Civil War History and Inevitability
I’ve been on a bit of a history kicker lately, particularly Civil War history, even if by chance. On successive occasions I read Tony Horowitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, followed by April 1865: The Month that Saved America by Jay Winik. It was purely coincidental that I read those books back-to-back, though they serve as proper bookends to Civil War history. I also happened to finally see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
First a review of the works themselves. Midnight Rising is an excellent recounting of the events leading up to John Brown’s raid, the raid itself, and of course the fallout. Horowitz’s account is fairly straight, though one can’t help but detect a bit of admiration for Brown peeking through his narrative. You can probably make a good argument for both the proposition that Brown was a complete lunatic and that he was a hero who stood on principle (though probably more the former).
Winik’s narrative is engaging, and if you are unfamiliar with many of the details of not just the events of April 1865, but of the Civil War in general, then Winik’s book is a very good primer. Unfortunately it suffers from a few severe, though hardly fatal defects. First of all, Winik litters his story with repeated digressions, filling in biographical details of the main figures – Lee, Grant, Lincoln, Davis, Forrest, Sherman, Booth, even Johnston. Again, this may or may not infuriate the reader depending upon his knowledge of Civil War history. It felt like padding to me, and unnecessary padding at that.
Second, while he gets his history mostly right, there are a few notable lapses. Most grating to me was his discussion of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and their respective writings on nullification. Like many other writers, he contends that Madison supported nullification in the Virginia Resolutions, when in point of fact Madison completely rejected the doctrine of nullification throughout his life and merely argued for a concept known as interposition in the Virginia Resolutions. This is a relatively minor point, but Winik makes a handful of errors, especially with regards to Lincoln’s attitudes towards having extra protection on the day of his assassination. Winik makes Lincoln seem callous about his own security, but it was Edwin Stanton who denied him an extra bodyguard.
Finally, Winik’s fundamental thesis is overstated (and also restated repeatedly in a seemingly unending epilogue). Though the conclusion of the war was a momentous occasion in American history, Winik overstates the willingness and the capability of the south to engage in guerilla warfare to prolong to conflict. Certainly Lee could have decided to rebuff Grant’s peace overtures, and Johnston could have listened to Jefferson Davis’s appeals to continue the fight, but would the south have kept the Union at bay as effectively and as long as Winik speculates? I suppose that is a matter of some conjecture, but I think Winik drastically overestimates the ability of any sizable confederate band to harass the Union for much longer.
As for the movie Lincoln, I’ll largely second Donald’s review. It was an epic film, and Daniel Day-Lewis was simply outstanding. I’ll admit I even got choked up at the end – a rarity for me as usually only Field of Dreams ever makes me cry.
Beyond the merits of these works, I wanted to explore some of their themes – or at least some of the thoughts that they inspired in me directly or indirectly.
First and foremost, both the movie and Winik’s book – which together cover the final months of the war – bring home the point that we tend to look back upon these final months with some sense of inevitability. We fail to appreciate that both the outcome of the war and the abolition of slavery were not necessarily settled matters. Spielberg’s movie in particular drives home the fact that it was still possible for the Union to emerge victorious with slavery not abolished.
We forget that though anti-slavery sentiment was strong throughout the Union, abolitionist sentiment was not, particularly among the Democratic party. To the extent that abolitionist sentiment had gained steam since the outset of the war, we can pinpoint one action: the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
It is a recurring theme in anti-Lincoln literature that the Proclamation accomplished nothing, freeing not a single slave. What the critics fail to appreciate is that the Proclamation changed the very nature of the war, transforming it from a war to preserve the Union to a war of both preservation and emancipation. Lincoln had, to borrow a phrase, set slavery on a course for ultimate extinction. As Winik puts it:
[T]he Emancipation Proclamation was the most revolutionary document in the country’s history since the Declaration of Independence; it truly began the end of slavery, in the North and the South. The psychological impact of the proclamation cannot be underestimated: Lincoln, in a masterful stroke, had become a personal emblem of freedom, and the Emancipation Proclamation was its parchment. As a war act, it was also a stunning measure, imbuing the Northern war effort with a larger moral purpose without overshooting its mark.
Without the Emancipation Proclamation it is doubtful we get a 13th Amendment.
As for the cessation of hostilities, only with nearly 150 years of hindsight does it seem so manifest that April 1865 would have seen, effectively, the end of the war (save for some skirmishes that took place in Missouri and Texas). Certainly Jefferson Davis wasn’t prepared to give up the fight, and Robert E. Lee and/or Joe Johnston could have decided to continue skirmishing for many more months, if not longer. Had Johnston not engaged in what amounted to insubordination, the war would have lingered on. Winik may have overestimated the Confederacy’s ability to effectively engage in guerrilla warfare, but at the very least such a fight would have only dragged the already staggering body count even higher.
Finally, getting back to John Brown, one can’t help but wonder if – deluded though he was – he helped spark a conflagration that carried out his ultimate designs. Oh, the war would likely have come with or without John Brown, but his actions swayed many a southerner towards the conviction that the Yankees were nothing but anti-slavery radicals who could not be trusted with the governance of an entire nation. He may not have caused the war, but he helped give it a push.