Tuesday, December 18, 2012

We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 / William J. Cooper -- N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

The American Civil War was long in coming.  As early as the founding of the country, pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces struggled over slavery.  At various times in the first half of the 18th century, the political conflict threatened to lead to secession, and of course secession and war finally did come following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860.

The main questions at issue were whether or not slavery would be permitted in the U.S. territories and in the states to be created out of those territories.  The Republican platform ratified at the 1860 convention in Chicago called for the complete prohibition of slavery in the territories.  The Democratic Party was, however, divided.  Under the banner of "popular sovereignty," the northern faction supported the right of territorial governments to prohibit slavery.  The southern faction held that only state constitutions could establish such prohibitions.  Unable to resolve their differences, the Democratic Party split and ran two candidates:  Steven A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge. 

Lincoln's election is often thought of as being a result of the split in the Democratic Party.  He certainly failed to receive a majority of the popular vote nation-wide and he received virtually no votes in the southern states. His victories in the northern states, however, gave him the electoral votes necessary to win the election, but even if Democratic Party voters had not split their votes, Lincoln's majorities in the northern states would have put him in the White House.  State by state popular vote totals demonstrate just how divided the country was on the issue of slavery, particularly the extension of slavery into the territories.

In the weeks following Lincoln's election, seven states seceded from the Union (South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas).  These states established the Confederate States of America.  Its constitution guaranteed slavery in all its states and territories.  The movement toward secession was unable to reach beyond the the deep south, though, until after the fall of Ft. Sumter on April 13 and Lincoln's subsequent call for 75,000 troops to defend the Union.  The prospect that federal troops would be used to occupy and "reconstruct" the seceded states led to the secession of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.  The Kentucky legislature declared Kentucky neutral in the conflict, while the federal occupation of Maryland and Missouri precluded secession in those states.

William Cooper's We Have the War Upon Us provides a close account of events between the election of Lincoln and the fall of Ft. Sumter.  He especially examines the negotiations between Republicans and conditional unionists who sought to avoid the secession of the upper southern and border states.  His treatment is careful and generally even-handed, relying on both primary and secondary sources.  The actions (and non-actions) of William Seward and Abraham Lincoln play a central role in Cooper's account -- Seward working hard to accommodate the interests of the conditional unionists and Lincoln remaining largely silent on what his approach to the crisis would be upon his inauguration.  The out-going president James Buchanan also played an important role in the unfolding events.  Buchanan's view was that while states did not have the legal authority to leave the Union, the federal government did not have the authority to defend its sovereignty over the seceded states.  One might argue that his inactivity to address secession forcefully at an early stage left the new Republican administration with a irremediable problem.

The greatest weakness in Cooper's account of the events leading to war is his short treatment of the actions of southern "fire-eaters," i.e., southerners dedicated to secession and the defense of slavery without compromise.  By emphasizing the negotiations between the hard line Republicans and the conditional unionists, one is left with the impression that the intransigence of the hard line Republicans was more responsible for the coming of war than is justified.  Cooper does not, for example, give much time to discussing the call by the Confederate Congress for 100,000 troops to serve for one year.  This call was made more than a month before Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops to serve for 90 days.  To keep these numbers in perspective, the federal army was composed of only 16,000 troops prior to 1861, most of whom were stationed in the South and in the territories.  Many of these soldiers -- and most of the officers -- resigned from the federal army and joined the Confederate forces.  Under these circumstances, the rumors of threats to Washington D.C. could not be ignored and the vulnerability of the territories to Confederate annexation was significant.  In the end, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Lincoln followed the least belligerent course possible that still adhered to his responsibility to defend federal property.

Reviewing the efforts to negotiate an agreement that would prevent secession and war, leads the reader to conclude that Seward was correct in his assessment that the war was "irrepressible."  Efforts by Congress as a whole, the House of Representative's Committee of Thirty-three, the Senate's Committee of Thirteen, the non-governmental Peace Convention, and the Confederate commissioners who came to Washington to negotiate a peaceful separation all appeared to be futile exercises in the face of long entrenched, partisan commitments to an uncompromising resolution to the nation's problem.  In that sense, Cooper's title, We Have the War Upon Us is most certainly apt.

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