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At last I can start to understand the American Civil War

In the history books, though, the conflict rages on

By on Monday, 30 January 2012

A nun cares for a wounded soldier in a detail from a larger Civil War-era print (CNS photo/courtesy University Archives, The Catholic University of America)

A nun cares for a wounded soldier in a detail from a larger Civil War-era print (CNS photo/courtesy University Archives, The Catholic University of America)

It has taken a long time, but I seem at last to have found the book I have been looking for, namely a single volume history of the American Civil War. There is no shortage of books about the war, but they tend to be either highly specialised – dealing with matters such as the role played by Confederate women, or minute dissections of a single battle – or else immensely long works running into several volumes. Most of these books seem to be written by academics, perhaps based on their doctoral theses. But now at last I have The Civil War, A History, by Harry Hansen, who was a journalist and writes like one. The book was first published before I was born, back in 1961, and thus has the status of an enduring classic. Now at last I can read a clear account of who, let us say, Dred Scott was, and why he mattered.

Wars make difficult subjects for literature, the Civil War above all; perhaps I am not as familiar as I ought to be with the geography of Northern Virginia or the Shenondoah Valley; or perhaps it is simply because battles are very confusing, and making sense of them very hard. I cannot think of anyone who really writes well about fighting – not even Virgil can make battle scenes anything more than catalogues of carnage, boring lists of who killed whom. As for modern authors, they rarely explain why one side wins and another loses: I do not mean that they fail to explain the macroeconomic forces at work, for that is what they usually do explain rather well – but rather why one side runs away, and the other side does not. It seems that at the first Battle of Bull Run, the Unionist troops did run away, and Hansen gives the reason that they had enlisted for three months, and thought that their time was up. Their heart was simply not in the fight -a simple human emotion which we can all understand. Inidentally the “run” of Bull Run was, and presumably still is, a river.

I have visited several sites associated with the Confederacy. I have been to Fort Sumter, the rather small fort in the mouth of Charleston Harbour, where hostilities began in April 1861. Most interesting of all is the city of Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital. It served as such for only a short period, just under four years, but the mark of those four years is everywhere. Many of the heroes of the Confederacy are memorialised in the extremely fine Monument Avenue. The inscriptions to the heroes make absolutely no mention of the fact that they were slaveholders who fought a war in order to protect slaveholding.

Also of great interest in Richmond is the White House of the Confederacy, the house where President Jefferson Davis lived. I visited it some years ago, and the guide pointed to a picture of the Blessed Virgin and Child hanging in what had been the Presidential bedroom, which was supposed to be a present from Pope Pius IX, who, we were told, was a warm supporter of the Confederate cause. I have never found any evidence that the Papal States ever recognised the Confederacy; in fact while the Confederacy did seek European recognition, it was singularly unsuccessful in its efforts. I suppose the picture could have been sent by the Pope to Davis, through the Confederate agents in Europe, Mason and Slidell. But the sending of pictures to foreign dignitaries must have been something of a routine matter in those days. In no way would it have signalled any approval of the Confederate position. But even the suggestion that the Blessed Pius IX might have supported the Southern States reminds us of the contention made in the introduction to the book I am now engrossed in – namely that the last word on the Civil War will never be written. The conflict rages still.

  • Anonymous

    Bit more complicated:

    Pius IX wrote to Jefferson Davis calling him the ‘Honourable President of the Confederacy’

    the North got to find out and all hell broke loose…

    …the Vatican responded that it wasn’t a ‘formal official’ recognition.

    Bl Pius IX was a revered figure in the South – even by Episcopalians who were much ‘higher’ and romantically ‘sacramentally catholic’ than their English counterparts; General Lee kept a portrait of Pius in his house and called him ‘the South’s only true friend throughout this war’.

    It must also be remembered that it was Catholic nuns who were Jefferson Davis’ main contact with the outside world during his imprisonment – they brought food parcels, relayed correspondence etc.

    …and the Civil War had bugger all to do with slavery!
    That was only later used as a tool to keep the British and French out of the conflict.

    General Lee was an Abolitionist – General [President] Grant was anything but!!
    Ironically the South were the ones who guaranteed freedom for every slave who entered into the military long before Lincoln introduced the ‘emancipation agenda’
    The 13th amendment was signed by many southern states before all the northern had signed up under direct orders from Lincoln….

    But we live in the world of the ‘Last Man Standing’ fallacy – the victors write the history…

  • Brian A. Cook

    I’m sorry, but you lost me when you denied that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery.  Alexander Stephens claimed that slavery was a law of Nature and Nature’s God.  That is the biggest piece of evidence that the Confederacy promoted slavery. 

    May I offer these as well?,-Lets-Remember-The-Confederacy

    Some of these may be from openly liberal websites, but if liberals don’t raise the tough questions, who will?

  • Jim Ryland

    The Civil War is perhaps the best example of a victor being able to put his spin on the events. The slavery issue had nothing to do with altruism as attested by the horror of the post-war events. Elevating it to the status of a “central issue” is a bit like elevating abortion to a “women’s rights” issue. Abolishing slavery was a tool to cripple the economy of the South. It had long been evident in the South that slavery was an inefficient system, ethics aside, and that plantation owners received more bang for the buck from paid and fairly-treated labor.

    The war was about power and money. The industrial North essentially controlled Congress and the largely agrarian South found themselves increasingly crippled by laws which permitted the North to dictate what they paid for raw goods, punish with tariffs, and dictate with whom the Southern States could trade.    

  • Oconnord

    One aspect of the ACW which needs to be understood is the levels of technology available in the 1860′s. They could almost be divided into three sections. Logistics, weaponry and medicine.

    Firstly, railways were at a level of development that allowed the moving around of soldiers and supplies in numbers unimaginable in the past. Over the duration of the war there were around 3 million serving regular soldiers on both sides. The logistics of maintaining and transporting that level of troop numbers was mostly made possible by the fledgling rail network. Of course soldiers were still often underfed and badly equipped but there are still equipment issues with modern soldiers.

    Secondly, weaponry had been developed to a lethal level never previously known. Of course the most famous were the “Ironclad” and the submarines used during the naval blockades. But when it comes to the simple number of lives lost, the “Minie Rifle” was probably the biggest killer. It was pretty much the standard issue small arm on both sides.  It was a devastating weapon for three reasons, all based on it’s “Minie Ball” bullet. Even a soldier with basic training could fire three shots per minute, it was highly accurate to three hundred yards and, most horrifically, fired a 18mm calibre bullet designed to deform on impact. (To put that in real terms a WW2 U.S. issue M1 Garland rifle fired a 7mm bullet and we’ve all heard of a 9mm on TV shows or movies.)

    Last but by no means least is of course medicine. Medicine, both in battle field and in terms of simple things like sanitation simply had progressed at far. A simple look at the casualty figure shows that far more soldiers died from illness than battle. A scenario that was repeated in WW1.

  • Jacob Suggs

    Maybe, maybe not, (more probably, “to a certain extent”) but even if so that doesn’t change the fact that slavery is wrong, the South supported it and fought for it, and the North fought to end it.

    That is, whatever the reasons the North had for disliking each other, the South was still run by slavers fighting to keep their right to be slavers, and that had to end. It is true that the country did not do a good job of being just in the way that it ended slavery, but even so fighting to keep slavery cannot be excused.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Interesting what you say re Pius IX and the Confederacy….

  • Part-time Pilgrim

    Just not true to day that the civil war had b******r all to do with slavery. (Though it would be completely correct that it was not originally a war to abolish slavery.)

    The best book about the ACW (and possibly the best history book for general reading) is “The Battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPherson.

    Part Time Pilgrim

  • Apostolic

    Regarding Pius IX etc, for what it may be worth noting that Wiki has the following reference:

    “While he was in prison, Pope Pius IX sent Davis a portrait of himself on which were written the Latin words “Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus”, which comes from Matthew 11:28 and translates as, “Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.” A hand-woven crown of thorns associated with the portrait is often said to have been made by the Pope himself,but in fact it may have been woven by Varina Davis.”
    Davis is also recorded as having been the only Protestant (Episcopalian/Anglican) at a Catholic school.

  • Oconnord

    Sorry silly typo…sanitation had Not progressed As far……

    But as an after thought, don’t we seem far better at developing ways to kill each other than to cure each other.

  • Rachel

    If you think the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, you need to read the declarations of secession published by numerous Southern states and count how many times they mention slavery.  (Hint:  it’s a lot!)  Try this one from South Carolina:

    “The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article,
    provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State,
    under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of
    any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor,
    but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service
    or labor may be due.”

    This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that
    compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting
    parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of
    the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

    The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

    The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry
    into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws
    were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the
    non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a
    disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government
    have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of
    Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island,
    New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and
    Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or
    render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the
    fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of
    them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the
    Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in
    conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of
    anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which
    render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws
    of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a
    slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa
    have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and
    with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the
    constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the
    non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina
    is released from her obligation.”

    I don’t know about you, but to me, that makes it sound like they’re mostly seceding over slavery.

    I use the recipe metaphor to explain this to my students.  Slavery is not the only ingredient in the “Civil War bread”.  You also have the economic differences between North and South, constitutional disputes and states’ rights issues, paranoia, political blunders, the collapse of national political parties, etc.  But slavery is really what underlies all of these issues.  Slavery is the flour in the bread.  You can take it out, but it’s not really bread anymore.  The Civil War doesn’t happen in the same form (or maybe doesn’t happen at all) if slavery isn’t the big issue between the states.  It doesn’t start as a war to end slavery, but it IS fundamentally about slavery.

    “Ironically the South were the ones who guaranteed freedom for every
    slave who entered into the military long before Lincoln introduced the
    ‘emancipation agenda’”

    Do you have a source for this?  As far as I’m aware, the Confederate government STRONGLY resisted officially enlisting African-Americans in the army and only agreed when Lee basically begged them to.  The Confederates must have been desperate for men at that point.  The order allowing blacks to enlist in the Confederate army wasn’t issued until 1865.  Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation had allowed the Union army to raise official black regiments two years earlier.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if Blessed John Paul II had not abolished the office known as Devil’s Advocate the issue of Blessed Pius IX giving strong moral support to the side fighting for the continuance of slavery in the American Civil War would have been raised before his beatification. 

    As I have argued on other threads the fact: that the Church was unaware of the immorality of its popes and bishops owning slaves during the first millennium; and that the Papal States used heretics or captured Muslims as galley slaves; and that it permitted the cruel export of slaves from Africa to South America during the 15th and 16th centuries; and that it was far from the forefront in the campaign against the slave trade in the 18th century, and only condemned all trade in slaves in 1839, thirty years after the British Empire had banned it; right up to Pius IX supporting the slave states in 1863, is enough to disprove the assertion that the Catholic Church always listens to the guidance of the Holy Spirit when it comes to moral issues. 

    It is only thanks to the Enlightenment that the Church very slowly came to understand that all human beings have basic rights, and that the owning of slaves is a great sin. John Wijngaards has prepared a summary of Catholic teaching on slavery over the years.

  • Bruce Roeder

    Dude, it was all about slavery, couched in terms of states rights. The resulting abuse of labor (black and white) in the industrial north revealed there was little difference in the widespread absence of respect for human dignity all around. But the drastic shift of power from state governments to the federal government was and is a clearest result of that war. Racial problems remained, and indeed linger still, but were at least addressed in the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

  • Myles Keogh

    Father I enjoyed reading your piece. As an American whose family fought in the Civil War or, if you reside in the South the War Between the States, I found your piece interesting because it comes from an English perspective of what remains the bloodiest conflict in American history. As I mentioned members of my family fought in the Civil War after immigrating to the US from Ireland after the potato famine of the 1840s. When you read accounts of the Civil War it is amazing how many Catholics fought for both sides during the conflict. There were large numbers of Irish Catholics both in the North and the South. New Orleans has always been and remains a Catholic city in the South since it was settled by the French in the early 1700s but beginning in the 1840′s there was a large influx of Irish and German Catholics who inevitably fought for the South. Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia also had large Irish Catholic populations prior to the war. Although the novel (later a movie) Gone with the Wind is a fictional piece the author Margaret Mitchell (who was a Catholic) based the Catholic O’Hara’s on several Irish Catholic family’s in Charleston and Savannah who immigrated to the US from Ireland in the 1810s to the 1830′s some the members of these family’s did in fact acquire large plantations in Georgia and coastal South Carolina. One of my best friends from college at the University of South Carolina hails from Charleston. His family is one of the oldest Catholic family’s in Charleston having arrived there from Ireland right after the American Revolution.

    Your blog mentions Jefferson Davis. Just a little more information on Davis you may find interesting. Davis was born in the state of Kentucky not far from where Abraham Lincoln was born in 1808. As a youngster he received his early education from the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, a school operated by the Dominican Order in Washington County, Kentucky. At the time, he was the only Protestant student at the school. He had such great respect for the Catholic faith that in his youth he wanted to convert to Catholicism but the Dominican priest thought it best for him to wait until he was more mature in age and intellect and faith before making that decision.

    Some famous Civil War Generals who were Catholic include General’s Sheridan, Sherman, Rosencrans, Beauregard and Longstreet. The Battle of Fredricksburg in December 1862 pitted the New York 69th Regiment (the Fightin’ 69th) against the Georgia 24th Infantry. Both were all Irish Catholic Regiments who faced each other at Marye’s Heights in the battle.

    I hope you find these little tidbits interesting and give you a little more background of how Catholics played a big role in the war on both sides and were a part of both the North and South in the antebellum years prior to the war.

  • Fr. Stephen

    I am an American (Catholic priest) whose great-great grandfather fought for the Union in the Civil War. I was born and raised in the North, but lived for several years in the South – Georgia, to be precise. When traveling one day through the city of Macon, Georgia, what to my wondering eyes did appear?  A sign along the freeway telling me that the next exit was for “Pio Nono Avenue” – that is, of course, Italian for “Pius the Ninth”.  This a major route in that southern city. I later heard a native of the city pronounce it as “pie nona”.  Georgia is not a very Catholic state, so I can only wonder what occasioned the naming of this road for a Catholic pope. More research on my part is needed. Thanks, Father, for your posting on the American Civil War.