On Tuesday last, 12 April, 150 years ago, the American Civil War began when Confederate forces fired the first shots on Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbour, South Carolina. The bombardment lasted 36 hours, with Fort Sumter occasionally replying with fire of its own. Then the white flag went up and the Union troops within the fort surrendered. Not a single man had a scratch on either side. It looked as if both sides had gangs fighting that couldn’t shoot straight. If only.
In the next four years, 620,000 American lives were lost, from Bull Run to Petersburg, before the unequal contest came to an end at Appomattox, Virginia, in 1865. The figure 620,000 is a hell of a number of dead soldiers among an American population which stood at 31 million in total. Eleven slave-holding states withdrew from the Union to form the Confederate States of America over states’ rights, and Abe Lincoln pursued the war between brothers unrelentingly and in a sea of blood.
As a University of Virginia man — The University, as it’s called by native Virginians — I have always sided with the south, and not because of Gone with the Wind romanticism, either. What I learn as I get older is that, like most wars, the Civil War was pursued by so-called honest Abe because big northern business wanted to conduct big business in the Union. They wanted to build railroads and wanted interstate roads and access to markets. The south wished to remain sleepy and agricultural. Slavery did not become an issue until two years after the first shots over Fort Sumter. But that’s not what we were taught when we were young. No, siree, it was all about slavery, they told us, and woe to those who had actually been correctly taught and knew the true nature of the contest. Like the poor little Greek boy and University of Virginia man.
Lincoln did everything for effect, and his death even got him on the back of the five-dollar bill, whereas in my opinion he should have been tried in absentia for the crimes he committed during the war and the destruction he caused to one of the loveliest societies that ever existed, the antebellum south. The Civil War was America’s Peloponnesian War, an unnecessary bloodletting that saw the end of a federal republic and constitutional government. Such wars are very bloody — just think of the Spanish one — but never has a war been fought between one race of people — Scotch–Irish — with such deadly hatred from the outset.
Mind you, the south was doomed from the start, or so the smart money said, but the southern boys fought so bravely and with such tenacity that the unequal contest was a damn close-run thing until the end. Young men, some mere boys, who lacked a rational interest in the war, fought as fiercely as young Spartans did back in Thermopylae. The north’s superior manpower, industrial strength and financial muscle were checkmated by the south’s young men and its superior generals, great men like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. (The last two died in battle, Lee a mere five years after the war ended.)
According to our very own Paul Johnson, Lee could have carried the day at Gettysburg in July 1863 if General Longstreet had supported Pickett’s charge with more concentrated artillery fire. Lee was a very elegant, good-looking gentleman of the old school, an aristocrat whose father had been a general during the Revolutionary War and governor of Virginia. Lincoln had asked him to lead the Union forces, something Lee could never have done as he was brought up as a Virginian, not as an American. His only weakness, if it constituted one, was his habit of making suggestions to, rather than ordering, his generals. The southern boys fought in defence of their homeland, the northerners fought for an idea, the Union, which meant the south had the advantage when it came down to a corps à corps fight.
The most important thing I learned when I was in school some 150 years ago was that the secession by the south did not constitute rebellion, and two rather learned men, Alexis de Tocqueville and a certain Thomas Jefferson, agreed with that. Lincoln and big business, along with northern newspapers and so-called intellectuals, called it a rebellion, which meant the war was over the constitutionality of the south’s secession. So the south’s gallant young men became Johnny Rebs and this is how modern history gets written. The south had a chance to tie even at the very end of 1864. Just before Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground. The strategy of the defending general Joseph Johnston was to concede ground but keep his fighting order and his troops intact. He would only engage the enemy from a strong defensive position. But the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, dismissed Johnston out of the blue, and that got Sherman in Atlanta. There are those who believe that the north would have thrown in the towel if the war had been prolonged. Certainly Lincoln would not have been re-elected had Atlanta not fallen. Grant was stuck in Virginia and the Battle of the Wilderness had broken the north’s spirit.
At Appomattox, Lee wore his elegant parade uniform with golden sash, whereas Grant arrived in a field uniform, unbuttoned collar, looking rather shabby. Grant was short and a drunk. But he also proved to be a great man by being magnanimous in victory and declaring the Confederacy American the moment the paper of surrender was signed. Unlike the midgets who pursued the Germans following the first world war. Robert E. Lee for ever!
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 16, 2011