What the troops really thought about slavery

April 15, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

What This Cruel War Was Over

Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War By Chandra Manning

Alfred A. Knopf / 352 pages / $26.95

In 1863, Sgt. Cyrus Boyd of Iowa encountered a black child, put on the auction block by her master, who was also her father. "By G-d," Boyd exclaimed, "I'll fight till hell freezes over and then I'll cut the ice and fight on." The men of the 13th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment agreed that slavery was "the sole undeniable cause of this infamous rebellion, that it is a war of, by, and for Slavery, is as plain as the noon-day sun."

But it wasn't - and isn't - at all plain. Indifferent or hostile to African-Americans, some Union troops opposed the abolition of slavery. They fought the Civil War for "the Union" and "the Cause of Constitutional Liberty," or out of a sense of duty or personal honor, without connecting their commitments to the evils of "the peculiar institution." The regimental newspaper of the 17th Illinois, for example, lashed out at fanatics to whom the horrors of war were of no consequence as long as their "darling project is accomplished." Not surprisingly, then, historians have not agreed about the relative weight common soldiers assigned to freedom, equality and slavery -- or whether they thought much at all about any of these ideas.

Until now. With What This Cruel War Was Over, Chandra Manning, a professor of history at Georgetown University, provides a breathtakingly thorough examination of attitudes toward slavery of rank-and-file troops, blue and gray, black and white. Drawing on thousands of letters and diaries in archives across the United States, she demonstrates that Confederate and Union soldiers identified slavery and emancipation as the root causes of the war.

Manning's work supports the prevailing view among historians that race trumped class in the Confederacy. Although her analysis of the role of religion is weak, she demonstrates that nonslaveholding soldiers believed that the "peculiar institution" protected white manhood, family, property rights and a stable social structure with blacks on the bottom. Issued in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation unified Rebel troops recently demoralized by bread riots at home and a law which exempted from military service an owner or overseer with 20 or more slaves. The soldiers did break ranks, but only when in 1865 a desperate Confederate Congress authorized the enlistment of no more than 25 percent of black male slaves between the ages of 18 and 45, with hints of manumission. If slaves "are put in the army," Pvt. Joseph Maides told his mother, "they will be on the same footing with white men."

Northern troops, Manning emphasizes, grew more likely to support emancipation the longer they remained in the field. Some believed that secession undermined the electoral process. Others that it would take "the eternal overthrow of slavery" to win the war. As they traveled through the South and observed human bondage at close range, many soldiers were appalled, especially by the sexual abuse of slave women. The performance of black troops helped as well: They "whipped the rebels handsomely" in Florida, Pvt. Orra Bailey noted, "fighting like tigers" and "striking horror into the enemy." With their consciousness raised, Union soldiers voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Lincoln in 1864.

Manning's most controversial - and least convincing - claim is that "many" Union troops embraced racial equality and civil rights. More likely to debate "the Negro question" than any other issue, they began to wrestle with Northern complicity in slavery and their own racial bigotry in 1863. A year later, "the ranks began to back away from the radical stances on racial equality." But as the war ended, Manning insists, "a critical mass of white Union troops supported expanded rights for African-Americans and believed that the U.S. government had a duty to work toward equality for black citizens." If spring 1865 "tells us anything, it fairly shouts at us to let go of our notions of inevitability."

Manning makes an admirable effort to quantify soldiers' sentiments. Before concluding that one position dominated, she stipulated that it had to outnumber dissenting views by at least three to one. This method works relatively well for measuring support for the Emancipation Proclamation, though, of course, it cannot capture the attitudes of soldiers who said nothing about the measure in letters and diaries. But it's much more difficult to count proponents of "radical stances on racial equality." And so, perhaps inevitably, Manning makes more subjective judgments, delivered with the adjectives "some," "many" and "most."

Even if she's right, and Union troops were willing to work with blacks "to change laws, build schools, and lay foundations for a more equitable society," their commitment was shallow at best. By her own account it ebbed and flowed between 1863 and 1865. And after they laid down their arms, the soldiers returned home to oppose black suffrage and integrated schools. For many of them, it seems, emancipation was not a prelude to equality.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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