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The “Unexpected” War?

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: What follows is totally intellectually dishonest. I’m going to take a swipe at a book I haven’t even read, basing my comments on a few points in a NYT book review.

keeganThe book is The American Civil War: A Military History, and the author is British military historian John Keegan. Judging from his lengthy and wide-reaching list of works, Keegan knows his way around redoubts and fusiliers and billets. I would never question him on any assertion about tactics and strategy. But one quote from the The American Civil War, cited in the Times review, kinda made me stumble a bit:

“The American Civil War is one of the most mysterious great wars of history, mysterious because unexpected…”

Unexpected?

The division slavery engendered was no mystery to American leaders. Certainly not in the decades before the war. And even back to the Constitutional Convention, with the disagreements slavery stirred there, no one could have been too surprised by conflict of some kind, if not all-out war. Maybe some Americans thought a peaceful disunion could come. That was the term used during the 1840s, with secession eventually following it. And it wasn’t just proslavery Southern forces who talked about a split; some staunch abolitionists sometimes suggested a parting of the ways between the North and South would be better for everybody. But the majority’s desire for compromise and perpetual Union kept the country together for a time.

"Ouch," Charles Sumner said.

"Ouch," Charles Sumner said.

For a time. But after the anger stirred by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the violence in Bleeding Kansas, the caning of Charles Sumner in the Capitol, John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry – surely after all that few people were caught off guard by war? The 1850s saw deepening venom on both sides, and after 1856, a Northern president, James Buchanan, who seemed overly sympathetic to the slave-owing South, who was willing to cripple his own party rather than work for compromise, and who only got tough with the South after South Carolina had seceded in December 1860.

Fort Sumter ablaze, and the unexpected begins...

Fort Sumter ablaze, and the unexpected begins...

Was it unexpected that even a generally pro-South president would take action to preserve Federal property, once it came under threat from secessionists? Buchanan refused to turn over Fort Sumter. Of course, he took the easy way out and said he couldn’t without permission from Congress. Still, he was not going to give in, and Lincoln largely followed the plan he had laid out for resupplying and reinforcing the fort in April 1861. Although, once the firing started, Lincoln moved much swifter for all-out war than Buchanan would have – if he would have.

But maybe even Buchanan would have fought, or been pressured to fight, to keep the Union whole. Who knows? But whatever his feelings for states’ rights and the constitutionality of slavery, Buchanan was a Unionist. And he had thought since the 1830s that secession would split the country apart. Back then, he wasn’t sure if secession were legal; by January 1861, he declared it was not:

“No State has a right by its own act to secede from the Union or throw off its federal obligations at pleasure…even if that right existed and should be exercised by any State of the Confederacy the executive department of this Government had no authority under the Constitution to recognize its validity by acknowledging the independence of such State.”

So Old Buck, reviled by many then and now (he’s been called the worst president ever by some modern historians, and another lambasted his actions before the war as near treasonous), stated the case Lincoln would follow. Given that kind of thinking, and the strong feelings of the secessionists, how unexpected was the war that began three months later?

[Speaking of strong feelings, a Georgian expressed this view to his senator during the tumultuous debates over Kansas’s status: “If Kansas comes in as a free state, Buchanan will richly deserve death, and I hope some patriotic man will inflict it.”]

During my years of research, I’ve come across many selections from both Northerners and Southerners who feared an explosive split between the North and South, with slavery the fuse and keg all in one. And real scholars of the era before the war could probably make an even stronger argument against Keegan’s claim. You can say a lot of things about the Civil War – neither side was really prepared to fight it, no one thought it would be as long and bloody as it was. But unexpected? Hmm…

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