Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Civil War (2) 1863-5

Women in the war

Dorothea Dix
Civilians, especially women, played a large part in the war. Women sewed uniforms, composed poetry and songs, and raised money and supplies. Southern women managed plantations and farms in their husbands’ absence. Northern women organised ‘Sanitary Fairs’ to supply medical and sanitary supplies for the troops. In the North alone some 20,000 women served as nurses or health-related volunteers.  Dorothea Dix became the Union army’s first Superintendent of Women Nurses. Clara Barton set up field hospitals on the battlefield.  On the Confederate side, Sally Tompkins of Richmond nursed wounded men in her private hospital. However the Confederacy never found enough women to serve as nurses.

In November 1861 Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics for ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’.  It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. It became sung to the words of ‘John Brown’s Body.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Muslim slaves in America

Just when you thought that there wasn't much more to find out about slavery in America, here's a new piece of research that shows that a surprising (but perhaps it isn't) number of African slaves were Muslims. 

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Civil War (1) 1861-3

For this huge topic I am indebted primarily to the Ken Burns TV documentary on the Civil War and to the following books.
Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA, 2nd edn. (Penguin, 1999) 
David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (Touchstone, New York, 1995)
Amanda Forman, A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided (Penguin, 2010)
George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, America: A Narrative History, 6th end. vol 1(W. Norton, 2004)


Robert E. Lee
Confederate general

What was the war about?

Although the draft had to be introduced later, men from both sides initially flocked to volunteer. What were they fighting for? From the start Lincoln argued that it was a war for the union and against a rebellion.  In August 1862 he was to say: 
‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union. It is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that’. 
Jefferson Davis also implicitly denied that the war was about slavery. He asserted that it was a war to protect the right of a state to secede and to defend itself against a tyrannous majority. Yet ‘states rights’ had only evolved as a doctrine because of slavery. Without slavery it is unlikely that Virginia, the state that had done so much to create the Union, would have seceded. Would the war have been fought if slavery had not existed?


Lincoln's war

However, Lincoln continued to define the war according to his terms. He called the conflict a rebellion rather than a civil war. He refused to identify the enemy as the Confederate States of America. The prosecution of the war was primarily a function of the Chief Executive, who exercised powers normally belonging to the legislature. He suspended habeas corpus as an executive decision.


The balance of advantage

In retrospect it is clear that the North had most of the advantages.  It had an industrialised economy, good transport links, and a population of 22 million against the South’s 9 million (that included 3. 5 million slaves).  Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, was always able to borrow the money he needed to pay for the war. The Confederacy, on the other hand, produced just seven per cent of the nation’s manufacture.  Its leaders relied on cotton and hoped for British support, but though British relations with the North were often difficult the British government never recognised the Confederacy. Moreover the North had a better transport infrastructure – more wagons, horses and ships and a superior railroad system.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The coming of the Civil War (2)

The Dred Scott Case

Dred Scott
Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia in about 1800. In 1830 he was taken to St Louis and sold to an army surgeon, who took him to Illinois, then to Wisconsin Territory (later Minnesota) and finally returned him to St Louis in 1842. His master died in 1843 and in 1846 Scott filed a suit in the Missouri courts claiming that residence in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory made him free. A jury decided in his favour but the state Supreme Court decided
Chief Justice Taney
against him. The case of Scott v. Sandford  
finally came to the Supreme Court.  On 6 March 1857 the Court delivered its decision.  Speaking for his colleagues, the majority of whom were from the South, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of Maryland argued that Scott had no legal standing because he lacked citizenship. At the time of the Constitution, he stated, blacks
‘had for more than a century been regarded as …so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect’.  
Very controversially he also ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional since it deprived citizens of their property in slaves. This meant that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from a territory.  As the Missouri Compromise was dead anyway, this was a pointless provocation. The South was delighted, but the North was now convinced that the Supreme Court had been subverted by a slave conspiracy. 

Why the Civil War still matters

This academic review gives an insight into the way historians today are debating the Civil War. It's certainly not a straightforward story.

Monday, 7 November 2016

The coming of the Civil War (1)


The Fugitive Slave Act

Slave kidnap poster, Boston 1851
On 9 September 1850 California became the 31st state of the Union. On 18 September President Millard Filmore signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act. This provision of the Compromise of 1850 called for federal jurisdiction over runaway slaves and for their prompt return to their southern owners. The law also denied them a trial by jury or the right to testify on their own behalf. Any white man who attempted to help a slave escape its owner would be subjected to a heavy fine and/or six months’ imprisonment.  The federal commissioner who returned a slave to his owner was to receive $10 but only $5 dollars if he did not return the slave.  

In the North, particularly New England, the Fugitive Slave Act  was bitterly denounced.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century by people who could read and write', and he urged his neighbours to break the law. 

One aspect of this law-breaking was the Underground Railroad 
Harriet Tubman
whereby fugitive slaves were hidden and smuggled into Canada. The escaped slave Harriet Tubman was already actively engaged in rescuing slaves. However, in spite of protests, the law seemed to be working. In the first six years of the act only three fugitives were forcibly rescued from the slave-catchers.  On the other hand, fewer than two hundred slaves were captured and returned. 


Harriet Beecher Stowe
From June 1851 to April 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and the wife of a prominent biblical scholar, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in serial form in the journal, National Era. It was published in book form on 20 March 1852 and became the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. Initially, however,  it sold better in Britain than America.  The country was enjoying a surge of prosperity and the presidential campaign of 1852 showed that neither side wished to raise the issue of slavery.




The 1852 election

Another consequence of the 1850 Compromise was the break-up of the Whig party, with the Southern Whigs abandoning the party for the Democrats.   For the election of 1852 the Democrats chose Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire candidate, in preference to Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois. Pierce committed his party to adhere to the Compromise, and defeated his Whig rival, General Winfield Scott by 254 electoral votes to 42.  But the divisions over slavery were now so deep that his presidency was doomed to failure.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

'A House Divided' (2)

General Winfield Scott enters Mexico City
13 September 1847

‘Manifest Destiny’

Andrew Jackson's recognition of the Lone Star Republic exacerbated the already existing tensions over slavery. For the next seven years there was continuous agitation to bring Texas into the Union. Though many American politicians correctly predicted that the annexation of Texas would bring problems, the tide was flowing against their caution. This was the period of ‘manifest destiny'. To people like the Democratic newspaper editor John O’Sullivan, it was ‘manifest destiny’ that the United States would soon possess not only Texas but Oregon and later California. 


The flag of the Republic of Texas
the 'Lone Star Republic',
officially adopted 1839

The annexation of Texas

Even before O’Sullivan had coined the term, the issue of manifest destiny was a live one in politics. In the run-up to the election of 1844 the former President, Martin van Buren, opposed the annexation of Texas because he wanted to stop the expansion of slavery.  He was backed by a majority in Congress. Henry Clay spoke for many when he asserted that ‘annexation and war with Mexico were identical’. But as a result, Van Buren lost the Democratic nomination to  James K. Polk, the former Governor of Tennessee, who had gained the support of Andrew Jackson. Polk’s win was a victory for manifest destiny. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

The Civil War on You Tube

If you go to this site you'll find the first episode of Ken Burns' wonderful documentary on the American Civil War. I can't recommend it too highly, so I hope you'll find the time to watch.