Minnesota Volunteer Infantry
Portraying Union Soldiers
of the Civil War
Why did the North go to War in 1861?
Probably the most debated theme in American
History revolves around the questions "What was the cause of the Civil War?
Why did the North and South go to war? Why did individual Northern and
Southern men go to war? What motivated politicians, soldiers and civilians,
educated and uneducated - indeed all classes of American society - in moving
over this precipice?"
The honest answers may have begun
experiencing political "spin" in some sectors even before the war ended and
certainly did so almost immediately upon its conclusion. It is an
unfortunate trend even today when the historic period of 1861-1865 is so
highly politicized and hemmed in by "correctness" that it is a virtual
necessity to go back to first-person sources to discover the true beliefs
and motivations of those involved.
In 1889 the state legislature of Minnesota
approved a bill commissioning a report, an "official historical narrative",
of Minnesota's role in the Civil War of 1861-1865 and Indian War of 1862.
The following is an excerpt from the report which was compiled from the
testimony of many eyewitnesses representing a wide sampling of Minnesota's
participants. The excerpt is refreshingly honest in its appraisal of why the
North (and therefore Minnesota) went to war against the Confederacy. Slavery
is mentioned as one of several points of aggravation which preceded the war
but not as THE cause for war. Ditto for cultural differences between
North and South and ditto again for "political clashings." Both "meddlesome"
northern antagonists and "arrogant" southern antagonists are held equally
responsible ("equally willing") for bringing things to a point of crisis.
What we call "states rights" is discussed as dating to the Founding Fathers
("statesmen of the Revolution") and therefore legal but seems to be seen by
the author as a weakness contributing to arrival at said point of crisis.
Secession is not condemned as being either illegal or treason. In fact the
legality of secession is asserted as also dating back to the Founding
Fathers. (It must be remembered that over the six decades prior to 1861
nearly all threats of secession had come from northern states and that none
other than Abraham Lincoln himself had argued in favor of a state's
right to secede while a member of congress in 1848.) But the excerpt does
claim that the southern seizure of Ft. Sumter was what we today might label
a "wake up call" to the North illustrating that the danger of an independent
Southern nation as a likely rival to the United States makes for a very
clear justification for war (1 below) and also makes clear what the
objective of the war must be (2 below) - the subjugation of The South to the
point that it will be forced into a new form of Union framed according to northern
1) A new southern nation could become a
dangerous rival to the (northern) United States for domination of the
American continent. (This was, after all, an era still imbued with the
spirit of Manifest Destiny.)
2) To prevent such a dangerous state of
affairs the Confederacy must be "compelled" by "absolute force" into a newly
"solidified" Union (a "more perfect Union" in Lincoln's
words) that will correct the perceived flaws of the nation created by the
Founding Fathers (such as the right of secession) and establish the
domination of northern culture and perspectives over southern in a nation
that will be indivisible.
Whatever one's opinion may be of the
reasoning represented in this document there is no denying that the thoughts
expressed are both brutally honest and convincingly logical as an expression
of the Northern perspective of 1861.
Was it imperialistic? Yes, undoubtedly. But
(in fairness) many civilized nations of the time (and some uncivilized) had
imperialistic pretensions. (Certain individuals in The South too had
imperialistic dreams though most southerners were philosophically committed to
limited, constrained (and mostly local) government as the ideal.)
Was it a betrayal of the vision of the
Founding Fathers? Quite possibly. At the very least it represented a major
and significant shift
in philosophy - and power.
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