• August 28, 2015

The Civil War at 150

The Civil War at 150 1

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.

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.


1. francishamit - October 04, 2010 at 01:13 pm

I started researching the Civil War in 1998 for one novel which has now become part of a larger narrative that will be five, the focus of which is the Confederate Secret Service. I have come to the conclusion that most of the popular notions about the Civil War are, in some very significant respects, wrong. Part of this is the result of a decades-long campaign of disinformation by Jubal Early and the other creators of the Southern Historical Society. This is where myths about "The Lost Cause" and "The War of Northern Aggression" came from and I have met people at book signings in the past few years who take those as holy writ. One young man in particular refused to buy the book unless I assured him that it favored the Confederate side. Well, even though the protagonist is the South's most famous female spy, it does no such thing. It does reframe the traditonal narrative and give it a more feminist slant, but it is no apologia for the so-called Lost Cause. Neither does it reduce events to the simple black and white paradigm that most people seem comfortable with.

I have discovered that most historians seem not to consult primary sources so much as quote colleagues of previous generations. This leads to a lot of very good and relevant material being overlooked. Nor do they account for the obvious biases and distortions of contemporary accounts. The "Official Records" are sometimes the reports written by officers who were not present at the events in question, relying upon second-hand information. The press of the time was always the tool of one political faction or another. Memoirs written decades after the events in question are often self-serving. Letters express a point of view.

In researching the second book of my series, about the Confederate spy and washington hostess, I am intriqued by the question of when she actually began spying for hostile foreign powers. It might have been even before the Mexican War. She was accused by social rivals of being in the pay of the both the British and the French legations in Washington as a spy and agent of influence and during the Buchanan Adminstration her power was at its peak. She apparently had a role in the filibuster attempts ot bring Cuba into the Union as a slave state. Both the British and French governments worked very hard to keep Texas as a separate country. That failed. Given the British propensity for "divide and rule" has anyone looked at their efforts regarding secession as a covert operation designed to divide the USA? They did secretly provide the South with a navy whose ranks were filled with experienced sailors from the British Navy and reaped a huge benefit in the destruction of the Aemrican mecantile and whaling fleets. That extended their dominance of the "carrying trade" for another 40 years, for which they paid 15 million dollars in damages. Not a bad deal for them.

And finally I am intrigued by the role of Judah P. Benjamin, who was one Lincoln's many law partners in the railroad business before the war, a Senator from Louisana and rose rapidly through the ranks of the Confederate Government to become Secretary of State and the head of the Confederate Secret Service. He was born in The British West Indies and under the law at that time, would have been still considered a British citizen. Did he ever forswear this citizenship or formally pledge alligence to the United States? Such oaths were instituted during the war, not before, when loyalty was defined as being the citizen of an individual state. It is very interesting that he was the only member of the Confederate cabinet to escape at the war's end and went on to become a prominent lawyer in London. Was he the ultimate "agent in place" before and after the war? Certainly the British managed to give covert support to the Confederate secret service and navy throughout the war and they were all part of the same organization under Benjamin.

I just write novels, but it would be interesting to see a few PhD dissertations on the questions above. It does constantly amaze me that there are so many people who think that the South was justified and want to make the war a cultural issue or imbue it with a kind of religion where matters of faith cannot be argued.

Sartre said "Every man has his reasons". If we strip away some of the fake and gliterring nobility of "The Lost Cause" and look at the real reasons that various actors did what they did we may finally begin to understand this war.

2. jhadams - October 04, 2010 at 04:43 pm

I am no student of the Civil War, but have often wondered what so animated Northerners that they were willing to fight such a long and bloody war, with such heavy casualties, to maintain the Union. What kind of American nationalism animated such sacrifice?

On another note, Louis Masur's attempt to create an analogue between the secessionists and the Tea Party and other conservative activists reveals a tendentiousness and shallowness not worthy of historical scholarship. "Desire for racial homogeneity?" Does Masur have any evidence to back up this claim regarding Tea Party activist's motivations? Aside from the usual cranks at the edges of social movements of the left, right, and elsewhere on the political spectrum, nobody seriously advocates secession. Throughout our history, many elements of our society have been suspicious of central authority, whether the "court house gang" or the Federal government. The secessionists did not oppose centralized authority; they opposed a particular form of centralized authority, lodged in the Federal government, that threatened power structures lodged in the member states. Most Tea Party activists (tho generally not the political pros who are trying to get in front of the parade) appear much more like their New Left age-mates (including rock-n-rollers) who were suspicious of authority in general, and particularly the power of government at all levels.

Masur's loose of inflammatory use of language ("rogue states", "racial ideologues," "incipient secessionists") creates smoke screens that prevent reasonable argumentation. These kinds of slurs on ideas with which one disagrees are acceptable on talk radio. infotainment TV, and Op Ed pages in the daily press. Thrown around the Academy, they become bludgeons that stop careful analysis and, when used in the classroom, alienate students who are trying to figure out the world in fresh, new ways.

3. citizenship - October 05, 2010 at 02:33 pm

I too have often wondered what motivates several relatives on many sides of my family to participate, in one way or the other, in the Civil War. One relative was one of the very few soldiers to be killed in the "Battle of of the Cotton Bales" at Lexington, Missouri early in the war. He left behind a widow and many orphans. Had another who, near the age of fifty, left behind his business, wife and eight children to become a cavalry officer serving until his wife died and he had to go back home to take care of his surviving family. Still others were involved in charity and health commissions and visited the wounded and sick soldiers in hospitals and prisons. Two of them contacted Thyphus and died before seeing their sons return from battle.

Time and neglect has lost to my generation any correspondence or recollections from these witnesses to those events. Journals, letters, even gravestones are lost or lie in forgotten, abandoned cemeteries.

4. francishamit - October 06, 2010 at 12:51 am

As for why they fought, well most people will fight for their home and community. Our mistake in Iraq was thinking that there were no Iraqui patriots. And the 90 day militias that made up the Union Army at the beginning came into Virginia with a very mixed message. Their commanders were all poliicians and few of them had any military experience. The Manual of Arms became a best seller for awhile because most of the units could barely do a close order drill -- and drill is essential if you want to move troops and not have them look like simply an armed mob.

The professional soldiers in the U.S. Army were about 16,000 and was crippled at the beginning because 306 of them resigned and went South to be in the Confederate Army. Most of these troops were out West dealing with the Indians, so when Lincoln called for 75,000 troops from the states he got poorly drilled militia who felt thay had license to abuse the civilians. I describe a drunken force in Martinsburg on the 4th of July, 1861 who perpetrated acts of terror and burgulary against women and children. That's pretty much what happenend and Belle Boyd did shoot and kill a man who was part of a drunken squad that invaded her house. She got off on self-defense and decided to become a spy at that point. Not for the Confederate States but for the State of Virginia, which she considered her country. She worked for Turner Ashby because he was a long-time neighbor and friend. And she worked for Stonewall Jackson because he was the leading military expert in Virginia; a man who taught at VMI. The principles of State's Rights doomed the Confederacy from the begining of the war because it made a national command authority too weak. But the people in the North were determined to bring the South to heel and people in the South had very romantic notions about how the war would be fought and that personal courage and elan would prevail over any numbers of soldiers sent by the Union. So, as far as I'm concerned, Southern exceptionalism and magical thinking got them into the war and Northern fecklessness kept it going.

As for the people today who long for The Lost Cause that never was and seek to reverse the tide of history well, people are entitled to their fantacy life. It's when they decide to act on those fantasies and form milita groups and plan military operations that they move from the protections of the First Amendentment to something that can only end in tears.

I recommend William Howard Russell's "North and South" for those who want to see the madness that led up the Civil War. It's available on Google Books.

5. takapa - October 06, 2010 at 09:56 am

Ugghh... I'm not a teaparty person, but seriously.... "often a desire for racial homogeneity".... I hope Mr. Masur's publications are not all riddled with such unfounded invective.

6. 11122741 - October 06, 2010 at 11:53 am

I agree with takapa: what yellow press writing and junk; go drink some more of the cool aid Masur and try practicing each day on the balance beam

7. sahara - October 11, 2010 at 04:44 pm

Francishamit - also, remember that the remarkable Judah P. Benjamin was Jewish, adding another interesting facet to his place in southern history.

We look forward to your series.

8. aldebaran - October 18, 2010 at 09:56 am

The noun is "sesquicentenary", OK? Not "sesquicentennial".

9. aldebaran - October 18, 2010 at 10:11 am


Are you as assiduous in de-mythologizing such received ideas as the North nobly fighting against the evil Southerners to free their enslaved brethren as you are in de-mythologizing the apologists for the South? No? I didn't think so. From what you write here, your fantasies are no more compelling than those who romanticize the "Lost Cause", so I'd beware of casting stones, if I were you.

10. 11120527 - October 18, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I wish I could share Prof. Masur's optimism about the sesquicentennial, but the fact is that public observation of the Civil War's 150th anniversary is in remarkably poor shape, even before it has begun. A bill for creating a national sesquicentennial committee is dead in Congressional committee; only seventeen states have authorized sesquicentennial committees, although even there, a number of the state initiatives are without funding and exist only on paper. There are many reasons for this absence of enthusiasm -- the recession (which robs us not only of funds but of energy for celebrating much of anything), political timidity (which usually comes in the form of anxieties about offending various interest groups, Confederate-flag-wavers and Confederate-flag-haters alike), and the reluctance of academic historians to appear (especially before their colleagues) as glorifiers of war and military history. What we can most likely expect are small-scale, localized observances of the War, like the NARA exhibit or the planned exhibition at the Renwick Gallery on "Better Angels of Our Nature: Art During the Civil war and Reconstruction" in 2012. Beyond that, the Civil War Sesquicentennial is suffering already from too little promise and too much paralysis.

11. landrumkelly - October 19, 2010 at 06:43 am

"Was This War Really Necessary?" As a political theorist of pacifism, I hope that the question gets some serious treatment from mainstream historians during this upcoming "celebration." Apologies and apologists for the South aside, there are yet some compelling reasons for serious mainstream historians to question many decisions made during this period. Not to face them up front is likely to vitiate the value of much potential new scholarship. There is likely very little new of a factual nature that will come out during the next few years, but, amidst the myriad possible revisionist interpretations, there might actually be something of value. Orthodoxies come and go, but the orthodox view that "the war was necessary to eliminate slavery" must be much more seriously challenged in the same way that U.S. entry into all other wars can be (and have been) legitimately challenged. I am a political theorist, not a historian, and so it will have to be someone else who seriously challenges this historical orthodoxy, but I think that it has to be challenged much more widely by reputable--and courageous--historians, if much of lasting value is to come out of the wave of expected new scholarship. If there are truly good revisionist theories to be examined, then I hope that someone qualified in history proper will have the courage to examine them. Romanticizing of the Civil War simply has to be exposed for the nonsense that it is. Defenders of racism and inequality need not apply for this admittedly unenviable task.

Landrum Kelly, Jr.

12. liberaliberaliberal - October 19, 2010 at 02:41 pm

I found this to be a very interesting look at the Civil War's origins and how it unfolded. Unfortunately, I am also the author of a book on the origins of the Civil War Masur did not cite. Darn it. How about the caning of Charles Sumner?

13. geraldherrin - October 21, 2010 at 02:47 pm

Secession was desired for Kosovo, the Baltic States, others. Slavery, an evil system was abolished in other countries without the mass killing ... Surely, two countries could have reached some accommodation and thousands would have lived. The fightingin Kosovo was contained by greater powers. Russia abolished serfdom without a civil war. When I think of thrilling fields at Gettysburg, I cringe in horror.

14. geraldherrin - October 21, 2010 at 02:48 pm

I meant killing fields .... Not thrilling

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