The Chronicle Review

The Civil War at 150

The Granger Collection

Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 precipitated secession, which led to the Civil War. The sesquicentennial of that event, on November 6, marks a period of commemoration, with a cavalcade of new books on the topic.
October 03, 2010

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War (1861-65) is nearly upon us. Lincoln's bicentennial, in February 2009, generated scores of celebrations and dozens of books. But that was only a single day. It is safe to say that for the next four years, we will be inundated with reflections and publications.

Two new books and a exhibition offer the opening salvo in what will be a continuing barrage. From 2011 to 2015, major battles and events will be commemorated: Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Lincoln's re-election, Appomattox. No list is complete. What about the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., in 1862, or the battles of Grant's Overland Campaign in Virginia during 1864? Such is the history of the Civil War that small moments gather attention and accrue meaning: three cigars wrapped in Lee's battle orders discovered in 1862 by Union soldiers in a field in Maryland; the great locomotive chase, or military raid, in Georgia that same year; a riot over food shortages in Richmond in 1864. Of course, events will be memorialized differently North and South. In that way, memories of the war will serve to perpetuate the crisis.

Perhaps no event in American history has invited more speculation about whether it could have been avoided, or turned out differently, than the Civil War. It is an intriguing thought experiment to pose questions: What if Lincoln had acquiesced in Southern secession? What if a settlement assuring the perpetuity of slavery through constitutional amendment had been reached in the winter of 1860-61? What if some general at any one of a half-dozen battles had managed to decimate the enemy army? But ultimately such "what if" questions tell us nothing about what was.

Causation is nearly as nettlesome a problem as contingency. One can no more know exactly what caused an event as complex as the Civil War than whether it could have been avoided. That is not to say key factors cannot be isolated: Slavery caused the Civil War—but in what ways? Disagreements over sovereignty and constitutional authority caused the Civil War—but how? Northerners and Southerners saw themselves as different—but why did those differences turn lethal?

Certainly, Lincoln's election in 1860 precipitated secession, which resulted in war, and the sesquicentennial of that event, on November 6, truly marks the beginning of the forthcoming cycle of commemoration. Douglas R. Egerton's Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War (Bloomsbury Press, out this month) offers a thorough analysis. The contest featured four candidates: John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, nominee of the Southern Democrats; Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, candidate of the Northern Democrats; John Bell, of Tennessee, representing the Constitutional Union Party; and, of course, Abraham Lincoln, of the Republican Party, whose very nomination entices us into playing the counterfactual game: What if the Republican convention had not been held in Lincoln's home state, in Chicago, a site chosen over St. Louis by one vote? Egerton does not speculate about what might have occurred had the convention been held in Missouri, but it certainly would have boosted the chances of Edward Bates, who had lived there since before the territory became a state.

From the start of the convention season, extreme secessionists like Robert Barnwell Rhett, of South Carolina, and William Lowndes Yancey, of Alabama, schemed against the expected nomination of Douglas. Egerton emphasizes their "conspiracy" to divide the Democratic Party, enable the Republicans to win, and then lead their states out of the Union. Historians have long noted the political machinations of the most conservative Democrats, but Egerton's focus on a conspiracy goes further. Indeed, he makes too much of it. After all, both men had been outspoken for some time about their desire to create an independent confederacy.

In 1850, Rhett and Yancey had helped organize a convention at Nashville to discuss measures to be taken should Congress ban slavery in the new territories acquired from Mexico. Ten years later—despite a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the 34-year-old prohibition on slavery in the territories north of 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude, and the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which strengthened slavery's constitutional imprimatur—secessionists had new reasons to fear for slavery. For them, Douglas committed political suicide when he opposed admitting Kansas to statehood in 1858. More heinous was John Brown's raid, on October 16, 1859, on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va.

The title of Egerton's book comes from a Walt Whitman poem that touches on the abolitionist and a meteor that fell across Eastern skies in 1859. Herman Melville also wrote a poem about Brown, in which he called him "the meteor of the war." Not to be outdone, Thoreau labeled his life "meteorlike." Executed on December 2, Brown became a martyr to the abolitionist cause, an ominous enough sign for Southerners.

Coming less than five months before the Democratic National Convention, in Charleston, S.C., Brown's raid and execution, as Egerton astutely notes, altered the political landscape. On the Democratic side, it gave fuel to the secessionists and further animated their fears of the Republican Party, whose front-runner for the nomination, William H. Seward, had once suggested that there was a "higher law" than the Constitution and had declared the North-South struggle an "irrepressible conflict."

In a three-hour speech delivered to the Senate after Brown's execution, Seward did try to reposition himself as a moderate, playing to conservatives North and South by denouncing "unconstitutional aggression against slavery." But in the excitement at Chicago, his candidacy sputtered, and on the third ballot, Lincoln, fresh, well spoken, and from a region Republicans needed to win (the results of 1856 showed they had to carry Illinois or Indiana as well as Pennsylvania) was nominated.

Parsing the results of the election has been a favorite exercise of historians ever since, given the significance of Lincoln's becoming president, and the permutations of possible outcomes. Lincoln took 38.82 percent of the popular vote, Douglas 29.46 percent, Breckinridge 18.10 percent, and Bell 12.62 percent. Lincoln won 180 electoral votes, 28 more than needed to claim victory. Combined, his opponents garnered 123 electoral votes. Lincoln carried every Northern state except New Jersey, which he split with Douglas, who also won only Missouri. Bell took Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Breckinridge carried the remainder of the South. (Lincoln was on the ballot in only five slave states.)

Egerton argues that under almost any hypothetical scenario—a unified Democratic ticket, the Constitutional Union Party's not running a candidate, Douglas's carrying all of Breckinridge's states, all of Bell's, all of New Jersey, and even Illinois—Democrats would not have won. If so, the actions of Southern extremists did not matter in bringing a Republican to the White House.

In Eric Foner's illuminating study of Lincoln and slavery, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton, also October), we leave behind the counterfactual quicksand of Lincoln's election for the firmer, though still unsettled, ground of his attitudes toward slavery. Two days after South Carolina seceded, Lincoln asked Alexander H. Stephens, soon to become vice president of the Confederacy, "Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves?" Although Lincoln asserted "there is no cause for such fears," Southerners, with John Brown on their minds, were not to be persuaded.

But, as Foner makes clear, the Lincoln who became president posed little threat to the institution of slavery. While antislavery, he was no abolitionist, and he held fast to the belief that slavery in the states where it already existed was a local decision. Like most of his generation, he was no racial egalitarian, and while he believed that all people had the right to the fruits of their labor, he did not envision black people as his equal. For most of his life, he advocated schemes of colonization to expatriate them from the United States. "What I would most desire," he said in 1858, "would be the separation of the white and black races."

Lincoln, however, changed. One of the pleasures of Foner's book is watching a professional historian become enamored of the 16th president. Foner is far from the first to note Lincoln's development. As he acknowledges, it is something of a longstanding truism that the "hallmark of Lincoln's greatness was his capacity for growth." Although the contours of Lincoln's belief system about race and slavery are well known, Foner traces that evolution more completely than any scholar before him. He is especially acute on the president's stubborn faith in colonization, which Lincoln had held to despite objections from his cabinet, finally ceasing to advocate it publicly after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. He came to accept the enlistment of black soldiers, after first opposing it, and, as he began to think about Reconstruction, he considered the necessity of giving black men the right to vote.

But Foner's plot line on the graph of Lincoln's changing attitudes toward race and slavery is a bit too steep in its upward trajectory. "He began, during the last two years of the war, to imagine an interracial future for the United States," declares Foner. That may be claiming too much. In July 1863, Lincoln wrote to a general in Missouri about the state's plan to enact gradual emancipation starting in 1870 for children who would be freed at age 21. "I believe some plan, substantially being gradual emancipation, would be better for both white and black," he said. Lincoln had no problem with the proposed ending date, "but I am sorry the beginning should have been postponed for seven years, leaving all that time to agitate for the repeal of the whole thing." Six months after the Emancipation Proclamation, he was still willing to allow some of the enslaved to die in slavery.

Yet, as Foner acknowledges, we must also understand Lincoln's fears, pressures, and anxieties. Despite victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Union war effort had seemed to stall. In August 1864, he was convinced he would not be re-elected, that all would go for naught, not only emancipation but also the Union whose preservation had led him toward emancipation to begin with. What we need to remember is that if Lincoln's election in 1860 initiated the crisis that led to war, it was his re-election, in 1864, that finally provided the mandate that would lead to passage of the 13th Amendment, the end of armed conflict, and the beginning of Reconstruction.

Egerton and Foner offer focused political and intellectual histories. Other sesquicentennial studies to look at, recent and forthcoming, provide sweeping accounts of various Civil War themes: strategy (Donald Stoker, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, out in July, from Oxford University Press); religion (George C. Rable, God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War, coming in November from the University of North Carolina Press); society (David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, due in March from Bloomsbury Press); and nationhood (Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War, Harvard University Press, coming in April.)

In addition, public history has already begun to play a prominent role in commemorating the war. An exhibition at the National Archives and Records Administration, "Discovering the Civil War," presents a probing, hands-on experience. Part I, "Beginnings," opened in April, and Part II, "Consequences," opens in November.

The curators have figured out how to use new ways to make written and graphic documents exciting. To walk through the exhibition, which focuses on the everyday lives of Americans, is to encounter a steady stream of interactive exhibits. Tag clouds ask questions about the document under review. For example, a petition from a group of women to the Confederate Secretary of War raises the question, Why not let women fight? Video kiosks allow visitors to follow a story based on what aspects most interest them.

My favorite exhibit is "Finding Leaders," which draws on social media to explore the relationships among various Union and Confederate officers. Each soldier has a Facebook page that lists friends, events, and documents. Click on a friend and discover how the two knew each other and the battles in which they fought. I left only under the pressure of two texting teenagers waiting their turn.

If "Discovering the Civil War" is any indication, interest in the schism remains high. On a sultry summer day in Washington, lines extended onto Constitution Avenue. It has been 20 years since Ken Burns's The Civil War first appeared on public television, viewed by tens of millions of people. A new generation has come of age without any similar educational experience about the causes or consequences of a war that commands attention unlike any other event in American history.

One hundred and fifty years later, it is more relevant than ever. Today's Tea Party candidates prefer to see themselves as Revolutionary in origin, but their platform—disdain for the federal government, preference for state and local control, opposition to taxes, often a desire for racial homogeneity—resembles that of the secessionists. The 19th-century rebels themselves made the analogy: "The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated," declared the Charleston Mercury when South Carolina seceded.

That our two main political parties have switched sides ideologically since 1860 was largely the result of developments and realignments culminating with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then the fundamental shift of white Southerners' partisan allegiance in the wake of the civil-rights measures under Lyndon Baines Johnson. It is fitting, perhaps, that Barack Obama has been compared time and again to Lincoln. Obama does not face the breakup of the United States, but he does face rogue states (i.e. Arizona and its immigration law), racial ideologues (Google the name "Tom Tancredo," a former representative from Colorado), and incipient secessionists (Gov. Rick Perry has suggested that Texas could secede). Tea Party enthusiasts denounce Obama with nearly the same fervor that secessionists denounced Lincoln; like the secessionists, they, too, are supported by a small but vocal and affluent group of predominantly white, middle-aged men.

That is not to say that we are headed for anything more than a continuing culture war, albeit one that has serious consequences for the lives of people. And, to paraphrase William James, analogies leak at all the joints. But then this is not simply an analogy—it represents a historical development that springs directly from the era of the Civil War.

In 1873, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner observed that the Civil War had "uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations." The sesquicentennial will provide a continuing opportunity to try to fathom those changes and to understand how the nation is still challenged by forces unleashed in those uncompromising years.

Louis P. Masur is chair of American studies at Trinity College in Connecticut and author of The Civil War: A Concise History, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.