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We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the…

We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April…

by William J. Cooper

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The vexing issues dividing the country fulminated for decades prior to the severance of southern states from the union. The Constitution by no means created a “more perfect union”; indeed, the seeds that sprouted into sectional discord were sown by the founders in their imperfect resolution of the matter deeply at odds with the moral principles that undergirded the republic – slavery. The Southern states were acutely aware of the disdain of their Northern neighbors for the institution upon which the Southern economy depended. By early in the 19th century slavery had disappeared from the North, but the hope that slavery would fade away in the South was not realized. The authority of each state to determine the status of slavery within its borders was unquestioned, but the question of whether slavery would expand to new territories coming under the jurisdiction of the United States created great political bitterness. Should or should not slavery be allowed in the territories and the new states to be admitted to the union from these territories? Under a national constitution that respected property rights could national laws deny individuals the use of slave property in portions of the union where slavery did not exist? What were the obligations of citizens and governments in non-slave states to aid slave holders in the recovery of their human property that had escaped their owners?

Southerners felt sorely threatened by these questions and worked diligently to maintain national political strength (the so-called Slave Power); southern fear of eclipse by a union growing of Free States dictated much of their early and mid-century political strategy. The perceived arrogance of the Slave Power in pursuit of its interests was galling to many in the North. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 sought to achieve sectional balance by admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state and setting a latitudinal boundary that demarked slave owning portions of the nation from non-slave areas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in the 1850’s upset the balanced compromise of 1820 by permitting territories seeking statehood to decide by popular vote whether they would be slave or free; this only exacerbated the hostilities between people on either side of the matter. The Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court heightened antagonism in the North when it determined that black people, whether free or enslaved, were not citizens of the nation. The court stipulated that Northern states and their jurisdictions were required to acknowledge and support the property rights of slave owners whose slaves had made their way to the North. The Fugitive Slave law obliged citizens everywhere to actively assist slave owners in the recovery of their escaped slaves.

This pervasive distress led to the collapse of the Whig Party and the emergence of the Republican Party, entirely a Northern party. The election of 1860 saw the victory of the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and his party were firm on the imperative of not allowing the expansion of slavery where it did not already exist. The fractured Democrats fielded two tickets – Douglas representing the Northern Democrats and Breckinridge the candidate of the Southern faction. With the inclusion of Bell, another splinter candidate, the election went to Lincoln who was by popular vote a minority president.

The South reacted sharply to the prospect of a Republican administration, particularly a radical element in South Carolina that threatened to secede from the union. While Lincoln expressed no intent to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed he stood firm on prohibiting its expansion beyond. It was the fear of what an anti-slavery administration might do rather than any hostile policy pronouncements that drove the secessionists forward. In Lincoln’s election the Slave Power saw its political strength turned on its head.

Cooper’s book takes us from November 1860 to April 1861 describing the efforts to advance or forestall the break up of the union. There were three elements of political maneuvering that emerged. Radical Southerners were bent on seceding from the union, most notably radical firebrands in South Carolina. The Carolinians began immediately to take their state and, they hoped, others out of the union. A more moderate faction looked to preserve the union via Republican concessions they felt would secure their interests, notably a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the perpetuation of slavery. A coalition comprised largely of leaders of the border slave states hoped that extending the Missouri Compromise dividing line to the far west coast (excluding California, already a free state) would satisfy the South. Some recommended admitting New Mexico or Utah as a slave states, positing that in the event slavery would never flourish in these desert regions. The Republicans, while averring they would not impinge on slavery where it already existed, held rock solid in their opposition to any extension of slavery beyond its present confines. A key player in all the machinations of the northern and border states was William Seward. Seward had lost out on the nomination for the presidency to Lincoln, but remained a powerful figure in Republican politics and destined for an important post in the Lincoln cabinet. Seward looked for compromise and worked various angles with political allies to find a way to satisfy the South while maintaining adherence to the Republican position. He did not succeed largely in the end because of Lincoln’s and other Republicans’ refusal to bend on the expansion question. John J. Crittenden of Kentucky also worked desperately to find a solution. All sides understood fully that the decision of the Upper South and Border States would be crucial to the success of secession.

The southern states called conventions to debate the question of secession.
In South Carolina the decision to secede was made within weeks of Lincoln’s election. The Carolinians worked hard to bring other states along with them. The earliest to follow were the Deep South states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas. Even in these states there was a substantial segment of “cooperationalists” (by most counts a majority of the population) that favored maintaining the union. These advocates of union were put off by the radicalism of the secessionists and hoped to find an acceptable compromise that would preserve the union. For the Border States, particularly Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland and Missouri the goal of settling with the South led to various plans aimed at placating the radicals. Throughout the fall and winter their proposals rose but always floundered over the matter of territorial expansion.

In the months following South Carolina’s exit from the union the potential flashpoint capturing everyone’s attention was Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. South Carolina offered to negotiate with the Buchanan administration for the purchase of the fort but the executive was unwilling to do this. He announced his intention to keep the fort as a federal installation and to shift the collection of customs tariffs off sea to the fort and the navy. The fort had a small contingent of defenders led by Major Anderson, not nearly strong enough to resist any effort to take it. Attempts to replenish the fort’s supplies or the addition of reinforcements were seen by both sides as likely to cause the outbreak of hostility. Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida, was similarly vulnerable; other federal forts were unmanned and had been seized by the rebel states without response by the government. Shortly after his inauguration Lincoln announced that he would provision Fort Sumter, soon to be out of supplies, and this triggered the attack on the fort by South Carolina. As a consequence Lincoln called up the militia and this led the wavering upper South states to take decisions to secede.

The value of Cooper’s book is not only the story of last minute efforts to either dissolve or preserve the union, although this aspect is not often given such excellent treatment. Rather, his description of the politics of these five months brings into vivid relief the long-simmering discordant issues that came finally to a boil. The fissures splitting the comity of the national union in the end defied resolution. The South became increasingly anxious about the domination of the Free States. We must remember that while many in the North were opposed to slavery, only a fairly small contingent – the Abolitionists – were bent on seeing it eliminated in the South. It was the argument about its expansion beyond the South that would be the tinder that ignited the breakup of the union. There was a strain of historical thinking in the 20th century that characterized the Civil War as fought over states’ rights; that slavery per se was not the root cause. This is a misread. The rights of the states to determine their own laws governing slavery was little in doubt, but the imperative of the South to preserve its institution was thought to require maintaining a power balance with the North that could be done only by creating more slave states as the nation expanded. (Cooper touches on ideas to enlarge the slave part of the nation southward by annexing Cuba or parts of Central America.) The matter of states’ rights is more properly examined as to whether states had the right to opt out of the union. The sentiment in the North was that once joined no state could sever its place in the union. If there was ever an argument that could be made about the divisibility of the union, the war settled it. Moreover, the notion that a nation founded on the inherent liberty of man could find and maintain a sectional balance that tolerated slavery in an otherwise free society was crushed by the carnage of the four-year conflict. Thus, the two issues that the Constitution treated most ambiguously – slavery and states’ rights – were painfully but completely clarified through our great Civil War. ( )
  stevesmits | Oct 22, 2015 |
A very well-done exploration of the critical period between Lincoln's election and the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. By narrowing his focus to those key months, Cooper allows himself to really dig into the details of what was happening as some Americans tried desperately to prevent secession and war while others—both north and south—actively sought the breakup of the Union and even looked favorably on the idea of military conflict.

Cooper, the author of several previous books on the South as well as a major Jefferson Davis biography, proves himself very adept at recounting the complex and often extremely confusing negotiations going on, sometimes simultaneously, between different groups in and out of Congress during what's been termed "secession winter." He uses an impressive range of sources, many of them original archival materials, to document his narrative from just about every conceivable angle (being particularly interested in William Seward I was delighted that Cooper put his voluminous writings to good use).

Senator Crittenden's efforts to reach a compromise I was at least generally familiar with, but many of the other efforts here, including an attempt by two justices of the Supreme Court to arrange a deal, were entirely new to me. Beyond the attempts at averting war, Cooper's book also delves into the complicated politics Lincoln faced in choosing his cabinet and in making several key initial decisions, particularly about what stances to take when it came to possible compromises and on the question of resupplying federal forts in the south. Finally, there is a great deal of interesting material here on the southern states and the process by which they seceded (or hadn't yet done so at the time of the attack on Sumter). Cooper tells this story extremely well, and I certainly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Civil War and its causes. ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 26, 2013 |
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In this work the author presents a revisionist account of the period between Lincoln's election and the firing on Fort Sumter, evaluating the contributions of key figures and the circumstances that contributed to the Civil War's inevitability. In this carefully researched book the author gives us a fresh perspective on the period between Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, during which all efforts to avoid or impede secession and prevent war failed. Here is the story of the men whose decisions and actions during the crisis of the Union resulted in the outbreak of the Civil War. Sectional compromise had been critical in the history of the country, from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 through to 1860, and was a hallmark of the nation. On several volatile occasions political leaders had crafted solutions to the vexing problems dividing North and South. During the postelection crisis many Americans assumed that once again a political compromise would settle yet another dispute. Instead, in those crucial months leading up to the clash at Fort Sumter; that tradition of compromise broke down and a rapid succession of events led to the great cataclysm in American history, the Civil War. All Americans did not view this crisis from the same perspective. Strutting southern fire-eaters designed to break up the Union. Some Republicans, crowing over their electoral triumph, evinced little concern about the threatened dismemberment of the country. Still others, northerners and southerners, antislave and proslave alike, strove to find an equitable settlement that would maintain the Union whole. The author captures the sense of contingency, showing Americans in these months as not knowing where decisions would lead, how events would unfold. The people who populate these pages could not foresee what war, if it came, would mean, much less predict its outcome. This book helps us understand what the major actors said and did: the Republican party, the Democratic party, southern secessionists, southern Unionists; why the pro-compromise forces lost; and why the American tradition of sectional compromise failed. It reveals how the major actors perceived what was happening and the reasons they gave for their actions: Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Stephen A. Douglas, William Henry Seward, John J. Crittenden, Charles Francis Adams, John Tyler, James Buchanan, and a host of others. Here is written a full account of the North and the South, Republicans and Democrats, sectional radicals and sectional conservatives that deepens our insight into what is still one of the most controversial periods in American history.… (more)

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