During the war and after the war

J.R. Pole

  • Oxford History of the United States. Vol. VI: Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era by James McPherson
    Oxford, 904 pp, $35.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 503863 0
  • Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
    Harper and Row, 690 pp, $21.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 06 015851 4

With the passing of generations, the Civil War will lose its chronological centrality in American history, and may well come to be regarded, not so much as the great crisis of the very principle and possibility of the Union, but rather as an early difficulty that had to be overcome – one of the Union’s teething troubles. James McPherson, who has spent most of his academic life in the study of abolitionism and the related struggles of the Civil War era, has written a narrative history that comes as close to being both comprehensive and definitive as seems possible in a single volume. He avoids the kind of thematic interpretation that has been popular in American historical writing and never loses sight of two essential requirements: an appreciation of what it was like at the time, and an appreciation of what it was like as a whole.

In a manner that recalls the once-famous introduction to H.A.L.Fisher’s History of Europe, with its emphasis on the play of the contingent and the unforeseen, McPherson insists on the element of contingency in the clash of forces that led ultimately – but only ultimately – to Northern victory. There were four crucial phases, but the first three left the military outcome in doubt. The first occurred as early as the summer of 1862, when a seemingly imminent Union victory was arrested both in the West and in Virginia. It may be remarked here, hardly parenthetically, that the prolongation of the war by these Southern successes ensured that the war would turn into a crusade against slavery. An early victory would have restored the Union without any immediate prospect of emancipation, still less of a 14th Amendment. The South would have done better to have lost quickly: the longer and bloodier the war, the greater the devastation of the South, as Georgia and South Carolina found in the autumn of 1864.

The second critical phase was the fall of 1862 with the battles of Perryville and Antietam. Total casualties at Antietam were more than four times as heavy as those suffered on the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944. These Union successes forestalled European recognition of the Confederacy, with all that might have entailed. The third critical point was the summer of 1863, when Gettysburg and Vicksburg made Union victory seem almost inevitable. But Lee’s army was still intact, a fact whose significance Lincoln instantly recognised. Strategic victory had not been won, and the fearful battles of the spring of 1864 threw everything into new confusion and doubt. That was why Grant said he would ‘fight it out on this line all summer if necessary’. It is wrong, as McPherson shows, to think that Grant sought a war of attrition: he was presented with it, and knew that he could not afford to withdraw. Only with the fourth turning-point, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and Sheridan’s destruction of Early’s army in the Shenandoah valley, did Union victory become inevitable. Only then could Lincoln, who had already prepared a memorandum for his successor in the probable event of his defeat in the Presidential election of November 1864, count on re-election. Still some four months were to pass before the President, with characteristic disregard for his own safety, could pass throught the streets of Richmond. Sailing back to Washington, the war-weary Lincoln, equally characteristically, seemed immersed in Shakespeare. With some of his staff around him on deck, he read from Macbeth the lines:

Duncan is in his grave.
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.

A few days later the implicit prophecy had come true.

McPherson presents Lincoln through his actions rather than through his reflections; this book does not often pause for studies in character. He is surely right in thinking that after the Wade-Davis episode, Lincoln moved towards more radical solutions – to ‘the left’ – and would have gone further to meet the Radicals than Johnson was psychologically capable of doing; quite apart from his convictions, Lincoln was too politically canny to have got embroiled with Congress as Johnson did. But Lincoln never wanted to convert the war into a social revolution, and one can imagine that, had he remained at the helm, there might have been no political occasion for a 14th Amendment.

McPherson’s narrative method brings out the profound irony of McClellan’s failure on the Peninsula. If McClellan had been willing to fight he could probably have smashed Lee in 1862; and his own inner objectives might at that time have been achieved – a restoration of the Constitution without dislodging slavery in the South. In all, this book handles with great skill the complex interplay of military and political events – and McPherson is more inclined to examine McClellan’s character than Lincoln’s. He calls attention to the importance of Congress’s legislative achievements in 1961-62: the session, which passed a major programme of ‘Hamiltonian-Whig-Republican’ legislation, was ‘one of the most productive in American history’; it revolutionised the nation’s tax and monetary structures and took several steps towards the abolition of slavery. All this was done by a Congress engrossed in war – but assisted by the absence of Southern representation.

This book begins well. Many students have difficulty in understanding what was at stake for the North in keeping unwilling Southern States in the Union. McPherson’s careful explanation of the historical background, which included the issues involved in expansion, in abolitionism and the legal aspects of the personal liberty laws of Northern States, makes credible the moral passion which urged men to commit themselves to the cause of the Union. An extension of the Missouri Compromise line, which is easy to present as a reasonable proposal to resolve the sectional crisis, would have given carte blanche to Southern adventurists – and McPherson follows prewar ventures in Central America in sufficient detail to convince us that this was no trivial threat. Drawing on the work of Don Fehrenbacher and Paul Finkelman, McPherson also presents a very clear explanation of the significance of the Dred Scott case, in which the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Taney declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, and added for good measure that when the Constitution was founded, a Negro had no rights that a white man was obliged to respect. This was historically false, and as Taney admitted no modification in the Constitution’s original meaning, the implications were obvious. (An interesting case, incidentally, of the doctrine of ‘original intent’.) The Dred Scott decision could not have restored ‘normal politics’ – as both Taney and President James Buchanan had hoped – because, rather than stabilising the situation, it carried an implied threat to the power of the States to protect freedom within their own boundaries. (Lincoln prised this point open in his ‘house divided’ speech.) Many States had passed ‘personal liberty’ laws which effectively prevented the recapture of runaways. The constitutional problems raised by this Northern form of quasi-nullification came to a head in the Wisconsin case of Ableman v. Booth, which McPherson omits to discuss. Taney’s judgment in this case did nothing to dispel the threat discerned in Dred Scott.

The political issues of the 1850s were complex and turbulent, with nativist hostility to immigrants rapidly gaining ground. But McPherson shows with masterly control how the politics of ethnicity and of such issues as banking and railroads were subsumed into the greater issues of slavery and the West. He does not seem much interested in the theological depths of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, when the President, grown haggard in the struggle, seemed to want to shift the burden of responsibility – not, perhaps, untinged with guilt – to the Almighty.

White racism was not the only reason for the failure of Reconstruction. There occurred in the course of the post-war years a natural fragmentation of the interests that required national political attention; no political system can remain riveted to a single theme indefinitely. But racism was one of the reasons for the failure of nerve – or of will – which permitted the promotion of other issues before the struggle for control of the South had been won, and it is worth contrasting this failure with the opposite effect, by which, during the war, emancipation came to dominate other considerations until the military struggle had been won. The contrast helps to confirm that the Union, rather than the interests of the blacks, remained, for the North as a whole, the ultimate object of the peace, as it had been of the war. But racism also played a more subtle part, for it became a screen through which all other forces were perceived. Racism entered into the processes by which its own operations were analysed. Eric Foner, who now holds at Columbia University the DeWitt Clinton chair once held by Richard Hofstadter, makes the very interesting point that, as Northern liberals lost heart for and interest in the struggle for racial justice in the South, they found it increasingly comforting to adopt racist explanations of the failure of Southern blacks to take advantage of their new freedom in the economic and political life of the reconstructed Southern States. Thomas Nast’s cartoons depict Negroes with increasing hostility as Northern effectiveness fails, exposing them to the blasts of local intimidation. As E.L. Godkin’s early liberalism turned sour, he and other likeminded publicists not only withdrew their sympathies from the beleaguered Southern blacks, but laid foundations for a racially-based opposition to America’s later imperialism: the point was that inferior peoples were incapable of fulfilling the requirements of American citizenship.

This consideration has had a long-lived effect on American historiography – amplified by the school of William Dunning in the early 20th century; and it has contributed a rationale for white opposition to the admission of Negroes to the democratic process in the South. Even now, genuine representative government in the ex-Confederate States is only about twenty-five years old. Opinion – educated opinion – and racial prejudice supported each other and determined the style of historical interpretation. It remains one of the authentic scandals of the American historical profession that W.E.B DuBois’s great work, Black Reconstruction (1935), which revealed the extent of the Negro contribution to Reconstruction policies as well as exposing the prejudices that entered into conventional history, was never reviewed in the American Historical Review.

It remains to ask, though, whether one can envisage conditions under which Reconstruction could have established racial justice on a permanent basis. Five such conditions emerge as basic requirements from Foner’s analysis. Land distribution was the first requirement, but it never aroused widespread enthusiasm: dominated by free-market economics, Northern philanthropists and reformers alike asserted that to be given land would weaken the freedmen’s fibre, and they failed to notice that the freedmen might already be thought to have earned a title to the land on which they had toiled. The freedmen were under no illusions: they had certainly mixed their labour with the soil, if anyone had ever done so (thereby fulfilling Jefferson’s criterion for the chosen people of the earth), and it seems a pity that they were not able to quote Locke on this point for the benefit of their emancipators. The second requirement was access to both credit and markets, neither of which came with the grant of emancipation, or could be brought through Southern politics. The next was physical protection from violence and intimidation, which was irregular and unreliable. One reason for this was the weakness in the fourth requirement: adequate political leverage in Washington, accompanied by consistent support. Foner shows that Southern Republicans never exercised much influence in national politics and that Southern black politicians found themselves largely confined to patronage.

Finally there was a need to decentralise the racial issue in Southern politics. There were moments when it seemed that race might not for ever dominate the political consciousness of the South. But it was the positive task of white supremacists to set race back in the centre, where it could operate, in Ulrich Phillips’s later words, as ‘the central theme of Southern history’. History was made to serve the purposes of white domination.

There has been much debate about the question of the continuity of Southern history. How much about the ‘New South’ was new? Foner’s observations about its Negro churches make an indirect but significant contribution to this debate. Before the Civil War there existed a few independent Negro churches, but afterwards black churches proliferated, and were the only institutions that were exclusively under black control. This had vast consequences for the future of black politics, especially after the 1890s, when blacks were systematically driven out of formal Southern politics. The post-war churches represented a new dimension of Negro activity, and provided a setting for the development of modern black leadership. That blacks contributed to the alteration of plantation agriculture, and to their own status, as they collectively rejected old forms of plantation labour organisation, stands as a further contribution to the total history of the period, a history that until recently denied blacks a decisive role.

It has always been difficult to write about Reconstruction over the whole South. Developments were uneven, sometimes dissimilar, and the Dunning school’s precedent for State-by-State studies did not set an easy model. Earlier interpretations of the history of Reconstruction by Stampp and Franklin did much to lay down guidelines for the ‘Second Reconstruction’ school, whose approach reflected the mood of the modern civil rights movement: but Foner has brought under control an enormously greater mass of information.

At the end, he makes a general point, for the benefit of those who have so long been content to think of Reconstruction and its long aftermath as a Southern problem: that the ultimate removal of a large part of the labouring population from political participation ‘shifted the centre of gravity of American politics to the right’. The intense white tribalism which dominated so much of the Southern sense of purpose is one of the given conditions of Foner’s narrative. He does not concern himself to any great extent with the kind of question explored with much sensitivity by Bertram Wyatt-Brown in Southern Honor. Other studies and interpretations will come, but they will have to come from other directions. Professor Foner’s achievement is, in a sense, to have fulfilled the ‘Second Reconstruction’ school’s major programme for the South as a whole, without losing the national perspective.