Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction

Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction

Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction

Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction

Excerpt

. . .majority Patriotism is the customary Patriotism.--MARK TWAIN

The Civil War was many wars. It was a war of battles--of Bull Run, Shiloh, Lookout Mountain, and Cold Harbor. It was a war of ships-- wood against iron, steam against sail, the fleetness of privateers against the attrition of blockade. In these aspects the Civil War was like many wars. And it was a war of glory. We honor the valor of Grant and Lee, Jackson and Sherman, and the nameless men who made possible the victories of their chieftains. The V.M.I. cadets retain imperishable youth and the mature wisdom of Lincoln remains ageless.

Like other wars the Civil War was one of death, pain, hunger, and misery. Corruption and speculation oozed beneath acts of selfless heroism. Fear was the common denominator for the fighting man as it has been for all fighting men. The swift horror of battle, the boredom of military inaction, the irritations of rear-area regulations--these too are common to all wars.

Yet it was a different kind of war for the Americans of 1861, for it was a civil war. More than a decade had passed since the brief bloodletting at the Halls of Montezuma. Aged veterans of 1812 and the Revolution added haloed reminiscences to their accounts of past conflicts. Few of Lincoln's contemporaries could estimate the consequences of major military actions. If they had, if such consciousness might have deterred them, there was a Ruffin and a Rhett to make the South intransigent, and a Garrison and John Brown to spur on the North.

In 1861 Americans had to choose. Their leaders had prepared them for this moment for decades. Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Douglas--these and many more had argued the nature of the Union. Compromises had twice adjusted sectional tensions to national expansion. But in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry, in the rank holds of slave-running ships and in the measured tread of federal troops surrounding a hapless fugitive Negro, these compromises were undermined until faith no longer adhered to them.

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