The Magazine

Aftermyth of War

The Lost Cause is among the casualties in this definitive history.

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As we mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the publication of Allen Guelzo’s magisterial new account of that conflict is most timely. But given the fact that, by even the most conservative estimates, some 60,000 books and pamphlets have been written about what was once called the War of the Rebellion, the question naturally arises: Why do we need another one? 

A very compelling reason is that Guelzo is one of our most accomplished Civil War historians, and one of the country’s foremost Lincoln scholars. He is the first two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize—in 2000 for Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and in 2005 for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, the definitive treatment of that document. In addition, Guelzo’s prose is graceful and erudite—indeed, almost poetic. He is as comfortable with military topics as he is with the political, social, and economic aspects of the war and its aftermath. 

But the most important reason for embracing Fateful Lightning is that it continues an important trend regarding how we understand the Civil War, by overturning the “Lost Cause” school of historiography. As Edward A. Pollard wrote in the 1867 book that gave this interpretation its name, “all that is left in the South is the war of ideas.” The Lost Cause thesis is neatly summarized in an 1893 speech by the former Confederate officer Col. Richard Henry Lee:

As a Confederate soldier and as a Virginian, I deny the charge [that the Confederates were rebels] and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels, we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.

As David Blight has observed in Race and Reunion, the Lost Cause interpretation of the war was the South’s response to the physical destruction and psychological trauma of defeat. In this view, the Old South was a racial utopia, an organic society composed of loyal slaves and benevolent masters. The war pitted this “slave democracy” against the “free mobocracy” of the North, and the noble side lost. The matchless bravery of the Confederate soldier succumbed to the “juggernaut of superior numbers and merciless power.” As Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “In the moment of its death, the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.”

Almost immediately after the conflict ended, the Lost Cause school towered like a colossus over Civil War historiography. Former Confederate general Jubal Early and other Lost Cause authors were instrumental in shaping perceptions of the war, in the North as well as in the South. The works of Douglas Southall Freeman, Virginian and biographer of Robert E. Lee, represent the epitome of the Lost Cause school; but even writers like Bruce Catton, who interpreted the war primarily from a Northern perspective, accepted many of the Lost Cause assumptions.

There are two parts to the Lost Cause interpretation. The first is political, and holds that the cause of the war was not slavery, but the oppressive power of the central government which wished to tyrannize the Southern states. The South only wished to exercise its constitutional right to secede, but was thwarted by a power-hungry Lincoln. This assessment was advanced by, most prominently, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Alexander Stephens, his vice president. The second part of the interpretation is military-based, and concludes that the noblest soldier of the war was Robert E. Lee. For three years, he and his army provided the backbone of the Confederate cause, fighting in Virginia, the most important theater of the war. But though his adversaries were far less skillful than he, they were able to bring to bear superior resources, which ultimately overwhelmed the Confederacy.

Guelzo demonstrates that the first part of the Lost Cause argument is false. Slavery was both the proximate and deep cause of the war; there was no constitutional right to dissolve the Union. Southerners could have invoked the natural right of revolution, but they didn’t do so because of its implications for a slaveholding society—so they were hardly the heirs of the revolutionary generation. 

But Guelzo validates the truth of the second part of the argument. The South did fight at a material disadvantage, and Lee was a remarkably skillful soldier who overcame immense odds on battlefield after battlefield. Unlike many historians who have taken the rejection of the Lost Cause argument to the extreme by dismissing the military competence of Lee, Guelzo gives the Confederate general his due.  

Fateful Lightning will inevitably be compared with James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. I once called the latter the best single volume on the Civil War, but Fateful Lightning is every bit its equal. There are many similarities between the two books: Both skillfully interweave political, military, economic, social, and religious factors to create a masterful tapestry of the war. Both are elegantly written. Both discuss the social trends at work, in the North and South, that led to war.

But there are significant differences as well. While Battle Cry of Freedom begins with the Mexican War and ends with the termination of Civil War military operations, Fateful Lightning begins with the Founding and carries the story through the end of Reconstruction. Battle Cry of Freedom is essentially a straightforward chronological narrative. Fateful Lightning, while also exhibiting a narrative structure, features chapters on particular topics: the war from the soldier’s perspective; manufacturing and logistics; the social upheaval that the war generated, especially in class relations, the relations between the races, and those between the sexes. 

Like Battle Cry of FreedomFateful Lightning is a general history. Those expecting a detailed description of campaigns and battles will be disappointed. But there are many fine books on these topics by the many excellent military historians who tend to put battles and campaigns in strategic context to an extent that the older generation did not. Fateful Lightning, instead, provides a general understanding of civil-military relations, the interaction of policy and partisan politics, diplomacy, legal issues, and the like.

Also like Battle Cry of FreedomFateful Lightning is a work of synthesis. There are many excellent recent books about all aspects of the Civil War, and Guelzo demonstrates his familiarity with such work, applying it skillfully in developing his own narrative. While even casual students of the Civil War will be familiar with many of the events that Guelzo describes, the true strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to illuminate the links among them. This is particularly the case when it comes to dealing with the interplay of strategy, operations, and the “sinews of war”—finance and logistics. 

Guelzo’s discussion of the competing American military schools of thought is a case in point. At the midpoint of the 19th century, Napoleon was the exemplar of military excellence, and his offensive mindset (especially as interpreted by the Swiss military writer Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini) provided one approach. But the American reliance on militia and volunteers rather than a professional army made this a risky alternative. The second school favored the defensive. With the exception of Winfield Scott’s campaign against Mexico City in the Mexican War, most American victories up to the time of the Civil War had been gained on the defensive, including Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and Zachary Taylor’s at Buena Vista. This preference was reinforced at West Point by the teachings of Dennis Hart Mahan.

“The American regular officer in 1861,” writes Guelzo, “was thus presented with a series of contradictions: tactics books that encouraged officers to take the offensive and make the enemy’s army their objective, and a professional military culture that looked to occupy enemy territory and fight a defensive war from behind fortifications.” At least one general, Robert E. Lee, embraced the cult of the offensive. 

Another issue that Guelzo illuminates is the relationship between the nature of the war and its conduct, especially from the Union perspective. Lincoln consistently argued that the “seceded” states were never truly out of the Union, and that the war was a rebellion “too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the Marshals by law.” But in international law, his proclamation of a blockade had the legal effect of granting the Confederacy belligerent status. 

Such considerations also affected the steps the Union took with regard to slavery. Their first approach to drawing slave manpower away from the Confederacy was to treat slaves as “contrabands of war.” Radicals in Congress favored confiscation. But to apply confiscation and contraband as they were understood in international law, again, gave the Confederacy belligerent status. This was at odds with Lincoln’sinsistence that the states of the Confederacy could never legally leave the Union. On the other hand, if the war was only a domestic rebellion (as Lincoln held), then confiscation of slave contraband violated the constitutional prohibition against attainder.

Lincoln’s preferred approach to ending slavery called for a policy of legislated, gradual, compensated emancipation, which he proposed early in his administration. Lincoln believed that he could convince Congress to appropriate funds to compensate slave-owners for gradually freeing their slaves. His plan was to begin where slavery was weakest: in the northernmost slave states, especially Delaware. Lincoln reasoned that the combination of military success against the Confederacy and compensated emancipation in loyal slave states would lead to thecollapse of the Confederacy, which had staked its hopes on eventually incorporating the border states. 

But neither condition came to pass. Lincoln’s proposals for compensated emancipation were rejected by the border states. Meanwhile, the Confederacy was just then exerting maximum effort to mobilize its population for war. In April 1862, the Confederate Congress passed a conscription act. Then, abandoning the “cordon” defense that had permitted Union armies to penetrate into Confederate territory as far as northern Mississippi in early 1862, the Confederacy organized its mobilized manpower into field armies. One of these forces, the Army of Tennessee, struck Ulysses S. Grant at Shiloh. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia drove George McClellan back from the gates of Richmond. Then, in the fall of 1862, rebel armies invaded Kentucky and Maryland. To a great extent, the South was able to do this only because slave labor freed white men to fight. 

The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s response to the failure of Union arms and compensated emancipation. Thus, after Lee’s invasion of Maryland was turned back at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation, on September 22, giving the Confederates 100 days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation. 

The great strength of Fateful Lightning is its demonstration that slavery lay at the heart of the conflict. Guelzo accepts Lincoln’s argument that the institution was an affront to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and that the Founders had compromised only because of their belief that it was on the road to extinction. Until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, the federal government had no authority over slavery in states where it existed. It was only the Union victory in 1865 that gave the federal government the authority to end slavery. 

Guelzo’s discussion of Reconstruction
is brief but elegant. The Lost Cause thesis has also influenced the way Americans have thought about Reconstruction, and, until recently, the dominant narrative regarding Reconstruction has been to portray it as the imposition of a tyrannical, unjust peace on the South. Ironically, this narrative took root in academia because of the work of Northern progressive historians, including James Ford Rhodes, William Dunning, Claude Bowers, and James Randall. 

But, according to the story, the old Confederacy refused to bend, which eventually enabled a Democratic counter-revolution against radical Reconstruction, finally “redeeming” the South. The South may have lost the war, according to this view, but it triumphed over Reconstruction and the radical Republican legacy of corrupt, carpetbagger governments and the anarchy of black rule. 

Guelzo rejects this. Along with other revisionists, he contends that, despite its apparent failure to change the socioeconomic basis of the South in the short run, Reconstruction did provide the basis for the eventual application of civil rights for all, laying the groundwork for the legislation of the 20th century. It is impossible to imagine the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments under circumstances other than those that prevailed during Radical Reconstruction. 

The human cost of the Civil War was immense. As Guelzo recounts, 

The butcher’s bill for the preservation of the Union amounted to at least 640,000 dead and wounded. In practical terms, six out of every hundred men of military age in the North died during the war, and one out of every sixty-five who served perished. 

The cost to the Confederacy was even greater, not only in terms of dead and wounded, but also in terms of the economic devastation visited upon the South. There were other costs as well: Guelzo shows that religious faith suffered as a result of the war, as well as faith in liberal democracy. Progressives, who “loathed the ramshackle inefficiencies of democracy,” judged that the war had created an “industrial and commercial nation” (in the words of Charles Beard) where “the power of capital, both absolute and as compared to land” had dwarfed self-government. Such an outcome, in their eyes, was not worth the cost. For the Progressive interpreters of the conflict, 

The Civil War approaches the nadir of total loss precisely because at some point they concluded that since liberal democracy was a dead end, an illusion, and never worth fighting for, intentionally or otherwise, the Civil War could never amount to more than a tragic failure.

Guelzo demurs. The Civil War maintained the Union, and it ended slavery. To paraphrase the words of Abraham Lincoln at Peoria in 1864, the Civil War not only saved the Union but also made it worthy of saving by removing the stain of slavery. It repurified America’s republican robe, washing it in both the spirit and blood of the American Revolution. 

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author, most recently, of U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.