Why the Civil War Means Different Things to Americans Essay

Civil War and Its Meaning

The Civil War defined Americans because it was the war fought over the Constitution as it was written. It was the war of States’ Rights and the War of Northern Aggression. It was the war that brought about the totalitarian drive of the central state, where the President assumed for himself authoritarian powers. There were actually many facets to it: the election of Lincoln, the low tariffs set by Southern Congressmen, which upset Northern Industrial magnates, the Homestead Act and the rise of the transcontinental railroad — both of which could be seen as maneuvers by Northern states to take over the Midwest in a move to block out Southern influence and expansion to the West (Egnal, 2001, p. 30); and the issue of slavery (flamed to inferno-like levels by men like the radical abolitionist John Brown).

The South regretted surrendering because they didn’t just surrender to a wartime foe — they surrendered to a new ideology — a modern, “Enlightened,” centralized form of government that would completely alter their social structure and society and integrate their states into a subservient role in the State apparatus. From being a nation in which individual states were largely autonomous to being a nation in which the federal government oversaw virtually all aspects of society or at least threatened to — America entered a new era in the post-War days; an era in which some longed for the old ways of the antebellum South because for them it was a better way of life more consistent with what the Founding Fathers had striven to protect in the Constitution. As Foote notes, Jefferson Davis had not wanted to fight a war and had hoped to settle the matter of secession (and the states’ right to secede from the Union) in the courtroom. On his last day in Congress, he hoped he would be arrested, so that the issue might not have to end in blood. But Lincoln, the man so familiar with courtrooms, ironically, had no inclination to go there. On the contrary, Lincoln would oversee the use of total war in the destruction of the South in order to bring these people to heel. This is why the Civil War defined us: it was a choosing of sides between those who supported the strong central State and those who resisted. Those who resisted ultimately surrendered, but they never stopped believing in the cause.

Thus, when Foote stated that any understanding of the nation had to be based on an understanding of the Civil War it was precisely because this war drove a wedge between these two camps, which existed from the beginning (consider the inflammatory writings of Hamilton in The Federalist to see how the centralizing camp was already adamantly seeking total power in the early days of the nation).

Three major battles that occurred that helped to move the South into a position of surrendering were the Battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863 (a fatal blow to Southern power in which the Confederacy’s General Lee was defeated by General Meade of the Union and where Lee lost nearly 30,000 in the fight) (McPherson); the Battle of Fischer Hill (which prepared the way for Sherman’s March and the Savannah Campaign — one of the final crippling all-out assaults on the South), and the Battle of Ft. Sumter, which launched the entire war and set the conflict in motion.

It is fitting to begin with Ft. Sumter, therefore, as it displays the two mindsets in the contest — the manipulative mind of Lincoln, who knew that by sending ships to relieve the men at the Fort, Davis would feel compelled to fire upon them and thus be viewed as having delivered the first blow, which would then cause the Northerners to rally behind the idea of the war, which before this they were reluctant to embrace. And that is just what happened. The South seceded, claimed Ft. Sumter as its own, ordered the Union troops out, Lincoln failed to comply and instead sent reinforcements which stopped outside the harbor. Davis threatened to fire if they were not removed; Lincoln refused to back down. And so the war began — with Lincoln essentially goading Davis into throwing the first punch, as though this were all the fault of the South. The Fort was assaulted by Southern cannons but there were no casualties — the Union officers put up a good show, but in the end they surrendered (Foote, 1958).

At Gettysburg, Lee’s forces moved up the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania and met the forces of Meade in Gettysburg on the first of July, 1863. Lee meant to annihilate Meade’s forces, though Meade’s troops outnumbered Lee’s, some 94,000 to 72,000. Three days of fighting in the battle led to approximately 50,000 casualties, evenly divided between both sides before Lee finally called for a retreat (Gettysburg Casualties, 2015).

Missing from the Battle was any effective use of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, which Lee had directed towards the enemy’s eastern flank position. Under Meade, on the other hand, was Brigadier General John Buford, who saw the Confederates approaching and set up defenses on the western ridges of Gettysburg. Buford’s small number of men was not enough to do battle with Lee’s forces, but they were just enough to delay Lee’s gaining of the strategic heights before Union help could arrive with reinforcements. Lee gave orders that were not interpreted as being very forceful by Lieutenant General Richard Ewell to take Cemetery Hill, where the Union was holed up. Had Ewell taken the Hill, it would have likely been a strategic victory and assisted the Confederates considerably. But he did not and the second two days of fighting were even more intense than the first, as both sides threw everything they had into the fray. After three days of battle, the Confederates retreated back into southern territory and the Union held the field.

The question regarding why the South lost if Lee and Jackson were so brilliant and the South lost fewer men in battle than the Union may be answered by the following: the Union waged total war on the South and the Europeans whom Davis had counted on for aid, never offered any (Foote, 1958). Lee and Jackson did what they could considering the circumstances, but there was also a lot of pride and hurt feelings among the Confederate generals, which Davis did not help to heal, and that added to the breakdown of the forces’ effectiveness (Foote, 1958). Still, the total war policy instigated by Sheridan and carried out by Sherman was something more than the South could stand.

Sheridan employed the “scorched earth” military tactic following the Battle of Fisher’s Hill in the Shenandoah Valley. He burned everything that could possibly be of assistance to the Confederates as he pulled his Army back down the Valley, leaving behind them nothing but ruins and ash. Barns, factories, mills, plantations — everything was destroyed. Sheridan’s aim was to incapacitate the Confederate Army and take away their sustenance and ability to survive. By taking the war to the civilian front, Sheridan effected a policy of total war — and an effective one which proved to be a forerunner to Sherman’s policy of total annihilation of everything that stood between Atlanta and the sea.

Hardee had at his disposal 10,000 men deeply entrenched outside Savannah on the morning of December 10, 1864 when Sherman arrived. Sherman had a force of six times Hardee’s: 55,000 infantry, 5000 cavalry, and 2000 artillerymen on 64 guns. This force marched in two columns for the Savannah Campaign. Sherman’s quick victory at Fort McAllister allowed him to retrieve bigger and better artillery from the U.S. Navy — perfect for laying siege to Savannah. One week later, on December 17, Hardee received a personal message from Sherman, which informed Hardee that his adversary now had the means to rain down fire upon his head, in spite of trenches and flooded fields. Not only this, but Sherman informed him every road into Savannah was now under Sherman’s control. The letter was a demand for Hardee’s surrender (Sherman, 1990, p. 693).

The strategic setting of the Savannah Campaign was pivotal in the sense that the fall of Savannah would be a crushing blow to the already dwindling Confederate morale, completing Sherman’s March to the Sea. Sherman had been given the role of delivering this blow by U.S. Grant and Lincoln: it was a direct attack on the infrastructure of the South, which Sherman estimated in monetary terms at around $100 million, or $1 billion accounting for inflation. Savannah was also a symbolic city for the South and Hardee’s defense of it was a kind of last defense of Southern Pride. The South had already lost its major ports to the U.S. Navy.

Sherman himself stated his belief that the Union was fighting “a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of…

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