The Civil War was the most devastating war in American history and pitted brother against brother for four years of bloody warfare. This sample history essay explores the ways in which freedom was portrayed in the war, and how the idea of freedom held very different meanings between Union and Confederate idealogues.
The Civil War and path to freedom
Ideas of freedom for the two opposing forces, the Union and the Confederacy, were markedly different from one another. In many ways, the notion of freedom that had been declared years earlier in the Declaration of Independence was tried and questioned by many who assumed freedom was an absolute. For the north, it seemed only right that a progressive move towards freedom for all men is at the core of the still new democracy that was the Unites States of America.
For southerners who often relied on slave labor to make their livings, or in some cases their fortunes, slavery was an essential part of the business that they couldn’t afford to have regulated by the industrialist up north. The Civil War forced both those loyal to the Union and the Confederacy to reexamine what freedom meant and what price they were willing to pay for it.
Death toll of the Civil War
The Civil War was the bloodiest in America’s history. More men and boys died during this 4-year period than in both World Wars combined.
The evolution of the idea of freedom is described by Eric Foner in his text Give Me Liberty!: “In the years following the Civil War, former slaves and their white allies, North and South, would seek to redefine the meaning and boundaries of American freedom” (586).
In many ways, the war was based on what was previously an elusive definition of freedom in which the war was waged to figure out a precise definition. Both Union and Confederate generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee can be used as microcosms to understand the greater sentiment among these opposing men and their armies. For General Grant, maintaining the Union was the ultimate goal of the war. This meant that for Grant, the freedom gained independence from Great Britain was to be upheld by adhering to the original vision of the founding fathers.
Both men believed in their nation and fiercely supported the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Freedom was an essential American concept at the core of the nation’s value system that progressively leaning northerners associated with abolishing slavery. For men like General Lee, the concept of freedom seems more complex. It can be argued that he wanted freedom for the Confederacy from the Union and freedom from laws against slavery. It is known that Lee was very traditional in both his upbringing and his military tactics; perhaps what he wanted most of all was to maintain the ideas of freedom that
It is known that Lee was very traditional in both his upbringing and his military tactics; perhaps what he wanted most of all was to maintain the ideas of freedom that his father, a revolutionary war hero, had fought for. In this sense, American freedom was either seen by the north as a fluid concept that needed to move forward with the abolishment of slavery, or a fixed notion by those in the south that did not want to be told how they should conduct business on their plantations.
Freedom as an idea during the Civil War
For many people, both Northerners and Southerners alike, freedom was a complex idea that found itself in a conundrum in regards to slavery.
As Chandra Manning writes in her book, common people of the era like farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers who fought in the Thirteenth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, were quoted claiming “slavery is the undeniable cause of this infamous rebellion, that is a war of, by, and for Slavery is as plain as the noon-day sun” or “any man who pretends to believe that this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks…is either a fool or a liar” (Manning 3).
Manning shows how these men’s freedom was not an abstract or elusive idea; it directly correlated to the enslavement of African American people.
Manning also, comments, however, “to say that soldiers placed slavery at the center of the war is to open rather than to solve a mystery” (3).
In other words, the fact that so many of the Civil War soldiers in the Confederate Army, who fought and gave their lives for the cause, had no personal gain from upholding slavery since they themselves did not own slaves.
This is a fact of history that continues to astound historians and students. As Manning’s book, What This Cruel War Was Over, goes on to prove is that there were deeply engrained traditions being held onto like in the case of General Robert E. Lee who did not want to see change come to his beloved state of Virginia. For Lee and the Confederacy, the Civil War marked a brutal time of growing pains for those Americans who were witness to the horrors of these battles that would eventually maintain and modernize America, as we still know it today.
Looking back at post-Civil War freedoms and success gained
It is interesting to look at the Civil War and ideas of freedom retrospectively, not just from our current time in history looking back to the 1860s, but to read about the reactions of those from both sides, and from the emancipated slaves themselves, who lived through the Reconstruction period. It seems the war had seriously question any idealism held by those who felt that war equated to glory.
William Tecumseh Sherman, another key leader for the Union cause and ultimate strategic victory, gathered several hundred freed slaves in the wake of the war that would only become the beginning of their struggle towards freedom. The leaders who came forth from the Black population described their ideas of freedom in much clearer terms than the white men who fought so ardently for or against slavery.
Foner explains, “black leaders brought out of slavery a clear definition of freedom. Asked what he understood by slavery, Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister…responded that it meant one person’s ‘receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent’” (Foner 586).
Additionally, Frazier comments freedom meant “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves’” (Foner 586).
It is remarkable that this definition of freedom is so very similar to the original settlers of the colonies who wanted to break away from Great Britain.
Looking back on the Civil War and notions of freedom and racial ideology from both the Union and Confederacy and then the emancipated slaves gives a picture of the concept that is very much tied to the American dream. To be able to work and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor is certainly the spirit of American culture that persists to present day.
To be particular about freedom regarding the Civil War, then, has much to do with economic freedom. The outcome of Civil War has left an enduring legacy on modern America, which still struggles with growing pains from time to time. Hopefully, learned its lesson that there will always be fundamental differences among such a diverse population as we have now, and that war with each other does little to accomplish our goals and strive for the American dream.
Foner, Eric. Give me Liberty! Vol 1. New York: Norton, 2011. Print.
Manning, Chandra. What this Cruel War Was Over. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.