Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Die Is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861 / Mark K. Christ, ed. -- Little Rock, Ark.: Butler Center Books, 2010

One of the amazing things about the American Civil War is that after almost 150 years, so many people remain utterly obsessed with it. The war's enormous human toll is surely a significant explanation for this. Nonetheless, it is astonishing that people in every corner of the country that saw any part of the struggle meticulously pick over the smallest details of their locality's role in the war, making the Civil War perhaps the most studied (and understood) events in history.

In August of 2008, the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas hosted five historians at a seminar entitled "The Die is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War" in which the secession of Arkansas was examined from a variety of perspectives. Under the editorship of Mark Christ, the seminar's five papers create a brief but interesting insight into a little-studied corner of the Civil War.

Among the most interesting papers is Thomas A. DeBlack's "'A Remarkably Strong Union Sentiment': Unionism in Arkansas." DeBlack explains, "Arkansas needed the Union more than many other states. Citizens of western Arkansas, bordered by the Indian Territory, wanted the protection and economic benefits that the presence of federal troops supplied. Delta residents hoped to benefit from a federal swamplands reclamation project begun in 1850." Only 20% of the white population owned slaves and the remaining population saw no strong reason to sacrifice their interests for these slave owners. Even the slave owners were divided as to the wisdom of secession. Economically, Arkansas was more closely integrated with Missouri and the Old Northwest than with the rest of the South. While the sentiment in favor of secession was weak, the sentiment against forcing states to remain in the Union was strong, ultimately resulting in the secession of Arkansas.

In "Why they Fought: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861," Carl H. Moneyhon explains that the allure of adventure and manly pride motivated the state's young men to sign on to the Confederate cause. Once committed to the struggle, the combatants remained in the struggle both out of personal integrity and out of a conversion to the cause. In "Domesticity Goes Public: Southern Women and the Secession Crisis," Lisa Tendrich Frank describes the moral force that women played in pushing men into battle.

The remaining two papers tell less specialized stories, or at least cover the kind of subject common in Civil War histories. Michael A. Dougan describes the Arkansas Secession Convention and William Garrett Piston describes the involvement of Arkansas troops in the Wilson's Creek Campaign.

While each of the five papers address a distinct aspect of the Civil War in Arkansas, there is enough overlap and connection between them to provide the reader with a coherent, broad picture in a rather short work. Whether this was accidental or a result of the work of editor Mark Christ is not clear, but the volume certainly benefits from the interconnections. The work, however, is not so compelling that one is left with a strong desire to learn more about Arkansas in the Civil War. A brief glimpse is enough.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lincoln for President: An Underdog's Path to the 1860 Republican Nomination / Timothy S. Good -- McFarland & Co.: Jefferson, N.C., 2009.

Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency demonstrates how different the selection of the president in 1860 was to how it is today. To begin with, ballot access was quite different. Political parties printed their own ballots and distributed them to voters. Consequently, any number of candidates could receive votes. In 1860, divisions among the political elite led to four main candidates in the general election: Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckenridge, and John Bell. All of Lincoln's opponents in the general election supported policies that would permit the extension of slavery into the territories. Consequently, they divided the "pro-slavery" vote and Lincoln won with a plurality.

But prior to the general election, Lincoln's nomination was even more doubtful. As a little known politician, Lincoln's chance of defeating William Seward was tiny. Seward's standing the Republican Party made him so confident of his nomination that he spent much of the year leading up to the Party's convention traveling through Europe; however, Seward's "negatives" were high enough to promote what today might be called an "anyone but Seward" movement. But again, Lincoln was only one of many alternatives to Seward. Most prominent among them were Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Simon Cameron, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and the former Missouri U.S. Representative Edward Bates, but also former New Jersey U.S. Senator William Drayton, Supreme Court Judge John McLean, and Vermont U.S. Senator Jacob Collamer, among others.

The opposition to Seward was based primarily on the belief that he would not be able to carry the "battleground states" of Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The Republicans had swept the northern states except for these in 1956. Winning them would give the Republican candidate a majority of the electoral college votes in 1860. On the second day of the convention, a long debate broke out over including words from the Declaration of Independence in the party platform, thus preventing a vote that would have nominated Seward. A night of intense negotiations followed, in which representatives from the four battleground states gathered to settle on a candidate who could best win those states. By morning, the representatives agreed to recommend Lincoln to their state delegations, but they could not guarantee the votes. That morning, The New York Times remained confident of a Seward victory.

When the first ballot of the convention was cast, the Indiana delegation voted unanimously for Lincoln, an omen that Seward's nomination was not certain. Indeed, he failed to achieve a majority. Furthermore, Lincoln held a commanding lead over Seward's rivals. On the second ballot, Vermont (the most Republican state of all) cast all of its ten votes for Lincoln. Other anti-Seward delegates began to rally around Lincoln, giving him 181 votes to Seward's 184 and a half. Two hundred and thirty-three were needed for victory. On the third ballot, Lincoln's support increased to 231 and a half, but before the vote could be announced, four delegates changed their votes to Lincoln, giving him a majority and the nomination.

Timothy S. Good's short work, Lincoln for President recounts this drama in compelling detail. Instead of a long drawn out primary season conducted under the glare of national media, Lincoln's nomination was engineered in the legendary smoke-filled rooms of the convention city's hotels, and it was done so at the eleventh hour without any certainty of success, even as the votes were being counted.

Good's account of Lincoln's path to the nomination, however, also provides the back story to the convention, following Lincoln's campaign in the Midwest, New York, and New England. According to Good, Lincoln's recent defeat at the hands of Stephen A. Douglas for U.S. Senate led Lincoln to think his political career was over, but as the anti-Seward forces sought alternative candidates, Lincoln's notoriety from the Lincoln-Douglas debates brought him to consideration.

During his campaign, Lincoln abandoned his occasional remarks in favor of second class citizenship for blacks and he instead embraced the ringing phrase of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Central to his campaign was his opposition to the extension of slavery and a commitment not to interfere with slavery where it existed. These positions were no different from Seward's. Furthermore, Seward's most notorious assertion that the country was heading for an "irrepressible conflict" was mirrored in Lincoln's assertion that the government could not "endure permanently, half slave and half free; that a house divided against itself cannot stand." Indeed, Lincoln defended Seward's "irrepressible conflict" position while campaigning in New England.

According to Good, Lincoln's success as a candidate, both for the nomination and in the general election, could be attributed to his even, genial temper and his unwillingness to personally attack his opponents, both inside and outside the Party. This may, indeed, have been a significant factor, but given the deep divisions within the country and within the Democratic Party, Lincoln appears to have been the beneficiary of numerous circumstance beyond his control, so many so that one might add his name to the list of accidental presidents.