Civic Virtue, and the American Civil War

Copyright 1997 by Mark Grimsley. All rights reserved. This means you.


A. Starship Troopers

The film Starship Troopers began life as a novel for young readers, published in 1959 by the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). Like most science fiction, it was really thinly-disguised social commentary. Heinlein wrote the novel in the 1950s, a time when the Cold War was at its height, when the United States faced nuclear annihilation at the hands of the godless Communists, when, in short, the American republic faced its hour of maximum danger--but also when its youth were becoming soft, caught up in consumer culture, gyrating to Elvis Presley, and in short losing any sense of responsibility to anyone beyond themselves.

A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Heinlein served in the Navy from 1929 through 1934 and again as a naval engineer during World War II. His depictions of combat in Starship Troopers derive heavily from the amphibious warfare in the Pacific and the "human wave" attacks of the Chinese Communists during the Korean War. The dominant theme of Starship Troopers is that the survival of the human race (America) depends on a willingness to sacrifice one's personal self-interest for the greater community. Otherwise the Bugs (Communists) are bound to triumph.

B."Grokking" the Civil War

Starship Troopers is not Heinlein's best or most famous science fiction novel. That distinction belongs to Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), which is about a human baby who is raised by Martians and retrieved by humans as a teenager. He looks like a human but thinks like a Martian. In Martian culture, to understand something thoroughly--emotionally as well as intellectually--is to "grok" it. Today's lecture is unusual, because its purpose is less to impart information than to provide an emotional understanding of America's greatest conflict. I want you to grok the Civil War.

To make this possible, I want to draw on three themes from Starship Troopers: "Civilian" and "Citizen"; "Bug Hunt;" and "Come On, You Apes, Do You Want to Live Forever?"--this last being the rallying cry of the Starship Troopers and a direct steal from a famous question posed by a platoon sergeant in the First World War.

"Civilian" and "Citizen": How Republics Live or Die

A. Classical Republicanism

Critics thoughtlessly consider Starship Troopers to be a novel about fascism. It is not. It is about classical republicanism as expounded by the Renaissance political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli. Classical republicanism holds that republics are held together not by authority imposed from above but rather from below, by the people themselves.

This doesn't happen naturally. Historically, republics tended to fall apart--in effect, they died--because the people proved unworthy of citizenship and through laziness and self-absorption let the republic fall into dictatorship or anarchy.

According to Machiavelli, citizens--those who shall have a political voice in the republic--must possess civic virtue: an ability to see beyond their narrow self-interest to the good of the republic; and a commitment to placing the common good above purely personal interest.

Machiavelli and others thought citizen-soldiers were indispensable to a sound republic--not just to keep coercive power out of the hands of one or a few people (tyranny), but also because military service could verify one's willingness to sacrifice for the republic and could instill civic virtue to a greater degree. In Starship Troopers, only military veterans are citizens. All others are simply civilians. They may live in the republic but they have not earned the right to political participation in it.

B. From republic to democracy

American revolutionaries accepted the idea of civic virtue as indispensable to their own republic, but tied it to property ownership, not military service. In the early republic, only property owners could vote or hold public office.

By 1820, most of these property requirements had vanished. And by 1830, there was a growing sense that the common (white male) people automatically possessed the wisdom needed for good self-government, simply because they were common. This was the triumph of Jacksonian or "the white man's democracy."

Within three decades, the American republic was torn apart by civil war.

Among many Americans, there was a strong sense that republican government was being tested. One Union soldier, for example, declared that he was fighting to defend "the best government on God's footstool." Remember: When the Civil War took place, most of the planet was still governed by kings and emperors. Republics were still a novelty. People in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, watched eagerly to see whether "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

C. The Grand Army of the Republic

After the war, many veterans--North and South--looked like the men in these photos. Every day they were reminded, not once but many times, what they had sacrificed to save the republic. But had they saved it? Had they won anything permanent? In the North, Union veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic. They tried to teach a new generation of Americans that had grown up after the war, to press their interpretation of American values on the public, and above all to convey the message that they, through their self-sacrifice, had saved the republic.

Jacob C. Switzer lost a leg at the battle of Winchester in September 1864. Although disabled for life and unable to pursue his prewar dreams, he wrote that he was not disheartened. "I came home fully satisfied with the results of my service with regards to its effects upon myself; glad that I could say I served until the cause for which I gave so little, compared with the sacrifice made by so many, was won honorably, the Union saved, slavery dead, and treason made odious."

Bug Hunt: A Destructive War

A racist society, a racist ideology

Switzer's statement sounds noble and glorious, but in fact the republic he helped to save was at the zenith of being a self-consciously racist society. The presumption--already evident in the tenets of Manifest Destiny--was that whites were superior and deserved to dominate African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans. In the film Starship Troopers, a world leader says that the war against the Bugs is about whether human beings would continue to dominate the galaxy. White America saw the stakes in much the same way.

White racist ideology was tied in subtle but powerful ways to liberty and slavery. It was an argument for why, in a society that had slaves, even very poor whites should never be enslaved, and workingmen should not be treated like slaves by their employers. It is no accident that this "invention of the white race" took place during the Market Revolution, for it was during the Market Revolution that intense business competition meant that rich men would dominate poor men if they could. Asserting their whiteness was a powerful tool by which white workers could set limits on what could be done to them.


We think of the Civil War as a contest between armies that respected each other and fought with honor, and so to some extent it was. But that was true only when the antagonists were white. We tend to forget that the Civil War also saw interracial combat, too: between whites and Indians in the Far West; between whites and blacks in the Confederacy.

Bear River, 1863; Sand Creek, 1864:

At Bear River in Idaho Territory, where an estimated 250 Northwestern Shoshoni Indians were slaughtered by the Second California Cavalry in January 1863, women were raped even as they lay dying from wounds.

Sand CreekAt Sand Creek, Colorado, in November 1864, more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians--two thirds of them women and children--were killed by the Third Colorado Cavalry under a Methodist preacher turned colonel, John Chivington, who told his troops to take no prisoners and to kill even babies on the theory that "Nits make lice." The Coloradans not only shot infants for target practice, they cut the breasts off Native American women as souvenirs, and returned to Denver festooned with scalps and women's genitalia, to receive a heroes' welcome.

Fort Pillow; Poison Spring; The Crater [1864]

Much the same occurred when Confederate soldiers captured some of the 186,000 African American soldiers who fought for the North after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

At Fort Pillow, Tennessee, for example, rebel cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest overran a garrison of African American and white Tennessee Unionist troops ("Tories") and killed them even after organized resistance had ended. "The slaughter was awful--words cannot describe the scene," wrote Confederate Sergeant Achilles V. Clark. "The poor deluded negros would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and shot down. The white men fared but little better." The fort's interior, he added luridly, soon resembled a slaughter pen: "human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity."

Similar episodes occurred at Poison Spring, Arkansas, and in the battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia.

.The Rhetoric of Apocalypse

During the years preceding the Civil War, it was common for political parties to mobilize votes by portraying their opponents as hell-bent on trying to "enslave" the American people. Historians have called this the "paranoid style in American politics." White Southerners snarled of "abolitionists" and "Black Republicans"; Northerners spoke of the dark machinations of a "Slave Power Conspiracy" that was trying to dominate the republic, undermine free labor, and ultimately destroy democracy.

The sense that the stakes of the Civil War were nothing less than the survival of democracy--be it "herrenvolk democracy" or "free labor democracy"--encouraged a strong rhetoric of the war as an act of cleansing violence, which in turn helped to make the Civil War so bloody and destructive as Americans strove to make the rhetoric real. About two percent of the nation's population perished in the war: 620,000 out of 32 million; the equivalent of 5 million dead today.

The Bug Hunt That Wasn't

The Ohio-born Union general William T. Sherman believed that the war could be blamed upon an "excess of democracy." In his view, liberty had given way to license. The Southern people had obstinately turned their backs on the best government in the world and deserved to be punished. Yet despite a mythology that claims that Sherman's army burned everything in its path during the March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia in November 1864, it remains remarkable that the destruction was confined mainly to public property, railroads, cotton gins, crops and livestock. In contrast to the treatment of Indians and blacks, almost no white women were raped, few white men killed, few private dwellings destroyed. That is because the common whiteness of the Union and Confederate foes and their common heritage enabled the warring sides to see each others' humanity.

Had the war continued, however, there are indications that North and South might have "racialized" each other. For example, the young Confederate general William Pegram--a genuinely religious man who condoned as necessary the slaughter of black troops at the Crater--also opined in letters home that the Yankees were really a different race, with different values, "mongrel" breeding, and even distinct physical features. In 19th century America, it was natural to think in terms of race, and natural to try and racialize an enemy.

"Come On, You Apes, Do You Want to Live Forever?": The Role of Sacrifice and Will

Antietam: The War's Bloodiest Day

American casualties in the Gulf War totaled 760 killed and wounded. An estimated 10,500 were killed or wounded in the War for American Independence; 6,700 in the War of 1812; 6,000 in the Mexican War. About 6,000 Americans were killed or wounded on D-Day in June 1944.

By contrast, 11,500 Federals and 10,200 Confederates were killed or wounded in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862--a battle that began at 6 a.m. and ended around 5 p.m. In that period, about 1,972 men suffered wounds or death every hour. That is to say, every hour two and a half times the number of Americans became casualties as during the entire Gulf War. Although the bloodiest single day in American history, militarily the battle was a stand-off. Yet it looked enough like a Union victory to enable President Abraham Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation five days later, on September 22, 1862.

The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war from a limited war to quell rebellion into an an all-out, remorseless, revolutionary struggle designed to eradicate slavery and thus change the entire political, social, and economic system of the South. Almost despite themselves, some white Americans, at least, found themselves fighting and dying for the freedom of human beings whom they (the whites) candidly regarded as inferior.

Sheridan at Five Forks

All American history textbooks say the same thing. The North had a larger population than the South. It had far more industrial capacity, much greater wealth, three times the railroad mileage, and so on. Such things alone do not win wars. The will to charge into enemy gunfire at murderously close range wins wars. The will to demand the impossible of one's soldiers wins wars. The will to sacrifice everything that one has, even life itself, so that the nation may live, wins wars.

SheridanLet me give you an example of the kind of will it took to destroy the Confederacy and so destroy slavery. On April 1, 1865, a Union force attacked Robert E. Lee's Confederate army at Five Forks, Virginia. Its objective was the Southside Railroad, the last line by which Lee's army--then defending Richmond--could receive supplies from the lower South. It had rained heavily the night before. The roads were muddy, the men wet and tired, the officers confused by meandering roads. The general in command of the attack, Major General Philip H. Sheridan, was three weeks past his thirty-fourth birthday--four years younger than I am today.

On that day, Sheridan displayed nothing but ruthless, implacable, brutal iron will. He saw a man who was shot in the neck and fell down. "You're not hurt a bit," Sheridan barked. "Pick up your weapon, man, and move right on." The man got up, stumbled forward two steps, and fell once again, dead. The battle went well and a staff officer brought Sheridan a report of captured cannon and prisoners--two traditional signs of victory. Sheridan was not satisfied. "I don't care a damn for their guns, or you either, Sir!" he snarled. "What I want is the Southside Railroad."

Later he ordered the removal from command of Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren, a senior general who had been a hero at Gettysburg, a general known in fact as the man who had saved the Union army from defeat in that epic battle. Sheridan thought that on this particular day Warren was too slow. In the evening, after the battle was won, the Southside Railroad secured, and Lee's army one short week from surrender at Appomattox, Warren approached Sheridan and said mournfully, "Won't you reconsider an order that wrecks a soldier's career?"

"Reconsider, hell," Sheridan replied. "I don't reconsider my decisions. Obey the order!"

Conclusion: Do You Want to Know More?

What did it mean, this American apocalypse? We are still groping toward understanding. But perhaps we will never do better than did Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, given on March 4, 1865, just forty-one days before a crazed assassin shot him to death. Lincoln didn't go in for sound bites. He didn't talk to Americans as if they were children with limited attention spans. He spoke to them as citizens.

In the film version of Starship Troopers, a newscast periodically interrupts the story, discusses some aspect of the war against the Bugs, then inquires, "Do you want to know more?" It is the right question. Citizenship requires intellectual (or at least political) curiosity, awareness, knowledge.

Here is what Lincoln said:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. . . . Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

Do you want to know more?

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

Do you want to know more?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Do you want to know more?

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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