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Tag: Civil War (page 2 of 4)

Time to Drop Lost Cause Thinking about the Civil War

For an op-ed Commentary in today’s Roanoke Times on the Governor of Virginia’s “Confederate History Month” proclamation, see William G. Thomas’ Give up the Lost Cause.

Most recently, the old Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War has found its way into Governor of Virginia Robert McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month.” There is something about the mythic Confederate effort that make some in the current political debates look back with admiration–its tired claims of perseverance, crusading against long odds, defense of home, and resistance to overwhelming federal authority have been trotted out at key moments in the last 150 years.

McDonnell’s rather unbelievable omission of slavery from his first proclamation was an indication of just how resistant some people are to the idea that slavery had something to do with the Civil War. The Confederacy’s raison d’etre was to perpetuate slavery, both as a social system and as a “right.” The state’s rights its leaders asserted were to hold slaves and take them where one pleased, as well as to secede from the Union when it suited their interests. Confederate high officials, from Georgia’s Alexander Stephens to Texas’s Louis T. Wigfall, over and over again stated as much.

But slavery was even more at the center of the Confederacy than many whites are willing to admit or understand. Haley Barbour and others have tried to dismiss slavery as unimportant or irrelevant. They try to downplay its role in the Confederacy. But the slave economy was growing stronger in the 1850s not weaker. Slaveholding was expanding not contracting. Few thought it would die out or disappear on its own accord. Indeed, most whites in the South had come to believe that slavery was rational, Biblical, legal, civilized, and modern. In this way slavery was a prime driver of the Southern economy and society. And a large section of the North’s as well. Wealth, property, contracts, wills, estates, and law teetered on the muscle and shoulders of the enslaved black South. We seem to have forgotten the enormity and complexity of this social structure. And for too long many whites have denied the essential appropriation that slavery was–an vast transfer of wealth by the exploitation of labor. Slavery reached and touched everything and everyone in the South. It was the central political issue in secession. It’s time we remember just how important slavery was.

We now know, however, that secession was contradictory and complex, a separation of loyalties not just states. The most urban parts of the South, for example, and the most recognizably modern as well–rich in telegraphs, railroads, mixed economies, finance capital, banks, and advanced political systems–were also the first to secede and the most committed to slavery. Whereas, the most remote and perhaps disconnected places were reluctant Confederates at best. Secession divided whole states, especially Virginia, and the boundaries of “the South” or even of the Confederate States of America were never very clear and consistent. We know also that the new Confederate nation was an example of historical forces converging in unexpected ways: electoral and constitutional breakdown, rapid crystallization of uncertain national loyalties, and inherent contradictions  changing the shape and behavior of modern societies. It is no longer useful to think that the South stood for agrarianism and the North for industrial modernity or their associated respective values. Nor was the South was simply defending itself against Northern aggression. Both societies were too similar to make such views plausible, yet the old Lost Cause ideas persist.

It’s time to drop the Lost Cause.

Harriet Martineau, the “Martyr Age” of the U.S., and Railroads as a Social Force

In 1857 Harriet Martineau, one of the most prolific and influential political economists in Great Britain, turned her attention to the influence of railroads on nations and their development. Railroads constituted one of the most important developments of the time as they soaked up capital, labor, and resources. She considered the vast railroads underway in the United States, Russia, France, Germany, and Great Britain to be indicators of the societies in which they were built and operate. The railroads mirrored the values of each society.

Impressed with the massive projects underway in the United States, such as the Illinois Central Railroad, Martineau thought Europe’s political and commercial leaders should look at the “political and social consequences of the laying open of the diverse regions of the great continent” of the U.S. as an example. The American railroad scene, she thought, would “suggest to us Europeans a new aspect of railways, which certainly was never dreamed of when they were projected, and which does not seem to be duly considered even now.” Indeed, Martineau argued, “It would be useful to us to consider railways, both philosophically and economically, as exponents of the social systems under which they arise, and are intended to work.”

Because Martineau lived for two years in South Carolina during the nullification crisis of 1832, went on several American tours in the 1850s, and was a leading expert on political economy, she possessed unusual authority on American affairs. She wrote over 1,600 articles for the London Daily News on American developments in these years, and many others as the European correspondent for the New York Anti Slavery Standard. She maintained significant trans-Atlantic associations. A Garrisonian abolitionist, she corresponded with Maria Weston Chapman, Charles Sumner, and William Lloyd Garrison.

Martineau compared the “republican railway” in the U.S. with the “autocratically or constitutionally governed country” in Russia. She saw American railroads as locally managed, built, and controlled, a virtue that represented the republican nature of their origins. The U.S. railroads were unlike the rest of the world’s because most of the roads were not made with the intention to profit in dividends but instead to develop the surrounding areas. The developmental nature of American railroads stood in stark contrast, Martineau wrote, to the English system which was overbuilt with “needless lines” along major routes and with little concern for local development.

Martineau’s concept of railroads as representations of the moral, social, and political world had wide significance. She articulated what many felt–that the huge investment in railroads would extend and support other aspects of the socities that produced them. In the American South, this idea implied that railroads could enable slavery. An edited collection of Martineau’s voluminous correspondence has just been published and in its four volumes we can see just how widely influential Martineau was in her times–Deborah Anna Logan’s The Collected Letters of Harriet Martineau (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007).

A few years later when the U.S. split into warring sections, the events of the war pushed to the side theoretical discussions about railroad development and Martineau found herself translating American views to her British political associates. Martineau viewed the American Civil War as the culminating event for slavery in what she called the “martyr age” of the United States.

Martineau commented on every aspect of the Civil War, but she became especially active during the Trent Affair. Martineau knew Wilkes personally and had introduced him to the Admiralty in 1836. Neither a filibustering pro-Southerner nor a coward, Wilkes was, she explained to her British friends, “ignorant & wrong headed, & has been in hot water 100 times before.” She used her London Daily News editorials to downplay the warmongering rhetoric over the Trent and explain the North as a society in chrysalis stage, awakening to its rights and responsibilities once free of the “Slave Power.”

Unitarian in her beliefs, and consistent in her abolitionism, Martineau had great expectations for the American war. Diagnosed with a fatal malady in the 1850s, she removed herself from London society and conducted almost all of her work from her country home in the Lake District. With her niece by her side, Harriet Martineau defied her medical prognosis and lived for another twenty years. She received guests continually as her health allowed, including among others her friend Richard Cobden, the free-trade Liberal M.P., and William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State.

Well before the 1860 presidential election, Martineau had determined that America would enter a period of conflict and renewal. The coming struggle, she thought, would be led by American women, especially Maria W. Chapman, whom she considered the “greatest woman . . . on record” whose name “will by and by stand beside Washington’s in history, as the deliverer of her country the second & greater time.” She wanted to shape American and British public opinion about the war. To do so she had to explain the English view of the war to her antislavery American correspondents and the American view of the war to her British editors and literary friends. Martineau held out great hope for the war to cleanse and “regenerate,” as she put it, American society.

When her friend Florence Nightengale expressed profound dismay at the outbreak of war in the United States, Martineau replied that she was “anything but unhappy” because it portended “the resurrection of conscience,” and what she called “the renewal of the soul of the genuine nation.” She welcomed the “destruction” which she thought would “overtake the wicked.”

Martineau was convinced in April 1861 that the South would collapse quickly and that the Confederacy could never sustain a war against the North. “I much doubt whether there will be a war,” she explained to her editor Henry Reeve. Once “pressed” the South could not stand. To those in Britain who considered the Southern Confederacy an embryo nation, such as her rival editors at The Times, Martineau scoffed at “slap-bang ignorance” that pervaded reporting on America. The “charming notion of a triumphant Southern Confederation” offended her. From the beginning of the conflict she greatly underestimated the South’s capacity and will for war, seeing divisions along class lines as the Achilles heel of the South’s slavery-based society. Unconcerned with servile insurrections or other nightmare scenarios that frightened August Belmont and even haunted Richard Cobden, Martineau disparaged the “mean whites” of the South whom she thought “barbaric & corrupt” and, as she explained to Florence Nightingale, the “very lowest specimen of the white race, –almost of the human race.” These men could hardly be classified as citizens, she believed, and would never serve consistently and admirably as soldiers in war.

However misguided her reading of Southern white society as divided, ineffective, and afflicted with “utter helplessness,” Martineau was unusual in her total and complete certainty that slavery would perish with the war. Rather than the sentimental abolitionism of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Martineau adopted a realistic assessment of the war. The old union with its compromises to accommodate slaveholders was not only dissolved but also gone and never to return. The war would regenerate and replace the flawed, old compact with one free of slavery. In this way the North would slough off its long, twisted complicity in Southern slavery and stand before the world in the vanguard of civilized nations. Attempting to persuade her conservative editor, Henry Reeve, she explained her efforts to make others see this truth: “My business now, on both sides the water, is to hold up the fact that the struggle has become altogether revolutionary.” Emancipation was “inevitable.” To explain why more Britons did not see this simple fact, she reminded Charles Sumner that “ninety-nine in a hundred [American commentators] insist, loudly & persistently that the war is not for the abolition of slavery; & that it is fully intended not to abolish it.”

When the prospect of English recognition of the Confederacy developed in the summer of 1862, Martineau detected a change in British views on the American war. No longer quite as sanguine, she had become “sick at heart” over the violence, but she also saw that the Americans did not feel the same way. “Between the virtuous glow of patriotism in some, & the delight in excitement in others, & the intoxication of passion in a multitude,” she explained to her editor after the Battle of Shiloh, “they do not seem to suffer as we do. They are evidently unconscious of the singular horribleness of the conflict.”

Martineau perceived the American willingness to slaughter one another and tolerate high casualties as evidence of the national purposes at stake, and while Europeans shrank from the bloodletting she embraced it as a necessary step in the end of slavery. She thought that the Emancipation Proclamation was a turning point, slowly adjusting British views on the American war. By December the change was faint but discernable. She reported “a reviving Anti-slavery feeling, disbelief in the South, & more respect for the North.” To Florence Nightingale she summarized the shifting ground: “The proper English antislavery feeling is reviving; & people begin to see now how little the South is worth, — that it can’t fulfill its boasts, –that it is hopelessly divided on the very question of State Rights, –& that there is no society there really civilized in its organization; while there is no question of Slavery being irretrievably doomed.”

For Harriet Martineau the Emancipation Proclamation redeemed Northern society and gave vindication to over twenty years of moral reform efforts. “The thing that I & my political & private friends there care about is secure,” she explained to a British friend in the summer of 1863, “–the repentance & amendment of the Free States after their long & unworthy submission to the domination of violence & wrong.” The long walk of the North in moral darkness because of its complicity with slavery had ended, and the liberation of the North prompted Martineau to explain to her editor that “it was always the whites that I cared most about.”

Martineau was one of the leading anti-slavery advocates of her day, and she considered the South, despite its extensive railroad system, a civilization not worthy of consideration because of slavery. Its railroads, build by slaves, did not resemble the republican-oriented developmental railroads such as the Illinois Central. But her statement to her editor that she cared about moral position of the whites in the North than the injustices of slavery for blacks in the South reveals the contradictions that swirled through the American Civil War. Martineau’s letters reveal her as a determined advocate and a passionate and astute opinion maker. She recognized several important truths at the heart of the American conflict, and at the same time she missed others.

Re-examining South Carolina’s Secession–the story of the Blue Ridge Railroad

If we are to explain South Carolina’s secession in 1860, we might look more closely at its fractious legislative struggle over railroad development. South Carolina, like Virginia and Georgia, embarked on major railroad projects aided by state finances and backing. These projects aimed to break the mountain barriers separating them from the rest of the South and fulfill the idea that Nature favored their region, a persistent theme in the late 1850s among Southern expansionists. It became an important refrain in the years leading up to secession. The political implications of the notion could not be ignored: they hinged on what Nature bestowed and how people reconfigured Nature to their own advantages. The basis for most of these claims came from the experience with railroads. Up and down the mountainous chain separating the seaboard from the interior, projects got underway in the 1850s to break through Nature’s barriers and substitute for them a second Nature of rails, tunnels, embankments, grades, and structures.

The South Carolina Blue Ridge Rail Road, for example, was planned to connect Charleston to the west across the mountains, much like the Virginia project to tunnel through the Blue Ridge and the Baltimore and Ohio’s effort to break through the Alleghenies. For South Carolina the stakes placed on the Blue Ridge Railroad were especially high and so were the expectations. The road’s new president, Edward Frost, a Charleston attorney turned railroad investor, argued that once built the railroad would reshape the geography of the state and that “Charleston will then be 46 miles nearer to Knoxville than Richmond and 96 miles nearer than Savannah.” Both of these rival cities with their railroads had drawn off the trade from the West and left South Carolina imprisoned by its mountains. He urged that stockholders and legislators to look at a map and they will see that “without the Blue Ridge Road, Charleston and South Carolina have little opportunity of sharing in the advantages of a commercial connection with the navigable waters of the West.” In fact, Frost argued, the neighboring states constructed railroads that “belt” South Carolina and once North Carolina completed its work “then the cordon of railroads around South Carolina will be complete and close.”1

If the state was about to be shut off from the modern commercial economy developing on its very borders, enabled by the railroad’s capacity to conquer nature, then South Carolina, according to Frost, had the opportunity to open itself up. He would not predict the Blue Ridge Railroad’s earning potential once it was completed because the importance of the road would be measured “by the trade which it will, in time, attract.” He pointed out instead that other railroads outperformed even their most optimistic projections and he concluded that a maxim could be drawn from these comparisons: “railroads create the trade they need.”

The idea was alluring. It went beyond confidence or optimism. It was understood as a kind of natural, economic, and technological law whose operations were in effect whether the citizens of a state or city wished it or not. Frost pointed out that wheat traveled 456 miles from Knoxville to Richmond, and much of it further to Baltimore. “Why may not Columbia, having advantages of water power greater than Richmond, and as favorably situated, not manufacture wheat, with a carriage from Knoxville of 321 miles?” Frost asked.

South Carolina’s isolated position on the ever-changing map of railroad growth in the 1850s worried Frost. He cautioned his stockholders as well as the public and the legislature that the state was one of the smallest “in territory and one of the least in white population, while it is one of the wealthiest, of the Southern States.” Only “moral force and character” had allowed it to remain a leader, but railroads and the reconfiguration of the South with them threatened South Carolina’s position, and presumably its wealth. The Blue Ridge, he argued, was too large in scale for private capital to complete. The railroad was a “great national highway, uniting the geographical divisions of the continent, across the great mountain barrier which separates them.” And railroads of this magnitude, including those already built by neighboring states and others under construction, “superseded” every other mode of trade. “Commerce is no longer dependent on the natural advantages of sites at the estuaries of large streams,” Frost maintained, “Even the Mississippi cannot protect New Orleans from the successful rivalry of railroads.”2

Despite the excitement and progress on the Blue Ridge tunnels and tracks in 1858, the road again needed more capital by the end of the year. Frost and the company’s directors appealed to the state legislature to amend the original charter and authorize another one million dollars in state aid and bonds. The fight in the Legislature over the Blue Ridge Railroad funding grew heated and intense debate followed. Men who had supported every other railroad in the state turned against the Blue Ridge. They maintained that the road was too expensive and too speculative, that it could never pay for itself, and that if private capital could not be raised then the state should not built it. Supporters held that the state debt would not be materially affected by an additional two million dollars, that the state could (and probably should) raise taxes, and that other southern states were taking on similar levels of state aid. They pointed to Georgia which invested $5 million in the Western, and Virginia which spent $3 million on its Blue Ridge Railroad and Tunnel and was busy undertaking a $12 million project on the Covington & Ohio. Besides, the bill’s proponents argued, the State legislature was already spending $3 million on a lavish new state house widely seen as an extravagance.3

When the legislature of South Carolina voted to withhold continued public support for the Blue Ridge Rail Road in late 1858, all of the work on the railroad and the tunnel stopped. The Charleston Mercury mocked the legislature and the railroad’s critics as shortsighted and foolish. Who would not “feel ashamed” of the “inconsistency and irresolution” that the state “has exhibited before the world?” the Mercury asked. Too many of the state’s leaders, it argued, were measuring the impact of the railroad “by the little pocket rule of immediate dividends.” Instead, “we look upon it as a project on a grander scale, and destined to confer measureless benefits–social, political, and commercial.”4 In the South Carolina House, Christopher Memminger argued that “modern nations,” like the ancient Greeks and Romans before them, build monuments to “their genius and enterprise,” but the abandonment of the Blue Ridge left “half finished tunnels,” “crumbling bridges, and ruined cuts through hills and mountains” as a monument to the state’s “inconstancy and feebleness.” Whether South Carolina could avoid isolation and encirclement and join the rapidly evolving Southern railroad commercial network remained an open question after 1859. In the coming years South Carolina’s desperate need for a unified South only grew more pronounced.5

The prominent railroad engineer and friend of John C. Calhoun, A. H. Brisbane was appalled at the turn of events. Brisbane asked his South Carolina readers what Calhoun would think if the state did not support the railroad to connect to the rest of the South. Calhoun was its first visionary and “to the hour of his death its unceasing supporter.” Brisbane appealed to those who voted against the state support to reconsider their position and to ponder Calhoun’s legacy. Could it be, he wondered, “they have already forgotten the man whose reputation, even now when he is dead, is defending them in their dearest rights.”6

To white South Carolinians, Brisbane’s reference to rights could mean only one thing: the right to hold slave property. To be sure that they understood Calhoun’s linkage between these rights and the railroad economy he hoped to develop in the South, Brisbane conjured up the Calhoun who had walked the passes of South Carolina and Georgia and who in planning the route with Brisbane circled Rabun Gap on a map and exclaimed: “There is your gap, there is the great pass; there the mountains recede . . . as though they invited the States of this great confederacy to pass and repair them.” Calhoun had great faith that the railroad would bring the South to “the gates of Cincinnati” and that even though “we may fail sir, in our endeavors now, but the result must come, and our industrial independence be secured by this boon of Providence–this inexplicable pass, through a mighty range of mountains, unless for some great moral purpose, such as is now proposed.”

In this context South Carolina had a choice, according to Edward Frost, the railroad’s president. It could go forward with the Blue Ridge Railroad, bore through the mountains, and reap the potential advantages of altering nature’s barriers, or it could “recede from the position of moral eminence she has heretofore occupied, and be reconciled to a diminution of her political power and consequence proportioned to her territorial area.”7

The choice was implied for the South as well. The language, ideas, and practices of the local conflict could jump tracks and become an important resource in the South’s claim to nationhood. City and state rivalries within the South translated arguments easily to the sectional or national competition. South Carolina’s leading men were aware of the consequences of their state’s isolation. And although conservative Democrats remained suspicious of state development schemes, enough to finally block the Blue Ridge’s financing in 1859, the questions raised by the railroad projects were profoundly significant for South Carolina. They indicated the ways railroads were reconfiguring the nation’s borders, geography, and commerce. The debates in South Carolina coming as they did on the eve of the 1860 presidential election, moreover, rehearsed a series of arguments that would emerge in the following year over the best means to ensure the South’s future wealth and independence. They also revealed the slow process of reshaping identities. Because the railroads connected places, linked subregions, and crossed natural barriers, their potential prompted a series of questions for those who supported and opposed them: what is our region, who are our allies, and where are we going?

Notes and Sources:

1 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

2 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

3 For a collection of criticisms, see the series of articles by “Nolumus” in The Charleston Mercury in “The Blue Ridge Railroad” Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. “The Blue Ridge Railroad Enterprise,” The Charleston Mercury, December 30, 1858, Issue 10,427, Col. C.

4 “The Blue Ridge Railroad Enterprise,” The Charleston Mercury, December 28, 1858, Issue 10,425, Col. C.

5 “Speech of C. G. Memminger, Esq. In the House of Representatives, of the Bill to Afford Aid to the Blue Ridge Railroad,” The Charleston Mercury, January 10, 1859, Issue 10,436, Col. C.

6 “General Brisbane’s Compliments to the conductors of the Press,” Charleston Mercury, June 1, 1859, Issue 10,558, Col. D in Nineteenth Century U. S. Newspapers. See also, Betty L. Plisco, The Rocky Road to Nowhere: a History of the Blue Ridge Railroad in South Carolina, 1850-1861 (Salem, SC: Blue Granite Books, 2002): 69-73.

7 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

Lincoln’s First Inaugural and American History

When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as President of the United States, he faced an unprecedented crisis. Seven states had already formally seceded from the Union, set up their own government in Montgomery, Alabama, and were actively recruiting more states to join them in forming a rival national government. Lincoln’s inauguration speech has often been admired for its moderation. The new President stated clearly that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” the federal government’s buildings and forts in the seceded states, but also that “there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” Lincoln tried to speak past the fanatics to “those who love the Union.”

We can admire Lincoln’s calm restraint, yet in retrospect Lincoln would seem to have misjudged the temper of the times and the resolve of the Southern whites. At the core of Lincoln’s first inaugural address was his assertion that “plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” Hundreds of thousands of white southerners disagreed, of course, and saw their nation as an independent republic, fully justified in peaceable separation from the Union. Lincoln asserted that “one section of the country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.” Although he knew well that many Northerners found little wrong with slavery, Lincoln claimed that “physically speaking” the country could not be separated. And in his beautiful and poignant closing, calling on the “mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature,” Lincoln hoped Americans would set “passion” aside and renew their bonds of affection in the Union.

Lincoln had reason to believe in these feelings for the Union and that they might avert the looming conflict and violence; indeed, he probably had to have this faith on that day. His personal qualities and his political calculation led him to take a position of open invitation to the white South to return their hearts to the Union. He hoped time would cool off the angry response to his election, and with this expectation his inaugural address was genuinely offered as an attempt at reconciliation. Despite the elegance of his rhetoric, Lincoln’s idea that the American continent could not be physically separated into two or more republics was an assertion unsupportable by history or logic. Various empires had controlled large parts of the American continent and national identities in other parts of the world constantly changed the maps and atlases.Lincoln, however, challenged his “dissatisfied countrymen” to think twice about their actions. He vowed to uphold the constitution and his oath to defend the government, and he said that they in choosing secession bore the responsibility for a civil war. Most of all, Lincoln urged that both sides take time and move deliberately. With time, he hoped, these sad divisions might heal.

The difficulty Lincoln faced was in convincing white Southerners that these sentiments mattered. Few were listening. What happened to make such a distance of feeling, such alienation, possible? Lincoln likened the separation to a divorce, but all such analogies fail. Lincoln’s inaugural address, brave and elegiac as it was, was speaking into a hurricane. The white South in spirit and identity left the Union long before March 4, 1861. The divergence is difficult to time and locate in American history. Too often, our histories have followed Lincoln’s logic that separation was impossible, secession was a “sophism,” and the civil war was the product of discontented extremists–a set of arguments most forcefully made in his message to Congress on July 4, 1861. We might reconsider, however, the national purpose of the Confederate South and its origins. Historians, such as Drew Gilpin Faust, Anne S. Rubin, Peter and Nicholas Onuf, and Edward L. Ayers, have helped us see the white South’s national identity as deeper and more complex that Lincoln might have admitted. These historians and others suggest a white South whose Confederate national loyalties proved durable, even advanced and logical, drawing on the same sources of American nationalism in the Revolution and early national history. They knew what they were doing. We need to retain Lincoln’s sense of historical contingency, for he (almost alone) in his inaugural held out the possibility that things might be different, that persuasion and good will might be reciprocated, and that a reservoir of Unionism might save the nation from war and bloodshed. But we also might consider how sectionalism reinforced its own logic by slowly recasting forms of national identity, and in the process how two modern nations of Americans emerged ready to fight one another on modern scale of conflict. Then we might understand how Lincoln’s eloquent first inaugural fell on deaf ears.

Civil War Loyalty Tests on the Railroads

On July 12, 1864 an anonymous letter was forwarded to the military commander of the Union forces around Nashville, Tennessee, and then on to Colonel A. Anderson, the General Superintendent of the United States Military Railroad (U.S.M.R.R.) in that district. Because the U.S.M.R.R. was such an important link to General William T. Sherman’s army as it fought its way south and east toward Atlanta, and because southern guerrillas were constantly endangering the vulnerable rail lines, Anderson and his superiors could take no chances. He was directed to “have the loyalty of all his employees tested.”

Loyalty to the Union was declared through an oath and the swearer simply signed a statement, but the idea that loyalties were not only tested but also monitored in the Ciivl War is one that we have sometimes lost sight of. The boundaries between North and South seem to us so clear and incontrovertible that such measures would appear unnecessary. Yet, in the Civil War, especially in East Tennessee, the boundaries were blurred. Huge armies fought in the war, but at the local level the conflict was more personal.

The anonymous letter seemed to include plans for spying on the Union Army, and outlined the “best way to get to the rebels news.” Specifically, the recipient was directed to go to the “Huntsville Depot” and contact the letter writer’s mother. Because the Union  Provost Marshall boarded with her, she had never been denied a pass–or one for her friends. From there the spy was directed to go 7 miles where there “lives a woman who permits the rebels to go to and from her house at will.” 

He also provided directions on “how to save self when the guerrillas shoot into the Rail Road trains.” The man worked on the railroad and generally “knows when they [the guerrillas] are about.” Through signals and some advance warning, he knew when the attacks would occur. So, his protocol was to fill the engine furnace full of wood then lay down “behind the wood in such a way as to be safe.” Whenever he saw a guerrilla he recognized but does “not want to speak” for fear he would be exposed, he would shake his head.

Angry and tired of working on the railroad for the Union forces, this man expected to run off and join a Confederate cavalry unit. He cheered the work of the guerrillas, especially John Hunt Morgan, and was pleased to report that “there is scarce a nightbut what there are more less union men killed along the railroad.” As for the woman who provided the safe house for spies: “Mrs. Holman is a true woman of the Confederacy,” the man noted.  

The Union Army faced a significant counterinsurgency challenge in large parts of the Confederacy. The railroads, however, because of their size and complexity were run by thousands of civilians rather than controlled directly by military commanders. The railroads were quasi-military operations, necessary to control and manage but beyond the capacity or expertise of any given regimental officer. Few men in the Union Army needed loyalty testing, but the civilians associated with the railroads were another matter. So, the response to this intercepted communique to test the loyalty of the employees on the railroad was not unexpected, but the use of the rail system in war brought a new dimension of scale, reach, and vulnerability and made the conflict a more modern one. 

[The letter is from: National Archives and Records Administration, Letters Received by A. Anderson, Gen. Sup.  Record Group 92 subgroup 1674 Box 2.]