We Have The War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861

William J. Cooper. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012, 332pp., $30.
The secession crisis and the rush to war is a perennial topic of interest to historians and Civil War buffs alike. People wonder if Civil War was inevitable and whether it could have been avoided altogether. “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry had been ominous developments that marred an otherwise peaceful environment. The election of 1860 passed without incident yet, in a brief six months, the country was split asunder and engulfed in civil war.

William J. Cooper is a distinguished professor at Louisiana State University and a South Carolina native. He specializes in Southern history and politics of the 19th century and has written six other books prior to this effort. We reviewed his last book, Jefferson Davis, American, in a previous hard copy issue and gave it high marks.

This is likewise a well-researched and well-written study on an important period in our history. Given the author’s origins and field of interest, it is written from a Southern perspective which we view as a plus. It is important to view events as others see them… an exercise that mirrors a major theme of the book. The thing that we like most about “We Have the War…” is that it forces the reader to think through and question the points raised by the author. We find ourselves wondering about the significance of statements. What about this and what about that? Doesn’t he realize? et cetera. More than any other similar book we have read recently, it truly stimulates the gray cells.

The purported theme of the book is to show the events of the secession crisis through the eyes of people living at the time, on both sides of the issue. Its goal is to present these opinions in an impartial manner, without assigning blame. It only partially succeeds in this. While the book is replete with primary research material derived from the principals involved and casual observers, presented in equal doses, the author’s viewpoint does surface. He is critical of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party who blocked efforts at compromise and concession. He praises William Seward who, out of character, tried to cobble together a deal to restore the Union. Radicals on both sides get short shrift. Southern moderates, like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, get respect for their cautious approach and resistance to the firebrands.

The primary source material is accurate and speaks for itself. Taken at face itself, it supports the author’s viewpoint. However, this does not take into account the context, complexity of the issues or long-term historical trends. A brief overview of these topics is in order.

Lincoln is labeled a sectional candidate. He received only 40% of the popular vote and no measurable support in the Southern states. There is no requirement in the Constitution that says a presidential candidate must have multi-regional support in order to qualify for the ballot or prevail in an election. Lincoln met the requirements and was duly elected. By the same token, John Breckinridge was likewise a sectional candidate. He, too, qualified for the ballot. Had he been elected, would the Republicans have been justified in questioning the legitimacy of his election?

Lincoln is criticized for firmly adhering to the Republican platform plank opposed to the extension of slavery in the territories. Lincoln is guilty of this, if guilt be the proper word, but he stated he would support any Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the legal status of slavery should Congress adopt such an amendment and the states ratify it. The accusation is made that Lincoln refused to budge on this issue because the containment of slavery was the bulwark and raison d’être for the Republican Party. With that issue cast aside, the Republicans would be voted out of office and the Democrats regain power. That assertion does not align with the facts. Once the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, the Republican Party thrived. The Democrats were cast out into the wilderness and really did not gain widespread popular backing and electoral success until 1932.

The assertion is made that Lincoln did not know the South or the mind of its citizens and he was naive on the question of Union support in the Deep South and border states. That seems to be demonstrably true. It is also said that the Republicans were anti-South. They were anti-slavery, to be sure, but anti-South? Where is the evidence to back up that statement? Southerners may well have felt that way, but what was the basis for that viewpoint? On a related topic, the subject of Southern rights and grievances is brought up numerous times. There is even a quote from a Northern politician saying that the South had legitimate grievances. This seems to be a taboo topic. I would like to have seen a chapter spelling out all these rights and grievances, along with examples showing how they were abused or neglected. My suspicion is that these concerns relate primarily to the question of slavery, so eloquently described by Lincoln in his first inaugural address (“we think it wrong… you think it right”).

Seward gets high marks for his efforts to broker some sort of deal. However, in my book, he comes off as a two-faced politician, overreaching his authority, watching his back at all times. Stephen Douglas is praised for similar efforts which, though commendable and heroic, were the least he could do, inasmuch as his policies were largely responsible for the civil war that followed.

Cooper does a great job in describing the various efforts by politicians to reach a compromise before it was too late. There were committees both in the House and the Senate. There were peace conferences in Washington and Virginia. There were compromise deals proposed, most notably by John Crittenden of Kentucky. They all failed, blamed primarily on Republican opposition and intransigence. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised at the failure of Congressional committees. Still, compromises had saved the Union in the past, so the precedent was there. Now, when the stakes were so high and time running out, why couldn’t one be achieved when so many people wanted it?

If a compromise had been reached in 1861, it would have postponed the problem, not solved it. Sooner or later, another crisis would develop and another deal sought. At the time of the Compromise of 1820, Thomas Jefferson claimed that slavery was the death-knell of the Union. He wrote: “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just; and that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Thirty years later, another compromise was needed to save the Union. People naively figured the issue had been resolved. Four years later, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise. Three years later, the Dred Scott Decision banned all Congressional interference with slavery in the territories and authorized the unrestricted transport of slave “property” into any state, free or slave. Despite the Republican platform plank, Lincoln could not have done anything to prevent the spread of slavery into the territories. That power now resided with the state legislatures and constitutional conventions. Of course, Congress could have blocked admittance of a new slave state or even proposed a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery altogether, but that seemed unlikely. The secession of the Southern states ironically made those scenarios all-the-more likely,

Prior to the Civil War, there were only three presidents (John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren) who were not slaveholders or sympathetic to Southern concerns. None of those three did anything to offend the South. Yet, as the book accurately points out, the South was apprehensive about the prospect of no longer being in power, even for only four years, assuming Lincoln was a one-term President. Secession was their answer to the challenge. More importantly, there was a sea change in the political landscape. The Republican Party achieved rapid success because they accurately reflected the reality of a changing America. The Democrats did not see the necessity of removing slavery as an issue. They preferred to aggressively promote slavery or, at best, postpone the inevitable. They viewed America as two nations: North America and South America, divide by an artificial line of demarcation. There were states like California, Kansas or Nebraska, that were neither Southern or Northern. There was no longer just the North and the South, but the midwest, southwest and west. Industrialization and technology were transforming the landscape. The party and region that failed to recognize these changes would be left behind.

Beyond his reluctance to compromise on the issue of slavery, Lincoln can rightly be blamed for the commencement of the war. He could have followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, James Buchanan, and side-stepped the issue by saying that he had no legal authority to force the seceded states to return to the Union. Like many Northerners, notably the abolitionists and Horace Greeley, he could have accepted the situation and said: “Wayward sister, go in peace!” Then, there would have been no civil war. Amazingly, on an issue as momentous as the legality of secession, there was no call for a public referendum on the issue. Tennessee and Virginia had elections on their ordinances of secession. There was no call for elections in the North to determine the will of the people. The public deferred to Lincoln and the decisions he would ultimately make. While historians will judge Lincoln based on his actions, they should not lose fact of a failure of leadership by members of the Democratic Party and slaveholders who looked to the past, rather than the future. Perhaps that is the true cause of the Civil War.

Facebook Twitter