The sounds of cannon fire in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861 launched the American Civil War as Fort Sumter fell to the Confederates. The war would last for four years and cost over $2 billion dollars (Stearns, 610). Over 620,000 men died. From the early stages of the war to present day, historians have struggled to understand the causes of the war. Each era has interpreted the Civil War through its own special lens.
The most definitive work written about the historical interpretation of the Civil War was authored by Thomas Pressly in 1962. No historian has added the modern interpretations since that time. In order to understand the position modern writers from the 1950s to present have taken, one must first possess a working knowledge of how the Civil War has been interpreted from 1861 to 1950.
The histories written during the Civil War were much like the American Revolution histories with each side writing their own viewpoint which accused the other opponent of starting the war. The Union historians viewed the war as one of rebellion. Confederate historians called it “The War Between the States,” hearkening back to their strong stance on sovereignty. Historians who found themselves on neither side argued for a peaceful interpretation and labeled the conflict, “The Needless War.” Eventually, an objective viewpoint slowly developed as time passed and a new generation of historians emerged. The Civil War was finally viewed as a national event towards the end of the nineteenth century. These new historians of the 1880s and 1890s decided that the Civil War was an irrepressible conflict.
The Unionist “War of the Rebellion” viewpoint was supported by John Lothrop Motley, George Bancroft, and John Draper. As the first historian to write a long work on the Civil War, John Lothrop Motley feared that the English did not properly understand the fighting in the United States. He specifically addressed the fact that the American Revolution and the secession by the South were different in nature. Motley stated that the “action of the Southern states was rebellion, pure and simple,” and he found no support in the Constitution for the right to succeed from the Union (Pressly, 32). The label of Southern rebellion originated with Lothrop Motley.
George Bancroft is perhaps the most famous historian of this era, especially because of his credibility due to his longevity. Born shortly after the American Revolution, Bancroft lived until 1891, and his History of the United States was widely accepted by the American public. Bancroft blamed slavery and the greed of a few Southern politicians for the whole secession movement, a viewpoint which would be adopted and added to by future historians. His view of the Northern cause was “the uprising of the irresistible spirit of the people in behalf of law and order and liberty” (Pressly, 33). In Bancroft’s works, he harshly condemned slavery as a force of evil and avidly praised the victorious North for destroying such evils. All of Bancroft’s views supported the idea of a rebellious South and a righteous North.
John Draper is a significant historian supportive of the Unionist viewpoint, because he is the only historian to publish a history of the war within a decade of Appomattox. Although he joined Motley’s and Bancroft’s views of a rebellious South, Draper introduced the idea of climate to account for the differences between the North and the South. His analysis of climate differences led him to believe that both sides were guilty for their part of the war, and he could easily understand how the North and South would believe themselves to be right. Draper, as a Unionist, placed all blame for the horrors of slavery on “a conspiracy of Southern leaders … who wished to continue their power and profits” (Pressly, 61). In Thomas Pressly’s analysis of John Draper’s writings on the Civil War, he noted that the “significance of Draper’s opinions is that they apparently represented not the views of an extremist minority but attitudes of the war which were widely held throughout the North in the 1860s and the 1870s” (Pressly, 62).
The overall opinion of Unionist historians was the responsibility of the South for causing the Civil War. The guiltless North was justified in preserving the Union and expelling slavery. They point to the firing on Fort Sumter as proof of their claims for Southern aggression. The Unionist historians compared secession to rebellion and found them to be the same in their opinion. Thus, the Unionist histories labeled the war as a rebellion by the Southern states.
The Confederates voiced their viewpoint through their own label for the civil struggle as “The War Between the States.” The key Southern historians were Edward Pollard, Henry Hotze, James Williams, and Albert Bledsoe. The overall opinion of Confederate historians who embraced “The War Between the States” viewpoint followed the pattern set by Bledsoe: the South was justified because secession is supported in the Constitution.
An avid supporter of secession, Edward Pollard painted the Union as a fanatical nation which could no longer accept or protect the Southern way of life. In the end, the North was to blame for Southern secession. Pollard’s viewpoint was strongly supported by Henry Hotze and James Williams. In an effort to gain European support, they wrote that “the United States Constitution had been a compact among sovereign states and that Americans owed their loyalty to these sovereign states” (Pressly, 93-94). They concluded by arguing that succession was indeed constitutional. Hotze and Williams did not see slavery as the cause of the war but rather states’ rights.
Albert Bledsoe affirmed the Southern viewpoint that secession was constitutional, believing state sovereignty did not allow individual Confederates to be blamed for the war. Allegiance should be to the state first and then to the nation. Since allegiance was to the sovereign state, “how then … could [individual Confederates] be convicted of treason, solely because they maintained allegiance to the only sovereign they knew, their state?” (Pressly, 111-112). Thus, according to Bledsoe, the Civil War was merely a war between sovereign states.
The third-party interpretation of the Civil War during this era came from historians who called it “The Needless War.” Clement Vallandigham, Jacob Cox, and Louis Carpenter are examples of these third-party historians. The war was needless in Vallandigham’s opinion because he supported slavery as a positive good and claimed that the war would only make slavery stronger in the South. All three of these historians supported the war only because it meant stopping secession, which they believed to be wrong. They opposed military conscription, emancipation, and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Overall, these historians declared “that they desired not an independent Confederacy but simply the restoration of the ‘Constitution as it is’ and the ‘Union as it was’” (Pressly, 131). A call for peace and an end to the war was their ultimate cry.
The final viewpoint of the late nineteenth century was the interpretation of the Civil War as an “Irrepressible Conflict.” The historians—James Schouler, James Rhodes, Frederick Turner, Edward Channing, and John McMaster—finally viewed the Civil War as a national event. This new generation of historians analyzed the Civil War from political, social, and economic viewpoints which did not reflect the emotionalism of the three previous interpretations.
James Schouler served as the bridge between the old Unionist viewpoint and the new nationalist viewpoint. He claimed the war was irrepressible because it was a moral conflict over slavery. The difference in Schouler’s views on slavery rested in the fact that, according to him, slavery was immoral because it damaged America’s growth as a nation, not because it was humanly immoral. The greater distinction between Schouler and the Unionist viewpoint is Schouler’s opinion on secession. He said that secession was not a Southern conspiracy, and he is credited for first labeling the war as a “civil war” because it was two divisions of the same nation (Pressly, 161).
James Rhodes supported Schouler’s harsh views of slavery, but he, unlike Schouler, truly believed slavery to be an immoral evil. He blamed slavery as the sole cause for the Civil War. He allowed for no ideas of rebellion or states’ rights. Rhodes claimed that the moral question of slavery had formed a wedge between North and South, which resulted in an irrepressible conflict. Rhodes also slightly opened the door for an economic analysis of the Civil War by claiming the cotton industry was the key instigator of the course of events leading to the war (Pressly, 174).
The one historian of the time period who created a completely new viewpoint, the idea of sectionalism, was Frederick Turner. He argued that economic, political, and social sectionalism had been splitting the nation two decades before 1861. Turner viewed slavery as one minor aspect of the multiple sectionalist pieces. The complexity of sectionalism was the reason for the Civil War being unstoppable.
Edward Channing and John McMaster adapted Turner’s theory to fit their own specialties. Channing favored economics while McMaster favored social analysis. Economically, the war was irrepressible because the South was agricultural and the North was industrial. Channing concluded his elaborate explanations on economics by saying, “The country was … divided into two sections whose social and business interests were irreconcilable” (Pressly, 214). Socially, McMaster narrowed the telescopic lens of history to focus on the lives of the people. He introduced the analysis of periodicals and newspapers. His socialist approach ranged from politics to slavery.
The historians of the “Irrepressible Conflict” ended the century with a new viewpoint for historians to consider. Thus from 1861 to 1900, the interpretation of the Civil War slowly began to shift from North vs. South to the idea of a national event. The idea of nationalism would continue into the early 1900s before it was forced to move aside for the new idea of progressivism.
– Hannah S. Bowers
[In Part Two of this analysis I examine the interpretations of the Civil War from the 1900s to the 1950s. In Part Three, the interpretations of the 1950s to the present.]
Pressly, Thomas. Americans Interpret Their Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1962.
Stearns, Peter, ed. The Encyclopedia of World History,6th ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.