New York Times: Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln's Election to the Emancipation Proclamation

New York Times: Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln's Election to the Emancipation Proclamation


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ISBN-13: 9781579129286
Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
Publication date: 05/14/2013
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 1,331,243
Product dimensions: 6.42(w) x 9.04(h) x 1.34(d)

About the Author

The New York Times is regarded as the world's preeminent newspaper. Its news coverage is known for its exceptional depth and breadth, with reporting bureaus throughout the United States and in 26 foreign countries. Winner of 112 Pulitzer Prizes, The Times has the largest circulation of any seven-day newspaper in the U.S.

Ted Widmer is a historian at Brown University, where he is Assistant to the President for Special Projects. He has served as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, and Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. He has written or edited many works of history, including, most recently, Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy

Clay Risen is an op-ed staff editor at The New York Times and the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.

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The New York Times DISUNION

106 articles from The New York Times Opinionator


Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57912-928-6



On December 20, 1860, just 42 days after the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina seceded from the United States. In the following months 10 more states would follow suit, eventually forming the Confederate States of America. Then, on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, a former commandant at West Point, launched an attack on the Union soldiers at Fort Sumter, an artificial island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, precipitating the Civil War. These two events seem, in retrospect, to follow one from the other. But did they?

Historians have long debated whether widespread secession and war were, in the long view, inevitable. There can be little doubt that Lincoln's election guaranteed that at least several slaveholding states would secede. Though Lincoln the candidate took pains to emphasize that he would not move against slavery where it already existed, and as president-elect remained studiously silent on the question, many Southerners believed that the man from Illinois and his new and newly empowered Republican Party would move aggressively to limit slavery's expansion, isolating the South and putting the institution on a short road to extinction.

But secession was not an immediate, sudden step for every state. Though six states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—had joined South Carolina by the end of January 1861, the final four—Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee—did not leave the Union until after the war began. Four more slave states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri—remained in the Union. In reality, secession was a fractious, drawn-out process in most places, with degrees of pro-Union sentiment pushing back against secession advocates. In some parts of the Confederacy, primarily the Appalachian Mountain regions of Virginia and Tennessee, Unionist sentiment remained a force throughout the war, generating significant guerrilla activity. Western Virginia undertook a "reverse" secession as a result of the Wheeling Conventions of May and June 1861, leading to the creation of the loyal state of West Virginia.

Though a war was not inevitable, Lincoln did everything he could to ignite one. He understood that the Union would be hobbled without the South's resources; more importantly, he understood that a successful secession over a political dispute would fatally undermine the core premise of American democracy as a system for working out political differences. And if the Union were to be re-formed, it had to happen quickly; should the South win diplomatic recognition, it would be nearly impossible to force it to rejoin without completely defeating it in battle. While that is precisely what it took to end secession, Lincoln was probably still correct in his calculation: allowing the South to gain diplomatic recognition might well have meant fighting not just Richmond, but London and even Paris as well.

It is harder to determine just how eager the Confederacy was for war. Certainly, many of its military and political leaders were keen to fight. But others cautioned against rushing into conflict, recognizing how ill prepared the new country was for a drawn-out war. Fatally, the South did not have the deliberative political structure, let alone the vibrant public sphere, to allow for such a discussion. Put simply, the same hotheads who pulled the South out of the Union were then able to dictate the speed with which it went to war. Rather than negotiate a deal over the Union installations on Confederate soil still held by Northern forces—most notably Fort Sumter—the Confederacy simply occupied them, or demanded their surrender. It was precisely the pretext that Lincoln was looking for to begin a fight, and he soon found it, in Charleston Harbor.

The Last Ordinary Day


Nov. 1, 1860

Seven score and 10 years ago, a little Pennsylvania town drowsed in the waning light of an Indian summer. Almost nothing had happened lately that the two local newspapers found worthy of more than a cursory mention. The fall harvest was in; grain prices held steady. A new ice cream parlor had opened in the Eagle Hotel on Chambersburg Street. Eight citizens had recently been married; eight others had died. It was an ordinary day in Gettysburg.

It was an ordinary day in America: one of the last such days for a very long time to come.

In dusty San Antonio, Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army had just submitted a long report to Washington about recent skirmishes against marauding Comanches and Mexican banditti. In Louisiana, William Tecumseh Sherman was in the midst of a tedious week interviewing teenage applicants to the military academy where he served as superintendent. In Galena, Ill., passers-by might have seen a man in a shabby military greatcoat and slouch hat trudging to work that Thursday morning, as he did every weekday. He was Ulysses Grant, a middle-aged shop clerk in his family's leather-goods store.

Even the most talked-about man in America was, in a certain sense, almost invisible—or at least inaudible.

On Nov. 1, less than a week before Election Day, citizens of Springfield, Ill., were invited to view a new portrait of Abraham Lincoln, just completed by a visiting artist and hung in the statehouse's senate chamber. The likeness was said to be uncanny, but it was easy enough for viewers to reach their own conclusions, since the sitter could also be inspected in person in his office just across the hall. Politically, however, Lincoln was almost as inscrutable as the painted canvas. In keeping with longstanding tradition, he did not campaign at all that autumn; did not so much as deliver a single speech or grant a single interview to the press.

Instead, Lincoln held court each day in his borrowed statehouse office, behind a desk piled high with gifts and souvenirs that supporters had sent him—including countless wooden knicknacks carved from bits and pieces of fence rails he had supposedly split in his youth. He shook hands with visitors, told funny stories and answered mail. Only one modest public statement from him appeared in the Illinois State Journal that morning: a small front-page ad, sandwiched between those for a dentist and a saddle-maker, offering the services of Lincoln & Herndon, attorneys at law.

The future is always a tough thing to predict—and perhaps it was especially so on the first day of that eventful month. Take the oil painting of Lincoln, for example: it would be obsolete within weeks when its subject unexpectedly grew a beard. (The distraught portraitist tried to daub in whiskers after the fact, succeeding only in wrecking his masterpiece.) Or, on a grander scale, an article in the morning's New York Herald, using recent census data to project the country's growth over the next hundred years. By the late 20th century, it stated confidently, America's population would grow to 300 million (pretty close to accurate), including 50 million slaves (a bit off). But, asked the author, could a nation comprising so many different people and their opinions remain intact for that long? Impossible.

Writing about the past can be almost as tricky. Particularly so when the subject is the Civil War, that famously unfinished conflict, with each week bringing fresh reports of skirmishes between the ideological rear guards of the Union and Confederate armies, still going at it with gusto.

In many senses, though, the Civil War is a writer's—and reader's—dream. The 1860s were an unprecedented moment for documentation: for gathering and preserving the details of passing events and the texture of ordinary life. Starting just a few years before the war, America was photographed, lithographed, bound between the covers of mass-circulation magazines, and reported by the very first generation of professional journalists.

Half a century ago, as the nation commemorated the war's centennial, a scruffy young man from Minnesota walked into the New York Public Library and began scrolling through reels of old microfilm, reading newspapers published all over the country between 1855 and 1865. As Bob Dylan would recount in his memoir, "Chronicles: Volume 1," he didn't know what he was looking for, much less what he would find. He just immersed himself in that time: the fiery oratory, the political cartoons, the "weird mind philosophies turned on their heads," the "epic, bearded characters." But much later, he swore that this journey deep into the Civil War past became "the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write."

Lincoln Wins. Now What?


Nov. 7, 1860

Yesterday, the start of the most exciting day in the history of Springfield, Ill., could not wait for the sun. At 3 a.m., somebody got Election Day started with volleys of cannon fire, and after that there were incessant and spontaneous eruptions of cheering and singing all day long. A moment of delirium erupted in mid-afternoon, when the city's favorite citizen emerged from his law office and went to vote, taking care to slice his name off the top of the ballot so as to prevent accusations that he had voted for himself. After the sun went down, he joined other Republican stalwarts in the Capitol building, where they eagerly received the early returns that were trotted over from the telegraph office.

There were no surprises: the long-settled Yankees in Maine and New Hampshire and pioneering Germans of Michigan and Wisconsin delivered the expected victories. And then came news from Illinois: "We have stood fine. Victory has come." And then from Indiana: "Indiana over twenty thousand for honest Old Abe."

The throngs in the streets cheered every report, every step towards the electoral college number, but news from the big Eastern states was coming painfully slowly, and finally the candidate and his closest associates decamped the capitol and invaded the narrow offices of the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company. The advisers paced the floorboards, jumping at every eruption of the rapid clacking of Morse's machine, while the nominee parked on the couch, seemingly at ease with either outcome awaiting him.

It wasn't until after 10 that reports of victory in Pennsylvania arrived in the form a telegram from the canny vote-counter Simon Cameron, the political boss of the Keystone State, who tucked within his state's tallies joyfully positive news about New York: "Hon. Abe Lincoln, Penna seventy thousand for you. New York safe. Glory enough."

Not until 2 a.m. did official results from New York arrive, and the expected close contest in the make-or-break state never appeared: the onetime rail-splitter won by 50,000 votes. His men cheered, and broke out into an impromptu rendition of "Ain't You Glad You Joined the Republicans?" Outside, pandemonium had been unleashed, but Abraham Lincoln partook of none it, and instead put on his hat and walked home to bed.

"The Republican pulse continues to beat high," exulted a correspondent for The New York Times. "Chanticleer is perched on the back of the American Eagle, and with flapping wings and a sonorous note proclaims his joy at the victory. The return for the first Napoleon from Elba did not create a greater excitement than the returns for the present election."

Well should he sing, for the days of song will end soon enough. Mr. Lincoln is indeed the president-elect, but barely by a whisker, and what exactly one means by "the United States" any more is apt to become a topic of some heated discussion. Lincoln won his parlay, taking 16 of the 17 Northern states that he set his sights upon, including the hard-fought New York, and most by a solid majority.

But there were states where he was more lucky than popular, like California, where all four candidates polled significant numbers. Lincoln won only 32.3 percent of the ballots, but managed to eke out a victory and capture the state's four electoral votes by the wafer-thin margin of 734 votes. A similar, if slightly less dramatic story played out in Oregon, where Lincoln's victory margin was fewer than 1,200 votes. In his home state of Illinois, facing Mr. Douglas, Mr. Lincoln won by fewer than 12,000 out of 350,000 votes cast, a clear win but hardly a romp.

The South, of course, presents a vastly different picture. In the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas Mr. Lincoln received a combined total of no votes. None. True, his name wasn't even listed on the ballot, but that seems to be a mere technical oversight that would have had no great consequence. After all, in Virginia, the largest and wealthiest southern state, Mr. Lincoln was on the ballot, and there he tallied a total of 1,887 votes, or just 1.1 percent of the total cast. The results were even worse in Kentucky, his place of birth. One might have thought that sheer native pride should have earned him more than 1,364 of the 146,216 votes cast, but perhaps Kentuckians resented that he deserted them at such a tender age.

All told, Mr. Lincoln will assume the presidency in March on the strength of his muscular 180 electoral votes, and despite the puny 39.8 percent of the popular vote he accumulated.

The narrowness of this fragile mandate (if that word can even be used) naturally invites speculation about what might have been. The year began with Mr. Douglas standing, like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan before him, as an electable anti-slavery Northerner who could be depended on to maintain southern prerogatives. But from the moment last April when fire-eating Southern Democrats made it clear that they would rather punish Mr. Douglas for his vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Act two years ago than win the White House in the fall, it was ordained that the Little Giant, so long touted as a certain president-to-be, was steering a doomed vessel.

Yet there were times when his campaign picked up speed, and at such moments Mr. Douglas seemed very close to capturing enough support to thwart Mr. Lincoln's northern sweep and deny him his electoral college majority. Had that happened, Mr. Douglas would be sitting solidly in second place. He would have demonstrated support both north and south, and he would offer the South preservation of the status quo. That might well have been enough to pacify the reckless Southern Democrats who shunned him in the spring, and to win their support in the House of Representatives.

But for every Douglas surge there was a Douglas blunder. Final tallies show that wherever Mr. Douglas actually campaigned in New York, he won more votes than President Buchanan took when he captured the state four years ago. But instead of investing his time in the Empire State, Mr. Douglas headed into the inhospitable South, where he did the seemingly impossible—he managed to make southern voters dislike him even more than they already did. Appearing before a crowd in Virginia, he was asked if the election of Mr. Lincoln would justify secession. A politician of Mr. Douglas's experience should have known how to handle this kind of question with finesse, but instead he offered the one answer certain to damage him. No, he told the crowd.

He might have stopped at that, but perhaps figuring that, having jumped the fence, he may as well have a picnic, he told the crowd, It is the duty of the president of the United States to enforce the laws of the United States, and if Mr. Lincoln is the winner, I will do all in my power to help the government do so. With that answer, Mr. Douglas dismissed the purported right to secede that the south so cherishes, and surrendered his claim as the only man who could be counted on to keep the union together.

Now that task falls to a president who received fewer than 4 votes in 10; a president who is purely the creature of only one section of the country; a president who, apart from one undistinguished term in the House of Representatives a decade ago (and a period in the state legislature), has no experience in public office; a president who comes from a Republican party that has been stitched together from various interests, who will be asked to work with a Congress whose two houses are controlled by Democrats.

The fire eaters in South Carolina have already announced that they will immediately introduce a bill of secession. But that has been something they have been itching to do for years; as any doctor or fireman will tell you, sometimes the best way to end a fever or a blaze is to just let the thing burn out. Not everyone in the South is a slave owner, and not every slave owner is a disunionist. If any of the firebrands would take the time to listen to what Mr. Lincoln has actually said, they would see that he is no raving abolitionist like Sen. William Seward and his ilk. (Indeed, anti-slavery activist Wendell Phillips sneeringly calls Mr. Lincoln a "huckster" and William Lloyd Garrison says he has "not one drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins.")

Excerpted from The New York Times DISUNION by TED WIDMER, CLAY RISEN, GEORGE KALOGERAKIS. Copyright © 2013 The New York Times. Excerpted by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc..
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgements....................     vi     

Introduction....................     vii     

Chapter 1 Secession....................     1     

Chapter 2 The War Begins....................     99     

Chapter 3 Bull run....................     159     

Chapter 4 1862....................     233     

Chapter 5 The War Expands....................     267     

Chapter 6 Toward Emancipation....................     389     

List of Contributors....................     439     

Index....................     445     

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