Over at Civil War Memory Matt Gallman has made another appearance in the comments section. This time he’s responding to a post by Kevin Levin concerning the process of emancipation sparked by another post (you know how this works) from Don Shaffer at Civil War Emancipation about how Benjamin F. Butler chose to treat the arrival of several fugitive slaves who sought protection (and freedom). The cagey Butler eventually responded to the situation in front of him by classifying the blacks in question as contraband of war, thus effectively transferring their ownership to the United States of America (which is not the same thing as granting them freedom). Butler’s solution provided the legal rationale for the First Confiscation Act, passed by Congress in August 1861, only a few weeks after Congress had declared that the sole object of the war was reunion.
That in itself is an interesting story, but Matt objected (and, in my opinion, rightly so) to Kevin’s rather flippant expression of impatience with the question of “Who freed the slaves?” (Note: Kevin gracefully conceded that Matt had a point.) As readers of this blog know, I used that question to spur discussion here; as others know, I think that the question is fundamentally flawed, even if it is useful as a spur to discussion. That’s because I view emancipation as a process with many actors, each contributing something to the process, and I think “How did freedom come? How was slavery destroyed?” are better questions to ask to explore that process.
Yet, as Matt points out, asking some questions is valuable because of the discussion that follows: even if the question is flawed, attempts to answer it can be enlightening and can help us frame better questions to ask. He cited two other questions along the same line, adding that he termed the resulting discussions “‘stone soup’ discussions,”, because, as he puts it, “The question is silly or reductive, but the discussion is valuable.” Although I have somewhat of a different take on the silliness of the question and the usefulness of the answers as opposed to the discussion, I want to share the two other examples Matt cites, along with some observations of my own:
“Why Did the Confederacy Lose?” (or the Union win): I think this is a useful question that has led to reductive answers, largely because people read the questions as “what is the single most important reason” for Union victory or Confederate defeat. It tends to sidestep the equally provocative (and more provoking) question of “Was Confederate defeat (or Union victory) inevitable?” If one refrains from offering monocausal answers, and looks instead to the interplay of several factors, I think the question leads to more fruitful discussions. Monocausal answers are a bit too easily set aside. Let me give you an example. If one hears that Confederate divisiveness (internal dissent, lack of will, whatever) explains Confederate defeat, one simply responds that there was also Union divisiveness and internal dissent, and a will that faltered at times until events on the battlefield gave cause for optimism. One might then argue that Confederate divisiveness was more important because the Confederacy had less of a margin for error given the relative balance sheet of resources between the two sides, which is then countered by an argument that God is not always on the side of the bigger battalions … and so on. My own take on this is that Confederate defeat came when the Union assembled a leadership team that used Union advantages to great effect, which in turn pushed Confederate resources beyond the breaking point, and that in the end the fate of the Union was indeed settled in the homes of Americans who interpreted battlefield results. That’s as much an answer to “how” as it is to “why.” But it’s not a simple answer, although it has evolved in part because of this debate over a simple if flawed question which is nevertheless not sterile.
“Was the Civil War a Total War?” Matt himself states, “This is in my view a silly question.” I think it was more of a strawman question asked by Mark Neely in a widely-cited article. While Neely was doubtless correct in exploring the intellectual imprecision of the term and its rather sloppy use by historians, his own effort to answer it struck me as clever rather than insightful and at times quite silly (and he knows this, because I spoke in just such terms in a 1994 session of the Society of Civil War Historians, which was part of the Southern Historical Association’s annual meeting at Louisville, Kentucky). I’m more satisfied by Mark Grimsley’s handling of this issue in The Hard Hand of War (1995) but even more content with how I addressed how Ulysses S. Grant wrestled with these issues in my Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (1991); I’m currently working on a study of Union warmaking that addresses the kind of war the Union waged in such a fashion as to weave together military means and policy ends. Here the question (or more specifically Neely’s answer) has sparked my research and thinking, as has my response to Grimsley’s book, which in my mind slights political reconstruction or the efforts to use the olive branch as well as the sword, especially in 1864-65 (Grimsley offers a three-stage model of escalation that overlooks reconstruction/reconciliation efforts because it is more narrowly focused on military commanders and does not take into account the ways in which Grant and Sherman talked about broader issues).
In all three cases, I don’t think either the questions or the ensuing discussions were at all “sterile.” I think they were quite fruitful. However, I also think that precisely because they cause us to reframe our lines of inquiry and to ask new questions that perhaps we need to recognize the limits of their usefulness even as we acknowledge their contribution to moving the discussion forward.
What do you think?