Saturday, February 21, 2009

A General Explains Motives for War

I apprehend that if all living Union soldiers were summoned to the witness stand, every one of them would testify that it was the preservation of the American Union and not the destruction of Southern slavery that induced him to volunteer at the call of his Country. As for the South, it is enough to say that perhaps eighty percent of her armies were neither slave-holders, nor had the remotest interest in the institution... both sides fought and suffered for liberty as bequeathed by the Fathers--the one for liberty in the union of the States, the other for liberty in the independence of the States.

"Reminiscences of the Civil War", by John B. Gordon, Maj. Gen. CSA


cenantua said...


Gordon overestimated in his statement about Union soldiers. I'd be willing to bet that some were, from the beginning fighting (in part) to free slaves. The majority, however, went to war for Union. Nonetheless, as the war progressed and "preservation of the Union" Union soldiers saw different things associated with slavery (and were clearly moved, as can be seen in many letters), some of these same soldiers changed their views and felt the war had two meanings, that being for the preservation of the Union and the freedom of slaves.

As for the Confederate soldiers, I agree that most were not fighting for the cause of slavery... defense of home and family were primary, but I think there was more concern with locality than devotion to their respective Southern states. Nonetheless, I think that they had an awareness that victory would sustain the institution; it was just secondary in many of their minds. Slavery already existed, so, I think most felt almost "numb" about slavery (I can't think of another way to explain this quite yet). Sort of like, "ok, so what, slavery exists already, but that's not my personal motivation..." The personal causes of the common Confederate were different, but I think those "causes" in many were somewhat on some shaky ground (especially considering the desertion rate and the reluctance to enlist until the "cusps" of the enforcement of three conscription acts... I plan to address this in a post at a later time). I think this lends something to the meaning of a "conditional Confederate." But, I'm digressing...

I think the common Confederate soldier was made quite aware where the fat cats with slaves stood in the whole ordeal with things like the 20 slave law that exempted many from service.

Justin said...

Thanks for commenting! Regarding the Union side, it only makes sense that some would feel strongly enough about abolition that they'd fight, since the religious communities
most vocally against slavery were in the north.

there was more concern with locality than devotion to their respective Southern states.

As we've done genealogical work, studied local records, graves, etc this is exactly the conclusion we've come to. And more concern with locality than the Confederacy as a whole. The side a person "chose" was probably influenced by the consensus of friends and extended family living close by and in local elections.

cenantua said...

There is another interesting thing about this quote... that which was "bequethed" by the "Fathers."

Again, I think that Gordon misrepresented a rather interesting part (and perhaps larger part than we may realize) of the Southern population... a part in which fathers and sons disagreed when it came to service in the Confederacy. The sons were... well, "electrified" with the thought of the Confederacy, fathers were anything but enthusiastic (I think Gods and Generals touched on this in one scene, but I think the entire idea is typically lost to most viewers).

As for the locality thing, I've also run across a fair number of Confederate deserters who would just as soon shoot a Confederate conscript hunter as they would a Union soldier. However, I think there was more to it. I think that these soldiers... nay, let's just call them human beings... may have felt they could do more for "hearth and home" nearer to home than in the Confederate army. There was no real love of Confederacy or the Confederate flag in some of these people, but more absolute love of and concern for their families at home. By hiding out in the mountains nearer to their homes, they may have felt more empowered to do what they felt was really necessary. So, while I say locality, in some it may have even been more "microscopic" than we realize.

S. Campbell said...

I could be generalizing this quite a bit, but when it comes to the Confederate soldier and their Union or Confederate sympathies, it could just be that the typical Confederate was a "locality of one". "Leave me alone and I'll leave you alone."(which would include family and/or friends)

This attitude still exists, but I don't think it's as nearly prevalent as it was back then, so many times when people are talking or writing about soldiers back then I don't think they take that into account. They end up communicating history from their own perspective. I think that would go for Gordon too. Although, I pretty much agree with Gordon, he was communicating history from his perspective at the time period that he was living at the time of the statement made.

I think we've touched on this before, but as the veterans got older history started to change. Now that I think of it, history was probably changing from what really happened as soon as someone wrote what happened down in their diary.

With history, there are two histories happening at the same time. The one that includes all the exact facts of what happened and the other is personal history that includes everybody's personal perspective of the events. So now that we are this far down the road from whatever history we are talking about, how much of what really happened do we know?

I don't know if it sounds like I'm rambling or not, but I've been sick and I'm really tired from sleeping and showering all day.

cenantua said...

"Although, I pretty much agree with Gordon, he was communicating history from his perspective at the time period that he was living at the time of the statement made."

For some reason, I would think that Gordon's perspective would have revealed more dynamics than the way that he represents it; but yes, he was communicating history from the way he knew it (what he was privy to), specifically. That, I think, is our challenge when looking back into history. We have a lot to digest, so our perspective is multi-tiered and includes things that those who lived it may not have been privy to. Though we may think they should have been privy to a lot more, they weren't seeing the same things we are seeing looking back. Likewise, they saw things that are still missing from our radar. It's a jumbled mess when you consider it all, but that is the struggle of the historian.

cenantua said...

Mr. Campbell... please feel free to call me Robert.

You said...

"I could be generalizing this quite a bit, but when it comes to the Confederate soldier and their Union or Confederate sympathies, it could just be that the typical Confederate was a "locality of one". "Leave me alone and I'll leave you alone."(which would include family and/or friends)."

This begins to get more complicated when we consider the reaction of some Southern Unionists. They too were quite bonded with their localities, but as opposed to the "home-defense" reactions over the matter of Federal intervention, many Southern Unionists were opposed to the imposition of Confederate authority over their lives. Consider he case of Chrisley Nicholson...

He, by the way, was a third great grand uncle of mine.

cenantua said...

The link didn't quite make it through for some reason. Here it is again.

cenantua said...

Still didn't go through and I don't know why. If you go to the Chronicles site, do a search for Chrisly Nicholson.

Ghost said...

I believe we should be careful in assuming the motives of "Southern Unionists."

I checked the service records of a Federal unit raised in the South- the 1st Battalion Georgia Infantry.

Many of the records have the original enlistment papers...of which 60% have this notation-
“presented by ____ ____*, recruiting agent for New York.”
(*several agents named in the various records)

These "recruits" were credited to particular congressional districts of New York which relieved others in that locality from being drafted.

So it seems that there is more involved here (money) than sincere “volunteers for the Glorious Union.”

cenantua said...


I don't know anything about this unit of which you write, but I am quite aware of other incidents and persons who did not go into it for money.

Additionally, Southern Unionists were not limited to persons interested in serving in the military. In fact, there are several generalizations that we need to break away from in the effort to actually understand who Southern Unionists were. If a person is to wrap the "motivations" of Southern Unionists in one, or even a couple "packages," they are missing a great deal in any effort to understand.

HungaryGator said...

In his book What They Fought For, 1861-1865, historian James McPherson reported on his reading of more than 25,000 letters and more than 100 diaries of soldiers who fought on both sides of the War for Southern Independence and concluded that Confederate soldiers (very few of whom owned slaves) "fought for liberty and independence from what they regarded as a tyrannical government." The letters and diaries of many Confederate soldiers "bristled with the rhetoric of liberty and self government," writes McPherson, and spoke of a fear of being "subjugated" and "enslaved" by a tyrannical federal government. Sound familiar?

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, which freed no slaves because it exempted all territories under Union control, there was a massive desertion crisis in the Union army. Union soldiers ‘were willing to risk their lives for Union," McPherson writes, "but not for black freedom." James McPherson For Cause and Comrades; Why Men Fought in the Civil War.

HungaryGator said...

Consider these statements by a guy who won almost every northern state in the presidential election both in 1860 and again in 1864.

“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. And I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. … And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." Abraham Lincoln

"Negro equality! Fudge! How long, in the government of a god, great enough to make and maintain this universe, shall there continue to be knaves to vend, and fools to gulp, so low a piece of demagogue-ism as this?” Abraham Lincoln

"I can conceive of no greater calamity than the assimilation of the Negro into our social and political life as our equal. . . We can never attain the ideal union our fathers dreamed, with millions of an alien, inferior race among us, whose assimilation is neither possible nor desirable.” -Abraham Lincoln

Consider De Tocqueville's assessment in his seminal work Democracy in America:
"the Prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States that have abolished slaves than in the states where slavery still exists. White carpenters, white bricklayers and white painters will not work side by side with blacks in the North but do it in almost every Southern state." Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America

So the Negro [in the North] is free, but he cannot share the rights, pleasures, labors, griefs, or even the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared; there is nowhere where he can meet him, neither in life nor in death. In the South, where slavery still exists, less trouble is taken to keep the Negro apart: they sometimes share the labors and the pleasures of the white men; people are prepared to mix with them to some extent; legislation is more harsh against them, but customs are more tolerant and gentle. -Alexis De Tocqueville, "Democracy in America", Harper & Row, 1966, p.343.


HungaryGator said...

consider these newspaper editorials:

"Evil and nothing but evil has ever followed in the track of this hideous monster, abolition. Let the slave alone and send him back to his master where he belongs." The Daily Chicago Times Dec 7 1860

opposed abolition of slavery….. proposed slaves should be allowed to marry and taught to read and invest their money in savings accounts...which would "ameliorate rather than to abolish the slavery of the Southern States."...and would thus permit slavery to be "a very tolerable system." New York Times Jan 22 1861

"the immense increase in the numbers of slaves within so short a time speaks for the good treatment and happy, contented lot of the slaves. They are comfortably fed, housed and clothed, and seldom or never overworked." New York Herald (the largest newspaper in the country at the time) March 7, 1861

“Any reasonable creature may know , if willing, that the North hates the Negro and until it was convenient to make a pretence that sympathy with him was the cause of the war, it hated the abolitionists and derided them up and down dale. As to secession being rebellion, it is distinctly possible by state papers that Washington considered it no such thing. Massachussetts now loudest against it, has itself asserted its right to secede again and again.” Charles Dickens.

I think it would be illuminating for many to learn about the Black Codes in Northern states at the free blacks barred from entering Oregon, barred from Indiana, only allowed to enter Illinois after posting $1,000 bond (a huge sum in those days) to ensure their "good behavior" which passed by referendum by a 2 to 1 majority, barred from entering New York, nonresident blacks who stay more than 60 days in Massachussetts to be publicly whipped, etc. Feel free to look any of this up if you doubt it.

I could cite more but you get the point. The North was NOT fighting to end slavery. They and the supporters of a centralized state only started claiming that later so as to try to seize the moral high ground and simultaneously discredit proponents of state's rights but that is certainly not what they were fighting for at the time based on a reading of the evidence.