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Linking America’s Two Most Important Wars.

The American Revolution and the Civil War rank as our most important and destructive conflicts. Unequaled in terms of their impact on the populations that experienced them, they also wielded unmatched influence on America’s history by establishing a fragile new republic and then subjecting it to a profoundly disruptive test of national resiliency. Myriad ideological and historical ties connected the two wars, and as a pair they offer significant potential for scholarship. Yet only a few historians have pursued what seem to be obvious comparative frameworks—perhaps because each of the wars, immense in size and importance, yields apparently limitless topics.

Both sides during the Civil War looked to the founding generation and the Revolution. Confederates often compared themselves to colonists who claimed the right of self-determination, while the loyal population of the United States insisted they sought to safeguard what the founders bequeathed to ordinary citizens regarding self-governance and the opportunity to rise economically. Politicians and diplomats, whether in Washington or Richmond, accepted the French Alliance of 1778 as proof that Europe might tip the balance of power during America’s Civil War.

The example of sacrifice during the Revolution proved irresistible to leaders hoping to galvanize support for war efforts in 1861-1865. During the hard winter of 1863-64, for example, R.E. Lee evoked the suffering of George Washington’s Continentals. The history of the Army of Northern Virginia, he told his men, “has shown that the country can require no sacrifice too great for its patriotic devotion.” He compared their travails to those of an earlier generation: “Soldiers! You tread with no unequal step the road by which your fathers marched through suffering, privations, and blood, to independence.” If Confederate troops continued to emulate the Revolutionary soldiery’s disinterested service, prophesied Lee, “be assured that the just God who crowned their efforts with success will, in His own good time, send down his blessing upon yours.”

Robert Gould Shaw, then a member of the 7th New York State Militia, also referred to the Revolutionary War in a letter on April 18, 1861. “The Massachusetts men passed through N. York this morning,” he wrote before leaving for Washington. “….Won’t it be grand to meet the men from all the States, East and West, down there, ready to fight for the country, as the old fellows did in the Revolution?”

Perhaps most famously, Abraham Lincoln turned to what he considered the most sacred document in American history in his remarks at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation,” declared Lincoln in reference to the Declaration of Independence, “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Only by following through on the “unfinished work” of the soldiers who “gave the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg could loyal citizens sustain the vision, and give full meaning to the toll in military dead and wounded, of Revolutionary political leaders and soldiers who had created a unique democratic republic.

Many aspects of the two wars deserve comparative examination—none more so than the story of Loyalists who retained their allegiance to Britain in the Revolution and Unionists in the Confederacy. Loyalists aided the war against American Rebels in many ways. Estimated at between a fifth and a third of the colonial population, they held political positions, contributed money, served in all military theaters and composed the bulk of British forces in some battles. The notorious Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion, operating mostly in the southern campaigns, was a Loyalist unit. Because Britain relied heavily on Loyalists in the South between 1778 and 1783, fighting in the Carolinas and Georgia took on the character of a vicious civil war.

Southern Unionists similarly supported U.S. military efforts in the Confederacy. A small but significant minority of the Confederate population, more prevalent in the upper tier of states than in the Deep South, their numbers cannot be established with precision. They formed guerrilla bands, supplied intelligence to Union armies and assisted POWs who escaped from Rebel captivity. At least 100,000 joined regiments recruited from the white Unionist populace. Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, the most famous woman among Unionists in the Confederacy, rendered valuable service to the United States. The most spectacular success for Unionists came in Virginia, where they engineered creation of the new loyal state of West Virginia in 1863.

The British and the Lincoln administration tended to overestimate numbers of Loyalists and Unionists. The British obviously expected too much from Southern Loyalists in the war’s last years. As for Lincoln, he initially believed a mass of Unionists would step forward to oppose secession; in fact, Southern Unionists never provided a decisive edge to the U.S. on any battlefield and, though they were a source of friction to political and military leaders, failed to seriously compromise the Rebel war effort. The major difference between Loyalists and Unionists lies in their postwar situations: The former supported a failed cause, lost much property and emigrated in large numbers; the latter stood with the winners and often participated in Reconstruction governments.

An examination of Loyalists and Southern Unionists would be a good start toward expanding comparative literature on the Revolution and the Civil War. An exploration of how British and Union armies weakened the institution of slavery in the southern colonies and the Confederacy would also be illuminating, as would consideration of the importance of national armies in countering state and local sentiment among citizen-soldiers. With luck, scholars already may be hard at work on these and other topics.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.