This piece was originally published in Southern Partisan magazine in 1987-88.
A few years ago I was shuffling through accumulated litter in my garage attic when I came across some clippings dating from the 1960s. Among them were several letters to Life magazine commenting on an article by Bruce Carton. One reads as follows:
Bruce Carton’s article is interesting and well written, but it is amazing a person of the distinguished author’s perspicacity would write “we find it impossible to say: these men were right and those men were wrong.
In the Civil War, more nearly than in any other war in all history, the Right was on one side and the Wrong was on the other. The unvarnished truth is that the Confederate Army was fighting to destroy the Union and to perpetuate human slavery, while the Union Army was fighting to preserve the Union “with liberty and justice for all.
—Daniel L. Marsh Chancellor, Boston University
One cannot decide whether to laugh or cry. Henry Wilson, Horace Greeley, “Black Jack” Logan, and all the others who wrote about the Slave Power plot have long ago gone to their reward, but in Boston the melody lingers on. Dr. Marsh, like those others, had no doubt about the cause of the war: it was slavery.
This introduces a perennial favorite of compilers of books of readings, “The Causes of the Civil War.” Year after year earnest college instructors propound that problem to glassy-eyed undergraduates. At higher academic echelons, the big brains in the history business continue their attempts to unravel the tangled web of causality. Scarcely a year goes by when some new theory is not unveiled, although when closely examined the theories are not always very new, but rather old arguments dressed up in the latest methodological style.
Styles are of course very important in historiography. Slavery as the cause of the war was for many years the only acceptable explanation above the Mason-Dixon line. Then in the early twentieth century it went into partial eclipse when historians discovered economics, and the Beards said that the war was basically a revolution of rising capitalists against the political power of the agrarian South. In the wake of the First World War the revisionist school appeared. These scholars decided that war was neither inevitable nor constructive in its results; they blamed fanatical abolitionists, inept statesmen, and a defective political system for the bloodbath of the 1860s. But then along came Hitler and World War II, which seemed to teach us that after all war was sometimes inevitable, or at least indispensable, and that it could have constructive results. This view, as applied to the War Between the States, was reinforced by the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, with the consequent rehabilitation of slavery as a cause of the Civil War and racial justice as its purpose. It now appeared that, though bloody, the war was worth the price because it had paved the way for equal rights, a deferred commitment of the wartime generation that now could be realized. Then, however, along came the Northern race riots of the 1960s, which, together with the new research, showed that racial problems were not and never had been the exclusive possession of the South. Simultaneously the nation was sinking deeply into what many regarded as an unnecessary and unjust war in Vietnam. So some despondent scholars once again began to ask if the Civil War after all had been worth the price, since it had produced neither racial justice at home nor righteous behavior abroad. For example, one young historian, depressed by the country’s failure to achieve equal rights for blacks, concluded that the beneficial results of the war did not justify the cost—a position known as “the new revisionism.” But, he said, this might not always be the case: “If significant gains are made by Negroes, and those gains are seen as dependent upon emancipation in 1865, then perhaps the sacrifices of war should be regarded as justified.” So today the war wasn’t worth it, but maybe tomorrow it will be. Now you see it, now you don’t.
As things stand, historians not only see the causes of the war as so complex as to defy analysis, but they are troubled by the question of whether the war really accomplished anything worthwhile. They have got just what they deserve: they are trapped in the prison of their own presentism. They are victims of the “Whig interpretation” of history, which holds that particular events in the past can be identified as causes of particular results in the present. The moralism and relativism implicit in the Whig view means that the past—history—becomes a selection of those events presumed to be most important to the present, and since the present is always changing, history is always changing, not because what happened in the past has changed, but because the Whig historian has given his kaleidoscope another turn. No wonder that Kenneth Stampp in the introduction to his book of readings, The Causes of the Civil War, wrote: “As one reflects upon the problem of causation one is driven to the conclusion that historians will never know, objectively and with mathematical precision, what caused the Civil War.” One of my undergraduate students said the same thing much more concisely. Once when I was looking for a final exam that would be a real grabber, I came up with a three-hour question in four words: “Why the Civil War?” But when I got back from one student a two-word answer, “Why not?” I began to suspect, like Stampp, that I might be asking the wrong question.
I suggest that if we want to understand the war, we should do better to stop asking why the war came and concentrate on what it was about; that we move from the realm of abstraction to the domain of fact. The best way to find out what the war was about is to look at what was done. After investigating the war in a modest way and thinking about it for a number of years, I have been driven to the conclusion that to a depressing degree this was a war of economic and political aggrandizement begun and carried out by the ruling party in the North. The people who engineered the armed conquest of the South knew exactly what they wanted and they were not at all particular about how they got it. They were no congregation of humanitarians with their gaze unwaveringly fixed on some ultimate good, the prophets of a purified society with racial equality and justice for all. The late great historian James G. Randall called the men who presided over the coming of the war “the Blundering Generation,” but as I see it there was a great deal more plundering than blundering.
This is not a popular point of view, and one espouses it at the risk (or certainty, rather) of being labeled a “neo-Confederate.” Boiled down to its essentials, being a neo-Confederate means refusing to admit that, however flawed, the Northern cause was still, as Chancellor Marsh of Boston University said, the cause of Right, and the Confederacy the champion of human Wrong.
In a brief essay such as this it is impossible to bring to bear all the voluminous evidence that supports my contention as to the essential nature of the war. The best I can do is to hit a few high spots. Many of the things I mention are not new, but old, familiar, inconvenient events have a way of getting lost or glossed over or as incidentals of little significance.
There are some large, intractable facts that need to be resurrected if we are to understand what this war was about. For example, in the textbooks and elsewhere it is rarely if ever noticed that the war after all consisted of the conquest and subjugation of the South by Northern armies. Instead, the war is often described as an attempt by the South to “destroy the Union,” which makes as much sense as saying that the secession of the American colonies in the 1770s was an attempt to destroy the British empire.
The Republicans had for years been castigating Southerners as moral lepers, tools of the Slave Power’s plot to take over the country, as being the main obstacles to progress and prosperity, even to the coming of the Millennium. One would think they would have breathed a sigh of relief when the South left the Union. But of course they did not: they went to war rather than let the South go. Presumably the people controlling Northern policy (Lincoln and his party) had some solid reasons for so doing, and in fact Northern leaders were quite candid on this point—candid in explaining what they believed they would lose should the South go free. Manufacturers feared the loss of American markets to a flood of cheap British goods pouring through a free-trade Confederacy; Northern shippers feared the loss of their monopoly of the coasting trade and their share of the trans-Atlantic carrying trade; merchants feared the loss of the profits they garnered as middlemen between the South and Europe; creditors feared the loss of Southern debts; the Old Northwest feared the loss or curtailment of the Mississippi trade; the Republicans feared the disintegration of their party should it let the South go and bring upon the North all of the consequences just mentioned. The list of reasons for keeping the South in the Union could be extended, but this will do for purposes of illustration.
Another large fact that tells something of what the war was about was the legislative program carried through by the Republicans once Southern Congressmen had departed and left them in control. Policies long thwarted by the South now at last were realized. The tariffs here began the upward swing that would enthrone protection for generations to come and produce a massive transfer of wealth from agriculture to industry; here began a new financial system that would make Eastern bankers for years the financial overlords of the rest of the country; here began the giveaway of the public domain to special interests; here began the great days of pork barrel politics that would, along with emancipation, the spoils system, and military force, help the Republican Party to achieve its number one objective: keeping itself in office, which, except for two brief interludes, it succeeded in doing until the 1930s.
Another thing to look at is how the North made money out of the war itself, not only in the South but at home. First, take some major legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, laws that confirmed Southerners in their belief that the main objective of the North was to rob them. Early in the war it was observed that every Republican congressman seemed to have a confiscation bill in his pocket, for the avowed purpose of punishing the South and making it pay the costs of the war (Northern costs) by taking Southern property. A variety of practical difficulties that need not be investigated here rendered the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 relatively ineffective. (Of course there was a great deal of confiscation of property by Union armies on the grounds of military necessity, and perhaps an even greater amount of individual thievery that had nothing at all to do with the Confiscation Acts.)
But if those laws were ineffectual, there was more than one way to skin a rebel. Take the act of June 7, 1862, for the collection of direct taxes in the insurrectionary states, a law which created tax commissioners who would follow in the track of Union armies and auction off farms and plantations on which the tax had not been paid by the owners because they had fled before the invading Federals. Advance information of such actions was used by speculators with the right connections or a long purse to buy up valuable real estate for a fraction of its actual value. A Connecticut soldier wrote home complaining of the activities of what he called these “northern sharpers.” Millions of dollars worth of Southern property was alienated in this way, and some of those who profited were men noted for their humanitarian and antislavery sentiments.
And then there were those who believed that laws were an unnecessary impediment, who said that the rebels, merely by being rebels, had forfeited all title to their lands. Let us, they said, redeem the South, fill it up with an enlightened population, make it over in the image of New England, and the profits will roll in. Eli Thayer, who had tried to do this in Kansas and in the upper South before the war, wanted to try again in Florida. Thousands of troops were enlisted in the Northeast by the political general Nathaniel Banks to occupy Texas and get rich growing cotton. What was even better, such lucrative enterprises were depicted as a religious duty. Part of trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath were stored was to steal the vineyard. The South was seen as a holy eldorado, fit reward for the righteous. In this connection, it may not be out of place to mention the series of orders issued by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton turning over Southern churches to Northern clergy, who urgently sought and eagerly accepted these spoils of the crusade.
Far more sweeping than the Confiscation Acts or even the Direct Tax Act was the Captured and Abandoned Property Act of March 1863, under which millions of dollars worth of cotton was summarily sequestered, and farms and plantations seized, many to be operated by Northern speculators employing the ex-slaves, who were often kept at work by the Union army. About 95 percent of the property “captured” under this law was cotton, and the law provided a cover for the theft of still more by army, navy, and treasury officials as well as by private speculators. The Union navy employed a more forthright kind of confiscation. Gunboats ranged the Mississippi and its tributaries, scouring the countryside for cotton with captured teams and wagons, then sending the spoils to Federal courts as prizes of war.
Much more cotton was acquired at bargain prices by trading through the military lines. Under acts of Congress imaginatively executed by the Lincoln administration, a huge trade sprang up in food, ammunition, weapons, shoes, blankets, and other things needed by the Confederate army. Men of the first rank engaged in this traffic: congressmen, governors, generals, diplomatic officials, and newspaper editors, not to mention swarms of small-fry. A tide of commerce surged through the military frontier from the Rio Grande to the Chesapeake Bay. In fact this trade began even before the war, but in anticipation of hostilities. After the organization of the Confederate government, Jefferson Davis sent Raphael Semmes north to buy munitions. The future Confederate admiral toured New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, where he was warmly received:
I found people everywhere not only willing but anxious to contract with me. I purchased large quantities of percussion caps in the city of New York and sent them by express to Montgomery. I made contracts for batteries of light artillery, powder, and other munitions, and succeeded in getting large quantities of powder shipped…I made a contract…for a complete set of machinery for rifling cannon, [together with] the skilled workmen to put it in operation. Some of these men. . . occupied high social positions and were men of wealth [who] afterward obtained lucrative contracts from the Federal government and became, in consequence, intensely loyal.
In the meantime, the Confederate state department was receiving numerous requests from ship owners in Boston and other New England ports asking for letters of marque so that they might send out privateers to prey upon Northern shipping when the war began. This sketch has perhaps suggested some of the ways that Southern wealth was transmuted into Northern profits. Of course, it was often not necessary to go South to make money; the war had opened up numberless opportunities for enterprising men who could stay at home and make a bundle. In 1862 Edward A. Pollard wrote in his Southern History of the War that:
the realization of the war in the North was, in many respects, nothing more than that of an immense money job. The large money expenditure at Washington supplied a vast fund of corruption; it enriched the commercial centres of the North…it interested vast numbers of politicians, contractors, and dissolute public men in continuing the war and enlarging the scale of its operations; and, indeed, the disposition to make money out of the war accounts for much of that zeal in the North, which was mistaken for political ardor or the temper of patriotic devotion.
Pollard was of course delivering a very partisan opinion, but knowledgeable Northerners were saying much the same thing. Henry S. Olcott, special investigator for the War and Navy Departments, wrote an article in 1878 entitled “The War’s Carnival of Fraud.” After detailing some of his experiences, he concluded: “It is my deliberate conviction, based upon the inspection of many bureaus, and the examination of…thousands of witnesses, in every walk of life, that at least twenty, if not twenty-five, percent of the entire expenditures of the government during the Rebellion, were tainted with fraud.” And years later, the historian Fred Shannon estimated that of the money paid out in army contracts, 50 percent was clear profit.
Of course, profiteering and fraud have accompanied all our wars, but the striking thing about these practices in the 1860s was their pervasiveness; they were so pervasive that they seemed to be of the very essence of the Northern war effort. Furthermore, these practices were put into operation with a quickness, skill, and efficiency that strongly suggest a long-standing and settled way of doing business, a code of behavior followed by a remarkable number of entrepreneurs and politicians whose great aim in life was to make money, and who saw the war as a heaven-sent opportunity to do so on an unprecedented scale. This calls to mind some of Alexis de Tocqueville’s more pungent observations on American life in the 1830s, when entrepreneurialism was beginning to hit full stride. He wrote of the “the commercial fervour which seems to devour the whole of society, the thirst for gain, the respect for money, and the bad faith in business which appears on every side…If the number of passions seem restricted here, it is because they have all been absorbed in just one: the love of wealth.” In comparing the typical Kentuckian with the typical Ohioan, he said of the latter that he regards “temporal prosperity as the principal aim of his existence; and as the country which he occupies presents inexhaustible resources to his industry and ever-varying lures to his activity, his acquisitive ardor surpasses the ordinary limits of human cupidity; he is tormented by the desire of wealth;…the resources of his intelligence are astonishing and his avidity in the pursuit of gain amounts to a species of heroism.”
The all-consuming passion for wealth that so impressed Toc-queville was characteristic of an entrepreneurial society in a rich country that was finding the means of exploiting its great natural resources, and it goes far to explain why so many people high and low regarded the war primarily as a money-making proposition. There is not time to enter upon a doleful recitation of the endless tale of fraud, corruption, profiteering, and near-treason in the North, of the foisting on the troops of guns that would not shoot, food that was inedible, clothes that fell apart, and so forth—even though it is a story that tells a great deal about the nature of the war.
But this sort of thing is not the whole story. A rather grim anecdote may illustrate the point. It was related by an ex-Confederate whose home was near Fredericksburg. He wrote:
In 1865-1866 some shrewd Yankee contractors obtained government sanction to disinter all the Federal dead on the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. They were paid per capita…I found the contractor provided with unpainted boxes of common pine about six feet long and twelve inches wide; but 1 soon saw this scoundrel was dividing the remains so as to make as much by his contract as possible. I at once reported what 1 had seen to Col. E. V. Sumner, Jr….He was utterly shocked at this vandalism. 1 afterward heard that the contract was…given to more reliable parties.
This vignette was more than just another example of sordid quest for profits even at the expense of the dead. The men whose bones were divided by the enterprising contractors had made fourteen separate assaults on the impregnable position at Marye’s Hill. They did not look death in the face and still march on to their fate because they were out to make a buck. There was no margin of profit for them. The Georgians behind the stone wall were not guarding any treasure trove.
Nevertheless, there were riches on that field. Refine away all the war’s impurities—the greed and trickery, the cheating and faithlessness—and there remains an irreducible core of pure gold: the courage of Northern soldiers who gave themselves to battle and to death because of duty. Men such as these earned with blood the profound respect of their indomitable Confederate antagonists, who would want us to remember them. All of them, Yanks and Rebs alike, died for the sins of the plundering generation.