In these years when many have worried aloud about a neo-civil war brewing between American shores it is somewhat unnerving to study the years leading to the first. Long in the making, five presidents before Lincoln knew that the slavery question had the potential to sunder the union.  Negotiation, legislation, elections were centered on the question. Newspapers, North and South, mobilized and reflected public opinion. The language of contempt from the Houses of Congress to the man in the street was common and shouted and headlined. Demonstrators took to the streets, condemning those on the other side, while urging bold action and the end of weakness on their own. Blood was let, in the Senate, in the streets and in the territories.

Secession and war had been on people’s minds for over a decade, some with great fear, some with great anticipation.  When the guns began, on April 12, 1861, with the Confederate shelling of Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, cheering and war fever erupted North and South. Seven states had already declared secession, Lincoln’s Republican victory being all they needed to see. The four remaining joined soon after.  In the almost exactly four years before Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox

Nowhere is a better place to start understanding the long and increasingly vituperative quarrel than James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Battle Cry of Freedom, 1988 in the Oxford History of the United States series. What interests me, in 2018, is not the war itself.  Strategy, tactics, famous generals and historical place names have never been high on my interest list.  The long years of contention, however, and particularly that the issues then, that the tenor of opinion, the role of mass-media, and even that the geography of division resembles that of today, make for serious and compelling reading.

The first ten chapters of twenty-eight (904 pages) puts us on the fraught road — the arguments made, the compromises attempted, the struggle to persuade, especially in the eight border states.  Strong feelings against immigrants, and those of other religions contributed to partisan fury. Voting fraud and coercion were common place. War fever grew steadily fueled by questions of identity, honor, betrayal and treason.

Real raids and mob action gave credence to widely believed false news of plunder and rape. The two long-standing political parties shook and shattered; the Whigs collapsed and the Republicans came into being.  Democrats North and South split. One million Know-Nothings formed a short-lived American Party which, like the Democrats and Whigs, split over the slavery question.

Cuba was also in play, Continue reading »

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