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Conscientious Objections

By Cynthia Wachtell
11/10/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Being committed to the Union didn’t keep some of America’s most famous writers from questioning the morality of war.

Before the Civil War staggered to its conclusion, the prominent New England novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was destined to enter the lone seclusion of the grave. But while he lived, Hawthorne took careful measure of what he referred to as “the present stage of our national difficulties” and wrote about the war with surprising candor.

Through his various wartime works—assorted letters, a long essay describing his visit to the vicinity of the battlefront, an unfinished novel— Hawthorne registered his ambivalence about the Civil War, his condemnation of warfare in general and his specific concern about modern weaponry. Along with Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and John William De Forest, he stands as one of the earliest writers to question the morality of the Civil War.

At the start of the war, Hawthorne was 56 years old with silver hair. He would die in mid-May 1864, nearly a year before the war’s end. He had never been a soldier. And when a company of volunteers was sent off from Concord, Mass.—on April 19, 1861, with a cannon salute and a speech from Judge Ebenezer Hoar— Hawthorne’s son, Julian, was too young to be among them. Nonetheless, Hawthorne was not immune to war fever.

It was not politics that initially attracted Hawthorne’s interest in the war; it was the“invigorating effect” that the excitement and charged public mood had on him. Early in the war, on May 26, 1861, Hawthorne wrote a letter to his friend Horatio Bridge, the paymaster general of the U.S. Navy, and confessed,“The war, strange to say, has had a beneficial effect upon my spirits, which were flagging woefully before it broke out. But it was delightful to share in the heroic sentiment of the time,and to feel that I had a country—a consciousness which seemed to make me young again. One thing,as regards this matter,I regret…that I am too old to shoulder a musket myself.”Hawthorne was grateful that the excitement of the war had roused him from his torpor. But as he admitted in a letter he wrote the very same day to his close friend and publisher William Ticknor,“It is rather unreasonable to wish my countrymen to kill one another for the sake of refreshing my palled spirits; so I shall pray for peace.”

A consummate New Englander, Hawthorne sided unequivocally with the Union and showed a Northerner’s chauvinism. But despite what he called his “Yankee heart,” Hawthorne could not bring himself to subscribe to the customary views of a stalwart Unionist.“Meantime (though I approve the war as much as any man) I don’t quite understand what we are fighting for, or what definite result can be expected,” he confided to Bridge.

Hawthorne considered the war ill-conceived and appallingly deadly.“It would be too great an absurdity,” he wrote to Bridge in February 1862, “to spend all our Northern strength, for the next generation, in holding on to a people who insist upon being let loose.” Indeed, Hawthorne calmly entertained the notion of disunion, as long as the resulting borders could be drawn to his satisfaction. Contrasting himself with those who were “bigoted to the Union” and who could see “nothing but ruin without it,” Hawthorne claimed he “should not much regret an ultimate separation…if we can only put the boundary far enough south.” On this theme, Hawthorne even declared he was glad the South had chosen to secede from the Union.“I must say,” he wrote to Bridge in late May 1861, “that I rejoice that the old Union is smashed. We never were one people, and never really had a country since the Constitution was formed.”

From his distant vantage point in New England, Hawthorne waited out the war’s first spring, summer and autumn—repeating from time to time his lament that he was too old to fight—and strove, without success, to complete a novel. Soon after the new year, he was encouraged by his friend Bridge to pay a visit to Washington and see the war up close. But Hawthorne responded that certain obstacles stood in the way. “For instance, I am not very well, being mentally and physically languid; but, I suppose, there is about an even chance that the trip and change of scene might supply the energy which I lack. Also, I am pretending to write a book, and though I am nowise diligent about it, still each week finds it a little more advanced; and I am now at a point where I do not like to leave it entirely.” Eventually, Hawthorne did resolve to visit Washington. In the company of publisher William Ticknor, he left frozen New England and headed south in March 1862. Arriving in Washington a day too late to watch 60,000 troops cross the Potomac en route to Manassas, Hawthorne contented himself with visiting the Capitol, meeting President Lincoln in the White House, and traveling to various forts, fortresses and naval ports in Virginia.

In an article titled “Chiefly About War Matters” that appeared in Atlantic Monthly in July 1862, Hawthorne recorded his impressions of the trip. The article is a peculiar piece, at once serious and self-mocking, and instead of  signing his name to it, Hawthorne chose to have it simply run under the byline “By a Peaceable Man.” The editors of Atlantic Monthly trimmed out some of Hawthorne’s more “objectionable” matter—an unflattering description of Lincoln’s physique and some overly sympathetic remarks about misguided Southerners—but they left intact other of his irreverent, and at times highly critical, observations about the war.

Hawthorne questioned the war aims as well as the manner in which the war was being carried out. In particular, his fuming reaction to scientific innovations in naval combat reveals a profound uneasiness with the trend of modern warfare. Hawthorne dedicated a long section to describing a visit to Fortress Monroe and to two warships anchored in nearby Norfolk Harbor, the Minnesota and the Monitor. Hawthorne pronounced the Minnesota, the flagship vessel among the “gallant array of ships of war and transports” thronging the fortress, “splendid.” He praised“her gallant crew, her powerful armament, her mighty engines.” But he had nothing complimentary to write about the famous Monitor. When he toured the vessel at Fortress Monroe, it had recently returned from its historic engagement with the Confederacy’s Merrimac, the first battle ever fought between two ironclad warships. Hawthorne was distinctly unimpressed. “How,” he wondered, “can an admiral condescend to go to sea in an iron pot?”

Hawthorne, whose grandfather had commanded a ship during the American Revolution, held a traditional view of what constituted naval grandeur and gallantry, and the thoroughly modern, low-lying Monitor left him upset and confused.“It could not be called a vessel at all; it was a machine,” he disdainfully observed.“It was ugly, questionable, suspicious, evidently mischievous,—nay, I will allow myself to call it devilish; for this was the new war-fiend.” In short, Hawthorne declared the ironclad looked less like a dignified warship than“like a gigantic rat-trap.”

Hawthorne’s visit to Fortress Monroe and Norfolk Harbor forced him to confront the uncomfortable truth that the ways of warfare were rapidly changing. As he unhappily noted, “military science makes such rapid advances.” He realized wooden warships soon would become obsolete and despondently imagined a future in which men would go to battle “boxed up in impenetrable iron.” Ruminating on the implications of the battle fought between the two ironclads, Hawthorne predicted that science, which he wrote with a capital “S,” would spell the end to heroism:

All the pomp and splendor of naval warfare are gone by. Henceforth there must come up a race of engineermen and smoke-blackened cannoneers, who will hammer away at their enemies under the direction of a single pair of eyes; and even heroism—so deadly a gripe [sic] is Science laying on our noble possibilities—will become a quality of very minor importance, when its possessor cannot break through the iron crust of his own armament and give the world a glimpse of it.

Science was spelling the end to pluck and daring. “There will be other battles,” Hawthorne lamented, “but no more such tests of seamanship and manhood as the battles of the past.” The introduction of ironclad warships, he realized, would “not long be the last and most terrible improvement in the science of war.”

The old ways of naval warfare were rapidly disappearing, and Hawthorne offered a grim forecast for the future. Ever more sinister innovations, he suspected, would be introduced. “Already we hear of vessels the armament of which is to act entirely beneath the surface of the water; so that, with no other external symptoms than a great bubbling and foaming, and gush of smoke, and belch of smothered thunder out of the yeasty waves, there shall be a deadly fight going on below,—and, by and by, a sucking whirlpool, as one of the ships goes down.” The “science of war,” according to Hawthorne, would undermine the individual fighter’s “pristine value.” The “long procession of heroic sailors” would reach its end, and machines would replace gallant warriors. With more than a little irony Hawthorne concluded,“The Millennium is certainly approaching, because human strife is to be transferred from the heart and personality of man into cunning contrivances of machinery, which by and by will fight out our wars with only the clank and smash of iron, strewing the field with broken engines, but damaging nobody’s little finger except by accident. Such is obviously the tendency of modern improvement.” Man would become the servant of the machine, and war would become a bloodless affair.

Interestingly, published in the very same issue of the Atlantic Monthly as Hawthorne’s “Chiefly About War Matters” was an article that praised John Ericsson, the engineer who had designed the Monitor. The essay, “Ericsson and His Inventions,” reads in part, “Ericsson is now zealously at work in constructing six new iron gun-boats on the plan of the Monitor. If that remarkable structure can be surpassed, he is the man to accomplish it. His ambition is to render the United States impregnable against the navies of the world.”

Changes in warfare would continue apace, but their moral meaning would remain open to interpretation. The wartime readers of the July 1862 installment of Atlantic Monthly were presented, both figuratively and literally, with two very different readings of the merging of science and warfare.

As his wartime letters and his account of his visit to the war arena make clear, Hawthorne felt a profound ambivalence about the Civil War. In “Chiefly About War Matters,” he wrote with revealing candor, “For ourselves, the balance of advantages between defeat and triumph may admit of question.” Hawthorne was suspicious both of the war’s means (the use of modern weaponry) and its ends (forcing the secessionist South into submission).

More fundamentally, Hawthorne questioned war’s underlying morality. Halfway through “Chiefly About War Matters,” he inserts his bluntest words on the subject:

Set men face to face, with weapons in their hands, and they are as ready to slaughter one another now, after playing at peace and good will for so many years, as in the rudest ages, that never heard of peace societies, and thought no wine so delicious as what they quaffed from an enemy’s skull. Indeed, if the report of a Congressional committee may be trusted, that old-fashioned kind of goblet has again come into use, at the expense of our Northern headpieces,—a costly drinking-cup to him that furnishes it! Heaven forgive me for seeming to jest upon such a subject!—only, it is so odd, when we measure our advances from barbarism, and find ourselves just here!

War is uncivilized slaughter, Hawthorne boldly suggests. The soldiers of the Civil War are no better than the barbarians of old, who claimed skulls as trophy drinking cups and dishonored the enemy dead.

Hawthorne was outspoken but he was not out of touch. He knew his stark assessment of war as slaughter was provocative and would offend the sensibilities of his readers. “I don’t wish to foist an article upon you that might anywise damage the Magazine,” he wrote to Atlantic Monthly’s publisher. Hawthorne nevertheless felt compelled to share his thoughts, however unpopular. In the very body of the article, he offered the following self-justification for presenting his dissenting views:“In writing this article, I feel disposed to be singularly frank, and can scarcely restrain myself from telling truths the utterance of which I should get slender thanks for.”

The Civil War, however, was not the only war about which Hawthorne wrote in the early 1860s. He also turned his attention to the morality of an earlier conflict, the American Revolution. Killing, he seemed to conclude, was never acceptable, even in the most ideal of wartime circumstances. War, Hawthorne suggests—perhaps with the Civil War in mind—is inherently fratricidal. Moreover, Hawthorne implies that war is inherently tragic and immoral.

Modern contrivances, such as the Monitor, might change the ways of war, but to read Hawthorne’s wartime romance, Septimius Felton; or, The Elixir of Life is to realize that he did not really believe in the grandeur of battle at all. Even in the most idealized of wartime situations, Hawthorne shows, killing is still killing.

The American Revolution, no less than the Civil War, reduced live men to decaying corpses for flies to feed on. Nonetheless, there was something particularly unmanning, Hawthorne suggests, about the new weaponry being introduced during the Civil War. It deprived fighters of control and threatened to convert them into an army of “engineermen” and “cannoneers” whose personal qualities mattered little.

Nor was Hawthorne the only wartime writer to worry about the direction in which science and warfare were headed. As other works about the Monitor confirm, Hawthorne’s concern was shared by a wide range of contemporary authors, including his onetime close friend Herman Melville. Like Hawthorne, Melville lamented the new type of naval battle that was being ushered in by the ironclads and modern science. Indeed, Melville—who himself had served on a frigate—repeatedly addressed the subject of naval combat in Battle-Pieces. In a poem titled “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight,” Melville gives his opinion of the ironclads’ battle. Drawing a pointed comparison between the heroic contests of the past and the intense, yet peculiarly dispassionate, fight of the Monitor and Merrimac, Melville writes:

Hail to victory without the gaud
Of glory; zeal that needs no fans
Of banners; plain mechanic power
Plied cogently in War now placed—
Where War belongs—
Among the trades and artisans.

A few lines later Melville suggests that war is fast becoming a matter of cranks, pivots, screws and scientific calculations. The warriors of old, he claims, are being replaced by mere “operatives.” The poem concludes,“War’s made / Less grand than Peace, / And a singe runs through lace and feather.”

In another poem, “In the Turret,” Melville tries to imagine the thoughts that ran through the mind of Lieutenant John L. Worden, the commander of the Monitor. Did the dutiful Worden—who “bore the first iron battle’s burden / Sealed as in a diving-bell”—worry that he would drown in“liquid gloom”sealed in a“welded tomb”? Drawing a powerful analogy, Melville writes of Worden:

Alcides, groping into haunted hell
To bring forth King Admetus’ bride,
Braved naught more vaguely direful
and untried.

To venture into battle in an ironclad, Melville suggests, was comparable to venturing into hell. Combining the language of patriots with that of engineers, Melville imagines Worden’s silent prayer before the battle began as, “First duty, duty next, and duty last; / Ay, Turret, rivet me here to duty fast!” Riveted to his post, Worden did his duty. But the definition of what constitutes duty had been reinvented to suit the “mechanic power” of modern warfare.

In “The Temeraire,” Melville describes an English sailor’s reaction to the replacement of the old wooden fleets with the new ironclads:

But Splendors wane. The sea-fight yields
No front of old display;
The garniture, emblazonment,
And heraldry all decay.

The “navies old and oaken” of which the Temeraire was the “poetic ideal,” are to be no more. Now, the“rivets clinch the iron-clads,” and Melville warns, “Men learn a deadlier lore.”

Other poets of the era expressed similar concerns. In his poem, “The Cumberland,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recounts how the wooden USS Cumberland futilely attempted to defend itself against the ironclad Merrimac in an encounter that took place the day before the Merrimac’s engagement with the Monitor. The clash—in which the Cumberland was shelled, rammed and sunk—marked a turning point in the history of naval warfare. Longfellow writes:

And we knew that the iron ship of our foes
Was steadily steering its course,
To try the force
Of our ribs of oak.

The ironclad is, in Longfellow’s imagination, a uniquely fearsome foe. He describes it alternately as looking like a kraken whale “huge and black” and like a “floating fort.” It is both animate and inanimate, both malevolent beast and unfeeling machine. The Cumberland fires at the ironclad but to little effect.

As hail rebounds from a roof of slate,
Rebounds our heavier hail
From each iron scale
Of the monster’s hide.

The fire-breathing Merrimac ultimately crushes the Cumberland’s wooden “ribs in her iron grasp.”

Longfellow at once acknowledges the change that had been introduced into naval warfare and tries to reconcile it with the poetic norms of the day. Paying tribute to the men who died on the Cumberland, he begins the poem’s final stanza in a conventionally romantic vein: “Ho! brave hearts that went down in the seas, / Ye are at peace in the troubled stream.” The old-fashioned words at the start of each line seem intended to link the poem to some earlier, idealized age of seamanship. But as Longfellow clearly realized, wooden warships like the Cumberland were bound to be displaced by impregnable ironclads.

As the war progressed, it became increasingly difficult for writers to reconcile the new ways of warfare with their inherited notions of naval grandeur and bravery. Even so, the occasional poet tried to find cause for celebration in the handiwork of the engineers. “The Cruise of the Monitor”by George Henry Boker jubilantly toasts John Ericsson, the ironclad’s famous designer:

Hurrah for the master mind that wrought,
With iron hand, this iron thought!
Strength and safety with speed combined,
Ericsson’s gift to all mankind;
To curb abuse, and chains to loose,
Hurrah for the Monitor’s famous cruise!

Nonetheless, it was hard to deny that warfare was fundamentally changing in ways that threatened traditional concepts of battle and altered the role of the individual fighter.

One of the direst predictions about the future of warfare was put forth by Henry Adams, who served as private secretary to his father, the American ambassador to England, during the Civil War years. Upon hearing about the engagement between the Merrimac and the Monitor, Adams wrote to his brother Charles Francis Adams Jr., a captain in the Union Army: “Man has mounted science, and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.” The invention of nuclear weaponry still lay far in the future, but Adams’ apocalyptic vision reflects an anxiety about science and warfare that was becoming quite palpable in the second half of the 19th century.

Not coincidentally, in the decades following the Civil War, war criticism moved from the periphery of American literature to the center.


Adapted from War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914, by Cynthia Wachtell (Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

Originally published in the January 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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