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8-08-2015, 23:18

From Washington to Charleston

THEELECTION of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States in November of I860 set the stage for division, secession, and civil war. Americans had gone through angry and bitter election campaigns before, but until this point, they had always managed to live with the result, even when it produced such victors as William Henry Harrison, who died within a month of taking office, or when the whole electoral scene had been confused, as it was in 1824, when Andrew Jackson won a plurality in the popular vote but John Quincy Adams was chosen by the electoral college. Why then should the election of Lincoln have been any different? Why could the country not survive this as it had other political upsets before? Elections in the nineteenth century were a serious and complex business. In the I860 contest, the country was split into sections, and there were four major candidates. The election was held on the 6th of November, and it took a few days, in this age before instant electronic information, to get all the votes organized and counted. Nonetheless, it was soon certain that Lincoln had indeed won, with enough of a margin that he would not be tricked out of his victory—the electoral college did not even meet until February—and the announcement of his election threw the country into an uproar. But the winner remained strangely elusive on the great questions of the moment. Candidates, indeed, once they had been nominated by their parties, were not even supposed to campaign; they were expected rather to sit at home, preferably on the front porch in a rocking chair, and treat the whole matter as if it were of little interest to them — displaying, in other words, the detachment of a true statesman. They might receive friends, advisers, and potential office-seekers, but the undignified hurly-burly of the actual election was left to underlings. In this election, it was true, Stephen A. Douglas, the famous "little giant," the candidate of the northern Democrats, had vigorously stumped the nation. More prescient than most, Douglas saw tragedy on the horizon, and he spent his strength in an attempt to avert it by securing his own election. All to no avail. The country seemed on the edge of an irrevocable split, and Lincoln's triumph was the proof of it. By rights, Douglas should have won. The Democratic Party had been the last of the great national institutions holding the country together. The other three parties that fielded candidates were all factions or splinters, cobbled together recently out of one crisis or another. Lincoln's party, the Republican, was a mere six years old, had run for its first presidential election only in 1856, and was identified exclusively with the northern part of the country. The Constitutional Union Party was a marriage not of convenience but of desperation, between the old, now moribund, Whigs and the anti-foreign Know-Nothings, and its only claim to support was that it fielded a southern presidential and a northern vice presidential candidate. Finally, there were the southern Democrats, who by insisting on their own man, former vice president John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, split the party and deprived Douglas of his victory. Thus Abraham Lincoln, with a mere 1,700,000 votes out of four and a half million, became the sixteenth president of the United States. Though he had repeatedly insisted that the southern, slave-holding states had nothing to fear from him, Lincoln's election became the signal for the dissolution of the union. Southern leaders had convinced themselves that a victory by the "black Republicans" would be absolutely intolerable to their section and their interests, and the more rabid among them immediately acted upon that conviction. The leader in the move to secede was the state of South Carolina. It had provided many of the statesmen of the early republic, most notably John C. Calhoun, the great champion of states' rights, and Carolinians cherished their tradition of dissent. They cherished it so much and so vociferously that one annoyed southern newspaper editor of the fifties had characterized the state as "too small to be a country, too big to be a lunatic asylum." Now, in December, the state held a convention and voted to secede from the United States. South Carolinians began arm In Washington, D. C, the outgoing president, James Buchanan, watched all this with a jaundiced eye. Buchanan was a reasonably astute but not terribly strong or active politician. He had done well, he thought, merely to survive his four years as president. He did so by generally favoring the southern position on the issues that divided the country, and that favoring in turn had done a great deal to create the present situation. By the turn of the year, however, most of the southern members of Buchanan's cabinet had resigned, and, now supported by stronger union men, he was showing more backbone than he had previously done. He refused to receive commissioners from South Carolina, and he announced that he would resist with force if the state overtly confiscated federal property. The issue centered around control especially of Fort Sumter, sitting in the mouth of Charleston Harbor, an offense to the touchy pride of South Carolinians. Meanwhile, the fever of secession spread. Early in January state troops from Georgia took over federal forts there; southern senators met in Washington and agreed to recommend secession to their home states. Mississippi announced its secession on the 9th, Florida the next day, and Alabama the day after that. By the 1st of February, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had also gone. These all sent delegates to a convention that met at Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4. Within a week they had written a constitution and elected a president. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was one of the South's most experienced politicians, a position he had obtained somewhat by default. In his own mind he was always a soldier, and he had in fact been educated as one. Born in 1808, he had graduated from West Point in 1828 and spent seven years in the army before becoming a planter in Mississippi. He entered politics before the Mexican War and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but resigned to serve as colonel of the 1st Mississippi Rifles; he came home from the war with a wound, a reputation for bravery, and a high opinion of his own military abilities. Returning to politics, he was a senator and a very successful secretary of war in President Franklin Pierce's cabinet. In the Senate, he was one of the most forceful advocates of southern rights, and regularly threatened secession if those rights were not respected. He would have infinitely preferred a military command to the presidency of the Confederacy, and he might well have been better suited to it. Nonetheless, he was the choice of the Montgomery convention, so of course he accepted. Whether or not the president of the new nation would need any military knowledge was a still unanswered question. Abraham Lincoln, indeed, was doing his best not to answer it. The working of the government had not caught up with the potentiality of the new technology. In spite of the advent of both railroads and the telegraph, there was still a long hiatus between the election of a president and his taking office. Lincoln was not to be inaugurated until March 4, so the union of the states was largely broken before he assumed responsibility for it. During these months he remained as quiet as possible; he had repeatedly insisted the South had nothing to fear from his administration, that he had no designs against the institution of slavery where it then existed—an important concession and qualification both—but he would say little more than that. In this, he did not disappoint expectation, because most of the people who counted politically in the United States did not have high expectations of Lincoln anyway. Few men so revered since their death have been so poorly regarded during their lives as Lincoln was. Abraham Lincoln was far from being the backswoods buffoon that many Americans thought him. Born in Kentucky in 1809, the son of a poor family, Lincoln was largely self-educated; he had in his youth been a laborer, a storekeeper, and a postmaster. He taught himself the law by reading law books, and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1836, gradually building a small practice and a sound reputation in his home state. He had served several terms in the state legislature, and in 1847 was elected to the House of Representatives in Washington. He was there for only one term, and was little known; his most important opinions were against slavery and against the Mexican War. He spent a good part of the next decade explaining that while he was opposed to the war, he was not opposed to support for the men who had fought it. In 1856 he became a Republican, and ran for the Senate against Stephen A. Douglas. In the course of the campaign, the two opponents engaged in a series of debates that brought Lincoln to national prominence. The issue was basically the right of the national government to limit the spread of slavery into new territories, and the two men hammered out their own positions, and away at each other's. Widely reported and subsequently published in book form, the debates still make fascinating reading; to imagine the setting and the audience— a great crowd of men, some of whom had ridden for miles, standing in the sun for five or six hours listening to two men standing on a platform debating, their voices unaided by artificial amplification—is to gain a great deal of respect for the intelligence and political seriousness of Americans in the mid-nineteenth century. Lincoln lost the election, but was regarded as the coming man among the Republicans. He was still a dark horse when the party met at Chicago in July of I860 to nominate a presidential candidate, but he was most Republicans' second choice, and he won the nomination on the third ballot. In February of 1861, the president-elect took a leisurely route to Washington. The nearer he got to the capital and to his inauguration, the worse the situation looked. By the time he reached Philadelphia, there was wild talk of an assassination plot, so he departed from his planned route and virtually sneaked into his own capital. Meanwhile, various politicians in Washington were attempting to produce last-minute compromises that would save the union. None of these worked; the final positions of either side were simply irreconcilable: preservation of the union versus separation. Many thought that if the country were to be saved, Lincoln's cabinet would have to do it, for few had much confidence in the new and untried president. The cabinet, by contrast, consisted of men long used to the arena. Yet more perceptive observers might have noted that a weak man would not have picked assistants of the caliber Lincoln did. As secretary of state he chose William H. Seward of New York, an ex- Whig, a senator since 1849, and Lincoln's leading opponent for the Republican nomination in I860. Abrasive, abusive, ambitious, Seward was believed by many men, especially himself, to be the real power in the new administration; easterners could tell themselves that he at least was capable of running the government. Westerners could put their faith in Salmon P. Chase, who became secretary of the treasury, and who represented the more radical abolitionist wing of the Republican Party. Chase knew little about finances, but everything about politics, and Lincoln valued his opinions. The same was true of Montgomery Blair, an able lawyer and politician who became postmaster general, and Gideon Welles, a competent secretary of the navy whose chief claim to fame is an intimate insider's diary of Civil War Washington. Lincoln's only major mistake was in appointing Simon Cameron as his secretary of war. In I860 Cameron had delivered Pennsylvania to Lin coin, and the secretaryship was his reward; Lincoln appointed him with strong misgivings, which were fully justified by corruption and mismanagement, and within a year Cameron was shipped off as minister to Russia, about as far away as Lincoln could get him. It was possible, then, for political men to assure themselves that if the new president was not up to the mark, at least Seward, or Chase, or someone, would be able to make the government work. Still, here was a new party, and a new chief executive, neither of whom had ever held major office, trying to deal with the greatest crisis of the century. The omens were not good. Lincoln had been in Washington for a week and a half before Inauguration Day, and had received a great many visitors and office seekers, but he still had not given much of himself away, a point that, again, might have impressed people had they not been too busy watching Seward play the viceroy. Lincoln appeared one of the few calm men in the capital, but was it because he knew everything, or because he knew nothing? On March 4, President Buchanan called for Lincoln where he was staying at Willard's Hotel, and they rode together in an open carriage to the Capitol. Troops were much in evidence, several hundred regulars, and a couple of thousand volunteers in a variety of impractical uniforms. There was an air of unwonted martial bustle about the city. A temporary platform had been erected before the east face of the still unfinished Capitol building, and there the inauguration ceremony was held. Some thirty thousand spectators had gathered to see the event. Lincoln took the oath of office, sworn in by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney. Ironically Taney, a man of immense legal knowledge and personal rectitude, had delivered the majority decision for the Court in the Dred Scott case, and thus had done a great deal to cause the crisis now engulfing the nation. Before taking the oath, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address. It characterized the man; it was brief, it was eloquent, and it went right to the heart of the matter. Lincoln stated that the union was perpetual and could not be broken; he offered, he said, no threat to the existing institution of slavery; therefore there was no need for secession, and the issue of secession, of war or peace, was squarely up to the South: "You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors." He offered conciliation, and he offered goodwill, but there was the distinct possibility of war in his message, and he did not shrink from it. Indeed, when all the millions of words by and about Lincoln are sloughed off, the absolute core of the man appears: He faced facts; he saw the world as it was. Such ability was increasingly rare as the month wore on. Two days after Lincoln's inauguration, President Davis of the Confederate States of America issued a call for 100,000 volunteers for twelve months' service, and by early April, the new nation had 35,000 men enlisted and armed. Meanwhile the Upper South, the West, and the border states twisted and turned. North Carolina narrowly voted against a secession convention; the margin was less than two hundred votes out of more than 90,000 cast. In Texas, old Sam Houston came out against secession, but Texas had been largely settled by southerners, and Houston was lost in the whirlwind of emotion. President Davis sent commissioners to Washington, but Lincoln refused to meet with them, on the grounds that to do so might imply recognition of the legitimacy of the new government. Arizona voted for secession; Arkansas voted against it; Virginia did the same, then sent unionist representatives to Washington who told Lincoln he should be firm for the union, but that any use of force would send Virginia into the arms of the Confederacy. Thus while Lincoln tried to make some sense of his new world, all around him were busily trying to deny the reality of it. The issue finally narrowed down to Fort Sumter, in itself a totally unimportant piece of real estate, but symbolically a bone in the throat of Charleston Harbor and thus of the whole Confederacy. Away back in December, Major Robert A. Anderson, in command of the federal garrisons in Charleston, had moved his few troops from Fort Moultrie, indefensible on a sandbar north of the harbor, to the newer Fort Sumter out on its island. Charlestonians, who had been noisily demanding the turnover of all federal property, moved into Moultrie and denounced Anderson's move as a treacherous outrage. By April there had been many attempts to resolve the problem of the fort. Indeed, by April it and Fort Pickens, down in Florida, were the only federal holdings left in the Confederacy; everything else had been quietly taken over. The Washington government, seeking to avoid an overt clash, agreed not to reinforce the garrison at Sumter, but Lincoln and his cabinet, after getting contradictory messages from Anderson, did decide to try to resupply the fort. To this end, they ordered a small squadron of ships south. By the second week in April, all was confusion. The Confederates, under the command of a Louisianan as flamboyant as his name, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, had ringed the harbor of Charleston with batteries. Anderson did not know if or how long he could hold out, and in his several meetings with Confederate officials he managed to confuse himself as thoroughly as he confused them. Seward was whispering half-promises to Confederate representatives, and one of the ships detailed for Charleston had already been sent off privately by the president to Fort Pickens. In other words, under the stress of the situation, normal communications and reactions were breaking down. Each side would subsequently charge the other with bad faith, but that was not really the truth of the matter; the truth was that neither was fully in control, either of events or of itself. Human beings do get tired; they get angry, confused, and impatient, and they take actions which, in the cool light of later reflection or the calm of an academic study, seem foolish and self-destructive. Thus the Washington government thought it could skate along the fine line between resupply and reinforcement, and it was wrong. The Confederates thought they had elicited a promise from Anderson to evacuate the fort; they thought they had a promise from Seward that an arrangement could be reached. But neither of these was unconditional, and neither Anderson nor Seward was in a position to make them so. Finally, it must be noted that there were those on either side, but especially among the Confederates in Charleston, who did not really want an accommodation; they wanted a little action. That was what they got. Anderson finally told the Confederate commissioners that he would be forced to evacuate the fort, unless resupplied, by midnight on April 15. The Confederates, knowing the resupply ships were on the way, decided not to wait. At four-thirty on the morning of the 12th, the batteries in Charleston Harbor opened fire. A rolling deluge of shot and shell hit the fortress, driving the defenders into the bombproofs. Charlestonians rushed into the streets, happy and excited, to shake hands, hug, and congratulate each other. Men and women on foot and in their carriages flocked to the waterfront to watch the great event. The waiting and the tension were over at last. The soldiers were mostly local boys, and they gave civilian friends and neighbors the honor of touching off the cannon, and firing a shot at the hated Yankees cowering on their little island. It was truly a great occasion. All through the 12th the roar continued, as the batteries kept firing on into the night. By mid-day of the 13th, the attackers had fired 4,000 shells. Sumter itself was a mess, with casemates broken and guns dismantled, and much of it on fire, though there had been almost no actual casualties. Finally, at two-thirty on the afternoon of the 13th, Anderson surrendered. Conceded the honors of war, he insisted on firing a 100-gun salute as part of his departure. Midway in the salute, one of the guns burst, ironically causing the only fatalities of the entire episode. Anderson and his men went aboard ship—the relief squadron— and sailed away to the North, to be received as heroes. Two days later, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers for three months' service to suppress the rebellion. Thus the election of Abraham Lincoln led almost inexorably to division, secession, and war. Yet on the face of it, it is difficult to understand why that should have been so. Lincoln in his campaign and in his public utterances after the election repeatedly denied that he posed any threat to the southern part of the country, or to its institutions — meaning slavery—and, setting aside the normal confusions and contradictions of life, he did his best to live up to his intentions, in spite of secession and the overt seizure of federal property in the South. If one probes deeper into the nation's past, however, it becomes apparent that Lincoln's election was less the cause than the excuse for the crisis. The causes themselves went back almost to the very beginning of American history, or at least to the beginning of English settlement on the continent, and were rooted in the diverging paths different sections of the country had taken since then. A war in which more than 600,000 men died needs something beyond a mere excuse.

 

 

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