Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mr. Lincoln Goes to War / William Marvel -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006

In Mr. Lincoln Goes to War William Marvel makes a strenuous case against Lincoln's actions in the first year of the war.  Marvel's Lincoln appears to be eager for war and quite unconcerned about basic civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution.  Among the earliest and most famous violations of civil liberties came in the case of John Merryman, a prominent Maryland resident.  Well-know for his sympathies for secession, Merryman was arrested in May 1861and held without access to the courts until he was released in July.  Merryman's arrest occurred during the most systematic violations of the right to habeas corpus which continued through the first year of the war.  During that time, Lincoln authorized the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the region between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia and later extended the region to New York City. 

While the right of habeas corpus is fundamental to a free society, Lincoln faced uncertain circumstances that threatened the federal government and potentially the rule of law throughout the country.  In the early days of secession, it was not clear what path Maryland would take.  Furthermore, rumors were rife within Washington D.C. that the Confederates were amassing an army to capture the city.  Indeed, in early March 1861, the Confederate Congress called for 100,000 soldiers to volunteer for a one-year tour of duty.   Given significant support for the southern cause within the city and in the state of Maryland, one could make a case for unprecedented police actions.  As the threat to the capital subsided, Lincoln released all political prisoners (with some exceptions) on Feb. 14, 1862; however, following the imposition of a draft in the summer of 1863, Lincoln again suspended the writ of habeas corpus.  It appears that Lincoln exercised this power for specific purposes at specific times.  

Clearly, the Lincoln administration's record regarding civil liberties is at very least questionable, but Marvel's description of it as "arbitrary" seems too harsh under the circumstance.  Marvel does little to credit these circumstances.  In the case of civil war, one's mortal enemies are fellow citizens and so the protections of citizenship obviously will be strained. Indeed, the gravity of the conflict is illustrated by the violations of civil liberties on both sides, but Marvel makes no mention of the violations perpetrated by the Confederate government.  The Confederate Congress authorized the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1862, passed the Alien Enemies Act which authorized the arrest of anyone in the Confederate states who did not acknowledge Confederate citizenship, and passed the Sequestration Act which authorized the permanent confiscation of the property of Union sympathizers.  These actions, along with formation of a hostile army demonstrate the gravity of the threat posed to federal authority and the government itself.  

Marvel makes much of the fact that many Union soldiers joined the army not out of a moral or nationalist impulse, but because of economic need.  He furthermore notes that a draft was required to sustain the Union war effort.  The conclusion Marvel is leading us to is that the war was -- from the beginning -- foisted upon the people of the country by an aggressive president.  It should come as no surprise that those signing up to military service would be disproportionately poor and unemployed, but some degree of allegiance to the cause is likely to part of the decision to enlist, particularly as the horror of the war became better known.  It is noteworthy that less than 20% of the Union forces were enlisted due to the draft.  Marvel does not mention that southerners also joined the Confederate army for economic reasons and that a Confederate draft was required a year prior to the Union draft.  Soft popular support for the Confederate cause lends credence to the view that the secession of southern states was in fact a rebellion by a privileged southern elite, not an act of northern aggression.  

Marvel also describes the suppression of the press in the North, but again, the exigencies of civil war are not recognized and little mention is made of the state of the press in the South.  Marvel does acknowledge that pro-union presses were closed by the Confederacy, but writes that presses in the South practiced "voluntary restraint" and that the infrequency of attacks on the press could be explained by the fact that in the South "the dominant slave culture had long repressed divergent opinion."  Time and time again, Marvel provides excuses for Confederate violations of basic liberties, but excoriates the Lincoln administration for similar violations.  

Lincoln is not the only object of Marvel's criticism.  In a chapter entitled, "The Crimson Corse of Lyon," Marvel describes the Union campaign to control Missouri.  For Marvel it is a rebellion against the authorized government of the state of Missouri.  Lyon is called "an insubordinate, self-righteous psychopath" who "would not hear of peace when he saw so rare and opportunity to fulfill his apocalyptic personal destiny."  It is remarkable that Marvel could diagnosis a personality disorder in Lyon one hundred and fifty years after Lyon's death, when it is difficult for qualified psychiatrists to make such diagnoses for their contemporary patients.  It says more about Marvel's polemical intent than Lyon's personality.  Marvel writes that Lyon's "unstable temperament" is revealed by his providing intelligence to McClellan that turned out to be incorrect.  The connection is so unclear that it borders on being a non sequitur, and in fact, in one case, the "incorrect intelligence" was not really off the mark at all.  Confederate forces really were assembling in Arkansas in preparation for an invasion of Missouri. 

For a revealing portrait of Lyon, Marvel credits Christopher Phillips's harsh 1990 biography of Lyon, entitled Damned Yankee.  I have not read Damned Yankee, but its initial paragraphs read less like history and more like an historical novel.  Phillips describes dramatic details that he could not possible know took place.  He does so clearly for literary effect.  "Pulling pensively at his unruly red beard, forty-three-year-old Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon watched the commotion in the street....His features hardened, the wrinkles at the top of his hooked nose deepened, and his small mouth clenched his cigar as tightly as his false teeth would allow."  Prose of this sort hardly engenders confidence in the accuracy of Phillips's accounts.  

This is not to say that Marvel's work is credulous.  His bibliography reveals the serious research that lies behind his work, but it is not exceptional by professional standards.  Marvel makes good use of primary sources, particularly letters and newspaper accounts.  He also makes heavy use of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, but any number of historians have done as well and have not drawn the starkly critical conclusions that Marvel draws.  The scrupulous detail tends, however, to ocur in the passages which provide rather tedious accounts of troop movements.  Such passages make up a substantial portion of Marvel's work.

At times Marvel's polemics clearly get the best of historical accuracy.  At one point he writes of "Lincoln's expedition against Ft. Sumter."  Here he is referring to a flotilla of ships that Lincoln ordered to deliver food and water to the besieged Union garrison.  Marvel has turned a defensive, holding action into aggression.  This may be a simple editorial oversight, but it reveals the lens through which Marvel views history and the extent to which it distorts his vision.  The actions "against" Ft. Sumter in 1861 were all perpetrated by the Confederacy -- first a siege and then a potentially murderous bombardment.  

Lying behind Marvel's work is the view that Lincoln's defense of federal property and willingness to engage in war was illegal, immoral, and unnecessary.  The best defense of this view that I have read is in Democracy in the United States by Ransom H. Gillet, published in 1868.  Prior to the war, Gillet was a member of the Democratic Party and a U.S. Representative from New York.  His book attempts to resurrect the much-tarnished reputation of the Democratic Party.  It is a scathing, partisan attack on the Lincoln administration.  Were Marvel to comment on Gillet's work, I suspect he would find Gillet the most accurate and astute observer of the times.  

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