Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

The American Civil War was by far the bloodiest conflict in American history. Arising out of a political crisis over the expansion of slavery, the war set the stage for the emergence of the modern American nation-state. This new interpretation of one of the most mythologized events in modern history combines narrative with analysis and an up-to-date assessment of the state of Civil War scholarship.

The American Civil War:
- emphasizes the importance of Northern public opinion in shaping the meaning and outcome of the crisis
- argues that the war exposed deep social and political divisions within, as well as between, North and South
- explores the experiences of ordinary soldiers and civilians, and the political and cultural context in which they lived
- sets this distinctively American crisis over slavery and nationhood in the wider context of the nineteenth-century world.

Concise and authoritative, this is an indispensable introduction to a critical period in modern American history.

Table of Contents

1. Slavery and the American Republic

Abstract
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, when the American Union was still in its infancy and the blood sacrifice of the revolutionary war patriots still a fresh memory, Kentucky was frontier country. Every spring brought thousands of migrants westward, along turnpikes, trails and roads through mountain passes, or on flatboats on the Ohio River. Land could be bought from the government for two dollars an acre, but many settlers “squatted,” at least at first. Braving epidemics of cholera and typhoid, they cleared trees and undergrowth, walked miles to fetch freshwater, ploughed the soil and built simple one-room cabins, and only if they could scratch a living did they try to buy the title to their plot. A few pioneers, migrating from Virginia or perhaps the Carolinas, brought with them their black slaves. It was here, only eight months apart, that Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born.
Adam I. P. Smith

2. Political Crisis and the Resort to War

Abstract
The road to war is one that has been charted many times since 1861. But however familiar the landmarks might be, their significance in relation to one another continues to be hotly disputed. The story is often told with a pleasing symmetry: the middle ground was eroded from both sides, as North and South became ever more unwilling to compromise. It is certainly true that issues that could be finessed in 1850 could not even be civilly discussed ten years later. But the 12-year crisis that led to war was messier than some of the more teleological accounts might suggest. In his second inaugural address in 1865, Abraham Lincoln looked back to the origins of the conflict that had consumed so many lives. Slavery, he argued, “constituted a peculiar and a powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”1 That “somehow” is the crux of the analytical problem. If Americans had rubbed along together half slave and half free for seventy-odd years without serious bloodshed, why all of a sudden was slavery a problem insoluble short of war? Sectional conflict need not necessarily have led to war, at least not the war that actually happened. Simply identifying the existence of slavery in the southern states and the reliance on free labor in the North is not a sufficient explanation, even if it is a necessary one. Even granted that slavery could not coexist easily within the same polity as free labor, there are surely other imaginable outcomes short of a destructive four-year war—as the other slaveowning parts of the New World, all of whom avoided such a confrontation, demonstrate. The actions and the assumptions made by particular politicians at particular moments decisively shaped the coming of the war, its timing and its nature.
Adam I. P. Smith

3. The Failure of Limited War, 1861–1862

Abstract
For every inhabitant of the Confederate states, there were more than two Americans who lived in loyal states. There were thousands of citizens of loyal states, especially in the two largest border slave states, Kentucky and Missouri, who actively supported the Confederacy. But they were more than counterbalanced by the white southerners, especially in the mountainous areas of east Tennessee, western North Carolina, western Virginia and northern Alabama, as well as parts of Texas and Arkansas, who remained loyal to the Union. And then there were the more than three and half million slaves and 130,000 free blacks in the Confederacy who were at best a double-edged sword to the Confederacy. On the one hand, their labor freed white men to serve in the Confederate army, allowing for one of the most complete mobilizations of the military-age population in history (more than 80 percent). On the other, about 150,000 black men from the Confederacy were eventually to serve in the Union army.
Adam I. P. Smith

4. Emancipation and Hard War, 1862–1864

Abstract
McClellan’s caution at Antietam was enough to seal his fate once and for all with Lincoln. For the second and final time, he was relieved of command. The president appointed General Ambrose E. Burnside to replace McClellan as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac and urged him to launch a fresh assault on Richmond immediately. Burnside certainly looked the part. The Rhode Islander wore a soft, wide-brimmed hat with the crown pushed out, a style that became known as a “Burnside” after the war. Burnside left an even greater etymological legacy thanks to his distinctive arrangement of luxuriant facial hair combined with a clean shaven chin that is presumed to have been the source of the term “side burns” which came into American usage in the 1880s. Sadly for the Union cause, Burnside’s impact on men’s fashion was more impressive than his military prowess. He had been reluctant to assume command, and his lack of confidence showed.
Adam I. P. Smith

5. Citizen Soldiers

Abstract
When the war began, the old regular army was utterly inadequate to the task at hand. Just over 16,000 officers and men were stationed mainly in the west providing security to settlers from Indian attack. About a third of the officers resigned their commissions to fight for the Confederacy. Thus, while the trained professional military men were vital to the military leadership of both sides, North and South essentially had to create armies from scratch. By the end of the war, more than three million Americans served in the armed forces of the Union and the Confederacy, including 180,000 African Americans in the Union army. The presence of slavery made it possible for the South to achieve the extraordinary feat of mobilizing more than 80 percent of the draft-age military population. One in three of all southern soldiers, a total of 258,000 men, did not survive the war. The North mobilized about 2.2 million men, half its military age population, one in six of whom, or about 360,000, died. In addition, the Confederacy impressed thousands of young male slaves into military service, digging ditches and carrying out menial tasks for the army. Impressments removed from many plantations precisely those slaves who their masters felt were most likely to revolt or run away.
Adam I. P. Smith

6. The Ordeal of the Confederate Republic

Abstract
The Confederate States of America was created with remarkable speed. Within months of the secession of the Deep South, the new nation had not only a flag and a name, but a functioning government, its own currency, a Post Office and armies in the field. The constitutional convention that met in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, completed its work rapidly, installed Jefferson Davis as provisional president, and began the all-important task of seeking international recognition. Four months later the new government was installed in Richmond, complete with a Confederate version of all the key elements of the federal government—a Congress, Supreme Court, State and War Departments, a Treasury, even a Confederate “White House.” For four years a Confederate nation-state existed. In institutional terms, its deficiencies were immense—even if in some regards it achieved extraordinary feats of organization. By 1863 it had lost control of vast swathes of its territory to internal opposition as well as to Union troops; in 1865 it collapsed completely and its elected leaders became hunted outlaws. Yet in its short life, the Confederate States of America inspired fervent loyalty and immense pride. In the end, it was destroyed by war. It was not an intrinsically fragile entity, nor was it bound to fail, nor even did popular nationalism die when the state collapsed, although inevitably its meaning changed.
Adam I. P. Smith

7. The Last Best Hope of Earth: The War for the Union

Abstract
“It is not so much the capacity to win battles” that gives victory to a people, mused Alvin C. Voris of the 67th Ohio Infantry, but “the ability to bear grief.” As Voris knew, northern manpower and material superiority were not enough to guarantee victory. Against a determined foe the North would need all its reserves of determination. “The South,” thought Voris, “have made up their minds to bear with fortitude what the North never will bear unless a question of national existence is forced upon them, an issue this war has not even as yet intimated.”1 Political leaders in both North and South warned that defeat would mean the end of republican government, but for northerners such claims were necessarily more abstract. Northerners’ homes, families, and way of life were not usually threatened by the southern rebels in the literal sense that was true for southerners. The challenge of defining the meaning of the sacrifice was in some respects a greater one for Lincoln than for Davis, and the resulting strains on northern society were at times severe. Voris was not alone, even if he was somewhat alarmist, in fearing “the total breaking up of [Northern] society and government before we get out of the war.”2 The critical question northerners confronted was how great a price they were prepared to pay for victory.
Adam I. P. Smith

8. The Magic Word, “Freedom”

Abstract
By the beginning of 1865, the capacity of the Confederates to resist was so weakened that, for once, northern predictions that the end was in sight were not exaggerated. Although many of them were barefoot and on quarter rations, the Army of Tennessee that Hood had inherited from Johnston in July 1864 had fought its way back to Nashville, where it was crushed on December 15 and forced to flee back into Mississippi. Of the 60,000 men of the Army of Tennessee who had faced Sherman the previous spring, death, injury and desertion meant that only 15,000 remained by January 1865. Hood resigned his command in despair. His army had effectively ceased to exist. On January 8, a combined Union military and naval operation captured Fort Fisher, which protected the Confederacy’s last remaining major port at Wilmington, North Carolina. Three weeks later, Sherman was on the move again, marching his army on a second, and logistically far more challenging, march. This time, his troops tramped north through the Carolinas, crossing apparently unbridgeable rivers in the midst of a rain-soaked winter. The pillaging and destruction of private property was even greater in South Carolina than in Georgia. “Here is where treason began,” reasoned one private, “and, by God, here is where it shall end!”1 On February 18, the Confederacy experienced a symbolic death rattle when Charleston, birthplace of secession, was surrendered to the (white) colonel of a black regiment.
Adam I. P. Smith
Additional information