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Archive for January, 2011

Motivations for Fighting

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

In class, we’ve brought up the questions of why non-slaveholders in the South would fight for slavery and why Northern soldiers would fight for emancipation even if they had no particular desire for abolition or racial equality.  Chandra Manning’s book What This Cruel War Was Over provides ample evidence and arguments about these exact questions.

Manning argues that Southerners fought to defend slavery, even if they did not own slaves, because the institution was so deeply ingrained in Southern society that any threat to it was seen as an attack on everything Southerners valued and held dear like family and social order.  According to Manning, the Southern understanding of liberty was the ability to pursue material prosperity and provide for their families (p. 29).  Unlike the North, Southerners were focused on liberty as it applied to their individual families.  With slavery, all Southern whites had the chance to own slaves.  Even though in practice, it was difficult for poor whites to reach the point where they could buy slaves, the possibility reinforced the idea of white equality and liberty in the South (pg. 33).  A threat to slavery was seen as a threat to the ability of Southern whites to achieve economic prosperity for their families.  In addition to the economic repercussions that Southerners feared abolition would cause, they feared the effect it would have on the family unit.  According the Manning, Southern men had a strict view of familial roles.  With slavery, white man had the right and duty to command their household, which included women, children and blacks.  Even if they didn’t actually own slaves, white Southern men had the right to “rule” blacks because they were viewed as inferior to any white man of any economic standing (p. 36).  Stripping white men of the ability to exercise their authority over blacks was seen as a threat to their manhood and their position as head of a family (p. 37).  Basically, Southerners, even if they didn’t own slaves, saw slavery as essential to their way of life, their liberty, and their ability to head a family, so they were willing to fight for it.

Unlike Southerners, Manning argues that Northerners viewed liberty as a more universal ideal that applied to everyone rather than just their individual families (p.40).  The Southern rebellion was viewed as a threat to these ideals because Northerners considered the Union to represent those ideals.  This view, according to Manning, stemmed from the Second Great Awakening and the idea that the United States had a “special mandate to bring about God’s kingdom on earth (p.41).”  Even if Northerners didn’t support emancipation, many were offended by the idea that that the South would turn against the Union and the ideals of self-government and liberty that it represented for the single issue of slavery.  Northerners did not view the issue of slavery as paramount to liberty and way of life as Southerners did.  They viewed the continued existence of a single, united Union as the most important issue at stake.  Therefore, even though Northerners’ views on slavery varied widely, they were willing to fight for the preservation of the country.  Also, as the war continued, many union soldiers came to the conclusion that eliminating slavery was the only way to end the war, no matter what their personal views on slavery had been (p. 49).

Chandra Manning’s “What This Cruel War Was Over”

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

A recurring question in Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over is “why did the common soldier take up arms and fight in the war?” Manning purposes that the reason common men took up arms was to either defend or abolish the southern institution of slavery. I am not convinced that soldiers took up arms specifically for this reason, but that the were compelled by some inner sense of Patriotism or “Right.”

Manning establishes her argument through the use of many primary sources including letters written by soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies. Manning writes that the union soldiers were bound by the common belief that slavery was a morally corrupt institution of the South that needed to be abolished. On page 49 Manning writes about how this belief of the Union soldiers was cemented through interactions with slaves and experiencing the atrocities of slavery first hand. It is to be noted that Manning identifies a change in the beliefs of the Union soldiers about how blacks should be treated. In the beginning of the war she states that the Union soldiers fought to preserve the morals of society and to simply free blacks, while near the end of the war the Union soldiers were fighting for something closer to equality for the Slaves.

One argument of Manning’s that I did not totally agree with was one of her reasons why Southern Soldiers fought. I was not convinced by the argument that Southerners fought to preserve their social standing. While I believe that Influential Southerners did support the war for economic reasons and the risk of losing property, I am not convinced that this is why the common Southern soldier fought. I do not feel that any non-slaveholding Southern man felt like he was any less of a man after the slaves were freed. I believe that this explanation is not complete. I believe that Southern men fought because they believed it was their duty to protect their homes and communities.

Manning’s argument that the common man fought the Civil War over Slavery is not enough for me. I believe that a man stands up and fights to defend what he believes is right. While slavery may have contributed, I believe that the reason men on both sides fought was for their communities. Both sides had much to lose in the Civil War, to merely write off why men fought, as over slavery is doing a disservice to the soldiers who fought and died in the Civil war. I can assure you that once the Minie balls began flying the common soldier was thinking of his loved ones back home not the slaves on a rich man’s plantation.

Slavery: A reflection of Two Societies

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

We talked at the end of last class about the maximal explanation vs. the minimal explanation. Manning, like all good American historians, did an extraordinary amount of document sifting to excellent maximal answer to the motivations of soldiers in both armies with regards to slavery. What I found best about Manning’s analysis was not the change-over-time aspect (which was great) but how she provided a much broader view of what slavery meant to the soldiers. For men in both armies, slavery represented the core of the society that needed to be changed or upheld. Thus you didn’t need a personal connection to slavery to fight for it, only a connection to your Northern or Southern society.

Manning puts forth a sweeping statement regarding Confederates’ motives:

“For the men who filled the Confederate ranks, secessions, the Confederacy, and the war were not about state sovereignty…[they] were about securing a government that would do what government was supposed to do: promote white liberty, advance white families’ best interests, and protect slavery.”

After reading the book, I believe that all three of these desires really boil down into one point – to preserve white social interests at the expense of black slaves.  Manning points out that “White equality was fragile in an antebellum South” and that the concept (maybe not practice) of slavery represented the American dream of getting ahead. The most detailed argument that Manning presents is that slavery was central to the Southern man’s concept of society and manhood. She gives examples in which white men rallied against the “fanatical marauders” of the North whose abolition would make “the daughters of honest white yeomen… helpless against the sexual advances of black men. “ (p. 36) Manning’s argument, essentially boils down to the psychological argument that Southern men needed the institution of slavery as an extension of their self-worth.   They were fighting to keep a system in which –even if one did not own slaves – one could feel manly by one’s assumed duty of protecting white women and degrading the black man.   Her argument is too psychological for my taste without comprehensive written proof.

On the flip side, Manning provides strong arguments for why soldiers in the Union fought for abolition despite harboring their own racist prejudices. Without digressing into the debates within the Union Army about abolition or the various swings of soldiers’ opinion towards slavery in response to the fortunes of war,  I found Manning’s strongest argument to be that Union soldiers fought for abolition because of how slavery affected the Southern white population.

“Enlisted Union soldiers came to the conclusion that winning the war would require the destruction of slavery partly because soldiers’ personal observation of the South led many to decide that slavery blighted everything it touched.”

This is a powerful statement that encompasses a lot of the moral judgments Union soldiers laid upon the South. They believed slavery made Southerners lazy and immoral. Slavery, insinuated the soldiers, made respectable white men “indulge their lustful passions by exploiting female slaves, who were in turn robbed of their chastity. Manning also talks about the revolution in the soldiers’ attitudes towards slavery in 1862-63 and the push towards total abolition. Her argument is interesting because she explains that the push towards abolition was in part due to the horrors of slavery seen by soldiers, but also an introspective look. In a roundabout way, Manning argues that soldiers wished to emancipate slaves, not because slaves deserved equal rights (one soldier wrote ‘What is a white who forgets that he stands above the African?’ P 96), but because slavery was a moral stain on their beloved nation, the “city upon a hill” that was to project the best possible ideals to the world.

Slavery: Everyone’s Problem

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War was Over furthers the argument that slavery was indeed at the core of the sectional conflict and Civil War; so naturally she presents various arguments to explain why Southerners would fight to uphold the institution whether they owned slaves or not, as well as why Northerners would fight for the explicit abolition of slavery, regardless of their views on racial equality. What’s more, she supports each of her arguments with multiple quotes from the soldiers themselves.

Manning argues that slavery was deeply ingrained into the social order and ideals of the South. She writes that white Southern men had a “gut-level conviction that survival – of themselves, their families, and the social order – depended on slavery’s continued existence” (page 32). She claims that white Southerners had a different view of liberty than their Northern counterparts, viewing liberty as the prerogative of the white man to maintain equality with other white men and better the situation of his family. Slavery was a crucial part of this promise, as its existence guaranteed that no matter how bad things got, a white man could never reach the lowest rung on the social ladder: that of the slave. In addition, however difficult it may be, a white man always had the possibility to eventually own slaves. “Especially for the economically insecure, the hope of slave ownership staked a claim to white equality in a competitive world that offered few guarantees,” Channing writes (page 34). This hope, and the knowledge of their equality with other whites and supposed superiority over blacks, helped satisfy white Southerners and unite them in a society which otherwise was quite stratified.

Union soldiers also had manifold reasons for enlisting, but many of them related directly to slavery. Some soldiers feared that a powerful slave oligarchy of old money was seeking to control the nation, and reacting treasonously when it did not get its way. This was simply unacceptable, as it broke the rules of democracy and therefore cast doubt on if a republican government could survive after all. Regardless of how they felt about black Americans, many Union soldiers believed that slavery was like a poison in the South, damaging the virtue of the region and threatening that of the entire nation. As one of many examples, Channing reports that “a Vermont soldier claimed that the moral ‘stigma’ of slavery brought ‘animosities and wranglings’ down on the nation and threatened its very existence” (page 43). Whether or not these soldiers felt any empathy towards the plight of slaves themselves, they often believed that the only way to ultimately save the Union was to end slavery once and for all, or conflict was sure to spring up again. Channing quotes “a Missouri private [who] agreed that since ‘it was slavery that caused the war,’ it would take ‘the eternal overthrow of slavery’ to win it,” and a Wisconson soldier who assessed that “men of all parties seem unanimous in the belief that to permantly establish the Union, is to first wipe [out] the institution” of slavery (page 45).


Monday, January 24th, 2011

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