The Civil War began one hundred and fifty years ago today, when Confederate soldiers fired on the Union-held Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Tensions were high in the months prior to the battle at Fort Sumter, as President Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office and seven southern states seceded. To discuss the Civil War, we sat down with Mackubin T. Owens, professor at the Naval War College and expert in military history.
Q: Professor Owens, what was the primary cause of the Civil War?
Owens: The proximate cause of the war was the Southern states’ attempt to break up the Union and Lincoln’s refusal to acquiesce to the Union’s destruction. For Lincoln, the American Union was a means to an end—the survival of republican government. Secession struck at the very heart of republican government. As Lincoln said in his First Inaugural, secession is essentially anarchy, and no republican government can survive if the principle of secession is accepted.
But the reason behind secession and the deeper cause of the war was slavery. All disagreements between the North and the South were rooted in the issue of slavery. In 1860, the Federal government had no authority over slavery in the states where it existed. States still maintained authority over the institution within their borders. Lincoln and the Republicans, however, believed that the federal government could prohibit the expansion of slavery into the federal territories. Slave states rejected this exercise of federal power and believed their interests were best served out of the Union rather than within it.To the extent that the war was about “states’ rights,” it concerned the “right” to hold slaves and the “right” to expand slavery into the federal territories.
Q: How would you assess Lincoln’s performance as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War?
Owens: On paper, Confederate president Jefferson Davis was better prepared to be a war leader. But Lincoln proved that success as a war president requires more than an impressive resume—it requires character and perseverance. Lincoln set a high standard for leadership in time of war. He called forth the resources of the nation, appointed the agents of victory, set the strategy (Lincoln was arguably a better strategist than his generals were), restrained those who would cooperate with the disunionists, and provided the rhetoric that stirred the people. Most importantly, he did these things within a constitutional framework.
Q: Why did the Union win the war?
Owens: Union victory was not preordained. Although the Union possessed superior resources, a strategy was necessary to organize and employ these resources. In the end, Union strategy, which included such steps as the Emancipation Proclamation, was superior to Confederate strategy.
Q: What was the biggest military mistake of the war?
Owens: There were military blunders on both sides, but not all military mistakes had strategic or political consequences. Confederate General Leonidas Polk’s decision to violate Kentucky’s “neutrality” by occupying Columbus in September 1861 was one such consequential blunder. Polk’s decision prompted the Kentucky legislature to request federal aid to resist Polk’s advance, effectively ceding the state to Union control for the remainder of the war. Lincoln is reputed to have said, “I would like to have God on my side but I must have Kentucky.” Polk’s blunder not only enabled Union control of Kentucky but also allowed the Union to control the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, which allowed access to western Tennessee and northern Mississippi.
The Union made several blunders that protracted the conflict. Union General George McClellan’s failure to move quickly during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 against weaker Confederate forces was a missed opportunity to end the war. Had he moved with more alacrity, McClellan might have captured Richmond in the spring of 1862. A Union capture of Richmond, coupled with simultaneous Confederate losses in Tennessee might have ended the war. McClellan’s failure to commit his reserve at Sharpsburg/Antietam and therefore defeat General Robert E. Lee’s overstretched force was another missed opportunity.
Q: What about Pickett’s charge at the Battle of Gettysburg?
Owens: I do not include Lee’s decision to launch “Pickett’s charge” on the third day at Gettysburg as a blunder. Based on the outcomes of campaigns since June 1862 and on the results of the first two days of battle at Gettysburg, Lee had reasonable expectations of the charge’s success when he ordered the attack.
Q: What’s the most underappreciated aspect of the war?
Owens: The diplomatic front is the most underappreciated aspect of the war. The Union won the diplomatic war, because Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward prevented European recognition of the seceded states and effectively isolated the Confederacy.
Q: What’s the best book on the Civil War that you would recommend?
Owens: James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is the best one-volume treatment of all aspects of the lead up to the war and to the war itself. [Ed. James McPherson has also written a children's book on the Civil War, Fields of Fury: The American Civil War]
Mackubin T. Owens is an expert in military history and Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.