Civil War

David's Bookclub: Battle Cry of Freedom

In October 1864, Robert E. Lee sent a proposition to Ulysses Grant.

In May and June of that year, Grant had chased Lee across Virginia in the murderous Overland Campaign. Union forces had suffered about 50,000 casualties; the Confederates, about 32,000. Yet that smaller Confederate total represented a higher proportion of Confederate strength, 46%.

Now, Lee's force were besieged inside the Richmond-Petersburg fortifications. Lee needed every man he could get to defend the lines, and he didn't have enough. He proposed to Grant that the two armies resume the prisoner exchanges that had ceased in the first half of 1863.

Despite his reputation as a ruthless practitioner of attrition warfare, Grant was amenable to Lee's request. By the fall of 1864, word of the horrific conditions at Southern prisoner of war camps - especially Georgia's Andersonville - had spread through the North. More than 100,000 men were held in camps on both sides, but more in the South than in the North. A presidential election was approaching, and anything that could be done for the benefit of the soldiers would redound to the benefit of the administration party. Grant imposed only one condition: black soldiers must be exchanged on the same terms as whites.

Lee refused. "[N]egroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition."

This refusal ended the negotiations, for (as Grant wrote), the United States "is bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due as soldiers."

From time to time, we hear denials of the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. That's apologetics, not history. Slavery was always, always there: the war's fundamental cause, the war's shaping reality.

James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is now, incredibly, 25 years old. The anniversary moved me to download the book in audio format and re-ingest it after the long lapse of time. What struck me most, on this rediscovery, is how brilliantly apt is McPherson's title. Both sides of the terrible conflict insisted that the war was a war for freedom. But what did "freedom" mean?

Jefferson Davis' message to [the Confederate] Congress on January 12, 1863, proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation 'the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man.' Davis promised to turn over captured Union officers to state governments for punishment as 'criminals engaged in inciting servile insurrection.' The punishment for this crime, of course, was death.

(p. 566.)

Davis never carried out this threat. But captured black Union troops were often massacred - and sometimes sold as property. Confederates regarded the placing of weapons in black hands as itself a war crime, and a terrible one, justifying the most terrible retribution.

WEB DuBois wrote this memorable description of Sherman's army on its March to the Sea:

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Three characteristics things one might have seen in Sherman’s raid through Georgia, which threw the new situation in shadowy relief: the Conqueror, the Conquered, and the Negro. Some see all significance in the grim front of the destroyer, and some in the bitter sufferers of the Lost Cause. But to me neither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them. In vain were they ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn from beneath their feet; on they trudged and writhed and surged, until they rolled into Savannah, a starved and naked horde of tens of thousands.

Later generations of Americans often preferred not to see that "dark human cloud" - or to think very hard about why it followed Sherman's army. Yet it was there, both as a physical reality and as the driving political fact of the war. Some appalling modern revisionists wish to edit away this fact - even to retrospectively promote into "black Confederate soldiers" the slaves who under compulsion did the Confederate army's hardest and most dangerous work. But this is apologetics, not history. The actual story of the war again and again bumps into the central question Lincoln framed in his Second Inaugural address:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh."

Whether American civilization was to treat some men as property - whether in fact the right to treat men as property was indispensable to American freedom - that was the question for which Americans fought and died a century and a half ago. James McPherson's still definitive history never allows that question to be evaded or denied.