#OneBookWednesday: What Were the Soldiers Thinking?

By Kathy H. RSS Wed, December 23, 2015

As we read this year’s One Book selection and its companion texts, it is impossible not to keep returning to the question How did this happen?

There is a moral component to that question, but also a deeply practical and historical one: What caused the Civil War? Few questions have been the subject of so much scholarly ink, and books on the topic could fill dozens, if not hundreds, of shelves.  One that is especially eye-opening is Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, which uses extensive research in diaries, letters, and regimental newspapers to try to get at the question of how ordinary soldiers, from both north and south, understood the reasons for conflict in which they were engaged. 

As her title suggests, Manning argues that rank-and-file soldiers saw slavery as the central reason for the war. She notes that when it came to enlistment, individuals signed up for many reasons, some of which (duty, honor, adventure) had nothing to do with slavery. But “broad consensus existed within each army as to why a war needed to be fought in the first place. Whatever else occupied their minds, ordinary Union and Confederate soldiers recognized slavery as the reason for the war.”

“Confound the whole set of psalm singing ‘brethren’ and ‘sistern’ too. If it had not been for them….preaching abolitionism from every northern pulpit, I would never have been soldiering.” – Captain James Williams, 21st Alabama, December 20, 1861

“[W]e are ruined if we do not put forth all our energies & drive back the invaders of our slavery South.”– Pvt. Thomas Taylor, 6th Alabama, March 4, 1862

According to Manning’s research, Confederates saw the rationale for war in personal terms: Preserving slavery was necessary for their and their families’ material and ideological well-being. Only a minority of white southerners owned slaves, but the possibility of acquiring slaves, especially in the newly accessible lands in the West, represented the hope of economic mobility. Even more importantly to the Confederate mentality, the existence of slavery created a social order that elevated and unified all whites, established a role for white men as protectors of white womanhood, and provided stability in a fraught environment where 40 percent of the population was black. Whites, even non-slaveholders, feared the social, economic, and ideological chaos that they believed would follow from emancipation; the one thing they could agree on was that they would fight to prevent this from happening. Manning contends that this focus on personal interests would take a toll on the Confederacy in later periods of the war, when soldiers, especially those faced with hardship tales from the home front, did not feel that their well-being was being safe-guarded and promoted by the new Confederate nation.

 “As long as we ignore the fact (practically) that Slavery is the basic of the struggle so long are we simply heading down a vigorously growing plant that will continually spring up and give trouble at very short intervals. We must emancipate” – Q. M. Sgt. Thomas Low, 23d N.Y. Artillery, March 29, 1862

Union troops also understood the war in terms of slavery, but in a bit more abstract way. Manning suggests that, initially, Union soldiers were motivated by the desire to prove to the world that the American experiment was a success, that a republican government  founded on the ideals of self-government and democracy could, in fact, exist. They identified with the government, rather than seeing it as an opponent to liberty, and did not want to see it destroyed by southerners seceding to protect slavery.  Soldiers’ opinions differed on how to resolve the slavery question, but Manning argues that Union troops came to the conclusion sooner than northern civilians that abolishing slavery was necessary to permanently end the war.  This conclusion was furthered by northern soldiers’ exposure to slaveholding areas (which they saw as lacking economic, social, and moral development) and by their contact with enslaved people and eventually with black soldiers. Of course, as Manning is quick to point out,  belief in the need to end slavery often easily co-existed with northern racism and belief in black racial inferiority, but she claims that these opinions, too, began to shift, especially based on personal experience, and she notes that by the middle of the war soldiers increasingly linked the carnage of the conflict with punishment for the sins of slavery, an idea that Lincoln would ultimately enshrine in his stirring second inaugural address.

Cold Mountain—despite its setting in the Civil War South and its main character Inman, a deserting Confederate soldier—is not particularly interested in the politics of the war; its perspective is much more personal. Work like Manning’s can provide an important glimpse into the minds of the men who chose to put their lives on the line in the bloodiest war in our nation’s history.

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