Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Low Point of Northern Morale

A few days ago I asked a few questions based upon the Gary Gallagher lecture series I have been working my way through for the last few months, and I thought I would attempt to answer them from my point of view. The questions centered around the summer of 1864, and whether that period represented a low point of Northern morale:
1. Do you believe the Northern people should have been so pessimistic in July and August?

2. Should the Atlanta Campaign outrank Gettysburg in terms of its influence on the course of the war?

To these questions, I would add my own: what period was the darkest of the war for the Northern people?
While my own Civil War interests have long featured a strong focus on the Gettysburg Battlefield, I do agree in this case that Gettysburg's claim as a major turning point of the war is often overstated. I believe we can trace much of Gettysburg's status as the preeminent moment of the war to the battlefield's postwar development as a shrine to Union victory, and eventually as a shrine to the Lost Cause.

Furthermore, while serious students of the war know better, I often find that the popular image among those with a passing or casual interest is that after Gettysburg the war in 1864/65 was one slow retreat to inevitable defeat for the Confederate cause. Perhaps my impressions are mistaken.

Gettysburg's long standing claim as the turning point of the war casts a long shadow in public memory over the darkest days of the war - the summer of 1864, and the campaigns in Georgia and Virginia that ultimately put the Union cause on the track to victory. I recently decided to dig around a bit in Gettysburg's newspapers from August of 1864 to see just how pessimistic war coverage got in this town that would later come to be seen as the war's turning point. This can always be a bit dangerous due to the clouds of partisanship, especially in an election year, so I tried to locate some good examples of coverage of the war effort in both Gettysburg's Democratic and Republican newspapers.

That August, The Compiler sought to remind its readers of all the disasters that had befallen the country under Lincoln's leadership, and openly asked questions about whether the north could ever hope to win the war. On August 29, 1864, the paper published the following:
- Colonel Moorehead's regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers recently returned home, their time having expired. The regiment went out over one thousand strong and comes back with sixty-four men and eight officers. Where are the balance? Let the grave answer.
- Lincoln has issued three proclamations for conscription since the first of January, calling for a million men. At this rate we shall have to give almost another million before the year closes.
- Mr. Lincoln in an interview with Senator Mallory, at the commencement of the war, said if he should discover that there was no Union sentiment in the South, then "this war is not only an error, it is a crime." He has evidently discovered that if ever that sentiment existed, it is effectually eradicated now--what, therefore, must be his humble opinion of himself for carrying on a war that is "not only an error, but a crime." What sayest thou, Abraham?

The Change.--
In 1860 we were told to vote for Lincoln and a change. Cotton was then ten cents a pound. The people voted for Lincoln and the "change." Cotton is now $1.64 a pound. That is, it requires a great deal of "change" now to buy anything.

Just So
. -- The other day we met an old man from the country who told us that in 1860 he was told that if he would vote for Lincoln the times would get much better, and that he and his boys would have "money enough." He says it really turned out so, for several of his boys had just "money enough" to get out of the draft! Now they are as poor or poorer than they were three years ago!
The Compiler went on to predict Lincoln's imminent downfall in the fall, and to report the latest war news. It told its readers that Grant had suffered repulses on both sides of the James River. Of Sherman's campaign against Atlanta - the paper reported:
Sherman seems to have given up any further attempts to either reach the Macon Railroad or to get into Atlanta. His troops are idle, and remain in their works without risking any contests. The correspondents of the newspapers are despondent. Many have left the camp. 
 The following day - the Republican Sentinel spent much of its ink urging readers to cease their unrest about the war and to recommit to the cause. The paper's second page led with an article reprinted from The Presbyterian:
Why complain of your burdens? Suppose it to be true, even to the extent which the exaggerators make it, that the war has imposed upon us heavy taxes, and rendered the strictest economy necessary to meet the enhanced prices of every article which we have to buy, have we any reasonable ground of complaint? There is no substantial good obtained without exertion and self denial, and no class of men is exempt from labor if they expect to thrive in their callings. Strength, health, time, money are severely taxed by those who expect to succeed in their various handicrafts. Why, then, should we shrink from the burden when some great political evil is to be averted, or some signal national good is to be achieved? We are constituent parts of the nation, with which our prosperity and life are bound up; and it cannot suffer or triumph without our participating in its fate. So thought our revolutionary fathers who freely expended their precious blood and treasure, that they might enjoy the blessings of a free government, and transmit this blessing to their prosperity. We, so far from blaming, applaud their sacrifice, and fully believe that the end achieved was worthy of the cost. Now, it has become our turn to struggle, after their example, for national life. An unholy war has been thrust upon us, and as to the evils which it brings in its train we are compelled to encounter and overcome them to the best of our ability. The war is a stupendous one, and the cost of it is enormous; and why should not every citizen, who appreciates the benefits of a good government, be willing to bear his share of the burden? The sacrifice, severe as it may be, it is hoped, will be but temporary. We are passing through the stages of a dangerous illness, and why should we complain of the remedies because they are not palatable? It should be well considered, what would have been our inevitable fate, had we submitted to the demands of the rebellious without resistance. We should have a shattered and disjointed government, and such a dismemberment of our confederacy, as would have forever precluded the possibility of future stability and peace. Had Southern insolence been permitted to dominate and dictate, there would have been no nationality. The unity of the North would have been broken and wasting wars would have been our future history. In such an event, how inconceivably greater would have been our sacrifice, than those we are now called to make! It would have been a permanent and hopeless tax upon our property, our comforts and our lives; and the history of past prosperity would never have been repeated. If we love our nation--if we condemn its violators--if we cherish our dearest rights and privileges, we should cease to murmur that we have to pay for security. We are involved in a frightful war with those who would be our tyrannical and cruel masters, and the only alternative is a base submission or a continued and successful opposition. Precious blood has been shed, untold treasure expended; and if more blood and treasure are required, let them be freely offered to our country's, as well as an abandonment of the country itself, in all that has hitherto rendered it illustrious. We repeat, then, that until the rebels have laid down their arms, and renewed their allegiance to the government, it is the duty of all citizens to sustain, in all lawful ways and at every sacrifice, the cause of law, liberty and human rights, in which we are now engaged.
Much of the rest of the sheet focused on similar themes. The Sentinel warned its readers about the tricks of Copperheads and outlined why an immediate cessation of hostilities to negotiate peace and reunification would lead to disaster and separation. It also outlined the Democratic ticket for the fall elections in Adams County, and noted rather dejectedly: "If men sailing under such colors can receive a majority in Adams, we can only now say we regret it. We feel it a duty to use our feeble efforts to oppose them."

A look at these two papers in August of 1864 makes one thing clear: the central question many continued to ask, and that the Compiler and Sentinel's war coverage revolved around, was whether the war was worth it. Events that fall would help Northern citizens answer the question dramatically, but in August those answers were not so apparent.

I do believe that the summer of 1864 has to rank as the darkest period of the war for northern morale, and I do think the Atlanta Campaign - and its successful conclusion in September of 1864 - should outrank Gettysburg in terms of its influence on the war. Militarily, the Northern war effort had achieved a strong position by August - one from which it could begin to bring the war to a close. In that sense, the pessimism of the Northern public can be hard to understand. That's why it is so critical when studying the war to remember that hindsight is 20/20, and that the end of the war was not readily apparent in July of 1863, or even in August of 1864.

Would love to hear other viewpoints on this.

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