Original Civil War Works & Sesquicentennial Articles
by Joe Ryan - Comments by Readers
Reader General Comments and Questions?
♦Dick from the Netherlands writes: What I admire in your approach to the war is that you take nothing for granted and this leads often, I think, to new insights, certainly you make all the generals appear as ordinary people. May I ask these questions:
Are the people of the Southern States nowadays sorry that they lost the war?
Are Grant and Sherman bad generals because they did terrible things that brought the war to an end?
Was McClellan a bad general because he had feelings for his men?
Joe Ryan replies: The first question: No, I hardly think so; they are certainly proud of their region's past and proud of their ancestors, but they, like the rest of us Americans, recognize the great inheritance they gained from the Civil War—making America, through Union, a great force for good in the world when not misguided by selfish men. The second and third questions: assuming you mean "good" in the moral sense, as opposed to the professional, Grant and his sidekick, Sherman, commanded by Lincoln, were the first modern generals to impose the ravages of war on a country's civilian population, a precedent that America followed to a most horrible degree in the Second World War. But they did not commit genocide; kill women and children, or civilian males indiscriminately. So it's hard, I suppose, to label either of them morally wrong in their conduct as generals. As for George McClellan, he was a bad general in the professional sense, because unable to stomach the horror of war he caused his soldiers more harm than good.
♦Ken writes: Lee was obligated by oath to defend the United States against those who would break the Union. His act was treason.
Joe Ryan replies: The English language of the oath of allegiance the government framed for Lee to sign, in 1855, cannot reasonably be interpreted to support your statement that Lee "was obligated to defend the United States against those who would break the Union." If you have an oath that does contain language reasonably susceptible to the meaning you claim for it, and which you can show Lee signed, produce it and we will be pleased to publish it.
♦Ken responds: Perhaps your argument is correct; that is, how Lee saw it. Clearly the Union is essential as the basis of our government.
Joe Ryan replies: Clearly the Union is essential to our security. As the lyric reads, "We are fools to make war on our brothers-in-arms."
What do you viewers think?
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President Lincoln Instigated The Civil War
I believe the Civil War could have been won by the South if they had taken the offensive earlier in the war. Also, was Jefferson Davis an effective leader? Your thoughts please.
Joe Ryan replies: The evidence suggests that the South had no real chance of winning the war Lincoln instigated. The Southern politicians, who orchestrated secession in their states, Jefferson Davis included, were gambling that the people of the loyal states would not support a Union policy of war. Once Lincoln manipulated events to cause the loyal states to support his war against secession, the only possibility of the South "winning the war" turned on whether or not England would use its naval power to keep the sea lanes open to Southern ports. When this did not materialize secession was doomed. The ultimate proof of this, is shown by the objective inability of Jefferson Davis's government to produce enough men and material to permit Joe Johnston and Pierre Beauregard, after the battle of Bull Run, to move into Maryland and challenge the Union army for possession of Washington. I think Jefferson Davis did as good a job in his office as Lincoln did in his.
What do you viewers think?
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Comments On What Caused The Civil War
♦Buzz Queen writes:: What about "State Rights" and Abolitionism?
Joe Ryan replies:
"State Rights" is an abstract legal theory that the language of the Constitution and the circumstances surrounding its ratification suggest strongly the Founders were attuned to at the time they drafted the document. Abolitionism—the favoring of freedom for the Africans—was a regional phenomenon, limited to the politicians of New England and a few outsiders like Salmon Chase of Ohio and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. Had the men of the North, generally, been of the mind-set of Chase, Stevens, and Charles Sumner it seems highly likely that civil war would have been averted, as these men, supported by a majority of their fellows, might well have guided Congress into adopting measures that made it practical for the Southern States to change their domestic policy toward the Africans.
♦Don from New Orleans writes:: If racism was the cause and reason for the War of Northern Aggression
then why did the underground railroad go to Canada and not any of the
Joe Ryan replies: Don, to give a lawyer's direct answer to your question, the railroad went
to Canada, because the Constitution's Fugitive Slave Clause gave the
slaveowner standing in federal court to reclaim the runaway slave in any
State where he could be found. See Prigg v. Pennslyvania cited in What
Happened in May 1862. As long as the slaveowner can prove his title to the "property" the Federal Court, by virtue of the Fugitive Slave Clause, will order the federal marshall to sieze the "property" and return it to its owner.
There is no connection that I can see between the concept of racism as the
cause of the war and the fact the railroad went to Canada.
♦Robert Naranda writes: Dear Mr. Ryan
After reading the first line I realize you are a subjective writer and it would be a waste of time to continue.
Joe Ryan replies:
The gentleman's comment is a bit too obtuse for me to grasp the meaning; perhaps some of you can shed a little light. The first sentence of the piece states the theory of the case, the text provides the argument. This is an ordinary method employed to communicate to readers a writer's point of view.
♦ Ken writes: Secession was illegal and morally incorrect, fueled as it was by the efforts of slave-holding men to create a white male supremacist state. Your efforts to defend these folks is just sad if it wasn't so dangerous.
Joe Ryan replies:
My Gosh, Ken seems wilfully blind to the fact that the United States as a whole, in 1861, was composed of white male racists and as a whole was therefore morally responsible for causing the Civil War.
♦ Laura writes to say: What has racism got to do with the genesis of the Civil War? The war was between two completely different economic cultures: the largely industrial North levying high taxes against the agrarian South. By 1860, the families that owned slaves had fallen to about 12% of the population; by the end of the war it was less than half that number. Most slave holders owned only one or two slaves as they were expensive. A healthy young male might cost $1,000, and you could buy a 500 acre farm for that.
As far as the harsh oppression of the “natives” thousands died of disease, infection, and war before the first landing of Europeans to North America.
Keep in mind that, too, that at one time the North owned slaves and that many Northern states told Lincoln that no freed slaves would be allowed to reside or work in their states after the Emancipation Proclamation was put into effect.
Please do not insult the intelligence of those who know the truth of the causes and effects of the Civil War. Revisionist history is also racist.
Joe Ryan replies:
Thank you for your comment. You express some abstract ideas that seem to lack a coherent connection; indeed they contradict your point that “racism” had nothing to do with the “cause” of the American Civil War.
♦Laura remarks: In other words: “You are a stupid female who has no clue about what I wrote so how dare you question my brilliance.” Is that what you mean?
Joe Ryan replies: Your name hardly makes a difference, had it been Bill you would have received the same reply. It seems clear to me that the issue with you is white racism. You wish to defend the white race for enslaving Africans and Indians, and you offer abstractions to do that.
For example, you support your thesis with the statement that, in fact, the United States, in 1860, was divided by “two completely different economic cultures.” The point being that this fact explains the cause of the Civil War? It is, of course, true, that the States above the Mason-Dixon line, States which once in fact supported slavery, were committed to free labor, while the States below the line were committed to slave labor. My point simply is that both sides of the line understood completely that the idea of slavery as the basis of an economic system was way, way past its prime. That, in fact, people, whatever their color, were entitled to be free.
In the ordinary political course of abolishing slavery, then, the white people of the North should be expected to accept Africans as their social and political equals, that both might live side by side; and in that way the blacks would be assimilated fairly into the society of the whites. But, the North did not offer the South a fair way out; on the contrary, as you acknowledge, the North sought to shut the blacks up in the South. The North insisted that Slavery be gone, but that the erstwhile slaves stay where they were, in the South.
So the people of the South understood that it was they, not their counterparts in the North, who were the ones that had to live in social and political equality with the Africans, which in some states meant that the Africans would dominate the whites. That being the case, war made some sense.
♦Theresa writes to say:
I have to disagree with your opening statement that racism caused the civil war “plain and simple.” It’s never that plain and simple. Slavery and the spilt over it caused the civil war, and racism is just a part of slavery. I blame the Dark Ages of Europe for the cause of the Civil War! That’s where lack of respect for human life fell to new lows, allowing for widespread acceptance of slavery, and then it was brought by Spain to the New World, to feed the gold lust of the kings, and then, slowly, over the next 300 years a whole society became dependent on slavery, due in no small measure to laziness on the part of whites who wouldn’t labor in hot climates (plain and simple), and because of fear. And it’s this fear that is the root of racism. The fact slavery became embedded in southern culture forced a split in our country, to the extent that some states wanted to secede, but the President at that time—the guy on the penny—was not having any of that, and that’s how the war got started: not just racism plain and simple.
Joe Ryan replies: I think your reference to fear hits the mark: the theme—Racism caused the Civil War—hangs on the core issue of what the real fear was. If, instead of throwing insults at each other, back and forth across the aisle for ten years (1850-1860), the Free State senators and representatives in Congress had openly and earnestly debated among themselves how the Nation could absorb the Africans into society, as citizens, while, at the same time, preventing the South from descending into the ugly abyss of economic disaster and social catastrophe, the Civil War might well not have happened. But, except for Daniel Webster once, the Free State members of Congress never even broached the subject of how to move the South from an economy dependent upon African slavery (an institution that still exists today) to an economy based on free labor. The reason for this, it seems to me, was their own feelings of racism. Had the majority of Free State members of Congress been of the mind-set of Charles Sumner, Salmon Chase, and John Brown, for example, this debate most certainly would have occurred, and the White people of the South might well have been soothed with the knowledge that, as the Africans became transformed into American citizens, their world would not collapse into chaos, and they would have probably stayed the course.
♦ Ray writes to say:
I can’t disagree with you as racism is defined as thinking your race is better than another, yet I’ve always thought of the civil war as the cause of racism as we know it today. Certainly the agricultural and industrial forces in the south and parts of the north that relied on slavery were the biggest cause of the war while slavery the engine that drove their production, was a resource. Using that scenario I’d have to lay the war on greed.
Joe Ryan replies: We appreciate your view. Whether then or now, the meaning of racism hasn’t changed: It is the human attitude that influences a class of people, who perceive themselves superior in character or intelligence, to shun social contact with another class. Infected with this attitude it was as impossible for the whites of the North to live with blacks, in 1861, as it was for the whites of the South. The new policy of the Federal Government, to restrict slavery to the existing states, meant that the economic engine of slavery was doomed to sputter out; leaving the South saddled with an alien population that would have no means of supporting itself. Rather than accept the Government’s policy, South Carolina and the Gulf States chose the option of secession in the forlorn hope of maintaining the power of their class.
♦ Wayne writes: You are so full of .... You twist the real history to fit your own agenda.
Joe Ryan replies: No one can read my writing and not understand that I stand on General Lee’s side of the case, and on Virginia’s, the Mother of States. But not Alabama's, Alabama's case requires a different lawyer. Whose side do you stand on?
Deb of Texas writes: I recently heard a distinguished author/speaker at our round table say General Lee went to Gettysburg strictly to forage for his army. I had never heard that. I am wondering what your thoughts are on this.
Joe Ryan replies: Take a look at the videos displayed on the website, under Joe Ryan's Battlewalks, Approaches to Gettysburg and Gettysburg The Second Day. They answer your question the long way. My short answer to the speaker's statement that General Lee went to Pennsylvania to forage, is that it is silly.
Of course Lee's army appropriated anything that could be moved—livestock, wagons, harness, tools, horseshoes, clothing, flour, grain, and money—but the caloric value of the food products gained by the foraging was plainly cancelled out by the calories expended by the men and animals not only marching to and from Gettysburg but also in fighting a horrific battle there. Even assuming that the speaker offered some objective evidence of the fact that the army gained a substantial surplus in the exchange, the surplus cannot possibly justify in terms of military science, much less in terms of Confederate war policy, Lee's marching his army to Gettysburg and fighting there the battle that determined the fate of Virginia, and with it the fate of the Confederacy.
Oh but the battle simply happened by accident during the course of the foraging, the speaker might say. In other words, from the start (which means from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock) Lee meant to march his army of 80,000 men and 20,000 animals in a two hundred mile loop because he expected to gain for it more food than it would consume. Simply ridiculous.
Tim, a descendent of a soldier in the 44th Alabama Regiment at Gettysburg, inquires, regarding the battle’s first day: How did Edward Johnson’s division of Ewell’s corps manage to get to Gettysburg eight hours late in the first place? In other words, what route was he ordered to take and by whom?
Joe Ryan replies: The answer must depend upon reasonable inferences to be drawn from the facts established by the evidence. In his battle report, Johnson expressly states: “On June 29, in obedience to orders, I countermarched my division to Greenville, thence via Scotland, to Gettysburg, not arriving in time, however to participate in the battle of the 1st.” Richard Ewell. in his report, states merely this: “I. . . was starting on the 29th for [Harrisburg] when ordered by [Lee] to join the main body of the army at Cashtown, near Gettysburg.”
It is an undisputed fact that, on the morning of the 29th, Johnson’s division was strung along the road between Carlisle and Shippensburg, and that between Johnson and Rodes’s division was the corps trains. In complying with the order he states came to him somehow from Lee, Ewell had to decide whether to have the trains and Johnson’s division follow Rodes down the east side of the South Mountain toward Cashtown, or have Johnson and the trains move south down the west side of the South Mountain to the road between Cashtown and Chambersburg; or, in the alternative, have Johnson take the trains, on the road between Shippensburg and Arndtsville, over the table top of the South Mountain.
Since we have nothing in evidence that is credible concerning what exact instructions Lee actually communicated to Ewell, and precisely when, we must base our judgment of the reason for Johnson’s late arrival on the fact that Ewell probably ordered Johnson to march south, ignore the road from Shippensburg to Arndtsville, and cut into the road from Chambersburg leading to Cashtown. It was the taking of this route that caused Johnson’s division to arrive on the field too late.
Tim also offers the observation that, in his view, Lee at Gettysburg was gambling on a one shot winner-take-all-attempt to end the war in Pennsylvania.
Joe Ryan replies: I don’t think so. General Lee had designed a classic “encounter” battle that was intended to crush a piece of the enemy’s army, throwing that piece back, inducing the enemy to retreat to the natural line of defense offered by Pipe Creek. In this projected scenario, as the enemy was assuming the defensive at the Pipe Creek line, Lee intended to march his army south on the Emmittsburg road, turning the Pipe Creek line, which would have caused the enemy to continue their retrograde movement closer to Washington, perhaps falling back into its forts, in which case Lee would occupy Frederick and then advance. General Lee hoped in this way to bring his army up to the Washington forts on the 4th of July. Then, most certainly, he would have warmly embraced the gamble of a winner-take-all struggle for possession of the Union Capital. In such case, the concurrent fall of Vicksburg to Grant would have been irrelevant.
Tony Wood of England remarks: I am a family lawyer from England and have visited Gettysburg several times now. I agree with your view of Ewell's performance. As you walk Culp's Hill you realize how crucial it was and yet the historians seem to still dwell on Cemetery Ridge. I think you are right that Jackson probably would have taken the hill and that the tide of the encounter would have washed closer to Washington.
Joe Ryan replies: Yes, the historians and Civil War writers dwell on Cemetery Ridge; I think the reason is that romance sells books, and there is the problem of breaking loose from the herd—the silly story line of the battle happening by accident and that Meade was actually in danger of losing his army in the struggle. These people are lazy, working in a profession where the digging deep into primary sources is apparently deemed to be beneath them.
Nicholas Hollis writes:
At the General Longstreet Recognition Project (link), we have been seeking to establish some objective truth in relation to Longstreet's actions on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and appreciate the clarity your Gettysburg videos offer on the subject.
Joe Ryan replies: The historical myth of the Battle of Gettysburg is now so seeped in the literature—literature layered by generations of writers repeating the story line—that it will probably take another 150 years to get the public's mind aligned to the objective truth of the matter. It seems to me the story line probably developed out of the politics of professional historians, from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Dear Mr. Ryan:
I appreciate your effort to shed light on the truth that many people do not want to accept. Every "textbook cause" of the Civil War boils right down to slavery. I hope that one day we will have a more honest approach to our history as a nation.
Joe Ryan Replies:
Yes, as the lyric goes—"History hides the truth of our Civil War." Certainly the presence of slaves in America was the point upon which the war turned; but what is hidden by the pulp history fed to youngsters in our schools is the quite indisputable fact that Northern white men―Abraham Lincoln included—did not want to share their world equally with Africans, under any circumstances. The amazing thing is that, despite this deep feeling, once the white men of America wrestled with themselves in what became such a relentless, horrible war, the pain of it caused them to let the Africans in. One hundred and fifty years later, though not perfect yet, we have the only nation on earth―the most powerful one at that—which strives now to make racial equality the norm.
Mrs. Guyson writes,
Dear Mr. Ryan:
My son is 15 and a sophomore in high school. He announced to me this morning that "I need proof that the Civil War was about slavery." When I asked why, he told me that his teacher says it was all about states rights, taxes, and the Federal Government getting too powerful.
Now, I was born and raised in Texas, and I was taught the same dribble that my son's teacher was asserting. Not until I was an adult and began reading on my own did I understand the truth—that the Civil War was truly about slavery and racism, and so much of that racism still exists in some parts of the country that many cannot recognize the truth about what caused the Civil War.
I suggested to my son that he look at the content available on americancivilwar.com as a source where an objective view point could be found and he went off to examine the content on his own. I want to offer a thank you for the excellent material the site provides. I was happy to find it and be able to arm my son with good, solid proof that his history teacher is wrong.
Joe Ryan Replies:
Dear Mrs. Guyson:
I certainly appreciate your very kind note. I agree completely with your assessment about the educational value of the study plan regarding the Civil War that is offered by many high school curriculums today. Americancivilwar.com offers two pieces entitled Cause of the Civil War, one written with high schoolers in mind, the other written for those at a higher educational level. Both pieces emphasize that white racism, generally, was the core "cause" of the American Civil War—a racism that implicates the white people of the North equally with the white people of the South in causing the Civil War. The best objective evidence I offer of the truth of this statement can be found in the speeches the Northern senators and representatives made on the floor of their respective chambers during the second session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress of the United States. (See, for example, the articles titled, What Happened in March, April, and May 1862.)
Mrs. Burke writes,
Dear Mr. Ryan:
I am not a teacher but a parent. My son has to write a report on the causes of the Civil War. He is in the seventh grade. We found the article, Cause of the Civil War, as we were searching the internet for information. He has to have a bibliography and we were wondering when this article was written; was it part of a book?
Thanks for making this topic more understandable to him.
Joe Ryan Replies,
Dear Mrs. Burke:
The piece was written by me; it replaced a stock article the webmaster had appropriated years ago from the Federal Government's Park Service website. The latter article depends for its point on a cluster of abstractions; a cotton gin here, a tariff dispute there, with only a passing reference to the institution of slavery as sanctioned by the United States Constitution of the time.