WE HAVE THE WAR UPON US
By William J. Cooper
William J. Cooper, Boyd professor of history at LSU and a native of South Carolina, has spent a distinguished career teaching about, writing about and researching the Civil War. His voice is authoritative on the subject.
This book, however, is unusual in that it covers the period just before the war — from Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 until Fort Sumter, S.C., was fired upon in April 1861, beginning the Civil War. What Cooper discusses and dissects here are the efforts during that period to avert the coming conflict, in Congress and at the state level in both the North and South.
Although we know in hindsight that all such efforts failed, we often rush past this key period in our lust for the stirring battle stories and Gone With The Wind romance that are part of the period’s allure. That’s unfortunate because the same kind of issues that doomed peace efforts before the Civil War still hamstring American leaders. It’s politics, then and now, and Cooper lays out the issues and key players who managed to avoid compromise that would have headed off a war that resulted in 750,000 deaths in America.
After Lincoln was elected, Southerners were very nervous. They feared his presidency signaled an assault on their basic right to own slaves. Republicans were intent on limiting slavery in the territories. “In 1860, the Republican candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln, running off a platform that trumpeted territorial prohibition, was elected president of the United States without a single electoral vote from a slave state,” Cooper writes. This was a sea change, the South had always dominated national politics. No more. The Republicans saw slavery not as an issue of human rights (abolitionists were few and far between even in the Republican Party), but as one of political influence.
Southerners wanted reassurances that Lincoln’s election would not signal an end to slavery.
“White Southerners could not imagine a world without slavery,” Cooper writes. Yet that is what they feared. Coupled with their firm belief that the Constitution granted the states the right to exit the Union or secede, it was a recipe for potential disaster. Cooper explains the efforts at compromise and gives strong portraits of the men who worked hard to avoid the conflict: New York Sen. William Henry Seward, who was Lincoln’s main rival for the Republican nomination in 1860 and he wound up in Lincoln’s cabinet as secretary of state; Sen. John Crittenden of Kentucky who sought compromise on the territorial issue; Alexander Stephens, the pro-union Georgia congressman; and many others. Arrayed against this cast of compromisers were scores of “fire-eaters,” Southerners who advocated immediate secession.
All of the attempts at compromise and debate about what Lincoln would do played out against the backdrop of the president elect’s own silence. After the election and before he was inaugurated, Lincoln refused to comment further on the slavery issue, any of the compromise proposals. He was stubborn, and that was what pushed Southerners out of the union, Cooper believes, and he offers a reason: Lincoln didn’t really know much about the South.
“Yes, at nineteen and twenty-two he had taken brief trips down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. Additionally, he was born in Kentucky and his wife came from a slaveholding family in that state as did his best friend, Joshua Speed. But that part of the Border South was all that he knew. ”
Lincoln, Cooper writes, misunderstood the South and was misled by the fact that only a small minority of southerners actually owned slaves. “Perhaps the mass of southern whites could not or would not act against slavery, but he could imagine them neither proslave nor on their own acting against the Union. A South where non-planters, even non-slaveowners, had an influential voice, feared Republicans, and actively supported secession was both foreign and unknown to Lincoln,” Cooper writes. He further observes, “Not once did Lincoln ever say publicly that he would be president of all Americans. In wedding himself to the Republican platform and claiming he could never deviate from it, he acted like partisan’s partisan, not the leader of a country.”
So all the good efforts of Seward (who is really the main player in this book) and others at compromise were invariably undone by Lincoln’s refusal to speak to the issue or compromise. Even before Lincoln took office, seven states seceded. Even then, Secretary of State Seward and the compromisers felt the situation was not lost, and continued to work for peace.
That was not to be. After the first Southern states left the union, the question of federal property there immediately arose, specifically what to do about the Atlantic and Gulf Coast military installations. By then, the seven seceded states have formed a new entity, the Confederate States of America.
Attention focused on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, S.C. Seward tried to reassure the Southerners that the fort would be abandoned by U.S. troops, but Lincoln contradicted his own cabinet leader. The president decided to resupply the troops at the fort. The war was upon them.