What was America thinking during the final year of the Civil War?

Aaron Sheehan-Dean, editor of 'The Civil War,' says of the final months of the conflict that there was a 'sense of insecurity and not knowing what will happen.'

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    'The Civil War' is edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean.
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When the Civil War began, many people on both sides thought it would be just a little spot of bother. There was no way it could last since one side – the North or the South – would easily defeat the other.

By the spring of 1864, 150 years ago, those dreams had long been dashed. "A lot of people acted like it could go on forever," says Aaron Sheehan-Dean, a professor of Southern Studies at Louisiana State University.

The war would end in a year with the South's defeat and the assassination of a president. But the future, as always, was uncertain and unpredictable. It's the job of historians to immerse us in times and places and help us, if only for a moment, forget that we know what comes next. Sheehan-Dean does just that as editor of a new Library of America book titled The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It.

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It's the fourth and last volume in a series of compilations of Civil War-era letters, speeches, diary entries, articles, and more. This one features the words of more than 100 people.

In an interview, Sheehan-Dean talks about the uncertainty of 1864-1865, a contemporary-sounding debate over humane treatment of prisoners, and the huge range of perspectives that make the war more than just a matter of North vs. South.

Q: What can we see by looking back at the final year of the Civil War?

A: It's so easy for us to see the process as inevitable, that it would be a four-year war, the North would win, Emancipation would happen. But in the last year, many of these things are up for grabs.

We can see the ground-level view of individuals, whether it's soldiers or people on the homefront – that sense of insecurity and not knowing what will happen.

Q: As the war grinds on in 1864, what are people doing to stop it short of a military victory?

A: In the North, people are organizing groups calling for the end to the war. And the South is trying to find a negotiated solution that allows them to be independent.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, says, We'll talk about anything other than slavery and independence. Otherwise, we're open to negotiation.
Those negotiations don't go anywhere.

Q: It's amazing that he would think the North would give in on everything without being beaten in the field of war. What was Abraham Lincoln's position?

A: Lincoln says this early on, that the war is effectively a referendum on self-government. If South wins, then the country doesn't just split in half. It continues to split.

He says secession is the essence of anarchy, because there's no stopping this.

He also calls the US the last best hope of man. If democracy fails in the United States, that ends several generations of trying to build a democratic and just future.

Q: Lincoln ran for his second term in 1864 against George McClellan, one of his former generals. The election was largely a referendum on the war. Did Lincoln think he might lose?

A: As late as August 1864, Lincoln is saying it's exceedingly clear that he will not win the election. He expects that he will lose, and McClellan will carry on with very different terms. But victories transformed the military landscape before the election.

Q: You write about a battle in the US Senate in 1865 over the treatment of war prisoners. What was that about?

A: In 1864, the condition of Union prisoners released from Belle Isle, near Richmond, and Andersonville, in Georgia, shocked Northerners. The US Senate considered a resolution – never passed, as it turned out – that would have required Northern prisons to institute the same conditions and food supplies as northern POWs received in Confederate prisons.

This would have meant deliberately starving Confederate prisoners.

The episode offers modern readers a view of Americans debating the legitimate way to wage war and, in particular, over how to behave when you believe your enemy has violated the rules of war.

Q: What are some of your favorite passages in the book?

A: We hear from a soldier named Stephen Weld, who comes from a distinguished Boston family.

When General Lee and the South surrender, his sister writes him a letter saying that this is wonderful news.

His slow comprehension of Lee’s surrender reminds us of how completely the war had swallowed him: "I had a sort of impression that we should fight him all our lives. He was like a ghost to children, something that haunted us so long that we could not realize that he and his army were really out of existence to us."

And there's Catherine Edmondston, the wife of a plantation owner in a pretty secure part of North Carolina. She's observing the war and has a terrifically acerbic tongue and a sharp pen.

She thundered against the Richmond Enquirer's advocacy of enlisting slaves as soldiers in January 1865: "It offers to sell the birthright of the South, not for a mess of pottage, but only for the hope of obtaining one."

Q: What will readers get out of the book?

A: One of the things is simply the scope of the conflict. This forces on the reader a recognition that there are multiple Souths and multiple Norths, that there are white and black perspectives, male and female, immigrant perspectives.

We tend to think that it's an event that can be divided into two. But we have testimony from Southern unionists and Northerners who oppose emancipation, all of whom experience different things in this conflict and understand its meaning differently.

Readers will be exposed to perspectives they haven't thought about.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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