Excerpt from Journal of Theodore Upson
Written in April 1861; originally published in 1943
A family's reaction to the start of the Civil War
"'Oh to think that I should have lived to see the day when Brother should rise against Brother.'"
From Journal of Theodore Upson
The Confederate attack on the Federal stronghold of Fort Sumter in April 1861 marked the beginning of the Civil War. The Confederate capture of Sumter made it clear that, after years of dark threats and bitter debate, the differences between the North and South would be settled on the battlefield.
At first, many people in both regions expressed great enthusiasm for the coming war. Big rallies and celebrations erupted in many major cities, as community leaders and ordinary citizens alike showed their patriotic spirit. This high level of support for the war was due in part to the long years of angry disagreement between America's Northern and Southern states. Their clashes over such issues as slavery and states' rights (the belief that each state has the right to decide how to handle various issues for itself without interference from the national government) had caused many Southerners and Northerners to dislike one another.
As James Stokesbury wrote in A Short History of the Civil War, hostility and cultural differences between the North and South led both regions to develop distorted views of the other region's populace. By the early 1860s, millions of Northerners had come to believe that "the typical Southern male was a hard-drinking, hard-riding wastrel [lazy person], living off the sweat of the slave, stated Stokesbury. [The Southern male was] boastful, bullying, threatening, fiscally and morally irresponsible, at best a romantic fool and at worst a sadistic [getting pleasure from physically or emotionally hurting others] beast." Many Northerners had also come to believe that Southern threats of secession (withdrawing) from the Union were nothing more than bluffs (misleading acts). Southerners, meanwhile, adopted a view of the Northerner as a "mean-spirited, hypocritical, money-grubbing capitalist, whining about the poor black slaves while keeping his own workers in conditions worse than slavery, determined to grind the South down through tariffs [taxes on imported goods] and to have his own way with the nation."
These foolish generalizations led many citizens in the North and South to view themselves as morally and physically superior to their foes. Northerners tended to view themselves as smart and mature and responsible, especially when compared to the people of the South. Many Southerners, meanwhile, believed that Southern culture had created generations of men and women who were more courageous, religious, and honorable than their counterparts in the North. These beliefs contributed to the excitement that many Americans felt about the war in its early days. After all, people in the North and the South had become used to the idea that they were superior to people in the other region. These feelings of superiority made each side confident that they would whip the other without too much difficulty.
Not all Americans believed in these stereotypes (oversimplified generalizations about a person, group, or issue) of each other and their countrymen, however. Many people in both the North and the South recognized that men and women of intelligence, courage, and integrity lived throughout America, not just in one region or the other. Not surprisingly, people from one section who had friends and relatives who lived in the other region were most likely to admit this.
The arrival of the Civil War also forced soldiers in the U.S. Army to decide whether to remain a part of the Federal (Union) Army or resign to join the Confederacy. Most soldiers from the North retained their membership in the Federal military in order to help do their part in restoring the Union. But soldiers who hailed from Southern states faced a far more difficult choice. They were forced to choose between standing with their families and birth states or standing with the national government to which they had sworn loyalty.
Southerners who chose to remain loyal to the Union often experienced great personal pain, as friends and family members condemned them for their decision. For example, George Henry Thomas (1816–1870) decided to fight for the Union even though he had been raised in Virginia. He went on to become one of the Union's top commanders, performing heroically at the Battle of Chickamauga (Georgia) and elsewhere. But Thomas's bravery did not matter to his sisters in Virginia, who refused to speak to him ever again. Another military veteran who chose to fight for the Union was navy commander Charles Steedman, a native of South Carolina. When Steedman publicly announced his loyalty to the Union, his brother James responded with a letter in which he called Charles "a Traitor to his Mother County . . . where lie the bones of his Father, Mother, & many dear relatives. [How could] a Brother in whose veins flows the same blood, Southern, true Southern . . . ever allow Northern principles to contaminate his pure soul?"
Wartime divisions between families and friends took place all over the country, but were particularly common in the geographic border states. These states—Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland—were geographically located in the center of the country, between the North and the South. They supported slavery, but also contained many people who were fiercely pro-Union in their views. In addition, these states and other nearby regions like the Kansas Territory and southern Indiana and Illinois featured populations with roots in both the North and South.
As the people who lived in these communities decided whether to support the Union or the Confederacy, countless individuals met with harsh words or tears when they informed their families and friends of their decision. "Throughout the border and middle states, tragic scenes took place as families were split, in many cases never to be reunited," wrote Stokesbury. "For what we consider as entities—this state or that state—were in reality thousands of agonizing individual choices, as men and women argued and prayed to discover their rightful path and place."
News of the rebel attack on Fort Sumter, then, sparked very different reactions across the country. In many homes and cities, people engaged in patriotic celebrations and white men rushed to enlist in the gathering armies. Some of these young enlistees—whether from the North or the South—were so confident that their side would roll to a grand and glorious victory that they worried that the war would end before they got a chance to see battle. But in some farmhouses and small communities, reaction to the news of the coming war triggered anguish and heartache. In these places, people recognized that the Civil War would pit family members, friends, and neighbors against one another on the field of battle.
Theodore Upson was a member of an Indiana farming household that greeted the news of the attack on Fort Sumter with great sorrow. His family knew
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the Journal of Theodore Upson:
- Upson's journal entries make it clear that many of his neighbors were eager to enlist. This was a common reaction in both regions of the divided nation. In fact, the secession of Southern states and the rebel capture of Fort Sumter triggered a great wave of army-building by both the Union and the Confederacy. In the South, existing state militias rushed to join the Confederate Army, while in the North, volunteers flooded Union recruiting stations when President Lincoln issued his request for seventy-five thousand military enlistees. This eagerness to volunteer for military service continued in both regions throughout 1861 and much of 1862. But as the war dragged on and casualty lists grew depressingly long, both governments were forced to resort to military drafts to maintain their armies.
- The Upson family's neighbors were very confident of a Union victory. When the Civil War began, many people in both the North and South thought that the war would end quickly, with their side victorious. But the Upsons and other people who had friends and relatives living in the enemy region were more likely to recognize that the war was going to bring great pain and sorrow to the nation.
- Upson's journal entries show how many communities in the South and the North developed stereotypical (too generalized) impressions about one another. Southerners viewed Northerners as greedy weaklings, while Northerners came to see people from the South as boastful and simple minded. These characterizations led both regions to underestimate the fighting spirit and determination of the other side.
Excerpt from Journal of Theodore Upson
Father and I were husking out some corn. . . . When William Cory came across the field (he had been down after the mail) he was excited and said, "Jonathan the Rebs have fired upon and taken Fort Sumpter [sic]." Father got white and couldn't say a word.
William said, "The President will fix them. He has called for 75,000 men and is going to blocade their ports, and just as soon as those fellows find out that the North means business they will get down off their high horse."
Father said little. We did not finish the crop and drove to the barn. Father left me to unload and put out the team [of horses] and went to the house. After I had finished I went in to dinner. Mother said, "What is the matter with Father?" He had gone right upstairs. I told her what we had heard. She went to him. After a while they came down. Father looked ten years older.
We sat down to the table. Grandma wanted to know what was the trouble. Father told her and she began to cry. "Oh my poor children in the South! Now they will suffer! God knows how they will suffer! I knew it would come! Jonathan I told you it would come!"
"They can come here and stay," said Father.
"No they will not do that. [The South] is their home. There they will stay. Oh to think that I should have lived to see the day when Brother should rise against Brother."
She and mother were crying and I lit out for the barn. I do hate to see women cry.
We had another meeting at the school house last night; we are raising money to take care of the families of those who enlist. A good many gave money, others subscribed. The Hulper boys have enlisted and Steve Lampman and some others. I said I would go but they laughed at me and said they wanted men not boys for this job; that it would all be over soon; that those fellows down South were big bluffers and would rather talk than fight. I am not so sure about that. I know the Hale boys would fight with [their] fists at any rate and I believe they would fight with guns too if needs be. I remember how Charlie [Hale] would get on our Dick [a horse] and ride on a galop across our south field cutting mullin heads with his wooden sword playing they were Indians or Mexicans (his father was in the Mexican War), and he looked fine. To be sure there was no danger but I feel pretty certain he could fight. May be it won't be such a picnic as some say it will. There has been a fight down in Virginia at Big Bethel. Al Beecher's Nephew was in it and wrote to his Uncle and he read the letter in his store. I could not make out which side whipped but from the papers I think the Rebels had the best of it. Mother had a letter from the Hales. Charlie and his Father are in [their] army and Dayton wanted to go but was too young. I wonder if I were in our army and they should meet me would they shoot me. I suppose they would.
What happened next . . .
The Union and the Confederacy spent the first part of the summer of 1861 training and outfitting their ever-growing armies. This was a frustrating process at times. As James M. McPherson wrote in Ordeal by Fire, "seldom has a country been less prepared for a major war than the United States was in 1861."
These frantic efforts to build disciplined armies in a matter of weeks were doomed to failure. As the primary Union Army gathered around the capital city of Washington, D.C., some of President Lincoln's advisors warned that the Union's inexperienced troops would need months of training before they would be ready to go to war against the South. But other officials were very confident of victory, and many Northern communities showed great impatience at the idea of waiting to attack the rebel states of the Confederacy. This belief in a quick and decisive Union victory was encouraged by many Northern newspapers. The New York Times predicted that the Confederacy would be destroyed within thirty days, and many other Northern newspapers expressed similar confidence.
Of course, Southern citizens and newspaper editors made equally foolish claims about the outcome of the upcoming war. Editorials in newspapers in Richmond, Atlanta, and other Southern cities boasted that the Union Army did not have a chance of defeating the Confederate forces. Ordinary soldiers felt this way, too. Many Southerners claimed, for example, that one rebel soldier could whip ten Northerners. As one Confederate infantryman boasted, "The Yankee army is filled up with the scum of creation and ours with the best blood of the grand old Southland."
Swayed by minor Union victories in western Virginia and continued public pressure to soundly defeat the South, Lincoln ultimately approved a plan to attack a major Confederate camp located at Manassas Junction, Virginia, about thirty miles southwest of Washington. A Union army under the command of Irvin McDowell (1818–1885) promptly marched into Virginia, where it intended to join forces with another Union army. Confederate maneuvers prevented the two armies from joining, however.
On July 21, McDowell faced a smaller rebel army led by General Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893) at Manassas Junction, on the shores of the Bull Run River. As the two armies prepared to fight, hundreds of people from Washington gathered on the hillsides above the river valley to watch. These observers were so certain of a Union victory that they brought picnic baskets and blankets with them to celebrate.
But the first major battle of the Civil War did not develop as the picnickers expected. When the two armies clashed, it was clear that both forces were inexperienced and undisciplined. Both sides fought hard, but most efforts to engage in strategic maneuvers fell apart in confusion and misunderstood orders. By the afternoon, McDowell's Union troops had gained an advantage. But rebel reinforcements led by General Joseph Johnston (1807–1891) turned the battle in favor of the South, and the First Battle of Bull Run (also sometimes known as the First Battle of Manassas) ended in a big Confederate victory. The arrival of Johnston's troops helped Beauregard maintain his position at Manassas and triggered a Union retreat that broke up into panicky flight. Frightened picnickers rushed from the area as well, and the road back to Washington became clogged with a mixture of scared civilians and humiliated soldiers.
The Confederate triumph at Manassas increased Southern overconfidence in its military superiority. Southerners viewed the victory as evidence that they were better fighters than the Union soldiers, even though more Confederates were killed or wounded in the battle. It also convinced many Southern communities that the North would soon give up its efforts to restore the Union.
In reality, though, the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run jolted the North awake. The loss caused many Northerners to adopt a new outlook on the war. Dropping their view of the South as an easy target, they were forced to admit that those neighbors who saw the South as a dangerous foe were right. But instead of giving up, as the South expected, Northern communities expressed renewed dedication to the Union cause. "A mood of grim determination replaced the incandescent [brightly shining] optimism of the spring," wrote James M. McPherson in Ordeal by Fire. "If Southerners thought the Yankees would quit after one licking, they soon learned differently."
Did you know . . .
- The Civil War is sometimes called "the Brothers' War." It acquired this name in part because it divided so many American families, and also because it set countrymen against one another on the field of battle.
- Four brothers of Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–1882)—the wife of President Abraham Lincoln—fought on behalf of the South in the Civil War. In addition, three of her brothers-in-law fought under the Confederate flag, and one of them rose to the rank of general in the rebel army.
- Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden (1787–1863) was one of many fathers who experienced the anguish of seeing their sons fight on opposite sides of the Civil War. One of his two sons became a general in the Union Army, while the other rose to the rank of general in the Confederate Army.
- Fort Sumter was named a national monument in 1948. National monuments are natural landmarks, structures, or historic sites that are preserved by the U.S. government for future generations of citizens to study and enjoy. American national monuments are managed by the National Park Service.
- Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard, who led the South to victory at the First Battle of Bull Run, was the same man who led the successful assault on Fort Sumter that marked the beginning of the Civil War. A native of Louisiana, Beauregard resigned his position as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in order to join the Confederate Army.
For Further Reading
McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Meredith, Roy. Storm Over Sumter. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957.
Mitchell, Reid. The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Stokesbury, James. A Short History of the Civil War. New York: Morrow, 1995.
Upson, Theodore Frelinghuysen. With Sherman to the Sea; the Civil War Letters, Diaries & Reminiscences of Theodore F. Upson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1943. Reprint, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958.