A vivid, unprecedented account of why Union and Confederate soldiers identified slavery as the root of the war, how the conflict changed troop's ideas about slavery, and what those changing ideas meant for the war and the nation.
Using soldier's letters, diaries, and regimental newspapers, Chandra Manning allows us to accompany soldiers--black and white, northern and southern--into camps and hospitals and on marches and battlefields to better understand their thoughts about what they were doing and why. Manning's work reveals that Union soldiers, though evincing little sympathy for abolitionism before the war, were calling for emancipation by the second half of 1861, ahead of civilians, political leaders, and officers, and a full year before the Emancipation Proclamation. She recognizes Confederate soldier's primary focus on their own families, and explores how their beliefs about abolition--that it would endanger their loved ones, erase the privileges of white manhood, and destroy the very fabric of southern society--motivated even non-slaveholding Confederates to fight and compelled them to persevere through military catastrophes like Gettysburg and Atlanta, long after they grew to despise the Confederate government and disdain the southern citizenry. She makes clear that while white Union troops viewed preservation of the Union as essential to the legacy of the Revolution, over the course of the war many also came to think that in order to gain God's favor, they and other white northerners must confront the racial prejudices that made them complicit in the sin of slavery. We see how the eventual consideration of the enlistment of black soldiers by the Confederacy eliminated any reason for many Confederate soldiers to fight; how, by 1865, black Union soldiers believed the forward racial strides made during the war would continue; and how white Union troop's commitment to racial change, fluctuating with the progress of the war, created undreamt-of potential for change but failed to fulfill it.
An important and eye-opening addition to our understanding of the Civil War.
For this impressively researched Civil War social history, Georgetown assistant history professor Manning visited more than two dozen states to comb though archives and libraries for primary source material, mostly diaries and letters of men who fought on both sides in the Civil War, along with more than 100 regimental newspapers. The result is an engagingly written, convincingly argued social history with a point--that those who did the fighting in the Union and Confederate armies "plainly identified slavery as the root of the Civil War." Manning backs up her contention with hundreds of first-person testimonies written at the time, rather than often-unreliable after-the-fact memoirs. While most Civil War narratives lean heavily on officers, Easterners and men who fought in Virginia, Manning casts a much broader net. She includes immigrants, African-Americans and western fighters, in order, she says, "to approximate cross sections of the actual Union and Confederate ranks." Based on the author's dissertation, the book is free of academese and appeals to a general audience, though Manning's harsh condemnation of white Southerners' feelings about slavery and her unstinting praise of Union soldier's "commitment to emancipation" take a step beyond scholarly objectivity. Photos. (Apr.)
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April 03, 0007
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Excerpt from What This Cruel War Was Over by Chandra Manning
"The fact that slavery is the sole undeniable cause of this infamous rebellion, that it is a war of, by, and for Slavery, is as plain as the noon-day sun."  So claimed the farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers who made up the 13th Wisconsin Infantry in February 1862. The white Southerners who made up Morgan's Confederate Brigade might not have seen eye to eye with the Wisconsin men on much in 1862, but they agreed that "any man who pretends to believe that this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks . . . is either a fool or a liar."  Two years later, black men in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery reminded each other, "upon your prowess, discipline, and character; depend the destinies of four millions of people and the triumph of the principles of freedom and self government of this great republic."  These soldiers plainly identified slavery as the root of the Civil War. Just as plainly, by "slavery," they did not mean some abstract concept or a detached philosophical metaphor for ideas about freedom, but rather the actual enslavement of human beings in the United States based on race.
Yet to say that soldiers placed slavery at the center of the war is to open rather than solve a mystery. Neither the authors nor intended audiences of these remarks held high office or made policy. Few owned slaves, and few of the white soldiers thought of themselves as abolitionists. They were instead very ordinary men of the type unlikely to figure into historical inquiries into the causes of the Civil War, and often assumed, even by historians from both the North and the South who for decades have acknowledged that without slavery there would have been no Civil War in the United States, to be little more than pawns swept up in events they probably did not understand, let alone consent to or shape. Members of the general public recognize even less of a connection between soldiers, slavery, and the Civil War. My most recent reminder of this sobering truism came at a wedding in September 2005 when a man from Buffalo, New York who had no idea what I do for a living spent more than an hour insisting that slavery had nothing to do with the conflict. And who can blame him? The Confederate ranks consisted primarily of men who owned no slaves, and historians have not convincingly explained why those men would fight a war they knew was waged to prevent the destruction of slavery. At the same time, scant numbers of the white men who filed into the Union Army had ever laid eyes on a slave, though most harbored their own prejudice against black people, so why would they fight to end slavery? And why would more than 180,000 black men fight for a government that had smiled on the enslavement of members of their race for its entire existence? What, in other words, did a "war about slavery" mean to the men who fought the Civil War, and why would it be important enough to fight?
This book is about what ordinary soldiers thought about the relationship between slavery and the Civil War. It is not about soldier's motivations for enlisting, for individuals chose to do that for widely varied reasons. Seldom did a man enlist for money, since the pay was low and unreliable. Few joined the military because they were forced; both Union and Confederate armies overwhelmingly consisted of volunteers. Many enlisted out of senses of duty or personal honor. Some became soldiers in order to take part in what they assumed would be the biggest adventure of their lives. While some Northerners entered the ranks to eradicate slavery, others enlisted to preserve the Union with small concern for enslaved African Americans. In the South, many took up arms to safeguard their own slave property or their hopes to own slaves one day, while others shouldered rifles out of the belief that doing so protected their homes and families.