Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Zebulon Vance on the demoralization of the Confederacy

I have no wish to refight the Civil War for the umpteenth time, but in the course of working on a lesson plan for the NEH I encountered this fascinating document, a letter from Zebulon Vance, governor of North Carolina, which is relevant to some of our recent discussions. Writing to a friend in September 1864, as Sherman was smashing his way through Georgia, Vance drew the following conclusion:

The signs which discourage me more than aught else are the utter demoralization of the people. With a base of communication five hundred miles in Sherman’s rear, through our own country, not a bridge has been burned, not a car thrown from its track, nor a man shot by the people whose country he has desolated. They seem everywhere to submit when our armies are withdrawn. What does this show, my dear sir? It shows what I have always believed, that the great popular heart is not now, and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the Politicians, not the People; and was fought at first by the natural enthusiasm of our young men, and has been kept going by State and sectional pride, assisted by that bitterness of feeling produced by the cruelties and brutalities of the enemy.

Discussions - 15 Comments

Of what war could this not be said? I don't see much indication that the great popular heart is in the current war either.

Of what war could this not be said?The Spanish-American War and WWI and II

Wasn't the Vietnam War supported by a majority of the American people for many years?

Ummm . . . last time I checked, the Spanish-American War lasted four months, WWI lasted about a year for the United States, and Truman unloaded a couple of atomic bombs on Japan to end WWII, rather than drag an already tired US army (and public) through more of that war.

I guess I'm just not seeing how "the great popular heart" has remained constant through any long and drawn out war.

Wasn't the Vietnam War supported by a majority of the American people for many years?

I'm sure it was. And like any war which lasts several years, it lost support eventually. You want a popular war, go with something like GW1. Quick and low cost.

Wars are inherently unpopular. That's a good thing, if you think about it.

I agree that revolutions are typically started more by the politicians than by the people. We could surely say that of the American revolution, during which our revolutionary efforts were hobbled by popular ambivalence and hostility.

Well, John, I think you need to learn more about the Civil War. North Carolina was the LAST State to secede, primarily because the hillfolk in the Piedmont were ambivalent (the same sentiment that led to the breaking off of West Virginia). It's likely that this State was the most susceptible to losing heart.

I also note the casualties were heaviest for North Carolina regiments (no other Confederate State lost so many men), so the notion that losing heart when nothing had been destroyed is utterly specious. Virtually every family had lost a son or two by 1864. This, combined with initial ambivalence and the truly awful war news...who wouldn't lose heart? In short, the Governor was a poor student of his own people.

It's not easy being from Lubberland: Virginia to the north, South Carolina below, always following, never leading, one of the last of the original thirteen to join the Union, one of the last of the eleven to join the Confederacy.

But being a follower and not a leader has its advantages, one which Vance rather ignobly enjoys in the last part of the letter that you don't quote: "Duty called me to resist to the utmost the disruption of the Union. Duty calls me now to stand by the new union, 'to the last gasp with truth and loyalty.' This is my consolation. The beginning was bad: I had no hand in it. Should the end be bad, I shall, with God's help, be equally blameless."

It shows what I have always believed, that the great popular heart is not now, and never has been in this war.

I don't think that conclusion was warranted by the facts before him. If the Confederate Army had been marching on New York rather than Sherman on Atlanta I imagine that popular opinion (in the South) would have been sharply different. All he could reasonably say is that wars which are being lost are unpopular with those who are losing them.

Dispirited, yes. And in this, John's post somewhat supports an argument I made a week ago. But don't forget that the North Carolinians were also civilized, in that, more than Sherman did, they respected certain rules of warfare that kept it from becoming an all-or-nothing all-are-combatants guerilla contest. They knew that Republican rule was preferable to unrestrained war, even if they regarded it as a greatly inferior option among civilized ones. This was the opposite stance than that taken by the Palestinian Cause, which continues by its savage intransigence to grind those people it labels Palestinians into ever-further depths of tyrannized barbarism.

I'll tell you what depresses me about this - the decline of "Zebulon" namings in this once proud nation. That is one cool moniker.

Zebulon sounds like something from a Japanese cartoon. He was Optimus Prime's arch enemy, right?

I have no wish to refight the Civil War for the umpteenth time..

Talk about vain hopes.

I know a Zeke or three, but not one Zeb.

I have always thought that if the South was not so class conscious with its leadership that it tended to give command to the gentry over self-made men. Look at Gen. John Bell Hood, the whole purpose of the Tennessee campaign is to out do Sherman and force Sherman to abandon his march. But Hood the man who on Day 2 of Gettysburg refused to obey Lee's order delaying the order and then failed to carry out the job. He was given command of the Army of the Tennessee because of social ties. After his disasterous defeats arround Atlanta!! History would have been different if Davis gave command to Forrest.. and then the two great disasters of the Tennessee compaign--Franklin and Nashville.. Forrest would have end run them and move north.. and today we'd be talking about the burning of Indiana and Illinois.. if not Chicago.. If the Forces occupying Tennessee and Marching through Georgia had to pull out and push Forest out. But that did not happen do to the social rigity of the Southern culture.

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