The Boisterous Sea of Liberty
Part 8. Civil War
Here is a panoramic look at early American history as captured in the words of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many other historical figures, both famous and obscure. In these pieces, the living voices of the past speak to us from opposing viewpoints--from the vantage point of loyalists as well as patriots, slaves as well as masters. The documents collected here provide a fuller understanding of such historical issues as Columbus's dealings with Native Americans, the Stamp Act Crisis, the Declaration of Independence, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Missouri Crisis, the Mexican War, and Harpers Ferry, to name but a few.
Compiled by Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz, and accompanied by extensive illustrations of original documents, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty brings the reader back in time, to meet the men and women who lived through the momentous events that shaped our nation.
Part 8. CIVIL WAR
When President Lincoln took office, he discovered that Fort Sumter, which guarded the entrance to Charleston harbor, was running out of provisions. He informed South Carolina's governor that he had decided to resupply the fort, but not to dispatch reinforcements or arms and ammunition. On April 12, 1861, before the supplies arrived, Confederate forces opened fire on the fort, which surrendered the next day. Lincoln responded by declaring that an insurrection existed and calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Lincoln's actions led Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas to leave the Union.
Both sides expected a brief war. But while the North imposed a naval blockade and cleared Confederate troops from West Virginia, Kentucky, and much of Tennessee, hopes for a quick end to the conflict faded. Several Union attempts to capture the Confederate capitol at Richmond ended in failure. Despite the capture of New Orleans, Union efforts to control the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy into two stalled after the Battle of Shiloh. Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee's offensive into Maryland was defeated at the Battle of Antietam.
As a result of the military stalemate, the Civil War became a total war that required the mobilization of all resources necessary for victory. By the summer of 1862, both sides had imposed a military draft. To finance the war, Congress issued bonds and paper money; imposed income, inheritance, and corporation taxes; and established a centralized banking system. Lincoln expanded the power of the presidency by imposing martial law and imprisoning about ten thousand people without trial.
At first, the North fought to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. Lincoln handled the slavery issue cautiously because he did not want to lose support of the border states and pro-Union Democrats. But as the war dragged on, pressure for abolition mounted. After the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which was followed by the formal Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It transformed the Civil War into a struggle to end slavery and also legitimized the use of African Americans as troops. Altogether, 186,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army and another 29,000 in the Navy, accounting for nearly ten percent of all Union forces and 68,178 of the Union dead or missing. Three-fourths of all African American troops were former slaves.
In mid-July 1863, the military balance shifted in the North's favor, although the outcome was still chancy until November 1864. Following Confederate victories at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg in Virginia, Robert E. Lee marched his army into Pennsylvania, hoping to demoralize the northern public and prompt British and French intervention to end the war. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee suffered nearly 25,000 casualties and was never able to launch another major offensive. At the same time, the Union army captured Vicksburg, gaining control of the Mississippi River.
Nevertheless, before the capture of Atlanta in September 1864, Lincoln expected a war weary public to elect Democratic candidate General George McClellan president, who would likely end the Civil War through negotiations and preserve slavery. During the last stages of the conflict, William Tecumseh Sherman's army marched through Georgia, while Ulysses S. Grant forced Lee's army back toward the Confederate capitol of Richmond. So desperate was the South's plight that, in March 1865, the Confederate Congress authorized the use of slave troops. On April 9, 1865, Lee and his army, faced with encirclement and having been reduced to 25,000 men, surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
DEBATING THE ISSUES
The Civil War is the crucial, defining event in American history. It would determine whether the nation would remain part slave and part free.
- Why did white Southerners in 1860 feel so embattled that they saw only one course open to them--secession?
- What advantages and disadvantages did the Union and Confederacy each possess at the start of the Civil War?
The North had a larger population, more industry, a superior transportation system, and an existing army and navy. The South had a population skilled in the use of firearms and only had to wage a defensive war.
- Why was the Civil War more deadly than past wars?
Because new weapons were much more lethal and accurate than earlier weapons; and because the Civil War expanded warfare beyond the battlefield, creating total war.
- Ask your students which of the following two viewpoints on the Emancipation Proclamation is most accurate.
In October 1862, the London Times dismissed the preliminary emancipation proclamation as an empty gesture. "Where he has no power Mr. Lincoln will set the Negroes free," the newspaper commented; "where he retains power he will consider them as slaves. This is more like a Chinaman beating his two swords together to frighten his enemy than like an earnest man pressing forward his cause."
The American philosopher, orator, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson took a very different point of view: "The force of the act is that it commits the country to...justice.... Done it cannot be undone.... The...act makes clear that the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain...It makes a victory of our defeats. Our hurts are healed. The health of the nation is repaired."
- Read your students these two viewpoints on war. Which do they think is most accurate?
In 1862, Robert E. Lee wrote: "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."
In 1879, William Tecumseh Sherman declared: "It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell."
How would American history been different if:
Britain had decided to recognize the Confederacy?
George B. McClellan had been elected president in 1864?
Lincoln had not been assassinated?
DISCUSSING ETHICAL ISSUES
- Was the outcome of the Civil War worth its costs?
- General William Tecumseh Sherman used total war against the South's population. In order to crush peoples' will to fight, he destroyed peoples' crops, their transportation, and many of their towns. Do you think that such destruction can be justified in times of war? Why or why not?
- How do you think an assassination, like Lincoln's, alters the course of history?
- Should the South have been punished for secession and the Civil War? How?
INTERPRETING PRIMARY SOURCES
Americans tend to think of our country as one committed to tolerance, negotiation, and compromise. In 1861, however, the mechanisms of compromise broke down and the result was a prolonged war that cost more than 600,000 lives. A key question that The Boisterous Sea of Liberty addresses is why the war lasted as long as it did and why it was accompanied with a will to kill and destroy. Among the questions that the sources address are: Why did the North ultimately insist on unconditional victory? Why did the war bring about the greatest social revolution in American history--the emancipation of slaves?
In general, President Lincoln handled the slavery issue cautiously in order to avoid alienating the border states. Why do you think that he authorized the execution of an illegal slave trader? What does this action tell us about his attitude toward slavery?
Why did President Lincoln dismiss Major John J. Key from military service? Did the President made the right decision?
He dismissed Key because the major had failed to follow up on the American victory at Antietam.
What does Christian M. Epperly's letter suggest about the state of Southern morale in August 1863?
That there was a deepening sense of defeatism, reinforced by wartime inflation.
What does Abram Bogart's letter tell us about the grim realities of wartime as Union forces attempted to conquer Charleston, South Carolina?
He offers a graphic description of awful smells and the sight of bodies torn apart.
How does the Western Sanitary Commission describe the plight of African American wartime refugees?
Most are poorly clad, inadequately housed, and sleep on the ground.
Compare and contrast the Democratic and Republican platforms of 1864.
The Democratic platform condemns "four years of failure to restore the Union by experiment of war." The Republican platform demands the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy; supports the Emancipation Proclamation; and favors a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.
What does Edwin H. McCaleb's letter suggest about the problems the country would face in reconstructing the South?
That many white Southerners expected the government to maintain white supremacy in the South and adopt "a magnanimous merciful & conciliatory" set of policies.