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The American Civil War Ended 153 Years Ago Today – as good an anniversary as any.

May 26, 2015


The American Civil War (or… if you are one of those unhappy and deluded people who is  inclined to get soppy about slave-driven secessionism – USA-CSA War,  “War of Northern Aggression”? etc. etc.) did not have one all defining end date.

There are various options and various 152nd anniversaries which have come and gone and which are currently going…

Capture of Confederate Capital Richmond?    3 April 1865

Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox?   9 April 1865?

Dissolution of Confederate Government? 5 May 1865?

Arrest of Jefferson Davis?  10 May 1865?

President Johnson’s proclamation of peace?  20 August 1865

Surrender of the CSS Shenandoah?  6 November 1865

Removal of the last symbols of Confederate resistance to Federal authority?   ????AD

But if you consider that the KKK constituted a militarized rebellion against the federal government then the Civil War lasted for much much longer.  If you decide that the war wasn’t over until everyone acknowledged the legitimate majoritarian authority of the Federal government to regulate southern society – then it’s still not over.

The Appomattox Surrender was the most elegant of the surrenders, and had the most profound effect on those who witnessed it, and it also featured Grant and Lee, the most storied of Generals.  But the CSA still retained several large armies in the field after Lee’s capitulation, and neither Davis nor his itinerant cabinet made any immediate decision to capitulate following Lee’s decision to do so.  Perhaps more significant than Lee’s actual surrender was his refusal to give his sanction to any form of bushwackery – any descent into armed bands – a tactic which could have made much of the South ungovernable almost indefinitely.  It would have turned large parts of the former CSA into something resembling Kansas in the 1850s.  The South would still have “lost” the war – but nobody would have won.

But today marks the 153rd anniversary of the surrender of General Kirkby-Smith’s Trans-Mississippi army.  This was the last Confederate army that still looked like an army, the last rebel force that could have engaged in something that looked like a battle.  So this anniversary will do I think.

The Civil War has an endless fascination.  Karl Marx was fascinated by it – and not just in some grand macro-economic dialectical sweeping sense.  Marx got maps out.  Marx used to say things like “If Union forces can just secure the Chattanooga rail junction, they’ll be well placed to organise forces to strike at Atlanta, and from there to bisect the Confederacy by marching the sea.”

I can commend the 1986 classic anthology Why The South Lost by Beringer, Hattaway, Jones and Still.  Their conclusion, that Southern nationalism was too weak an ideology to sustain a last-ditch war effort after April 1865, has been hotly contested, but the book strikes at the heart of the enduring fascination with the conflict.

Critically, Beringer et al determine that by 1865, a critical mass of influential opinion in the Confederacy determined that while formal chattel slavery was lost, the cause of white supremacy was not and that this battle could be continue to be fought within the Union.   As James L. Huston  has demonstrated, people whose primary motivation was based on a devotion to their own valuable property would always become pliable once this property ceased to be profitably realisable.

Civil wars are (generally) wars in which military and political (or religious) considerations cannot be disentangled from each other.  Of course, it is offensive to refer to either the USA or the CSA as “democracies” given that both polities confined the franchise to white males.  But both polities, however hypocritically, were fascinated by an idea of democracy, or at least, an idea of government responsible to “the people” (no matter how narrowly “the people” may have been defined).  As a result, the conflict transcended mere logistics, and engaged questions of political will.

The North’s population and industrial/economic power gave it clear logistical supremacy throughout conflict, but their war aims were more ambitious.  They aimed to conquer and reabsorb hostile territory, whereas the South was seeking to defend territory they already had.  Furthermore, as the years wore on, the question became not whether the North was physically capable of crushing the South but whether Northern “public opinion” (however narrowly defined) would sacrifice thousands and thousands of young men every month to a conflict that seemed to drag on indefinitely.  Throughout most of 1864, Lincoln’s correspondence reveals a serious fear that the election would be lost to McLellan and an ignoble peace would then be patched up.  It was only with the fall of Atlanta that northern public opinion could be persuaded that victory was certain and proximate, giving Lincoln the mandate to continue the war into 1865.

From a Southern point of view, there can be no doubt that the civilian population had started to suffer severe hardships.  But nations have suffered far worse without capitulation.  The civilian population of Leningrad, besieged during World War Two experienced agonies on a scale unimaginable by anyone on the North American continent in the 1860s.  Much closer in time, nineteenth-century Paraguay made the insane decision (thank you President Lopez) to declare war on Everyone We Can Think Of, resulting in a conflict that resulted in the deaths of MOST of the entire population of Paraguay.  Such examples suggest that there must have been a particular point at which, rationally, the idea of the CSA did not appear to merit further sacrifice.

It is arguable, that the population of the CSA never really got used to thinking of the USA as properly “foreign”.  Their constitution was closely modeled on the USA constitution and the CSA made a point of appropriating the Virginian Founding Fathers (Washington, Jefferson etc.) as their own Founders.

I’m a sucker for any book or documentary about the Civil War.  A Ken Burns marathon sounds like the perfect weekend to me.  And the reason is, I think, that it’s a war about the idea of freedom,  It’s a war about very very very wrong ideas of freedom and a war about changing ideas of freedom.  Furthermore, it’s a conflict in which shifting and incompatible ideas of democracy have a direct military outcome, a conflict in which loyalties are tested.  Indeed it’s a war about the legitimate ends and exercises of power itself, the power to coerce other human beings in extreme ways.

I’m going to treat today, the 153rd anniversary of the surrender of the last real army, as the real anniversary.  Anyone care to join me?


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