2011 marks the 150th anniversary (Sesquicentennial, if you prefer) of the American Civil War. Stated another way, seven score and 10 years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a severely fractured nation, poised to erupt into a four-year-long cataclysm of fratricidal carnage, suffering and near despair.
As Americans, we all share a sort of “civic genetic code” which includes an innate awareness of the American Civil War, and of Abraham Lincoln — we’re “hardwired” to vaguely recognize Lincoln’s and the War’s profound importance as to who and what we are as a people and a nation 150 years later. Perhaps this archetype is a remnant or descendant of the hypnotically haunting “Mystic Chords of Memory” conjured by the brand-new President in his first Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1861.
But President Lincoln’s inspired appeal to the “better angels of our nature” of his fellow citizens in 1861 fell for the most part on deaf ears, and six weeks later America was at war with itself.
Today, unfortunately, our own memories and impressions of the Civil War have faded, or, to an alarming degree, have been falsified, revised, or conveniently “misremembered.” Consequently, a toxic plume of incorrect and revisionist history has insidiously migrated into countless nooks, crannies, and synapses of our current national identity and memory.
Of course, the most absurd and malicious contention is that somehow the Civil War was NOT about slavery. To which my own thoughtful and carefully worded, response is: “Oh, Come On! YES IT WAS!”
The Civil War was very much about slavery, and not simply because the evil institution was finally abolished over the course of the war and with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Having spent a fair amount of time over the course of my own life reflecting on this very question, and upon the motivations of those who seriously contend otherwise, I will be providing a significant amount of discussion and identification of outside reference sources which are directly on point in future columns.
But beyond the end of slavery and preservation of the Union, most of us (me included) have not invested the requisite attention and energy to a better understanding of precisely what lessons we should learn from legacies of the Civil War and of our greatest President.
Over the coming months, and perhaps for the entire Sesquicentennial Period, I will write a regular (more or less) weekly column for The Colorado Statesman, which will focus on various aspects of the Civil War. I hope to provide an opportunity for The Statesman’s politically and historically astute readership to revisit, discuss and debate core questions as to what actually happened, and why, and how we should interpret those events when applying their lessons to our current civic and political challenges.
Since I hope this effort will encourage new and returning students of U.S. history to consult the true experts on these topics, I will also periodically provide periodic listings and or reviews of books and other reference resources I’ve found particularly useful, readable and well-researched during my years of fascination and inquiry into all things Lincoln and/or Civil War.
I also promise to share with readers some of the many interesting, enjoyable, and less well-known stories about that era, and about its many heroes, villains, odd characters, and general participants, both on and off the battlefields.
My own early fascination with the Civil War stemmed directly from my status as a third generation Marylander/Washingtonian. With or without my consent, I was frequently tossed into the back of our station wagon and transported with siblings and family friends on weekend picnics to nearby battlefields and historic sites: Antietam (Sharpsburg), Gettysburg, Manassas (Bull Run), Harper’s Ferry, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Appomattox Courthouse, Arlington Cemetery and the Custiss-Lee Mansion, Ford’s Theater, and of course, the Lincoln Memorial.
I realize now that a column tracking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War should perhaps have begun in 1860, with Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address in New York and the incredible inner workings and machinations of the various political party conventions to nominate presidential candidates. Hopefully, I will be able to provide some information on those events in future columns.
Likewise, the Civil War cannot be discussed without some attention to major precursors of the war, such as: The Missouri Compromise of 1820; The Compromise of 1850, including a beefed-up Fugitive Slave Law; the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854; the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision of 1857; the John Brown Raid on Harper’s Ferry, VA of 1859; and the general incompetence (and, arguably treasonous activities) of various members of President James Buchanan’s Administration. So we’ll touch on those topics in the future as well.
But for purposes of kicking off this series, the early months of 1861 seem a logical place to begin setting the stage:
On February 11, 1861, the day before his 52nd birthday, the President-elect said goodbye to his many friends and neighbors of Springfield, Illinois. By this date, seven Southern states had passed resolutions of secession (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas), and Northern anti-slavery leaders were seriously considering compromise measures designed to entice Southern states to remain in the Union in exchange for allowing the expansion of slavery into the territories of the United States. So, with all that on his mind as he prepared to board a train eventually bound for Washington, D.C. after a tour of pro-Union Northern states, Abe had these emotional parting words for those he left behind:
“My Friends — No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To his care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me. I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
On to the nation’s Capital
Lincoln arrived in Washington in the early morning hours of February 23, 1861, after a bizarre, surreptitious trip from Philadelphia, literally sneaking through Baltimore due to credible reports of a possible assassination plot in that pro-secession Maryland city.
Newly elected Confederate President Jefferson Davis began his own journey from Vicksburg, MS to the temporary CSA Capitol of Montgomery, AL on the same day Lincoln departed Springfield. One of the major challenges to his journey would remain a problem for him over the next several years as well: even before the invention of the “Sherman Necktie,” the rail networks of the South were terribly circuitous and inefficient.
Although Lincoln desperately wanted to peacefully hold the Union together, he refused to consider any compromise proposal that permitted the expansion of slavery beyond its current southern borders. Notably, however, Lincoln simultaneously attempted to assure the Southern slaveholding interests that he had no intention of upsetting the status quo for existing slavery, and believed that the U.S. Constitution would not permit him to do so in any event.
But the Fire-eaters and other pro-secession forces of the South were not listening. They had decided upon a course which entertained but two options: complete acquiescence by the U.S. to allow slavery to expand into new territories, including new Constitutional guarantees to that effect, or a parting of the ways between North and South.
By the time of Lincoln’s Inauguration, many of the rowdier pro-secessionists were converging on Charleston, South Carolina, where several federal forts, including Ft. Sumter (a tiny island in the middle of Charleston’s Harbor), seemed ripe for acquisition.
Although it’s true that South Carolina was not entirely responsible for the bombardment of Ft. Sumter, it is historically accurate that then-Governor Pickens was so over-the-top in his eagerness to attack the federal fort, and thus call the U.S. government’s bluff, that Confederate President Davis and one of his cabinet members implored Pickens refrain from such an attack until the new Confederate government could attend to its own military preparedness. Davis subsequently dispatched Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant (“P.G.T.” for short) Beauregard to manage military preparations in Charleston. At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Beauregard’s forces opened fire with an artillery barrage on Ft. Sumter, “and the rest is history,” as they say. But my goodness, what a profound and tragic history it was to be!
Incredibly, the attack on Ft. Sumter, which commenced the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, did not kill a single person. In fact the one death associated with Ft. Sumter was that of a Federal soldier who was later killed by a recoiling cannon during a ceremonial salute to the U.S. flag.
Within days of the Ft. Sumter attack, even the most remote hopes for a peaceful resolution of this sectional conflict had evaporated. Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for Northern states to muster 75,000 troops (the current active Army ranks were less than 20,000; whereas Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant would eventually command nearly 1 million troops by the end of the war). Nearly one third of the U.S. Army’s professional officer corps, including Colonel Robert E. Lee, resigned.
Notwithstanding that the Confederacy had fired the first shots of the war, four more states (Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina) claimed shock at the aggressive northern behavior of raising troop levels in response to an armed attack, and made known their intentions to join the Confederacy.
In Norfolk, VA, state militia forces seized the major U.S. Naval Base, and in Baltimore, MD rioting pro-secession sympathizers fired shots at federal troops in transit to Washington from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.The first casualties of the Civil War occurred here: 16 deaths, including 4 soldiers and 12 civilians, as well as 36 more soldiers and many more civilians wounded.
Prior to secession, approximately 32 million people, 4 million of whom were enslaved, inhabited the United States. Four years later, well over 600,000 of those people would be dead as a result of battle and disease within the military ranks of both sides. It’s no wonder that, to this day, opinions and emotions about this chapter of our history defy general consensus and harmony, and I look forward to participating in future discussions.
Patrick Teegarden is a public policy consultant, attorney, and proud father of two adopted daughters from China. He lives in Denver. In addition to a brief stint in the 1980s as a Broncos/Sports reporter for The Statesman, he has served in senior policy positions with Congressman Tim Wirth, the Denver Chamber of Commerce, the State of Colorado (CDPHE), and in the private sector. Teegarden is a 36-year resident of Colorado, but for purposes of Civil War topics still considers himself an expatriate of the Border State of Maryland. He can be contacted by e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org.