Friday, July 6, 2012

Rebellion, Revolution (or Something Entirely Different)?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Yesterday (as I am wont to do) I issued a call to those following my Twitter feed to provide Cosmic America with a question of the controversial variety. One that might stir some embers, so to speak.

I got a number of great responses, many of which dealt with cause, emancipation, even the state of the field. But my favorite came from none other than Pete Carmichael, the director of the Civil War Institute. "Was," he asked, "the Civil War a revolution?"

Now this could have meant a couple of things. One, he could have been referring to the revolutionary character of the war itself - were the great issues being decided on the battlefields the makings of a revolution of sorts? Two, he might have meant the questionably revolutionary nature of secession. I have a sneaking suspicion he was referring to the former (perhaps I should have asked) but details notwithstanding, he got me thinking about the latter.

So I will open the floor for discussion. Was secession and the formation of the Confederate States an act of revolution? Without question, plenty of the fire-eating types rang some revolutionary bells during the secession crisis - invoking the oratory of the revolutionary generation and demanding a separation from a tyrannical government many thought was poised to deny white southerners their rights as Americans. On the other hand, cooler heads thought twice about the rhetoric of revolution. After all, in their formulation the southern states claimed the legitimate connection to the founders. The north had gone astray. In this light, the Confederacy was not at all revolutionary but merely carrying on the American tradition under a new government.

What do you think?



  1. The revolution was emancipation and the creation of a modern free labor regime.

  2. Thanks Pat - we discussed exactly that as part of a CWI panel last week. I often wonder though, if emancipation was revolutionary from all perspectives. I am sure the slaves thought so...the slave owners probably thought so too. But in a world context -'s debatable I suppose. The US was a little late in the game. I may be wrong on this - but it's food for thought anyway.

  3. Keith, I've been told that a rebellion only becomes a revolution when it's successful. That's one way to look at it, I suppose. Also, I believe it was James McPherson who said secession was a counterrevolution. Perhaps Lincoln's election was revolutionary--an antislavery president elected with no votes from the south. There were some revolutionary things that came about as a result of the war--widespread use of railroads and telegraph was revolutionary. Emancipation, as you've pointed out, was revolutionary to the slaves and to Americans. All in all, this turns into a huge, complex question with many facets that we've only begun to explore.

  4. May I quote Ulysses Grant?

    "Secession was illogical as well as impracticable; it was revolution."

  5. Al - I think that there were a number of revolutionary aspects of the war, as you mentioned. So we are in agreement there. Naming is an interesting thing. In this case, I would bet that you could find people at the time with many conflicting explanations of just how revolutionary things were. This sounds like the topic for a great book.

  6. Thanks Bob - I for one would have a hard time disagreeing with the general.

  7. The style and technology of warfare during the civil war was positively revolutionary without a doubt. I don't think it was a revolution in any other sense, though. According to a revolution is, and I quote: "An overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed." The Confederates didn't overthrow the government. They just broke away from it. Not to mention the fact that this has little to do with the civil war. The Confederate States seceded before the war began, meaning that the american civil war does not qualify as a revolt, a rebellion, a revolution, or even really a civil war.

  8. Sorry this is long but, it's not something addressed in a few words. I'd say it was not a "revolution." A "revolution" is when a people revolt against their lawful government. The Confederate South did not do that. Just as had New England before them, they held conventions of secession- "The action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, esp. a political state:"

    Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence wrote: Whenever "any Form of Government becomes destructive of the inalienable rights granted by the Creator it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government." When a "long train of abuses and usurpations" shows "a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government."

    When Thomas Jefferson was president, New England held conventions to consider secession. I claim Jefferson knew more about the Constitution than did Lincoln or anyone else living then or today. Of their efforts Jefferson wrote; “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation … to a continuance in the union …. I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’”
    Clearly, Jefferson had no doubt about the LEGALITY and RIGHT of any state or states to secede voluntarily from the union they had voluntarily joined. Lincoln had is own ideas and men and guns enough to force the issue. Lincoln's bayonets are the only thing qualifying secession as "illegal." Contrary to popular belief, "Might does not make right."

    War only broke out as a result of Northern aggression. Maintaining a fort in Charleston (SC) harbor (Ft. Sumter) was logically viewed as an act of war. Still, the Southerners continued talks beyond all reason and offered all personnel passage out free and unimpeded. Only after Lincoln attempted to reinforce the fort did the South finally dire on it. After it's surrender, it's people were still allowed to leave peacefully. These are the actions of a people trying very hard in the face of unreasoning aggression to remain at peace.

    Then it was that Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to "Put down rebellion" (Note, he didn't say ANYthing about ending slavery but, that's another issue altogether.). That move made Lincoln's violent intentions clear, forcing Virginia out of the Union too. In July, a Union army crossed into Virginia violating her borders and sovereign soil. As at Sumter, they responded only in self defense.

    No, the actions involved in creating the Southern Confederacy in 1861 was no 'revolution." The states followed accepted and previously followed legal means. They simply voted to pass where others had not. There only exists question about it today as a result of success of arms resulting from "Mr. Lincoln's War."