Remembering the Start of the Slave Masters' Rebellion
Writing in yesterday's New York Times (11 Apr.) in commemoration of the start of the Civil War, Adam Goodheart, the author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, made this revealing observation:
Although it is often said today that half the [U.S.] Army resigned in 1861 to join the Confederacy, this is untrue. Only 26 privates out of all 15,000 ended up defecting to the rebels – compared to more than 300 out of the 1,000 or so men in the officer corps.*Goodheart, who directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, writes that service in the U.S. Army prior to 1861 "was considered a last resort for men who couldn’t get by otherwise in the merciless economy of 19th-century America – or the first resort of immigrants with no resources or connections." As Goodheart describes it further, the antebellum army of the U.S.A. was small, shabby, and full of immigrants who "existed in a different world than their superiors."
This raises two interesting points.
First, John Brown's plan to initiate a liberation movement in the South was premised upon the lackluster state of the antebellum U.S. army, not the gigantic military machine that grew by necessity during the Civil War. Years ago I was discussing Brown's raid with an eminent theologian who scoffed at Brown's plan to fight a mountain-based guerilla campaign in the South. "He could never defeat the army," the theologian concluded somewhat smugly. However, he was overlooking the fact that the U.S. army in 1859 was small and unprepared, and many of its enlisted men were immigrants with neither incentive nor skills sufficient to root out and destroy the kind of effort that Brown proposed. Indeed, his plan was no quixotic dream. It was a strategy that could have worked; similar struggles have worked down through history.
Second, it is significant that nearly a third of the officers corp betrayed the Union in favor of the Confederate cause. It is quite likely that many of the three hundred traitorous officers were Southern men who represented middle and upperclass property owners--that is, they were slave owners. Clearly, the real engine of military betrayal was based in the officers' class--men with more than "states' rights" in mind. Indeed, we should have no doubt that the prevailing impetus behind Southern secession was the defense of chattel slavery as a southern institution. As Goodheart shows, while an almost negligible number of poor, immigrant soldiers joined secession, a staggering number of officers proved traitors. These numbers likely verify that secession was indeed driven by the selfish interests of the upper class slave holders.
Many poor men died on either side of the Civil War, but the military leadership of the Confederacy themselves directly corresponded to the political leadership of secession. As we enter into the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, let's set aside all this nonsense about "state's rights" and get to the reality of conflict. The war was started by the South because its ruling class--the slave owners--wanted to keep their "property" and expand the horizon of chattel slavery. This was something that John Brown foresaw in the antebellum era. He had long and carefully observed the behavior of Southern politicians and their influence upon the military, and he rightly believed they were preparing for rebellion. When a Republican was elected to the presidency in 1860, the South was primed and ready to follow through on its plan. We should have no doubt that John Brown was particularly skilled in reading the signs of the times.
* See Adam Goodheart, "The Defenders," The New York Times, 11 April 2011