Traditional Views of the Civil War

by James Durney on June 20, 2008 · 4 comments

Traditional Views of the American Civil War

by James Durney

We do not know what happened during the Civil War. The participants were homesick, tired, hungry, frightened and/or bored much of the time. People usually have little knowledge of events outside of their immediate area and what they thought true was often wrong. After action reports, designed to be a record of a battle, often expand or conceal events to protect reputations. Books written, after the war, were often to celebrate the author’s unit or explain away problems with the author’s service. The standard regimental history proves the regiment never broke and ran. The regiment might be driven from a position by over whelming numbers or forced to fall back when a regiment on their flank broke and ran. Autobiographies can be the poorest source of facts of all. Often they are written to defend the writer’s reputation or attack his accusers. Coupled with these problems is a human tendency to view historical events not as they were but as we wish to remember them. Some of this is as simple as “the older he got, the better he was”. Some is very complex, having to do with human needs to come to terms with loss or with our political perspective.

The American Civil War is the most important event in Nineteenth Century America and one of the most important events in American history. No single event generated the volume of letters, books, and magazines that this war has. The war devastated a major section of the nation, freed over four million slaves, killed tens of thousands and maimed even more people. The war touched every home and family while altering national life forever. How this event is interpreted, thought about and viewed is tonight’s subject.

The North and South engaged in a long and heated debate over the course America should take starting in 1776. Two different nations develop under one government. One nation is industrial the other is agricultural. One nation is politically open with universal white male suffrage and a free labor system. The other is more of a class society that depends on slave labor. One spent the first forty years dominating national political life and the next forty years losing control to the other. During this time, both sections go through a series of crisis and comprises. Many times, secession or nullification is discussed but each time a comprise ends the current crisis. The Republican Party came to power in the election of 1860 promising to stop the expansion of slavery into the western territories. This victory proves the South has lost control of national politics and is at the mercy of the North. Unwilling to accept this several southern states seceded from the Union. Northern states, after some internal debate, refuse to accept secession and the surrender of Federal authority in the south. After four years of war, the defeated Southern states are forced back into the Union and the secession or nullification question is settled.

The word tradition is used to label our views of the Civil War; Gary W. Gallagher started this in his book Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten. Tradition is generic, non-judgmental and conveys no support or animosity toward these views. The views are historical and can be considered as our traditions.

The Union Tradition

This tradition holds that the North went to war to preserve the United States of America, all other issues and considerations being secondary ones. Russell McClintock’s book Lincoln and the Decision for War is an excellent explanation of the history behind this tradition. The people in the North share a common goal to preserve the Constitution and the Union. They see themselves as inheriting this obligation from those that fought the Revolutionary War. This requires them to fight and die to save the unique self-government and freedoms that the revolution won for them. This idea coupled with a strong faith in America’s future and a commitment to law and order caused them to go to war.

This tradition accepts the deep divisions, in the North, between Democrats and Republicans in 1860. The Republicans see the war as being forced on them by the South’s actions. The Democrats see the war as caused by the Republicans forcing their morality on the nation. Slavery is only an issue as it pertains to expansion into the West. Lincoln is the Republican candidate because he lacks strong identified with the extreme anti-slavery wing of his party. The recognition of a general lack of interest in and identification with Abolitionism that is unique in this tradition. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 is a war measure to stop European intervention and a step forward in the road to total war.

Northerners felt strongly that they should not surrendered government property to the Confederacy. They felt that supporting the law included collection of tariffs in Southern ports. Many Northerners accepted secession as legal or a valid legal question that needed to be decided. Many others thought the United States might be stronger without the southern states. In the end, the majority were not willing to break up the nation, allow the South to steal government property or break the law. This made the South’s actions unacceptable forcing policies that lead to war.

Included in this tradition is a good amount of sectionalism. The North was the junior partner in national life for many years. In addition, many felt the North had given into Southern demands on several occasions. As the Ohio River Valley and the old Northwest territories became states, political power shifted away from the South. The North had little reason to maintain slavery; Irish immigration filled their cheap labor requirements. An industrial, financial economy based on the family farm did not find slavery profitable. Slowly, state by state, the North followed Europe’s lead and abolished slavery. This did not translate into a race neutral society. The Irish filled the place that Afro-Americans occupied in the South. In larger Northern cities, these two groups competed bitterly for the scraps. Immigrants filled Northern cities, creating a population disparity that lead to counting slaves in Southern states as partial voters.

This tradition enjoyed wide acceptance for about 80 years after the war. Starting with the post Viet Nam antiwar feelings and the general decline in patriotism, this tradition has fallen out of favor with many people. Our modern intellectuals have difficulty understanding the unabashed patriotism embedded in the Union Tradition.

The Lost Cause Tradition

1865 found the South defeated and in ruins. Thousands of men deed in the war, millions of dollars in property was destroyed and over four million former slaves were free. The South’s leaders were unable to hold office and most of the prewar electorate disenfranchised. Most telling of all was the possibility that this was God’s will and the South had sinned.

Was secession the wrong course?

Had the South’s leaders made bad decision in 1860?

Was all the sacrifice all the deaths all the destruction for nothing?

Had Southern valor been inadequate?

Who or what was the cause of all this the misery and death?

Had Southerner’s sinned and had God turned away from them?

Their was a desperate need for answers to these and many other questions. Additionally, they needed reassurance that they were not an evil people. They needed to know that their way of life had not been exploitive and that they were not responsible for the war.

From this need, in response to many questions The Lost Cause Tradition came into being.

This tradition holds that anti-slavery factions in the North forced war on the South. Interestingly enough, the Union Tradition holds that even if the Radical anti-slavery Republicans caused the South to secede, the Union had to be saved. This South as oppressed victim is a consistent position in this tradition. The South is portrayed as a land of cavaliers with all classes living in harmony and happiness enjoying the blessing of abundance. Slavery, while regrettable and possibly in decline, is a positive institution for both races.

Southern bravery and martial abilities take center stage to the extent that lack of supplies becomes a hallmark of the tradition. The armies fought on without necessities just as Washington’s army at Valley Forge did. The idea of the southern soldier, slouch hat, blanket roll and rifle are deeply ingrained. The second image is the cavalryman with cape, plumed hat and blooded horse. J.E.B. Stuart supplied this image and his death enhanced and codified it. Over estimating Northern manpower allows the brave chivalrous South to drown in a sea of blue uniforms.

The Southern Historical Society Papers were a major player in the development of this tradition. The Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee became the history of the war. This army defined Southern hopes during the war and later carries the Lost Cause Tradition. The veneration of General Lee occurs after his death, as do almost all of these tradition ideas. While Robert E. Lee is the central figure in the Lost Cause Tradition, no real evidence indicates that he ever took a knowing role in its’ development.

The Battle of Gettysburg is the turning point of the war and Pickett’s Charge the high water mark. The only other campaign of note is Sherman’s March through Georgia, used as proof of the evil and unnecessary destruction the North inflicted on the South. Virginia and Georgia are the central theaters of the war. Reconstruction is a time of trial and redemption. Beset by carpetbaggers, scallywags and former slaves their political life destroyed white southerners fight to reclaim their rights. Much of the bitterness from the war is a product of the Reconstruction era. The first generation of the Ku Klux Klan came into being during this time as a guerilla organization seeking retribution for perceived excesses by the authorities.

The Lost Cause Tradition is widely accepted and supported. While under attack from much of the current historical community, it is the most common art subject. Lost Cause prints sell much better than any other tradition. Lee, Jackson, Stuart and Jefferson Davis dominate Civil War art. Part of this is America’s love of the underdog.

A main reason is that this tradition general acceptance could be Hollywood. Starting with Birth of a Nation and running for about 50 years, the majority of Civil War film followed the Lost Cause Tradition. Gone with the Wind, while fiction, is one of the foundations of the Lost Cause Tradition. The author grew up in the tradition and presented it to America in a very understandable and enjoyable fashion. After being a major best seller, the movie adaptation became one of the top money earners of all time, holding the title of biggest gross for almost 50 years. It is still one of the most viewed movies of all time.

This tradition shows no sign of fading away and should continue to be a major force for many years to come.

The Emancipation Tradition

This tradition is rooted in the pre-war Abolitionist movement and profits from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s & 1960s. Abolitionists were a major force in the Republican Party. Their activities were a major cause of sectional division. Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, passing Personal Liberty Laws, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and supporting John Brown kept them in the press and magnified their numbers. Most of the North was against the expansion of slavery but willing to protect slavery where it existed. Lincoln was the first President elected from a party that endorsed this platform. The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in America. After the war, Congress amended the Constitution to do that. Coincidental to these amendments the idea that ending slavery was the major benefit of victory developed. Abolitionist and the Radical Republicans broke with the Union Tradition developing a tradition that absolved them of any blame for starting the war. By the 1980s, this tradition gained major acceptance in the generation raised on the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-war Movement. Starting with Battle Cry of Freedom, Civil War history is rewritten to show:

· The South Succeeded to save slavery. This is the sole cause of the war and the North was firmly on the path to outlawing slavery in the United States by 1860.

· The North fought the war to end slavery; saving the Union was a secondary goal.

· The freeing of over four million slaves was the major benefit from the war.

In this view, the South is an evil slave holding empire with the North the center of virtue and treasury of freedom. The North in 1860 is portrayed as a race neutral society of native-born whites, Irish & German immigrants living together in harmony with free Blacks.

Reconstruction is “The Great Sell Out” when white American turns their back on the Freemen embracing white Southerners and Jim Crow laws. Books on this idea are very popular with this tradition The Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox and The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction being current examples. Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 is the foundation for this tradition’s view of Reconstruction.

Reconciliation Tradition

As Reconstruction ended the hate and bitterness faded from the participates memories, allowing a fourth tradition to develop. This tradition helped rebuild the North & South into one nation ending the worst of the war. Under this tradition, the war settles unresolved issues bequeath to that generation by the Founding Fathers. Once these issues were settled, America was much stronger, united and ready to take its’ rightful place on the world’s stage. Development of this tradition coincides with Westward expansion and the Spanish-American War. John B. Gordon laid the foundation of this tradition in the lectures he gave after the war. These lectures always included a plea for national unity and the idea that America was a stronger nation due to the war. Starting in 1890, the National Military Park system was established. The first five Military Parks became forums for reconciliation and worked in establishing this tradition.

Both the Union & Lost Cause Tradition blend into and become a part of this tradition. Each tradition can maintain their different view of the war. However, each tradition recognizes the war ended with a single nation and a shared history. The Emancipation Tradition cannot share this view. They consider the reconciliation of North & South to occur at the expense of Black Americans. They consider this time to be “the great sell out” when the North refused to redistribute land to former slaves and continue to support Reconstruction governments in the South with troops.

Current Issues and Traditions

The Union Tradition is disappearing. Modern America raised in the anti-war movement starting with Viet Nam cannot accept the motivation behind this tradition. As American education moves to the left, this tradition appears less often in books and the classroom. This tradition never did as well in the world of art or movies. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan or Thomas seldom grace the lithographs or appear as major actors in movies. While the most historic and the easiest to understand, it is losing ground almost daily.

The Emancipation Tradition is the most popular and has the widest acceptance at the college level. In the liberal civil rights, anti-war, politically correct climate of higher education institutions, the underlying ideas of this tradition have wide appeal. This is translating into numerous books supporting the tradition’s views of history. Hollywood has joined in with the movie Glory and Chamberlain’s speech in Gettysburg. This tradition’s supporters and highly antagonistic toward the Lost Cause Tradition. They are often in the forefront of efforts to remove Confederate symbols and rename public places. They are the least likely to accept criticism of or questions about their positions. I have mentioned their view on Reconstruction and the Reconciliation. The more extreme participants maintain that 19th Century America should have confiscated the land of former Confederates and redistributed to the newly freed slaves. Some have even suggested that numerous executions might have been a good idea in 1866 to 1870. Attacks on city councils for taking note of Robert E. Lee’s birthday, trying to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in Memphis, removing the Confederate Battle Flag from display will always get approval from this group.

The Lost Cause Tradition no longer enjoys the dominate position it once held. However, it continues to enjoy wide acceptance throughout America. Under continual assault, this tradition enjoys a strong core support group and respect from members of the Union Tradition.

The Reconciliation Tradition, never strong, contains. It is almost an afterthought for the Union and Lost Cause Tradition. Both see it as the logical end of the war and celebrate this tradition’s role in the establishment of the National Military Parks.

Going forward, interest in the American Civil War shows no signs of ending soon. While most authors need a “day job”, there is no lack of good people writing books. The Battle Parks are enjoying record attendance. Television continues to show histories and/or dramas relating to the war. The Ken Baker PBS series has brought many new people into our hobby. Understanding the traditional views of the war should help in identifying an author’s bias. In addition, it will help each of us to evaluate our view of the war and could increase our understanding.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

R.P. Collins June 22, 2008 at 1:57 am

A thoughtful discussion, although with more typos and redundancies than most of your posts. You lose steam at the “Emancipation Tradition” and handle it as if it were a recent innovation. Yet this is the school of thought that believed an “irrepressible conflict” had existed between the sections, that the issue was slavery and its consequences, and that it could only be resolved by violence. I just inherited a copy of Horace Greeley’s two-volume history of the war (1864-66), which dwells at length on the so-called rise of the Slave Power; Vice Pres. Henry Wilson also wrote of the “rise and fall of the Slave Power in America” a decade later. What is hardest for us to grasp from our place on the timeline is how such views could be compatible with white supremacist views on race. Celebrations of the service of more than 200,000 black Union troops, followed by collective amnesia, and a revival of memory and scholarship in recent years, is one clue to the standing of this tradition over time.

It’s an error to dismiss the Reconciliation Tradition as “never strong”; you yourself provide evidence to the contrary. How did the definitive records collection, titled “The War of the Rebellion,” become known as “Official Records”? Tell me it wasn’t done for the sake of reconciliation.

Finally, any discussion of traditions about the war’s meaning could benefit from a distinction between the motives of soldiers and of political leaders. Most of the time, Billy and Johnny had remarkably similar reasons for going to fight and for re-enlisting. Your interesting post on “Old Thousand Yards” is a reminder of that. Hosmer refers vaguely to “the great principle” of the war, but it probably would not have been wise to get more specific.


admin June 22, 2008 at 2:29 am


James Durney posted this blog entry, so I can’t really comment on your thoughts above. I’ll let James respond himself instead.

Brett S.


admin June 22, 2008 at 2:31 am

Also, Fred Ray posted “Old Thousand Yards”. We have several people blogging on TOCWOC.



R.P. Collins May 24, 2009 at 9:30 am

Right, I realize it’s a group blog. For “your” I meant “y’all’s.”


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