Category Archives: Civil War
1864 elections went on during the Civil War – even though Lincoln thought it would be a disaster for himself and the Republican Party
The outlook was not promising in 1864 for President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed, wounded or displaced in a civil war with no end in sight. Lincoln was unpopular. Radical Republicans in his own party doubted his commitment to Black civil rights and condemned his friendliness to ex-rebels.
Momentum was building to replace him on the ballot with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. A pamphlet went viral arguing that “Lincoln cannot be re-elected to the Presidency,” warning that “The people have lost all confidence in his ability to suppress the rebellion and restore the Union.” An embarrassed Chase offered Lincoln his resignation, which the president declined.
The fact remained that no president had won a second term since Andrew Jackson, 32 years and nine presidents earlier. And no country had held elections in the midst of civil war.
Arguments for postponing
Some urged that the June Republican convention be postponed until September to give the Union one more shot at military victory. Other Republicans went further, arguing that the country should “postpone … a Presidential election for four years more … (until) the rebellion will not only be subdued, but the country will be tranquillized and restored to its normal condition.”
Holding the election during civil war would render “the vote … fraudulent,” argued the New York Sunday Mercury, in a widely reprinted article. The nation would “flame up in revolution, and the streets of our cities would run with blood.”
But Lincoln’s party renominated him. He was a canny political strategist who calculated that nominating Democratic Unionist and military Governor of Tennessee Andrew Johnson for vice president would attract disaffected Democrats and speed national reunification.
Johnson proved to be a disastrous choice for Black civil rights, but in 1864 his candidacy shrewdly balanced the ticket.
Yet a military victory that could also help Lincoln’s standing and prospects was elusive. General Ulysses S. Grant led the Overland Campaign against Confederates, led by General Robert E. Lee, across much of eastern Virginia that spring. After 55,000 Union casualties – about 45% of Grant’s army – Grant laid siege to Petersburg.
By the time Democrats met in August to nominate General George B. McClellan, there was still no end in sight to the war. Lincoln had removed McLellan from command of the Union Army of the Potomac in 1862, but the general was still a commissioned officer. Yet McClellan’s party was in disarray. He opposed a peace settlement with the Confederacy while the Democratic Party platform committed him to it.
Defeat ‘seems exceedingly probable’
Without scientific polling, Lincoln and his advisers predicted defeat.
At the end of August, Lincoln wrote to his Cabinet, “it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”
Abraham Lincoln understood that the war for the Union was about the integrity of a constitutional republic, not the president or the party. It was about “a new birth of freedom” and not about him. And that meant his victory in the election was less important to him than the fate of the entire country.
Yet Lincoln also made contingency plans in the event he lost, asking Frederick Douglass to help free enslaved people in rebel-held areas.
Soldiers vote absentee
It was a bitter campaign. Lincoln’s opponents tarred him with racist and bestial characterizations. Republicans fought back, charging Democrats with being treasonous.
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General Grant made sure soldiers voting absentee sent their mail-in ballots. He furloughed others to go home to vote in person.
Even on the eve of the election, there were still calls to delay or cancel the vote.
Lincoln, who would go on to win, assured those critics, “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
If the aim of statue removal is to build a more racially just South, then, as many analysts have pointed out, putting these monuments in storage is a lost opportunity. Simply unseating Confederate statues from highly visible public spaces is just the first step in a much longer process of understanding, grieving and mending the wounds of America’s violent past. Merely hiding away the monuments does not necessarily change the structural racism that birthed them.
Studies show that the environment in which statues are displayed shapes how people understand their meaning. In that sense, relocating monuments, rather than eliminating them, can help people put this painful history into context.
For example, monuments to Confederate war heroes first appeared in cemeteries immediately following the Civil War. That likely evoked in visitors a direct and private honoring and grieving for the dead.
By the early 1900s, hundreds of Confederate statues dotted courthouse lawns and town squares across the South. This prominent, centrally located setting on government property sent an intentionally different message: that local officials endorsed the prevailing white social order.
So what should we do with rejected Confederate monuments? We have a modest proposal: a Confederate statue graveyard.
Lessons from the Soviet past
Our research as cultural geographers recognizes that Confederate monument controversies – while typically considered regional or national issues – are in fact part of global struggles to recognize and heal from the wounds of racism, white supremacy and anti-democratic regimes.
The idea of a Confederate monument graveyard is modeled after ways that the former communist bloc nations of Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia have dealt with statues of Soviet heroes like Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.
Under communist Soviet rule between 1945 and 1991, Eastern European countries suffered mass starvation, land theft, military rule and rigid censorship. An estimated 15 million people in the Soviet bloc died during this totalitarian reign.
Despite these horrors, many countries have opted not to destroy or hide their Soviet-era monuments, but they haven’t left them to rule over city hall or public plazas, either.
Rather, governments in Eastern Europe have altered the meaning of these politically charged Soviet statues by relocating them. Dozens of Soviet statues across Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia have been pulled from their pedestals and placed in open-air parks, where interested visitors can reflect on their new significance.
The idea behind relocating monuments is to dethrone dominant historical narratives that, in their traditional places of power, are tacitly endorsed.
A statue graveyard
The Eastern European effort to create a new memorial landscape has been met with mixed public reaction.
In Hungary, some see it as a step in the right direction. But, in Lithuania, people have expressed that re-erecting the statues of known dictators is in “poor taste” – an affront to those who suffered under totalitarianism.
The relocation of Soviet statues in Estonia has taken an even more interesting turn.
For the past decade, the Estonian History Museum has been collecting former Soviet monuments with the intention of making an outdoor exhibition out of them. For years it kept a decapitated Lenin and a noseless Stalin, among other degraded Soviet relics, in a field next to the museum.
The statues weathered Eastern European winters and languished in a defunct, toppled state. Weeds grew over them. The elements took their toll.
Travel writer Michael Turtle, who visited the museum in 2015, called the field a “statue graveyard.”
“Everything here seems to fit into some kind of purgatorial limbo,” he wrote on his blog. “The statues are not respected enough to be displayed as history but are culturally significant enough to not just be destroyed.”
To this we would add that these old statues, when repurposed thoughtfully and intentionally, have the potential to mend old wounds.
Confederate monument graveyard
What if the United States created its own graveyard for the distasteful relics of its own racist past?
We envision a cemetery for the American South where removed Confederate statues would be displayed, perhaps, in a felled position – a visual condemnation of the white supremacy they fought to uphold. Already crumpled monuments, like the statue to “The Boys Who Wore Grey” that was forcefully removed from downtown Durham, North Carolina, might be placed in the Confederate statue graveyard in their defunct state.
One art critic has even suggested that old monuments be physically buried under tombstones with epitaphs written by the descendants of those they enslaved.
We are not the first to suggest relocating Confederate statues.
That has proven challenging for curators.
When The University of Texas moved a statue of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its pedestal on campus to a campus museum, some students criticized the ensuing exhibit’s “lack of focus on racism and slavery.” One suggested that the statue’s new setting inadvertently glorified Davis, given the inherent value conferred on objects in museums.
And since statues in museums are typically exhibited in their original, upright position, Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee still tower over visitors – maintaining an imposing sense of authority.
We believe felled and crumpled monuments, in contrast, would create a somber commemorative atmosphere that encourages visitors to grieve – without revering – their legacy. A carefully-planned and aesthetically sensitive Confederate monument graveyard could openly and purposefully undermine the power these monuments once held, acknowledging, dissecting and ultimately rejecting the Confederacy’s roots in slavery.
Planning a Confederate monument graveyard will prompt many questions. Where should it be located? Will there be one central Confederate monument graveyard or many? Who will design and plan the graveyard?
Answering these questions would not just be part of a conversation about steel and stone but about the serious pursuit of peace, justice and racial healing in the nation — and about putting the Old South to rest.
Flailing devil-horn brows; cross-eyed glare; hooked nose; unkempt beard; angular cheek bones; reckless hair, and hands bound in the dark corners of canvas. That’s John Brown, as depicted by Ole Peter Hansen Balling in earthy oil-paint tones, circa 1872.
It was my fourth visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Airy, flush green olive trees, showery water fountains, golden shards of light; it beat the stuffy DC summer streets and the even stuffier Library of Congress newspaper reading room. But on this occasion, I paid particular attention to the opening line of the box of text beneath Balling’s portrait:
There were those who noted a touch of insanity in abolitionist John Brown …
It reminded me of a display I had seen at the Gettysburg Battlefield Museum just a few weeks earlier. A bold, capital-lettered, mega-font question was emblazoned on the wall, next to a rusty pike and a picture of Brown:
JOHN BROWN. MARTYR OR MADMAN?
And here I was, back at the gallery, staring at the same man, asking myself that same question, like thousands before me.
Born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800, Brown remains, over a century and a half after his death, one of the most fiercely debated and contested figures in 19th-century American history.
On the evening of October 16, 1859, just months before the American Civil War fully ignited, Brown led a band of raiders into the small town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in a bid to instigate a slave rebellion. Brown’s plan was to seize federal ammunition supplies and arm slaves with rifles, pikes and weaponry in order to strike fear into slave-holding Virginians, and catalyse further revolts in the south.
Greatly outnumbered by local militia and government marines, he was swiftly captured and sentenced to hang, which he did on December 2, 1859.
A symbolic man
While some abolitionists immediately labelled Brown a heroic martyr, others more cautiously warned against his violent approach. Southern newspapers, on the other hand, expressed disgust at how this violent madman could ever be deemed heroic.
Since the 1860s, Brown has been a symbolic cultural resource for interest groups to draw upon, define, explain, or galvanise a course of action or belief. Depending on one’s point of view, he has variously been claimed a heroic martyr for African Americans, one of the greatest Americans of all time, a cold-blooded killer and even America’s first terrorist. But is there a historical “truth” to whether he was actually (partisan bias aside) madman or martyr?
The very idea of martyrdom tends to proliferate during periods of social change and historical action. Martyr stories are also marked by personal quests, violence, institutional execution, and dramatic final actions that heroically demonstrate a commitment to a cause with disregard for one’s own life.
Brown’s violent raid at Harper’s Ferry at the dawn of the Civil War, his theologically-infused commitment to ending slavery, and institutional hanging fit perfectly into these historical patterns of socio-religious martyrdom. So why the “madman” moniker?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “madman” as:
A man who is insane; a lunatic. Also more generally (also hyperbolically): a person who behaves like a lunatic, a wildly foolish person.
Problematically, the first part of the definition – “insane” – connotes a mentally ill male, unable to fully control their physical and mental faculties.
But Brown was committed to his final act, and recognised violence, imprisonment and sacrifice as a forum for abolitionism. Consequently, it might be argued that his actions suggest a form of heightened (rather than lack of) self-control, something you’d expect of a martyr.
However, the second part – to behave like a “lunatic” or “wildly foolish” person – more aptly describes Brown’s personality. There is certainly a case for considering Brown’s final act at Harper’s Ferry to be “wildly foolish”. Even his most famous supporters such as Frederick Douglass described it as cold-blooded, if well intended.
Even if a present-day medical, neurobiological, or psychological analysis of Brown was possible, however, his actions would surely be considered outside the realms of what psychologists call a healthy “clinical population”. That is, his class of behaviours stretched beyond the limits – psychological, mental, physical – of the normative masses. Which begs the bigger question: is it not a streak “madness” that always makes a martyr?
So, the futile question of whether Brown was madman or martyr is irrelevant: Brown was, and will continue to be, both.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the American Civil War, and Gen. George Pickett’s infantry charge on July 3, 1863, was the battle’s climax. Had the Confederate Army won, it could have continued its invasion of Union territory. Instead, the charge was repelled with heavy losses. This forced the Confederates to retreat south and end their summer campaign.
Pickett’s Charge consequently became known as the Confederate “high water mark.” Countless books and movies tell its story. Tourists visit the battlefield, re-enactors refight the battle and Civil War roundtable groups discuss it. It still reverberates in ongoing American controversies over leaders statues, Confederate flags and civil rights.
Why did the charge fail? Could it have worked if the commanders had made different decisions? Did the Confederate infantry pull back too soon? Should Gen. Robert E. Lee have put more soldiers into the charge? What if his staff had supplied more ammunition for the preceding artillery barrage? Was Gen. George Meade overly cautious in deploying his Union Army?
Politicians and generals began debating those questions as soon as the battle ended. Historians and history buffs continue to do so today.
Data from conflict used to build model
That debate was the starting point for research I conducted with military historian Steven Sondergren at Norwich University. (A grant from Fulbright Canada funded my stay at Norwich.) We used computer software to build a mathematical model of the charge. The model estimated the casualties and survivors on each side, given their starting strengths.
We used data from the actual conflict to calibrate the model’s equations. This ensured they initially recreated the historical results. We then adjusted the equations to represent changes in the charge, to see how those affected the outcome. This allowed us to experiment mathematically with several different alternatives.
The first factor we examined was the Confederate retreat. About half the charging infantry had become casualties before the rest pulled back. Should they have kept fighting instead? If they had, our model calculated that they all would have become casualties too. By contrast, the defending Union soldiers would have suffered only slightly higher losses. The charge simply didn’t include enough Confederate soldiers to win. They were wise to retreat when they did.
We next evaluated how many soldiers the Confederate charge would have needed to succeed. Lee put nine infantry brigades, more than 10,000 men, in the charge. He kept five more brigades back in reserve. If he had put most of those reserves into the charge, our model estimated it would have captured the Union position. But then Lee would have had insufficient fresh troops left to take advantage of that success.
Ammunition ran out
We also looked at the Confederate artillery barrage. Contrary to plans, their cannons ran short of ammunition due to a mix-up with their supply wagons. If their generals had better coordinated those supplies, the cannons could have fired twice as much. Our model calculated that this improved barrage would have been like adding one more infantry brigade to the charge. That is, the supply mix-up hurt the Confederate attack, but was not decisive by itself.
Finally, we considered the Union Army. After the battle, critics complained that Meade had focused too much on preparing his defences. This made it harder to launch a counter-attack later. However, our model estimated that if he had put even one less infantry brigade in his defensive line, the Confederate charge probably would have succeeded. This suggests Meade was correct to emphasize his defense.
Pickett’s Charge was not the only controversial part of Gettysburg. Two days earlier, Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell decided against attacking Union soldiers on Culp’s Hill. He instead waited for his infantry and artillery reinforcements. By the time they arrived, however, it was too late to attack the hill.
Was Ewell’s Gettysburg decision actually wise?
Ewell was on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for missing that opportunity. Capturing the hill would have given the Confederates a much stronger position on the battlefield. However, a failed attack could have crippled Ewell’s units. Either result could have altered the rest of the battle.
A study at the U.S. Military Academy used a more complex computer simulation to estimate the outcome if Ewell had attacked. The simulation indicated that an assault using only his existing infantry would have failed with heavy casualties. By contrast, an assault that also included his later-arriving artillery would have succeeded. Thus, Ewell made a wise decision for his situation.
Both of these Gettysburg studies used mathematics and computers to address historical questions. This blend of science and humanities revealed insights that neither specialty could have uncovered on its own.
That interdisciplinary approach is characteristic of “digital humanities” research more broadly. In some of that research, scholars use software to analyze conventional movies and books. Other researchers study digital media, like computer games and web blogs, where the software instead supports the creative process.
The link below is to an article containing an infographic that maps the US Civil War.
The link below is to a massive resource on the US Civil War – well worth a look.
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