TCNJ Magazine: Spring 18

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21 SPRING 2018 choices. Sumter showed the federal government would not tolerate secession indefinitely. Giving it up would send entirely the wrong message. Might there yet be some way to hold the fort? Or would trying to do so necessarily start a war? Seward and his Southern Unionist allies believed peace was essential to stop secession in the Upper South and that any use of force could undermine the Union advantage there. War, they feared, would irrevocably shatter the Union. By their lights, time was on the side of the Union if war could be prevented. But Lincoln worried that time was not on the side of the Union. The Deep South's separation seemed more permanent every day, with no evidence of any disposition to reconsider. Lincoln feared the hands-off policy favored by Seward would make the Deep South's independence irrevocable. In the end, of course, Lincoln decided to try to hold Sumter. He concluded that peaceful reunion was impossible, and he was ready to gamble that the Union could be forcibly restored. Neither he nor anyone else knew, in advance, the ghastly price in blood and treasure that would be required. He gave the Confederates fair warning: He would try to send food to the beleaguered outpost and would make no effort to send in additional weapons or ammuni- tion if food could be landed. But he had ample reason to suspect Confederates would forcibly thwart the resupply mission and seize the outpost. They, however, would have to fire the first shot, and the decision to commence hostilities would be theirs, not his. The outbreak of war forever eclipsed the House and Senate's last-minute approval of the would-be 13th Amendment — and Lincoln's explicit acceptance of it. During 1862, the war became an inconclusive bloodbath on a scale nobody could have imagined. Many enslaved people fled their masters, sought protection from the Union army, and stood ready to fight. Growing numbers of free state residents, and undoubted majorities of Republicans, resolved to build a new Union. Only by eliminating slavery — the source of the war — could the future be secured. So it was, that the real 13th Amendment enacted in 1865 absolutely reversed the original version — and ended the slave system that the stillborn 13th Amendment of 1861 was designed to safeguard. Frederick Douglass, the great African-American abolitionist, stood on the outside looking in as the North-South crisis intensified in early 1861. Unlike most other Northerners, he "yearned for a conflict" against the South and slavery. The inaugural address fulfilled his "worst fears." It was "wholly discreditable" and evidence of "cowardly baseness," he wrote, for Lincoln to be "prostrating himself " before the "slave-holding oligarchy." Douglass "wanted the old Union destroyed," writes his biographer, David Blight. Disunion "might mean war and untold suffering," but he "dreamed of witnessing the power of the federal government mobilized to crush slavery." He yearned for a new Union that would bring equal citizenship to all. What we see here, in chrysalis, is the way growing majorities of Americans today understand their nation's history. The conventional wisdom of the early 20th century — 100 years ago — erased slavery as a cause of the war, validated the white South's "Lost Cause" mythology, and said black people could not share the opportu- nities other Americans took for granted. But the ongoing quest for racial justice in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s has rekindled an understanding of Civil War-era history that sees the situation as Douglass did. Once war began in earnest, it followed the trajectory Douglass anticipated. He therefore deserves stature as an American prophet, who saw the events of his own lifetime in ways that make sense to us today. But our new sensibilities obscure the political situation just before the war began, when many Northerners tried to maintain the peace and conciliate the disaffected white South. Racial justice and emancipation were not then part of the mainstream agenda — or Lincoln's agenda — even though he and his fellow Republicans disliked slavery and hoped it eventually would disappear. The events of March 1861 provide a reminder of the distance we have come — and the distance we still must go. ■ Daniel Crofts considers Lincoln one of the three greatest American presidents but questions whether he aspired to abolish slavery even before the Civil War began. Crofts' book, LincoLn and the PoLitics oF sLavery (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), won the 2017 Nau Book Prize in Civil War Era History at the University of Virginia.

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