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P. R.


A Revolution of Meaning: Why Northerners Went to War

The Civil War was a complex situation and the reasons why many fought and the

objectives of the war can easily become skewed. During the time before the war, northern

industry was booming and the union was progressing into a free labor ideology. The south

being very traditional, was stuck on the need for slavery to churn a profit in their mainly

export economy. Having to pay workers would completely ruin the profit margin and way of

life. The Norths main critique of the south according to Eric Foner is that southern society

had degradation of labor and a lack of social mobility1. The south was behind and needed to

change with the times.

The issue of why to fight and how to fight the war also changed drastically from

beginning to end. Many variables such as run-away slaves came into play, the reason for

fighting changed as these variables took shape and tough decisions needed to be made.

Military strategies along with how to handle situations on the battlefield also changed as the

war progressed. Who freed the slaves, and why, changed as success came with these new

strategys forcing congress and the union army to act. Everything in this war from why the

Eric Foner, The Republican Critique of the South, in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the
Republican Party before the Civil War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 19700, pg. 50, 45)

northerners went to war, how they were going to fight, and if emancipation was a positive or

negative all changed as time progressed and certain events took place.

The northern United States and the southern United States were strikingly different

places in the 1860s. The north was a place with massive industry and factories that produced

an influx of work which triggered a movement of people to establish permainate residence in

the major cities for work and an opportunity for a better life.

This influx of work was meet with a high demand to which the north did not need

slave labor to meet this demand; This shift to a wage labor ideology left the institution of

slavery and the economies that relayed on them, obsolete. This was the defining difference

between the two ways of life that led to the two societies fighting to ensure their way of life

would not be under attach. This fight to preserve their rights as free men and a free society

would ultimately lead to secession.

Wage Labor made it possible for people in north to earn a living and provided and

avenue to mobilize themselves socially. The social mobility and opportunity at mobility is

what the north saw so advantageous. The reluctance, and at times, downright refusal to adopt

this ideology by the South, according to Eric Foner, was the major critique the north had with

southern society. The south had a degradation of labor which led to unproductiveness and

limited to no social mobility, Republicans argued that it was not the negro himself who

were to blame for the Souths backwardness; it was rather that the institution of slavery

deprived him of both the education and the incentives which made the labor of northern

freemen so productive.(Foner) In other words, the institution of slavery and its perpetuation

and dependence is what is to blame for the Souths backwardness, not the slave himself.

With this system in place, the south had virtually two social classes; very rich slave

owning whites and very poor unproductive and dependent whites. The lack of variety and

opportunity lead many to believe the southern way of life was a dead-end road. This is the

fundamental divide between the regions, according to Foner, and would be the groundwork

for all disagreements, compromises, and conflicts in the mid-19th Century that ultimately lead

to a civil war.

This limited and restricted class system led to little social mobility for non-slave

owning whites. This system of operating an economy in this manner was out dated, inferior,

and needed to change in order to progress the nation as a whole, according to many


On the eve of the outbreak of war, the people of the north rallied behind the idea that

they were going to war for the union and all the history that lead to the establishment of this

great nation. Any secession after an unfavorable outcome of a fair election was seen as a

rebellion that needed to be squashed. They believed secession was unconstitutional and they

were fighting to preserve the union.

Like everything in this war, the original objective for victory changed as events

changed. The original object for the war was to preserve the union as quickly and easily as

possible. Originally, Lincoln wanted to preserve the union without emancipating slaves and

without having to deal with that glaring issue until after the union was put together again.

Perhaps another delaying compromise?

I believe this was Lincolns original plan as it is stated (SOURCE) this because he

wanted to show the Confederates that he was not interested in changing or degrading their

way of life, he just wanted the union back as one nation working together. Lincoln even

summarized his policy by saying, If I could save the union without freeing any slaves, I

would do it.2 General George B. McClellan shared a similar stance as Lincoln, Military

government should be confined to the preservation of public order and protection of political

rights.3 Both men knew slavery was the key issue but felt if preservation could be achieved,

in a perfect world, they would have not even touched the subject of slavery in a quick a

decisive preservation of the union. The military consequence of this strategy was a massive

encounter of run-away slaves that would run to union military camps to escape southern

slavery. It got so overwhelming that union commanders did not know how to handle all of

these run-away slaves as their preparation did not foresee this situation.



This lead to emancipation and a new military strategy that changed the outcome of the

war indefinitely.

Barbara Fields, Who Freed the Slaves? Civil War Illustrated (1983), pg. 178
George McClellan, Letter to Abraham Lincoln, July 7, 1862

Once Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the

whole meaning of the war changed along with tactics to ensure victory for the north. As the

war progressed, Lincoln and McClellan both saw that these run-away slaves were hurting the

southern society and economy. With no slaves to work, diminishing work force nothing can

be accomplished, and supplies for the Confederates were running low. Lincoln thought, the

best place to hit the south was where it hurt the most, their wallet, supplies, and labor


This change in tactics would prove to be huge in winning the war. However,

Lincolns agenda did not have emancipation or slaves; he wanted to save the union without

freeing the slaves. This lead to generals like McClellan, John Fremont, and General Hunter

proclaiming martial law in Missouri and other states freeing slave because soldiers knew first

hand that this war was about slavery, Politicians might strive to separate the war from the

question of slavery, military men learned at first hand that the two were inextricably

linked.(Fields) Eventually because of this, congress abolished the fugitive slave law. This

shows the push for emancipation came from others and that Lincoln was not this great

emancipator that everyone thinks he is. He was hesitant to act and only declared

emancipation through pressure from generals and Congress. According to Barbara Fields, the

slaves were responsible for ending slavery because they knew Lincoln would be forced to be

the emancipator. The question of who freed the slaves goes deeper than the great

emancipator and the proclamation.

The tactics of the union army completely changed with emancipation. Now their goal

was to free the slaves in the south and bring them into the union army to strengthen their

numbers and to further weaken southern society to ensure a decisive victory. With this

change in emphasis, the term total war comes into play. The north most certainly changed

their tactics and emphasis to a more pro-active campaign for emancipation. This leads some

to think that the goal to not only defeat the confederate army but to defeat their way of life

makes this a total war.4 The main factor that helped the north win the war is undoubtedly

emancipation and the change of emphasis on the war. Once the goal was to preserve the

union through emancipation, the south could not keep its union fighting with lack of

resources and labor force. Gary Gallagher fells similarly as he states in his piece titled

Emancipation where he says that the north enacted Emancipation because Lincoln knew it

would ruin the Confederacy and help win decisive battles and a decisive war.5

The question of why did the north go to war with the south has different meanings at

different points in the campaign. Early on, the goal was to preserve the union in as little time

as possible and move on as a united country. The military tactics displayed in the early stages

of the war by Gen. McClellan demonstrated this plan. The reasons for fighting within the

union ranks were for the constitution, which said secession could not happen and union

preservation. The original military plan for the union was to not steal slaves and free them

and to respect their land and property. This had a consequence because there was an influx of

run-aways in union camps.

Once the union generals saw the benefits of encouraging run-aways, the military

tactics and reasoning for fighting the war changed. Many generals like Gen. Fremont and

Mark E. Neely, Was the Civil War a Total War? in eds., Taking Sides: Clashing Views in American History, Volume
1, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2011)
Gary Gallagher, Emancipation, in The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011)

Gen. Hunter started declaring slaves free in southern states to encourage running away.

There were many people before the great emancipator to push for ending slavery. Mostly

from generals and military leaders because they saw the huge impact it was having on

southern society and production. The north won the war because they hit the south were it

hurt the most. They hit them hard in their wallet, their economy their and production. With

no labor force to help provide for the troops and get any work done, the south would

crumble. They would have too many things to worry about and contain to fight a closely

contested war. The north saw an opportunity to end the war quickly and Lincoln sticking to

his original plan ended the war as quickly and decisively as possible. If Lincolns Generals

did not push for this new change in tactics, there is no telling how different the outcome

would have been. The Civil War was a war whose meaning and tactics were flexible and

changed but ultimately achieved a concrete goal of a preserved, united union.