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LINDA HOGAN ~ IN VERMONT EARLY SPRING CATERPILLAR

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HEATHER COX RICHARDSON
LETTER FROM AN AMERICAN

4.13.2024

AND THE WAR CAME... At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, a federal fort built on an artificial island in Charleston Harbor.

Attacking the fort seemed a logical outcome of events that had been in play for at least four months. On December 20, 1860, as soon as it was clear Abraham Lincoln had won the 1860 presidential election, South Carolina lawmakers had taken their state out of the Union. “The whole town [of Charleston] was in an uproar,” Elizabeth Allston recalled. “Parades, shouting, firecrackers, bells ringing, cannon on the forts booming, flags waving, and excited people thronging the streets.”

Mississippi had followed suit on January 9, 1861; Florida on January 10; Alabama on January 11; Georgia on January 19; Louisiana on January 26; and Texas on February 1. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven southern states had left the Union and formed their own provisional government that protected human enslavement.

Their move had come because the elite enslavers who controlled those southern states believed that Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 itself marked the end of their way of life. Badly outnumbered by the northerners who insisted that the West must be reserved for free men, southern elites were afraid that northerners would bottle up enslavement in the South and gradually whittle away at it. Those boundaries would mean that white southerners would soon be outnumbered by the Black Americans they enslaved, putting not only their economy but also their very lives at risk.

To defend their system, elite southern enslavers rewrote American democracy. They insisted that the government of the United States of America envisioned by the Founders who wrote the Declaration of Independence had a fatal flaw: it declared that all men were created equal. In contrast, the southern enslavers were openly embracing the reality that some people were better than others and had the right to rule.

They looked around at their great wealth -- the European masters hanging in their parlors, the fine dresses in which they clothed their wives and daughters, and the imported olive oil on their tables -- and concluded they were the ones who had figured out the true plan for human society. As South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond explained to his colleagues in March 1858, the “harmonious...and prosperous” system of the South worked precisely because a few wealthy men ruled over a larger class with “a low order of intellect and but little skill.” Hammond dismissed “as ridiculously absurd” the idea that “all men are born equal.”

On March 21, 1861, Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, the newly-elected vice president of the Confederacy, explained to a crowd that the Confederate government rested on the “great truth” that the Black man “is not equal to the white man; that...subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens told listeners that the Confederate government “is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Not every white southerner thought secession from the United States was a good idea. Especially as the winter wore into spring and Lincoln made no effort to attack the South, conservative leaders urged their hot-headed neighbors to slow down. But for decades, southerners had marinated in rhetoric about their strength and independence from the federal government, and as Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana later wrote, “[t]he prudent and conservative men South,” were not “able to stem the wild torrent of passion which is carrying everything before it…. It is a revolution...of the most intense character…and it can no more be checked by human effort, for the time, than a prairie fire by a gardener’s watering pot.”

Southern white elites celebrated the idea of a new nation, one they dominated, convinced that the despised Yankees would never fight. “So far as civil war is concerned,” one Atlanta newspaper wrote in January 1861, “we have no fears of that in Atlanta.” White southerners boasted that “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed” in establishing a new nation. Senator James Chesnut of South Carolina went so far as to vow that he would drink all the blood shed as a consequence of southern secession.

Chesnut’s promise misread the situation. Northerners recognized that if Americans accepted the principle that some men were better than others, and permitted southern Democrats to spread that principle by destroying the United States, they had lost democracy. "I should like to know, if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it, where will it stop?” Lincoln had asked in 1858.

Northerners rejected the white southerners’ radical attempt to destroy the principles of the Declaration of Independence. They understood that it was not just Black rights at stake. Arguments like that of Stephens, that some men were better than others, “are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world,” Lincoln said. “You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden.... Turn in whatever way you will -- whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent....”

Northerners rejected the slaveholders’ unequal view of the world, seeing it as a radical reworking of the nation’s founding principles. After the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 to put down the rebellion against the government. He called for “loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.”

Like their southern counterparts, northerners also dismissed the idea that a civil war would be bloody. They were so convinced that a single battle would bring southerners to their senses that inhabitants of Washington, D.C., as well as congressmen and their wives packed picnics and took carriages out to Manassas, Virginia, to watch the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. They decamped in panic as the battle turned against the United States army and soldiers bolted past them, flinging haversacks and rifles as they fled.

For their part, southerners were as shocked by the battle as the people of the North were. “Never have I conceived,” one South Carolina soldier wrote, “of such a continuous, rushing hailstorm of shot, shell, and musketry as fell around and among us for hours together. We who escaped are constantly wondering how we could possibly have come out of the action alive.”

Over the next four years, the Civil War would take more than 620,000 lives and cost the United States more than $5 billion. By 1865, two-thirds of the assessed value of southern wealth had evaporated; two-fifths of the livestock -- horses and draft animals for tilling fields as well as pigs and sheep for food— were dead. Over half the region's farm machinery had been destroyed, most factories were burned, and railroads were gone, either destroyed or worn out. But by the end of the conflagration, the institution of human enslavement as the central labor system for the American South was destroyed.

On March 4, 1865, when a weary Lincoln took the oath of office for a second time, he reviewed the war’s history. “To strengthen, perpetuate and extend [slavery] was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it,” he said. “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered -- that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

“Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish,” he said.

“And the war came.”

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