It’s been nearly a year since I’ve had time to continue this series. Some of you may be under the impression that I have given it up – but trust me, I have not. I would never give up a chance to write about the Civil War. So, without further ado, here it is!
THE CIVIL WAR: PART THE THIRD
153 years after the crack of cannons at Fort Sumter signaled the start of America’s bloodiest conflict, Abraham Lincoln’s public image has undergone a drastic change. In the eyes of many Americans, he was not only a President, but also a Jedi, a Time Lord, and Zeus all rolled into one*. In our country’s popular opinion, the deep-voiced and stately Lincoln singlehandedly stormed the Confederacy, spreading freedom and equality by reciting the Gettysburg Address at his enemies, and/or whapping them in the cranium with a large flagpole.
Actually, this is fairly inaccurate, and not just because Lincoln never whapped anyone’s cranium with anything (‘though a certain politician did – more on that later). Contemporaries describe our sixteenth president as very tall and somewhat ugly, with a squeaky voice and distinct Kentucky twang. (He also shared his birthday – February 12, 1809 – with Charles Darwin. Coincidence? WE THINK NOT!**) And – most importantly – he exactly didn’t start out as an abolitionist. (Okay, well, technically, no one started out as an abolitionist, because – generally speaking – newborn infants do not tend to embrace any particular political ideologies***.) But even as a budding lawyer and Congressman, he didn’t voice outright support of abolitionism****. Instead, he was a free-soiler: someone who believed that slavery should stay contained in the South, and not spread to any new territories America might acquire. He believed that African-Americans had the right to live their own lives – but, for the most part, he also believed that they were naturally inferior to whites, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to end slavery anytime soon. During the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, he voiced the opinion that “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races….”*****
Given all this, the South shouldn’t have been too worried. However, Lincoln’s moderately anti-slavery viewpoint set alarm bells ringing in the state of South Carolina. Actually, for that matter, many things set alarm bells ringing in South Carolina, prompting bizarre and often drastic overreactions. In 1859, for example New York Senator Charles Sumner****** gave a rather incendiary anti-slavery speech, insulting a senior senator from South Carolina in the process. Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who happened to be related to Sumner’s target, took offense – so, after the session had adjourned, Senator Brooks calmly confronted Senator Sumner and explained his grievances in detail.
HAHAHAHA no. That is far too sane a route for any politician, especially a nineteenth-century one, to take. Instead, Senator Brooks decided to brain Senator Sumner with his cane in front of a large group of aghast Congressmen (following this scene, all of them immediately quit and joined the circus instead, voicing the opinion that “at least it’s more logical than bloody Congress”).
Unsurprisingly, this event proved to be extremely polarizing – even more so than the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Northerners immediately accused Senator Brooks of being unnecessarily violent and foul-tempered – while many Southerners sprang to his defense, claiming that Sumner deserved it all, dammit, because no one badmouths a Southerner’s relatives without getting concussed!
The end result: the Brooks-Sumner debacle, combined with a Northern, Republican, free-soiler presidential candidate, had prompted South Carolina to wake up and smell the foul, conspiracy-laden coffee. The government was out to get them – or, more accurately, out to get their slaves. There was only one thing left to do: threaten secession.
Now, this was pretty old territory for South Carolina: back in 1828, when tariffs were too high for their taste, South Carolinians banded together and claimed that if the hated taxes weren’t lowered, they would secede from the country. At that point, they ended up backing away from their claim, and the Union was saved.
This time, however, they would not be so lenient.
Months passed, and the presidential campaign continued. Due to a feud over slavery, the once-mighty Democratic party had split into Northern and Southern sections, with each running a separate candidate. This greatly weakened their chances of winning the election – and, accordingly, when November rolled around, Abe Lincoln, the fledgling Republican Party candidate, claimed victory.
On December 20, 1860, in a move that shocked many citizens, the state of South Carolina voted unanimously to secede from the United States of America. All eyes turned to the then-president, James Buchanan, who was nearing his last few weeks in office. According to the historical records, President Buchanan’s reaction to South Carolina’s secession was a resigned shrug and a deep swig of whisky.
(Needless to say, President Buchanan was not particularly popular.)
All throughout the winter and spring of 1861, just as Lincoln’s first term began, other Deep South states followed in South Carolina’s wake: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, in that order. Those seven states then banded together to form a new country: the Confederate States of America. Its capital was in Montgomery, Alabama; its first President was Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and its Vice President was Alexander Stephens of Georgia. (Incidentally, President Davis was only one or two years older than President Lincoln, and had been born just a few miles away from Lincoln’s birthplace*******.)
Then, until April 12, the two countries – USA and CSA – proceeded to have a staring contest of epic proportions. States caught in the middle, such as Virginia and Tennessee, squirmed in their seats and hoped that they wouldn’t be driven to take sides. No actual battles had happened yet, so perhaps there was a chance of peaceful reconciliation-
Oh, who are we kidding? There was about as much chance of peaceful reconciliation as there was when Senator Brooks first pulled his Cane of Doom on Senator Sumner. And sure enough, on April 12, 1861, tensions exploded – in the form of the First Battle of Fort Sumter.
Fort Sumter is located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. When that state seceded, it claimed all the Federal forts located inside its borders, including Sumter. If Lincoln dared to send troops to defend Sumter, the Confederacy warned, there would be hell to pay.
Lincoln didn’t send troops to defend Sumter. But, in April, he did send troops to supply the soldiers already in the fort. Immediately, the Confederates (commanded by a charismatic Louisianan general named Maria Josepha Johanna von- sorry, I mean Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard) opened fire – and, by the next day, had taken the fort. (Although there were no human casualties during the fight, two men did die during the Union artillery salute…)
This was nothing short of an act of war. Therefore, Lincoln called out for 75,000 volunteers for the army – especially pleading with the states of the Upper South. This, unfortunately, proved to be somewhat of a mistake: four Upper Southern states (Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee) were so incensed by Lincoln’s request that they, too, withdrew from the Union.
As a popular song from the era, “The Bonnie Blue Flag”, put it: “The single star of our bonnie blue flag has grown to be eleven!” The secessionists no longer comprised a tiny percentage of the population. A third of the United States had broken off and formed a new, hostile country, one which had already fired on Federal property and was currently building up an army as fast as it could.
It looked like war was inevitable.
*Some noted historians also believe he may have been Batman.
**Sorry, Watson/Holmes fans, but Abe Lincoln and Charles Darwin would be the most BADASS crime-fighting team ever.
***With the exception of certain politicians: I can totally see Michele Bachmann screaming about 2nd Amendment rights a split second after emerging from the womb, can’t you?
****Someone who was much more outspoken on the topic of racial equality was Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican Senator from Pennsylvania (we will touch upon him in a later post). But, from what I have gathered, no one actually seems to know who he is, apart from “that wig dude in Lincoln“.
******No, they were not long-lost brothers. Even though they kinda-sorta-maybe looked alike, just a little bit.