Episode 47 – Black Death in Europe versus the American Civil War

Today’s episode is in the Event bracket, the first, a time when up to two-thirds of some towns and cities populations were wiped out in an epidemic, known as the Black Death, against the bloodiest conflict in United States history, the American Civil War.

My sources today include The Human Story by James C. Davis, The History of the Plague, Part 1, Three Great Pandemics from the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health and The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly. For the Civil War I have, The American Civil War: A House Divided Edward F. Dolan and The American Civil War: A Military History by John Keegan along with a number of books I’ve used in the past on the great battles of world history.

The Spread of the Black Death
The Spread of the Black Death

The Black Death, also known as the plague, was a constant threat throughout Europe and Asia for millennium. The Romans dealt with it on numerous occasions, one outbreak being known as the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD, which killed an estimated one-third of the population. It was unknown as to what the cause was. Some have claimed it was smallpox, others measles, others the bubonic plague. Historical accounts of similar plagues are dotted throughout the centuries but the one we are going to talk about today is the one that hit Europe. This one, has been estimated causing the deaths of 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis, is believed to have been the cause, although there is still debate within the medical community. I’m going with Yersinia due to an article in Nature magazine from a few years back that provides a genetic link to its source in China and exhumed bodies in Europe who died from the plague we are going to discuss.

The Black Plague that was to decimate Europe’s population beginning in 1347, would take huge swathes of people to their death. Here is the fascinating thing, they knew it. Here is a chronicle from a churchman in southern Ireland as shared by Davis in The Human Story.

“That pestilence, deprived villages, and cities, and castles, and towns of inhabitants, so that scarcely a man was found to dwell therein; the pestilence was so contagious that whosoever touched he sick or dead was immediately infected and died… many died of boils and abscesses, and pustules on their legs and under their armpits; others frantic with pain in their head, an others spitting blood… And lest things worthy of remembrance should perish with time, and fall away from the memory of those who are to come after us… so have I reduced these things to writing: and lest the writing should perish with the writer… I leave parchment for continuing the work, if haply any man survive, and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and continue the work which I have commenced.”

As Davis notes, the last entry was in another man’s handwriting. It states, “Here it seems the author died.”

I am amazed at some other quotes he provided us like this one from an Italian chronicler, “there was not even a dog pissing on a wall.” Or another from a town near Rome. “The first widespread pestilence took place in 1348 and was the worst. Second pestilence, 1363. Third pestilence 1374. Fourth pestilence, 1383. Fifth pestilence 1589.” Then another hand wrote, “Sixth pestilence, 1410.” This wave after wave went on until 1450.

Europe was devastated by the plague. Many believed that it was the end of the world. But many survived the Black Death, and believe it or not, they not only made it through one of the greatest tragedies of mankind, but they thrived. At first glance, you may find it strange that things actually improved a great deal for the survivors. If you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world. With vast numbers of people dying, what would happen to their lands, their homes, their animals? Survivors would take them and pull themselves up from the prevailing poverty of the years before. 

Before 1347, the people of Europe were for the most part dirt poor and starvation was a constant threat. This lack of food made them far more susceptible to disease. Many died of malnutrition and many diseases caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as scurvy and pellagra. Post plague, there was more food available for those left behind. They had larger plots of land with which to feed their families. There was a problem though, the systems of working the land had not changed in millennium so with fewer people to plant and harvest along with tending to the farm animals, innovative methods had to be introduced. 

From the ashes of the pestilence, we have a change in cooking utensils from earth-clay pots to metal which is a reflection of the increase in wealth of the common man. Serfdom began to crumble in Europe although not in Russia where it would continue into the mid-19th century. It caused an end to the devastating Hundred Years War between France and England due to the death via plague of an estimated 40% of their armies. And finally, it seems to have been the seed for the development of the Renaissance.

First beginning in Florence, Dante Alighieri’s works come out of the horrors of the Black Death. Those who survived felt as if they were spared death by God and that a new day had come. With all the new found wealth, artists would be commissioned to produce paintings that put us in awe today. Sculptures, magnificent buildings and other works of art and architecture would boom. 

An economic boom occurred after the main wave of plagues went away. There are many historians that believe that the reset in the population would be the impetus for another flourishing of mankind’s response to catastrophe, and that is the Industrial Revolution. 

There would be many more popups of pestilence in Europe over the centuries, lasting until the 1890’s but for the most part, the pandemic of the 14th century would not happen again until the Spanish flu of 1918.

Now we turn to a war between brothers and fathers, cousins and uncles, as well as between best friends, the deadliest war in United States history, the American Civil War.

American Civil War
American Civil War by Excel23

Lasting between April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865, the American Civil War cost the United States and the Confederate States almost 1.7 million casualties. Those that died from combat, disease, accidents and while in prisoner of war camps added up to 655,000. While the effects of the war are still being felt today, with deep divides between the South and the North the outcome of the war was that the Union stayed intact.

There are many debates about what triggered the Civil War, was it a reaction to slavery, a purely states-rights issue, a territorial crisis of how to bring in new states, sectionalism, nationalism, protectionism or Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. In all honesty, it was all the above, but with some issues being more important than others.

I could start an argument that could go on for years as to what the most important reason for the southern states to decide to secede, but I won’t take a firm stand, just leave an opinion here. I think that states rights were the number one factor. The south didn’t want to take command from the north. They didn’t want to be told that they had to let their slaves go free. Each state in the south as well as many who were applying for statehood under the American flag, believed that while they were one country, it was under the proviso that they could determine what they did in their states without any interference from the federal government. It is an argument that continues to this day in front of the Supreme Court.

What I’m no going to do today, is go over the American Civil War battle by battle, that would take an entire podcast series. Instead, I want to impart a sense of how the people felt and why the war was essentially, inevitable. 

Author of the book, The American Civil War: A Military History, John Keegan best puts it in his introduction. 

“I began an earlier book with the sentence, ‘The First World War was a cruel and unnecessary war.’ The American Civil War, with which it stands comparison, was also certainly cruel, both in the suffering it inflicted on the participants and the anguish it caused to the bereaved at home. But it was not unnecessary. By 1861 the division caused by slavery, most of all among other points of division between the North and South, was so acute that it could have been resolved only by some profound shift of energy, certainly from belief in slavery as the only means by which America’s color problem could be contained, probably by a permanent separation between the slave states and their sympathizers and the rest of the country, and possibly, given the eruptions such a separation would have entailed, by war.”

He further goes on to say, “It was the South’s ill fortune that, having dominated the debate in the first half of the century, at precisely the point when the issue of principle ceased to be a contest of words and threatened to become a call to action, the North produced a leader who spoke better and more forcefully than any of the South’s current champions.” Of course, he was speaking of Abraham Lincoln who we me in episode 43.

Keegan points out that the South didn’t have anyone to talk things through with Lincoln, they had no one to allow a venting of anger and frustration. As occurs in real day-to-day life, those people who have an inability to communicate their frustrations and concerns, often times lash out with violence. This was the state of things in 1861 at the dawn of the civil war.

The author continues, “The decision was to invest the coming conflict with a grim purpose. It would become a war of peoples, and those of each side, who had hitherto considered themselves one, would henceforth begin to perceive their differences and to consider their differences more important that the values that, since 1781, they had accepted as permanent and binding.”

The beginning of the war has an exact date and time. 4:30 am on April 12, 1861. As Edward Dolan puts it in his book, The American Civil War: A House Divided, “The United States soldiers on sentry duty at Fort Sumter heard the sudden thump of a distant howitzer. They saw a glowing red dot rise through the predawn darkness. It arced toward them, growing larger as it came, and then fell to burst above their head. They ducked low as shell fragments flew in all directions.” The man in charge of ordering the bombing, thus starting the armed conflict was General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard

The secession of states began in February 1861 one month before the inauguration of the anti-slavery Republican, Abraham Lincoln. There are a couple of parts of his inaugural speech I’d like to share with you. The first is “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the United States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” The South did not buy that one bit even though there is evidence that Lincoln did genuinely believed it.

Lincoln ended the speech with the following, “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

After the attack on Fort Sumter, historian Allan Nevins wrote, “The thunderclap of Sumter produced a startling crystallization of Northern sentiment. … Anger swept the land. From every side came news of mass meetings, speeches, resolutions, tenders of business support, the muster of companies and regiments, the determined action of governors and legislatures.”

Prior to the attack, people in the North were for the most part, okay with the South leaving the Union. Southerners were hopeful that they could rejoin the Union after negotiations between the two sides. The Fort Sumter attack changed everything. These sentiments would prove extremely naïve. 

As Dolan puts it in his book, The American Civil War: House Divided, “Overnight, the fall of Sumter had changed the North’s sympathetic views toward the Confederacy. They were buried beneath a tidal wave of patriotism. Thousands of men answered Lincoln’s call and rushed to join the militias and the regular army. Actually, for many, the idea of abolishing slavery or preserving the Union did not enter into their thinking. They lived in a time when war was still seen as a romantic adventure and that was what they wanted – adventure and the chance to escape the boredom of farm or factory life.”

One has to remember that photographs of the horrors of war had just started to be published with the coverage of the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856. Those were the first time that people not involved in a battle directly could see how bad things were. That had not settled into the psyche of the American people yet as they hadn’t seen most of the pictures from that European conflict.

What President Lincoln did next was something that would almost guarantee that the South would lose the war. He ordered a naval blockade of the Confederate coasts. What this did was to deny outside shipments of war supplies to the South and stop the shipment of cotton, their most lucrative commodity, out. Europe was a huge buyer of cotton and this would place a stranglehold on their economy. This was also known as the Anaconda Plan which was proposed by then general-in-chief Winfield Scott It also called for an advance down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. Many Northern generals preferred a more aggressive plan, but Lincoln stuck with it, which it turns out, was the right decision.

The beginning of the war was more like the first round of most boxing matches with each side feeling the other side out. No one tried to go for a knockout blow at first, just a series of jabs and feints. The first real battle was had the Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell with Confederate forces led by Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard near Washington known as the First Battle of Bull Run. The loss by the Union would shock the North who thought that they would run right over the Confederate army and end things quickly.

At this point, Lincoln named a thirty-five-year-old man to head the army, General George B. McClellan. While a great organizer, he was to prove to be a very indecisive military man, the opposite of his main opponent, Confederate General Robert E. Lee. 

Over the coming four bloody years, there are estimates that over 750,000 men died of wounds inflicted on the battle field or disease. There are other historians who claim that the number is really closer to one million, especially if you add the slaves who died. The number of wounded and maimed soldiers is around 500,000. 

When Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the war was essentially over. Fighting would continue until May 9th. The war would last for 4 years, 3 weeks and 6 days. The Reconstruction period that followed would help the country, especially the devastated South, rebuild and heal, but the wounds ran deep and there are those today who still hold a grudge against the other side.

Time to score the two sides to see who moves on.

First off, we have the fifteen points for the number of people involved. The Black Death in Europe caused the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia. The American Civil War was fought by over 3 million men. Fifteen points for the plague and five for the US conflict.

Next is the 20 points for how it affected the rest of the world at the time. This is another sweeping win for the Black Death. It affected all of Europe and its border countries in Asia. The American Civil War stopped the import of cotton from the South to Europe, but as a whole, had little real impact on the rest of the world. Twenty to the pestilence, eight to the war.

We now need to give out the twenty-five points for the long-term affect on history. This one is very close. As I mentioned earlier, the Black Death fundamentally changed Europe. Not only did it wipe out around 1/3rd of the population, it ushered in a new era, the Renaissance which was the predecessor to the Industrial Revolution. 

The American Civil War kept the United States together, a country which would become the leading power, helping end two great world wars and for better or worse, change everything in this world. 

Both of these events have had extremely large long-term effects on our lives so both get the maximum of twenty-five points.

We now have to give out the big prize of forty points based on the immediate effect on the country or countries involved. For all of the reasons I have gone over during this podcast I believe both deserve all the points because of what happened to the U.S. and Europe. 

In what I would call a mild upset, the event moving on, with a score of 100 to 78, the Black Death in Europe. It will face off in the second round against, the Thirty Years’ War. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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