Coming Fury

Robin strongly recommends Bruce Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War as worth reading. Volume One, The Coming Fury, confirms that assessment. The book focuses on 1860-61 and explores the events that produced that war. Catton's prose is a bit dramatic at times, but maybe that's appropriate given the scope and importance of the subject matter. In Chapter 2 ("Down a Steep Place") section 2 ("The Great Commitment"), for example:

The motives that compel men to act are sometimes as confusing as the things that grow out of the completed actions. When the Southern delegates walked proudly out of the Democratic conventions they drew armies after them, and put the touch of fire on quaintly named places which no one then knew anything about—Chickamauga Creek, Stone's River, the tidewater barrens at Cold Harbor, and the drowsy market town of Gettysburg, to name but a few. But why they did this and why it had to come out as it did are questions that no one then could have answered and that remain riddles to this day. In part, what was done and what came of it depended on what other men would do in response—it took two sides, after all, to bring about a Sumter bombardment, a battle of Antietam, or a rough-neck march from Atlanta to the sea. But a certain part of it came out of a refusal to admit that the nineteenth century was not going to end as it had begun. For a great number of reasons the American South was fated to try to stay just as it was in a time when everything men lived by was changing from top to bottom. This was the commitment that had been made and that would be paid for. Why?

Catton then explores some causes of the war, including immigration ("Germans, Irish, French, Italians, ..."), sudden social disruption, and major technological breakthroughs (e.g., railroads, telegraphs, semi-automated factories, financial innovation, ...). And of course, central to it all was the monstrously evil institution of slavery. From later in that same chapter:

To fear change meant to fear the alien—the man who looked and talked and acted differently, and who therefore was probably dangerous. And of all the groups whose migration to America had caused strain, the largest of all, and the one whose presence seemed to be the most disturbing, was one racially homogeneous bloc which, to men of that day, seemed to be entirely beyond assimilation. Its members had been coming in for the better part of two centuries. When they arrived they did not fan out across the land, dispersing and mingling and losing clear-cut identity among people already stamped with Americanism, as most immigrants did. These, instead, settled in large groups, congregating in some states until they actually constituted a majority of the population, going to other states hardly at all, clinging with pathetic tenacity to their own customs and folk ways. Of all the immigrant groups these were the most distinctive—in language, in appearance, in culture—and although they were among the most peaceful, easygoing, and uncomplaining people the world has ever seen, their mere presence frightened native Americans almost beyond endurance. Because this was so, the navy patrolled the seas to see that no more of these people took ship for America, and in the states where they settled there were strict laws, rigidly enforced, for their control.

These people, of course, were the Negroes, who had come from Africa—mostly from the enormous, ill-omened bight of Benin, the Slave Coast, from the steaming concentration camps which had been set up for them on those pestilential shores as depots of embarkation. That they had emigrated from their native lands through no desire of their own made no difference; they had come from beyond the seas and now they were here, and a bewildered country that was inclined to give all immigrants some of the blame for its unresolved problems had become so exasperated by the mere presence of these Africans that in 1860 it could discuss its present difficulties and its future way out of them only in terms of this one specific group.

The long voyage across the sea to America lies embedded in the subconscious memory of every American. It was a hard trip even under the best of conditions, and many people died trying to achieve it, but it was made more tolerable by the unvoiced promise that lay at the end. After it was made, its hardships and dangers faded slowly out of sight because those who came were volunteers led on by hope, and there was something in the New World to justify that hope after the trip had ended. But for the Negro it had been different. The trip itself was worse—fearfully, unspeakably worse—and what came after it was very little better than the trip itself. The institution of slavery had become comparatively benign, to be sure, but it was still slavery: a vast system of forced labor that sustained the economy of half a continent, offering to those who labored no prospect whatever for a better life. To the Negro, hope was denied. There was only survival, bought at the price of surrendering human dignity. The Negro had to remain what he was and as he was, his mere presence a mocking denial of the nation's basic belief in freedom and the advancement of the human spirit. He was the one man in America who could not be allowed a share in America's meaning.

Catton returns to this theme two hundred pages later, in Chapter 4 ("Two Presidents") section 4 ("Talking Across a Gulf"). He discusses the communications breakdown between Secretary of State William H. Seward (of New York) and Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell (of Alabama):

Seward and Campbell got nowhere. They were neither heard nor followed; and perhaps, when all is said and done, they could not have gotten anywhere no matter who might have heard or followed them. Perhaps it was not really possible for slavery to die peacefully and quietly, while everyone waited hat in hand for the mills of God to finish their grinding. Perhaps the essential fact about slavery was that it could neither be kept alive nor done to death rationally. Its foundations went far down into the pit, down to blackest wrong and violence, and when the foundations were torn out, wrong and violence would surely be loosed for a season. The institution's defenders had both overplayed their hands and overstayed their time.

Volume One ends with the first battle of Bull Run, July 1861. More to follow ...

(cf. GettysburgCoordinates, Lincoln Memorial, Marble Steps, Team of Rivals, ...) - ^z - 2012-04-05