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Book Chapter

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Department 1

Civil War Era Studies

Department 2



The American Civil War was a war of civilians. The fact that 3 million or so of them happened to be in uniform was almost incidental, since the soldiers, sailors, and officers of both the Union and Confederate armies were mostly civilian volunteers who retained close contacts with their civilian social worlds, who brought 1f9Culent civilian attitudes into the ranks with them, and who fully expected to return to civilian life as soon as the shooting was over. By the same token, civilian communities in both North and South kept closely in touch with their volunteers all through the war, sustained by peak rates of literacy in both sections and by the military postal services, and nourished by newspapers whose reliance on electrical telegraphy and field correspondents helped erode the customary cognitive distance between soldiers in the field and civilians at home. Above all, the American Civil War was (as Lincoln described it) "a people's contest'' because it was fought over domestic political issues within a republican political framework, where the consent of the governed (rather than the ambition of an aristocratic or military caste) was understood to be the ultimate arbiter. At almost any point in the war, the military conflict could have been ended by popular civilian decision, since congressional and presidential elections were held in both the North and the South in 1862, 1863, and 1864. If any of those elections had gone that way, there is very little to indicate that either Union or Confederate soldiers would have defied that determination; the only serious moment of military resistance to civilian control, after Lincoln's removal of George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, fizzled without measurable result. Hardly any other military conflict in the nineteenth century was so much a matter of civilian support, commitment, and willpower. [excerpt]

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