Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Civil War: Some Phase Zero problems and Phase Four thoughts

What goes around comes around. The other day Tom Donnelly was spanked here by a guest columnist. Today he’s our guest columnist. By Tom Donnelly Best Defense guest columnist Had U.S. Army officer education balanced its study of Robert E. Lee’s operational art with some serious consideration of both Reconstruction and the causes of the ...

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What goes around comes around. The other day Tom Donnelly was spanked here by a guest columnist. Today he's our guest columnist.

By Tom Donnelly
Best Defense guest columnist

Had U.S. Army officer education balanced its study of Robert E. Lee's operational art with some serious consideration of both Reconstruction and the causes of the war ("Phase O"), the story of Iraq might have been a very different one. I also think that U.S. (Army at least) officer education would do better to study fewer battles and more wars, and more American and fewer European wars (with, now especially, a leavening of Asia wars like the Russo-Japanese conflict or Japanese strategy of the 1930s and WWII.) All of which is just preamble to a few Civil War comments.

What goes around comes around. The other day Tom Donnelly was spanked here by a guest columnist. Today he’s our guest columnist.

By Tom Donnelly
Best Defense guest columnist

Had U.S. Army officer education balanced its study of Robert E. Lee’s operational art with some serious consideration of both Reconstruction and the causes of the war (“Phase O”), the story of Iraq might have been a very different one. I also think that U.S. (Army at least) officer education would do better to study fewer battles and more wars, and more American and fewer European wars (with, now especially, a leavening of Asia wars like the Russo-Japanese conflict or Japanese strategy of the 1930s and WWII.) All of which is just preamble to a few Civil War comments.

1. The primary cause of the war was slavery, which was a very different thing in 1860 than in 1787. The Founders, including the Virginia aristocracy, expected that slavery would wither both with the growth of an expanding yeomanry (Jefferson’s vision) and/or a growing manufacturing economy (per Hamilton). They did not anticipate the strange mix of industrialization and slavery that not only arose in the Deep South but that American expansion would offer new opportunities of industrialized slavery, such as in mining in the southwest. The institution of slavery was also central to Confederate political and social cohesion. Anyone who doubts this should read a small book, Apostles of Disunion, by Charles Dew, which recounts the story of the southern secession commissioners. Recall that the south did not secede as one and that, in particular, it was critical to enlist the upper South of Virginia and North Carolina, without which the war would have been a lot shorter. The book is largely based on the testimony of the secession commissioners to the state legislatures, and the press coverage thereof — this is white guys talking to other white guys behind closed doors. The trump cards in the game were all racial arguments. One paragraph:

“No commissioner articulated the racial fears of the secessionists better, or more graphically, than Alabama’s Stephen F. Hale. When he wrote of a South facing ‘amalgamation or extinction,’ when he referred to ‘all horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection [a reference to the Toussaint L’Ouverture revolution in Haiti],’ when we described every white Southerner ‘degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, [an argument intended to appeal to smaller farmers and the Southern lower classes], and he foresaw the ‘sons and daughters’ of the South ‘associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality,’ when he spoke of the Lincoln administration consigning the citizens of the South ‘to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans,’ he was giving voice to the night terrors of the secessionist South. States’ rights, historic political abuses, territorial questions, economic differences, constitutional arguments — all these and more paled into insignificance when placed alongside this vision of the South’s future under Republican domination.”

For the secessionist South, slavery was not just a “peculiar institution” which embarrassed them but without which they could not live or preserve their culture, but had been transformed into a positive moral good, even for the slaves themselves.

2. Plantation slavery, as practiced in the Cotton South, was poorly understood in the North. One of those who did, Sherman, had his own deep racial biases as well as a fondness for high Southern society — even, ironically, as he intuited that the only path to victory was to destroy and gut the “slavocracy”; making the South “feel the hard hand of war” was, post-war mythology aside, a very difficult thing for Sherman.

But a better perspective comes from reading the letters and diaries of the soldiers of the Western armies, mostly from the “Old Northwest,” as they campaigned in Mississippi, marched from Atlanta to the sea and then burned upland South Carolina. First-hand experience of the brutality of plantation slavery and the ignorance in which slaves were kept horrified the “free labor” sentiments of the rank-and-file, who had nothing in common with the elevated abolitionists of the Northeast. A Minnesota soldier wrote in 1863:

“I have never been in favor of the abolition of slavery until since this war has determined in me the conviction that it is a greater sin than our Government is able to stand — and now I go in for a war of emancipation and I am ready and willing to do my share of the work. I am satisfied that slavery is an institution that belonged to the dark ages — and that it ill becomes a nation of our standing to perpetuate the barbarous practice. It is opposed to the Spirit of the age — and in my opinion this Rebellion is but the death struggle of the overgrown monster.”

Thus, in 1864, with not only the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation but the campaign promise of a Constitutional amendment to end all slavery, with a belief in victory but little illusion about the amount of blood still to be shed, Lincoln carried 80 percent of the soldier vote. The prevailing sentiment was much less one in favor of racial equality — and thus Reconstruction would formally continue until 1877 and “Phase IV” would last at least until 1964 — but about how slavery demeaned white America. Not a sentiment that would meet our current standards, but still a powerful impulse that drove soldiers to “do their share of the work,” which included a lot of dying.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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