United States, 1834-1876
David Goldfield’s America Aflame: How The Civil War Created a Nation is a sweeping antiwar take on the Civil War era and a throwback to Avery Craven’s “blundering generation” thesis.
Goldfield sets the “Civil War” with the Confederacy in the context of other perceived threats to mid-nineteenth century America: Roman Catholics, Mexicans, Indians, and labor unions. The preferred solution by Yankees to each of these threats was the use of violence.
Far from being an “Irrepressible Conflict,” Goldfield pins the blame for the War Between the States on the intolerance and fanaticism that was injected into the political process by the rise of evangelical Christianity during the Second Great Awakening.
Northern evangelicals like Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison transformed “political issues into moral causes” which “poisoned the political process,” undermined the political center inhabited by moderates like Stephen Douglas and Alexander Stephens, created an atmosphere of moral certitude in which compromise was impossible, and finally alienated the South to the point of destroying the Union.
Confident of their personal relationship with the Almighty, the Saints of New England tragically marched off to wage their crusade to “save the Union” against the wicked “Slave Power” which had thwarted them for so long. Southern evangelicals were no less certain that God was on their side. Somewhere in the midst of the carnage of battles like Cold Harbor, Northerners were chastened by Confederate guns and their religious fervor began to subside.
The “Civil War” created a “nation”: Goldfield argues that this nation, modern America, a consolidated activist government supervising an industrialized economy in which national citizenship in the sacred Union has replaced state citizenship in a loose confederation of sovereign states, was synonymous with the Republican Party and the victorious Northern states, which dominated the country until the Great Depression.
The North, or postbellum “America,” lost its religious enthusiasm and embraced the gospel of science and material progress. Northerners moved on into the Industrial Revolution of the 1870s and lost themselves in the consumer cornucopia that emerged in its wake. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the incendiary antebellum anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, moved to Florida, converted to Episcopalianism, and spent her elderly years writing books on interior design.
The South became an internal colony of the United States, a much larger version of Cuba or Puerto Rico, in everything but name. 1 out of every 4 White men between 20 and 40 had died in the war. Two thirds of Southern wealth was wiped out during the War Between the States. The South was reduced to political, cultural, and economic irrelevance within the Northern-dominated Union and wouldn’t even return to the level of per capita income it had in 1860 until the 1920s.
Like the Irish or the Poles, Southerners did not move on from the war. Evangelical Christianity wasn’t discredited in the South. It became synonymous with an emerging Southern folk culture, the Redemption movement, and the Lost Cause. The years between the end of Reconstruction and World War I was a period of intense nation building in “Dixie” in which the South developed a sense of national consciousness that had barely existed at the outset of the Confederacy.
The North quickly lost its zeal for imposing Reconstruction on the South. In particular, the emerging “Celtocracy” of Irish Catholic immigrants in Northeastern cities such Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City created a new sense of sympathy among Northern Protestants for White Southerners whose intelligence and property was also being swamped by the misrule of inferior races.
In the Western states, the energies of William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and George Armstrong Custer were redirected from Georgia and the Shenandoah Valley and turned toward the pacification and annihilation of the Plains Indians. The Sioux and the buffalo that sustained their savage way of life were exterminated and the vast Midwestern agricultural empire which is dominated today by agribusiness was created in the Plains from the Dakotas to Kansas.
Goldfield closes America Aflame with a look at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia which closed the first century of America’s existence: a continent had been conquered, the Union had been preserved, slavery had been overthrown, and America seemed to be on a dizzying upward trajectory with everything from steel to electricity to the telephone to Heinz’s ketchup making its appearance.
Somehow the “Civil War” had made it all possible. But at what cost?