American Civil War

Of no other event in American history has there been more written, argued, analyzed and romanticized about than the American Civil War. How many times have we heard in the news or read in books the following refrain: "Not since the Civil War have Americans been so divided on one particular topic…"?

It is an event in American history that is still so divisive that it goes by more than one name. Most commonly it is referred to (in America) as "the Civil War". Of course, that could be confusing to early American historians who must distinguish between the "first" civil war – the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) and the later 19th century one. Historians and journalists of the 19th century commonly referred to the conflict as the "War Between The States" and this term was carried forward primarily by Southern historians in the 20th century. In the years immediately following the war, the conflict was known as the War of the Rebellion. My favorite of all the names that have been given to this period is the one that was applied to it for only a few a decades following the war when it was called the Late Unpleasantness.

The war, by whatever name one wants to call it, began, by all official accounts, on Friday, April 12, 1861 at 4 o’clock in the morning when Confederate artillery positioned at Forts Johnson and Moultrie under the command of General P. T. Beauregard commenced firing on the remaining Union-controlled island fortress of Fort Sumter situated in Charleston harbor.

For the people of America in April of 1861, the opening shot of the War Between The States was not a "9/11" (2001) or "Pearl Harbor" (1941) type of event. Although it can be considered a historic wake-up call; it was certainly not a surprise to anyone.  The war had been a long time in the making – at least 30 years or so since the Jacksonian era of the 1820′s. Even then, the news of the start of conflict must have been a shock to the American people as the reality of what was happening began to set in during the days and weeks following the attack on Fort Sumter. We read in one newspaper article written in the week following the event: "The war news has created intense excitement in this community and large groups of persons collect on the public corners and in the Hotels, at all hours, discussing the affairs of the country in no very placid state of mind."

The newspaper editors of the day sent out an appeal to patriotism and a call to put aside political differences. In the North, this call went out in many a newspaper editorial aimed specifically at Northern Democrats who had voted against Lincoln and the Republican Party. This appeal to patriotism, in the early days of the war, was easily swallowed by all in the North including the Democratic districts, but later, by 1863, reaction in the North against the war started to break out in ways that were new and unique to the American democracy.

There was also a deep religious divide in America over the question of slavery. The hard-line abolitionists in the North believed that slavery was wicked & immoral and therefore sinful. To them it was more than just a "peculiar institution", as many came to see it – it was an "an agreement with Hell". In the South, there was the belief that slavery was divinely ordained or at least divinely sanctioned:

"The defect of [emigrant] labor is its want of permanency–is the fact that it is not (as to the individual) a life time service, but a mere apprenticeship of a few years–Virginia contains half a million of life time laborers, descendants of Ham, doubly decreed to service by the divine edicts pronounced against Adam and Canaan–to service for life, service in perpetuity"

The complex division that sent the country flying apart and toward an all out war was not simply a North vs. South economic conflict as some accounts would have us to believe. Nor was the war strictly one of Abolitionists vs. Slave-owners. This was certainly not a battle between the forces of good and evil, but to categorize, analyze, or even to summarize the American Civil War is well beyond the scope of this book.

My first knowledge of the Civil War came in 1961 – one hundred years after the start of the war. On Christmas day in Wharton, Texas when my brother and I went downstairs and discovered that our father (or Santa Claus?) had painstakingly reenacted the Battle of Gettysburg with plastic blue and gray Civil War army men on the floor of our den. I knew it then, at the age of six, as the "Silver War" and imagined that entire conflict was over the price of silver. In later years, I was more likely to categorize the war as being over thirty pieces of silver

My second recollection of the war was when my mother took my brother and me to see "Gone with the Wind" at the Oak Village Theatre in Houston when the movie was re-released in the 1960s. Right in the middle of the movie, at the scene where the old doctor is just about to amputate the soldier’s leg, my mother grabbed both my brother and me and dragged us up the aisle to the lobby with the pretence that she was going to buy us some candy. After a few moments of standing around in the lobby (and no candy) we returned to watch the rest of the movie.

When I was growing up the Civil War to me was more like a movie with plastic army men than anything real or tangible. The effects of the war, of course, were still there. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was a tsunami effect brought on by not only the aftermath of the war but the entire history of what had brought it about in the first place. Yet the war itself had no real or personal meaning for me until I began to examine what effect it might have played on all sides of my family. Even then, the first question that I asked was the somewhat selfish/patriotic question as to whether any of my ancestors had actually fought in the war. In a way, it was still all about movies and plastic army men. After all my research in this era of my family history, I am left with a few facts, some speculation, and a few foregone conclusions.

The foregone conclusions that I have reached is that my slave-holding, Southern ancestors were decidedly in favor of maintaining the status-quo and that if maintaining that status-quo meant breaking apart the Union then they were in favor of that. What they actually did during the war to maintain the status-quo is a difficult question to answer.

Do I mean to suggest that they welcomed the war? No, I doubt anyone in 1861 welcomed the war. I am certain that the Dobbs in Georgia and the Prothro’s of South Carolina were filled with just as much anxiety and fear as my Northern ancestors must have been when news of the new conflict became public.

I am not as certain about how my ancestors north of the Mason-Dixon Line must have felt and to be precise my Northern ancestors and my Southern ancestors then were then divided by the Ohio River and not the line that separates Pennsylvania from Maryland. They may too have been opposed to the war and wanting to maintain the status-quo. At the outset of the war, I had ancestors living on one side, in Georgia & South Carolina, and ancestors living on the other side, in Ohio, Kentucky, and Minnesota.

Kentucky, a slave state with strong ties to the North, was so divided on the question of succession that the state ended up declaring itself neutral in the war. Ohio, still then considered a Western state, was heavily Republican, but had a growing, grass-root Democratic following that would make a political difference in the coming years as far as sentiment towards the war was concerned.  Minnesota, a young state at the time, was, due to on-going Indian uprisings and its largely non-English immigrant population, solidly pro-Union.

The Border

Two of my ancestral families lived in northern Kentucky at the outset of the war; although they had not yet united. The Bannon families were lace-curtain Irish and were tradesmen that relied heavily upon the industrial economy that made Louisville the prosperous city that it was. The Kollros were part of the German emigrant population [...]

The Blue

The O’Malley family of my paternal grandmother was living in Minnesota at the outset of the war, but Patrick O’Malley, my great-grandfather, was only ten years old in 1861 and his father, Martin, was thirty-six at the time. A search of for Civil War service records for Martin O’Malley (or O’Mallea as the name [...]

The Gray

In the south, there is evidence of many Prothro’s and Dobbs serving in the Confederate armies. A search for "Prothro" shows five men serving in Georgia units and about nine serving in Louisiana units; all with names I recognize as kin to my gg-grandmother, Martha J. Prothro. A search for "Dobbs" returns a listing of [...]