Civil War Term Paper

Pages: 15 (4049 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 16  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Drama - World

¶ … Civil War

Most of us, no matter where we spent our early years in the United States, were taught a version of American history in which the Civil War (and, indeed, the decade leading up to it) were marked by first an antagonism and then a bellicosity between a universally slaveholding South and a universally non-slaveholding North. A more careful reading of the historical record, however, shows quite clearly that the picture is rather more complicated.

The issue of slavery was more complicated than the usual picture of it, which does not given sufficient weight to the economic perspective and which fails to examine the differences between slave-holding and non-slave-holding Southerners. Most histories of the Civil War also leave out the shifting dynamics of what was happening in civil society on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

J.D.B. DeBow, in his Interest in Slavery of Southern Nonslaveholders, wrote in 1861 that secession was the only possible path for the South because it needed slaves to support its economy. While this fact is widely acknowledged about the Civil War, DeBow elevates this one aspect above all others, arguing that the central economic engines of the South were entirely dependent upon slave labor.

Not only did the slaves reduce the cost of labor (since they required room and board alone and provided for new labor through "natural increase") but they also drove down labor costs among the population of free workers because they had to compete with slaves. This attitude, obviously, was not one that most laborers themselves would support.

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The non-slaveholder of the South is assured that the remuneration afforded by his labor, over and above the expense of living, is larger than that which is afforded by the same labor in the free States. To be convinced of this, he has only to compare the value of labor in the Southern cities with those of the North, and to take note annually of the large number of laborers who are represented to be out of employment there, and who migrate to our shores

(http://civilwarcauses.org/debow.htm)

TOPIC: Term Paper on Civil War Most of Us, No Matter Assignment

Stephanie McCurry examines a very different aspect of the Civil War, but in even more significant ways (not surprising since she has the advantage of the intervening years to provide clarity) demonstrates how any accurate rendering of the war must include far more than what happened in battle. In much the same way that World War II would open up opportunities for civilian women at home, she writes that the Civil War allowed white women the chance to move out of the domestic sphere into the larger world.

The South's position, she writes, was not just about slavery but also encompassed a widely conservative view of society, and its defeat allowed for the enfranchisement of women as well as freed slaves. As these groups began to advocate for their own rights, they forced the Confederacy to fight (at least psychologically and economically) on a number of fronts at once, which was one of the key elements leading to the Union victory.

Women Numerous and Armed

In Chapter Five of her book Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, Stephanie McCurry writes about one of the lesser known (indeed, barely known) series of events during the Civil War: A series of riots led primarily by women who were frustrated to the point of violence by the lack of food. That this should have occurred during the Civil War, on the other hand, should not have been a surprise given that such riots have been a staple of wars since the classical world on. War brings on privations in the civilian sector that are usually downplayed in the aftermath of the war.

The stories that are most often told of the Civil War focus on the most important battles (Gettysburg, Bull Run, and Bull Run again), Lincoln's assassination, and the political and military pushes that led to the legal end of slavery. What is generally left out of the picture is any detailed description of the home front, especially in terms of how women were affected by the war. War diverts resources away from all forms of production that do not directly aid the war benefit, and even sometimes from those that do directly benefit the war effort.

The South was especially vulnerable to the kinds of food shortages that come to bear in any extended period of war because the great majority of its arable land was planted in non-food crops. Cotton and tobacco were the primary crops of the South before the Civil War, which had been a good economic strategy so long as trade routes were open because these crops were highly profitable. Once trade routes were shut down by the North, the value of the South's crops disappeared: Cotton and tobacco could not be eaten and there was enough time or resources once the war started to convert the large expanses of land to food crops.

The food riots during the war reflected a scarcity of food that had gotten worse during the war but that had already existed before Fort Sumter. Tax policies that favored tobacco and cotton meant that there were ongoing food shortages in the South that the war (and the resulting deflation of Confederate currency) made far worse. By March and April 1863, these structural problems in the economic and agricultural infrastructure of the South boiled over, made worse by a drought in 1862.

Both soldiers and women had reached their breaking point: They broke into stores, rampaged across planted fields, and ate farm animals. Of these two groups, it was the women's rioting that reflected the more important social changes that were happening in the South. The women had had an implicit contract with the men who ran the state and the army: The men would make decisions that would ensure that families would have enough to eat and a safe world in which to live.

McCurry writes that there were a dozen food riots in the spring of 1863 that saw up to hundreds of women violently attacked stores, government depots, granaries, railroad depots, and saltworks. (These last were highly valuable targets in an era when salt was the only effective food preservative.) the women came armed with everything from Bowie knives to repeater rifles, opening their own fronts of this bloody war.

The Terrain of Freedom

Berlin et al. ask their readers to widen their view of the causes and consequences of the Civil War by placing the American conflict within the sphere of Western democratic movements. While it is common to assess the American Revolution within the context of the Enlightenment that also brought egalitarian ideas to France (and brought its king to the guillotine), the Civil War is much less often examined within the larger context of ways in which democracy was being remade.

The Civil War is depicted as an essentially domestic affair, and this makes perfect sense seen from an American perspective. The cost in lives as well as wealth that the war exacted of Americans makes it difficult for Americans to consider how the war fits into a larger context. We have been taught to look for the answers to how the country came to be embroiled in a conflict that would stain its people for at least a century within the dynamics of American culture, politics, and economy. And certainly there is a clear necessity to understand how longstanding conflicts within American society to understand what brought the country to that point of bloodshed at that particular moment.

But no country is an island: The Civil War would not have had the shape that it did if European powers had not brought to the Civil War dynamics of their own. Both France and Britain teetered on the edge of entering the war as full-fledged combatants, attracted to a similar attitude of governance: The South was an aristocracy in much the same way that England and France were. Berlin et al. write that this essential similarity between philosophies of governance between the Confederacy and the two greatest powers of Europe drew the three nations together. but, they also write, there were cautionary winds blowing over Europe as well.

The monarchy of England, while still strong, was fading in power, ceding power to Parliament and thus the people. Supporting the South would have meant for England retreating along a path that the nation was determined to go forward on. France had smothered the power of its own revolution by bringing back its monarchy, first in its Bourbon form, and then (twice) as an empire that mirrored the empire of England. Thus is would have made sense for the French to join in with the Confederacy since the two were embracing imperialist forms of governance.

However, while such an alliance might have made sense, French leaders understood that the winds of political change were at their backs. The democratic ideals of the French Revolution had been diminished by the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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