What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War

by Chandra Manning, Alfred A. Knopf, 355 pages, 2007, $26.95.

Buy this book! If you can’t afford to buy it, then consider taking Abbey Hoffman’s advice and steal it. Seriously, Georgetown University professor Chandra Manning’s first foray into Civil War historiography is that good. Even the end notes are worth careful reading. Seasoned scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike will benefit immensely from her tightly reasoned, eloquently argued investigation into what common soldiers, North and South, believed they were fighting about.

Manning combines graceful prose, the exhaustive and insightful research of a cultural historian and the painstaking methodology of a sociologist to present and substantiate her thesis, clearly stated in her introduction, that “ordinary Union and Confederate soldiers recognized slavery as the reason for the war, and the purpose of this book is to figure out why that was, and what it meant for the war and the nation.”

Manning confidently puts many Lost Cause shibboleths such as states’ rights, protecting hearth and family, manly honor and upholding the ideals of the Founding Fathers, on the periphery of principal causes of the war. The election of Abraham Lincoln, Manning asserts, provided the accelerant to the flame of secession and assured that the national debate over slavery, smoldering for more than 40 years, could only be settled by fire.

Using carefully selected examples from a wide array of period documents, Manning convincingly demonstrates that the views of many Union soldiers about slavery underwent significant change as the bloody war dragged on. She also brilliantly incorporates the expectations and aspirations of African-American soldiers serving in regiments of United States Colored Troops—80 percent of whom were former slaves—which were often considerably different from those of their white comrades.

A sampling of Manning’s bold and forthright conclusions should whet even the most satiated of Civil War appetites. For instance, “From first to last, slavery defined the soldiers’ war among both Union and Confederate troops, though how it did so would change over time,” or “shared belief in the dangers of abolition powerfully united Confederate soldiers and motivated them to fight, even when they shared little else.”

Union enlisted men, Manning asserts, “championed the destruction of slavery a full year ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation, well before most civilians, political leaders, or officers did.” Finally, “Slaves themselves did the most to force emancipation onto the Union agenda, but the first and most important way they did so was by winning over enlisted Union soldiers, who, in the first year of the war, became the first major group after black Americans and abolitionists to call for an end to slavery, and who expected their views to influence the prosecution of the war.”

Demonstrating a thorough understanding of the importance of the Second Great Religious Revival that swept through the armies from 1863 onward, Manning argues that the men who wore blue and butternut experienced its influence differently. While both sides saw the hand of God at work during the war, Union soldiers increasingly came to believe that slavery was a sin and the war was God’s punishment for a society that allowed it to exist. Only by abolishing slavery could God’s Northern children expiate themselves and their wayward society from their sinful ways. Many Confederate soldiers, facing increasing difficulties in the field and growing discontent at home, nonetheless still assumed “God was certain to favor the side fighting to preserve a divinely ordained way of structuring society….”

Lest one conclude that Manning’s reach exceeds her grasp, a review of her bibliography should quickly persuade even the most skeptical that she has done her homework. She has mined the archives of 22 states, the District of Columbia, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland for letters, diaries and memoirs. She is perhaps the first Civil War scholar to make such extensive use of more than 130 soldier newspapers, candid camp publications intended only for the eyes of the men in the ranks. Because the Civil War was the first conflict fought by a highly literate soldiery (80 percent of Confederate and 90 percent of white Union troops could read), the wealth of primary source material allowed Manning to eavesdrop on many voices that have long been silent.

The ghosts of thousands of Civil War soldiers can rest content: The motives that spurred their heroic actions on the battlefield are accurately and empathetically chronicled here. Not surprisingly, Manning concludes that “By the spring of 1865, the war had created a world almost no American could have recognized in 1861.” A Southern society grounded in the absolute right of one race to exercise control over another had been utterly altered. Three amendments to the Constitution proclaimed that a people once enslaved could now enjoy the full and fair prospect of citizenship.

Tragically, the promise that emerged from our great national trial by fire quickly became tarnished and only partially fulfilled. Manning rightly challenges future historians to critically examine how the country’s great expectations at the conclusion of the conflict, particularly those of black Americans, quickly became unraveled by the turn of the 20th century. “Taken together,” she concludes, “the vividness of the vision and its eventual fading challenge historians to investigate more rigorously exactly how the United States could in the crucible of war create such vast potential for change and then, in the end, fail to fulfill it.” The unfinished business left in the wake of the Civil War continues to challenge our 21st-century society.


Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here