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The Legacy of the Civil War
By Robert Penn Warren
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 1961 Robert Penn Warren
All rights reserved.
The civil war is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense. There was, of course, the noble vision of the Founding Fathers articulated in the Declaration and the Constitution — the dream of freedom incarnated in a more perfect union. But the Revolution did not create a nation except on paper; and too often in the following years the vision of the Founding Fathers, which men had suffered and died to validate, became merely a daydream of easy and automatic victories, a vulgar delusion of manifest destiny, a conviction of being a people divinely chosen to live on milk and honey at small expense.
The vision had not been finally submitted to the test of history. There was little awareness of the cost of having a history. The anguished scrutiny of the meaning of the vision in experience had not become a national reality. It became a reality, and we became a nation, only with the Civil War.
The Civil War is our only "felt" history — history lived in the national imagination. This is not to say that the War is always, and by all men, felt in the same way. Quite the contrary. But this fact is an index to the very complexity, depth, and fundamental significance of the event. It is an overwhelming and vital image of human, and national, experience.
* * *
Many clear and objective facts about America are best understood by reference to the Civil War. The most obvious fact is that, for better or worse, and despite any constitutional theorizing by Governor Almond of Virginia, we are a united nation. Before the War there had been, of course, a ferocious love of the Union, but the Union sometimes seemed to exist as an idea, an ideal, rather than as a fact. There was a sense that it had to be struggled for, to be won and re-won against many kinds of enemies — not only the Burrs and Wilkinsons and Houstons and the conventioneers of Hartford, Connecticut, and the nullifiers of South Carolina, but also distance, sprawling space, apathy, selfishness, ignorance, the westward slope of the watershed beyond the Appalachians.
This unionism was, we remember, particularly ferocious in the South, as the old Jackson, the young Calhoun, and many a Whig planter, even in 1860, would testify. We can recall with what reluctance Jefferson Davis or Stonewall Jackson took the step toward disunion, and lately some historians find the corrosive of a crypto-unionism deep in many a Confederate breast less eminent than that of General Lee. When General Pickett, leading his division on the road to Gettysburg, passed a little Dutch girl defiantly waving the Federal flag, he took off his hat and bowed to her. Asked why he had saluted the flag of the enemy, he replied: "I did not salute the enemy's flag. I saluted the heroic womanhood in the heart of that brave little girl, and the glorious old banner under which I won my first laurels." True or not, the tale, reported by LaSalle Corbell Pickett, points to a truth. Shared experiences of the past and shared hopes for the future could not easily be expunged; and I myself have heard an old man who had ridden three years with Forrest, and never regretted that fact, say that he would have sadly regretted the sight of this country "Balkanized."
That old unionism was, however, very different from the kind we live with now. We do not live with an ideal, sometimes on the defensive, of union. We live with the overriding, overwhelming fact, a fact so technologically, economically, and politically validated that we usually forget to ask how fully this fact represents a true community, the spiritually significant communion which the old romantic unionism had envisaged. In any case, the "Union" — which we rarely refer to as a union any more, so obvious is the fact — gives us our most significant sense of identity, limited as that may be, and the best and most inclusive hope for our future, and that of mankind.
A second clear and objective fact is that the Civil War abolished slavery, even if it did little or nothing to abolish racism; and in so doing removed the most obvious, if perhaps not the most important, impediment to union. However we may assess the importance of slavery in the tissue of "causes" of the Civil War — in relation to secession, the mounting Southern debt to the North, economic rivalry, Southern fear of encirclement, Northern ambitions, and cultural collisions — slavery looms up mountainously and cannot be talked away. It was certainly a necessary cause, to use the old textbook phrase, and provided the occasion for all the mutual vilification, rancor, self-righteousness, pride, spite, guilt, and general exacerbation of feeling, that was the natural atmosphere of the event, the climate in which the War grew. With slavery out of the way, a new feeling about union was possible. Despite bumbling and vindictiveness and deprivation, many a Southerner, in one part of the soul at least, must have felt much as did the planter's wife who referred to the War as the time Mr. Lincoln set her free. As there had been crypto-unionism in the Confederate psyche, so there had been a crypto-emancipationism, or at least a deep moral, logical, and economic unease. After 1865 the terms of life were a little clearer, and one of the things clearer was the possibility of another kind of relation to the union.
* * *
The new nation came not merely from a military victory. It came from many circumstances created or intensified by the War. The War enormously stimulated technology and productivity. Actually, it catapulted America from what had been in considerable part an agrarian, handicraft society into the society of Big Technology and Big Business. "Parallel with the waste and sorrows of war," as Allan Nevins puts it, "ran a stimulation of individual initiative, a challenge to large-scale planning, and an encouragement of co-operative effort, which in combination with new agencies for developing natural resources amounted to a great release of creative energy." The old sprawling, loosely knit country disappeared into the nation of Big Organization.
It is true that historians can debate the question whether, in the long run and in the long perspective, war — even wars of that old pre-atomic age — can stimulate creativity and production. And it is true that there had been a surge of technological development in the decade or so before 1861, followed, some maintain, by an actual decline in inventiveness during the War. But the question is not how many new inventions were made but how the existing ones were used. The little device of the "jig," which, back in 1798, had enabled Eli Whitney to make firearms with interchangeable parts led now to the great mass-production factories of the Civil War — factories used not merely for firearms but for all sorts of products. The Civil War demanded the great American industrial plant, and the industrial plant changed American society.
To take one trivial fact, the ready-made clothing industry was an offshoot of the mass production of blue uniforms — and would not this standardization of fashion, after the sartorial whim, confusion, fantasy and individualism of an earlier time, have some effect on man's relation to man? But to leap from the trivial to the grand, the War prepared the way for the winning of the West. Before the War a transcontinental railroad was already being planned, and execution was being delayed primarily by debate about the route to take, a debate which in itself sprang from, and contributed something to, the intersectional acrimony. After the War, debate did not long delay action. But the War did more than remove impediment to this scheme. It released enormous energies, new drives and know-how for the sudden and massive occupation of the continent. And for the great adventure there was a new cutting edge of profit.
Not only the industrial plant but the economic context in which industry could thrive came out of the War. The Morril tariff of 1861 actually preceded the firing on Sumter, but it was the mark of Republican victory and an omen of what was to come; and no session of Congress for the next four years failed to raise the tariff. Even more importantly came the establishment of a national banking system in place of the patchwork of state banks, and the issuing of national greenbacks to rationalize the crazy currency system of the state-bank notes. The new system, plus government subsidy, honed the cutting edge of profit. "The fact is that people have the money and they are looking around to see what to do with it," said the New York magnate William E. Dodge in a speech in Baltimore in 1865. At last, he said, there was indigenous capital to "develop the natural interests of the country." And he added, enraptured: "The mind staggers as we begin to contemplate the future."
The mind staggered, and the bookkeeping in New York by the new breed of businessmen fostered by the Civil War was as potent a control for the centrifugal impulses of the South and West as ever bayonet or railroad track. The pen, if not mightier than the sword, was very effective in consolidating what the sword had won — when the pen was wielded by the bookkeeper.
Not only New York bookkeeping but Washington bookkeeping was a new force for union. The war had cost money. Hamilton's dream of a national debt to insure national stability was realized, by issuing the bonds so efficiently peddled by Jay Cooke, to a degree astronomically beyond Hamilton's rosiest expectations. For one thing, this debt meant a new tax relation of the citizen to the Federal government, including the new income tax; the citizen had a new and poignant sense of the reality of Washington. But the great hand that took could also give, and with pensions and subsidies, the iron dome of the Capitol took on a new luster in the eyes of millions of citizens.
Furthermore, the War meant that Americans saw America. The farm boy of Ohio, the trapper of Minnesota, and the pimp of the Mackerelville section of New York City saw Richmond and Mobile. They not only saw America, they saw each other, and together shot it out with some Scot of the Valley of Virginia or ducked hardware hurled by a Louisiana Jew who might be a lieutenant of artillery, CSA. By the War, not only Virginia and Louisiana were claimed for the union. Ohio and Minnesota were, in fact, claimed too — claimed so effectively that for generations the memory of the Bloody Shirt and the GAR would prompt many a Middle-western farmer to vote almost automatically against his own interests.
* * *
The War claimed the Confederate States for the Union, but at the same time, paradoxically, it made them more Southern. Even during the War itself, there had been great and disintegrating tensions within the Confederacy. The doctrine of States' rights did more to wreck Confederate hopes than the Iron Brigade of Minnesota and the Twentieth of Maine put together, and split the South as effectively as Sherman's March to the Sea. But once the War was over, the Confederacy became a City of the Soul, beyond the haggling of constitutional lawyers, the ambition of politicians, and the jealousy of localisms.
In defeat the Solid South was born — not only the witless automatism of fidelity to the Democratic Party but the mystique of prideful "difference," identity, and defensiveness. The citizen of that region "of the Mississippi the bank sinister, of the Ohio the bank sinister," could now think of himself as a "Southerner" in a way that would have defied the imagination of Barnwell Rhett — or of Robert E. Lee, unionist-emancipationist Virginian. We may say that only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born; or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.
* * *
But let us leave the Southerner and his War, and return to the more general effects of the War on American life. It formed, for example, the American concept of war, and since the day when Grant tried his bold maneuver in the Wilderness and Lee hit him, military thinking at Washington has focused as much on problems of supply, transport, matériel, and attrition, as it ever did on problems of slashing tactics and grand strategy.
Furthermore, on land and sea, the Civil War was a war waged under new conditions and in a new economic, technological, political and moral context. The rules in the textbooks did not help very much. The man whose mind could leap beyond the book was apt to win. It was a war fought, on both sides, with the experimental intelligence, the experimental imagination, not only in the arena of lethal contact, but in the very speculations about the nature of war. Out of the Civil War came the concept of total war, the key to Northern Victory.
A people's way of fighting reflects a people's way of thinking, and the lessons of the fighting are very apt, in a kind of dialectical progression, to modify and refine the thinking. So it may be argued that the pragmatic bias of American philosophy is not without significant relation to the encounter between the Monitor and the Merrimac, the Confederate submarine, the earthworks of Petersburg or Atlanta, the observation balloon and field telegraph, General Herman Haupt's use of the railroad at Gettysburg, the new use of mounted riflemen, Grant's systematically self-nurtured gift for problem-solving, or Sherman's theory of war.
Not that the War created pragmatism, which, in one sense, has always existed as an aspect of the human intelligence; William James called it, as a matter of fact, a new name for an old way of thinking. Some scholars have claimed that it even bears a relationship to Transcendentalism; and it developed, of course, in the new atmosphere of science in the Western world. The War did something, however, to create a climate peculiarly favorable to the formulation of this aspect of intelligence as a philosophy.
More than one historian has found in Lincoln the model of the pragmatic mind. David Donald, in "Lincoln and the Pragmatic Tradition," says that no man ever distinguished more carefully between "is" and "ought to be," and on another aspect of pragmatism quotes him: "I concluded that it was better to make a rule for the practical matter in hand than to decide a general question." And T. Harry Williams says: "One of the keys to his thinking is his statement that few things in this world are wholly good or wholly bad. Consequently the position he took on specific political issues was always a pragmatic one. His personal or inner opinions were based on principle; his public or outer opinions were tempered by empiricism."
The philosopher Sidney Hook has found in much of Lincoln's thinking and action the essential doctrines of pragmatism, for instance in the message to Congress of 1862: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. ... As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew." But in Lincoln's whole course of action, even more fully than in his words, this modern pragmatist finds the core of his philosophy: "To be principled without being fanatical, and flexible without being opportunistic, summarizes the logic and ethics of pragmatism in action."
We may turn to a man who, young, fought in the Civil War and was thrice wounded, and who, old, modified American life by his "pragmatism in action." Justice Holmes held that the locus of law is not in the stars or in the statute book, but on the lips of the judge making the particular ruling; that "the life of law is not logic but experience," that is, "the felt necessities of the time"; that law is "predictive" of the way the force of society will act against those who would violate custom or those who would obstruct demanded change; that the document, say the Constitution (which he said is "an experiment as all life is an experiment"), cannot envisage the future contexts of applicability; that the process of seeking truth through the free collision, coil, and jar of ideas is more important than any particular "truth" found, for truth must be understood in the ever-unfolding context of needs and the I-can't-help of believing.
Excerpted from The Legacy of the Civil War by Robert Penn Warren. Copyright © 1961 Robert Penn Warren. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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