What Started the US Civil War, by a Contemporary Eyewitness Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

What Started the US Civil War, by a Contemporary Eyewitness

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Union soldier from Massachusetts in 1861
Nothing spoils a good story more than the arrival of an eyewitness.
– Old Saying, commonly attributed to Mark Twain

In the United States of America in the 21st Century, the history of the country is a hotly-contested subject – so much so that some states periodically contemplate laws to mandate or forbid study of certain historical topics. One of those topics is slavery. Another is the US Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, but (some would argue) not over yet. Indeed, during that war, politics had played a part in education. Other evidence of how important – and controversial – the interpretation of Civil War history has become is the seemingly endless debate over Civil War-related public statuary.

One of the main problems in debating historical events is that, once all the eyewitnesses are dead, the facts can be debated by people who weren't there, don't know, and worst of all, have a private axe to grind on the subject. What is a layperson, a non-historian, to think about the debate when the historians disagree? And disagree they do.

One way to approach the subject is to look at primary sources – accounts written by eyewitnesses. One such account is Hardtack and Coffee, or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life, by John Davis Billings (1842-1933). Billings fought in the war as a young man in the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Artillery Battery. After the war, he taught school in the Boston area for 61 years. We know that he freely discussed his views of the war with students.

In the summer of 1881, Billings and some other Union veterans were vacationing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. They spent their evenings reminiscing about the war and what life was like for common soldiers. Somewhat to their surprise, they found an eager audience of boys who wanted to hear the tales. Hardtack and Coffee was inspired by the desire of young people to know more about those war experiences. The book became a best seller and was reprinted eight times. It's considered a go-to book for historians and Civil War re-enactors. We could do worse than consult Billings on the events that led up to the war. An annotated excerpt from the first chapter is offered here in the hopes that it will help clear some of the fog surrounding this controversial historical topic.

The Tocsin1 of War

'On'... with a ripped US flag.

the 6th of November, 1860, Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the Republican party, was elected President of the United States, over three opponents. The autumn of that year witnessed the most exciting political canvass this country had ever seen. The Democratic party, which had been in power for several years in succession, split into factions and nominated two candidates. The northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, who was an advocate of the doctrine of Squatter Sovereignty, that is, the right of the people living in a Territory which wanted admission into the Union as a State to decide for themselves whether they would or would not have slavery.

The southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge, of Kentucky, at that time Vice-President of the United States. The doctrine which he and his party advocated was the right to carry their slaves into every State and Territory in the Union without any hindrance whatever. Then there was still another party, called by some the Peace Party, which pointed to the Constitution of the country as its guide, but had nothing to say on the great question of slavery, which was so prominent with the other parties. It took for its standard-bearer John Bell, of Tennessee; and Edward Everett, of Massachusetts, was nominated as Vice-President. This party drew its membership from both of the others, but largely from the Democrats.

Owing to these divisions the Republican party, which had not been in existence many years, was enabled to elect its candidate. The Republicans did not intend to meddle with slavery where it then was, but opposed its extension into any new States and Territories. This latter fact was very well known to the slave-holders, and so they voted almost solidly for John C. Breckenridge. But it was very evident to them, after the Democratic party divided, that the Republicans would succeed, and so, long before the election actually took place, they began to make threats of seceding2 from the Union if Lincoln was elected. Freedom of speech was not tolerated in these States, and northern people who were down South for business or pleasure, if they expressed opinions in opposition to the popular political sentiments of that section, were at once warned to leave. Hundreds came North immediately to seek personal safety, often leaving possessions of great value behind them. Even native southerners who believed thoroughly in the Union – and there were hundreds of such – were not allowed to say so. This class of people suffered great indignities during the war, on account of their loyalty to the old flag. Many of them were driven by insult and abuse to take up arms for a cause with which they did not sympathize, deserting it at the earliest opportunity, while others held out to the bitter end, or sought a refuge from such persecution in the Union lines.

As early as the 25th of October, several southerners who were or had been prominent in politics met in South Carolina, and decided by a unanimous vote that the State should withdraw from the Union in the event of Lincoln's election, which then seemed almost certain. Some other States held similar meetings about the same date. Thus early did the traitor leaders prepare the South for disunion. These men were better known at that time as 'Fire-eaters.'

As soon as Lincoln's election was announced, without waiting to see what his policy towards the slave States was going to be, the impetuous leaders at the South addressed themselves at once to the carrying out of their threats; and South Carolina, followed, at intervals more or less brief, by Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, seceded from the Union, and organized what was known as the Southern Confederacy. Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee seceded later. The people at the North stood amazed at the rapidity with which treason against the government was spreading, and the loyal Union-loving men began to inquire where President Buchanan was at this time, whose duty it was to see that all such uprisings were crushed out; and 'Oh for one hour of Andrew Jackson in the President's chair3!' was the common exclamation, because that decided and unyielding soldier-President had so promptly stamped out threatened rebellion in South Carolina, when she had refused to allow the duties to be collected at Charleston. But that outbreak in its proportions was to this one as an infant to a giant, and it is quite doubtful if Old Hickory himself, with his promptness to act in an emergency, could have stayed the angry billows of rebellion which seemed just ready to break over the nation. But at any rate he would have attempted it, even if he had gone down in the fight – at least so thought the people.

The very opposite of such a President was James Buchanan, who seemed anxious only for his term of office to expire, making little effort to save the country, nor even willing, at first, that others should do so4. With a traitor for his Secretary of War5, the South had been well supplied with arms under the very nose of the old man. With a traitor for his Secretary of the Navy6, our vessels – not many in number, it is true – had been sent into foreign waters, where they could not be immediately recalled. With a traitor as Secretary of the Treasury7, the public treasury had been emptied. Then, too, there began the seizure of arsenals, mints, custom-houses, post-offices, and fortifications within the limits of the seceding States, and still the President did nothing, or worse than nothing, claiming that the South was wrong in its acts, but that he had no right to prevent treason and secession, or, in the phraseology of that day, 'no right to coerce a sovereign State.' And so at last he left the office a disgraced old man, for whom few had or have a kind word to offer.

Wide Awake

Such, briefly, was the condition of affairs when Abraham Lincoln, fearful of his life, which had been threatened, entered Washington under cover of darkness, and quietly assumed the duties of his office. Never before were the people of this country in such a state of excitement. At the North there were a large number who boldly denounced the 'Long-heeled Abolitionists' and 'Black Republicans' for having stirred up this trouble. I was not a voter at the time of Lincoln's election, but I had taken an active part in the torchlight parades of the 'Wide-awakes8 ' and 'Railsplitters9,' as the political clubs of the Republicans were called, and so came in for a share of the abuse showered upon the followers of the new President. As fresh deeds of violence or new aggressions against the government were reported from the daily papers in the shop where I was then employed, someone who was not a 'Lincolnite' would exclaim, in an angry tone; 'I hope you fellows are satisfied now. I don't blame the South an atom. They have been driven to desperation by such lunatics as Garrison and Phillips10, and these men ought to be hung for it.' ... 'If there is a war, I hope you and every other Black Republican will be made to go and fight for the n*****s all you want to.' ... 'You like the n*****s so well you'll marry one of them yet.' ... And, 'I want to see those hot-headed Abolitionists put into the front rank, and shot first.' These are mild quotations from the daily conversations, had not only where I was employed, but in every other shop and factory in the North. Such wordy contests were by no means one-sided affairs; for the assailed, while not anxious for war, were not afraid of it, and were amply supplied with arguments with which they answered and enraged their antagonists; and if they did not always silence them, they drove them into making just such ridiculous remarks as the foregoing.

If I were asked who these men were, I should not call them by name. They were my neighbors and my friends, but they are changed men to-day. There is not one of them who, in the light of later experiences, is not heartily ashamed of his attitude at that time. Many of them afterwards went to the field, and, sad to say, are there yet11. But this was the period of the most intemperate and abusive language. Those who sympathized with the South were, some months later, called Copperheads. Lincoln and his party were reviled by these men without any restraint except such as personal shame and self-respect might impose; and these qualities were conspicuously absent. Nothing was too harsh to utter against Republicans. No fate was too evil for their political opponents to wish them.

A group of rich Southern slave-holders discussing the political situation

Of course all of these revilers were not sincere in their ill-wishes, but the effect of their utterances on the community was just as evil; and the situation of the new President, at its best a perplexing and critical one, was thus made all the harder, by leading him to believe that a multitude of the citizens at the North would obstruct instead of supporting him. It also gave the slave-holders the impression that a very considerable number of northern men were ready to aid them in prosecuting their treasonable schemes. But now the rapid march of events wrought a change in the opinions of the people in both sections.

The leading Abolitionists had argued that the South was too cowardly to fight for slavery; and the South had been told by the 'Fire-eaters' and its northern friends that the North could not be kicked into fighting; that in case war should arise she would have her hands full to keep her enemies at home in check. Alas! how little did either party understand the temper of the other! How much like that story of the two Irishmen. – Meeting one day in the army, one says, 'How are you, Mike?' 'How are you, Pat?' says the other. 'But my name is not Pat,' said the first speaker. 'Nather is mine Mike,' said the second. 'Faix, thin,' said the first, 'it musht be nayther of us12.'

Nothing could better illustrate the attitude of the North and South towards each other than this anecdote. Nothing could have been more perfect than this mutual misunderstanding each displayed of the temper of the other, as the stride of events soon showed.

The story of how Major Anderson removed his little band of United States troops from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, for reasons of greater safety, is a familiar one13; likewise how the rebels fired upon a vessel sent by the President with supplies intended for it; and, finally, after a severe bombardment of several days, how they compelled the fort to surrender. It was these events which opened the eyes of the 'Northern Doughfaces,' as those who sympathized with the South were often called14, to the real intent of the Seceders. A change came over the spirit of their dreams. Patriotism, love of the Union, at last came uppermost. They had heard it proposed to divide the old flag, giving a part to each section. They had seen a picture of the emblem thus rent, and it was not a pleasing one. Soon the greater portion of them ceased their sneers and ill-wishes, and joined in the general demand that something be done at once to assert the majesty and power of the national government. Even President Lincoln, who, in his inaugural address, had counselled his 'countrymen, one and all, to take time and think calmly and well upon this whole subject,' had come to feel that further forbearance was no virtue, and that a decent respect for this great nation and for his office as President demanded that something should be done speedily. So on the 15th of April he issued a proclamation calling out 75,000 militia, for three months, to suppress the Rebellion, and to cause the laws to be executed.

Lessons

What can we learn from this eyewitness account of a political dispute?

  • The political dispute that set off the Civil War had to do with the question of whether slavery could be spread to new territories acquired by the United States.
  • The political dispute also involved the question of whether individual states could refuse to follow federal laws.
  • In the Buchanan administration, several cabinet positions were held by men who actively supported secession and took steps to improve the strategic position of the newly-formed Confederacy. Then-president Buchanan did little to stop them.
  • The election of Abraham Lincoln 'triggered' a lot of pro-slavery voters.
  • Positions on political questions were not uniformly divided along geographic lines. Some northerners sided with the slave-holders' positions, while many southerners didn't – and didn't support secession.
  • Tempers were hot in 1860. There were a lot of demonstrations.
  • Many Americans took sides and had trouble remaining friends with those who disagreed with them.
  • Hats sometimes took on a political meaning.

Politics: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

1A tocsin is an alarm bell.2To 'secede' means to withdraw. Nobody was sure if this was legal: the Constitution spelled out procedures for making a territory into a state, but none for leaving the Union.3This refers to the vigorous actions taken by Jackson as president during a crisis over the right of states to 'nullify', or cancel, federal laws they didn't like. Jackson said 'no' in no uncertain terms.4This assessment of Buchanan's presidency is still widely shared by historians.5John B Floyd later became a Confederate general.6Isaac Toucey was censured by Congress for corruption, and replaced.7Howell Cobb was one of the founders of the Confederacy.8The 'Wide-Awakes' were paramilitary supporters of Lincoln. They got their name from their habit of marching after dark in torchlight parades, when most people were sleepy. Their 'uniforms' consisted of rain ponchos and either glazed kepis or broad-brimmed hats still known as 'wideawakes'. The 'Wide-Awakes' claimed that they were 'wide awake' to the danger facing the nation. They might be called 'woke' in 21st Century terminology.9The railsplitter meme came from the popular image of Abraham Lincoln, who was a farm labourer in his youth. Splitting logs was a common and labour-intensive way to build a farm fence, and Lincoln did a lot of it. There is a photograph of a split-rail fence on the Library of Congress website.10Abolitionist leaders. William Lloyd Garrison edited The Liberator, and Wendell Phillips, who had been jailed for his Abolitionist activities, spoke at the funeral of John Brown.11That is, they died fighting for the Union side in the war.12Obscure ethnic jokes were an unfortunate feature of the rhetoric of the 1860s-1890s. The point of the joke, if there is one, is that in spite of all the jokes, not all men from Ireland were named either Pat or Mike. The reader will have to figure out what this has to do with the Civil War because this Researcher is stumped.13The story was familiar to people at that time. The exchange of fire at Fort Sumter is considered to be the 'first shots' of the Civil War.14Northern sympathisers with the South were accused of being weak-willed and having 'half-baked' ideas.

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