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This summer, I want to try out a new experiment. Instead of curating links and books from across different mediums, I want to take one topic and write a short essay about it every week.
Today's topic is a book titled Battle Cry for Freedom about the American Civil War by James McPherson.
Ever since I read Master of the Senate by Robert Caro, I've wanted to learn more about the Civil War. Caro writes about the grave injustices against African Americans across the American South — injustices that had their origins in the gravest of all injustices, the practice of slavery. And the more I scratched the surface, the more I saw the inexplicable link between America's present and the Civil War of 1861-1865. To show what I mean here, let's look at some themes that are somewhat unique to American political discourse:
Freedom: Both sides in the war purported to be fighting for freedom. In the case of the Union1, the case was freedom fromslavery. In the case of the Confederacy, it was the freedom to own slaves. The Confederate states did not want the Federal government to intervene in their internal matters. All except one. When it came to the Federal Fugitive Slave Law — would a slave from Alabama who escaped to Massachusetts be legally returned to his or her owners in Alabama — the South wanted a strong Federal government. These tensions between what states want the Federal government to take control of and where they want to be left alone continue to exist today.
Economic growth: In the 1800s, the nature of economic growth between the South and the North was very different. The North was a vibrant economy with trading posts across the Northeastern corridor. More importantly, the North had an industrial economy with all the efficiencies that come from automating and standardizing repeated tasks. The South on the other hand was heavily dependent on slave labor for the production of its main cash crop — cotton. Industrialists in the South were richer on average than their Northern counterparts, but all of this wealth was invested in land and slaves. The investment cycle of the southern economy was selling cotton to buy slaves to sell more cotton in a vicious feedback loop of human suffering.
Territorial growth: The initial sparks of conflict were the result of territorial expansion. As the United States gained more territory in the first half of the 1800s (New Mexico, Texas, etc.), there was a question on everyone's mind: would slavery be allowed in the new territories? Slavery was banned in the Northern parts of the country and it was an institution that defined the South. So would the expansion of the country be Northern or Southern in nature?
Against the backdrop of these themes was American’s accession to the world economic stage. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 18032, the United States was no really a major world power. But the potent cocktail of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization changed that:
Immigration: In the first half of the 19th century, the United States saw an influx of more than five million immigrants. Attractive to these immigrants was the relatively high ratio of land to people compared to Europe and Asia and the prospect of better opportunities.
Urbanization: While the country as a whole remained rural, the urban population grew three times faster than the rural population. From 6% in 1810 to 20% of total population in 1860, this was the highest rate of urbanization in American history.
Industrialization: Supporting this immigration and urbanization was the increased industrialization of the country, led by the Northeast. One cornerstone of this industrialization was how export oriented it was. America’s transatlantic trade exceeded internal commerce. The reason for this was the vast distances that goods had to travel over the mainland. This set the stage for the railroad empires of the Vanderbilts and the Hills. As immigrants from across the world slashed the hard rock mountains across the continent, transportation costs were slashed in tandem — ultimately bringing the country together literally.
Put these two set of themes — one of America’s values and the other of America’s ascension — together and you set the stage for one of the most consequential military conflicts that the world has ever seen. Consequential not just because of what it said about the character of the two opposing armies, but consequential because of the shear numbers:
American lives lost in the Civil War exceed the total of those lost in all the other wars the country has fought added together, world wards included.
We will explore the book in two additional parts: the second part of the book will cover the attempts made to stop the conflict and the third part will cover the conflict itself.
The Union comprised of the Northern states and a few on the West Coast. The Confederacy consisted of 11 Southern states.
Via Wikipedia: The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition of the territory of Louisiana by the United States from France in 1803. In return for fifteen million dollars, or approximately eighteen dollars per square mile, the United States nominally acquired a total of 828,000 sq mi (2,140,000 km2; 530,000,000 acres). However, France only controlled a small fraction of this area, most of it inhabited by American Indians; for the majority of the area, what the United States bought was the "preemptive" right to obtain Indian lands by treaty or by conquest, to the exclusion of other colonial powers.