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Chandra Manning is an assistant professor at Georgetown University whose provocative book What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War earned an honorable mention at this year’s Lincoln Prize contest. Based on wartime letters and accounts by common soldiers, it highlights the centrality of slavery in the views of participants from the war’s outset.

In your book you say the war was about slavery. Why is that difficult for so many people to embrace?

Well, I didn’t start out thinking slavery was so central. The focus on slavery surprised me, and I suspect that’s part of why it surprises others. I was interested in enlisted men— most of whom were non-slaveholders—and it was not immediately apparent why somebody who didn’t own slaves would care about slavery. Their war must have been about some thing different, and my job was going to be to figure out what that was. I thought that the war for them was going to be this process of discovering that they had been hoodwinked into a war over slavery, that they would have gradually begun to withdraw loyalty from the cause because of that. That’s what I went looking for when I started with Confederates.

With Union soldiers, why would an ordinary Wisconsin farmer or Massachusetts shoemaker care about slavery? This seems counterintuitive to us today—that ordinary folks would care very much one way or another about it. I think that’s one major reason why it’s difficult to accept that slavery was as central as it actually was.

I think we also had a habit of reading Civil War soldiers backward—we had present-day assumptions about soldiers who did what they were told and didn’t think too much about it, particularly where slavery was concerned.

What changed your opinion about Confederates’ connection to slavery?

They did. In archives I kept running across soldiers who did not behave how I thought they would. I wasn’t expecting to hear them talk about slavery, so I started noticing soldiers who were doing just that. I start the book with this great quotation from an enlisted man’s newspaper that says anyone who pretends to believe this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks is either a fool or a liar. And I kept seeing reiterations of that theme where I didn’t expect it. I needed a system, so I started making documents, a document per topic—on slavery, on politics—for everything soldiers talked about with some regularity, except the weather and their intestines [laughs]. But I also made documents for what I thought they were going to talk about. I made one—this is embarrassing, but I called it “Confederates Got Horn-Swoggled”—where I was going to chart how enlisted Confederates found out they had been tricked into this war over slavery. I would transcribe what soldiers had to say into this long document chronologically. If I came across a guy writing on July 6, 1862, who said something about slavery and an election, the part about slavery I transcribed in my slavery document in my July ’62 section and the part about the election I transcribed into the politics document.

I found that “Confederates Got Horn-Swoggled” was going nowhere, but my slavery file was the thickest by quite a lot. So I sat down and I read through it about midway through the research. It really was an eye-opener. I realized I needed to let go of what I wanted them to be talking about and try to understand why the institution mattered so much to them.

The source material you used mostly came from educated Confederates. What if it fails to capture the voice of the typical Southerner?

I specifically looked for soldiers who a) didn’t have an economic stake in slavery, and b) were as ordinary as I could possibly find. It’s a bit patronizing to assume that the only guys thinking or writing about what the war was about were the privileged. Everybody had to explain to somebody back home why this war continued to matter. The 20 percent who were illiterate are largely underrepresented, but some of them did dictate letters to messmates or friends. What they share regardless of education level, to a much greater degree than I thought, was the perception that there wouldn’t be a war that need to be fought if the institution of slavery wasn’t threatened.

Shelby Foote quotes a Con – federate saying that he was fighting simply because the Yankees had invaded the South. How does slavery function in that context?

Home and family is important, but it was never separate from the institution of slavery. One of the reasons I think that is because you see soldiers enlisting and fighting and talking about war long before there are Yankees anywhere near their homes. What they’re really afraid of is that Yankees will plant ideas about insurrection in slaves.

What changed your mind about Northern views of slavery?

The same thing—those chronologically organized documents. When I began, I had been fooled by George McClellan, who wrote in 1862 that a declaration of radical views, especially on slavery, will send men deserting in droves. Of course, McClellan consistently overestimated the odds against any plan he didn’t like—but I wasn’t making that connection at first. So I was assuming I was not going to find Union soldiers talking about slavery either. When the first ones enlist in 1861, they don’t. They are concerned that this Union needs to survive to prove that self-government works, that government based on these ideas isn’t doomed to self-destruct: We can’t let secession happen, because then self-government is doomed. Then they go South, and much sooner than I expected I started seeing Union soldiers still believing that what’s at stake here is this experiment in self-government, but drawing the conclusion that why that experiment is at risk is slavery. That shift started to happen so much earlier than I ever dreamed, between August and December 1861.

Some historians credit slaves with initiating that shift in attitude; others credit soldiers or Lincoln. How do you you see it?

I see regular white enlisted Union soldiers as very important connectors between slaves and policymakers like Lincoln. The first group to do something to make the war turn against slavery are the slaves who run away to Union army camps. At the same time, slavery is such a deeply rooted institution in the whole nation. Up – rooting it, in my view, would take nothing less than governmental power.

In the Union camps, slaves interacted with enlisted Union soldiers, which had quite an impact on many of the soldiers in a couple of ways. One, they begin to realize that the institution was much worse than they had realized. Second, they come to rely on help from contrabands. Third, they realize: “This war would not have happened if it hadn’t been for slavery.” So they begin to experience a shift in opinion. In writing home, some see themselves as agents. They com plain about being pawns, but they also think their opinions should affect how this war is carried out, and if nothing else, their opinions should affect their families. So Union soldiers become important links between slaves and Northern public opinion.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.