In the year 2011, our nation marks the Sesquicentennial of the beginning of “The War Between the States”; “The American Civil War”, or what is still looked upon by many Southern historians as “The War of Northern Aggression”. Because this chapter of our national story continues to invite dissection from a myriad of perspectives, each of these nominations has a claim on legitimacy. Despite a fascination which has spawned more than 500,000 books dealing with the subject, it is disappointing to think that a generation or two of our citizens have grown up in comparative ignorance of this seminal event in our national history, and the extent to which, one-hundred and fifty years later, it continues to leave its fingerprints on our very sense of who we are as Americans.
At the outset of a year in which HOME COUNTRY will feature a number of reflections on this segment of our history, I must confess to readers and editors a personal passion for American history in general, and Civil War history in particular. I have walked the battlefields of that conflict from the “Sunken Road” at Antietam and the “Bloody Pond” of Shilo, to the “Peach Orchard” at Gettysburg, and the “Field of Shoes” in the Shenandoah Valley. I have wept at the cemetery on “Marye’s Heights”, repeatedly at the fence-line where “Pickett’s Charge” ended , from the overlook of the “Devil’s Den” at “Little Round Top”, and again in the wilderness of Chancellorsville. From Spotsylvania and Manasses Junction to Yellow Tavern and New Market, I have been touched by the aura left to forever haunt these hallowed grounds by the events which transpired there, and felt profoundly the presence of the legions who clashed there. I feel as connected by the bonds of brotherhood with the troopers – blue and gray – who fought then as with the G.I.s with whom I shared the scorched and seared hills of Korea just over a century later.
No less a public figure and man-of-history as Winston Churchill would write of America’s Civil War, that among all of the world’s conflicts, it was the one “which was most inevitable and necessary”; this from one who had just witnessed and been a major participant in World War II.
To begin to appreciate what he meant, it is important that the true student of history does not begin the process from the standpoint of knowing how things turned out in the end, but rather from a perspective that goes back to the beginning – or as close to the beginning as possible. Those who starred in this drama, after all, had no way of knowing how it would play out.
As the framers of our Constitution labored through that hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, it became increasingly clear that at least two major obstacles were insurmountable, given the political and social landscape of the loosely-knit Confederation, and despite the fact that anything less than agreement would spell a virtual end of any long-term “nationhood”. One of those questions involved slavery which lay at the core of the southern economic system, and without which the largely agricultural nature of their society would not survive. The second question – very much connected with the first – was “states’ rights”, and the balance of powers, not only between state and federal governments, but between the then thirteen separate and independent (and very different) states.
In the end, the problem was overcome (postponed) with the Connecticut Compromise establishing two houses of Congress balanced in such a way as to protect the voting powers of small and less-populated states, and by leaving the question of slavery untouched. To give those great men their due, it was widely believed at that time, that slavery was already on its way out and would die a natural death within twenty years, (several southern states had already written laws toward that end). At that moment, no one could foresee the massive impact of immigration, which would benefit the economies of northern states while undermining the ability of the south to trade competitively with European markets without an even greater reliance on slave labor. At the same time, the western movement, enhanced by the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of new lands after the war with Mexico, all tended to favor the voting majorities of the North. The growing disparity – political, economic and societal – between the North and the South became the dominant factor in national and regional politics, breeding as well a thorough and deep-lying personal enmity between the citizens themselves on many levels. The two great political parties began to coalesce around the issue of abolition, leading to an ideological re-alignment giving birth to the new Republican Party which attracted abolitionists from both sides, including a Senator from Massachusetts, whose assault in the halls of Congress would shock the country.
In the next chapter on “The Long Road to Secession”, we will meet an activist Supreme Court judge named Roger Taney, revisit the “Dred Scott Decision”, and weigh the impact of a best-selling book with the title “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
On May 22nd, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Congressman from South Carolina, assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in a famous caning incident on the floor of the U.S. Senate, so severely injuring the abolitionist leader (then a fellow Democrat), that he would be unable to serve for three years. The incident infuriated the North, cementing the new political anti-slavery coalition, and shocking the nation into a realization that the two sides had reached an irreconcilable abyss.
A John Magee lithograph