Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Union Forever!

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Just a short note today to illustrate something that I believe is worthy of further discussion. Most of us can agree with President Lincoln...that slavery was somehow the cause of the war. One of my former professors said it best when he wrote  on the blackboard on the first day of Civil War class: "It was slavery - stupid."

But with all the talk about slavery - both the reasonable informed discussions and the back and forth bang-your-head-against-the-wall (usually pointless) arguments with neo-Confederates, one thing sometimes slips beneath the radar.

The overwhelming number of northern soldiers enlisted to fight for the preservation of Union. The destruction of slavery did not, for the most part, compel them to take up arms.  During the war, many saw the demise of the institution as a great way to undermine the Rebels' war effort...and after the war, Union veterans' sense of moralizing self-righteousness in regard to their participation in emancipation went a long way to show the world that theirs had been the noblest of efforts.

Perhaps the notion of Union is far to abstract for 21st century folks to really grasp. Even historian Barbara Fields has suggested that 19th century soldiers did not consider Union worth fighting and dying for - implying that emancipation was the only truly noble cause. Sure, emancipation was a noble cause indeed...and many came to see it that way. But it was Union that stirred patriots' hearts in 1861.




  1. In discussing Union soldier motivation I think we often forget what Fred A. Shannon called "the mercenary problem"--the reliance on cash bounties to stimulate recruiting, particularly late in the war. Was the average one-year volunteer who signed up in late 1864--such as my g-g-g-g-grandfather--inspired by freedom and union? Perhaps, but a $1,000 bounty and the prospect of a full belly probably had more to do with it. This is why so many recruiting posters promised: "Pay, clothing and rations commence upon enlistment." Of course, several fine historians such as John Lynn and James McPherson have discussed the differences between initial, combat, and sustaining motivations.

  2. I would add that the federal government instituted a $100 bounty ($25 up front, the rest at the end) in May 1861, indicating that money was potentially a factor right from the beginning.

  3. A lot of immigrants spoke about preserving the Union as a major motivator. It was interesting to read Germans. Who worried not just that the US would split into north and south, but that it would continue to divide into ever smaller units. They feared the US would become another Germany with dozens of small countries each prey to the great powers.

  4. Many of you are probably aware, but the New-York Historical Society has a website featuring an outstanding collection of recruiting posters:

  5. Thanks for the link, Will!

  6. Actually, Ed, the Civil War could be called Lincoln's War more rilhgty than Iraq is Bush's War. Lincoln had several clear choices: to allow the South to leave the union of states and form their own nation; or to drop his anti-slavery convictions for the sake of preserving unity, among others. When South Carolina took Ft. Sumpter, he could have negotiated. Instead, he declared war as the only sure way of preserving the nation.Many thought he had taken the country to ruin, especially when the northern armies lost battle after battle, 10 s of thousands were coming home in coffins or maimed, the economy tanked as the north switched to weapons-building, etc.So unpopular was the war, that Lincoln barely won his 2nd term election. So great was the risk that Maryland would turn against him that he suspended habeas corpus, declared martial law and put troops in the streets to protect government.Lincoln frankly lied about the progress of the war, the length of the war, the numbers of troops it would need, costs, etc., in order to keep things going long enough to secure a victory.We think of the Civil War as a Just War because a) the good guys won, and b) Lincoln made the war into a fight over slavery. The war had good aims, even if it was terribly bloody and costly.Perhaps, when Iraq is a free democracy and other middle east nations are being pressured by the Iraq example to reform, perhaps history will also judge this to be a very Just War, even if it turns out that we were lied to along the way to keep us in the game.