Monday, April 24, 2017

The Coming Fury

When Simon and I started to play War Between The States I was struck by my imperfect knowledge as to the causes of the American Civil War and the ill-preparedness of the two sides.

Years ago (probably decades) I had purchased the three volume set by Bruce Catton on the American Civil War.  Now was the time to read it, at least the first volume which I hoped would give me the background and understanding I needed.  It did.

Bruce Catton portrait from the 1960s, Library of Congress

The book was written a hundred years after the war (and I liked the synergy that I was reading it fifty years after it was published).  This has allowed plenty of time for analysis, research and the dissipation of bias to occur, to give me confidence that what was written was accurate (as far as these things can be). Whenever in doubt Bruce stated so and also included a few diversions into what might have been at the various early stages of the war: some profound (Texan's imprisoning Lee) or perhaps not as significant as they otherwise seem (events around Fort Sumter - it was merely one of many matches that would have ignited the tinderbox of public/political opinion).

The real catalyst seemed to have been the election of the Republican President Lincoln.  This had South Carolina seceding almost immediately.  That he was elected was helped by the Democrat Party meeting in the same state that had resulted in the party splitting and running two candidates.  My takeaway from the book is that the South Carolinians wanted to preserve their way of life, by stopping even the remotest chance of change.  And of course by way of life that meant slavery.  I was surprised to discover that some of the opposition to slavery was just opposition to coloured folk. There was also the belief that the industry of the South, i.e. cotton, could only be supported by the use of slaves.  This is of course nonsense and was just a distortion of a working man's worth something that I felt was still ongoing in the 1930s based on my recent reading of The Grapes of Wrath and I reckon continues today, but I'm getting well off topic (except that I reckon the initial use of slave labour in the Americas has an ongoing effect with industrial relations with bosses not valuing their workforce).

Then it was all State pride and the folly of old white men (and some young ones too) ably supported by their women folk.

My reading of the start of the Spanish Civil War (via Anthony Beevor's complex book) was a similar overheating of public/political discourse boiling over in to open and vicious violence amongst otherwise civil human beings.  Perhaps that is the case with most wars.  I am remembered of the quote that "war is an extension of diplomacy by other means".  You could say that Germany didn't invade Poland in 1939, it was just being diplomatic.

The other, more disturbing observation is the similarities to some of the world's current political dynamics, notably Brexit and the recent US elections.  There would not appear to be the moral issue of that "peculiar institution" to fire up people's passion today, but there is the mounting divide between haves and have nots and that is a well trod path to revolution. Climate change may also be a sleeper issue as the effects become more wide felt and blame begins to levelled.

I really enjoyed this book.  My limited knowledge of the US and its political structure made the first part a little challenging, but I was able to follow it without too much "who was that again?"  The style is rich and rewarding.  There is humour and sad reflection over various events and lost opportunities.

Once secession commences the book picks up pace covering everything that was happening and the snowballing effect, particularly on how it all hardened each side's opposition to the other and (of course aided by hindsight) on how bloody an affair it was going to be.

As to my question of both sides being ill-prepared?  The talk of secession was considered a political move.  No one thought of the consequences and this was further, almost delightfully, mixed up in consideration of what was legal.  Secondly the US army had been very much run down.  The Southern aristocracy (which tells you something that such a term could be used to describe them) may have had more of their people at West Point, but they had less people and to me, where they needed or would have had the manpower supporting their industry or rather agriculture (i.e. cotton) they used slaves.  The North had the business men (good and bad) and the industry (railways, shipbuilding, and attendant iron works etc) and an abundant workforce supporting them that was not enslaved.

There is an unreferenced unattributed chart that appears in the back of the book giving the 1860 population numbers and industry establishments.  It is very telling:
In the population figures for the Border and Southern States
the proportion of the population that are slaves is shown by the coloured bar.

For those who prefer numbers I found this, a JPEG with the delightful name of Statepops:

There were those who foresaw the rising tide: moderates who formed committees to further discuss the issues and look for compromise and military men who called for reinforcements (and I was surprised to learn that General Scott was so prescient, but was not heeded as his advice cut across the politics of the time - I'm guessing similar such foresight existed in the Generals prior to the recent Middle East wars and was equally ignored by the politicians of the time as being "unhelpful").

I am looking forward to reading the next volumes, but will have a little rest first.


  1. You picked an excellent author--probably the best ever when it comes to the Civil War. I grew up perhaps an hour south of where Mr. Catton lived, but was too young to appreciate his work until long after his death. I think his one-volume history of the war (This Hallowed Ground) is by far the best I've ever read, and is usually what I recommend to my non-historian friends when they ask where to begin.

    Catton's description of the political climate leading up to the war is a prescient--and disturbing--description of what we face today: that politics had ceased being an exchange of viewpoints and a means of reaching a compromise; instead, each side spoke only to its own adherents, with no effort at all to listen and convert (or be converted by) another person's viewpoint. Insults and baseless accusations were the order of the day, with a refusal to even consider compromise held as a badge of honor. Gives one the shudders!

    Best regards,

    Chris Johnson

    1. Thanks. I'm certainly looking forward to reading the next two volumes.

      And yes, I was struck (and shuddered) by the similarities with today's politics.

  2. Catton is an indispensable resource to be sure. If you were looking for some more current historiography, I would recommend James McPherson's one volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom. While it is now itself a little dated (1988), his account of the economic and political engines of the cause of the war is essential reading, and he makes it clear that the core reason was slavery. In presenting the case, he also makes some interesting reasons for the disparity of the N and S economies. The North had a geography very favourable to water power (lots of hills and fast flowing rivers) which was one of the primary means of powering machines (lathes, drills, presses) in the 1860s. The South had a lot of flat, rich farmland and slow moving rivers, conducive to growing cotton, which was labour intensive. Between the two systems there are legions of political, moral and religious reasons which took hold and prevented any compromise. It's all depressingly similar to US politics today in its division and intractability.

    1. Thanks, I will look out for Battle Cry of Freedom. The importance of economic aspects of war are often missed, especially on the table top.

      I've just started reading (not sure that's the word) a book called 1400 Days which ahs a daya by day inventory of events of the ACW. But in just reading the introduction, it identified some of the basic differences between the states. I would also note that teh South's economy was more exploitive than the North's, obviously in terms of human capital.

      In our game having fought over Fort Monroe and then reading about its historical context, it was a centre for escaped slaves which some Southerners demanded be returned as they were property. That gave rise to the contraband/spoils of war debate. Crazy stuff, but at least it ended well.

  3. I read the Catton books about 50 years ago - in my view a good staring point for 'discovering' the Civil War and its causes. It ought to be made clear, though, that the issue around which all the others revolved (capitalist forms, states rights, interstate rivalries, was not slavery as such. It was CHATTEL slavery. Other forms of slavery - wage slavery, debt slavery - were not at issue. Indeed at least one apologist for the 'peculiar institution' offered a contrast with the sweatshop in such hotbeds of freedom as New York.

    Yet even at the time, the more far seeing could see that chattel slavery was dying, however slowly. The die-hards wanted to extend the borders of the slave states to the west, sure, but that I believe was simply to legitimate an institution even they knew to morally ambivalent at best.

    What triggered secession, though, was the belief that States' Rights were about to be infringed. Was that really so? Hard to say: Abe Lincoln proved himself perfectly capable of it. Even secession might not have been enough to start up a shooting war, but Fort Sumter, and the (attempted) take over of other coastal forts put paid to that. Arguing that they were Federal property, Washington demanded them back, and in fact took those actions as casus belli.

    Clearly both sides 'misunderestiomated' (Thank you for that word, 'Dubya' Bush!) each other. Quite why the Fed Govt would want forts guarding the entrances of 'foreign' ports is hard to say. But wht were the Confederate leaders so precipitate? Were they expecting a war anyway? Why, if their secession were legal?

    Of course Lincoln did not set out to abolish slavery - at least, so he kept saying. It was 'to preserve the Union'. To achieve that he was prepared to use abolition as a lever. A lot of people say that chattel slavery was abolished in early 1863. It was not. Slavery was abolished ONLY in the slave states then at war against the Union. That exempted Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Kansas. Mind you, it could not possibly have lasted in those states much beyond the final acts of abolition a couple of years later.

    Fascinating history.

    1. Yes, certainly fascinating. Also lots of "what ifs" plus parallels with current events. Perhaps a good study of human behaviour as well.

      I've just read a short history about the US prior to the ACW and there was lots of aggression against the native Americans and Mexicans. With that background the willingness to fight instead of seek compromise is more understandable.