1864: “Our Terrible Civil War”

Near Wilmington, 13 Oct. 1864

…You refer to our terrible civil war. I wish so much we could talk it over together—the subject is too vast to attempt even to allude to it in the brief space of a letter. We feel here how little the subject is understood in Europe, because our political institutions have never been comprehended there. One sentiment across the water seems quite pervasive and I perceive you share in it, viz., that we cannot be a united people again. Why should we be an exception to the world’s history and to your own history in this respect? Is there bad blood between England and Scotland now? Is not Ireland united with you? How is it across the Channel? Has Louis Napoleon more devoted adherents than in Brittany? Your historians tell us there was a dead body or wounded man in every hamlet in La Vendee during the civil war that desolated in that country—where the forests were burned in order to extinguish the last haunts of the opposition…

All right-minded Christian men must be shocked at the atrocities of civil war—it entails countless woes, and its ramifications of evil are infinite—and our is a gigantic one, having no parallel in history. But who made it and who fired the first gun? The patience and forbearance of the North only brought on arrogance and insult to add to the injury done—those silly  duelists and bowie-knife knights thought the North would not fight. But what has caused me most surprise has been the course pursued by England in these troubles. During previous years when slavery, the whole and sole cause of our rebellion, began to excite our land, England aided and abetted in every way the extremists in the North on this vexed question…. In short all that brought upon us the taunts of England for the last quarter of a century were of Southern origin and growth—slavery, repudiation, filibustering, lynch law! What then was the surprise of the nation to find that England not only immediately recognized the Southern Confederacy as belligerents but gave her sympathy to their cause, backed by material aid. As if aware of the inconsistency involved, the British press represented that it was tariff quarrel—it had nothing to do with slavery, etc. Why!….

The war has lasted longer than most persons believed. We have blundered dreadfully, as all free people and popular governments do at the first. The pervading radical error has been to permit the contest to become an equilibrium has last now three and a half years but is fortunately disappearing; our superior numbers are telling everywhere as they should have done in the beginning. When those foolish Carolinians fired the first gun on Sumter, which sounded the death knell of slavery, the North rose en masse and we could have had a half million of men in a week as we had 75,000 in a day.

In June last we had raised 1,800,000 men (official records) for our people never flinched. In September 300,000 more were called for and are enlisted at this date, volunteers mostly. These great masses have been better paid, fed, clothed, and armed, the wounded more cared for, and the system of sanitary appliances more complete than ever known before in the history of armies….

Samuel Francis DuPont to William King Hall, October 13, 1864

(Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, page 443)

Samuel F. DuPont, 1862

Samuel Francis DuPont

Born in 1803, Samuel Francis DuPont became a U.S. Navy midshipman in 1815, starting his life-long career at sea. Some of the notable highlights of his service include, helping to capture San Diego during the Mexican-American War and commanding the California blockade, helping the U.S. Navy takes steps toward modernizing with steam, new ships, new tactical ideas, and efficiency, serving on the U.S. Lighthouse Board, and cruising in Asian and helping with diplomatic efforts. He expected to retire, but the Civil War brought him back to active duty.

DuPont helped to implement and enforce the blockade of the Confederacy. He led the attack which captured Port Royal, South Carolina in 1861 and promoted to rear-admiral. He commanded ironclad vessels at the end of the 1862, then ran into trouble in 1863. DuPont’s attempt to take Charleston, South Carolina failed badly, and he took the blame and was relieved of command in July of that year. He returned briefly to serve on a review board for naval promotions and died in 1865, shortly after the Civil War’s end.

King-Hall and his crew in 1860

Personal, But International Correspondence

The primary source excerpts above come from a letter which DuPont wrote to his friend Admiral Sir William King-Hall who served in the British Royal Navy. The two men had become acquainted in China and corresponded in later years. Although this letter was personal and not government diplomacy, it offers decided perspective on the continuing saga of Britain and the United States during the Civil War years.

England and – possible Admiral King-Hall – learned pro-Southern, but DuPont brought significant arguments about the situation and perhaps a misrepresentation or misconstruction that many English had adopted.

Historical Musings

Other nations had civil wars. DuPont points this out, responding to the question “can the country be reunited?” He felt the answer was yes, but there would be changes. Namely, the abolishment of slavery which had been a less-than-uniting topic between the North, South, and West in the previous decades. Looking back with hindsight, we see that his assumption was correct. The United State reunited but with significant changes, which ultimate made the country stronger and more prepared for a coming role on the global stage in the 20th Century.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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