In June 2014, Humanities Texas held institutes in San Antonio and Denton examining significant events and themes of the Civil War era.
The "America in the 1860s" institutes covered topics central to the state's eighth-grade social studies curriculum. Faculty lectures and workshops addressed the causes, events, and legacy of the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln's administration; suffragists and abolitionists; women in the South; the Transcontinental Railroad; Andrew Johnson's administration; Reconstruction; art in the Civil War era; and American writing on the Civil War.
Humanities Texas held the programs in partnership with The University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of North Texas. These workshops were made possible with major funding from the State of Texas and ongoing support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Below are excerpts from faculty presentations delivered at "America in the 1860s"
The new Republican Party explicitly pledged to stop the expansion of slavery. The leadership of the new party didn't mind being a purely sectional party and not having any supporters in the South. The Republican leaders said, if you can carry the North in the presidential election, the way the Electoral College works, you don't need any votes at all in the South to elect your presidential candidate. In 1856, the new Republican Party nominated a famous explorer and military hero, John C. Frémont, as its candidate for president. Frémont didn't win, but he performed astonishingly well for the candidate of a brand new party. In 1857, the United States Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional to prohibit slavery in the territorial phase of western expansion. The Republican Party went right ahead advocating its supposedly unconstitutional program. Abraham Lincoln, the lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, was among the Northerners aroused and angered by the Kansas-Nebraska law. In 1858, he ran against Stephen Douglas for Illinois's seat in the U.S. Senate. Lincoln didn't win, but his debates against Douglas made him famous. In 1860, the Republican presidential nomination went to Lincoln.
The presidential election of 1860 was highly remarkable in many ways. It rallied eighty percent of the qualified voters to turn out. The American public got really excited about the election. One of the strangest things about the election was that it was almost entirely two separate elections—one in the North, one in the South. In the North, the Republican Lincoln ran against the Democrat Stephen Douglas. In the South, it was a contest between two entirely different candidates. John C. Breckenridge was the candidate of the Democrats, because the Democratic Party had ended up splitting in two and holding two separate conventions. Only the Southern wing of the party had been willing to endorse the Supreme Court's declaration that slave owners had a constitutional right to take their property into any of the territories of the United States. Breckenridge's opponent in the Southern election was John Bell of Tennessee, a representative of the old-time Southern Whigs, who had hoped desperately, and still hoped desperately, for some kind of compromise over the slavery question. Bell's supporters now called themselves the Constitutional Union Party—ominously. The winner in each section was the more sectional leader—that is, Lincoln won in the North, Breckenridge won in the South. Lincoln got the votes of the great majority of Northerners who had formerly been Whigs. Of critical importance, however, is that fifteen to twenty percent of his votes came from former Northern Democrats. Combining Northern Whigs with a significant minority of Northern Democrats gave Lincoln the electoral votes of every Northern state—except for a couple like New Jersey. By carrying the North, Lincoln incontestably won the presidency, and he did it without getting any votes at all in the South.
Some wars have causes that are very difficult to pin down. The American Civil War is not one of those wars. As an abstract problem in historical causation, it is transparently easy. We still argue about this today, I would suggest, not because the evidence isn't there or not because the evidence is in anyway difficult to understand or ambiguous, but because the idea that the United States would fight a Civil War over slavery makes us a little uneasy. First, it emphasizes the importance of slavery in American history—something which we all acknowledge but not something which most Americans today are proud of. Second, and even more pointedly, to suggest that Americans fought a civil war over slavery is at least to imply that some Americans fought and died to defend slavery. And today we universally regard slavery as repugnant to basic human rights. That's a very disturbing notion, that Americans by the tens of thousands would fight and die to defend slavery, and it's especially disturbing if one of those happens to be your great-great-grandfather. . . . At the time when it happened, in 1860 and 1861, slavery was so universally acknowledged and proclaimed by everybody on both sides to be the cause of the war —North, South, or in between—that anyone who would dare to suggest that it was not the cause of the war would have been regarded as crazy. This issue of slavery didn't suddenly crop up in 1860. In fact, it had dominated public debate throughout the country for years before 1860 in a way that no other single issue ever has before or since. It had in fact been a bone of contention in the national government from the moment of its creation, from the Constitutional Convention on down. Astute observers, from John Quincy Adams to Alexis de Tocqueville to Thomas Jefferson, had predicted that slavery was going to cause some kind of crisis of union for years and decades before it finally happened.
In the decade of the 1850s, the decade before secession, the slavery issue became so dominant, that it literally rearranged the entire political landscape. Previous to this, in the 1830s and '40s, two national parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, had competed throughout the country on nearly equal terms. But in 1854, Northern outrage against the possibility of slavery going into Kansas territory led to the creation of a new party almost literally overnight, the Republican Party, [which] dedicated its bottom line to banning slavery in all the Western territories. In [the 1856] campaign, this brand new [Republican Party] nominated a man named John C. Frémont for president and adopted a platform calling slavery—this is its language— "a relic of barbarism" and calling for it to be banned in all the Western territories. By the late 1850s, the slavery issue dominated not only national, but even state and local politics.
[One] thing that clouds our view of Lincoln is that once he was elected President [and] the war began, Lincoln deliberately adopted an expedient policy toward slavery, famously saying, "I'm going to win the war [and save the Union] any way I can, and if I can further that end by freeing all the slaves, I'll do it, and if I can best further that end by not freeing any slaves, I'll do that, and if I can best further the end of winning the war by freeing some slaves and not others, I'll do that." This is mere prudence; if you're President of the United States and the country's coming apart, you have to win the war. If you don't win the war, everything else is off the table. But with all of that, to the question of what caused the war, Lincoln had a simple answer, which never changed. Back in December 1860 when he was president-elect, he wrote a letter to an old friend of his, [a] former United States Senator from Georgia named Alexander Stephens, who was about to become the Vice President of the Confederacy and was about to give a speech—a famous speech in Savannah, Georgia, proclaiming that slavery was the cornerstone of the new Confederate government. Lincoln wrote a letter to Stephens. . . . And first Lincoln said, "What are you worried about? You think we're going to mess with your slaves? I'm not going to interfere with your slaves." But then he said this, "You think slavery is right," and he underlined it, "and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That, I suppose, is the rub." And there you have the cause of the Civil War in two sentences.
[The] abolitionists are engaged in what becomes the defining issue of the 1850s. So, they continue to rise to political prominence, in part because they're agitating on the thing that is dividing the country. And in many ways, it is the agitation of the abolitionists and their ability to use the printing presses and information networks to constantly agitate and upset the Southerners that ultimately produced these overreactions by Southerners to threats that are not as great and threatening as they seem to perceive they are. And ultimately, that ends up helping to produce the American Civil War. It's the American Civil War that brings abolitionism to the forefront and pushes suffragism out of the picture, because the war is all about slavery—and everybody knew it was all about slavery! And so that was what everybody was talking about. Abolitionism became much more prevalent, and much more practical. It became even more practical, because many people who otherwise would not have been interested in abolitionism become interested because of the course of the war, and because it becomes a military necessity.
During the early years of the war, it's very common that abolitionists, who still believe that slavery needs to end for moral reasons, realize that they have a strategic advantage in arguing to white Northerners that [not only is slavery] morally wrong, but there's a practical military advantage to attacking slavery in the South. It will undermine their economy. It will undermine their ability to foster, to have armies in the field. It will help us stop the South by taking away the basis and foundation of their entire society—because again, everybody knew it was about slavery in every aspect. So Frederick Douglass in the early years of the war is arguing [that] we need to attack slavery in the South as a military necessity. And abolitionists suddenly found themselves in this really, really weird position—people wanted to hear them talk, who had never wanted to hear them talk before.
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While all this is going on, suffragism basically just goes quiet. And it's not that people didn't feel strongly about this—people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony. But it's because this war's about slavery, and everybody knows that, and that's the forefront issue. And so nothing gets really pushed on this front. And a lot of these women obviously are deeply involved in the abolitionist movement, and so they're very happy to see abolitionism moving forward—for whatever reason that it gets to move forward, practical or otherwise—and the results of things that come out of that. And so, it's during the course of the war, as [enslaved people] in the South are running away in huge numbers to the Union armies, wherever they show up, it forces these issues, and helps again convince the white Northerners that abolishing slavery will be a good thing for defeating the South.
[Most] scholars would argue that [the] women's movement evolved out of abolition. Most suffrage activists and abolition activists were looking for practical reform and utopian perfectionism—those are some of the terms that they used. Their primary objectives were to end slavery and racism and sexism in America, and they tried to gather support from a world audience, which is why you have people that are then later traveling all over the world to speak on behalf of the cause for ending slavery, or for women's rights.
The abolitionist movement will split because of different approaches—the approach about gradual versus immediate. Some supported colonizing and sending Africans back to Africa as part of the American colonization movement, which was started in 1816, predating the formal abolition movement of the 1830s. Some also felt like they wanted immediate and more radical changes to abolition, and so you find a split happening. What do you do with African Americans if they are to become free? That's a major question that people had when you're talking about abolitionists. Where do they go? How do we think about them in society, working with us, when we're used to them working for us? What to do with the free [blacks]? Some people as they thought about getting involved in abolition, they needed to have the answer to that question to figure out where they stood on whichever platform they wanted to support. So colonization was one effort—sending Africans to the colonies in Liberia, and Thomas Jefferson supported this.
During the nineteenth century, women began to speak about their rights in the United States, and often through these abolitionist circles. . . . One of the problems and tensions that you do have though within some of these organizations is that white women felt discriminated by men within the anti-slavery organizations. Black women felt discriminated by white women in the women's movement organizations. People are starting to tear apart, because they have to make a choice between what you're going to focus your cause on. Some black women felt that they were going to choose race over gender, others chose gender and participated more in the women's movement. White women were very upset when black men got the right to vote as a result of the Fifteenth Amendment. They had a problem with universal male suffrage. [It] really isn't until after the Civil War that you see even more activism among women taking off and they're focusing their efforts now solely on suffrage. And it's fifty-four years later before they actually get the right to vote.
The most frequent question [college students] ask, and the most important one is, "If Lincoln opposed slavery, why didn't he issue the Emancipation Proclamation immediately after becoming president?" Answering that question defines his political and military leadership during the Civil War. If you search through Lincoln's own words for a single sentence that answers this question, it is, "Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel states?" What did Lincoln mean when he wrote that sentence? Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. He despised it. He called it "a monstrous injustice." He publically declared that "I hate it." He characterized it as a political and social evil. As president, he wrote, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." But he was not an abolitionist. He believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed.
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Instead, Lincoln pursued the doctrine of Free Soil. It was a containment of slavery where it already existed. The first step was to keep slavery from expanding. That would weaken it where it already existed and, if done right, slavery would die a natural death. Free Soil was an indirect attack on slavery, and Lincoln could stand before the national audience at his inauguration and announce truthfully, "I have no intent to attack slavery where it already exists." He would do it indirectly. Free Soil was also a gradual approach to ending slavery. So in this respect, Lincoln disagreed with the abolitionists, especially the Garrisonian abolitionists who advocated immediatism, an immediate end to slavery. Free Soil would end slavery eventually, and again, Lincoln thought 1900, or even a century would arrive before slavery met its demise. So he pursued the ultimate extinction of slavery through Free Soil. Free Soil, to put it simply, was working before the Civil War.
The Union army is really struggling by 1862. Union soldiers had been ordered not to emancipate slaves, not to touch property, and of course slaves were property. But as Union soldiers went into Southern territory, slaves started running away. They started running away behind Union lines. They took actions into their own hands. And Union soldiers, for non-ideological reasons, realize [they] can't defeat the Confederacy unless [they] destroy their infrastructure, their labor force. And what's their labor force? Slavery. Black leaders like Frederick Douglass are saying to Lincoln, "You're fighting the war with one hand tied behind your back." So there is a complex array of events starting with African Americans running away as soon as Union soldiers come into Southern territory. Union soldiers [are] realizing that slavery has to be killed, they are writing letters back home. So public opinion shifts on the question of emancipation. It shifts on the question of emancipation, but for most white Northerners, it [shifts because it is] a military question. You can't defeat the South unless you kill slavery.
So the summer of '62, Lincoln has changed his mind about emancipation. He realizes that he has to order slavery ended. He decides this in secret. He wants to mobilize the radicals in the North, the anti-slavery folks in the North that will see this war over to the bitter end. One thing that is interesting to know, [when] Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864, forty-five percent of the electorate in the North votes for his opponent. Forty-five percent. Lincoln wins big in the Electoral College, but there's a lot of opposition in the North to the war. So he's got to mobilize anti-slavery sentiment in the North in a very hard war. He realizes that he has to destroy the Southern labor infrastructure. He needs to revitalize the war.
One of [Lincoln's] cabinet members' children had died. And Lincoln and his Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of State are in a carriage going to the funeral when Lincoln says, "I've decided to issue an emancipation order." And they go, "What? Where did this come from?" And what Lincoln said was that emancipation was a military necessity. Key point. A military necessity. This is Lincoln as a war commander. It's not a moral question for Lincoln. It's a military necessity that is the last ace card he has to preserve the Union. It takes him a while to get there as circumstances change and the war changes. So, early in the war, Lincoln had warned Americans about the Civil War becoming a remorseless and revolutionary conflict. But that's exactly what it becomes. And Lincoln recognizes that, and he rolls with it. He doesn't stick to a rigid position, he evolves as the war evolves…. [This] is the context where Lincoln says, "I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors and I shall adopt new views so fast that they appear to be true views." Lincoln's signaling in a public letter that his position has changed.
[The] Battle of Antietam…is the single deadliest day in American history, even till now, factoring in 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. This is a terrible, terrible day. That in itself is worth noting. But the reason that this is really important for our purposes as a turning point is because even though it was really sort of a draw militarily, Lincoln claims it as a victory, and with that, he issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Up till this time, the war had one object, which was reunion. Now Lincoln has two terms for peace. One is reunion, and the other is emancipation. This brings a moral dimension to this war that had been missing before. Lincoln, as you may know, had written the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in July, but was advised not to issue it until the North had a victory, because otherwise it would look like he was operating from weakness, that this was a desperate measure. It was a terrible summer for the Union armies. It did not go well for the Union in the summer of 1862, so Lincoln ended up waiting over two months to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The import of this is obvious on one hand—it is a major step toward freeing the slaves in the South. It has another important consequence too, though, and that is that it keeps the European powers out of the war. They were on the brink of recognizing the Confederacy, and when they hear about this, they back off, because there was a strong emancipation movement in England in particular, and they had emancipated the slaves in their empire in the late 1820s, as you may know. They can't really support—it's going to look bad now if they support a slave-owning empire for their own purposes. So this keeps the European powers sidelined.
Jefferson Davis [was the] President of the Confederate States of America, and since the Confederate Constitution was largely patterned after that of the United States, the President was also the Commander in Chief. When the Confederate Convention chose Jefferson Davis as president, one of the things they definitely had in mind and that they talked with each other about was that Jefferson Davis would make a great Commander in Chief. He had a strong résumé. In fact, he had a stronger résumé to be Commander in Chief than did Abraham Lincoln. Much stronger, in fact. Jefferson Davis was a graduate of West Point, 1828. He had served in the regular United States Army for seven years, and then resigned his commission to take up the life of a planter along the Mississippi River. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Jefferson Davis had raised a regiment of Mississippi volunteers and went as its colonel, served in the Mexican War as a colonel, and received some distinction there. He commanded a full regiment in battle, and although that may not sound like much—that [he] had commanded an entire regiment in battle—that was actually more than most active duty officers in the United States Army in 1861 could say for themselves. In the meantime, during the 1850s, after he was out of the Army, out of the Mexican War, Jefferson Davis had served as Secretary of War, where he gets some credit for innovation. Perhaps more than he deserves, but there was some innovation during his watch as Secretary of War, and he probably deserves some credit for it. Davis had been chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. So it would be hard to think of anyone in the United States more qualified to be a Commander in Chief to handle both politics and military affairs than Jefferson Davis.
On May 31st, 1862, a battle had just been fought outside of Richmond, and the Confederate Army had lost its commanding general. . . . They needed a new commanding general, and with Lee right by his side, Davis did not immediately think of Lee. For the next year, Lee has that string of victories that make him famous, that almost make him and his army the focal point of the morale and the hopes and the aspirations of the Confederate people. We can win because we've got Robert E. Lee. God must be on our side because we've got Robert E. Lee. Still to this day you hear a certain degree of this—the Confederacy must have been right, because they had Robert E. Lee.
[Lee] becomes this legend over the next year as he defeats Union forces in the Seven Days Battles, the Second Battle of Bull Run, and then he fights to a draw at Antietam, and then he wins big at Fredericksburg, and wins amazingly at Chancellorsville, and then comes dramatically just short [of] a victory at Gettysburg. Lee becomes this great legend. High marks for Davis, even if he didn't recognize it at first that Lee was this battlefield genius. He eventually figured it out. Davis supported Lee tolerably well. It's a good question whether Davis could have supported Lee more. Lee had a different approach than Davis to the war. Lee was almost willing to gamble the future of the Confederacy and everything on a battle. Let's have it out right here. And Davis was more of a guy to play it safe. They worked together well, but the policy they tended to adopt was that Davis would go along with some of what Lee suggested but not all of it. It was a moderate policy of not taking big risks. I think if Lee could have called the shots himself, he would have bet it all on one roll of the dice.
Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief…unfortunately gets compared to Abraham Lincoln so much, and he comes up short. It's really difficult to compare any politician with Abraham Lincoln and come up on the long end of the stick. So Davis suffers from that, but the truth of the matter is, Davis [was] actually a very good Commander in Chief. And his job [was] infinitely more complicated than Abraham Lincoln's. Why? Because Davis [had] to oversee a war and create a nation at the same time, and those [were] really difficult tasks. If you look at the American Revolution, you see the Continental Congress doing that, but they barely are able to succeed, and they have to draw on enormous support from France. The Confederacy [didn't] have that advantage. Furthermore, Great Britain was 3,000 miles away invading; the North was on the border. So it [was] a really difficult job that Jefferson Davis [had].
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As a revolutionary leader, how would I assess Jefferson Davis? Strategically, he was sound. His country is fighting an enemy that has vastly more soldiers and resources. No strategy is going to be absolutely successful. The one he adopted made sense when you take into consideration all sorts of factors. Did he have problems? Absolutely. He was mixed with his appointments of personnel, but the same guy who chose, for example, Braxton Bragg, also chose Robert E. Lee, and Lee was clearly an extraordinarily good choice. So he's got a mixed record. Davis had a huge problem compared to Abraham Lincoln in that he did not communicate as effectively as Lincoln. Lincoln was really effective with written word and with spoken word, and he really kept the Union war effort together. Davis had much greater difficulty because he wasn't a warm human being. He wasn't personable. Jefferson Davis was in a very difficult position. But by and large, I think he was a solid Commander in Chief in wartime, and there really wasn't a way that I can see that he could have altered the ultimate outcome. In other words, as long as the Union had the will and was willing to commit the resources to see the war through to its conclusion, they were probably going to win—if they weren't guaranteed winning—but they probably were going to win.
Women had been teaching in the North already before the Civil War, but that had been unacceptable for [Southern] women. But when all the schools closed down because the men left, some women opened up schools. Now, there's not a lot of schooling in the South during the war. They had their minds on other things, but nonetheless this will be women's entry into the position. However, the majority of women who stayed at home and took over jobs for men are going to be taking over agricultural jobs. Their main job is going to be running the household. Now running the household in the South is not just running the house; it is running the economic production of whether it be just food, crops, or cotton. When soldiers first run off to the war, you see these letters back home. "Tell your father to sell the corn for such and such and to get such and such and to try to plant at such a time and we need buy a horse from Mr. Smith down the street." You see these very detailed instructions. But within about nine months, the men don't know what's going on at home. And the women do. The women have always lived in these farming households, these plantation households. They always stepped in when men were gone for short periods of time. So this is not brand new to them. But what is brand new, of course, is that men are going to become disconnected. They're all fighting, they're dodging bullets, they're sleeping in the mud. And what's really going on at home, they're just not going to know. They're also not going to know the wartime situation. And this is one of the things that will happen…many women will feel frustrated. Because when men had left before, they had left for short periods of time, and there were other men to help them out. But when the men left this time, the women really were on their own, because most of the men were gone.
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By the end [of the war], many women were tired. You have most women wearing mourning garb, someone in their family has died, and of course you have the destruction of the South. Many women began to think that the war was no longer worth it, and at war's end, they were encouraging their men to come home. They were anxious for their men to come home, but…their men did not always come home whole. And so women were taking on new responsibilities, even after the war. . . . The shortage of men meant that women were still having to farm, still having to run plantations, take jobs in factories, and of course they continued teaching.
Now of all the women that changed a great deal, of course, slave women's lives changed the most. African American men who joined the Union army left behind families. Some African American women ran away to Union lines themselves, but these families who had been subject to separation by sale before the war, were divided again with their husbands at war. . . . One of the things that will become most important to them at the end of the war is finding family, separated either by war or beforehand. The other thing that's going to change a great deal for African American women in the South is going to be access to education. While we have this idea that there were lots of Northern white women who came down and taught schools, most of the freedmen's schools were taught by African American women who had been educated before the war. And African American women for the first time have the opportunity to express their own political opinion. With the Fifteenth Amendment giving men the right to vote—and it's men, the women do not have the right to vote—but African American women saw it as their duty to participate in the political discussion. They take advantage of this. So you have this picture of political meetings in which women were involved. Women didn't vote, but they were there, they were participating, they were hearing, they were encouraging their husbands to get involved. And on voting day, they would have parades, they would provide refreshments, they would do everything because they saw this as their opportunity as a community to take advantage of freedom.
Thousands of women from remote corners of the United States joined voluntary efforts to support the war, in addition to the daily work of managing the home, family, and food. And this of course was often taking place when the male breadwinners had left to serve in the war. Women transformed some acts of domesticity into patriotism. Women sewed uniforms; they collected medical and food supplies; they raised funds for the war. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, focused on cleanliness as a way to preserve health, became a home for a range of activism, most notably nursing, but also managing finances for veterans who needed care as they left the war effort.
Enslaved women negotiated the experience of war and its emerging promise of freedom. Many opted to flee the plantation, often joining contraband camps, and these were temporary settlements that were often established next to army settlements for escaped and former slaves. Within this environment some former enslaved women were lucky enough to get employment as a nurse or a seamstress or a cook, while others, especially mothers with children, had to negotiate very limited resources and survive instead on their own will. So this might mean gardening for your own food, trading services in order to have food for your family. Some enslaved women opted to remain on the plantations, but often with a newly acquired ability to redefine responsibilities. As plantation owners and slave overseers left for the war and the plantation mistresses were left in charge, very often the enslaved community would negotiate a new way of living.
As civilians and noncombatants, all women were shaped by the outcome and conflicts of war. Female civilians shaped ideas of war: its meaning, its purpose, and debated both publicly and at home what was taking place and why it mattered. Women published countless editorials and pamphlets during the war years expressing their support, concern, opposition, and questions about the war. And they often acted as witnesses to the war, writing and publishing their reactions to it. Furthermore, they shaped its memory and the women who played active roles in the Civil War in the form of spies, disguising themselves as soldiers, as nurses, and on the home front.
I would argue that relatively speaking, Texas [is not affected as badly] as the rest of the South. We [had] a couple of major advantages. One is trade with Mexico. Historians estimate that we shipped thousands and thousands of bales of cotton through Mexico. By shipping things through Mexico, we [could] avoid the federal blockade. So Texas [did] have this advantage that no other Southern state [had]. Then, most significantly, there [were] armies in Texas. Federal troops occupied parts of Texas for parts of the war, but not on the scale in the rest of the South. What happens, even when you have the most disciplined army? What happens when you have a hundred thousand men with guns moving through an area? All the cows and all of the sheep and all of the pigs are going to get lost. It's just going to happen. And the fact that [there were not] very large armies in Texas means that we [didn't] suffer as much as many other areas in the South.
[Texans] fought virtually everywhere in the Trans-Mississippi. We tried to invade New Mexico. We still think New Mexico should be part of Texas, and New Mexico has consistently and irreversibly said, "No, we don't want to be part of Texas," and they said that during the Civil War. Texans fought throughout—there were federal attempts to invade Texas. The Federal government [was] concerned about the cotton trade. [In] 1862, there [was] an attempted invasion of Sabine Pass—1863, Sabine Pass, 1862, they took Galveston, '63 and '64, they occupied most of South Texas. But again, most of Texas [was] not, at large, that alarmed, because they [were] not there. In the West, large numbers of Texans [fought] in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi. [The] most famous Texan in that area, Albert Sydney Johnston, was killed at the Battle of Shiloh, but we Texans like to talk about Johnston. Texans [are] proud of Johnston. But he's killed early in the war. I would argue, the most famous battles of the war [were] obviously fought on the eastern front, and there is one Texas brigade…that fights on the eastern front: Hood's Texas Brigade, named after one of their early leaders, John Bell Hood.
So what do we make of emancipation? The breakup of slavery after two and a half centuries ranks as one of the most momentous and significant events in human history. That four million people were freed all at once had never occurred anywhere before. Just to show you the comparison, when Great Britain outlawed slavery throughout its empire and colonies in 1833, only 800,000 slaves were freed. Five times that many people were emancipated in the United States in 1865. Emancipation also represents one of the greatest moral achievements in human history. Thanks largely to the abolitionists in Great Britain and in the United States, slavery was outlawed or abolished from Canada and New England, to Chile, and finally Brazil in 1888. That slavery toppled in these nations had to do with the acceptance that man had finally come to the realization that slavery was a profound moral problem. It was wrong to enslave another human being. And today, despite the existence of a global sex trade in women and child slavery, countries throughout the entire world uniformly condemn these practices. The moral condemnation of black slavery, in other words, has been extended to other forms of human oppression, such as modern human trafficking, coerced labor, and the sexual exploitation of women and children.
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African Americans played a pivotal role in their own emancipation struggle. As abolitionists, as free blacks, as slaves who disrupted the plantation during wartime, as black soldiers and sailors who served valiantly during the Civil War, and as leaders during Reconstruction. The first black congressmen, the first black senators, were elected during this era. They not only understood the meaning of freedom, but they valued freedom as much as any other race or nationality. Lest we forget, the powerful voices of men like Frederick Douglass, or women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, writing about freedom in their narrative. One of my favorites is Douglass, where he says, "If a slave has a bad master, he desires a good master. And if he has a good master, he wants to be his own master." So as educators, we should celebrate not only the Frederick Douglasses, the Harriet Tubmans, the Solomon Northrups, but also the thousands of black men and women who taught school, who raised families, under very difficult circumstances, who attended political conventions, including in the state of Texas, who ran for political offices, who organized small businesses and churches, fraternities, sororities, and the like. To paraphrase the word of a former slave at the time of emancipation, "If you want to know," he said, "the true story of slavery, you need to study the person who wore the shoe."
The nation is simply ripping into two pieces. And in 1861, on April 12, it does that formally. That is to say, a shell is lobbed from Charleston across the harbor onto Fort Sumter, and with that move, the Civil War has officially begun, and the United States of America is no longer the United States of America. It's two different nations. [Walt] Whitman is devastated by this. Whitman, who had hoped to be a national poet, is upset beyond measure by a nation that is no longer a nation. He seems to have, after a week or so, considered enlisting in the Union Army, because even though he wants the nation to be whole, he is from New York, he does in general support Union principles. He's against slavery, although he is not an abolitionist, and in his journal about a week or ten days after the firing on Fort Sumter, he says, "I hereby resolve to drink only water, and to give up meat." He doesn't say why, but this is very unlike Whitman in general, and my own guess is that he's thinking, "I'm going to get myself physically fit so I can enlist and fight in the war." This was not uncommon. People as old as their sixties—Whitman was forty at this time—people well into their sixties did enlist and fight in the war, as well as extremely young people, ages of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, if they could talk their way into it. But Whitman ultimately decides not to enlist in the war, and decides ultimately that probably what he could do to best help the war effort is write poetry.
Those who wrote about the Civil War wrote about a social earthquake whose aftershocks reverberated through American culture, politics, psychology, and literature. In its technical innovations and its violent reorganization of American society, the war marked the advent of a new age and audaciously challenged Americans' sensibilities and moral certainties. The nation's economic and political light was forever altered, and emancipation hardly solved the grinding conflicts of race in the United States. It is not surprising, perhaps, that many Americans and many writers lapsed into platitudes or silence. Yet others made the effort to rise to the occasion, to overcome the shock, in order to reach and represent the deeper experiences of war, to find the soft tissue and the hard feelings beneath the banalities of press reportage and gauzy reminiscence. They did so even as the United States had much else to occupy itself with, between the 1860s and the 1910s. Class antagonism and labor strikes, the final push against the Native Americans in the West, the steady influx of European immigrants, the radical expansion of American geopolitical power during the Spanish American war, an ongoing effort to reconcile religious orthodoxy with new forms of science.
Civil War literature represented part of the wider cultural effort to come to terms with the changes the United States underwent during the late nineteenth century. That was inevitable really, for these changes depended to no small degree on the conduct and the outcome of the war. If language and literature are forms of social and personal reconstruction, what they were able to accomplish in the fifty years after the Civil War was precarious, imperfect, and incomplete. Indeed, it is a sign of that incompleteness that Americans are still coming to terms with the Civil War. The war settled the central constitutional crisis of the country's history, and yet in other respects it seems to have resolved so little. The political tensions, involving race and region, federal power and states' rights, modernity and tradition, continue to make themselves felt across our cultural landscape—from presidential campaigns, to landscape conservation, to civil rights. In its continuing hold on the national psyche the Civil War has become a touchstone for understanding modern American culture, but it means very different things to different people. An essential part of coming to terms with its unresolved status in the American imagination is to explore how earlier generations came to terms with it and that is best done with an exploration of the writings they left us.
Lincoln's Reconstruction period ends. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in April of '65, and all of these mandates appeared to be out the window. It's all in the hands now of the Vice President, who is a Democrat, a Southerner, a very abrasive, unhappy man. I mean, look at this guy, would you want him to date your daughter? No, of course not. You have to understand, though, that you're looking at a man who has seven kidney stones. He does not work at a sit-down desk, he can't. He has to [work] at a stand-up desk. He cannot write much. If you ever find a piece of writing by Andrew Johnson, it will probably be in pencil and be very, very shaky. His right hand was smashed in a railroad accident, and it was only partially healed. So he's hurting, he's angry, in part because he suddenly finds himself part of a government that's majority Republican, run by the North, and they don't like him. Now, he has won pretty much every elective office he's ever stood for. He's been a mayor, he's been a city councilman, he's been a state legislator, he's been a U.S. Senator. He's also the answer to the trivia question, "What U.S. president was ever a slave?" Andrew Johnson was an indentured servant as a young kid. His parents didn't have money, so they indentured him and his brother to a shoemaker in Greenville, Tennessee, [as an] indentured servant. So he [came] up as a tailor and a shoemaker, and then he became a politician. How did he make his way up? And here's the other key to dealing with Johnson and the Radicals. He's a stump speaker in the Andrew Jackson mold. He talks rough, he talks tough, if you want to contradict him, you'd better get ready to pull your fists out and use some strong language. That's not going to go over real well in Chicago and New York, is it? So he's a Democrat, the wrong party; he's a Southerner, the wrong side of the state, wrong side of the country; he's rough, he's cranky, he's ill tempered, and he's in charge of the country in 1865.
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[Andrew Johnson] would've been a perfect politician for the 1850s. He had just missed out on how the world had changed. The Radical Republicans knew very well. Sometimes the war had even come to their front yard, as it had to Johnson's, and they knew that things had changed, that we were becoming a very different nation. Johnson was really a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. If he'd been elected president in the '40s or '50s, we would probably think of him as at least a middle-ground president. As it is, we think of him as our first-ever impeached president, though he was not removed from office. Ironically, though, if you do some reading on Reconstruction, whose vision of what the South would be is going to become true by about 1877? Who's going to be in charge in the South? Democrats and ex-Confederates. Are blacks going to be voting and owning property? Rarely. So those loyal governments? Kind of. So he was right, but he also was very wrong. And therefore, that's how [he gets] these very low ratings, and how you've got to explain to your students what all these issues mean to us in the long term.
The war had been over for three years. A war that had lasted for four years has been followed by trying to get things together to reconstruct the South for three years. . . . The focus for three years of American politics was on this struggle between the Radicals and Johnson, and it was over what Reconstruction would be, what plans would be implemented. But it was also a struggle over who would run it—the executive, Johnson, or the Radicals, who were mainly in the Congress. I think it's worth considering the possibility that a lot of energy that could have been spent on changing things in the South for free people and for dealing with a former planter class in the South, a lot of that energy went into this fight in Washington. It was essentially about Andrew Johnson. And once those energies are focused in that way, directed in that way, and spent in that way, are they then not dissipated in some extent? And that is, by 1868 when it's time to begin Reconstruction there is a question whether there is anything left to do in the way of, if there is any energy, if there is any power behind any effort to reconstruct. I think any explanation that seeks to have us understand why Reconstruction failed—which is the common line that historians take, because by 1877 you could go through the South and it would look very much like it did in 1857 as you drive in your carriage by a cotton field—any explanation like that has to place a lot of weight on what happened in Washington D.C. between the President and Congress in the years 1865 to 1868.
[The] Thirteenth Amendment has a symbolic value and a legal value. The symbolic value is [that] you are ending that system [of slavery]. America is going to have, as Lincoln says, "a new birth of freedom." But what does it mean in law? Because it's a constitutional amendment, it's also a legal document. And of course, this is the Thirteenth Amendment: "Neither slavery…will exist…Congress will have power to enforce it through legislation."
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Now Republicans say, "The Thirteenth Amendment establishes freedom, which is more than merely the absence of slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment gives Congress the right to pass legislation to enforce it, and we, being the majority in Congress, interpret it this way, and as a consequence, we're going to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866." That act defines citizenships as all persons born or naturalized in the United States—except Native Americans, Indians who are not taxed—are citizens of the United States, and then it lists the civil rights of citizenship: right to own property, divide property, do what you want with property, make contracts, the right to the same policies…that white people have. And that's enforcing the amendment. Andrew Johnson vetoes it; [Republicans] pass it over the veto.
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Democrats say [the Civil Rights Act is] unconstitutional, because after all, it ignores the Dred Scott decision, which says African Americans aren't citizens and can't be made citizens. Second of all, it violates states' rights. It takes away the right of each state to decide how to establish a proper relationship between their newly freed inhabitants and white society. And of course, the other problem is, what happens when Democrats have the power to simply repeal it?
And so the result is the Fourteenth Amendment. Congress passes the Fourteenth Amendment to take care of these problems. . . . There are five sections. What's important to us is the first section, because that's the one that defines citizenship again. It's the Civil Rights Act written in more general terms, and it says that no state can deprive people of the privileges of citizenship and various kinds of rights. And then, in Section Five, it says Congress will have the power to enforce it.
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Then, notice the language: "no state shall." Now that is a huge difference with the Thirteenth Amendment. Because when you say no state shall do something, and you put it in the Constitution, it means that whenever the state passes a law that is inconsistent with what they're not supposed to do, the courts can rule that law unconstitutional. So the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't rely only on Congressional enforcement. It relies on judicial enforcement. And therefore, Republicans want it, because they're afraid that some day, Democrats will come back into power and just simply stop enforcing it, for people's rights. So this is a huge shift. . . . One of the effects of the Fourteenth Amendment is to, for the first time, turn over the protection of rights to the courts.
Before the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, here's how you got somewhere if you had to go to the West Coast. Remember, we have a divided nation in another sense; you have most of America east of the Missouri River, then you have what was known popularly as the Great American Desert and the mountains, and then you have Oregon and California out here, and Washington coming behind. That's two thousand miles of space. If you go by sea, it takes thirty-five days to travel the 5,250 miles by sailing to Panama, getting off the ship, crossing the malaria-infected Isthmus of Panama, getting on another ship, and then sailing into California. So assuming you survive this, and many people didn't, thirty-five days. Or you can always go around Cape Horn and avoid the isthmus. That's only 13,000 miles. And that only took about four times that long. And of course going around Cape Horn is no picnic. Or, you could go over land by stagecoach. That's from St. Louis to San Francisco, that's about 2,800 miles. And about thirty days, assuming you survive Indian attacks, weather, blizzards, depending on your time of year, and assuming once you did it was like the Pony Express, you had stations along the way where you stopped, got a truly lousy meal, and food, and I can't tell you unless you've ridden in a stagecoach how bone-jarring that travel is. And there are no roads remember, you're just going across land—let alone up mountains. That's what the Transcontinental Railroad is partly all about, and the Transcontinental Railroad could only be built by government.
Here's how I'd like you to think about it: it's the moon project of the 1860s. As far as most Americans are concerned, everything west of the Missouri is basically a moonscape to them. It's as remote and as alien as a moon. And they have less access to it, and they know as little about it, except what explorers and others have told them about it. So it was way too big a project even though the goal for it had been around really since the 1830s. But the railroad was just coming into existence. So by the 1860s, you at least have a primitive, but decent technology to build a railroad, but the cost of it is enormous. So what these acts try to do was set out a set of conditions that have been much misunderstood about how to go about doing this and to attract private interests to build a road with government support. Government's not going to do it. It's just going to provide the funds. One of the misconceptions about this whole process is that the government simply gave them money, gave them land, and told them to build a road. Didn't happen that way. The money that was provided, and it was provided by each section that you built, was not a gift. It was a loan to be repaid and it was finally repaid. And one of the big political legacies of the War is the fight over how to deal with the loan. The land grant was a gift. The problem was that it didn't really pay for building the road. And the reason it didn't pay for it is very simple: nobody lives out there yet.
We built too many transcontinental railroads, we built them too soon, we financed them recklessly, and we allowed them to inflict grave environmental, social, political, and economic damage. All this was bad enough, and widely recognized at the time, but there is more. We in the subsequent century have forgotten most of what nineteenth century Americans knew. We have celebrated what we have plenty of reason to lament, and we have sometimes brought the transcontinental railroads forward as a reason to pursue equally dubious projects in the present.
What Congress did during the Civil War and afterwards was to give vast public subsidies to private parties to build expensive railroad lines across roughly 1800 miles of American territory that contained virtually no paying traffic. F. A. Pike of Maine said in Congress that there was no commercial reason for such a railroad, and nobody ever answered that objection. Others echoed. Timothy Phillips of California answered such critics by saying that the immediate necessity was not commercial, it was military. And if there was no commercial demand for a railroad now, he said, that was all the more reason to build it. He said such a railroad was absolutely necessary for our internal development. Having made this railroad essential to saving the Union, and for developing the continent, it was a small step to demand, as Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts did, "the liberality of this government either by money or land was necessary to induce capitalists to invest." The result would be what the economist Robert Fogel has called "hot house capitalism," in which the government creates the conditions for private investment.
The military necessity argument for the railroads initially involved preserving California and the rest of West, but mostly California, for the Union. And they were right. There was a real Confederate threat to California. The problem with this is that not only wasn't the railroad even done until 1869, four years after the Union was saved, but it really wasn't even begun until 1865 when everybody knew the military defeat of the Confederacy was inevitable. We could preserve the Union without the railroads. So the military necessity faded away, but only partly. Once you lose one military necessity, you can always invent a new military necessity, and that's what they did after 1865. What they said was, “We need the railroad now not to defeat the Confederacy, but we need it to defeat the Western Indians." Though it's perfectly plausible—the railroads did defeat the Western Indians—the problem with this argument is if you hadn't built the railroads, there wouldn't have been a need to defeat most of those Western Indians because you were fighting them over the railroads and the passage into the West and the settlement they promote. Most of the Western Indian wars, not all of them, but most of them are going to be fought along these corridors, which are the corridors of land grants to the railroads which are going to open up their passage into the West. You create the very causes of the wars that the railroads are supposed to win. But it's still an argument they make. "Experience," Grenville Dodge wrote, "is that the railroad line through Indian territory is a fortress as well as a highway."