Chandra Manning’s book What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (2007) examines soldiers’ letters and diaries, as well as camp newspapers, to discover “what ordinary soldiers thought about the relationship between slavery and the Civil War” (p. 4). She argues against the common view that soldiers did not think much about the issue at all, that they were non-ideological, or that, if they did interpret the war in ‘ideological’ terms, slavery was not important to their thinking. On the contrary, the historical evidence establishes that the large majority of soldiers on both sides believed that slavery was the fundamental cause of the conflict, and that it had to be either abolished (according to Union soldiers) or defended (according to Confederates). Manning organizes her book chronologically, so that the reader sees how soldiers’ attitudes changed from year to year.
For example, as Union soldiers entered the war in 1861, most of them were not committed to emancipation of slaves. They shared the racist prejudices of their day, and in fact continued to do so throughout the war. However, as they encountered Southern society, they began to understand the horrors of slavery as well as its adverse consequences on the fabric of even white society. Most whites they saw were poor and ignorant with no hope for social advancement; the whole civilization was backward, stagnant, with stretches of fertile land lying fallow. In the beginning, Union soldiers had volunteered to fight in the war because of their millennial faith in the greatness of the American republic, its universal significance as proving to the world that “republican self-government based on the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence could work” (p. 40). If the Union collapsed, then so did America’s divine mission. Later, though, this understanding broadened: “contact with slaves and southern society convinced many Union troops that the immoral and blighting institution of slavery was antithetical to republican government, and that any republican government that tried to accommodate slavery was doomed to eventual failure” (p. 50). This belief also explains the troops’ reverence for President Lincoln: whereas their own loved ones in the North did not comprehend their conversion to abolitionism, Lincoln did (at least in the troops’ eyes). He came to articulate and embody the true mission of the war, as redeeming the nation from the sin of slavery and making possible a new birth of freedom.
Confederate soldiers, on the other hand, saw themselves as defending slavery, their families, and the southern way of life. Most soldiers did not own slaves, but they fought for slavery anyway because it “buttressed the ideals of white liberty and equality,” it “stabilized an otherwise precarious social structure,” it provided a mechanism of race control, and its abolition would surely lead to anarchy (p. 32). It was the foundation of whites’ manhood. Confederate troops underwent an evolution comparable to that of Union troops: just as the latter became more committed to emancipation as the war went on -- for only that could justify the deaths of so many of their comrades -- Confederates identified the war even more with the defense of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation, for example, appalled southern troops.
What This Cruel War Was Over puts to rest any doubts about the ideological leanings of Union and Confederate troops. As they wrote in their letters home, the institution of slavery was the crux of the matter. For Northerners, the Union could not be preserved if slavery continued to exist; for Southerners, the preservation of the Union had no importance compared to the preservation of slavery. Luckily, the North won the war.