I am enjoying Chandra Manning's What This Cruel War Was Over, though I'm skeptical of the methodology. Can anyone really say what motivated "The Soldiers?" It seems that getting clear on what motivated those who prosecuted the War--i.e. the actual reasons the War was fought, as opposed to why young men volunteered--is a lot easier. I'd also say that it's probably a little easier to get at the motivations of black soldiers, given that they had such an explicit interest in the outcome of the War. But something about white soldiers--especially white Union soldiers--feels more diffuse.
I also can't help contrasting Manning's style with that of Drew Gilpin Faust's. Both are working to understand the motivations of a broad group of people. But I felt like Faust was much more willing to allow the voices of the people she was interpreting speak. Manning--while sourcing everything she cites--is more interested in paraphrasing. I don't know that that is a real complaint, so much as it's a stylistic bias. Even in my own writing, I prefer block quotes that allow you to get the full breath of what the person was saying, and not simply my interpretation.
Those two criticisms aside, I'm just enjoying listening to the soldiers talk. I think Manning really excels at connecting the societal dots. I thought her articulation of why white Southerners could not imagine a world without slavery was superb. I thought her formulation of slavery undergirding everything the very concept of family was equally superb. Too often we think of the antebellum South as a place with slavery as an incidental, as opposed to a place suffused with the institution, a slave society.
I am sorry I keep going back to this Calhoun quote, but I find it so illustrative:
With us the two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.
It's true that Calhoun lived in a state where a majority of the residents were black. But, nevertheless, he dreamed of the South as boasting the broadest aristocracy in Western history. I guess in a twisted way that was true. I think the distinction between a "slave society" and a "society with slavery" is hard to convey to lay people. Indeed, it's something I didn't understand until recently. It's likely one of the main reasons why it's hard to understand a war being fought over slavery.
I also loved this part:
When and Iowan encountered a young child about to be sold by her own father, who was also her master, he vowed "By God I'll fight till hell freezes over, then I'll cut the ice and fight on."
Manning goes on to say that being anti-slavery, didn't make a soldier anti-racist. On the contrary there were many Union soldiers who were against slavery because for their own ethical reasons (the Protestant work ethic comes up a lot) and still were very racist. I've said this before, but that's something we struggle with today. We don't understand that being racist isn't like being a psychopath. It's complicated.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power