Today is the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the incident that sparked the Civil War and led to four years of bloody conflict.
While the sesquicentennial celebrations in commemoration of the war ended in 2015, it is one of the rare subjects which publishers can continuously turn to and have a guaranteed seller.
It’s been remarked that, with the possible exception of Jesus, there has been no figure in human history written about more than Abraham Lincoln.
The University of North Carolina Press has published a new book about him, “Gathering to Save the Nation: Lincoln & the Union’s War Governors by Stephen D. Engle”, which analyzes the sixteenth president’s management of relations with the states at a time when the federal government’s authority was being tested in loyal areas.
This is not the first book to analyze Lincoln’s relationship with the governors of Union states.
Lincoln and the War Governors by William B. Hesseltine explored many of the same themes in this book, but it was published over half a century ago, and it gave cursory treatment of certain issues covered in depth here.
As Engle vividly recounts, in 1861 and 1862 the war was one in which the states played the leading in supplying men, furnishing supplies, training units and providing commanders for the groups of men who would fight in groups distinguished by their state of origin.
In the early years of the war, the Union suffered a series of defeats that damaged Lincoln’s political standing and led to defeat of some gubernatorial and congressional Republican candidates in the 1862 elections.
Nonetheless, in September of that year, many of the Union’s most prominent governors met in Altoona, Pennsylvania and reaffirmed the policies of the administration. While this is a little noted event today, the governors’ meeting and subsequent consultation in Washington with the president gave him the wiggle room to push forward with changes in the war’s strategy.
Perhaps the most controversial change, and what would lead to the defeat of some Republicans, was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. As the book makes clear, many soldiers up to that point fought not to abolish slavery, but rather to preserve the integrity of the Union.
However, revolutions once in place are virtually impossible to retract, and the war took on a new justification. The next two years would see ups and downs, but the Emancipation Proclamation did not lead to the governmental collapse some feared. In 1864, however, Lincoln remained doubtful about his reelection prospects, but Engle points to the early election results for states that voted before November.
In each of those, the Republican Party generally maintained control, in large part due to their governors’ zealous campaigning. Therefore, the greater concern was not whether Lincoln would win, but by how much.
Had he won by only a narrow margin, it would have weakened his ability to pursue total war and he might have been pressured into a brokered settlement. Fortunately, with the fall of Atlanta, Georgia, Lincoln’s popularity increased and he defeated his former general George McClellan by a ten-point spread.
By the time of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the governors of Union states had installed political machinery that would keep the Republican Party in power in most Northern states for the next half-century.
Nonetheless, even as the war drew to a close with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, each governor was left to discharge their military units and grapple with the radical social changes the country had undergone in the prior four years. In many cases, particularly regarding civil rights, they failed to meet the demands of winning the peace and it would take over a century before a true rapprochement occurred between the North and South.
As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, Mr. Engle thoroughly covers a subject that has been analyzing in a piecemeal manner by prior historians, and in the process accomplishes the rare feat of adding something new to discussions of the Civil War.
Lincoln’s ability to balance the demands of the border states, while also acknowledging the stalwart loyalty of the Northern states, was possible in large part because of the political advice and support he received from those states’ governors.
While they would often differ with him on matters of policy, the Civil War was one of the rare times in American history when an eclectic mix of politicians cooperated for the good of the country. If only we were so fortunate today.
Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]