People think they know how liberals and conservatives come down on issues of war.
But a comparative study of what northern radicals and conservatives believed before and then during the Civil War shows that each group's ideology didn't lead it to support the kinds of war policies we might expect today, according to Aaron Sheehan-Dean, professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.
Sheehan-Dean was one of four Civil War historians who spoke last week at Penn State Altoona at a seminar to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Loyal War Governors' Conference in Altoona - which lent critical support to the Union cause, some historians said.
The seminar was organized by area native Jared Frederick, a history instructor at Penn State Altoona and former student of Sheehan-Dean's.
According to Sheehan-Dean, radicals in the North prior to the Civil War "embraced the era's humanitarian sensibility most fully."
Motivated by a "vision of Christian perfectionism," they worked to protect the innocent and reduce suffering by ending slavery, reforming prisons and mental institutions and protecting women and children from abuse, he said.
"So how did they end up as champions of hard war?" he asked.
Conversely, northern conservatives made fun of the radicals' social policies, while being "enthusiastic and uncritical proponents" of military action, he said.
Yet those conservatives ended up balking at the push for "hard war" in the war between the states.
According to Sheehan-Dean, the surprising divergence of policy from ideology resulted from the two groups' differing conceptions of what the war should accomplish.
Radicals became supporters of all-out war because they saw it as an opportunity to emancipate the slaves, which they knew would mean remaking the social and economic system of the South, said Sheehan-Dean, who is writing a book about these issues.
The radicals were comfortable with emancipation not only because it was a weapon of war against the South, but because they believed slaves could fight lawfully and because, moreover, they didn't worry about the consequences for southern whites if emancipation turned brutal, anyway, according to the professor.
That violence turned against them would have been mere cosmic justice, they believed.
Conversely, conservatives, who felt uncomfortable about the amalgamation of power that all-out war confers on governments, wanted to reunite the country.
That required a gentler war.
They wished for a gentler Civil War even though they had worried little about American atrocities in wars against Mexico and the Indians, Sheehan-Dean said.
Famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison may be the purest example of the radicals' change of heart.
Garrison was a true pacifist - decrying violence as late as 1858 when he urged abolitionists "to resist being seduced by violence," Sheehan-Dean said.
Yet when war began, Garrison "yielded to the power of soldier-liberators marching across the southern countryside," Sheehan-Dean said.
If even a committed pacifist like Garrison turned, one can easily imagine how much faster men of more pliable political temperament would have made that shift," Sheehan-Dean said.
"Foremost" among those was Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew, who chaired the Loyal War Governors' Conference.
It took Andrew only a month of war to call for arming southern blacks, Sheehan-Dean said.
Moderate Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, whose call to the other northern governors initiated the Altoona conference, took much longer to get where Andrew went early.
At the beginning of the war, Curtin refused passage through Pennsylvania to an abolitionist on a mission to incite a slave uprising in Virginia.
"[S]o far as I am concerned this war will be conducted by civilized methods," Curtin told an agent for the expedition leader.
Curtin's concerns were shared by Benjamin Butler, a Massachusetts militia leader who feared that arming southern blacks would allow "that population to rise upon the defenseless women and children of the country, carrying rapine, arson and murder ... among those whom we hope to reunite with."
Yet by war's end, Curtin and Butler were abolitionists.
The conflict's "duration and intensity propelled northerners to sanction an increasingly violent and deadly war," Sheehan-Dean said.
Today, we identify conservatives as hawks and liberals as doves, with conservatives tending to defend our military against charges of excess and atrocity, while liberals are "quick to judge and blame," Sheehan-Dean said.
But the changes wrought among the radicals during the Civil War shows that a group's conception of what a war ought to accomplish can trump prior moral beliefs about how to wage it, Sheehan-Dean said.
"[A] commitment to restrained and just war follows rather than precedes the ultimate purpose of a conflict," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.