American Civil War Essay

American Civil War transformed the country's policies and culture, and its wide-ranging ramifications are still being felt to this day, offering an ideal case study in the multi-faceted phenomenon of war. Although the ostensible reasons for the war are generally clear to anyone with a grade school education in American history, assigning the outbreak of the war to any one factor unnecessarily disguises the myriad political, economic, and social forces which intersect in order to justify and catalyze the use of violence to achieve political objectives. By examining these distinct but not unrelated factors, one is able to intelligibly discuss not only the relationship between war and statecraft, but also the way in which war, like a state, has aspects of continuity and change as a result of evolving conditions and unforeseen events. Investigating the American Civil War in light of its political, social, and economic context reveals how the war represents the continuation of a revolutionary strain of thought born out of economic self-interest that began with the American Revolution and continues to this day, and furthermore, how the changes in tactics and policies which occurred over the course of the war left their enduring, terrifying mark on American politics and society. Before addressing the complex relationship between the America Civil War and statecraft, it may be useful to provide some preliminary information regarding the key motivators responsible for the instigation and execution of the war, as a means of contextualizing a more in-depth investigation as to what this consideration of the American Civil War reveals about war and the state as such. Of course, the most obvious reason for the war was a disagreement over the issue of slavery, but this statement requires further critical unpacking, because although it is tempting to view the war as a conflict between the morally upstanding North vs. The racist South, this conception is reductive and ultimately unhelpful if one seeks to truly understand how the war came about, was fought, and its impact on American society, because it rehashes "the partisan research agenda" which characterized study of the war from its outset to around 1900.

This view "concentrated attention on the merits of Confederate attacks on Republican centralization and unionist criticism of slaveholder aggression" without bothering to investigate the underlying motivations and manipulations which caused these actions in the first place.

A more useful approach recognizes "that the Civil War itself and the memory of the conflict are two huge and only partially interrelated topics," and as such, one must be careful to differentiate between the convenient ideas of the war and the realities which lie obscured by these self-aggrandizing histories of American conflict.

Thus, the first important thing to note is that while slavery was indeed the most central issue of the war, and racism ultimately provided the basis for any and all justifications for slavery, the South's desire to maintain the institution of slavery was largely born out of economic concerns, rather than a diehard commitment to the ideology of white racial superiority. Put another way, the issue was not that the slaves were black, but rather that they were slaves, and their skin color was simply a historically easy way of deciding who could be "legitimately" be made a slave. (Of course this should not be taken as a dismissal of the atrocities committed against blacks throughout America's history, but if one seeks to truly understand the machinations of power which define the relationship between war and the state, one must necessarily and temporarily put aside questions of racial injustice in order to investigate what larger purpose that injustice ultimately serves.)

Recognizing this fact is crucial, because it allows one to avoid the generally sanctimonious tone taken by many historians of the Civil War and instead consider the cold reality that the American Civil War, like so many others, was conducted (by both sides) on behalf of the powerful through the use of the powerless. Thus, instead of the moral North vs. The rural South, it is much more useful to consider the Civil War as a conflict between the federalist, industrial North vs. The confederalist, agrarian South, with the issues of slavery and states' rights serving as the ideological weapons by which the powerful on either side motivated masses of people to fight and die for their economic interests.

This is not to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was disingenuous in his support for the Union or disavowal of slavery, or that Jefferson Davis was similarly disingenuous in his support for states' rights, but rather an acknowledgment that the ideological concerns of one person, even a president,...


With this in mind, one is able to more effectively parse the motivations behind the war as well as understand the events which are problematic for some of the more traditional interpretations of the Civil War prove the most crucial when discussing the war's ramifications (such as Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus and massive military expenditures in the face of a perceived existential threat), because one is free to ignore the stated goals and motivations of individuals in favor of addressing what actually happened and who ultimately benefited.
All wars since the introduction of commodities and capital have been conducted in the name of capital, even if the stated goals of the people fighting do not admit as much, and even if those wars do not actually succeed in accumulating capital for those in power. This is the case throughout history, whether one is discussing the Crusades, World War II, or the American Civil War, because even those wars ostensibly based on religion, ethnic superiority, or nationalism result in the same thing: the use of violence to secure economic (and thus political and social) power, with money, land, natural resources, and even people constituting part of that economy. To see how fully this is the case with the Civil War, one may note the similarities between the functioning of nationalism in both the American Revolution and the Civil War. In both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, people "declared independence from oppressive governments they perceived as having failed to protect their rights," and crucially, their economic rights.

Thus, the often-enunciated idea that "Americans balanced freedom and order to protect liberty" would be more realistically stated as "Americans balanced freedom and order to protect economic liberty for the already-powerful," with all of the subsequent implications this has for the modern discourse of freedom and liberty.

While both the founders of the Revolution and the Confederacy cloaked their economic interest in the discourse of liberty, and the former group took advantage of an opportunity to enact certain (relatively) popular political ideas of the day, the key offense which catalyzed either movement was an encroachment on the financial well-being of the upper classes. Accordingly, in both instances "politicians [...] crafted nationalism as a protection of the principles betrayed by the former nation," because creating a new national identity for the masses based on more general notions of and idealized "freedom" and "liberty" allowed the powerful white men of both the Revolution and the antebellum South to encourage the considerably less well-off to do "a great deal of both killing and dying as" the economic elites "undertook the twin tasks of separation and nation building."

On the side of the North, one may regard the desire to maintain the Union in a similar vein, because Northern nationalism served to support the idea that the only conceivable political organization of the geographic landmass constituting the United States was one in which power was centered in Washington DC and the rapidly industrializing North. Realizing this reveals Lincoln's allusion to a house divided for the purely propagandistic ploy that it is; of course a seceded South would mean the end of the United States and Northern economic and political dominance. In fact, this was the point, and thus appeals towards maintaining the grand experiment of the United States had far less to do with any democratic ideal than with protecting economic interests.

In this way, one may view the "over $1 billion that the Quartermaster's Department as a whole spent to equip the Union army" as an investment geared towards protecting the economic interests of Northern elites.

However, it is necessary to distinguish this interpretation from an account of the Civil War which argues that because "the Republican party controlled both Congress and the White House, Republican party leaders [were able] to dominate military procurement" such that "the economic mobilization of the Union to defeat the Confederacy -- by far the largest government spending project in the United States during the nineteenth century -- was nothing more than an outsized pork-barrel project for a party machine."

Once again, this assumption gives too much weight to individual actors and fails to address the fact that human beings are, more often than not, pawns in the hands of ideologies and social structures so pervasive that people are scarcely able to comprehend their scope,…

Sources Used in Documents:


Bergmann, Peter. "On the road to total war: The American civil war and the German wars

of unification, 1861-1871." The Journal of American History 85, no. 2 (1998): 685-686.

Carp, Benjamin. "Nations of American Rebels: Understanding Nationalism in Revolutionary

North America and the Civil War South." Civil War History 48, no. 1(2002): 5-33.

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