Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (5) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Stepping back from the detail, this reader’s general sense of the actual fighting of the American Civil War – having just finished this 860-page book about it – was that the slaughter steadily escalated, until tens of thousands were being killed and wounded at each brutal, bloody, slogged-out battle, death and injury on such a scale you’d have thought they’d be decisive. And yet they weren’t. There was a terrible fatality or weakness about the commanding generals on both sides which prevented them landing really knockout blows and allowed the war to drag on for years longer than necessary.

The reader gets very impatient with General George B. McClellan who was in charge of the north’s largest army, the Army of the Potomac. He was, by all accounts, an excellent organiser of armies and inspirer of men who, however, turned out to be pathologically reluctant to risk his shiny machine in actual battle. And, on the rare occasions when he did engage and repel the Confederates, McClellan consistently failed to pursue and crush them, allowing them to retreat, lick their wounds, regroup, re-arm and come again. Eventually, President Lincoln became so impatient with McClellan’s fatal indecisiveness that he sacked him.

But, to the reader’s frustration, the turns out to be true of his replacement, Major General George Meade, who commanded the northern army at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863), massacring the rebels as they tried to storm his entrenched men along Cemetery Hill.

But then, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee called off the rebel attack and withdrew, Meade refused the calls from his officers, and from Lincoln himself, to pursue and crush the exhausted southern survivors – thus ensuring that Lee could withdraw, regroup, and that the war went on for another two years!

Apparently, a contemporary satirist described the armies of the American Civil War as little more than armed mobs wandering over the Virginia countryside at random, occasionally bumping into each other, massacring each other, then wandering off again with no decisive result. For long periods of time this satire does seem to be true.

According to McPherson, the siege and capture of the rebel stronghold of Vicksburg, which took place at the same time as the enormous Battle of Gettysburg (May to July 1865), marked a turning point in the war – but quite clearly neither was a knockout blow, and the South continued to field armies for 24 more bloody months.

Two years of bludgeoning, desperate bloodletting, as bigger and bigger armies engaged for longer and longer, at the costs of tens of thousands of eviscerated mangled bodies, with an enormous loss of life and treasure.

Meanwhile, as the generals of both sides failed to win the war, the conflict was nonetheless a time of rapid social, economic and technological change.

Military innovation

The generals initially carried on implementing Napoleonic battle strategy i.e. close ranked men march forwards, protected by cavalry on the flanks, until they’re within range to charge and close the enemy with bayonets – at which point the enemy breaks and runs, hopefully.

However, this was the war during which the rifle replaced the smooth-bore musket. Rifling made a bullet fly further and more accurately. This meant rifle fire could now kill men at three or four times the distance i.e. infantry advancing in the old style were cut down like grass.

Suddenly the advantage was with well-entrenched defenders. This explains the carnage at the Battle of Antietam as attacking Union troops found themselves funnelled into a lane which led towards the Confederate positions, and were mown down in their thousands. Or the carnage at Fredericksburg, where Union troops walked towards a solid wall at the base of St Marye’s Heights lined with Confederates assembled in ranks who fired in sequence – it was like walking towards machine guns.

It’s in the last two hundred pages, from the year 1864, that the power of defensive trenches really comes into its own, with the enormous losses suffered by Union soldiers trying to take rebel trenches at Spotsylvania and Petersburg. Here the fighting anticipated the appalling attrition rates of the First World War.

Arguably it was the development of the rifle, and the advantage it gave defenders, which is the one big reason why the American Civil War was so long and so bloody. (pp.477ff)

The scale of the slaughter

Some of the slaughter was awe-inspiring. The massacre at Antietam Creek left 6,000 men dead and some 17,000 wounded – four times the total number suffered on the Normandy beaches on D-Day – more than all American casualties in the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American war combined.

Similarly, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg was an abattoir, with some 8,000 killed out of about 50,000 casualties.

Even relatively minor encounters seemed to result in appalling rates of death and maiming.

Some 620,000 men from both armies died in the civil war. it was a catastrophe.

Disease the biggest killer in most wars

But disease was an even bigger killer than rifles and artillery. For every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. The biggest killers were intestinal complaints such as dysentery and diarrhoea, which alone claimed more men than did battle wounds. Other major killers were measles, smallpox, malaria and pneumonia.

The fundamental basis of modern medicine – the fact that microscopic bacteria spread infections – had not yet been discovered. Medicine was, as McPherson puts it, still in the Middle Ages. The result was that no-one appreciated the importance of sterile dressings, antiseptic surgery, and the vital importance of sanitation and hygiene.

The impact of disease was so severe that it disrupted or led to the cancellation of a number of military campaigns. (p.488)

The changing role of women

McPherson goes out of his way in several places to discuss the changing positions of women. This is especially true of his section on medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the medical establishment, the army and the politicians, and made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness.

Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483). In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, specially in the North, where women were called in to replace men, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

Financial innovations

But arguably the most profound changes wrought by the Civil War – and certainly the most boring to read about – were the financial innovations it prompted.

To finance the war the northern government instituted the first ever federal income tax, on 5 August 1861. Taxes on other goods followed quickly under the Internal Revenue Act of 1862 which taxed ‘almost everything but the air northerners breathed’ (p.447) including liquor, tobacco and playing cards, carriages, yachts and billiard tables, taxes on newspaper adverts and patent medicines, licence taxes on virtually every profession, stamp taxes, taxes on the gross receipts of corporations, banks, insurance companies and the dividends or interest they paid investors.

The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never the same again.

This was accompanied by a Legal Tender Act of 1862 which issued, for the first time, a federal currency. Until this point each of the states had had their own treasury and their own forms of payment. Now the Federal government set out to supersede all these with the green dollar bills it produced by the million. These soon became known as ‘greenbacks’ and endure to this day.

Having revolutionised the country’s monetary and tax structures, the 37th Congress (1861-62) did the same for public land, higher education and railways.

McPherson shows how the economic dynamism of the north had been hampered and blocked for decades by southern states suspicious that every attempt to spread its free market, industrial culture was an attack on the South’s slave-based, agricultural economy.

Once the southern states seceded the Congress, now representing solely northern states, was set free to unleash its vision. A homestead act granted 160 acres of land to settlers who developed it for five years, underpinning the explosive expansion westwards.

A Vermont congressman developed a bill to make 30,000 acres of public land in each state available for the founding of further education, and especially agricultural colleges – establishing a network of institutions which ensured the most efficient exploitation of farmland by American farmers for generations to come.

And the Pacific Railroad Act granted land and money for a railway which eventually ran from Omaha to San Francisco. Much of the land dealing and speculation about the construction of this and later railways became notorious for corruption and sharp practices. But nonetheless the railways were built, connecting people, services and supplies across this vast continent.

Taken together these changes amounted to a ‘blueprint for modern America’, a:

new America of big business, heavy industry, and capital-intensive agriculture that surpassed Britain to become the foremost industrial nation by 1880 and became the world’s breadbasket for much of the twentieth century… (p.452)

The capitalists, labourers and farmers of the north and west superseded the plantation aristocracy of the South in the economic and political system, permanently remodelling America as a high-finance, industrialised, capitalist country.

Reconstruction

And this is the background to the idea of ‘Reconstruction’.

As in any war, the war aims of both sides changed over time. Initially most northern Democrats and many Republicans simply wanted the southern states to de-secede and return to the Union, more or less as they were.

But savvier radicals realised that there would have to be drastic changes in southern economy, culture and politics if the whole nation wasn’t simply to return to the permanently blocked political deadlocks of the decades which led up to the conflict.

Even slow-to-change Abe Lincoln realised that the South would have to be remade on the model of the industrialised, capitalist North. Having been devastated, economically, in terms of war dead, in terms of goods and assets destroyed, burned and bombed to bits, and having had the fundamental underpinning of its entire economic existence – slavery – abolished – the South would need to be entirely rebuilt from scratch.

This is what the term ‘Reconstruction’ came to mean and McPherson’s book comes to an abrupt stop just before it begins. His book ends with the end of the war, with the moving encounter between the old enemies as Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, and then Confederate troops came in and surrendered their weapons to their union victors.

A short epilogue fleetingly references the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865, the vast funeral, the flight of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and half a dozen other events which quickly followed in the wake of peace – but that’s it as far as McPherson’s account is concerned.

The whole enormous story of what came next:

  • the attempts to reconstruct the South and their long-term impact, in terms of poverty and ongoing racial prejudice
  • the conquest of the West and the so-called Indian Wars
  • the astonishing industrial and financial rise of the North until America was on a par with the mightiest European powers

remains to be told in the next book in the series.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulyses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964


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