Thursday, July 8, 2010

Battle Cry of Freedom

The Civil War Era

This 900-page treatment of the Civil War was published in 1988. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and may be the finest one-volume history of the war.

It's not just an account of the terrible battles that took place. It also provides political, economic, and social commentary. The first shots are not fired until page 273.

Having read the book, it now seems to me impossible to understand the United States without having a sound knowledge of the Civil War. As the author points out, more books have been written about it than on any other topic of American history.

There are useful quotes from speeches, newspapers, diaries, and letters from soldiers. Scarcely a page escapes a footnote, yet the writing is clear and easy to follow.

There are two sections of black-and-white photos, and numerous battlefield maps.


The Civil War (1861-65) exactly defined Lincoln's presidency. His election in 1860 triggered the secession of seven Southern states before he even took office. The month after he was inaugurated in 1861, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, and four more states joined the Confederacy. Four years later, within days of Lee's surrender to Grant, he was assassinated by a Rebel sympathizer who took umbrage at a speech promoting black suffrage.

Lincoln was the first Republican president. The party had only been in existence for a few years. It opposed the pro-Southern Democrats, and one of its avowed goals was to prevent the sanctioning of slavery in newly formed states. Since it was composed completely of Northerners (making it the first "sectional" party in power), the South realized it had lost the ability to influence the federal government, and thus elected to secede.

Lincoln took an active role in the war -- haunting the telegraph office for reports from the battlefield, suggesting strategy to his generals and urging them to take the offensive, visiting fortifications when Rebels invaded the North (where he was told to keep his damn fool head down). When the Confederate capital of Richmond was captured, Lincoln was sitting in Jefferson Davis's study within 40 hours of the Confederate President's departure.

During the war Lincoln and the Republicans enjoyed public support as long as the war was going well. At other times there was widespread alarm, panic and even riots. Confederate forces at one point were five miles from the White House. Lincoln feared that he would not win re-election in 1864.


In combat, officers "led from the front, not the rear" and "generals suffered the highest combat casualties, their chances of being killed in battle were 50 percent greater than the privates'." In one battle, when Robert E. Lee tried to lead "a desperate counterattack," his troops pleaded with him to return to the rear.

Two of the Confederacy's most effective generals, Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet, were mistakenly felled by Rebel fire. Jackson died, and Longstreet was out of combat for five months.

During the war several Union generals were removed from command for their timidity in engaging the enemy.

John C. Breckinridge, Vice President under James Buchanan (the President who preceded Lincoln), became a general in the Southern army.

After the war Union General Lew Wallace wrote Ben-Hur, the best-selling American novel of the 19th century.


"The close-order formation was...necessary to concentrate the firepower of these inaccurate weapons [muzzle-loaders]" and "bayonet charges could succeed because double-timing infantry could cover the last eighty yards [the effective range of muzzle-loaders] during the twenty-five seconds it took defending infantry men to reload their muskets after firing a volley."

"The transition from smoothbore to rifle had two main effects: it multiplied casualties; and it strengthened the tactical defensive. Officers trained and experienced in the old tactics were slow to recognize these changes. Time and again generals on both sides ordered close-order assaults in the traditional formation. With an effective range of three or four hundred yards, defenders firing rifles decimated these attacks."

"The tactical predominance of the defense helps explain why the Civil War was so long and bloody. The rifle and trench ruled Civil War battlefields as thoroughly as the machine-gun and trench ruled those of World War I." Photos of battlefields in both wars are eerily similar.

"...the large caliber and low muzzle velocity of Civil War rifles caused horrible wounds with the bullet usually remaining in the body rather than going through it... Stomach wounds were generally fatal because there was no known prevention of peritonitis."


Over 600,000 soldiers died, more than the combined total of all other wars that America has fought in, before and since.

Both sides claimed to be fighting for freedom and liberty. The industrial North wanted to keep the Union intact and end slavery. The rural gentrified South fought for autonomy and against the "wage-slavery" of Northern workers. "We are either slaves in the Union or freemen out of it," declared a secessionist without irony.

The ironclad CSA Viriginia, aka Merrimack, sank two unarmored Northern warships in the space of a few hours, "a feat no other enemy would accomplish until 1941." The next day it met the Union ironclad, Monitor, and fought to a draw. The battle caused the London Times to declare that nearly all of the British fleet was now obsolete.

The James and Younger brothers began their careers as Southern guerillas in Missouri. Wild Bill Hickok was a scout for the Union army in Missouri. Another famous name on the Union side was George Armstrong Custer, who took part in the "bloodiest cavalry action of the war" north of Richmond.

During the war, the North enacted for the first time conscription on a national level. However, draftees still had the option of hiring substitutes to take their place, a practice "hallowed by tradition."

"Several hundred women...dressed as men and managed to enlist as soldiers...."

Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were both born in Kentucky.

Nova Scotia

My interest in the Civil War was triggered last month by a grave marker ceremony organized by the Maritime Civil War Living History Association. A re-enactment unit, the 20th Maine Volunteers, No. 1 Company (New Brunswick), paid tribute to three local veterans:

Ardent Tupper - served in the 20th Maine Infantry, present at Lee's surrender at Appomattox

William Kinsman - served in the 1st Massachusetts Light Artillery, took part in 17 battles

Ben Jackson - served in the Union navy, awarded the Civil War Campaign Medal