Northern Opposition to Mr. Lincoln’s War edited by D. Jonathan White
As the product of the American south and therefore the losing side of the War between the States, it is odd that I have never had great curiosity about that conflict. I have been to battlefields and read some selections form the Shelby Foote books, but I have never been able to make myself finish the Foote’s classic trilogy. Most of my knowledge is honestly from American history classes in high school and college and a few other readings about the era, so I have a general understanding of the arc of the war, but not many details. This is probably disappointing to some of my friends who are “Civil War Buffs.”
I think one of the main reasons is that as a Southerner, it always seemed that it was the quacks and racists who did not hold the south in the most extreme form of disdain. How can one condone a society that treated an entire race with no more care than they did their animals? How can there be anything redeeming in that society? So I suppose, to some degree at my core, I have always bought the notion that the South was 100% bad and the north 100% good.
That notion is undermined, to say the least, by the book I recently completed reading. The title alone puts the lie to that idea by suggesting that there were Northerners who opposed the war. And while some of them were as ardent racists as the 100% evil Southerners, most of them had other, quite good reasons to oppose the war.
For instance, the Draft riots in New York that occurred because of the draft was not only unconstitutional, but also inequitably applied. For $300, you could buy your way out of the draft. But it had to be paid every time a draft was called. If you were wealthy that would work, but not for the majority of society.
Then there is the recounting of the abuses by the dictatorial Governor of Indiana, Oliver Morton. The creation of the POW camp that was at least as bad as the South’s Andersonville and his suppression of freedom of the press are just part of the litany of abuses that he visited on the citizens of his own state. Among those are the arrest and torture of Lambden Milligan for daring to tie the war’s support to the moneyed interests of the northern industrial interests in the Republican party.
This is not a general history of the Civil War, but a recounting and summarization of primary documents contemporaneous with the war. Far from an exhaustive grouping of these, its value lies in the spurring on interest of other things that northerners had to say about the war.
Richard Gamble recounts the struggle within the Presbyterian church to decide whether to embrace the new “national gospel” that supported one side or the other or the traditional view that war is to be avoided and not the proper subject to be heard from the pulpit. Arthur Trask discusses the opposition to the war in Pennsylvania, the arguments made in opposition and the suppression of the free speech and press that took place there.
In all, there are 9 essays that detail the reasoning stated for opposition to the war and a historical look at the consequences suffered by Northerners for that opposition.
There is no going back and refighting old wars or either savaging or salvaging old reputations. But if we do not look to documented events and statements in the past to determine the truth of the events, we might as well join the anti-intellectuals of both sides of the confederate flag issue that flared up last year, and acknowledge that we can only see one side of the issue and that the only excuse for the opposition is ill-will.
Like all wars, the Civil War was fought for a multitude of reasons, many of which were tied to the issue of the evil institution of slavery. But other causes were not. It is deliberate ignorance to hold vehement opinions, yet refuse to seek a more complete understanding of those causes. We should be at least be as fair with our ancestors as we are with ourselves.