile and engineering zone in southern New England. In the North the proportion of farmworkers in the labour force had fallen below 40 percent, while it remained above 80 percent in the South. An economic map would show that there was no industrial centre south of a line drawn from St. Louis to Louisville to Baltimore; in the South nine-tenths of the population lived in the countryside, but in the North only a quarter. Timber also provided the steam power for paddleboats, which by 1850 were to be seen on every navigable waterway, and the railway locomotives, which were becoming familiar on the tracks which were stretching out to link all the more important cities to one another and to the seaboard ports. By 1850 there were 9,000 miles of track in the United States; by 1860, 30,000. Rivers and then canals had been the means of transportation and distribution in the early stages of the boom. Canal boats and river steamers were rapidly overtaken in importance by the railroad. By 1850, America had surpassed Britain, home of the railroad revolution, in miles of operating track; indeed, American track mileage exceeded that of the rest of the world put together.
The United States was still an industrial client of Europe, particularly Britain, from which most manufactured goods came, but that was due to Britain’s head start in the industrial revolution. By the end of the century this would no longer be the case. In the meantime, America was ceasing to be a predominately rural country and becoming an urban one. At the outbreak of the Civil War, America had more country-dwellers than town-dwellers, many more in the South, but the trend was for town-dwellers to outnumber country-dwellers. Cities were being founded at a breakneck rate and growing at exponential speed. The old cities of colonial settlement, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, retained their importance, but new cities were appearing and expanding, particularly beyond the Appalachian chain and even beyond the Mississippi; for a time Cincinnati promised to be the most important of the new metropolises, but it was rapidly overtaken by Chicago, which grew from a population of 5,000 in 1840 to 109,000 in 1860. It might be said that Chicago was only keeping pace with the United States itself, whose population increased from 5,306,000 in 1800 to 23,192,000 in 1850. Part of the increase came from migration, though the decades of mass immigration lay in the future; most of it was the result of a high birthrate. The astonishing productivity of the United States furnished work for all who chose to stay in the towns, while the abundant availability of land for settlement in the new states beyond the Appalachians and the Mississippi attracted would-be farmers, or employed farmers seeking better land, in large numbers. In whichever direction a visitor to the United States looked, the country was growing.
It was not that America was giving up the land. On the contrary: in the twenty years before 1860 enormous areas of the subcontinent were put under the plough; but the work was done by internal migrants who abandoned their homes on the thin, worked-out soils of New England, Virginia, and the Carolinas to trek westward into the new land in and beyond the Mississippi and Missouri valleys. Federal land policy encouraged the migrants. In 1800 public land was sold at $2 an acre, with a quarter to be paid down and four years to pay off the residue. By 1820 the price had gone down to $1.25 an acre. Land was sold in subdivisions of a section of 640 acres. By 1832 the government accepted bids for a quarter of a quarter section, 40 acres. In 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act, which allowed a settler free possession of 160 acres if farmed for five years. The legislation effectively transferred eighty million acres of public land into private hands, and accommodated half a million people. American land policy was the making of such states as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, the Middle West proper. As settlement moved on to the more distant lands of the prairies in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, the first comers got the best of the deal. The prairies were settled during an uncharacteristic era of moist climate, which conferred bountiful crops on the hardworking. By the twentieth century, desiccation had set in and many farms joined the dust bowl.
Settlement was not exclusively by free men. Cotton profits pulled plantation owners westward into new lands during the period 1830–50, particularly onto the dark, rich soils of the “black belt” of Alabama and Mississippi, but even as far away as the river lands of Texas. It is calculated that 800,000 slaves were moved, by their owners, from the Atlantic coast farther inland between 1800 and 1860.
America was growing not only in population but also in wealth. Not yet an exporting country, except of cotton, its enormous internal market consumed all that could be produced. The whole of America was industrialising in the 1850s, particularly those parts settled since the eighteenth century: New England, Pennsylvania, New York, and some of Virginia. The industrialisation had its centre in Connecticut, which had both excellent river and canal connections with other parts of the region, and plentiful waterpower to drive factory machinery. Even as a pre-industrial economy, America wanted and bought the output of New England’s workshops and factories, which worked by methods that would be copied all over the world. It was in Connecticut that what came to be called “the American system of manufacture” first established itself. The American system also became known as the “system of interchangeable parts,” which is exactly descriptive. A well-educated and well-trained workforce learnt to make parts in metal or wood to such narrow tolerances that one manufactured item could be assembled from a random selection of parts. The American army’s rifle, the Springfield, was such a product. It so impressed British visitors to the Springfield armoury that the British government bought the appropriate machinery to equip its armoury at Enfield for the Crimean War. When in 1861 the American government was gripped by demand for large quantities of rifles, the Enfield armoury supplied much of the need. Because the Springfield and Enfield products were manufactured in almost the same calibre, the Enfield being slightly larger, American cartridges fitted both quite satisfactorily, so well in fact that Union soldiers did not differentiate between Springfields and Enfields. Many good republicans thus went into battle with a weapon which bore the letters VR under a crown on the plate of the lock. The “system of interchangeable parts” also enabled the manufacture and assembly of clocks, watches, household and agricultural machinery, and the increasing number of labour-saving devices which American inventiveness brought to the world. America was chronically short of labour, both in town and country, so that any device that could multiply the work of a pair of hands was rapidly adopted. The sewing machine, which allowed housewives to dress themselves and their families at home or the local dressmaker to set up as a businesswoman, was widely adopted across America as soon as it was perfected. American farmers meanwhile were buying reaping machines, binders, and seed drills which could perform the tasks for which labour was lacking. The most significant element of mechanisation antedated the nineteenth century. It was the invention by Eli Whitney in 1793 of the cotton gin, a machine that separated the cotton fibre from the seed on which it grew, the boll. The gin revolutionised cotton production. A process which required a slave’s hard labour for an hour to produce a pound of cotton could be completed by the machine in a few minutes. Little was turned into manufactured goods in the South, which, having sent raw cotton north to be spun, then had to buy it back as woven cloth or finished apparel.
The South’s dependence on the industrial resources of the North underlay a visible social split. The South remained, as the North had been in the eighteenth century, agrarian and rural, with most Southerners living on the land and working as subsistence farmers, raising corn, hogs, and root crops, most of which they consumed themselves or sold locally, while the Northerners began during the nineteenth century to migrate from the land to towns in which they found wage-paying work. The readiness during the war of the two sides to fraternise at times of truce, formal and informal, and the willingness of both to be taken prisoner dispose of the idea that North and South were markedly different societies; despite the war, Americans remained American. Accent apart, and many Northerners complained they could hardly understand the way Southerners spoke, the soldiers of the two sides resembled each other much more than they differed. Both, in overwhelming majority, were country boys, in their twenties, farmers’ sons who had left their land to join the army. Nevertheless, North and South were different, and the differences showed in the character of the armies.
Southerners were almost without exception small-town boys, or the sons of small farmers. Only a minority were slave owners. Of the South’s white population of five million, only 48,000 were identified as planters, that is, men owning more than twenty slaves. Only 3,000 owned more than a hundred slaves, only 11 more than five hundred, truly staggering wealth in times when a fit, young field hand cost a thousand dollars. The white-pillared mansion, surrounded by shade trees and at a distance from the cabins of the field hands, existed, but more substantially in the imagination of outsiders than in reality. Of the four million slaves in the South, half belonged to men who owned fewer than twenty. Most owned only one or two and used them to work subsistence farms on which they raised corn—maize, to Europeans—and pigs. Most Southerners were hand-to-mouth farmers who owned no slaves at all.
Hence the phrase, much quoted during the war, particularly at bad times for the Confederacy, of “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” Most Confederate soldiers were poor men from harsh circumstances, a circumstance which has caused a question to be constantly raised: “If so, why did the Southerners fight so long and so well?” Part of the answer is that most Southerners were attached to the institutions of slavery and aspired to slave ownership, which was the mark of Southern prosperity and success. Slave owners dominated Southern politics, and it was by buying slaves that a Southerner moved up the social tree, went from being a small to a large farmer and perhaps eventually a plantation owner. More than that, slavery was the system on which the foundations of Southern society rested. As slaves outnumbered whites in several areas of the South, constituting the majority in South Carolina and Alabama and outnumbering whites in many other local areas, slavery was felt to be a guarantee of social control.
Even though the planters were often resented as a class by the classes below, they remained objects of envy and jealousy. The sentiments were not unrealistic, since many Southerners did make the transition from yeoman farmer to planter. It is doubtful, however, if many successful social migrants were found in the ranks of the Confederate army, which was disproportionately enlisted from the inhabitants of the upland South, the piney, hilly regions of inland Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia; the Southern soldier’s legendary toughness was a product of hard upbringing in surroundings unsuitable for cotton planting.
The typical Northern soldier also came from the farm, a farm owned and run by his father which he expected in time to inherit. Unlike the Southerner with his unspoken but persistent hopes of social advancement by graduation to slave owning, the Northerner could not harbour the same hope of elevation unless he abandoned the land, moved to the town, and undertook work as a wage earner. Lives were transformed by leaving the land for the town and in nineteenth-century America much more quickly than they could be in Europe. It was the hope of economic liberation which drew in the thousands arriving as immigrants from the Old World, in numbers that the outbreak of the Civil War diminished but did not staunch. The Northern recruit would almost certainly have been to school for several years and was probably a member of one of the large Protestant denominations, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist. Religious belief and practice characterised a minority in most Northern regiments. It was usually an influential minority however. Captain John Gould of the 10th Maine recorded that it was “painful to know how few profound Christians there were in our large regiment—the number was under fifty—but beyond controversy the regiment was better in every way for the presence of this little handful. Their example was good, for they were good soldiers—a Christian soldier fighting for the right is always the model soldier. In every time of trial the regiment was always the stronger for having its few Christian men.”2 Confederate regiments also usually contained a Christian nucleus which was of equal importance, but with this difference. Southern Christianity was compromised by involvement with slavery, which had led to the pre-war split in the Baptist and Methodist churches. Even devout Confederate soldiers could harbour violently unchristian feelings as a result, applauding the killing of black Union soldiers at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 and the killing of individual black prisoners. The morals of plantation society also compromised Southern Christianity. In an America that had conferred the highest value on the family and on the sacred bond between the mother of the family and her husband, the sexual use of slave women by the planter and his sons, and the presence of mixed-blood cousins in the slave quarters of plantations, was a constant affront to Southern planter wives and daughters. Nothing similar happened in Northern society, which practised what it preached. The Christian family was a reality in the North, and its strength helped to make the Christian woman, exemplified by Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the formidable exponent of abolitionism she so often became.
Once the Northern soldier began to see the Southland for himself, as he did from 1863 onwards, he was confirmed in his critical opinions. Southerners, except for the truly poor whites of the poorest subsistence farms, were per capita richer than Northerners. This situation was brought about because the capital value of slaves was very high, but slave ownership was patchy. To Northern eyes, however, they looked poor. That had to do with the Southern way of life. Southerners did not care for their houses as Northerners cared for theirs, nor keep the gardens and surroundings as neat and tidy. Elegant Southern women allowed themselves to be accompanied by black servants in rags. Northerners also tended to judge Southerners by the condition of their blacks. If the blacks were badly spoken and ignorant, Northern soldiers concluded that this was because of the example given them by their masters and mistresses.
Yet despite the real differences between Northern and Southern societies, the soldiers of the two sides shared many similarities. As the war drew out, and its harshness and ordeals bore down on the men in the ranks, that was not in the least surprising. They were the subjects of a common experience, and soldiers came to recognise the fact. Northern soldiers, better fed and better supplied than their opponents, were to form an admiration for Johnny Reb. He had “grit.” He kept going in circumstances that tried the endurance of the hardest men. Johnny Reb commonly thought himself the better man than Billy Yank, an opinion that was to persist long into the war. The result of the first battle, First Manassas, or First Bull Run, seemed to confirm it. Until the exchange of the first shots, the differences between North and South were not that substantial. Once blood had been drawn, they came to seem so. What confirmed the difference was the war itself, a self-fulfilling judgement.
Dixie—the region of the continental United States lying south of the Mason-Dixon line—was becoming a distinct entity before 1860. It had not so been historically. Indeed, even under the Confederacy Dixie was never “the Solid South.” Its territory and economy were too varied, its people too diverse, to form a cohesive unity. Moreover, “Southernness” drifted, as it does today. It overlapped the Mason-Dixon line to run into southern Illinois and parts of New Jersey, so that Princeton was regarded as a Southern university. Although the majority of Southerners in 1860 were of old English stock, or Scotch-Irish, as Americans denominate settlers from Ulster, there were important elements of the population which came from other directions. The citizens of Charleston and Savannah originated in many cases in Barbados, while the ancestors of those of New Orleans had in many cases made their way down the Mississippi from New France in Canada, staging via such other Frenchified cities as St. Louis, Missouri, and Louisville, Kentucky. Nor was the South solid in terms of how it made its wealth. The South was wealthy. The individual value of its free inhabitants was calculated to be twice that of their equivalents in the North. Not all their money, however, had come from cotton. Cotton was a picky crop. It did well only on certain soils and under particular climatic conditions. Thus it flourished in the “black belt,” so called after the colour of the soil, in the Lower South, in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, and certain strains had adapted well to the wetter parts of Texas. It was scarcely grown in Virginia, where the staple remained tobacco. In the Mississippi delta the predominant crop was sugar; in the Carolinas and Georgia low country, rice.
Slave population and slave ownership correlated with the pattern of staple production. The densest areas of slave population were in South Carolina and along the Mississippi River, in Alabama and Mississippi, and in north-central Virginia; slaves formed the majority of the population in South Carolina, and not only there. They formed almost half the population of the whole South, more in the Old South. Slave ownership was a minority occupation, but those owning twenty or more slaves formed the Southern ruling class, dominating both its economy and its politics. In the Confederacy’s first Congress 40 percent of members belonged to the more-than-twenty-slaves ownership group. Very few owned none at all. Slave ownership was the measure of all that was important in the antebellum South: not only wealth—twenty healthy slaves would fetch $20,000—but social position, local authority, and domestic ease and comfort. Financial surplus in the pre-war South almost always went into buying more slaves or more land, which then required more slaves to work. Very big landowners might own a hundred slaves or more. The big holdings were organised as plantations, with a colony of slave cabins near the big house, usually built in neoclassical style with a pillared portico, stables, and nearby accommodation for a slave overseer. A vision, crystallised in the enormously successful novel Gone with the Wind and the Hollywood film made from it, was transmitted, a vision of big plantation life which captured the American and European imagination; a vision of untitled aristocracy, leisured living, peremptory squires, high-spirited, commanding women, waited upon by privileged house slaves, with the liberty conferred by long association with the family to speak their minds to their grown-up former infant charges, living conducted in the context of ample meals, frequent social entertainments, and unworried prosperity. The Gone with the Wind world existed in few places; but exist it certainly did, and it set a model to which lesser planters aspired and, below them, the prosperous farmers also. The wealth of the South was increasing during the 1850s, if only because the price of slaves was rising. The market price of cotton had doubled since 1845 and big producers earned huge profits, as much as 20 percent on their capital, andspent much of it on the luxuries of plantation life, European fashions, fine horseflesh, and French wine. Many big planters did not live on the land at all but left overseers in charge and spent their days in state capitals or country seats, particularly at places like Charleston, South Carolina; Natchez, Mississippi; or the new Garden District of New Orleans.
Southern towns, or “cities” in American parlance, were, however, all small by comparison with their Northern counterparts. New Orleans was four times larger than any other. Montgomery, Alabama, the Confederacy’s first capital, was the fastest growing but had only 36,000 people at secession, at a time when Chicago had grown to 109,000 in twenty years and both St. Louis and Cincinnati exceeded 160,000. The population of Richmond and Petersburg combined amounted to only 56,000 at secession, and there were no big towns at all between the lower Mississippi and the Atlantic coast; Charleston actually lost population in the years before the Civil War. The South made a virtue of its rurality, emphasising the pastoral nature of founding-father America, but it was in truth an index of the South’s loss of competitiveness with the North and of relative decline. Industrially it could not compare. At the time of independence half the population of the United States lived south of the Mason-Dixon line. By 1860 half of the population lived west of the Appalachians, the majority in the Mississippi Valley.
The South’s ability to compete economically with the North was limited by educational backwardness. Twenty percent of its white population was illiterate while 95 percent of New Englanders could read and write, and one-third of Southern children went to school against three-quarters in New England and nearly as many in the Atlantic states and the Midwest.
Illiteracy keeps people poor, and Southerners were poor. Half the population of the United States in 1860 owned only one percent of the national wealth, but Northerners with the initiative to take a risk could and did increase their wealth by migrating from farm to city. Cotton was not the dominant crop of the South, but corn, ground to make coarse flour for corn bread or grits, i.e., porridge, or fed to pigs. The staple diet of the South, outside the big plantation houses, was corn bread, grits, and pork. The same food was eaten in the slave quarters, though more corn and less pork.
Plantation life formed most Americans’ picture of slavery. It was on the plantation that slaves were found in the largest concentrations and that the distinctive features of slave existence, repressive and enchanting alike, were to be observed. That there were enchanting features all but the bitterest opponents of the slave system conceded. Masters and mistresses commonly, out of self-interest, but also out of humanity and affection, cared for their slaves’ welfare, even happiness, arranging holidays and festivals, giving treats and presents, and celebrating notable events, births, and marriages (though legal marriage between slaves was not recognised in the slave states, nor could it be, since a planter’s solvency ultimately depended on his freedom to liquefy capital by selling his slaves in the market). Good times always alternated, even on the most benevolently run plantations, with harsh; slaves were regularly whipped for misbehaviour or laziness, by master, overseer, or even mistress. The plantation was an intrinsically repressive society. Even the good master so often identified by slaves and ex-slaves presided at the apex of a disciplinary system, in which the overseer, if one was employed, as was generally the case, gave orders, to be imposed if necessary by force, through a layer of foremen, or “drivers,” who reported faults. Overseers were often the sons of planters, learning the business or working to accumulate the purchase price of land or slaves for themselves. There was also a class of professional overseers, earning to support themselves but perhaps also with the hope of accumulating capital; these were typically an insecure group who were frequently dismissed, either for inefficiency or because change of personnel was thought desirable to keep field hands sweet.
Self-interest prompted slave owners to see to the welfare of their slaves, and most were well-fed. They were not, however, well-housed, the one-room slave cabin being cold in winter and malodorous in summer and infested with parasites and germs at all times. Disease was endemic in the slave quarters; very few slaves lived beyond the age of sixty. The real threat to their well-being, however, was not disease but social instability. There was no legal redress, because American law did not recognise marriage between slaves, even though it was recognised by the slaves themselves and by some masters. Under benevolent masters, weddings would be formally celebrated, performed by a preacher, black or white, though in an edited form, since the parties could not or would not swear fidelity “till death do us part.” Many slave families’ circumstances were lifelong. But not even the best masters could guarantee that financial circumstances would not force slave sales at times of stringency. Prudently, therefore, sometimes slaves swore “till death or distance do us part.” Equally, some masters did not permit religious formalities for that reason but presided at what were called broomstick weddings, where groom and bride signalled their commitment by jumping together over a broomstick.
Some slave owners encouraged black “marriage” because it made for contentment and stability on the plantations and formed black community. They supported it, by helping the slaves to build their living quarters, the “cabins” of plantation literature, and by allotting acreage for the slave gardens, chicken runs, and pigsties. On a prosperous and properly run plantation, the slaves could live quite well: the master distributed rations at set times of the week, flour, pork, and cornmeal; the slave added potatoes, peas, and turnips which he grew himself. If the master allowed the slaves to hunt, as was the usual case, he also added possum, raccoon, rabbit, and squirrel.
The plantation day was a harsh one, working time typically running to twelve hours, though the slaves themselves reckoned more like fifteen. Work normally stopped at dusk. Sunday was a day of rest as, quite often, was Saturday afternoon. At harvesttime, the day would lengthen, though so too would work breaks. Different crops had different timetables. The sugar plantations of southern Louisiana imposed long days during the sugar harvest. Corn shucking, a regular feature of work on most plantations, required intense and prolonged labour but was enjoyed by the slaves because it was dedicated to providing their diet and could be lightened by games and competitions. Almost everywhere, however, on good plantations and bad, under kind and harsh masters, work progressed by the regular application of the whip, twenty, sometimes thirty-nine lashes, inflicted by the overseer or driver, sometimes by the master himself or, in the house, the mistress. The whip was part of slave life. Its use was regulated by public opinion. Cruel masters suffered the disapproval of their neighbours; nevertheless, whipping went on. Some masters prided themselves on never whipping, but they were a minority. Some slaves, notably privileged house slaves, were never whipped, but they were a minority also. An overseer on one plantation, who took the whip to a mammy—the senior house slave, usually a former nurse to the mistress, who traditionally enjoyed the status of a constitutional monarch, to be consulted in all matters of family importance, to advise and to warn—was discharged and sent from the plantation with his family that very day. But his offence was unusual, as was the penalty.
This daily routine required the slaves to fit personal pursuits into the timetable of the fields, a requirement which fell heavily on the slave wife, since cooking had to be done at the end of a day’s hard work. Masters might frequently report finding their contented field hands chatting or singing around the cabin fireplace as the night fell, but there was little free time in the slaves’ working week. The slaves could, however, usually count on the free Sunday, since the South was God-fearing and churchgoing and the Sabbath had to be respected. By the nineteenth century, moreover, America’s black population was universally Christian. Elements of African religion remained, particularly strongly in the Gullah regions of the Georgia coast, and black Christianity had incorporated African features, including dancing during church singing and the loud affirmatory cries of worshippers uttered during sermons. The two churches which slaves most often joined were the Baptist and the Methodist, probably because of their informality of organisation and the inspirational nature of their services. Until the end of the eighteenth century, however, white churches did not welcome black membership. Black Christianity was correctly suspected by whites who were involved in any way in the slave system as being subversive of the slave order by its message of equality between all human beings and its celebration of poverty and powerlessness. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, devoted white Christians found that part of Christian teaching difficult to reconcile with the picture of slavery, so that both Baptists and Methodists began in America as anti-slavery organisations, as the Quakers would remain throughout. Progressively, however, the churches, particularly those with numerous slave-owning adherents, such as the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, began to justify slavery on doctrinal grounds. As a result, the Episcopal Church lost almost all its black members. Meanwhile slaves were finding their own way to reconcile their Christian beliefs with church organisation, and hence the rise of black churches, beginning with the appearance of black preachers. At first forbidden by law to practise, slaves, as well as freedmen, soon appeared as preachers in several churches, notably the Baptist and Methodist, though often they had to do so in the guise of “assistants” to white clergymen. The black liberation movement was later to condemn the black churches for the effect they had of reconciling blacks to their deprivations and of seeking consolation in prayer and Christian practice instead of seeking objective advance by political activity. At a time when political opportunities were not open to blacks, let alone slaves, religion offered the only opportunity for subjective solace, besides bringing undoubted richness and even happiness into the lives of the oppressed. Religion also brought objective advantages, since by a well-known process it opened avenues to literacy. In many states, laws were introduced from the seventeenth century onwards, with increasing severity during the nineteenth, particularly in the Lower South, against teaching slaves to read. Many slaves learnt nonetheless: perhaps as many as 5 percent of the slaves were literate by 1860, in the calculation of the famous black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois. Some were taught by masters and mistresses who had an aristocratic disdain for small-minded laws, some by white playmates, but many were taught by white Christians seeking to transmit the Bible’s message. Slave literacy nonetheless aroused alarm among slave owners and for a strictly practical reason. Slaves were only allowed off the plantation if equipped with a written pass, and the pass system was policed by the “patrols,” gangs of white slave owners or their minions, who literally patrolled the roads, stopping blacks to see their passes and beating slaves who could not produce the necessary card.
The patrol regime was intermittent, since rich slave owners disliked the duty, generally leaving it to poor whites acting on their behalf or on their own account. Nevertheless, patrolling, if sometimes lax, never lapsed altogether, because it was animated by white fears of slave revolt, which all entertained, more or less regularly and with better or worse reason. Slave revolt was a reality, though more frequent and on a larger scale in the West Indies, Guiana, and Brazil than in America. There were slave revolts in New York in the seventeenth century, in Florida and Louisiana in the nineteenth, but most memorably in Virginia in 1831, when Nat Turner led an uprising that killed nearly a hundred whites. The Nat Turner revolt terrified the South and led to repercussion in many forms, practical and legislative. Fear of slave revolt underlay much of the support for secession. The emancipation campaign, simply a moral issue to Northern emancipationists, speaking, writing, and organising in states with small black populations, was a life-and-death issue in whites’ estimation in states where blacks coexisted with whites and often outnumbered them. Harping on the dangers of slave revolt of course undermined and invalidated the populist defence of slavery, that it suited blacks, that it was their natural condition, that it cared for their welfare and provided for their old age and so on, arguments endlessly rehearsed and as familiar to Southern whites as the celebration of America’s founding freedoms. However illogical, the slave revolt fear was taken seriously by Southerners and particularly by the spokesmen for “the peculiar institution.”
The economics of slavery required the sale of individuals to supply labour needs elsewhere in the cotton kingdom, and slave sales inevitably broke up some slave families; perhaps as many as one in four sales entailed the separation of husband and wife, parents and children. Slaves sold away would rarely meet again, which made for functional orphanage and divorce. Masters of any decency normally sought to keep families together, because separation caused disabling heartbreak, but it occurred and it was sometimes deliberately done to discipline a fractious slave. It was this feature of slavery that principally drove the humanitarian motive behind abolitionism, particularly among evangelical Christians, since American blacks were often devout Baptists or Methodists. The tragedy of separation supplied Harriet Beecher Stowe with her most powerful theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tom wept for his children left behind in Kentucky when he was sold south and millions of Mrs. Stowe’s readers wept with him. When she was introduced to President Lincoln, he supposedly greeted her with the words “So, this is the little lady who wrote the big book that made this great war….” He was as near to the truth as it was possible to get.
The early 1830s was a critical moment in the history of American slavery. It was the moment when the attack on slavery became a national movement, and one to be forbidden or silenced. Until 1831, or thereabouts, it was possible to shelter from the ongoing debate by adhering to the fashionable view that slavery would wither away, a view widely held as much within the South as the North. The grounds for so believing were manifold, but had much to do with the abolition of the slave trade by Congress and enforcement of its abolition by the British Parliament through the use of the Royal Navy. The suppression of the international trade in slaves was counterbalanced, however, by the meteoric rise of the international trade in cotton, which by 1840-50 had transformed the economy of the South and made many planters rich men. The rise of Southern fortunes encouraged Southern politicians and writers to find words in defence of slavery and Northern writers and politicians to articulate an intellectual attack on it. In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison founded his newspaper, The Liberator, which was to be the mouthpiece of the abolition movement. In 1837 Garrison joined the Tappan brothers of New York in founding the Anti-Slavery Society, which quickly attracted the support of churches, schools, and colleges, notably Oberlin College in Ohio. What lent substance to the anti-slavery movement, however, were the fugitive slave cases that occupied so much newspaper space in the decade before the Civil War broke out. In 1793, Congress had passed a fugitive slave law, giving owners the right to repossess, and to be assisted in repossessing, their runaway slaves, wherever found. In 1850 an even more rigorous Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by Congress, and its passage inaugurated a flurry of cases in which runaways who had found sanctuary in the North were pursued by owners, sometimes assisted by law officers, to be confronted by local anti-slavery activists, often acting with the support of a personal liberty law, passed by several states after 1850.
By 1860, and despite lulls and Northern retreats from the issue, slavery had got a thoroughly bad name in the North. Most Northerners, despite their undoubted Negrophobia, were ashamed that their country, alone among the great constitutional polities of the Western world, continued to allow the practice of slavery and, without agreeing in any way about how the end was to be achieved, wished to see the institution disappear. Many Southerners, though trapped by the economics of slavery, in which their world and livelihoods were embroiled, deduced, with some sincerity, that slavery was a burden to them and that, paradoxically, slave owners were themselves the slaves of the system, committed by it to a way of life that monopolised all their time and attention. Even some among them who would fight most energetically for the Confederacy, or support their husbands in so doing, were frequent complainers of the loss of liberty that their performance of slave-owning duty imposed on them. They held that the peculiar institution was the hardest of taskmasters. Nevertheless, a majority of Southerners were prepared to fight to defend it. The question was, how many Northerners were prepared to fight them over the issue?
At the beginning, after the first clashes of 1861, the soldiers who were to fight the Civil War began to demonise each other. To Southerners, the men in the Union ranks were, of course, Yankees, but also “mercenaries” or “Hessians” or “regulars,” terms of abuse descended from the War of Independence against the British. To Northerners the men of the South were “secesh” but also “savages” and “brutes” as well as “traitors” and “rebels.” “Rebel” was of course an accurate description and quite quickly the Confederates became Johnny Reb to the Union soldier, who became Billy Yank in return. “Yankee” had a qualitative as well as geographical meaning to Southerners. It implied a cold, narrow-minded Puritan, everything that the Southerner held himself not to be. Well-educated Southerners preferred to think of themselves as cavaliers, figures from a novel by Walter Scott, the writer whom Mark Twain, only half jokingly, identified as having caused the Civil War.
The spectre of slave uprising was constantly raised by alarmists and by die-hard defenders of slavery. Nevertheless, for all the searching for motives that occupied minds on both sides once the fighting had begun, it remained, as it still remains, difficult to explain why the Civil War became a war as opposed to a continuation of a long-running dispute over slavery which had occupied minds, North and South, for the previous forty years. Yanks were given to asking Rebs why they were fighting. One Reb, captured in Virginia early on, answered, “Because you are here.” It was, and remains, as good an answer as any.
It is often suggested that the war was a conflict between two Americas, an older, agricultural South and a newer, industrial North that was coming into being. There is something, if very little, in that.
With fewer places in which to find industrial employment, more Southerners than Northerners were country-dwellers and farmworkers. Nevertheless, both armies were predominantly raised from farming communities, and the list of soldiers’ occupations was closely similar. Bell Irvin Wiley, in his study of Johnny Reb, found that of 9,000 soldiers in twenty-eight Confederate regiments, although half described themselves as farmers, 474 entered themselves as students, perhaps school as well as university pupils, since it is known that at least one teacher closed down his school on the outbreak of war and marched his class off to enlist. There were also 472 labourers in Wiley’s sample, 321 clerks and 318 mechanics, 222 carpenters, 138 merchants, and 116 blacksmiths. Other occupations showing more than 50 enlistees were sailors, doctors (most of whom must have served as surgeons), painters, teachers, shoemakers, and lawyers.3 Some described themselves as gentlemen, no doubt from the planter class, whom the elected officers often found difficult to handle. Professor Wiley’s examination of the rolls of 12,000 Union soldiers disclosed an almost exactly similar set of occupations and numbers of those practising them with the difference that more of the Northerners were teachers or printers, evidence of the higher degree of literacy in the Northern ranks.4
Another category better represented in the North than the South was the foreign-born. In 1860 there were a million Germans living in the Northern states, most of them immigrants from the repression following the 1848 revolution. They and their native-born descendants, who might still be German-speaking, numbered 200,000 of the Union army’s two million members. The next largest foreign-born contingent was the Irish, with 150,000. The Irish were, of course, English-speaking, as were the 45,000 English-born and most of the 50,000 Canadians. The Confederate equivalent numbers were not separately counted, but it is known the Irish, Germans, Italians, and Poles totalled tens of thousands. However, the typical Confederate soldier, if such a being can be isolated, was English-speaking and of British ancestry, English or Scotch-Irish. Many immigrants were to prove violently opposed to conscription when it was introduced in 1863. Most of the New Yorkers who looted and burnt and fought in the streets during the infamous draft riots of that year were Irish, who equated military service with British oppression.
The soldiers of the two sides were alike enough to fraternise readily when opportunity offered, to their officers’ great disapproval. A common pretext was the exchange of Reb tobacco for Yankee coffee. At Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 one of Sherman’s soldiers recorded that “we made a bargain with them that we would not fire on them, if they would not fire on us, and they were as good as their word. It seems too bad that we had to fight men that we like. Now these Southern soldiers seem just like our own boys. They talk about their mothers and fathers and their sweethearts just as we do. Both sides did a lot of talking but there was no shooting until I came off duty in the morning.” Not all contestants were so easygoing. Sergeant Day Elmore wrote from near Atlanta in July 1864, “The Boys have been to gather a number of times … traiding coffee for tobacco, but I do not love them so I could not take them by the hand as some of the Boys did.”5
Earlier in the war, Billy Yank commonly execrated Johnny Reb, cursing him as the blackest of enemies and as a foe of the liberty that the Founding Fathers and their men had won from the British. What can we tell about the United States at mid-nineteenth century from the sentiments of the men who wore the blue or the gray? The enormous extent of the United States was still more unsettled than not. Many of the modern states had not yet come into being, so that there was no Idaho, no Wyoming, no Washington State, no Oklahoma, while Utah and New Mexico were territories and included land that would eventually belong to states later admitted to the Union. Many familiar cities were as yet simply unbuilt landscape, Bismarck and Pierre, Omaha, Helena. Most of the vast plains stretching from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains was still the preserve of the buffalo and the Indians who hunted it and, so unpromising did it appear for settlement, that it was known to early American geographers as the Great American Desert, though in time it would prove, given adequate irrigation, abundantly fertile. What both Billy Yank and Johnny Reb noticed about each other’s landscapes was the difference in appearance that their different styles of farming imposed on the land. At dividing lines like the Tennessee River, Northerners noted that the northern shore ran down to the water like a garden, while below the southern shore looked unkempt. Northern soldiers were also deeply critical of the condition of the landscape in Virginia, writing home to say that “if in Northern hands, it would have been far more productive than it was.” Jesse Wilson, a soldier in a Maine regiment, wrote to his mother in 1862 from Virginia, “In the hands of New England people, this country might be created into a garden.” Southern farming methods probably did differ from Northern, since Northern farms were usually small family enterprises, raising cash crops, while Southern farms were either subsistence holdings or else slave labour properties. In either case, the Southerners did not expend the care on them that Northern proprietors did on their cherished acres. Northerners were also often contemptuous of Southern towns, which they found small, poky, and ill-built. They often complained that the streets were dirty and the general air “old-fashioned,” a common term of criticism in Northerners’ letters home. They also criticised Southerners themselves, finding them badly educated and badly spoken.
Bell Irvin Wiley, who read many thousands of soldiers’ letters and hundreds of diaries in compiling his wonderful profiles of the common soldiers, North and South, formed the impression of a spiritual and temperamental difference between Yank and Reb, reflecting differences in the two societies. Johnny Reb was a lighter-hearted correspondent, passing on jokes and comic incidents to the folk at home more frequently than Billy Yank. He was more heartfelt in expressions of affection and more graphic in his descriptions of battle. Billy Yank was more political, expressing views about forthcoming elections, which the Southerner lacked the opportunity to do, since the Confederacy held only one presidential election during 1861-65, and he was generally less given to stating his views about the conduct of the war and government. He was also more businesslike, demanding news about the family fortunes and management, typically of the farm. Whatever the pattern of difference, however, soldiers with paper and pen in hand revealed more similarities than differences. Analysis of soldiers’ letters emphasises the tragedy of the war and raises questions about how and why enmities were so long sustained.6
In the years before 1860 North and South, not seriously dissimilar at the time of independence, had drifted far apart. It was not simply economic difference, the industrialisation of the North and its extension westward into the new farming lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the South’s persisting otherness. It was the social difference between a wholly free region and a partially unfree one. That was Lincoln’s point in his famous remarks about “a house divided.” A country which in 1781 had been united by its origins in British, largely English culture, by its common practice of English-speaking Protestantism, by its acceptance of British legal and political forms, had by 1861 become separated by the features that the practice of slavery had inflicted on its southern half.