Feb/Mar 2011

A House Dividing

A new anthology of Civil War writings lets us see the roots of the conflict as if for the first time.

Daniel Walker Howe


With the sesquicentennial of the Civil War upon us, the Library of America is issuing four major anthologies of writing from contemporaries on the Union and Confederate sides of the bloodiest of all our armed conflicts. The volumes, appearing under the general title The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It, track each year of the war between 1861 and 1865 and will span a four-year publishing schedule. The first volume—subtitled, suitably enough, The First Year and edited by the accomplished Civil War historians Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Deanoffers latter-day readers a fresh vantage on the war's origins in a deeper political crisis. With the Civil War firmly lodged in both historiography and popular imagination as a war—bearing a full detachment of military-history buffs, reenactors, and PBS documentarians—it can be easy to lose sight of the moral, economic, and constitutional disputes that furnished the conflict's backdrop and that continue to spark battling interpretations of the war.

It's fitting, then, that despite its name, this first volume covers more than a year and focuses on the crisis in politics and national identity that preceded the carnage of America's first total war. The chronicle begins with the November 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and continues through to his appointment of Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war in January 1862. Lincoln was, of course, the first president of the modern Republican Party—a very different force in national politics from the Jeffersonian Republicans of the early nineteenth century. Coming to office after a long period when the proslavery Jacksonian Democratic Party held power, Lincoln proclaimed the objective of halting the spread of slavery into any more western territories. In short order, his election provoked a constitutional crisis, not because anyone challenged its legitimacy (Lincoln won a clear majority in the electoral college, albeit only 39 percent of the popular vote) but because seven states in the Deep South seceded from the Union rather than acquiesce to the election's outcome.

In view of the North's past accommodation of the Southern slave power, the rebels certainly felt aggrieved enough to take this drastic step—and found plenty of evidence in the American republic's founding documents that their cause was legitimate. The institution of slavery enjoyed several protections and privileges under the Constitution, including the masters' right to recover slaves who escaped into the free states—and during his 1860 campaign (and for a good time afterward) Lincoln admitted the validity of these clauses. Even so, the whites of the Deep South were accustomed to federal administrations sympathetic to slavery. They did not care to remain in the Union and find out what it would be like to live under an administration avowedly critical of an institution they considered fundamental to their way of life.

Like any engaging historical narrative, The First Year delivers sharp accounts of the opening and closing events of the period under review. The book's first pages furnish the compelling story of just how quickly a political crisis passed into a catastrophe: Lincoln's election triggered secession, which triggered armed conflict at Fort Sumter, which triggered civil war. And at the conclusion, Lincoln's selection of the energetic Stanton as war secretary (replacing Simon Cameron, a corrupt hack) signals the North's resolve to wage the war with determination. In between those events, the volume presents a shifting kaleidoscope of opinions and reactions, South and North, clustered around two emerging, and profoundly divisive, poles: The Confederacy mounted its implacable bid for independence, and the Union resolved that it would do whatever it took to prevent the splintering of the American republic.

Most of all, the selection of testimonials and commentaries here brings the political stakes of the conflict back to the foreground, in the urgent terms that the writers and correspondents of the age apprehended them. Simpson, Sears, and Sheehan-Dean have done a magnificent job of stressing eyewitness, participant accounts—some drawn from official documents like presidential addresses, others from descriptions of army life by soldiers or diary entries by housewives or businessmen. The emphasis on primary sources goes a long way toward answering questions that posterity has debated about the Civil War during the past 150 years.

Chief among these is, of course: Was the Civil War fought over slavery or over states' rights? Southerners have typically claimed that the secessionists were defending states' rights against an overweening federal government. In this way, they endow the Confederates of the 1860s with a continuing relevance to constitutional issues of later generations. And perhaps more important to the Confederacy's defenders, the states' rights interpretation spares them a far more painful reckoning: To concede that the Confederacy came into existence to protect slavery would be to admit that Southerners were morally in the wrong and that their cause was not only lost but irrelevant.

What the primary documents—assembled here in scrupulous chronological order—clearly demonstrate is that slavery and states' rights (more specifically, a state's right to secede) were both of critical importance, and not necessarily in the neatly counterpoised fashion that retrospective chronicles often employ in re-creating the terms of debate. Without slavery, the South would not have seceded. But the North went to war to preserve the Union and deny states the right to secede. Only later, as subsequent volumes in the Library of America series will no doubt relate, did the North adopt freedom for the slaves as a war aim.

And for all the immediacy this volume's editors lend to the states' rights dispute, the roots of it, too, stretch far back into the nation's history of sectional conflict. During the decades preceding the war, the South had not been uniformly dedicated to states' rights (contrary to present-day popular impression). The South Carolinian John C. Calhoun had indeed worked out an elaborate theory of states' rights, but when he persuaded his state to try implementing it in 1832–33 to resist the federal tariff law, no other Southern state would support him—and the Southern-born president, Andrew Jackson, made it clear he would do whatever it took to enforce federal law. The South instead relied on its usual control of all three branches of the federal government to sustain the institution of slavery.

There's a rather glaring irony here for devotees of the states' rights interpretation of the war: In this phase of the argument over slavery, it was Northern states that attempted, sporadically, to invoke states' rights to resist proslavery legislation like the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. It was only during the crisis of 1860 that these positions suddenly and dramatically reversed. Southerners realized with shock that Lincoln's election meant they would no longer control all the branches of the federal government. And Northerners realized that secession, once admitted as a state's right, would lead to the complete disintegration of the Union, for in the wake of this precedent, disaffected states might secede over any issue.

Still, one question haunts latter-day followers of the secession debate as the editors of The First Year reprise it: In view of the constitutional guarantees of the institution of slavery, what were the leaders in the Deep South afraid of? Lincoln's party would control only the White House, not Congress or the judiciary. The Republican Party platform denounced the expansion of slavery into the West. But in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court had ruled that slave owners had a constitutional right to carry their human property into any of the territories of the United States. And so it's a bit disorienting for readers schooled in the states' rights ideology of the Confederacy to find in The First Year a broad chorus of voices from the Deep South complaining bitterly that Northern people do not really cooperate enthusiastically in returning fugitive slaves, and that Northern states have sometimes even "nullified" congressional fugitive-slave laws. Yet the number of slaves who managed to escape into the North was not large, and the number who made it all the way from the Deep South really negligible. Why, then, did Southerners make such a big deal out of this?

The mystery deepens as the editors show us the Unionist minority in the South presenting elaborate plans to address the various specific grievances of the slaveholders. But the secessionists were not interested. The new Republican Party stressed that its program was not eradicating slavery where it already existed—only stopping its expansion west. But the Deep South spokesmen for slavery did not find this a meaningful distinction. On the very first page of this anthology, the editors have the leading secessionist newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, proclaiming: "The issue before the country is the extinction of slavery." Not the extension of slavery, as the moderate free-soil Republicans would have it, but its extinction.

In the minds of Southerners, Northern dislike of slavery's expansion and the North's reluctance to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 were important less for their own sake than as indicators of Northern opinion. This, too, was the cultural significance of Lincoln's election: It demonstrated that a party opposed to the extension of slavery commanded at least a plurality in every free state. The logic of the Electoral College is such that if a party like Lincoln's carried the North, with its larger population, it could win the presidency even with zero popular votes in the South. Over and over, the secessionists quoted here insisted that what worried them was not the policies Lincoln might go on to pursue as president. What alarmed the Deep South in December 1860 was the present, not the future: Lincoln's election, like Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, revealed deep-seated Northern hostility to the Southern slave order. With Northern opinion so firmly against the South, slavery was sooner or later, one way or another, doomed.

And in back of these anxieties was the fear of any ownership class overseeing an oppressed population that vastly outnumbers: the fear of revolt. Although no slaves responded to John Brown's failed insurrection, Southern whites remained afraid that word of Northern antislavery feeling could provoke slave uprisings. The fear was greatest in the Deep South because it was there that the highest percentage of the population was enslaved. Two states, South Carolina and Mississippi, actually had slave majorities. And they were also the first two to secede, in December 1860 and January 1861. As the documentary record in The First Year shows, the proslavery outgoing Democratic president, James Buchanan, put his finger on the matter in his final message to Congress in December 1860. "How easy would it be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country!" he said. People could do it just by ceasing to criticize slavery!

Buchanan's counsel may fall strangely on our ears today, but in its original context, it showed insight as well as blindness. He saw correctly that it was the antislavery state of mind that alarmed the South. But his solution was for Northerners to give up both their moral sense and their freedom of speech. Buchanan didn't seem to grasp the manifest impossibility of such a demand—or perhaps, like many Northern leaders who accommodated the political ambitions of the slave-owning South, he simply feared the full repercussions of its rejection.

Modern readers will also likely be surprised to find in the materials collected in The First Year that the North and South do not actually debate the morality of slavery. The editors' implication is that by the time the story begins, the two sides were past this stage. They no longer entertained hope that arguments, whether from Scripture, the principles of the founders, or practical economics, could prevail with their adversaries. It's true that we do read here that in the winter of 1860–61, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the radically antislavery newspaper editor Horace Greeley actually worried less about the prospect of the South seceding than the likelihood that it would be kept in the Union by concessions perpetuating slavery. But this interval of anxiety among crusading abolitionists proved transitory, thanks to the onset of military hostility—the case for arriving at some new accommodation on either side was overtaken by events. The bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861 abruptly brought the period of vacillation on both sides to an end and launched the country into war making.

Fort Sumter was one of a number of military installations in the South owned by the federal government. The US military had built the facility to guard the port of Charleston against attack by a foreign navy. (After the Civil War it was rebuilt and kept watch during the Spanish-American War of 1898.) Not even lame-duck president Buchanan had been willing to surrender Fort Sumter to the secessionists: He sent an unarmed civilian vessel with supplies for the garrison, though when the batteries on shore opened fire, the ship turned and fled. Lincoln sent a US Navy expedition, but again specified that it would deliver no munitions, only food for hungry men. Neither the South Carolina authorities nor the Confederate central government in Montgomery, Alabama, found this acceptable. As they saw things, it would be intolerable for an alien (perhaps hostile) fortification overlooking the port of Charleston to sustain itself there indefinitely. Before Lincoln's naval squadron could arrive, the shore batteries opened up on Fort Sumter. Eventually, the fort's guns returned fire. The crowds watching on shore cheered—it was going to be a good show, they thought.

Good show or no, one thing soon became clear: Fort Sumter was not designed to withstand bombardment from the city it was intended to protect. Its commander justifiably surrendered, miraculously before the bombardment killed anyone. The Confederate authorities, having occupied the fort and released their captured Union soldiers into the federal flotilla, arrived offshore too late to participate in the battle. The Southerners hoped thus to mollify Northern opinion—but they were sorely mistaken. The Northern public was outraged by the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and when Lincoln called for troops to put down the "rebellion," more men rushed to the colors than the military could immediately arm and accommodate.

Following the bombardment, the story moves quickly to the premature attack toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, by poorly trained three-month volunteers that led to the Union defeat at Manassas (Bull Run). Thereafter, the war begins to settle into the military battle of attrition we know from popular historical memory. And as the conflict wore on, the first inklings appeared that the war might disturb the institution of slavery. As early as June 1861, Harvard professor James Russell Lowell foresaw that the war would not "end without some radical change in the system of African slavery," though whether in sudden or gradual emancipation he couldn't yet say. In August, Union general John C. Frémont proclaimed freedom to the slaves of rebels in Missouri. Lincoln feared Frémont's act would antagonize slaveholders throughout the border states—and therefore rescinded it. As the first year of conflict draws to a close in the final pages of The First Year, the issue of slavery remains very much up in the air.

This collection makes it clear that to Civil War Southerners, slavery was not only an economic system, a means of exploiting labor to supply agricultural staples for the worldwide market. It was also a racial system, a means of guaranteeing white supremacy. Surprisingly enough, the Southerners quoted here invariably associate the emancipation of the slaves with racial equality, a prospect they regard as the degradation of the white race. "What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder," demands one of them, "can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters in the not distant future associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality?" It never occurs to this spokesman that he might safely leave his sons and daughters to make their own decisions about whether to associate with free blacks, or on what terms to do so.

One might say that the Confederate racists showed considerable insight. As they foresaw, it indeed took only a few years for emancipation to lead to civil and voting rights for the freedmen, as stipulated by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. At that point, the South waged what can perhaps be described as a second civil war to prevent these formal grants of right from being realized in practice. The violence of white-supremacist vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan gradually resubjugated the black population of the Old South and stripped them of their briefly gained civil and voting rights. That second civil war only concluded a century after the first one, with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Slavery seems a very remote issue to us today, thank God. White supremacy as an avowed political program is much less removed from us in time—about fifty years—yet it, too, seems alien to the majority of Americans whose memories do not go back to the 1960s. The election of an African-American president seemed to establish a landmark in public opinion as clearly in 2008 as Lincoln's election did in 1860. Lincoln's election initiated not only four years of destructive warfare but also a century of national turmoil over race relations. In The First Year, one can revisit the crisis provoked in 1860—and indeed, as the subtitle promises, experience the initial stage of the conflict through the words of "those who lived it." In the process, readers can also find plenty of new occasions to ponder what's known as the cunning of history, in a defining moment of grave crisis—as well as in the prospects ahead for a republic still grappling with fundamental divisions.

Daniel Walker Howe won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in History for What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford University Press).

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