The American Civil War was a life or death struggle between a fully sovereign state, Virginia, that had voted on April 4, 1861 against secession and had not wanted to be fully sovereign, and a non-state, the Federal Government, that was prohibited by the spirit and the letter of the Constitution from acting as a fully sovereign state against American states but did so anyway. Such a war between men assembling in Washington D.C. from northern states and those assembling in Virginia from seceded states could not have happened unless it had been devised by political machinations. Extremists in the northern and southern states had long been howling for war but it was strategically impossible to put a war actually in operation because America was composed everywhere of sovereign states with borders like nation-states but without the right to declare war on anyone. Each state had a militia, a small military necessary in case of outbreaks of public disorder, but they had no armies or any need for armies. Washington controlled an American army of about 35,000 men. If a state were crazy enough to expand its militia in order to go to war with another American state, Washington would immediately use its army to prevent it for the public good. If a state were nonetheless insane enough to take its militia beyond its borders, it could only realistically accomplish this if its goal was war with a neighboring state. Otherwise, it would have had to have permission from a neighboring state to pass through it and perhaps have needed permission from other states to reach the enemy American state that it planned to invade. One reason for assigning all power to make war to the Federal Government was to avoid and make impossible wars between the states. At the time of Lincoln’s journey to Washington to be inaugurated in March 1861, seven states had seceded from the union. Historians, looking back at the situation, have been overly eager to portray Lincoln and Washington as being in grave danger because the 7 seceded states were talking war and assembling some forces. There were riots in Baltimore against a Massachusetts regiment coming to Washington to defend the president that caused some deaths and there were other displays of tensions. But Washington D.C. was not threatened by invasion. Virginia and the state to its immediate south, North Carolina, had not seceded and Virginia was opposed to secession. An army from South Carolina, a seceded state, would have had to cross through North Carolina and Virginia with a supply column stretching back 500 miles to invade Washington. Lincoln was in no danger. In fact, even after his proclamation of war on April 15, his wife Mary, after discovering funds available to her to decorate the upper floors of the White House, went on a shopping spree in May for furnishings to Philadelphia and New York, the first of eleven buying trips she would make during the war. Lincoln waited until July to send a 30,000 man force under General McDowell into Virginia. Even its defeat was easy enough for Lincoln to endure because the northern states were so stunned that they eagerly sent thousands and thousands of young men to Washington to train for another invasion of Virginia. Virginia, which had ceded power to Washington to raise a federal army by ratifying the Constitution, was now forced by Washington to raise its own army. Lincoln and Washington waited leisurely 8 months before the next invasion. Mary Lincoln held a reception in the White House for 500 guests. When Lincoln’s large army was at last ready to go south, the political leaders in Virginia panicked. They decided at a meeting to abandon their capital Richmond. Robert E. Lee was present at the meeting. He told them that they must defend Richmond. General Lee, who later defeated Lincoln’s armies four times on Virginian soil, did not want to fight any American anywhere but his honor as a soldier and as a man and Lincoln’s machinations left him no choice but to use his sword, as long as he had the physical means to fight, to defend every man woman and child in Virginia from harm.
Virginia was a sovereign state under the union and with the union broken it was natural and unproblematic for it to act with full sovereignty. Lincoln and Washington however began the war with extremely limited sovereignty and usurping more sovereignty or acting with full sovereignty was problematic. When Napoleon made his coup d’etat, he was the head of the army and he took control of a government that was already set up to rule as a fully sovereign government of a state. Cromwell as a dictator in England ruled with full sovereignty a nation that was already constituted with it. Congress did not challenge Lincoln’s war power, even though he used it against American states, and it was the main power he had as head of a government that was not set up to be fully sovereign. It was difficult for Lincoln to act with the authority of a leader of a sovereign state because his revolutionary goal was to make a government sovereign that was not sovereign. It is debatable whether he ever reached the level of power of a Napoleon or a Cromwell but it is certain that he steadily gained power even after the early defeats of his armies and as his armies bludgeoned their way to the final victory, he became very nearly a fully endowed tyrant.
After the defeat of the Federal army’s first invasion of Virginia at Manassas, Lincoln selected George McClellan, a highly experienced soldier, to be general of the massive army he was assembling in Washington to crush Virginia and capture Richmond, the capital of Virginia and also the new capital of the Confederacy of 11 seceded states. Lincoln’s appointment of McClellan was strange both because he was commanding him to invade American states in the south with troops from American states in the north and because both men sensed that the power the president handed over to his general was unheard of with no precedent, certainly unconstitutional, and possibly treasonable. The thousands and thousands of young men assembling in Washington and training for war increased the tension that grew up between Lincoln and McClellan because the general of the northern forces felt he had become sovereign as head of the army and because he knew from his experiences in wars that the odd new sovereign authority placed on his shoulders must lead to the deaths of thousands of young men without any previous experience of war on the fields of Virginia. McClellan, a well educated man who had been an observer in 1855 at the Crimean War, treated the president who had little formal education with a kind of free and easy indifference that was certainly disrespectful and sometimes changed to contempt. McClellan hesitated to go to war stalling month after month frustrating Lincoln by delay after delay. For 8 months while McClellan hesitated to move his army into Virginia, Lincoln was assailed politely but firmly by radical republicans frustrated that he would not set the army in motion and command it to march south and capture Richmond. McClellan moved, when he finally moved on March 17 1862, not straight ahead south where there were easily defensible rivers in his path but instead by ships down the Potomac River to a safe and easy landing of his troops on the peninsula south of Richmond. McClellan hoped and hoped that this massive display of force would somehow bring the leaders of both unions of states to their senses and compel some sudden compromise and armistice that would make armed conflict unnecessary. No general ever lead an army to war with less interest in fighting and his refusal to commit his forces fully in battle after battle against points in the defensive lines of his opponents that might have led to victory prove to anyone capable of real objectivity that McClellan, both in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia and at the next battle he fought at Antietam in Maryland, did not want war because it was a useless destruction of young men’s lives and because it was a war between Americans that was unjustified and totally at odds with all their previous history together in a brotherly and perpetual union of states.
General Lee drove General McClellan’s army out of Virginia after Lincoln’s second invasion but strangely it made Lincoln’s authority stronger. McClellan was cautious in the deployment of his forces always trying to avoid the bludgeoning type of warfare that Lincoln later in the war got General Grant to wage, but he had conducted successfully a large orderly campaign on enemy territory and his troops, even though inexperienced, had fought well. When he met face to face with Lincoln, who had traveled by ship down to the peninsula in Virginia to confer with him, he was no longer contemptuous and now showed respect for Lincoln. He realized that the president, whom he had previously treated as a weak and unknowing federal official, had somehow put together for action a vast new assemblage of men united in state regiments and divisions in a war that now must continue to some fatal conclusion. On both sides of the battle lines, Lincoln had created out of nowhere a deadly means for all Americans, who before had never had the experience of living in a nation-state, to act against one another during the war as though members of rival nation-states. McClellan’s men loved him because he had used his military knowledge to keep them in good order and to avoid sometimes the useless and unnecessary shedding of blood. His men were filled for the first time in their lives with real nationalistic sentiment and burned with enthusiasm to win glory for Lincoln’s part of a divided union. Lincoln somehow had set North Carolinians against Rhode Islanders, New Yorkers against Texans, Georgians against New Hampshire men. Men from 34 sovereign states were out on battlefields fighting state against state and yet the man who had started the deadly interstate hubbub was not located in any state and was not the head of the government of any state. Before Lincoln’s war men found an indirect outlet for the nationalistic feelings that were denied them as members of states with limited sovereignty by expressing publicly passionate sentiments for and against slavery but such protests failed to satisfy their need for some real direct outlet to ease what troubled their spirits. Men north and south felt that the union had developed so successfully and added so many states that it was out of balance. War could possibly create a new lack of balance but some wanted it anyway and Lincoln provided the war even though it had no real reason to exist. The New England writer Nathanial Hawthorne had a sharp eye and always spoke the truth. “I don’t understand what the war is about,” he said. “The southerners are not my fellow countrymen. We should just give them a good thrashing and kick them out of the union.” No one knew what the war was about better than Lincoln. He had a plan for a new nation and he needed a war to gain sovereignty for the federal government to execute his plan. General McClellan in his Peninsula Campaign had acted as the main actor in the mighty strange new drama that had unfolded itself before his eyes. He understood at last that a radical new future was on the way for the United States and that an American had to either become an actor in the drama and applaud heartily for its author and the nation he was creating or keep off the stage with no connection to the radical new historical forces pushing the union to a new form and a new future. Shortly after Lincoln ended his visit to him on the peninsula in Virginia, General McClellan wrote a letter to him expressing the extent of his changed sentiments towards his leader. Before he had been critical and disdainful of Lincoln, but now he addressed him as his sovereign, like a Roman general voicing his loyal support for his emperor. He wrote in part of his letter, “Let neither military disaster, political faction or foreign war shake your settled purpose to enforce the equal operation of the laws of the United States upon the people of every state. The time has come when the Government must determine upon a civil and military policy, covering the whole ground of our national trouble. The responsibility of determining, declaring and supporting such civil and military policy and of directing the whole course of national affairs in regard to the rebellion, must now be assumed and exercised by you or our cause will be lost. The Constitution gives you power sufficient even for the present terrible exigency.” McClellan perceived clearly what Lincoln had accomplished. He had forced South Carolina to bombard Fort Sumter. He had forced by his proclamation of April 15 Virginia and three more slave states to secede. The eleven seceded states by defending themselves against northern armies had made Lincoln the sovereign leader of a sovereign Federal Government.
General McClellan wrote his letter in the very midst of his battle against men defending Virginia. Virginia’s defense of itself was tragic not only because it could not win the war even with the extraordinary courage and zeal of its defenders but also because some of her defenders were slave owners and all of them were condemned by history to defend at the same time both state sovereignty and slavery. Any student who now at the beginning of the twenty-first century wishes to probe and discover the issues of the Civil War should begin his/her inquiry by simply reading the stories of the battles in Virginia. The southerners fought so fiercely and bravely that their victories against superior numbers should make any modern student start wondering why men came from 10 of the 11 seceded states to help defend Virginia and why in the world and for what reason anyway they were fighting. But the modern student can not reach the heart of the matter because his/her eyes are blurred knowing from the start of the inquiry that the men fighting in defense of Virginia were indeed fighting to continue human slavery. General Thomas Jackson, a Virginian that southerners called “Stonewall” Jackson, was the most celebrated hero of the conflict. Englishmen admired him so greatly that they collected money and set up a statue of Jackson that a student can see today on the grounds in Richmond near the Virginia statehouse. But the student can also today visit the Stonewall Jackson House, a museum in Lexington Virginia located in the house Jackson lived in with his wife when he was a professor before the war at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. Every day Thomas Jackson returned home from his teaching and read his bible. He was such a devout Protestant that one day during his successful campaign in the Shenandoah Valley against federal forces, he hesitated to fight at an opportune moment because it was the Sabbath. Jackson read and studied his bible every day but he also gave orders every day to his ten slaves. Every day he took command of the lives of ten human beings and used them as property with a status barely above animals. It is easy to convince a student outraged by southern slavery that Lincoln’s war was a war to end slavery because the end of slavery was the indirect result. Lincoln promoted himself as an up and coming politician by appearing to be morally against slavery and he secured the Republican nomination for president by making himself a champion in his speeches against allowing slavery in the new western territories while at the same time making it clear that he was not against slavery in states where it already existed. He held the state of Maryland under martial law throughout the war and could have used his dictatorial power to proclaim slavery unlawful in a state under his control. But Lincoln did not move against slavery in places where he had power over it. Instead he cleverly issued an Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that freed slaves in southern states who belonged to masters who had taken up arms to defend themselves from his federal armies. He had no power under the Constitution to free slaves and his Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in places where his war power that he was using tyrannically had no power.
General Lee took his army north into Pennsylvania to Gettysburg. He gambled that he could perhaps win a decisive victory in a northern state and end the war because he knew he could not gather sufficient men and resources in Virginia to keep defeating and pushing back large well supplied invading armies. The array of soldiers lined up for battle under the bright July sun on the open green fields of Gettysburg was splendid. In the morning before the cannons and rifles exploded forth their deadly missiles, men from all over the union, from every state in the union, stood looking across the open space between them at peace. Abraham Lincoln had assembled them there. He assembled men from every state in the union and on that morning for a few moments before the killing began, they were truly something like a nation because a great universal unity exists wherever Americans are alive together free men among free men enjoying peace with their freedom guaranteed by a just perpetual union. Then the cannons exploded and the rifles fired and the peace of a great union of men was dead along with the Americans who were soon lying on the ground dead. If only Lincoln had found some common enemy for them to fight, they might have stood united as a nation that morning, like the ancient Greeks united as a nation by their war against Troy, united as Americans fighting an enemy. But Lincoln could find no enemy for Americans to fight against except one another.
(The above is Chapter 3 of The United States of the World, 12 essays on American history.