Importance of Public Support During the Civil War
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During the civil war, as in any time of war, it is imperative that the military have full support of its civilian population. The key to winning public support in the civil war was not through careful politicking, but by delivering battlefield victories to a watchful public. The civilian populous of both sides were so hungry for military victories that they only cared to hear of wins and losses, not taking in the deeper strategy or events of the war. Victories quickly made national heroes out of Generals and resurrected waning support for the Lincoln administration. For the first time ever the public could follow the movements, success and failures of their armies in the field due to new advancements in mass communication.
Lincoln learned early on that the public viewed the war in terms of battles won and lost. The public did not care about lost or gained territory, they wanted victories. The battles that received the most attention were those fought in the east near Washington. The political significance of these battles won and lost so near the nations capital can be seen today as the novice civil war enthusiast sees only the history of Lee and the army of the Potomac, unaware of the successes in the other theaters (Hattaway & Jones, How, 335).The public was not always savvy to the bigger picture. After Lee's defeat at Gettysburg the public saw his camping to invade the North as a failure. What the public failed to consider was that that Lee's invasion destroyed the Unions plan of campaign. What the public expected from Lee was unrealistic, as they could not match the Northern resources. Such matters of supply and basic logistics were not factored in when forming public opinion (Hattaway & Jones, How, 413). Grant would take this into considerations when measuring victories. The significance of the battle of Belmont's success became more evident when its negative effects on Southern resources and morale was observed. Grant began to see the whole of an event when planning and executing his campaigns. The public, on both sides, was watching and he had to take that into consideration. A strategic victory was useless if the public did not understand its significance (McFeely, Grant, 95, 103). In 1861 Southern Women began to sew flags, underwear, and uniforms to support their departing armies. These women were not able to go to the battle field so found alternate ways to contribute to the cause of secession. Such support would only be maintained if rewarded (Clinton & Silber, Divided, 75). Weighted down with this knowledge Lee had to keep this in mind when he drew up campaign orders and strategy. It was clear to Lee that winning battles was nothing without the support of the people. That was the only combination that would work, strong public support gained and maintained through military success. If public support could not be rewarded it would surely wane along with the publics desire to fight on and support its ragged army (Hattaway & Jones, How, 364, 368).
Union victories were necessary tools to assist not only Lincoln's popularity, and to shift public support in his direction. On Sep 2 when Lincoln received word that Atlanta had fallen it gave him the political momentum that he needed, and in the nick of time (McFeely, Grant, 184). Victories also allowed him to pass the controversial Emancipation Proclamation. Though Lincoln had made the decision of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation he needed a victory to soften its blow on the public. Quite often radical legislation must be preceded by some other event of great political significance to make it palatable for the public. Today's Patriot act is a god example (Hattaway & Jones, How, 244). At Stone River Rosencrans unexpected victory instantly sent a wave of confidence and satisfaction through the North. Rosencrans became an object of admiration and was referred to as a hero by Stanton. The main significance of this victory was that it helped to change the perception of the Lincoln administration. Charges of incompetence, based on a lack of military success, were soon forgotten (Hataway & Jones, How, 324-325). Lincoln wasn't the only one to benefit publicly from the spilled blood of others. Many Generals became public icons through their actions on the battle field. These 19th century super stars where watched and scrutinized by the public eye. Not unlike today the political events of the time were susceptible to spin doctors. One notable example revolves around the growing unpopularity of General Brag. It was widely reported that he ordered the execution of a soldier for shooting a chicken. The fact that the soldier in question missed the chicken and killed a man was conveniently left out. Unfortunately for Brag O'Reilly was generations away with his "no spin zone" (Hattaway & Jones, How, 316).
For the first time in history the public could follow the army through its campaigns and share in its victories and defeats with the aid of modern reporting, helped by the telegraph, and battle field photography. The public eyes were constantly with their departed loved ones. When the North began it's expedition to open the Mississippi River Halleck reminded his commanders that with the expedition went the eyes and hopes of the entire nation (Hattaway & Jones, How, 343). The use of the telegraph sped news to the home front. With the speed of this new form of communication orders and reports could be received in record time. (McFeely, Grant, 184). Lee also understood the importance of battlefield results being reported back to the home front. When Lee drew the Federal army away from Richmond and invaded the North it was part of a far reaching strategy. The purpose was not to conquer Northern territory, which couldn't be done if battles were fought in the South. The aim of this raid was to discourage the Northern population. With the help of Northern papers Lee intended to spark a revolution among the people and cause the North to sue for peace, giving into popular desires (Hattaway & Jones, How, 352-353). At Hanover Grant was compelled to attack a strongly fortified Lee and sacrifice thousands of lives due to the political importance of the campaign. While Grant was trying to secure popular support for the Lincoln administration through a victory near Richmond Lee was trying to do the opposite. Lee wanted to hold Grant to a stalemate causing the Northern population to see that the war was no where near an end. Lee also was hoping to maintain his efforts into the new election in the North and hopefully a new administration would sue for peace (Hattaway & Jones, How, 566-7).
Through out the history of western civilization it has been documented that war waged without full public support fails to accomplish any beneficial results. Politicians have long used war as a springboard for their own personal ambitions; the civil war was no exception. As technology of warfare advanced so did the means of communicating information from the battlefield to the home front. With rapid and accurate reports being sped back home, along with photographs the public could not help but become emotionally involved in the war. War was no longer an event that took place hundreds of miles away, the new improved media brought it home, making victories the measuring stick for progress during war time. Support for the war efforts could only be maintained if they were rewarded.
Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil war Champaign. University of Illinois Press, 1991.
McFeely, William. Grant. London: W.W: Norton & Co. 1982.
Silber Nina & Clinton, Catherune. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press,1992
This page published 12/11/04