Monday, October 15, 2012

A Different Look at The Civil War

The life of President Abraham Lincoln is now venerated legend. The legacy and history of the first and only President of the Confederacy, however, is not so well known. Jefferson Davis was ultimately blamed by many Southerners for losing the war, but at the outset was held in highest regard. Much as was true with Lincoln and the North, the South’s perception of its appointed, not elected leader changed dramatically from the beginning of the war until its conclusion four years later. Jefferson Davis’ story is compelling in its own right, showing the inner strength and decisiveness of a proud, but often intractable man.

Augustin Stucker’s new book, Lincoln & Davis: A Dual Biography of America’s Civil War Presidents, explores decisions made, battles won and lost, and the leadership qualities of both men. Within the pages, he advances several audacious arguments that previous scholarship has deliberately skirted. Stucker is unafraid to label the deified Abraham Lincoln as a believer in racist ideology, at least in his earlier days. The man usually credited with freeing the slaves, according to Stucker, should not be excused for merely being a product of his times.

Lincoln’s working class, small town Illinois upbringing and daily dealings took place almost exclusively in the company of other whites. Prior to the war, Lincoln’s only real interaction with blacks took place on journeys South. There, he encountered, from a safe distance, slaves working in the field. A moderate on most racial issues until the very end of the war, Lincoln believed from the outset that blacks were inferior to whites. Like many Northerners of his time, Lincoln found the practice morally objectionable, but hoped that slavery would eventually die out of its own accord.

Augustin’s account thoroughly covers forgotten events during the course of the war. Historians and journalists both are culpable to the same easy-to-digest story narratives that overemphasize detail for the sake of simplicity. Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as liberator does not always hold up alongside the facts.

The man who would eventually be the first Chief Executive of the Republican Party sought containment, not eradication of the peculiar institution. His paternalistic, somewhat condescending attitudes towards people in bondage were not unusual for the day. Radical abolitionists pushed Lincoln steadily towards Emancipation, but the cautious President was wary of causing needless division during the already heated wartime atmosphere.

Only upon meeting with notable free blacks like Frederick Douglass did Lincoln’s views changed. By the end of his life, Honest Abe began to adopt an attitude of full and unequivocal racial equality. Though the cause of the war had always been about slavery, the North’s stated agenda was to preserve the Union, not to liberate Negroes. It is to Lincoln’s credit that he was open-minded enough to set aside prejudices many of his age either could not or would not. The eloquent orator and consummate activist Douglass noted that Lincoln treated him no differently than if he had been white.

Lincoln’s Southern counterpart, Jefferson Davis, was considered the foremost political voice of the new Confederate States. Though he had served as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, Davis was raised primarily in the divided border state of Kentucky. Though the family ran into financial trouble from time to time, Davis owned a plantation and lived as a wealthy planter in Mississippi, where his estate was located.

He’d been Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Pierce and Davis were lifelong friends. By virtue of their close-knit ties, Davis was granted significant Executive authority over the country. He may well have been the power behind the throne. After Pierce’s single term in office concluded, Davis was selected by his adopted home state’s legislature to be a Senator. In those days, Senators were not yet directly elected by voters.

Davis did not court the office of President of the C.S.A. and only reluctantly accepted his appointed post. He was thought to be the only man capable enough for the job, and Davis recognized the faith his new country placed in him. When the news of his appointment reached him, Davis was initially aghast, not the even the slightest bit enthusiastic about taking on such a mammoth responsibility. Lincoln, by contrast, courted votes by the bushel and ran an energetic, eventually successful campaign.

In the end, Lincoln won the 1860 U.S. Presidential Election because he ran against an impossibly divided Democratic Party. The former Illinois Congressman captured a sufficient number of votes in the Electoral College, even when, in several Southern states, his name was not even printed on the ballot Lincoln’s election was the last straw for the South, though its views of Lincoln were reactionary rather than factual. The U.S. President was far more conciliatory and centrist than Confederate propaganda would lead one to believe.

The managerial styles of both men were opposite in nature. Whereas Lincoln relied on a so-called Team of Rivalries in his cabinet to make crucial decisions, Davis was by nature a micromanager. While Lincoln sought as many perspectives as possible when crafting policy, Davis always had the final say. Once Davis’ mind was made up, no one could ever change it.

An insomniac and workaholic, the Confederate President often kept active until the early hours of the morning. Unlike Lincoln, who saw limited military action earlier in life, Davis considered himself first and foremost a military man. Though he graduated towards the bottom of his class at West Point, Davis nonetheless had substantial prior combat experience. Like many Civil War generals, Davis had cut his teeth as a commanding officer in the Mexican War, twenty years prior.

Jefferson Davis signed off on many significant strategic decisions during the conflict. He worked best with Robert E. Lee, but clashed considerably with less successful and less skilled generals. Davis preferred a hand’s on approach to plotting military strategy; he had a large say in the decisions made. Lincoln knew little of battlefield tactics upon assuming his office, but when war came studied them extensively in his spare time. Due to his own persistence, he was eventually able to converse directly and extensively with his generals.

Lincoln, as it turns out, would need a good grasp of battlefield maneuvers. It took several changes of command before Lincoln found a winner. Davis focused his primary attention upon War Department business, seeing himself as a self-proclaimed War President. Much of the minutia could have easily been delegated to subordinates, but Davis was adamant that he and he alone was the most competent person to handle almost all military matters that crossed his desk.

A few months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, the Lincoln Administration made an audacious offer to the slave-holding border states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. All three were offered money from the United States Government to buy outright the freedom of their slaves. Each state legislature flatly declined the offer. Lincoln and other politicians were of the opinion that whites and blacks could never live together peacefully, suggesting instead that freedmen and freedwomen should be sent to colonies to live apart from white society.

Davis had a different challenge before him. He found it difficult keeping the Confederate States united and on the same page. Confederate citizens tended see themselves as residents of a state first and a country last. Georgia’s governor Joseph E. Brown was Jefferson Davis’ wartime nemesis, denying the Confederacy needed soldiers and raw materials to the very end of the conflict. Governor Brown was unwilling to provide troops and economic support to the Confederacy, believing that his state needed preservation most of all.

In some respects, this struggle was no different than what the still-brand new United States had experienced eighty years before. Under its first written constitution, the Articles of Confederation, a weak central government proved to be wholly impotent and ineffective in running the country. Without a stronger central government, the United States could not raise needed tax revenue, nor could it build and maintain a standing army. For this reason, among others, the U.S. Constitution was eventually enacted in 1787.

Because of the focus on state first, not country first, the Confederate States were hampered by a defensive strategy that stretched troops too thinly. Its intention was to keep the entire borders of the fledgling country protected from attack. Against superior troop numbers, it proved to be an ineffective strategy. Confederate armies were outnumbered two and sometimes three to one, and could not challenge Northern armies in conventional ways.

In the South, Jefferson Davis’ legacy is mixed. Though blamed for losing the war by some, others champion his memory. Several Southern states still formally celebrate his birthday in early June, though certainly not as publicly as once was the case. Pro-Confederate stances are not politically correct these days. Even now, Abraham Lincoln is still one of the most highly regarded Presidents to hold the office. His face graces coinage and paper currency. Monuments and statues have been built to celebrate his honor.

As for how we should view the Civil War, we’ve been taught to focus on turning points—the names of a few pertinent battles, a few notable personalities, and an often overly simplified rendering of the facts. Usually these turning points are military blunders or poor strategic decisions made by politicians. The Civil War, for North and South alike, was a grand study in ego, hubris, and human nature. Generals flagrantly ignored orders, reinforcements arrived either too late or right on time, and skill was often subservient to luck.

The North and South both experienced triumphant successes and demoralizing defeats. It’s impossible to say for certain if one or two changes here and there could have swung the war in an entirely different direction. Each side struggled with poor leadership and each benefited from a few fortunate rolls of the dice. Nearly 150 years later, we continue to grapple with an account of how each event played out in time and space. Augustin’s book encourages us to take into account an accurate context of the times before we form our arguments and make our conclusions.

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