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The House Divided – Supplementary Pack (AH)



pring 2001


The House Divided – America 1850-65
Supplementary Pack

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Support Materials


The House Divided - America 1850-65 – Supplementary Pack

This support material package is to be used in conjunction with the pack published in November 2000 (‘The House Divided – America 1850-65’, number 8191) and the Historiographical support pack published in January 2001 (number 8545). It looks at a number of historical interpretations that students should be aware of when studying this topic.


Writing on the American Civil War has, until recently, been characterised by a degree of partisanship not common amongst British historians. This is hardly surprising, given the scale of the conflict and that justification for the terrible slaughter had to be found. The notion of the ‘Lost Cause’ and romanticism about a rural Southern idyll that probably never existed, have endured throughout much of the twentieth century. The myth was popularised by films such as ‘Gone with the Wind’ which was as inaccurate a twentieth century interpretation of the period as had been Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in 1851.

Almost as soon as the first shot had been fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April, 1861, Americans rushed to explain why their ‘Great Experiment’ in democracy had failed to produce a compromise to the crisis as it had previously achieved in both 1820 and 1850.’
Opinions on issues such as slavery, life in the ante-bellum South, the causes of the war and the reasons for the ultimate victory of the North have swung like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. Again, this is hardly surprising as :
‘No historian writes in isolation from the work of his or her predecessors nor can the historian stand aloof from the insistent pressures, priorities and demands of the present. Though historians address the past, they always do so in ways that are shaped……..by the society and systems of their own day.’ (1)
This can be illustrated by a brief look at how Americans have interpreted their ‘fiery trial’.
In the immediate post Civil War era, history, as in the time of the Romans, was written mostly by the victors. There was a belief that the South had caused the war and that the social, economic, political, demographic and military superiority of the North had rightly crushed the upstart South which had received its just desserts. An interesting point to note is that, at this time, little consideration was given to an analysis of the role of the black man in the conflict, and this trend was to continue until after the Second World War. Just as the gallant, if ill-fated, charge of the 54th Massachusetts regiment under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, had awakened Northerners to the role the blacks could play in the contest, so it was the black contribution to US victory in World War II which caused historians to re-examine the role of the Blacks in the Civil War.
Attempts were made in the period up to 1900, to see the war from a Southern perspective. The writings of ex-President Jefferson Davis (‘The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 1881’) and ex Vice President Alexander Stephens (‘A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States 1868-70’) were ex post facto justifications for the actions of the individuals themselves and the South as a whole and were dismissed as merely trying to apportion blame to someone else.
However, the dominant pro-Northern view was to be challenged at the start of the twentieth century, with the emergence of a pro-Southern interpretation which was to last until after the ending of World War Two. The main characteristic of the school was ‘an all pervasive and immensely potent pro-Southern bias which dominated the profession until the middle of the twentieth century’(2).
The main proponents of this school of historiography were Ulrich B Phillips and his students. In his book ‘American Negro Slavery’ (1918) and ‘Life and Labour in the Old South’ (1928), Phillips tried to define the major differences between North and South as well as discuss the nature of ante-bellum slavery.
A new twist to this school of thought was added in the 1920s by Charles and Mary Beard, who sought to move the debate beyond the confines of the slavery issue. Their economic interpretation of the causes of the war opened up new lines of historical enquiry.
The image this created of a superior, rural yeoman farmer of the pre Civil War period and the implicit superiority of agrarian over capitalist economics was given further impetus with the American slide into Depression after 1929, trenchant testimony to the view of R.C Richardson noted above.
The pendulum began to swing back from this extreme position in the 1950’s with writings by such as David Potter and Richard Hofstadter who began to question ‘the precious myth of Southern agrarianism.’ (3)
In an attempt to counteract the dominance of the Phillips’ School, historians such as Kenneth Stampp and Stanley Elkins opened up new lines of research, new evidence was sought and found and, at last, the voice of the black man was given its proper role with the work of John Hope Franklin who argued for history to include the black perspective.
The 1960s saw a remarkable change. The backdrop was the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King junior. The Civil War was exploded and every particle minutely dissected to try to find the definitive reasons for the war. From this micro examination has emerged a new school of history, less sectionally orientated and seeking an overview of the cause of the greatest tragedy to beset the USA – a view based on the research of the 1960s and culminating in works such as ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ (1988) by James McPherson and ‘Reconstruction’ (1988) by Eric Toner. Writing on the American Civil War truly indicates that:
‘the study of history is concerned not with dead facts and sterile, permanent verdicts but with dialogues, disagreements and controversies amongst its presenters.’(4)


  1. Richardson, R.C – quoted in Tulloch: The Debate on the American Civil War Era, Manchester University Press, 1999 (ISBN 07190 49385)

  2. Tulloch, Hugh: op cit p.10

  3. Ibid p15

  4. Richardson, R.C quoted in Tulloch op cit p.viii


By the very nature of the topic, writing about the issue of slavery has been both partisan and contentious. The pre- Civil War debate between supporters and opponents of slavery can be said to have continued after the war was over.

In the period up to 1900, again it was the Northern view – that slavery was bad and, in Lincoln’s words ‘had somehow caused the war’ (1) – which predominated.
However at the start of the twentieth century a new school of thought, associated with Ulrich B Phillips, emerged which viewed the ‘Old South’ as an idyllic place in which both slavery and the plantation system played an important part.
The thrust of Phillips’ argument was that the institution of negro slavery was the South’s response to the invention of the cotton gin and the need to create a new labour organisation to cope with the potential dramatic increases in output. He contended that the institution was more social than economic and that it was a kindly, not a harsh regime. The system was uneconomic yet the South stuck with it in an effort to protect the slaves from themselves and thus emerged the picture, in Phillips’ interpretation, of the master as a father figure. To abolish slavery, so this school of thought went, would result in one of two consequences. Either the black would revert to savagery (from which slavery had elevated him) or there would be a race war in the South.
In this interpretation, northerners were generally held to be ignorant of the unseen threads which held the South together in a very delicate tapestry. Phillips thus held slave-owners in high regard and argued that their attitudes were based on an aristocratic belief in ‘noblesse oblige’.
These findings were produced in two volumes – the first, published in 1918, entitled ‘American Negro Slavery’ and the second ‘Life and Labour in the Old South ‘(1929). What is remarkable is that the views were to dominate American historiography until the 1950s.
In the ‘Debate on the American Civil War Era’ (1999), Hugh Tulloch is dismissive of such an interpretation referring to it as ‘insidious nonsense’ and ‘historical duplicity’ (2). His justification for such a damning indictment is the methods used by Phillips. His research was limited and highly selective, with only 200 plantations, all in the deep South and all having more than 100 slaves, which were atypical of the Southern pattern of slaveholding. Phillips started from the assumption that slavery was, ipso facto, good for both white and black alike and saw the institution exclusively through the eyes of the slave-owner. As a result Tulloch concludes that Phillips’ work ‘remains useful for his insights into the mind of the Slave master’s paternalistic rationale’ (3).
The first serious attack on Phillips’ work in the USA came in 1956, with the publication of ‘The Peculiar Institution’ by Kenneth Stampp.
Unlike Phillips, Stampp claimed that slavery was not a by-product of the invention of the cotton gin. Rather it had been deliberately engineered by the South. In addition, he took issue with Phillips’ conclusion that slavery was unprofitable.

Stampp argued that though the institution might have been inefficient, it was profitable due to a combination of unprecedented world demand, and the ability of the South to meet that demand because of the availability of new land in the mid and western USA. Slavery, Stampp also attested, provided a very mobile work force with every slave facing the prospect of being sold at least once in their lifetime, to owners in other areas.

Another criticism levelled by Stampp was the limited nature of Phillips’ evidence, arguing that only 1% of owners owned more than 100 slaves. Stampp concluded that the slave was a maltreated victim of a profitable economic system.
Not surprisingly, the work of Stampp was criticised by others, both at the time and later Tulloch notes:

Stampp tended to use traditional literary sources rather than quantify, and literary sources can at times be misleading and unrepresentative’ (4).

In 1959, Stanley Elkins wrote ‘Slavery: a Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life’. His aim was to see slavery through the eyes of the slave and to find a solution to the paradox of slave opposition to the institution on the one hand and the lack of serious slave revolts on the other. He argued, using research based on the experience of concentration camp survivors, that the reason for such docility was the all embracing and crushing nature of slavery, where all decisions, affecting every aspect of the life of the slave, were made on the slave’s behalf by others. He believed that slavery was a brutal institution that handicapped the slave’s personality and led to ‘regression and infantalisation’ (5).
In this version, the slave is not the happy character of Phillips but of ‘Sambo’ – docile but irresponsible – who shared his displeasure at his lot in life by acts of minor sabotage, stealing etc. At all times, he had to balance acquiescence and resistance. Thus, the Elkins thesis had replaced the old concept of racial inferiority of the black slave with the new concept of psychological handicap inflicted by the total institution of slavery.
Criticism levelled at Elkins included those of Eugene Genovese who had a much simpler solution to the question of the lack of slave revolts in the ante bellum USA. Given that the whites controlled all possible forms of communication and state institution, police, courts, legislative etc., then rebellion would have been tantamount to committing suicide.
It was in an attempt to settle, once and for all, the issue of the profitability of slavery that Fogel and Engerman turned to an analysis of cold, impartial, statistics as the source of evidence. They criticised Stampp’s conclusions on the basis that, without satisfactory statistical evidence, he had labelled the negro as incompetent. In ‘Time on the Cross’ (1974), they analysed vast volumes of statistics and concluded that:

  1. slavery was essentially benign – the emphasis on slave whippings had been greatly exaggerated, they argued; and

  2. slavery was 35% more profitable than free labour on Northern farms; and

  3. slave accommodation was better than that of New York workers in 1893.

In this interpretation, the slave was socialised, not brutalised and the carrot replaced the stick.

It is hardly surprising that their findings were almost universally criticised. The grounds for this criticism were varied. On the one hand, their methodology was open to question. It seemed as if they had worked backwards from consequences to causes. They had developed a theoretical model and then sought evidence to prove it, and more damagingly for them, had ignored contradictory evidence. Their claim that slave accommodation was better was shown to be based on an exaggeration of 50% on their part, of average, slave cabin size compared with ‘immigrant slums in the depths of a major depression’ (7) in New York.
Again it was shown that their average of 0.7% whippings per hand per year (which allowed them to conclude that slavery was benign), ‘was based on the records kept over a period of two years on a single plantation.’ (8). What they failed to see was that the certainty of punishment was more important than its application. Knowledge of the consequences of their actions may have dissuaded slaves from taking a particular course of action.
In addition, the hierarchy of jobs, Fogel and Engerman identified in ‘Time on the Cross’ (field hand, overseer etc) was not the same as a career structure in the free labour economy and crucially, that the slave had no choice in his career path. Further, their identified incentives like some extra land for the slaves’ own use was not the same as bonus payments to free Northern agricultural workers.
In ‘Reckoning with Slavery’, edited by David Paul in 1976, two fellow econometricians, Gutman and Sutch, destroyed the arguments put forward in 1974, arguing amongst other points about the flawed mode of Fogel and Engerman and their selective use of the available statistical evidence. The use of rewards and incentives does not ipso facto prove that coercion was unimportant in making slaves work hard. Force, or the threat of it, was fundamental and all other methods secondary.
Indeed turning Fogel and Engerman against themselves, Gutman and Sutch quoted:

The object of all punishment should be, first, for correction to deter the offender from the repetition of an offence; from fear of the like certain punishment; and second, for example to others, showing them that if they offend they likewsie will receive certain punishment. And these objects and ends of all just punishments can be better attained by the certainty than by the severity of punishment’. (9)

In 1972 appeared ‘The Slave Community’ by John Blassingame. His view of slavery was based on the study of the slave family and its culture, which survived despite all of the difficulties that it faced.
This view was further extended by the writing of the Marxist historian, Eugene Genovese who published ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ in 1976. He borrowed ideas from Phillips, Elkins and Fogel and Engerman to show that the greater the stability within the slave family, the less resistance they offered to white control. Of course ultimately the whites could have the final say- as the threat of sale and separation hung over every slave family like a sword of Damocles.
By its nature, the debate on slavery will go on. What makes the study so difficult is the lack of prima facie evidence from the ante-bellum South. Given the almost total lack of slave education this is hardly surprising. What can be concluded is that the rose-tinted view of Phillips has been exploded in the last half of the twentieth century and that historians are still trying to come to terms with the multi-faceted institution and its effects on black and white alike.


  1. Basler R.P – The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers University Press, 1953)

  2. Tulloch, H – The Debate on the American Civil War Era (Manchester University Press, 1999 p38)

  3. Tulloch, H – op cit p.40

  4. Tulloch, H – op cit p.44

  5. Elkins, S – Slavery a Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959) Quoted in Tulloch, p.47

  6. Fogel and Engerman – Time on the Cross (London, 1974)

  7. Tulloch, H – op cit p.56

  8. Tulloch, H – op cit p.56

  9. Fogel and Engerman – quoted in ‘Reckoning with Slavery’, ed. by D. Paul


As is now to be expected, debate on the reasons why war broke out in April 1861, show all the signs of bias and partisanship seen in other areas. Again the pattern is repeated in the immediate post-war period being dominated by mono or bi-causal explanations which favoured the North, to a more pro-Southern account in the first half of the twentieth century, to a much more in depth analysis of the complex and overlapping reasons which led to ‘the war between the states.’

President Lincoln was in no doubt as to the cause of the war. He believed that the issue of slavery and the actions of the South led directly to war:
‘One of them (the sections) would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.’ (1)
However, no sooner was the last shot fired than pro-Southern accounts began to appear. In 1866 ex-President Buchanan, in the school of single cause, argued that the war had resulted from the actions of ‘irresponsible politicians’ in both South and North, though largely Northern. In Mr Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion he attacked Northern politicians and abolitionists for their interference in the slavery question arguing that they knew nothing of the system and that, ironically echoing the Republican doctrine, slavery was on the road to ‘ultimate extinction’ and thus he concluded that to the war was unnecessary. Needless to say, there is a considerable element of trying to escape any responsibility on his part for the outbreak of the conflict.
Leading Southern politicians were also quick to go to press. Ex- Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, published between 1868 and 1870 the two volume ‘A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States’. Unsurprisingly, given his role during the war, he adopted the position that the war had not been fought on the South’s part in defence of slavery, but on the constitutional principle of the defence of states’ rights.
Jefferson Davis, ex -Confederate President, threw his hat into the ring in 1881 with the publication of his memoirs, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Governmen’t. He used his lawyer’s training to put the blame for the war and defeat at every door but his own. Apart from justifying his conduct, he laid the responsibility for the war at the door of the Republicans accusing them of pursuing an aggressive policy, which drove the South to secession in order to increase Northern political, social and economic dominance over the South. His argument was that the South had been forced into war in order to defend the principle of the Constitution of 1787. It should be borne in mind that, at the time of publication, Davis had been held in jail and that until 1877, the South had been ruled by Northern ‘carpetbaggers’. It was only with the ‘redemption of the South’ in that year that responsibility for state and local government was fully restored to Southern politicians.
However debate on the causes of the war was not confined to the USA. The German writer, Karl Marx, saw in the war the classic Marxist view of conflict between the owners of capital (and political influence) and the majority of the population; a conflict which would see the triumph of the bourgeois revolution, quickly followed by the proletarian revolution.

Thus until the start of the twentieth century, the North assumed that it had right (as well as might) on its side whilst Southern’ accounts wallowed in the romance of ‘the Lost Cause.’

In an attempt to broaden the debate on the origins of the Civil War, Charles and Mary Beard adopted a new approach, in ‘The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution’ (1913) and ‘The Rise of American Civilisation’(1927). They saw the North as driven primarily by economic motives and that consequently the war had resulted from the friction generated by an agrarian economy (the South) on the one hand and the developing industrial/urban economy of the North on the other, and war was thus inevitable. This interpretation coincided with the work of Phillips in rewriting the history of the South and gave some credence to his conclusions.
The 1930s witnessed the emergence of the revisionist school of thought associated with J.R. Randall and Avery Craven. Far from seeing the war as a ‘crusade’ to liberate black men and to perpetuate the Union, this school viewed the conflict as unnecessary, having no major cause and was due to, in the words of Randall: ‘a blundering generation.’ (2)
Tulloch in his critique of the revisionist school notes that these writers ‘were determined to reverse the defeat of Appomattox and win the historiographical battle’. (3)
Both Randall and Craven believed that slavery would have died out, if it had been left alone. The reason why this scenario was not fulfilled was due to the actions of abolitionists whom Craven accused of conjuring up ‘an artificial creation of inflamed minds.’ (4). Nor did the politicians escape their wrath. This ‘blundering generation’ of the 1850s, had pursued its own selfish political agendas which led ultimately to conflict in 1861. Their chief bete noir was Abraham Lincoln whom Craven accused of deliberately engineering the war in 1861 by forcing the South to fire on Fort Sumter.
In an attempt to redress the imbalance which had appeared, David Donald in 1960 argued that Lincoln had always been extremely cautious and slow to move on all major issues facing him – issues such as the re-supply of Fort Sumter and the Emancipation Proclamation – and that to accuse him of deliberately engineering war in 1861 was a non sequitur. This line of argument is also to be found in Donald’s ‘Lincoln’ published in 1995.
The rehabilitation of Lincoln’s reputation continued with the work of Allan Nevins and his multi - volume history of the Civil War. Here began the synthesis of all the different approaches of the former writers along with the use of new historical evidence and research. This more inclusive approach examining all the threads which produced the final conflict was continued by Eric Foner, who sought to show how the philosophy and programme of the Republican Party made it less likely to play the role of compromising agent and to stand firm on its interpretation of the Constitution and their view of where the USA ought to be heading. These ideas were published in 1970 in ‘Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men’.
This theme has been continued by the prolific writings of James McPherson who has produced single volume studies of the war – ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ (1988) – as well as detailed studies – ‘What they fought for’ (1994) – and analysis of the role of Abraham Lincoln – ‘Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution’ (1991). Throughout all of these McPherson’s scholarship is characterised by the fact that there is no single explanation for any event and that chance and circumstance also played their part.
A British historian Brian Holden Reid, has also given much thought to the origins of the American Civil War. In the article ‘Lincoln and the crisis at Fort Sumter Re examined’ (5) he argues that many of the crucial decisions concerning the re supply of the Fort had already been taken by President Buchanan. His failure to issue clear instructions to fort commander Major Robert Anderson left the latter with too much discretion (it was Anderson who decided to abandon Fort Moultrie and concentrate all his forces at Fort Sumter). Also Buchanan failed to press home the re-supply of the fort by ‘The Star of the West’ in early January 1861, and this meant that it was less likely that the Confederate authorities at Charleston would agree to Lincoln’s attempts to re-supply in April and more likely that such an attempt would be met with open resistance. Reid also highlights the inherent weaknesses of the Constitution of the time. Although Lincoln was elected in November 1860 it was five months before he assumed office and therefore power. He was helpless to stop Southern secession as only President Buchanan had the power but he was unwilling to use it. Such hindrances all compounded the crisis facing the USA after Lincoln’s election. Even once sworn in, Lincoln found out, according to Reid, the limit of presidential authority. Issuing orders and their being executed are not one and the same. He points to the failure of the President to re-supply Fort Pickens off the Florida coast as a case in point. Thus, Reid would argue that it was not possible for Lincoln to entrap the South at Fort Sumter and thus engineer war.
His thesis is further developed in the work ‘The Origins of the American Civil War’ (1996) (6) in which Reid argued that political differences by themselves between North and South could not explain the origins of the conflict. He views the decade of the 1850s as crucial. This was when there were tensions, crises and increasing violence which led to the position that neither side would retreat and both would accept war, rather than compromise which had been possible only ten years before.
An interesting feature of the Reid analysis is that he takes the origins of the war up to the Emancipation Proclamation of September 17th 1862. He does this to explain why the war, which Lincoln always viewed on a global, as well as a national scale, did not spread beyond the boundaries of the USA. Self-interest and national calculation always seemed likely to keep Britain neutral and the Emancipation Proclamation sealed the fate of foreign intervention.
Thus the debate and arguments will continue. What is certain is that the simple, single cause of the war no longer holds any attraction to the student of the American Civil War.


  1. Basler, R.P- The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers University Press, 1953) The Second Inaugural Address

  2. Randall, J.R – ‘ a blundering generation’ quoted in The Causes of the Civil War by Kenneth Stampp (New Jersey,1963)

  3. Tulloch, H – The Debate on the American Civil War Era (Manchester University Press, 1999) p. 127

  4. Craven, A – quoted in Tulloch op cit p.130

  5. Reid, B.H – Lincoln and the crisis at Fort Smuttier Re- Examined, History, Volume 77, February 1992, Historical Association

  6. Reid, B.H – The Origins of the American Civil War (Longman, 1996)


Writing in the immediate aftermath of defeat, Southerners took comfort firstly in the idea of the ‘lost cause’ and then in the inevitability of defeat due to the overwhelming advantages of the North. Indeed such a towering figure in the Confederacy as Robert E Lee firmly believed in the idea of Southern inferiority in material terms and the lack of foreign aid and recognition. Such a view of inevitable Northern victory formed the basis of the ideas of the historian Richard Current.

Also, CP Roland in his book ‘The Confederacy’ (1960) argued that Southern defeat was inevitable due to the superior economic resources of the North, though this view has been challenged by Emory Thomas in his ‘The Confederate Nation 1861-65’, published in 1979. He noted, amongst other weaknesses, the failure of the Confederate supply system, the lowering of Southern morale as a result of Northern incursions especially those of Sherman, the increasing rate of desertion as reasons for defeat – what he calls ‘the tactics of total war which produced despair and weakened the Southern will to continue the struggle to be a nation.’ (1).
Even David Donald in a series of essays he collated under the heading Why the North Won the Civil War, 1960, believed in the overwhelming northern superiority as an explanation for northern victory though he too believed that the South had failed due to too much democracy.
This inevitability thesis was questioned by the leader of the big battalions, Grant, in his Memoirs (2), published in 1882 where he argued that Northern success had never been taken for granted.
This belief in Northern superiority as the decisive factor in explaining Northern victory, has also been challenged by writers like James McPherson, who believed that, although a necessary point of Northern victory, it was not sufficient reason alone to explain Northern success.
McPherson goes on to argue that contingency and chance also were important, citing events like the wounding and subsequent death of Lee’s trusted lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville and the timing of the presidential election, speculating on the outcome of that contest if it had been held prior to Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and Thomas’s success against Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley in October 1864.
McPherson also sees the seeds of Southern defeat in her failure to manage her economy and finances properly. Rampant inflation ate away at the sinew of Southern life and support for the war, leading in part to the collapse of Southern morale and the will to continue with the struggle. The writer, Clement Eaton also argued that the collapse of the Confederate financial system was an explanation for her defeat.
From his studies (3) McPherson concludes that soldiers on both sides were highly motivated, Northerners fought from a sense of duty, whilst Southerners fought for honour and the need to defend their homes from an external threat. On both sides soldiers also fought for each other and feared that by their individual action, they might let their comrades down. External pressures from the North and the internal weaknesses within the Confederacy coincided to seal Southern defeat.

Much emphasis has been put on the role of the military leaders of the North and South. Even more than 100 years on from the conflict, the towering figure of Robert E Lee casts a long shadow over American historiography. From the fawning god-like worship of the four volume biography of Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman, to the more balanced and more critical one by Emory Thomas published in 1995, Lee stands like a monument to the south and her cause.

This over-concentration on one man, whom it should be noted never wrote his autobiography nor uttered any critical comments at the time of the war till his death in 1870, has overshadowed the role of the likes of Grant and Sherman. Lee was regarded as the greatest general whilst Grant and Sherman merely led the Northern juggernaut to ultimate victory. This pays a great dis-service to both of these men. Two British military writers, JFC Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart, writing in the aftermath of the carnage of World War I, did much to rehabilitate the reputation of the two Northern generals. In two works ‘The Generalship of US Grant’ (1929) and ‘Grant and Lee’ (1933) Fuller was highly critical of Lee of whom he accused of ignoring von Clauswitz’s dictum that ‘war was just a continuation of politics by other means’. (4). Lee, he argued, failed to grasp the political implications of the war and singularly failed to act as a military adviser to President Davis, his commander-in-chief. He also tried to redress the balance concerning the losses sustained by both men, showing that, proportionately, Lee (20%) lost more men in battle against Grant (16%) in 1864-5. However, in this he has been less successful, perhaps, as the epithet, which still haunts Grant, is that of the ‘butcher’. What Fuller tried to do for Grant, Liddell Hart attempted for Sherman. Here was the genius, according to Liddell Hart, who grasped the nettle of total war – his famous dictum being ‘war is hell’. If Grant was the originator of the plan (though credit should also go to Lincoln and former general-in-chief Winfield Scott), Sherman was the surgeon who skilfully cut open the underbelly of the Confederacy and allowed it to bleed to death both militarily and on the home front. It is significant that at the victory parade in Washington, held in the aftermath of Lincoln’s funeral, that the greatest cheer was reserved for Sherman.
The role of politics in the conflict has also been examined as a possible explanation for Northern Victory. Certainly David Potter, in his essay published in Donald’s ‘Why The North Won The Civil War’, argues that the Northern two-party system helped the war effort by managing political conflict. Phillip Palusan is critical of the interference in the war effort by the Committee on the Conduct of the War (‘The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln’, 1994). Emory Thomas in his work ‘The Confederate Nation’ also sees, in the political structure of the south, a weakness. The South had left the Union to enable its constituent parts to make their own decisions but the war produced centripetal forces, allowing Richmond to accrue more and more power, which in turn produced more political dissent from governors such as Brown and Vance. Few writers today, however, would agree with the Frank Owsley argument of 1925 that states’ rights were the Achilles heel of the South and that this doctrine was the rock on which the hopes of the confederacy perished.
Other explanations of Southern defeat have looked at the failure of the South to win either foreign help or recognition. The starting point here has to be Owsley’s ‘King Cotton Diplomacy’ (1931). He argues that the South had become convinced of the power of cotton to exert sufficient pressure on London and Paris to force intervention to keep the white gold flowing. However in an article in ‘History Today’ of March 1990, the writer, John Pelzer, concludes that economic profit and self-calculation were more than enough to counter the temporary (albeit severe) effect of the cotton embargo. In ‘Guns for Cotton’ (1996) Thomas Boag has calculated that the value of Confederate trade to Britain during the war totalled some $200M. However Britain doubly benefited by her position of supplier of arms to the North as well.
Another vital contribution to Union victory, though only one more recently recognised, is the role of the black. It should be stated that blacks alone did not win the war, but their contribution, especially during the grim months of the summer of 1864, might have made the difference between victory and stalemate.
Joseph Glatthaar has argued that the decision of the Federal Government to hire blacks for wages meant that their deployment in other areas could not long be denied. (Indeed, blacks served throughout the war in the Union navy.) He argues, as does McPherson, that emancipation was a bold stroke, depriving the Confederacy of a great resource and at the same time converting it into one for the Union. In addition, with the reduction of black labour in the South, due to the absence of effective overseers, Blather argues that this contributed significantly to Southern defeat.

As Lincoln wrote in August 1863,

There will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue and clenched teeth and steady eye and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation’. (5)
The final area upon which historians have concentrated is on the respective roles of Presidents Davis and Lincoln. Most agree whether contemporaries or historians that Davis was not the best choice for the job. He was too aloof and stubborn and tended to take all criticism personally. He significantly contributed to Southern defeat by acting as his own military adviser and ignoring the advice of others. He did little to sell either himself, his government, or his government’s policies to the people. As Thomas states ‘Outside of the capital Southerners expressed their despair by resisting taxes, hiding their livestock and produce from impressment officers and tax-in-kind collectors, and damning the government which had led them into such folly.’ (6)
On the other hand, historians have praised the role played by Abraham Lincoln, both in the field of politics and strategy. David Potter argued, as did T.Harry Williams in ‘Lincoln and his Generals’ (1952) that Lincoln had a good grasp of strategy and quickly realised that possession of enemy territory was less significant than the destruction of the enemy’s army. However, it would also have to be admitted that, in the words of Archer Jones,

both governments also recognised the political significance of military success and failure’. (7)

It could be argued that, with the appointment of Grant as General-in-Chief in early 1864, Lincoln had found his military shadow. Potter, Donald and McPherson have all lauded Lincoln as the consummate politician, pragmatic in his approach, yet self effacing. One of the major differences between Davis and Lincoln was the latter’s ability to act decisively when needed.
Whether you agree with David Potter’s view that had North and South swapped Presidents then the South might have won is up to you to decide.


  1. Thomas,E – The Confederate Nation (Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1972) p.284

  1. Grant, U,S – Personal memoirs of US Grant (1885) Reprinted Da Capo Press, New York 1982

  1. McPherson, James – What they fought for (Lousiana State University Press, 1994)

  1. Von Clauswitz - On War

  1. Basler, R.P.- The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Rutgers University Press, 1953, Volume 6 p.410

  1. Thomas E – The Confederate Nation pp. 284-5

  1. Boritt, G.S. – Why The South Lost, 1994

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