American Civil War Life: The Union's Path to War - Introduction and the Situation Pre-Nov 1860
“I am twenty years of age today. The past year has been an eventful one to me, and I thank God for all his mercies to me... When I look back… I am amazed at what has transpired. Then I was a peaceful clerk in Frederick Miller's office. Today I am a soldier anxious to move. I feel to thank God that he has kept me within his fold while so many have gone astray, and trust that he will give me Grace to continue to serve Him and my country faithfully... Sleeping on the ground is fun, and a bed of pine boughs better than one of feathers. We are still waiting for orders which must come very soon. Many of the men are broken down by the late march, but I am stronger than ever.”
Elisha Hunt Rhodes, 2nd Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers, March 21, 1862
Just over one hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was plunged into a war with itself. The American Civil War lasted four years, with the human cost totaling at least 600,000 lives, possibly as high as 850,000, and it purged our nation of slavery. The sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War was April of 2011, with many more similar anniversary commemorations that continued through 2015. This fact, along with so many new discoveries and new sources of knowledge about that time period, has catapulted interest in the American Civil War to perhaps an all-time high.
In all of the material that has accumulated about this period, however, most of it is general overviews, or about persons and events of world renown: successful or incompetent generals and politicians, great or infamous battles and campaigns, etc. These are all great, and absolutely add value to anyone’s American Civil War library, but comparatively little information exists to give American Civil War enthusiasts a sense of the experiences of those who truly shaped this period: the common man. Those materials that do exist are not always “user-friendly”, often being diaries that are written in the language of the 19th century and include terminology that is not common knowledge today.
It is for this reason that I have decided to create several series of articles which, I sincerely hope, will bring a tad bit closer to life the everyday experiences of those that lived in, supported, and fought for the Union, and sacrificed life and limb, through the many months and years of hardship and uncertainty up to, and including, the eruption of war.
About The Author
A little about the author (myself): I have been studying the American Civil War since 1982. I have also been a member of the American Civil War Living History community since 1995, specifically as a member of Company H, 119th New York Volunteers Historical Association. In this volunteer capacity, and my research, I have come to learn many facets of the American Civil War, and I wish to impart this knowledge on to you in order to make this fascinating period in American History more comprehensive, interesting, and understandable.
I hope you enjoy what you read and that you all learn something interesting about this subject. I also hope this spurs you on to do some research and scholarship of your own.
"The storm cometh- we hope the infatuated rebels like the appearance of the northern horizon. The storm of patriotism may shortly become the hurricane of vengeance, and they have only themselves to thank... Those who sow the wind must reap the whirlwind"
Milwaukee Sentinel Editorial, 1861
American Civil War Life: The Union's Path To War
This first series is called The Union’s Path To War.
To understand the Union citizen, first it is necessary to understand the world in which he / she lived. To that end, I will attempt, in brief, to explain the events that took place in this lifetime that shaped the citizen’s world, mindset, and sense of duty.
I shall detail for you, in this series:
The Situation Pre-Nov 1860
The Situation Nov 1860 – Mar 1861
Northern Reaction to Secession
The Situation Apr 1861
Northern Reaction to War
The Call To Arms
Those Who Volunteered (North)
"Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril. . . I will be as harsh as truth, and uncompromising as justice. . . I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard."
William Lloyd Garrison
The Situation Pre-November 1860
Here was the situation, in general, before the pivotal month of November, 1860:
Slavery was still legally practiced, in the southern half of the United States, in late 1860, and the desire was strong to expand this practice into the western territories annexed from Mexico after the Mexican War from 1846-48. By contrast, most states in the northern half of the country had already banned the institution of slavery within their borders, and these citizens most certainly did not want slavery to expand into the new territories.
Resistance To Slavery
The North was less agricultural than the South (though farming was still the occupation of nearly half the population), partly due to the climate and terrain, and many of the farms were somewhat small by comparison to the Southern plantations. Instead, the North was becoming more and more industrialized, and factories were becoming a dominant feature in its cities’ landscapes. The workers in these factories, as well as the hired hands on the farms, were poor white men, and they were very concerned about any possibility of slave labor taking their places in the workshops and in the fields.
Considering the smaller number of large farms and the growing dominance of industrial labor, slavery in the North was, thus, seen as a bit superfluous, as well as unwelcome, for the most part. Many others believed it was also immoral and inhuman. A small number of such citizens, in fact, were in favor of banning the institution in ALL states and territories AND in favor of freeing the slaves. These citizens, called “abolitionists”, were in the minority, but they were a very vocal and determined group, often casting their views in newspapers and in public speeches. Their ranks were growing, slowly but surely, giving them greater political strength.
Political Ramifications of Slavery
Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 1860, was not an abolitionist. However, his party was in favor of prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Slavery, they maintained, interfered with the free market economy of the country. That Republican stance alone, apparently, was enough to convince much of the pro-slavery faction that, if Lincoln won the election, slavery would soon be restrained, and then abolished.
Why did the restriction of slavery to its current boundaries cause concern for the pro-slavery faction, and why did the idea of expanding slavery into the western territories cause concern for the anti-slavery faction? It all had to do with legislation. At the time, pro-slave and anti-slave states were very nearly equal in number. Any proposed federal bills, created to affect slavery one way or the other, were generally defeated by opponents in Congress simply voting along the lines of their faction. The western territories, however, were where the slavery issue would tilt in favor of one side or the other. These territories were going to be organized into states, including proper representation in both Houses of Congress. If either faction controlled a majority of the territories, that faction would then get greater representation in Congress when the territories became states. Any proposed federal bills regarding slavery could then be introduced and either passed or defeated in Congress by the faction with the simple majority of representation. If the pro-slave faction was the majority, then federal bills could be created and passed allowing slavery in all states, even those in the North that had banned it. If the anti-slavery faction was the majority, then federal bills could be created and passed to ban slavery, and free the slaves, throughout the nation.
The pro-slavery faction very much feared the possibility of the abolition of slavery. Slave-owners made large investments in slave labor: the cost of purchasing slaves, wages to slave overseers in the fields, expenses of housing and feeding slaves, purchasing or processing seeds, purchasing farming equipment, etc. The perceived threat of abolition meant these investments, for which there was not yet any plan of reimbursement from the state governments, would evaporate, leaving the plantation fields empty of field hands and yielding no crops for sale to the market.
Lincoln himself was very much in favor of, and encouraged state legislation toward, compensating slave-owners for emancipating their slaves. However, by the time this proposal was introduced as an act to state legislatures (1862), it was too late, leaving only the District of Columbia to embrace it and see it come to fruition. At least two other state legislatures defeated this act while the others ignored it.
Hiring free field hands by the Southern planters would have only increased expenses due to the need to pay these workers wages. Slaves were expensive as well – remember, they needed to be fed and housed – but at least they were not owed wages for their labor. Slave owners and supporters, naturally, elected representatives and senators that upheld the institution of slavery. Those citizens that did not own slaves were generally no more eager than slave owners to see the institution abolished. They grew up with it, and the prejudices of the day held that the slave, and the Negro race as a whole, was inferior to all. A poor white Southern man did not have much, but at least he could say he was not a slave. Similar to their Northern counterparts, poor white Southerners also believed that freed slaves meant job competition for them. White laborers did not want competition for wage labor with those that would almost certainly accept much less (previously working for none) for the same work.
The anti-slavery faction, on the other hand, feared the possibility of the expansion of slavery into all states. As mentioned, the Northern half of the country had a labor market of free white men, enabling white laborers to find jobs and earn wages. The introduction (or re-introduction, as it were) of slavery into the North, and into this labor market, would throw the market into chaos. White wage laborers could be replaced with much less expensive slave labor, leaving these white laborers with little hope of obtaining jobs and supporting their families.
As can readily be seen, each faction had nearly inflexible arguments against the views of the other faction, and the western territories were the point in conflict for these opposing ideologies. The Presidential Election of 1860 thus became the hinging point as to whether or not the conflict between the factions remained rhetorical, or became worse.
The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: The Union's Path To War - The Situation Nov 1860 – Mar 1861