Upgrade to the Flash 9 viewer for enhanced content, including the ability to browse & search through your favorite titles.
Click here to learn more!
“The fact that slavery is the sole undeniable cause of this infamous rebellion, that it is a war of, by, and for Slavery, is as plain as the noon-day sun.”  So claimed the farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers who made up the 13th Wisconsin Infantry in February 1862. The white Southerners who made up Morgan’s Confederate Brigade might not have seen eye to eye with the Wisconsin men on much in 1862, but they agreed that “any man who pretends to believe that this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks . . . is either a fool or a liar.”  Two years later, black men in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery reminded each other, “upon your prowess, discipline, and character; depend the destinies of four millions of people and the triumph of the principles of freedom and self government of this great republic.”  These soldiers plainly identified slavery as the root of the Civil War. Just as plainly, by “slavery,” they did not mean some abstract concept or a detached philosophical metaphor for ideas about freedom, but rather the actual enslavement of human beings in the United States based on race.
Yet to say that soldiers placed slavery at the center of the war is to open rather than solve a mystery. Neither the authors nor intended audiences of these remarks held high office or made policy. Few owned slaves, and few of the white soldiers thought of themselves as abolitionists. They were instead very ordinary men of the type unlikely to figure into historical inquiries into the causes of the Civil War, and often assumed, even by historians from both the North and the South who for decades have acknowledged that without slavery there would have been no Civil War in the United States, to be little more than pawns swept up in events they probably did not understand, let alone consent to or shape. Members of the general public recognize even less of a connection between soldiers, slavery, and the Civil War. My most recent reminder of this sobering truism came at a wedding in September 2005 when a man from Buffalo, New York who had no idea what I do for a living spent more than an hour insisting that slavery had nothing to do with the conflict. And who can blame him? The Confederate ranks consisted primarily of men who owned no slaves, and historians have not convincingly explained why those men would fight a war they knew was waged to prevent the destruction of slavery. At the same time, scant numbers of the white men who filed into the Union Army had ever laid eyes on a slave, though most harbored their own prejudice against black people, so why would they fight to end slavery? And why would more than 180,000 black men fight for a government that had smiled on the enslavement of members of their race for its entire existence? What, in other words, did a “war about slavery” mean to the men who fought the Civil War, and why would it be important enough to fight?
This book is about what ordinary soldiers thought about the relationship between slavery and the Civil War. It is not about soldiers’ motivations for enlisting, for individuals chose to do that for widely varied reasons. Seldom did a man enlist for money, since the pay was low and unreliable. Few joined the military because they were forced; both Union and Confederate armies overwhelmingly consisted of volunteers. Many enlisted out of senses of duty or personal honor. Some became soldiers in order to take part in what they assumed would be the biggest adventure of their lives. While some Northerners entered the ranks to eradicate slavery, others enlisted to preserve the Union with small concern for enslaved African Americans. In the South, many took up arms to safeguard their own slave property or their hopes to own slaves one day, while others shouldered rifles out of the belief that doing so protected their homes and families. Yet in spite of these and the countless other reasons that sent individual Northerners and Southerners into the ranks, broad consensus existed within each army as to why a war needing to be fought existed in the first place. Whatever else occupied their minds, ordinary Union and Confederate soldiers recognized slavery as the reason for the war, and the purpose of this book is to figure out why that was, and what it meant for the war and the nation.
Most Confederate soldiers owned no slaves, and more than anything else in the world, they cared about the interests and well-being of their own families. Why, then, would an ordinary, non-slaveholding white southern man readily identify slavery as the reason for the war, and why would he consider it important enough to himself and his family to imperil both in a fight to prevent its abolition? Why would men continue to fight for four desperate years, through military catastrophes like Gettysburg and Atlanta and through political disasters like the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln, and then stop in the spring of 1865?
Why would most white Northerners, who knew no black people, and who may or may not have viewed slavery as vaguely distasteful but certainly would not have sympathized with the antebellum abolitionist movement, care enough about an abstract concept like the “Union” to fight a war that, they, too, knew would never have happened if not for the institution of slavery? And if enlisted Union troops so vigorously opposed emancipation (as many historians and even more members of the general public, including the wedding guest from Buffalo, have long supposed), then why did the mass desertions predicted to occur in the wake of emancipation not happen? Did soldiers possess different attitudes toward slavery and its abolition than we have assumed? How did those attitudes compare to their ideas about racial equality and civil rights for black people? And how did the experiences of war and of interacting with black Americans (for the first time, in the case of many white Union soldiers) influence ordinary men’s views?
Black men who joined the Union ranks harbored few delusions about the United States’ long and complicated relationship to slavery or about white Northerners’ attitudes toward blacks. As the soldiers of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery pointed out, by 1860 slavery might have existed only in the southern states, but it still cast its “baleful shadow over the whole land from Maine to Texas.” Even after the war began, “the North . . . despised the offer of her most loyal men” and barred blacks from the Army.  Why would African American men struggle so determinedly to join an Army that at first refused them, and then once it did accept them, paid them less and prohibited them from becoming officers until the final year of the war? What did black troops expect the war and its aftermath to bring?
This book departs from other books about Civil War soldiers because it places its primary focus on what soldiers thought about slavery. It does so because soldiers themselves did so. Rather than discussing slavery as one among many topics that soldiers addressed during the war, this book moves slavery from the periphery of soldiers’ mental worlds, where subsequent generations have tried to relegate it, and returns slavery to its rightful place at the center of soldiers’ views of the struggle. In so doing, it alters our view of the Civil War in several ways. It eliminates the need to explain away a war about slavery as either a war about something else or a war imposed on unwitting nonslaveholding soldiers (despite those soldiers’ own clear statements to the contrary) and instead helps unravel precisely why nonslaveholding Southerners would fight a war to protect slavery. Trying to understand why slavery mattered to the Confederate rank-and-file, rather than fabricating a view that we find more comforting or appealing, illuminates how and why enlisted Confederates held on as long as they did, and it also modifies our understanding of the timing of the war’s end.
Seeking to understand, rather than deny or assume, the centrality of slavery also sheds light on how 19th century Americans, especially Southerners, defined what it meant to be a man. While white Union soldiers did not articulate a clear relationship between slavery and manhood, white Southerners closely linked the two. A true man protected and controlled dependents, which for white Southerners meant that a man competently exercised mastery over blacks (whether or not he owned any) as well as over women and children. It also meant that a man took care of his family and sheltered his loved ones from harm, including the almost unimaginable harm that white Southerners feared emancipation would bring, because they assumed that slaves released from bondage would terrorize, murder, and violate vulnerable white women and children. Ironically, black Southerners (and even northern free blacks) also took for granted a relationship between slavery and manhood. For bondmen, the institution of slavery made true manhood impossible because it robbed a black man of the ability to protect his family from sale or to shelter his loved ones from violence or sexual violation at the hands of white masters. While slavery was necessary to white Southerners’ conception of manhood, in other words, it was antithetical to manhood among black men.
Placing slavery at the center of soldiers’ ideas about the war also recasts much of what we know about white Union soldiers by providing a new understanding of when Union soldiers began to support emancipation, which in turn reveals a new emphasis on ordinary enlisted Union soldiers as agents of change who shaped the progress and outcome of the war. Few white Northerners initially joined the Union rank-and-file specifically to stamp out slavery, and most shared the anti-black prejudices common to their day, especially when the war began. Yet the shock of war itself and soldiers’ interactions with slaves, who in many cases were the first black people northern men had ever met, changed Union troops’ minds fast. At first, white Union soldiers had little trouble separating their ideas about slavery from their racist attitudes and saw no contradiction between demanding an end to slavery even while disputing any notion of black equality or opposing any suggestion of increased rights for black people. Yet as the war dragged on, even attitudes as stubborn as white Union troops’ anti-black prejudices shifted with the tide of the war, sometimes advancing and other times regressing. By the end of the war, white northern opinions about racial equality and civil rights, intractable though they had seemed in 1861, were far more malleable and vulnerable to intense self-scrutiny among Union troops than anyone could have imagined when the war first began.
Attention to Union soldiers’ early shifts on slavery allows this book to enter . . . the conversation about how slavery ended. Some historians chiefly credit slaves themselves, who weakened the institution of slavery by their actions during the war, and who forced a war for Union to become a war against slavery by using their physical presence to make it impossible for Union Army Generals and political leaders like President Lincoln to ignore or shunt aside the question of slavery.  Other historians acknowledge individual slaves’ actions as instrumental in securing their own individual freedom (a slave who ran away to the Union Army did indeed free himself), but argue that ending the institution of slavery required the exercise of governmental power, and therefore President Abraham Lincoln, who issued and stuck with the Emancipation Proclamation and championed the Thirteenth Amendment (unlike his 1864 presidential opponent, George McClellan, who would have done neither) bears primary responsibility for destroying slavery in the United States.  This book argues that the enlisted men in the Union Army provided the crucial link between slaves and policy makers. Slaves themselves did force emancipation onto the Union agenda even when most white Northerners would have preferred to ignore it, but one of the most important and earliest ways they did so was by converting enlisted Union soldiers who, in 1861 and 1862 developed into emancipation advocates who expected their views to influence the prosecution of the war. Slaves convinced enlisted soldiers, who modified both their beliefs and their behavior. In turn, the men of the rank-and-file used letters, camp newspapers, and their own actions to influence the opinions of civilians and leaders who, lacking soldiers’ direct contact with slaves, the South, and the experience of living on the front lines in a war that most people wanted over, lagged behind soldiers in their stances on emancipation.
To be sure, [soldiers] did not spend night and day thinking about the slavery issue, and most probably preferred to push it as far from the forefront of their minds as possible, but once the war came, they could not, and more importantly, did not, ignore it. Some historians have criticized (implicitly or explicitly) the study of Civil War soldiers as something of an escape hatch offering authors and readers a way to avoid wrestling with difficult and sometimes painful ideological questions about the war.  Even some veterans in their later years did their best to suppress the role of slavery, and even to deny that soldiers possessed any ideological awareness at all. Most famously, an aging Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior sighed three decades after the end of the war, “there is one thing I do not doubt . . . and that is that the faith is true and adorable which sends a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands.” But that wistful sentimentalism flies in the face of much harder nosed reality that soldiers confronted during the war itself. If we listen to what soldiers had to say as they fought the Civil War, the men in the ranks do not allow us to duck the uncomfortable issue of human slavery, but rather take us right to the heart of it. They force us to look at it unflinchingly, and what is more, to see it as a national, not simply southern, issue that defined a war and shaped a nation.
 The Wisconsin Volunteer, Feb. 6, 1862, Leavenworth, KS, p. 3, KSHS. The Wisconsin Volunteer was the paper of the 13th WI.
 The Vidette Nov. 2, 1862, Springfield, TN, p. 3, TSLA. Newspaper of Morgan’s Confederate Brigade.
 The Black Warrior, May 17, 1864, Camp Parapet, LA, p. 2, SHSW. The Black Warrior was the camp paper of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.
 See, for example, Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 Series I, Volume I, The Destruction of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1-56; Ira Berlin, Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Vincent Harding, The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1981).
 See, for example, LaWanda Cox, Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981); James M. McPherson, “Who Freed the Slaves?” in Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
 See, for example, David Blight, “For Something Beyond the Battlefield:” Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War,” Journal of American History 75:4 (March 1989), 1156-1178, especially pp. 1162-63 and Miller, Arguing About Slavery, 3-4.
 Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “The Soldier’s Faith,” May 30, 1895, in Richard A. Posner, ed., The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 89. For later suppression of slavery’s place in the war, see David W. Blight, Race and Reunion The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
From the Hardcover edition.