The American Civil War — IV

Victory and what it was worth
Ask that approachable fellow, the man-in-the-street, to name a battle of the American Civil War and he will almost certainly mention Gettysburg; if history was one of his subjects at school he may remember Antretam and Manassas. These battles were all fought in the east, where the more glamorous—if that is the proper word—campaign of the war took place. If the western theatre was less famous, its effect was of greater consequence.

The Campaigns

In the north and the east, around the Potomac river, in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the two armies grappled for each other’s capital city. Washington and Richmond spent an unquiet war in consequence, always afraid of attack and pillage. The early Unionist tactics in this area were notable for their lack of aggressiveness, which allowed Lee and Jackson to gain some spectacular victories. Fortunately for the Union, these victories were rarely pressed home, because of the Confederates’ heavy losses and their shortage of ammunition; they paid dearly for their industrial shortcomings. Lincoln fumed and fretted at his generals and changed them many times, until Grant’s appointment as commander brought a new conception to Northern tactics. Grant kept a constant pressure on his opponents, chasing them and forcing them to battle until in the end he destroyed them.
In the south and the west the vital part of the war was forged and fought. The Union armies moved down the Mississippi river from Missouri, whilst their navy landed troops at the river’s mouth to capture New Orleans. Vicksburg–an important junction of railway and river—was taken after a siege and the Union armies then moved cast through the mountain gaps into Georgia. They captured Atlanta and swept on to Savannah on the Atlantic coast, plundering as they went, and cut the Confederacy in two. Although this campaign earned Grant the leadership of the Union forces, it is General Sherman’s name which is always linked with the march through Georgia. His men were a harum-scarum lot. who cared little for the niceties of military dress and discipline. But they could march and fight and destroy, and this they did, through 200 miles of enemy territory. “Sherman’s dashing Yankee boys,” the song called them, and that was what they were. More than any other their ruthless campaign won the war for the Union.
Peace and Problems
On April 9th, 1865. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the starving and ragged Confederate army, dressed himself in his best uniform and went out to surrender. Ulysees S. Grant cut a poor figure beside the resplendent Southerner, but there was no hint of spite in the surrender terms which he offered. Washington’s policy was to draw the Southland back into the Union and to rebuild it on a sound economic basis. On April 26th Johnston—in the West—gave up and through May and June the surrenders dribbled on. Jefferson Davis was himself captured at Irwinsvillc. Georgia, on May 10th. From May 22nd to 25th the Northern victory was celebrated in Washington with a mass review of the armies of Grant and Sherman. Abraham Lincoln was not there to take the salute; a month before he had been shot to death in Ford’s theatre by the actor John Wilkes Booth, a vain and passionate man, and a fanatical rebel.
Now that the war had been won, what was to happen about slavery? Northern policy had not been consistent. Back in November, 1861, General Fremont had proclaimed his intention of confiscating the property of rebels and setting their slaves free. Lincoln’s government had been elected for its Unionist policy and was uncommitted to abolition of slavery: it found Fremont’s declaration embarrassing and removed him from his command. Two things changed the government’s mind. The early successes of the Confederates strengthened abolitionist sentiment in the North. And it became necessary to draw up a co-ordinated policy on emancipated slaves, for each Union commander was dealing with them in his own way. Amid the chaotic conditions then existing in Washington, Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Emancipation. When the North won, this declaration gave the American Negro the hope of a life free from chattel slavery.


The emancipation measures broke down the plantation system and many Negroes took advantage of this and went to the Northern cities to look for work. The cities were partly unwilling and, anyway, unable to accept these immigrants, and thousands of them died of hunger and cold. Eventually, New York and Chicago eased the problem with their “black reconstruction” schemes. When power was handed back to the Southern States the whites soon look control again and the right of Negroes to vote vanished beneath a blanket of trickery. Prohibitive poll taxes, tests which could prove the most learned Negro to be illiterate and open violence were often used to prevent the black man from voting. We have all heard of the Ku-Klux-Klan, who are said to put three questions to their applicants for membership: “Do you hate Niggers? Do you hate Jews? Have you got three dollars? ” These were —and are—typical of the Southland, still largely carrying on its old agricultural economy with the Negroes and the poor whites barely scratching a living from the earth. The bloodshed and the tearfulness of the civil war was over, but the loud-voiced, colourful, racial-phobia politicians still lorded it over the land of the magnolia.
But the American Civil War did not leave things all unchanged, for it was the first modern war the world has seen and it introduced several things which we have since become familiar with. Grant’s strategy of incessant pressure on his enemy was a tactic repeated in World War 1, in the slaughter at Passchendaele and Verdun and at Stalingrad in 1943. There was an official policy of conscription to counteract the large scale desertions from both sides, and an intensive propaganda campaign to sweeten the battering which the civilian population took through the Union blockade, the burning of Atlanta, the looting of the Shenandoah valley, and so on. London and Coventry and other English cities got similar treatment in the last war. And there was the lesson that a modern war is a social tragedy, not to be won by brilliant generals alone. The best commanders fought for the South, but the North had the industrial power and developed the necessary social organisation.

What of the present, and the future? American industry is expanding into Dixieland and needs the Negro to work in the factories alongside white people. It also requires that Negroes school themselves in the technicalities of modern industry. This expansion of productive and social knowledge is the force—more powerful than any war—which will, to use an overworked word, integrate the black and white American. Knowledge will destroy the Crufts of the human race and their theories of inborn superiority. Society’s needs and progress will win. They always have.

Jack Law