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What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Chandra Manning

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. For this impressively researched Civil War social history, Georgetown assistant history professor Manning visited more than two dozen states to comb though archives and libraries for primary source material, mostly diaries and letters of men who fought on both sides in the Civil War, along with more than 100 regimental newspapers. The result is an engagingly written, convincingly argued social history with a point—that those who did the fighting in the Union and Confederate armies "plainly identified slavery as the root of the Civil War." Manning backs up her contention with hundreds of first-person testimonies written at the time, rather than often-unreliable after-the-fact memoirs. While most Civil War narratives lean heavily on officers, Easterners and men who fought in Virginia, Manning casts a much broader net. She includes immigrants, African-Americans and western fighters, in order, she says, "to approximate cross sections of the actual Union and Confederate ranks." Based on the author's dissertation, the book is free of academese and appeals to a general audience, though Manning's harsh condemnation of white Southerners' feelings about slavery and her unstinting praise of Union soldiers' "commitment to emancipation" take a step beyond scholarly objectivity. Photos. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

Manning's subject--slavery as the prime cause of the Civil War--is hardly unusual, but what makes this study unique, provocative, and immensely valuable is her approach. She utilizes the letters, diaries, and regimental newspapers, all written during the war, to glean the attitudes, hopes, and even the fears of soldiers toward the institution of slavery and emancipation. Unlike many previous works on the subject, Manning ignores the writings of elites and emphasizes the opinions of common soldiers, North and South, white and black. Some of her conclusions are striking and likely to generate intense debate. Although acknowledging that many Union soldiers enlisted to preserve the Union rather than to fight slavery, she asserts that both slavery and emancipation were constant topics of discussion as early as 1861. She disputes that nonslaveholding Confederate soldiers (who were the overwhelming majority) fought primarily to defend hearth and home from Yankee invaders. Rather, she maintains that the defense of slavery was intimately tied to their sense of manhood, honor, and their place in the Southern social structures. A well-argued examination. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


“An essential contribution to our understanding of slavery and the Civil War.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A breathtakingly thorough examination of attitudes toward slavery of the rank-and-file troops, blue and gray, black and white.”
The Baltimore Sun

“An engrossing study of Civil War soldiers . . . by breathing life into them, she breathes life into debates over why the war came and how it was waged.” —Chicago Tribune

“A splendid book that should be read carefully by all who have an interest in the Civil War.” —Civil War News

From the Trade Paperback edition.

About the Author

Chandra Manning, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, received an M.Phil from the National University of Ireland, Galway, and took her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2002. She has lectured in history at Harvard and taught at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Currently, she is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University and lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and son. This is her first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

“The fact that slavery is 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.” [1] So claimed the farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers who made up the 13th Wisconsin Infantry in February 1862. The white Southerners who made up Morgan’s Confederate Brigade might not have seen eye to eye with the Wisconsin men on much in 1862, but they agreed that “any man who pretends to believe that this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks . . . is either a fool or a liar.” [2] Two years later, black men in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery reminded each other, “upon your prowess, discipline, and character; depend the destinies of four millions of people and the triumph of the principles of freedom and self government of this great republic.” [3] These soldiers plainly identified slavery as the root of the Civil War. Just as plainly, by “slavery,” they did not mean some abstract concept or a detached philosophical metaphor for ideas about freedom, but rather the actual enslavement of human beings in the United States based on race.

Yet to say that soldiers placed slavery at the center of the war is to open rather than solve a mystery. Neither the authors nor intended audiences of these remarks held high office or made policy. Few owned slaves, and few of the white soldiers thought of themselves as abolitionists. They were instead very ordinary men of the type unlikely to figure into historical inquiries into the causes of the Civil War, and often assumed, even by historians from both the North and the South who for decades have acknowledged that without slavery there would have been no Civil War in the United States, to be little more than pawns swept up in events they probably did not understand, let alone consent to or shape. Members of the general public recognize even less of a connection between soldiers, slavery, and the Civil War. My most recent reminder of this sobering truism came at a wedding in September 2005 when a man from Buffalo, New York who had no idea what I do for a living spent more than an hour insisting that slavery had nothing to do with the conflict. And who can blame him? The Confederate ranks consisted primarily of men who owned no slaves, and historians have not convincingly explained why those men would fight a war they knew was waged to prevent the destruction of slavery. At the same time, scant numbers of the white men who filed into the Union Army had ever laid eyes on a slave, though most harbored their own prejudice against black people, so why would they fight to end slavery? And why would more than 180,000 black men fight for a government that had smiled on the enslavement of members of their race for its entire existence? What, in other words, did a “war about slavery” mean to the men who fought the Civil War, and why would it be important enough to fight?

This book is about what ordinary soldiers thought about the relationship between slavery and the Civil War. It is not about soldiers’ motivations for enlisting, for individuals chose to do that for widely varied reasons. Seldom did a man enlist for money, since the pay was low and unreliable. Few joined the military because they were forced; both Union and Confederate armies overwhelmingly consisted of volunteers. Many enlisted out of senses of duty or personal honor. Some became soldiers in order to take part in what they assumed would be the biggest adventure of their lives. While some Northerners entered the ranks to eradicate slavery, others enlisted to preserve the Union with small concern for enslaved African Americans. In the South, many took up arms to safeguard their own slave property or their hopes to own slaves one day, while others shouldered rifles out of the belief that doing so protected their homes and families. Yet in spite of these and the countless other reasons that sent individual Northerners and Southerners into the ranks, broad consensus existed within each army as to why a war needing to be fought existed in the first place. Whatever else occupied their minds, ordinary Union and Confederate soldiers recognized slavery as the reason for the war, and the purpose of this book is to figure out why that was, and what it meant for the war and the nation.

Most Confederate soldiers owned no slaves, and more than anything else in the world, they cared about the interests and well-being of their own families. Why, then, would an ordinary, non-slaveholding white southern man readily identify slavery as the reason for the war, and why would he consider it important enough to himself and his family to imperil both in a fight to prevent its abolition? Why would men continue to fight for four desperate years, through military catastrophes like Gettysburg and Atlanta and through political disasters like the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln, and then stop in the spring of 1865?

Why would most white Northerners, who knew no black people, and who may or may not have viewed slavery as vaguely distasteful but certainly would not have sympathized with the antebellum abolitionist movement, care enough about an abstract concept like the “Union” to fight a war that, they, too, knew would never have happened if not for the institution of slavery? And if enlisted Union troops so vigorously opposed emancipation (as many historians and even more members of the general public, including the wedding guest from Buffalo, have long supposed), then why did the mass desertions predicted to occur in the wake of emancipation not happen? Did soldiers possess different attitudes toward slavery and its abolition than we have assumed? How did those attitudes compare to their ideas about racial equality and civil rights for black people? And how did the experiences of war and of interacting with black Americans (for the first time, in the case of many white Union soldiers) influence ordinary men’s views?

Black men who joined the Union ranks harbored few delusions about the United States’ long and complicated relationship to slavery or about white Northerners’ attitudes toward blacks. As the soldiers of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery pointed out, by 1860 slavery might have existed only in the southern states, but it still cast its “baleful shadow over the whole land from Maine to Texas.” Even after the war began, “the North . . . despised the offer of her most loyal men” and barred blacks from the Army. [4] Why would African American men struggle so determinedly to join an Army that at first refused them, and then once it did accept them, paid them less and prohibited them from becoming officers until the final year of the war? What did black troops expect the war and its aftermath to bring?

This book departs from other books about Civil War soldiers because it places its primary focus on what soldiers thought about slavery. It does so because soldiers themselves did so. Rather than discussing slavery as one among many topics that soldiers addressed during the war, this book moves slavery from the periphery of soldiers’ mental worlds, where subsequent generations have tried to relegate it, and returns slavery to its rightful place at the center of soldiers’ views of the struggle. In so doing, it alters our view of the Civil War in several ways. It eliminates the need to explain away a war about slavery as either a war about something else or a war imposed on unwitting nonslaveholding soldiers (despite those soldiers’ own clear statements to the contrary) and instead helps unravel precisely why nonslaveholding Southerners would fight a war to protect slavery. Trying to understand why slavery mattered to the Confederate rank-and-file, rather than fabricating a view that we find more comforting or appealing, illuminates how and why enlisted Confederates held on as long as they did, and it also modifies our understanding of the timing of the war’s end.

Seeking to understand, rather than deny or assume, the centrality of slavery also sheds light on how 19th century Americans, especially Southerners, defined what it meant to be a man. While white Union soldiers did not articulate a clear relationship between slavery and manhood, white Southerners closely linked the two. A true man protected and controlled dependents, which for white Southerners meant that a man competently exercised mastery over blacks (whether or not he owned any) as well as over women and children. It also meant that a man took care of his family and sheltered his loved ones from harm, including the almost unimaginable harm that white Southerners feared emancipation would bring, because they assumed that slaves released from bondage would terrorize, murder, and violate vulnerable white women and children. Ironically, black Southerners (and even northern free blacks) also took for granted a relationship between slavery and manhood. For bondmen, the institution of slavery made true manhood impossible because it robbed a black man of the ability to protect his family from sale or to shelter his loved ones from violence or sexual violation at the hands of white masters. While slavery was necessary to white Southerners’ conception of manhood, in other words, it was antithetical to manhood among black men.

Placing slavery at the center of soldiers’ ideas about the war also recasts much of what we know about white Union soldiers by providing a new understanding of when Union soldiers began to support emancipation, which in turn reveals a new emphasis on ordinary enlisted Union soldiers as agents of change who shaped the progress and outcome of the war. Few white Northerners initially joined the Union rank-and-file specifically to stamp out slavery, and most shared the anti-black prejudices common to their day, especially when the war began. Yet the shock of war itself and soldiers’ interactions with slaves, who in many cases were the first black people northern men had eve...
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