Title: What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War
Author: Chandra Manning
Categories: Slavery, Civil War, Manhood, Motivations, Military
Place: United States
Time Period: 1861-1865
Chandra Manning attempts to get at how common troops (black, Union, and Confederate) viewed the Civil War and the reasons for fighting it. The resounding answer? Slavery. In the Union army, Manning argues that troops saw themselves as part of the United States historical mandate to defend lofty ideals of liberty and self-government, a view that was often tinged with millennialist overtones of perfecting society. In this ideological framework, slavery was a blight on that system. Channing also argues that northern troops settled on slavery as the justification for war far earlier (in the fall of 1861) than many politicians and the broader northern populace, and that they overwhelmingly supported abolition throughout the war - epitomized by their massive, nearly 80% preference for Lincoln in the 1864 election. Manning is careful to note that anti-slavery sentiment and attitudes towards racial equality were not synonymous, as white troops were much more equivocal in attitudes towards racial equality, which tended to ebb and flow with the overall course of the war.
In the South, slavery was just as central to Confederate troops views on the war. Manning argues that Confederate patriotism took a less ideological flavor than that of the Union, but instead centered on a more individualized self-interest that emphasized their protection of their families. For Southern troops, slavery was crucial for their own and their family's well-being. It was the foundation of their social world and guaranteed white southern manhood through the mastery of blacks (and, by extension, of their family). Through this lens, abolition was seen as a dangerous threat to everything that was important to them and to the safety of their families. Finally, Manning emphasizes the contingency of the process, charting, for example, how northern troop attitudes towards racial equality crested in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation and then ebbed the following summer after military setbacks. Overall, she emphasizes that at the close of the war there was a real possibility for substantive and lasting change, that white northern troops were at least moving towards acceptance, black troops were optimistic, and white southerners felt powerless to stem the tide of change.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Slavery as central to soldiers' views of the war
- Two different types of patriotism (North and South):
- Northern: the US has a mandate to protect the ideals of liberty, self-government, etc. and slavery was an assault on those ideals
- Southern: much more tied to individual and familial self-interest, and slavery was the foundation on which white Southern manhood rested and their place in society (even for non-slaveholders).
- Slavery as the "cement" that held Confederates together
- Early adoption by Union troops of viewpoint that slavery needed to be destroyed (before politicians, public) in late 1861
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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