Ralph Peters’ Civil War Insights – Part 1
‘Battle of Corinth, Miss., Oct. 4th 1862.’ Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1862. Library of Congress.
During the 150th anniversary month of the end of the Civil War acclaimed strategist and best-selling author Ralph Peters shares his superb insight on America’s bloodiest conflict in ArmchairGeneral.com’s exclusive 3-part article series. One part will appear each week for three weeks in April 2015. He begins Part 1 with an examination of some of the myths and misconceptions we hold about that war and its participants.
Our Civil War has haunted me for over a half-century. Since childhood, I’ve read about it and visited every battlefield I could. Later, I studied it seriously and taught it to fellow military officers. Then I wrote novels about it. I’m still writing and still learning: The Civil War is inexhaustible, with new sources of information still emerging. Along my pilgrim’s path, I’ve met some surprises and some of my initial beliefs have changed—usually notions based on “common knowledge” that wasn’t very knowledgeable. So as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of that still-echoing war, I’d like to share a few insights—none of which were on the mind of the nine-year-old boy whose father took him to the centennial reenactment of First Manassas.
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There’s always another side to the story. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of perspective, of weighing opposing beliefs, but all too often we inherit only one set of heroes, whether in gray or blue. Yet, it was a rare battle or campaign in which the valor was only on one side. The common belief in the overall superiority of the Confederate cavalry is a good example. Early in the war, that certainly was the case, but by 1863 the old military maxim that it takes two years to train a cavalryman proved true and Yankee horsemen became increasingly capable. The real revolution arrived in 1864, driven by then–Major General Philip Sheridan and the Spencer repeating carbine. As Rebel horsemen struggled to provide fodder for hungry, worn-out mounts, well-provisioned Union troopers pioneered innovative cavalry tactics that European armies still had not figured out by 1914. Sheridan’s integration of mounted and dismounted tactics, as well as his employment of true combined-arms operations, bore a closer resemblance to mechanized operations late in World War Two than to the inept Austrian and unimaginative Prussian cavalry tactics at the massive battle of Koeniggraetz in 1866. We were pioneers, not laggards.
Another classic case of the “other side of the story” comes from the splendid stand of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg. Few realize that the opposing Confederates of the 15th Alabama had force-marched more than twenty miles in the July heat, only to be hurried into battle on unfamiliar terrain, with inadequate orders and empty canteens. And still those ferocious Johnnies, led by a marvelous wild-man, Colonel William C. Oates, managed to launch at least four and possibly five assaults on the flank of Little Round Top. The guts were on both sides, but we recall the glory of only one.
The myth of Johnny Reb, the greatest of infantrymen, happens to be true. Not only the courage and combat skill, but the sheer endurance of the Confederate foot soldier may have been equaled in a few other armies over the millennia, but none could claim the least superiority. Especially (but not only) in the Army of Northern Virginia, the physical toughness, fighting ability and raw determination of those men remains astonishing. Billy Yank showed plenty of courage, too, and yes, the Southern armies had their share of shirkers and deserters, but the fact that most Johnnies fought on against crushing odds, hungry, louse-infested and flea-bitten, clothed in rags and exposed to the elements, often sick and usually emaciated…the more I study those men, the more I admire them.
The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of bravery, not slavery. I’m a Yankee, born and bred, and my personal sympathies lie with the Northern cause (although, in writing, I strive to be even-handed). To me, though, that red flag with the blue St. Andrews cross strewn with white stars does not symbolize slavery—that’s nonsense—but the stunning bravery of those who fought beneath it. I object to flying the flag of the Confederate States of America, but not to displaying that battle flag. Let me be clear: I don’t believe the battle flag should be prostituted to politics or misused for bigotry. But its legacy is one of heroism, not hatred, and deserving of respect. I have to note, though, that when I see that flag on a vehicle with West Virginia plates, I’m inclined to remind the driver that his or her state only exists because their ancestors sided with the Union.
The Southern states were divided from the start. We’re more apt to hear of Northern Copperheads and anti-draft riots, but a fatal weakness of the South was its lack of unity—and worsening disunity, as the war progressed. Every governor wanted to fight his own war and to husband resources at home. The “mountain South” differed culturally from the plantation-dominated society of the low country and mountain populations tilted strongly toward the Union. Not only did West Virginia peel to form a new state, but eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina felt it was not their war. Even up-country Alabama and Georgia had their dissenters.
As the war dragged on, anti-Confederacy feeling in North Carolina reached such a pitch that Confederate president Jefferson Davis repeatedly pushed the governor, Zebulon Vance, to crack down on pro-Union sentiment … but Vance understood full well that doing so would lead to an explosion. A brilliant politician, Vance kept North Carolina in the war by pushing a carefully crafted “peace” program that cunningly stressed that peace should not be bought at a shameful price. A paradox to the end was that North Carolina regiments were among the bravest in the Confederate armies, but North Carolina units also faced soaring desertion rates as the war turned increasingly hopeless.
The South was legally right, but morally wrong; the North was legally wrong, but morally right. On one hand, all states had joined the United States of America voluntarily and none had explicitly pledged that the bond would be eternally indissoluble. On the other—contrary to revisionists—the war was fought over slavery. There were many other factors, but none that would have led to war in the absence of the “peculiar institution.” Simply put, had we somehow subtracted slavery from the American equation early in the nineteenth century, 750,000 of our ancestors would not have died in battle or from camp diseases. Yes, the war was about states’ rights: the right to preserve slavery.
Lincoln had a personal toughness Jefferson Davis lacked. Lincoln’s image is kindlier and his soul was the greater, but Davis had a stronger sense of loyalty to his friends. Lincoln learned to fire generals without remorse, but his counterpart—tragically for the Confederacy—had favorites whom he protected to the end. Lincoln sometimes had to wait for the right time to remove politically influential officers, but Davis defied politics and military evidence to keep generals such as Braxton Bragg or Leonidas Polk in major commands long after they’d proven inadequate.
Even when forced to remove old friends, Davis found them other high-level positions, drawing scorn from Confederate legislators, editors and private citizens. Lincoln had no friends among his generals—although he developed a unique bond with Grant. Lincoln was the all-time master of the aw-shucks pose, while Davis was snappish and self-destructively arrogant. Lincoln conciliated, Davis alienated. Davis demanded that men obey him, while Lincoln possessed a genius for persuading men that they wanted to do what he needed them to do. To a great extent, the outcome of the war was decided long before Appomattox, back when the respective sides selected their presidents.
End of Part 1. Click here to read Part 2.
Ralph Peters is the author of the prize-winning Civil War novels Cain at Gettysburg and Hell or Richmond, as well as of the new novel, Valley of the Shadow, which recreates the struggle between Sheridan and Early in the autumn of 1864. A long-time member of the Armchair General team, Ralph is a former enlisted man and a retired Army officer who now appears as Fox News’ Strategic Analyst.
Nice start! I agree with you that revisionist historians want to stress states’ rights as the cause of the Civil War, but without slavery it wouldn’t have happened. At the university that I studied at, military history was treated as an icky topic. As a consequence, even students with a degree in history were woefully ignorant of the Civil War, which mirrors our society as a whole.
The votes by state legislatures to secede cannot be judged to be legal for the following reasons:
1. These legislative actions did not necessarily represent the popular will of the US citizens residing within those states. Case in point, West Virginia exists today precisely because the legislators in Richmond attempted to deprive the residents of those western counties of their rights to maintain their homes, property, and their livelihoods within the boundaries of the United States. Similarly you noted within your article that large portions of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama had not chosen to join the Confederacy and felt disaffected.
Not one of the Confederate state governments ever placed the specific question of secession up to a popular vote of their citizens, the one move that might have lent some legal legitimacy to such a critical and far reaching decision.
2. The Confederate state governments claimed and seized federal property as part of their secessions, many times with the use of force and violence, in the months before formal hostilities began. Everything from armories, arsenals, forts, naval vessels, port facilities, artillery pieces, rifles, bridges, dams, and a whole host of other properties that were built and maintained by federal money from all the states was seized.
Not one Conferderate state government ever proposed or even considered compensating the US government for these thefts.
3. The entire theory of secession is based on the idea that the states were at one time independent government entities that freely chose to incorporate themselves into the United States. However, that argument would only be applicable to those states that been the original 13 British colonies and the Republic of Texas. Others that had begun as federal territories that were subsequently incorporated into states via federal action would not meet the theoretical qualification of having been an independent foreign government choosing to become part of the United States. States such as Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi were always part of US territory and were never independent or foreign entities that freely chose to opt into becoming US territory. So they would not have had the right to return to being independent.
With respect to point 1, can it be said that the adoption of the Constitution reflected the popular will, as the adoption decision was made by state legislatures and not by general plebiscites? Same with the decision to secede from Great Britain in 1776? There were segments of the American and colonial populations whose preferences were not reflected in these decisions. Should we consider these decisions invalid? Certainly the declaration of independence from Britain was illegal.
As for your second point, that the US government was not compensated for its property seized by the Confederacy. Did the American colonies compensate Great Britain for any of its property “illegally” seized or destroyed during their secession struggle?
Your third point, that maybe the states derived from preexisting colonies or states like Texas (a political entity that seceded from Mexico) may have some claim to secede, but those states that became states from territories of the US wouldn’t may have some merit in a modern legalistic sense, but to me it is a notion that reminds me of Mussolini’s fascist dictum: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Not quite an idea in the spirit of 1776.
1. Comparing the legal and historic atmosphere of mid-18th century British America to that of the mid-19th century United States is one of vast differences. The British colonists would not have had the legal rights and protections to allow for organized popular plebiscites on the question of independence from Great Britain. On the other hand, US citizens in the Antebellum South had the rights to Freedom of Speech and Assembly and the legal right to vote. In addition, they had the traditions, established procedures, institutions, and improved transportation and communication networks (notably the railroad and telegraph) that greatly expedited their ability to hold elections compared to their 18th century ancestors. In fact, a popular vote on a non-binding resolution concerning secession would have been and would still be completely legal, case in point: the recent vote by some northern Colorado counties on the question of seceding from that state.
2. The Treaty of Paris of 1783, specifically Articles 4, 5, 6, and 9, addressed America and Britain compensating for properties seized, lost or damaged.
3. My argument on the illegitimacy of secession is based on the arguments used by the secessionists themselves, which were not internally logical. Their claim for the legitimacy of their action was based on a belief that each Confederate State had a basis in reality as an independent agency outside of or prior to the existence of the United States and thus owed no debt or allegiance to the US for their existence and could freely come and go based solely on their unilateral decision.
Peters asserts the common view that slavery was the issue over which the Civil War was fought. Slavery was certainly a cause among many in the decision for secession. However, Lincoln himself repeatedly stated that his purpose in pursuing his war against the Confederacy was to preserve the Union. This primary war goal is an effort against secession, not slavery. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address he disclaims his power or intention to abolish slavery and devotes 26 out of 35 paragraphs to attacking the idea of secession. In his speech he states that “Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” In Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley we have his statement that “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Lincoln’s concern was with preserving the government in Washington’s power over all of the states. He justified this by asserting that the Union was perpetual and indissoluble. I believe it is safe to state that whatever issue or issues led to secession, Lincoln would have pursued his war regardless, because secession was the issue over which the war was fought. Slavery came later as a justification, an idea that did not sit well with many in the North, including its soldiers.
The causes of the war long predated Lincoln becoming a politician. Slavery consumed American politics long before the war and is the one central issue that without, the events leading up to the war don’t make sense. States’ rights, as Peters puts it, was about the right to hold slaves. Southern politicians of the day didn’t hide from that fact, they believed they were morally correct. Its actually quite shocking to modern ears to read congressional transcripts before the war. I think the Southern politicians of the day speak quite well for themselves.
Thank you Col. Peters, a very enjoyable and worthwhile read. I find your points quite in line with Shelby Foote’s trilogy, and applaud the even-handed analysis that always makes for a better story. I had learned as a Southern boy that slavery was wrong and The Cause was right. The worst tragedy of slavery beyond the obvious was that it gave moral impetus for Lincoln to prosecute an otherwise indefensible policy, forever increasing the primacy of central power over local freedoms.
“I have to note, though, that when I see that flag on a vehicle with West Virginia plates, I’m inclined to remind the driver that his or her state only exists because their ancestors sided with the Union.”
Before you do that you should know more about West Virginia history, as half of West Virginia’s soldiers were Confederate and half the counties in the state voted for secession from the United States. It was the only border state that did not give most of its soldiers to the Union.
See Curry’s “A House Divided”, map, pg. 49. Also Mark Snell’s “West Virginia in the Civil War”, pg. 28.
The state only exists because most of Congress, Lincoln, and the Confederate defeat. Less than 24% of West Virginians voted for statehood.
” Simply put, had we somehow subtracted slavery from the American equation early in the nineteenth century, 750,000 of our ancestors would not have died in battle or from camp diseases. Yes, the war was about states’ rights: the right to preserve slavery“
Morally right to slaughter so many people, including 100000 slaves, to end slavery?
Would it have been morally right to slaughter that many people in northern states in , say, 1790 because they had slaves? How about if Mexico had invaded the US in 1820 to end the slavery that still existed in most United States? Or Canada 🇨🇦? You’d be OK with that?
One invasion is as good as another.