The Civil War

by Donald D. Erwin


In the mid-1800s the feeling was rapidly growing in the northern United States, and around the world, that the holding of Black slaves must cease. Many other countries had already outlawed the practice. The South, feeling that their cotton economy could not survive without slavery, applied an extreme remedy, and that was secession. First the lower South and then the middle South withdrew, while all of the border states remained in the Union. The seceding states formed a Confederacy with its capital first at Montgomery, Alabama, and then at Richmond, Virginia.

The combatants were unequal, and a Northern victory was ultimately inevitable. The North had the advantage of population and resources. The South did have an initial advantage of military leadership, but as time passed, and the Northern military learned from their trial and error tactics, this advantage was lost.

Both sides appealed to the European countries. Britain attempted to maintain neutrality, while Russia favored the North and France the South. Volunteers were relied on at first, with poor results, then both sides used conscription to fill their ranks. Ultimately over three million men fought in the war, and three-quarters of a million died.

The war was financed on both sides by taxes, loans, and by issuing paper money without real treasury backing. By the time the war was over the Union debt was three billion dollars; that's three billion 1865 dollars.

But let's back up a little. The cruel division among the American people did not begin with the shot fired at Fort Sumter in April 1961, nor did it end with the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox Courthouse four Aprils later. The internal division dated from the beginning of the American Colonies, grew through successive stages of increasing intensity until the angry schism of the Civil War.

First, there was the division of black from white, and this was based on a fundamental assertion that to be black was to be less than human. Then there was the division of Northern white and Southern white: a difference which revealed not only a North-South conflict but also a confrontation between East and West. And the sharpest cutting edge of this unrest was in the Border States. Finally, there was the ultimate division itself… a standoff of two armies.

“Of the American Civil War it may safely be asserted that there was a single cause, slavery,” wrote historian James Ford Rhodes in 1913. Historian Charles G. Sellers, Jr. said, “The key to the tragedy of southern history is the paradox of the slaveholding South’s devotion to liberty.” While historians today would not put it quite so firmly on either point, Rhodes’ basic point probably remains valid.

Let's look at the slavery issue. While some folks—those who are historically challenged—may believe that the enslavement of African Negroes was unique to the American colonies, the fact is that black slaves had been imported from Africa to Europe fifty years before Columbus set out on his first voyage to the New World. The Portuguese started the practice in 1442 as a sidebar to their country’s commercial expansion. Under Prince Henry the Navigator’s driving ambition to find a passage to China, his mariners had established claim to the Canary and Madeira Islands, and had explored another four thousand miles southward along the African coast. In 1440 Antam Gonçalvez, one of Henry’s captains, captured three Moors who ransomed themselves for ten Negroes. These were brought to Lisbon in 1442. On a second trip Gonçalvez brought back more slaves, and in 1444 a group known as the Company of Lagos captured more than a hundred and fifty Negro men, women and children. When they were landed at Lagos Prince Henry himself was there to greet them and to claim his share of the “cargo.”

By the end of the 1400s Portugal controlled Africa and had made an agreement, called the Asiento, to supply slaves to Spain. Spain joined the trade in 1517, as did England in 1562. France followed, then Holland and Denmark. Within a century slaving had grown into a commercial enterprise of such proportions that no “civilized” nation could ignore it as a lucrative source of trade. By 1591 Brazil had imported fifty-two thousand slaves, and by 1750 the British West Indies had brought in over two million black slaves. In 1715 there were approximately sixty thousand slaves working in the American colonies, but by the time the American Revolution started there were over one half million.

They came in chains, and they came from everywhere along the west coast of Africa. They were people of at least four major  races—the Negritians, the Fellatahs, the Bantus and the Gallas—as well as many tribes who are now remembered only by anthropologists. Chained to each other, neck and foot, they were driven to the coast by the slavers. On average two out of five died on the long marches, and more perished in the stinking holds of the slave ships. Sad, but the saddest part is that most were captured and sold to the slavers by other blacks.

But the practice of enslaving other human beings was old even then. It had been in existence since the first man discovered that he had an edge over a rival, and it had become entrenched in human customs before man was walking upright. It was a time-honored custom among the Jews, and it was old when Babylonia, Assyria and Phoenicia were young. And the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome were founded on it as well. It was also practiced by the Celts in Ireland and the Highland clans in Scotland, although in these cultures individuals were held as captives until ransomed. But those who had no one to produce the demanded ransom were, in effect, slaves.

There were really a host of reasons for the Civil War, slavery being the most visible. There was a “two civilizations” theory held by many prominent Southerners. A lawyer in Savannah, Georgia expressed it in 1860 in one way: “In this country there have arisen two races (i.e., Northerners and Southerners) which, although claiming a common parentage, have been so entirely separated by climate, by morals, by religion, and by estimates so totally opposite to all that constitutes honor, truth, and manliness, that they cannot longer exist under the same government.”  While such a statement sounds ridiculous to most citizens today, it was widely believed in the South prior to the War…and long afterward for that matter.

Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech in which he declared, “…a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” probably hit the mark best. The underlying reason for continuing slavery in the South had been economic, yet the percentage of slave owners to non-slave owners was very small.

Few Erwins who fought for the Confederacy owned slaves, so why did they fight? Pro slavery advocates preached that the bondage of Negroes was the basis of liberty for whites. They said that slavery elevated all whites to an equality of status and dignity by confining menial labor and caste subordination to blacks. “If slaves are freed,” said Southerners, “whites will become menials. We will lose every right and liberty which belongs to the name of freemen.” Most Erwins in Tennessee and Arkansas were on the lower end of the economic ladder. They were, in fact, menials…in the sense that they, and their families, worked their own farms, and if they did own a slave or two they most likely worked along side them in the fields. The slavery issue, for the most part, didn’t really touch them. Southern “honor,” however, was something that they were willing to fight for, though most probably couldn’t really define what it was. And of course, there was the widely held belief that blacks were of an inferior race, and Southern and Border States Erwins were no exception to that thought either.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s it was clear that war was coming. The big question was…which states would secede from the Union? There were Erwin’s in several of the border-states, many closely related. The letter below from James Hezekiah Erwin, who lived in West Point, Georgia, to his uncle, John Johnston Erwin, in Calloway County, Kentucky, illustrates the fervor of the times. The letter is dated only about three months after the Confederate Army attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.


West Point, July 18th 1861

Dear Uncle

Your last favor duly received and found me arid family all well. I have not been able as yet to get hold of any funds that would be current with you. I will however keep a sharpe look out and will avail myself with the 1st opportunitY that presentS its self. I deeply sympathiSe with you on the loss of your lovely daughter. Excepting your dear companion a greater affliction could not have been visited upon you than to be deprived of a lovely affectionate child, and although the event is sad and painful~ I am rejoysced to learn that she was prepared for the Soleum change. Let us endeavour to profit by the dealings of Providence and see to it that we be ‘wise in this our day of merciful visitation’ committing our interests both for time & eternity with all our trials and afflictions in to the hands of a kind and gracious God.

I am very sorry at the position the galant old state of “Kentuck” occupies at this time. How it is, that a Southern State can remain in a Government ruled by a black republican President, disregarding and trampling underfoot the plainest provisions of the Constitution and waging a war of subjugation or extermination upon Eleven States with whom Kentucky is connected by every consideration of interest, Patriotism and Sympathy is to me a matter of great surprise. Under such circumstaces Neutrality is an absurdity and Kentucky in attempting to maintain it is occupying the unenviable position of a Coward in the estimation of any Southern State. The people of the Confederate States are united and regard with contempt all Ideas and efforts at reconstruction. They could not be induced back in to the “Old Wreck” upon any terms. Looking at it from every stand point possible the conclusion is irresistable that those who are not for us in this struggle are against us. You are much mistaken in Southern Valor and patriotism when you think that it was our object to make Kentucky the battleground and then to retire with “forced armes” and not participate in the struggle. far from it.

But if you people could be satisfied that Kentucky desired to cut loose from old Abe and his\government and link her destiny with the Confederate

States where God and nature designed her to be, ’Thousands” upon tens of thousands of the brave hearts and strong army from the Confederacy would flock to the standard and fight until “the last armed for expired” and until Kentucky should be again free and independent. And if Kentucky is afraid to strike for liberty and freedom and will manifest her willingness our Jeff will send a force sufficient to drive out every hessian from her soil, and if Kentuckians are unwilling to participate, they can flee to the “hills of [illegible] for safety.” But I believe that Kentucky will get aroused from this lethergy and inactivity and vindicate her honor. unite with her sisters in a Confederacy that is destined to be unsurpassed by the world. In what I have said of Kentucy I intend nothing personal to yourself for I know you have not a nephew who esteems you more highly than I do. We are all entitled to our political opinions, and it is nothing  strange if men should differ. Providence has blessed us with abundent crops. perhaps the best for a number of years. My children were well when I feard from the last. they are staying at Dr. Lloyds. I expect to see them Saturday. I was at Uncle Abes & Mikes about a week ago. They were all well — they say there is no chance of doing any thing for you before this fall — My Love and

best wishs to Aunt Sarah and the family — yourself not excepted.

Write often.

Very truly yours

Jas. H. Erwin


It is clear that James is trying to convince his uncle that Kentucky should be aligned with the Confederacy. Although there was strong feeling for the Southern cause, and although many Kentuckians did go south to serve in the Confederate forces, the State of Kentucky did not secede from the Union.

John Johnston Erwin, of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, was a colonel in the Confederate Army and was captured by Union Forces at the Battle of Vicksburg on February 4, 1864. He was imprisoned at Camp Douglas in Illinois when he wrote the following letter to his namesake-uncle, John Johnston Erwin, in Calloway County, Kentucky.


Camp Douglas Ill May 17th 1864

Dear Uncle,

For the time since my capture I seat myself to address you. I expect you will be surprised to hear from me so far North, but such is the fate of war I have no news to communicate but my general good health. I was captured at Jackson Miss on the 4th of Febry and arrived at this place about a month afterwards. Like the ballance of Confederate Prisoners I am here without money and as I am cut off from the hope of getting it from home must beg the favor of you to send me Ten Dollars by express. If an opportunity occurs please write to my family or to brother Harvy or Father. Give my best regards to Aunt Sarah and family and accept for yourself the best

wishes of                                                                                                   

Your Nephew

                                                                                                     Jno. J. Erwin

Direct your letter thus

Jno. J. Erwin

Co. H. 14 Ky Regmt

Camp Douglas, Ill


There were hundreds of Erwins involved, on both sides, in this bloody, senseless and tragic war. In fact, the actual statistics are known:


                                                         Erwin Civil War Service

Erwin Veterans Allegiance:                                                Total Veterans in the Civil War:

655       Confederate                                                                                       1,050,000

557       Union                                                                                                  2,213,363

1212     Combined                                                                                           3,263,363


Following is a sampling of Erwins who served in the Civil War:

Erwin, Abner T.: CSA, died July 21, 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run. He was a son of Isaac and Winney Erwin of Washington Parish, LA.

Erwin, Benjamin H. R.: CSA, served 1861-1865. He was a son of Isaac and Winney Erwin of Washington Parish, LA.

Erwin, Charles H., CSA, Pvt., 1861-1862. He was a member Douglas' Texas battery and was killed March 7, 1862 in the first fight at Elkhorn Tavern in Northwest Arkansas. He was a son of Thomas Barkley Erwin and Elizabeth Owens of Tyler, TX      

Erwin, Francis B. F.: CSA, Pvt., Co. G. 3rd Louisiana Cavalry, 1861-1865. He was a son of Isaac and Winney Erwin of Washington Parish.

Erwin, George: CSA, served in Co. B, North Carolina 6th Cavalry, He was captured at Jackson's Mills near Kinston, NC on June 21, 1864. He was received at Fort Monroe, VA and forwarded to Point Lookout, MD on June 30, 1864. He died there on Oct. 21, 1864.

Erwin, Henry Clay: CSA, Pvt., Texas Volunteers, 1862-1865. He was a son of Thomas B. Erwin and Elizabeth Owens of Tyler, Texas.

Erwin, James Andrew: CSA, Ist. Lt., 1861-1865. He was wounded and captured at Port Hudson July 9, 1863, and sent to St. James Hospital in New Orleans aboard the steamship Zephyr on July 13. Upon release from the hospital on September 21, James was allowed to go home under orders from Union General Nathaniel Banks. When he failed to return he was charged with violating his parole and jailed in New Orleans on November 31, 1863. On August 22, 1864 James was part of a prisoner exchange at Redwood Creek, about halfway between Baton Rouge and Clinton, Louisiana. He was captured again in February 1865 and paroled at Gainsville, Alabama on May 12, 1865, a month after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. He was a son of Isaac and Winney Erwin of Washington Parish, LA

Erwin, James: Union; lived in Kentucky when the War started; Co. D, 35th Kentucky Infantry Regiment.

Erwin, James Robert: CSA, Pvt., 1861-1862. He was a member of James P. Douglas's Texas Battery, and died in Fayetteville, AR February 19, 1862 of pneumonia. He was a son of Thomas Barkley Erwin and Elizabeth Owens of Tyler, TX      

Erwin, John B.: Union; Corp.,  Company A, 7th Kentucky Infantry Regiment, and also in Co. D,  22nd Kentucky Infantry.

Erwin, John C.: CSA, died July 21, 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run. He was a son of Isaac and Winney Erwin of Washinton Parish, LA.

Erwin, John Johnson: CSA, Col., 1861-1865; captured February 4, 1864 at the Battle of Vicksburg and was held at Camp Douglas IL (see above). He was the son of James Polk Erwin and Sussannah Goff of Oktibbeha Co., MS.

Erwin, John Pinkney, Jr.: CSA, 1861-1865; son of John Pinkney Erwin and Dianah Smith of Tennessee, and related to the Rowan Co., NC Erwins.

Erwin, Michael Pike: Union, Pvt., Arkansas Militia, 1864-1865. He was the tenth child of Joseph Erwin, Jr. and Nancy Rebecca Davis of Carroll Co., AR.

Erwin, Robert: Union, Pvt., Co. F, 3rd Kentucky Cavalry.

Erwin, Thomas Averice: CSA, 1861-1865. He was a son of Isaac and Winney Erwin. He survived the war and died about 1910 in Washington Parish, LA.

Erwin, Thomas Johnston: Union, Pvt., Arkansas Militia 1864-1865. He was in his forties when he fought with his brother, Michael Pike Erwin, at the Battle of Race Track Hollow (He was also my great-grandfather).           

Erwin, William B.: Union, Pvt., Co. H, 1st Kentucky Infantry.      

Erwin, William R.: CSA, Co. F,  5th North Carolina Cavalry. He was taken prisoner and was held at Point Lookout, Maryland.

Note that Isaac and Winney Erwin had nine sons, all of whom would have been at the right age to be in the war. It is recorded that six did serve, and two died.

Three of Thomas Barkley Erwin's sons served in the Confederate Army, and two did not return.  

The scars of battle on the countryside, north and south, are now healed, although there are many monuments on the battlefields to mark the confrontations and the slaughter. And although several generations would have to come and go before total peace would return between neighbors and former friends in the Border States, there is no historical indication that Erwins involved in one side of the conflict held a grudge against Erwins on the other side. There is every reason to believe that once the war was over the Erwin clan became a close-knit family once again.

On the other hand—even though the millions of former Negro slaves were now free and legally equal—the people of the South, as well as a large portion of the people in the Border states—including Erwins—still believed that they were superior to blacks in every way. It would take a hundred years plus, including a sweeping civil rights movement and Congressional legislation, before a semblance of true equality between blacks and whites would surface. And it would be one hundred and thirty-nine years after an Erwin family slave was declared free that a group of his descendants welcomed me as an honored guest at their family reunion in Longview, Texas in June 2004.

Perhaps that welcome was a sign that the Civil War is finally over. I would like to think so.                           



A few major films about the Civil War:


·          The Birth of a Nation (1915)

·          The General (1927)

·          Gone with the Wind (1939)

·          Friendly Persuasion (1956)

·          The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

·          The Blue and the Gray (1982)

·          Glory (1989)

·          Gettysburg (1993)

·          Ride with the Devil (1999)

·          Gods and Generals (2003)

·          Cold Mountain (2003)

·          North and South (TV miniseries):

Book I - November 3, 1985

Book II - May 4, 1986

Book III - February 27, 1994


Documentaries about the war:


·          The Civil War, directed by Ken Burns

·          The Great Battles of the Civil War, directed by Jay Wertz

·          The Civil War: Missouri, featuring Civil War expert Wynn Ward, and produced by Tom Pieper and  J. L. Palermo


And… for more than you ever wanted to know about the Civil War, go to the Internet and click on: