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8-08-2015, 23:24

Choosing Sides

WRITERS HAVE often asserted that the outcome of the Civil War was simply inevitable, the North so outweighing the South that there was really no contest. If such were truly the case, then one would have to ask why the men of 1861, who could count as well as authors a century later, were as stupid as they would seem to be. For if the outcome was a foregone conclusion, the Confederates were remarkably stubborn in resisting it, and the Union equally incompetent in attaining it. Stating the matter thus baldly reveals how silly the assertion actually is. After Lincoln called for 75,000 men for three months' service, he consulted with his army commander, Winfield Scott; the latter offered the opinion that maybe 750,000 men could put down the rebellion in three years. Lincoln was appalled; but even then Scott had underestimated what it would take to do the job. Far from being a clear-cut matter of arithmetic, the war was an extraordinarily close thing, and at any one of several points, or for any one of many factors, it could have had a different ending. If, in the end, God did prove to be on the side of the big battalions, that was a result of the process of the war itself, and of the decisions, wrong or right, made by the participants in it. Historians, as a rule, prefer to argue against the concept of inevitability—to accept it would put them out of business. But so do most human beings: who among us would rather trust to the wisdom of statisticians than take arms against our fate? It is necessary first of all to assess the resources available to either side, to see how they balance out. That is a balance that must not, however, be taken in isolation; it is also necessary to consider the aims of either side, for if they each had different assets, they each also had different aims. Finally, it is particularly germane to consider the choices made and roles played by the border and middle states. Had any or any number of them chosen a different side from the one they joined, then not only would the balance of forces have been changed, but the geostrategic picture would have been so significantly altered that the entire conflict would have proceeded differently. The choices those states made, however, were a part of the war itself, so it is useful to assess the relative strength of the combatants first, and then to discuss which way the middle states moved and why they did so. At the time of the attack on Fort Sumter the United States consisted of all the territory of the present contiguous mainland. Neither Alaska nor Hawaii had yet been acquired. Much of the West was as yet unsettled by Americans; California, acquired in the Mexican War and admitted as a state in 1850, and Oregon, admitted in 1859, remained isolated. There were thirty-four states, the latest of them being Kansas, admitted only in January of 1861. The census of I860 gave the country a population of 31,443,321. That figure suggests a degree of precision, a precision that soon fades into estimates upon breaking the country in two. Of the thirty-four states, eleven seceded to form the Confederate States of America. They counted a population of about nine million, which left something more than twenty-two million for the Union. Four slave states, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, remained in the Union. In all of the middle states, however, not just these four, men made individual choices. Though Kentucky was a Union state, there were Kentucky regiments in the Confederate army, and though Tennessee was a Confederate state, there were Tennessee regiments in the Union army. East Tennessee was a hotbed of Union loyalism throughout the war, and Lincoln nearly drove his generals to distraction wanting to send forces into that area. On the other side, Jefferson Davis was similarly plagued by refugee Kentucky politicians assuring him the population would support a Confederate invasion of its territory. The population of western Virginia was so overwhelmingly loyal to the Union—and resentful of eastern domination—that it seceded in turn from Virginia, and was admitted as a state of the Union in 1863. So it went, and the Confederacy may be said to have had a population of roughly nine million, and the Union of twentytwo million. But of the nine million Confederates, perhaps three million were slaves, and the figure may have been as high as three and a half million. How these people should be counted depends almost entirely upon the sympathies and predilections of the counter. Almost unanimously they wanted a Union victory, and would not willingly assist the Confederacy; on the other hand, as slaves, there was little they could do about it, unless and until they were liberated by Union military action. Even if they preferred not to support the Confederate war effort, they necessarily supported the Southern economy, and at times, they made an actual military contribution, often being used, for example, to dig fortifications in one place or another. Setting aside this vexing issue, we have perhaps six million white people in the Confederacy, some less but most more committed to their cause. Twenty-three states remained in the Union, or twenty-four if West Virginia be counted, with a population of twenty-two million. But of that, California and Oregon contributed very little in manpower to the war, and again, the population of the four middle slave states must be split. It is probably roughly correct to say that a Confederacy of six million faced a Union of twenty-one million, giving the Union a manpower superiority of three and a half to one. Much has been made of the superior manufacturing capacity of the North as opposed to the essentially agricultural economy of the Confederacy. This has been overstated, in part because it has been romanticized. The mythology of the "Lost Cause" pitted the natural and agricultural South against the artificial manufacturing North. The northern states, and especially the northeastern states, were indeed relatively highly industrialized, and there is no doubt that the much stronger and more balanced economy of the Union was better suited to modern warfare than was the more highly agricultural South. Confederates hoped to offset this by imports from Europe, paid for with their cotton, but the Union blockade cut off a good deal of that possibility. As it went on, however, the Confederacy proved surprisingly adept at developing its own manufacturing capacity. The fact was that both societies were agriculturally based—in the nineteenth century all societies were that—but the North was marginally more industrialized than was the South, the margin was a large one, and it was an extremely important one. The best case in point for this issue would be railroads. The American Civil War was really the first railroad war, though the new means of transportation had been used, in a hesitant way, in both the Crimean War and in the short Franco-Austrian War of 1859. In this war, however, Americans would make railroads the sinews of their armies and the object of their operations. Here the Northern advantage is clearly shown. In the Union's territories there were some 22,385 miles of track. Though this was split among competing companies, and here and there was impeded by different gauges, so that cars from one line could not operate on another, it nonetheless formed a coherent transportation system. That system proved less than needed, as well as a source of immense profit and possible corruption for its owners and operators; one of the notorious profiteers, for example, was Lincoln's first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, who was also a vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Early in 1862 the federal government passed the Railways and Telegraph Act, giving Lincoln the power in effect to nationalize the railways if necessary, and under that threat the operators set uniform rates and got along with the government. The government also set up the United States Military Railroads, and operated its own lines in the active theaters of war. The Confederacy had only 8,783 miles of track at the start of the war, owned by more than a hundred companies. Some of the roads were but a few miles long, and were used, for example, to bring cotton to steamboat landings. Only about a quarter of the lines were major systems, and again they had different gauges and modes of operation. The Confederate government, whose whole reason for existence was resentment of centralized authority, was far more reluctant than its federal enemy to control and organize the railroad system, and the early weaknesses of the Confederate transport net are some measure of the relative positions of the two combatants. Eventually, indeed, the whole Confederate transportation apparatus collapsed, but that having been said, it should also be pointed out that by the middle years of the war, the Confederates were very effectively utilizing what they had, and were transferring troops from one threat to another almost more efficiently than was the North. Much was made at the time of the importance of cotton; Southerners believed that, as cotton and its manufacture was then the leading industry of the United States, and as Britain and France were both dependent upon Southern suppliers for their cotton industries, this would give them the necessary leverage to gain recognition of their independence. Even if the North did fight, they told themselves, British and French recognition would mean foreign loans, possibly foreign alliances, and thus Confederate victory. Unfortunately for them, the years immediately before the war had produced bumper crops, so when the war began, Europe was able to get along for some time without fresh imports. By the time that surplus was used up, other factors were taking effect, and European recognition was withheld. Cotton was indeed important, and it was manipulated as a factor in the economy of war, but it did not prove to be nearly the all-important lever that Confederates had hoped it would be. National finance, the ability of either side to sustain the war effort fiscally, was another area where comparisons may be drawn. The total wealth of the Union was infinitely greater than the total wealth of the Confederacy, as was the ability of the Union to mobilize that wealth for war purposes. The best evidence of this is the matter of what happened to either side's money. In this situation, mere legitimacy counted for a lot, and the Union, like the English Parliament in the seventeenth century, could claim such legitimacy. So in the North, the national institutions simply continued to function, and the North had far less difficulty than the South raising the money with which to wage war. In fact there are really two issues here: one was the matter of the total national wealth; the other was how to translate that wealth into disposable form for war purposes, that is, how to produce money as distinct from wealth. There had for many years been disagreements in the United States over the simple matter of money; generally speaking, agriculturalists and working people favored paper money, while business interests favored "hard" money, gold and silver, less liable to depreciation. However, as in every major war, the supply of hard money quickly proved far too small for the nation's needs. In the North, banks were faced with a near panic as early as late 1861, indeed, as soon as it became apparent the war was not going to be over in a hurry. Investors and creditors began hoarding their gold and silver, and the war economy threatened to come to a halt because there was no money available to lubricate it. Faced with this, early in 1862 the federal government began issuing paper money, "greenbacks," so called because they were green on one side. Eventually about $450,000,000 was in circulation in paper money. The important thing about the greenbacks, however, was not how many there were, but how valuable they were; at their lowest, in mid- 1862, the greenback dollars were worth ninety-one cents of "hard" money, a 9 percent depreciation, virtually negligible in time of war. The Confederacy, by contrast, had to start from nothing. Its Congress began by passing the Bankers Loan and issuing bonds to the value of $150,000,000. Later they raised a Produce Loan, against the cotton crop of Southern planters. Eventually they went to an income tax and even an agricultural tax in kind, that is, one paid in items rather than in money. But they never really had enough specie to back their finances, and of course they too issued paper money. Unlike its Northern counterpart, however, Confederate money rapidly depreciated. By early 1864 the Confederate secretary of the treasury, Christopher G. Memminger, was reduced to such desperate measures that the Confederacy refused to accept its own money as payment for bills. Before their collapse, the Confederates had run up a national debt of more than $"00,000,000, and had experienced inflation of 6,000 percent; their money, the visible expression of their national credit, was worthless. The wonder is, as authorities have noted, not that their finances were so chaotic, but that they managed to last as long as they did in the face of it. From the foregoing it might indeed appear that the outcome of the war was inevitable, but two factors in particular militate against this view. The first is that the war had to last long enough for the weight to matter. If, for example, the Confederates had somehow managed to win it by 1862, then the long-term inability of the Confederate government to finance the war effort would not have been a matter of concern. History is replete with instances of a weaker state defeating a greater in some lightning attack. So the relative ability of either side to sustain a long war became a factor as a result of the war itself; in other words, it was a matter of the battlefield. The other factor, which has received a little less notice, is that the aims of the two combatants were quite different, were indeed as disproportionate as the means they possessed to wage the war. The Con- federacy had no real designs on the Union; it simply wanted to be quit of it. Except for a few feeble attempts to round out its western borders by forays into New Mexico, the South wanted only to be left alone. It was thus fighting a war whose ultimate aim was simply the defense of its own territorial integrity. It did, of course, carry the war occasionally into the North, but that was a matter only of operational strategy, not of long-term national policy. So all the Confederacy had to do was sustain itself, demonstrate its viability by showing that it could not be conquered, and eventually it would win the war. The Union set itself a far more difficult task: Lincoln proposed to restore the national authority. That was a polite way of saying the Union intended to destroy the Confederacy, absolutely, totally, lock, stock, and barrel. When the war was ended, the Confederacy should utterly cease to exist. This went beyond even Clausewitz's renowned aim of war: to force the enemy to accept one's will. Here was war carried to a totality of aim seldom seen by the modern world of the nationstate. Napoleon might have wanted to conquer Europe, and he repeatedly lopped off chunks of Prussia, and he put his own brothers on the thrones of Spain and Naples, but he did not expect Prussia, or Spain, or Naples, to disappear as entities. To destroy a nation of six, or nine, million people is a major undertaking, and a far greater task than simply sustaining one against external attack for a period of time. If the Union intended to do what Lincoln said he intended it to do, however judicious the language by which he disguised his war aims, it was going to need all the power it could mobilize, and that, ultimately, was pretty nearly what it did need. Through all of this, as was suggested above, the position chosen by the middle states was crucial to the course of the conflict. In the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter, both Confederate and Union volunteers flocked to the colors. Bands played north and south, and all the pretty girls told all the brave young boys they could love only a soldier. William T. Sherman had already taken a sorrowful leave of friends and supporters, resigned his position as superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, and headed back north, his duty clear to him. John C. Pemberton was a Pennsylvanian, but he had married a Virginian. As Sherman came north, he went south. For others the path was less clear. George H. Thomas of Virginia decided to stay with the old flag, in spite of offers from his state and the disapproval of his sisters, who never spoke to him again. Throughout the border and middle states, tragic scenes took place as families were split, in many cases never to be reunited. For what we consider as entities—this state or that state—were in reality thousands of agonizing individual choices, as men and women argued and prayed to discover their rightful path and place. Two Eastern Seaboard slave states remained in the Union, Delaware and Maryland. In the former, there were less than two thousand slaves, and most people disapproved, mildly, both of slavery and of secession. Nonetheless, the state had gone for John C. Breckinridge, the Southern Democrat candidate, in the I860 election, and the people of Delaware were almost as united against coercion of the South as they were against secession. Given its sentiments and its location, Delaware presented little threat to the Union. Maryland was both more complex and more important, surrounding as it did the district of the national capital. The western upcountry part of the state was largely Unionist, but the eastern part was pro-Southern, and in fact saw some of the earliest blood of the war. On April 19, the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, marching through Baltimore on its way to Washington, was attacked by a pro-secession mob. Hustled and pelted with stones, the soldiers opened fire, and got through the city only at a cost of four soldiers and twelve civilians. The state's governor, Thomas Hicks, refused to call the legislature into session, knowing it would demand at least a secession convention. Only when Federal troops clearly dominated Baltimore did the state government finally meet, and even then Maryland was held for the Union largely by political chicanery, including a number of illegal arrests of politicians. Virginia was the first state to secede after Fort Sumter. Two days after Lincoln's call for volunteers, the state adopted a secession bill; even more important, ex-governor Henry Wise moved to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the navy yard at Gosport near Norfolk. The weak federal garrisons tried unsuccessfully to burn both, which were soon in Confederate hands. Officially Virginia did not secede until May; in fact, although originally voting against it, most of the state was by now "wild for secession," blaming Lincoln for starting the war, and joining enthusiastically in the new Confederacy, which reciprocated by moving its capital from Montgomery in Alabama to Richmond. North Carolina was far less enthusiastic than its neighbors either north or south. Union sentiment was strong, especially in the western counties, and the inhabitants of the Old North State tended to regard Virginians as too full of themselves and South Carolinians as hotheaded fools. Yet the logic of geography and ultimately of sentiment pulled them toward the Confederacy. When Lincoln called for volunteers, Governor John Ellis replied that such a call was unconstitutional and a usurpation of power by the federal government. He refused to call the state militia into service, and on May 20 North Carolina seceded and joined the Confederacy, the last but one of its members to do so. The last of them was Tennessee, and the state was torn apart by the decision. It was a peculiar split, for the eastern part of the state, mountainous, peopled by small freeholders, poor, proud, and fiercely independent, was solidly for the Union; while the western part, more prosperous and cultivated, was for secession. In January the state's voters turned down secession by a four-to-one margin, and refused even to call a convention to consider the issue. The voters reckoned without their governor, Isham G. Harris, so strong for the South that he earned the sobriquet "the War Governor of Tennessee." After Fort Sumter, he pushed through legislation calling for military liaison with the Confederacy, and began recruiting troops, eventually producing about 100,000. The eastern counties refused support, and made some feeble moves to secede from Tennessee as Tennessee was seceding from the Union, but Harris sent his troops in and held the territory for the state, and ultimately for the Confederacy. These east Tennessee Unionists were the people Lincoln wanted so much to help, but he was unable to do so for most of the war. The only other state that actually seceded was Arkansas, but its adherence to the Confederacy was less a foregone conclusion than might appear from its position on the map. Governor Henry M. Rector was himself an ardent secessionist, but his citizens were not as singleminded as he was. As early as February of 1861, he had state troops seize the federal arsenal at Little Rock, but next month when he called a secession convention, the delegates voted against him and adopted a wait-and-see attitude instead. After Sumter, Rector by himself refused the federal call for volunteers, and then called a second convention. This time Arkansans followed him, though many did so reluctantly, and the state seceded in early May. Like most of the other border states, it remained divided, and for a good part of the war, it had two rival governments. Of all the states at issue, that left only Kentucky. What was it to do? Lincoln knew how important it was strategically: "I hope I have God on my side—but I must have Kentucky." Kentuckians themselves hardly knew what course to choose. Economically they were Southerners; by tradition and inclination they were pro-Union, very proud of Kentucky statesmen, notably Henry Clay, who had done so much to keep the Union together over the last couple of generations. The governor, Beriah Magoffin, was an idealist, accused of being a traitor by either side; he decided that the only hope for the entire country lay in Kentucky remaining neutral, a buffer between the two factions, until wiser counsels should prevail. He would have put the issue of the state's secession to a plebiscite, but his pro-Union legislature refused to authorize it, fearing the voters might go South. Magoffin called out the state militia, which promptly divided into two. Then he allowed Confederate recruiters into the southern part of the state, and the Union set up recruiting offices across the Ohio River to attract Kentucky volunteers. Kentucky neutrality was a chimera; the state could go either way, and it was largely a question of which side played its cards more carefully. In the event, President Lincoln won the trick; he was much more at home in this game than Jefferson Davis with his logical, legalistic mind. To Davis, since Kentucky neutrality was a sham, he treated it as such, while Lincoln played along with it. Davis was soon undercut, anyway, by the unauthorized action of Leonidas K. Polk, his western commander, who simply sent troops into Columbus, Kentucky, a useful port on the Mississippi. Federal troops under Ulysses S. Grant occupied Paducah in retaliation. Magoffin called for an alliance with the United States, but Lincoln simply dragged his feet, whereupon Magoffin abandoned his high-minded neutrality and called for help. Kentucky for the Union. There was one other slave state, Missouri, sticking up west of the Mississippi like a large bastion. Its solidity on the map was the only solid thing about it, though. The state was divided several ways, but until Fort Sumter the moderates held sway against a newly elected and strongly pro-secession governor, Claiborne F. Jackson. In early May Jackson set up a training camp outside St. Louis and garrisoned it with the state militia, like himself pro-Southern. However, he had not counted on Nathaniel Lyon. Lyon was a redheaded, hot-tempered Connecticut Yankee in the U.S. Army, strongly Republican and violently anti-Southern after serving in Bleeding Kansas. Though he was only a captain, he was a man of action. Suspecting that Claiborne planned to use his militia to take control of the federal arsenal in St. Louis, Lyon dressed up as a woman and toured the militia camp. He teamed up with Francis P. Blair, Jr., one of the Missouri's leading Unionists, son of one of Lincoln's big backers and brother of the postmaster general. Taking their own troops, they surrounded the militia's Camp Jackson and by a preemptive dawn strike disarmed the opposition. Unfortunately Lyon then paraded his prisoners through St. Louis, causing a riot in which twenty-eight people were killed. Claiborne denounced all this as foreign invasion, and declared for the Confederacy, moving the capital to Jefferson City and leaving Lyon and Blair in possession of the state. Lincoln immediately promoted Lyon from captain to brigadier general. The state was subsequently torn apart, with two rival governments, and large numbers of men serving on both sides, in a ratio of about two and a half to one in favor of the Union. Little columns fought back and forth across the state for much of the war, though it generally was treated as a Union state from now on. Lyon himself was killed at the battle of Wilson's Creek in August, characteristically taking the offensive against an enemy that outnumbered him two to one. The path chosen by any of these border states was thus a mixture, of politics and often of political sleight of hand, tending off into violence and ultimately regular military action. As in all of America's wars, men were willing to go long distances to fight. Arkansas and Louisiana troops helped the Confederate Missourians at Wilson's Creek, and an Iowa regiment fought on the side of the Union Missourians. Farther west, Texans attempted to extend their control into New Mexico, and state troops under Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor fought a little engagement with Federal soldiers at Mesilla, northwest of El Paso, in July. It was well into the summer before the general battle lines were drawn: Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri were to see the most battles of the entire war, as armies moved back and forth, asserting or losing control of vital territory and communication arteries. So by September the sides were chosen; men had made their choices, stepped forward, held up their hands or put their names on the line. The time for speeches and patriotic poses was over. It was time now for fighting.