|Ruth Bidwell's social studies class at Chichester Central School kept me on me toes.|
The oldest question about the Civil War is why it was fought. The answer is more complicated than many people want to think. Some southerners argue that it was about the rights of states to form their own institutions without interference from the federal government. Some northerners think the Union army was a gang of righteous abolitionists who marched south to free the slaves. Both arguments are flawed.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of discussing this issue with Ruth Bidwell’s alert, engaged eighth-grade students at Chichester Central School. They had been learning about the Civil War in class, and they grilled me about it.
The students were especially interested in the gory parts, as young people (and some adults, too) tend to be. One young man, who identified himself as the son of a gravedigger, wanted to know who buried the bodies.
In answering his question, I tried to teach the students about frame of reference. We live in a land of plenty in which most people have at least the necessities and many have too much stuff. Civil War soldiers often wanted for simple things. They did not live in a consumer society like ours, and as soldiers they learned to travel light. That is why bodies on the battlefield – friend or foe – were often robbed before they were buried. Men needed boots, coats, pants, writing paper and food, and the dead offered a free supply of them.
As for burials, they were haphazard, often depending on who held the ground once the battle ended. Shallow graves and mass graves were the norm.
The young man who asked about the war’s cause was certain it was slavery. I told him that at bottom this was true: No slavery, no war. Perceived northern threats to slavery and to the political power of slaveholding states were explicit reasons for secession. Northern resistance to the expansion of slavery into new American territories led to the formation and success of the Republican Party in the North.
But (and it’s a big but) very few of the volunteers who poured out of the villages of New Hampshire and other northern states to join the Union army were abolitionists. They saw the nation as a young and precious gem. They feared its breakup into smaller, lesser countries – the kind of competing nation-states that fragmented many European countries during the mid-19th century. Many volunteers had grandfathers who had fought in the American Revolution, and they saw saving the Union as a sacred, inherited duty. Heirlooms from the Revolution – old coats, muskets, war booty – were treasured in many households.
The Emancipation Proclamation, whose 150th anniversary is Jan. 1, did make ending slavery the explicit aim of the war. But as I show in Our War, soldier acceptance of this cause was slow and sometimes grudging. It is important to remember that for decades leading up to the war, newspapers of all political stripes stereotyped black people in racist terms. These prejudices stuck (and, unfortunately, we still live with them). As Lt. Edmund Dascomb of Greenfield wrote to a Manchester newspaper: “Is it strange when a portion of our press tell us that we are ‘fighting for a pack of n-----s’ that many are found to believe it?”
The most President Lincoln could hope was to persuade soldiers that his proclamation, along with the enlistment of free black men into the Union army, would shorten the war. Many soldier letters I read during my research contained sentiments like this one from Private John Burrill of the Second New Hampshire. Writing to his parents in Fitzwilliam on Jan. 1, he said he expected the war to end with “no great difference in the n----- question from what there was when we commenced.” He did not oppose slavery but was willing to see it abolished. “I believe in putting away any institution if by so doing it will help put down the rebellion, for I hold that nothing should stand in the way of the Union – n-----s or anything else.”
I was in the eighth grade in Florida when I first took American history from a stern and demanding teacher named Owen North. When it came to the Civil War, Mr. North was Mr. South. I loved listening to him, but at the age of 14 I’m sure I wasn’t ready to debate the nuances of the war’s causes. Ruth Bidwell’s students seemed well prepared to do so. Visiting with them made my day.