The Awful Arithmetic is a non-fiction book, in two volumes, about the Civil War; it covers the entirety of the conflict, from its true cause——which was neither secession nor slavery——to the finer points of the war’s ending. For those seeking greater depth in understanding the war, The Awful Arithmetic presents far more than a basic narrative will offer, exploring new layers and levels of the conflict that are seldom touched in conventional accounts, whether in written form or in other media.
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Awful Arithmetic: A non-fiction Civil War Book
The Awful Arithmetic: A non-fiction Civil War Book
The Awful Arithmetic is a non-fiction book, in two volumes, about the Civil War. For those just entering a study of the war, The Awful Arithmetic covers the entirety of the conflict, from its true cause——which was neither secession nor slavery——to the intricate details of the war’s ending. For those seeking greater depth in understanding the war, The Awful Arithmetic presents far more than a basic narrative will offer, leading readers to new layers and levels of the conflict that are seldom touched in conventional accounts, whether in written form or in other media.
Much that is taken for granted in most discussions is challenged, analyzed, and dissected in The Awful Arithmetic, and this analysis is based upon many varieties of documentation, including letters, general orders, official battle reports, autobiographies, biographies written by contemporaries of the subjects, memoirs of generals, speeches, and other writings produced by those involved in the events described. Many of these documents
illuminate controversies that raged in the course of the war, including direct challenges between generals on opposing sides, and in some cases, between generals who were ostensibly colleagues and allies.
Much use is made of the biographies written about Lincoln by his private secretary, John Nicolay, and his assistant, Jacob Hay, both of whom became notable diplomats in later years. They worked directly with Lincoln, in his capacity as president, day in and day out, served as his sounding board, and they were present at the momentous meetings and decision-making conferences that related to the prosecution of the war from the Union side.
The source of the title comes from another secretary to Abraham Lincoln about the reality of the war, and what it might take to win:
“We lost fifty per cent more men than did the enemy, [in the battle of Fredericksburg] and yet there is sense in The Awful Arithmetic propounded by Mr. Lincoln. He says that if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone, and peace would be won at a smaller cost of life than it will be if the week of lost battles must be dragged out through yet another year of camps and marches, and of deaths in hospitals rather than upon the field. No general yet found can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered.”
The Awful Arithmetic most of all shows how prophetic Lincoln’s words proved to be, and how his search to find that general finally came to fruition.
The manner by which Virginia, not South Carolina, where the attack on Sumter occurred, became the center of the war is a story that is seldom covered in histories of the Civil War. The tendency is to mostly ignore the gap of time from April to July and carry on as if the war erupted immediately after Sumter.
Why, one ought to ask, was it Virginia where the war began, and where so much of the war was fought?
Before that is explored, another subtle, yet powerful issue that is also ignored in most accounts of the war will be uncovered.
This issue must be introduced by a proposal: imagine that Lincoln never invaded the South, never attempted to take back the facilities seized by Confederate forces, never collected the duties and taxes and the members of the Senate and Congress of the United States from the seceded states never returned to Washington to take up their duties again, yet otherwise, the nation tried to carry on as it had. Imagine there was no warfare, and Lincoln left the Southern states alone.
Lincoln had declared that secession could not occur because the constitution forbade it by not defining it. He declared that states could not “get out” of the Union, either by declaration or by physical action. Yet if one considers the condition of the United States, had the rebellious states been left in the position they had achieved by carrying out rebellious acts, withholding their Congressional and Senate delegations, violating all federal laws by ignoring them, and standing ready to arrest or do bodily harm to any emissaries from Washington who attempted to punish them for those violations, the situation would in effect render those states completely impervious to the authority of the United States government.
If that were the case, how then, would that situation differ from what it would have been if Lincoln had agreed to leave those states independent? In fact, if the federal government could not touch those states, and could not carry out its authority, that is if, as Lincoln put it, he as president could not equally exercise federal law in the South as he could in the North, those states would be de facto independent, physically, if not in title.
This was the supreme secret that Lincoln must hide. He could never admit that for any length of time, those states were outside the authority of the federal government. If they were, then they could be recognized by the rest of the world as independent, if Lincoln must leave them free without a fight.
In that case, Lincoln’s claim that the Union was unbroken would be false. To prevent that situation, Lincoln could never say or do anything that suggested that the states were outside the authority of the federal government. Yet he had so much as admitted and described that situation when he admitted it would require an army to face off against the “combinations” the defiant South had used against Fort Sumter. Skillfully, he avoided describing that scenario as one in which the Confederate states were actually already independent for practical purposes. If he were to admit the reality, and as a result, other nations recognized the Confederacy as sovereign, and he was to attack the South without direct provocation, he would have turned the United States into a rogue nation in the eyes of the world, and would in fact make the country liable for sanctions or even attack by other nations.
This was true before Fort Sumter.
Some thought is required to consider the dilemma presented by the Fort Sumter attack.
By April 12, the Confederacy had been able to get away with all its insurrectional actions long enough that their claim of independence was beginning to appear to be successful. Had other nations by that time recognized the Confederacy as a sovereign state, their argument that federal troops on their soil was tantamount to the presence of an invasion force might have been granted credibility in the larger world. In that case, their further argument that unless the garrison surrendered, it could be attacked would have been granted some validity by the international community. After all, one could wonder, how long would the United States, in 1861, have permitted a foreign nation with which it had ill relations to hold a military post on federal soil without demanding its surrender or attacking it if it did not?
That was the position the South claimed for itself with regard to the garrison at Sumter. In other words, by their reckoning, they had every right to demand that a foreign power remove its garrison, or they would eject it forcefully.
When the South did subsequently successfully eject the garrison and the president could do no more than call up troops, the claim of independence by the Confederacy took another step closer to validity for the world to see. That Lincoln did not have an army to send to immediately take re-establish federal authority in South Carolina meant that he either must send one when he had one, or he would have to attack the South long after it had gotten away with yet another provocation, another major case of flouting federal authority.
Even at that, however, as long as Lincoln could keep up the picture of a rogue section of the nation requiring suppression, he could still avoid admitting they were independent and would then be in the position of either having to let them go or having to fight a war to bring them back under federal control.
After all the discussions of what caused the Civil War, it was this need by Lincoln to suppress a rebellion that set the stage for the beginning, and thus served as the cause, of the Civil War.
With that question finally resolved, that of what caused the war, the remaining question to be answered before it is possible to carry on with an account of the war, is what started the actual fighting, in other words, how was the war triggered.
Once Lincoln’s army of 75,000 came into being, the problem of the two-state no man’s land would still remain, in theory. How then, did the history of the nation pass from that configuration, to one of full-scale war, a war which took place in a state which, as of April 15, and indeed later, was still a loyal member of the Union, not of the Confederacy?
To answer that, it is necessary to zero in on the state of Virginia, from April 15, 1861, to July 21, when the first actual battle that marked the beginning of the war occurred...only about twenty miles outside of Washington.