Unless your calendar notes important occurrences or observations, you might not be aware that the sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War is upon us.
Some observers may have marked the start of the observance with the 150th Anniversary last year of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859. Others use the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 as their benchmark.
Both milestones would be appropriate.
But between those two dates occurred what could be best described as America’s Twilight Zone – a period when the federal government was absolutely powerless.
The United States came close to unraveling without so much as a shot being fired. What’s more, no one could have stopped its dissolution. The ramifications that would have had for the future of the world would have been unimaginable.
The administration of James Buchanan arguably represented the weakest Presidency in our history. He did little or nothing to bring the opposing factions, North and South, together. Proactive was not a word in his vocabulary.
His failure to intercede and restore some semblance of control at the federal level all but assured the fragmentation of political parties that led to the divided result in the Presidential Election of 1860.
Upon taking the oath of office in March 1861, there was almost nothing Lincoln could do to reassemble the union. Seven states had already seceded, with South Carolina leading the way in December 1860. There was no desire for any of the seven to return under any conditions.
The United States Supreme Court was not asked to opine. It would have been unlikely any good would have come from it given the court’s previous pro-slavery ruling on the Dred Scott case and Chief Justice Roger Taney being a slaveholder.
How powerless was the government?
Consider this: the Army’s commanding general in charge of troops in Texas, handed over all posts to that state’s government and arranged for the evacuation of all federal troops without authority from Washington. Although he was dishonorably discharged a couple of weeks later, it was a case of too little, too late. The general was David Twiggs who went on to serve in the Confederate States Army.
There was a little irony in the early months of secession – the United States Post Office continued to deliver the mail throughout the seven former states until the Confederate States established its own postal service in February 1861, so we can add secession to snow, sleet or hail.
Lincoln would have done anything to save the Union and was on record as saying he would not interfere with slavery where it existed under the current laws.
Although slavery was the core issue behind the Civil War, many Americans in the northern states were sadly ambivalent about it. Many northerners did not want slavery in their own states, but did not care if it existed in the south. In some regions, there was fear that freed slaves would compete for jobs.
Abolitionists were in the minority. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. If anything, his views on slavery may have been a little closer to Robert E. Lee’s than to Salmon P. Chase‘s, his rival for the Republican nomination . Lincoln’s view of slavery evolved after the war started to the point where he positioned the conflict as a fight for freedom.
Indeed, society in those days was not enlightened. It is a paradox that while we waged a war to free slaves, the United States continued its policy of genocide against native Americans.
The federal government’s lack of resolve would have been the end of a United States had it continued. The Army was too small to interfere, and at least a third of its officer corp were southerners, many of whom resigned their commissions as their states withdrew from the Union. Had Lincoln called for volunteers, almost all of the upper south, consisting of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland would have bolted rather than support what they would have perceived to be an invasion force – one that would have to march through their lands to reach the disaffected states of the deep south.
Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place, but that is where Lincoln was wedged.
So what did he do?
Other than keep the door open for the return of the seven states with a promise not to end slavery, he did almost nothing. As it turned out, that was the smartest course of action.
Lincoln’s patience won out over the Confederacy’s impatience. By firing on Fort Sumter, the South aroused the passions of the North as no other issue could, including slavery.
Although the commencement of hostilities did drive Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina to secede, the other border states remained largely loyal to the Union and served as valuable springboards for the invasion of the Confederacy. It’s worth noting that Kentucky and Missouri were represented in the Congresses of both sides, but the impact was insignificant in the South’s prosecution of the war.
You might say the Nation dodged a bullet by firing bullets. Had the South been content with letting Fort Sumter wither on the vine, it is likely the North would have acquiesced. America would have devolved into two nations, and perhaps fractured even further. A precedent would have been set for other states to secede – California and the rest of the southwest may have formed yet another country in time. There were a sizeable number of southern sympathizers in Southern California in 1861.
The world is a better place because the United States remained united. It is difficult to imagine how the world could have dealt with the challenges and epic upheavals caused by World Wars One and Two without the full weight of a nation as dynamic and resourceful as the one we know today.
Think about that this July 4th.