The Civil War

The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Edited by Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Library of America, 840pp., $37.50

The Library of America has embarked on an ambitious undertaking—a four-year, four-volume series on the Civil War consisting entirely of primary sources—and on the basis of this opening collection, it may be possible to say that here is a new Civil War book that manages to teach something entirely new on the subject. “Entirely new” may be a slight overstatement, to be sure; but for anyone wishing to understand the causes of the conflict, in terms that the participants knew and understood, The Civil War is fascinating reading. Here are basic documents, diaries, speeches, declarations, letters, journalism, government memoranda, even poetry, all collected not to advance a particular thesis but facilitate understanding.

Best of all, the material appears to have been selected not with an eye to influencing opinion but enabling comprehension. No particular argument is favored, no participant is slighted; the emphasis is on painting an authoritative picture of the national crisis as it appeared at the time to the people who endured it. Accordingly, the careful reasoning of Jefferson Davis is granted equal status with the impassioned conviction of William Seward, the cool detachment of Henry Adams is paired with the verbose equivocation of James Buchanan. The arguments for the Union are granted equal weight with the causes of Secession, and vice versa, and judgment is left to the discretion of the reader.

Two things stand out. One is the extent to which the substance of the “irrepressible conflict” was expressed in writing: While the Union steadily disintegrated, and the country drifted inexorably toward war, the issues were argued and explored across the land, in volume and without equivocation. Abraham Lincoln repeatedly emphasizes the necessity of maintaining the Union while Sen. John Crittenden of Kentucky desperately seeks legislative compromise on the extension of slavery. Indeed, slavery is the underlying engine of discord here; but if The Civil War proves anything, it is that the sectional divisions of 1860-61 were exacerbated, not caused, by the issue.

The other point is that the personalities we encounter, in embryo, clearly anticipate their subsequent historic roles. Robert E. Lee writes an anguished letter to his son about the catastrophe of disunion, but warns in equal measure against enforcing union by the sword. William T. Sherman expresses his private affection for the South—he was resident in Louisiana at the outbreak of the war—as well as fierce determination to enforce Lincoln’s policies. Gen. Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda plan” to strangle the South by strategic means is derided by his subordinate Gen. George McClellan, whose soaring self-regard and confidence is very nearly the equal of his contempt for political (and military) masters. And while the secessionist passions of the journalist J.D.B. DeBow are manifestly ill-fated, they are usefully compared to the sectional prejudice of the New York diarist George Templeton Strong.

Few questions in history are exactly as they seem, and few presumptions are simple. Of particular interest is the opinion rendered by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney in the Merryman case, arising from President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. A Union general had, in effect, kidnapped and imprisoned a suspected secessionist in Baltimore, and his lawyers were not only unable to ascertain charges, but Taney’s writ of habeas corpus (he was sitting as a federal circuit judge in Maryland) was resolutely ignored by the general. The chief justice acknowledges that there is no point in pressing the case further—“the power refusing obedience was so notoriously superior to any the marshal could command”—but summons the long history of common law and the Constitution to argue the vital principles at stake. We may indefinitely discuss the varying demands of wartime and civil liberties—and Lincoln makes his case in a special message to Congress a month after Taney’s judgment—but the unfolding arguments make fascinating reading.