- Dissonance: The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run
- Harcourt, 358 pp.
A Narrative of the Great American Crisis
David Detzer’s new book Dissonance completes his trilogy about those fateful weeks and months of 1861, when the American republic was beginning to tear apart. Does a relatively brief period in our history deserve three books by a single author? An American reviewer is perhaps not ethnocentric in saying that the months from Abraham Lincoln’s election as President in November 1860 until the first Battle of Bull Run the following July were one of the great periods of crisis in the last three centuries of history–not just American history, but the history of the Western world.
Like most other great crises of these centuries, few initially foresaw what would happen. In 1775 it seemed clear to most people in the civilized world that Britain would soon deal with its rebellious American colonists. In 1848 many hoped that the wave of revolution in Europe would see democracies replace despotisms. In 1914, the European war that many had in fact foreseen was clearly not going to last long. Who thought that it would topple thrones, and slaughter a continent’s generation of young men?
In America, in early 1861, Southern states followed South Carolina’s lead and began to declare that they, too, were leaving the Union. Many Americans thought that their country could avoid civil war; that the North would let the South go peacefully. David Detzer–a professor emeritus of history, from Connecticut State University–tells us that “Virtually no one, not even wise old heads like Winfield Scott, foresaw the immensity of the coming savagery.” And who should know better than Scott, the general in chief of the U.S. Army? He had fought in every American war over the past half-century, beginning with the War of 1812.
In fact, although Professor Detzer does not name them, there were a few observers who had an inkling of what was to come. An Ohioan named Donn Piatt, whom Lincoln considered briefly for his new Cabinet, had the temerity to tell the President-elect in November 1860 that in ninety days the land would be white with army tents. But Lincoln didn’t want to hear it. Three months later, in March 1861, as Washington prepared for Lincoln’s inauguration, a number of newspapers–including many in the South–were continuing to forecast a relatively peaceful division of the country. But a fiery Richmond editor named John Moncure Daniel wrote in his newspaper, the Examiner, that before another year had passed Abraham Lincoln would have deluged in blood the shattered Union.
Detzer focuses much of his new book on what was happening along the key corridor of the Northeast that runs from Richmond north through Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and New England. Richmond was a small city: 38,000 people at the census of 1860, thirty percent of them slaves and not quite seven percent free blacks. It was also, as this reviewer has written elsewhere, the wealthiest city of its size in America and perhaps in the world. Washington, a hundred miles north, had twice the population of Richmond and contained a number of fine government buildings, but as Detzer says, much of the District of Columbia remained literally a wilderness. Despite the nationwide boom in railroad construction, in 1861 there was still no straight rail link between the two cities. A traveler from Richmond would take a train north to Aquia Creek, halfway to Washington, but must then take ship to reach the national capital. Forty miles beyond Washington lay the much larger city of Baltimore, what Detzer calls a complex metropolis with an ugly tendency toward violence. In the 1850s, he reports, gangs had taken control of most city wards. It was also a city with strong Southern sentiments, where very few had voted for Lincoln. Much of Dissonance focuses on Baltimore, a key link in the railroad line that stretched from Washington northward. If that link should be broken, the consequences for the Federal capital–indeed, for the Union–could be fatal. Abraham Lincoln had come through Baltimore by train, on his way to Washington for his inauguration in March; but he had come secretly, behind the curtains of a berth in a sleeping car. If there should be a need to send soldiers from the Northeast to reinforce the small troop force in Washington, would they encounter difficulties in passing through Baltimore?
The middle of April 1861 was a turning point. On April 12 the artillery of the new Confederacy opened fire on Fort Sumter, the Federal post on an island off Charleston; the fort surrendered the next day. On April 15, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the states that remained loyal to the Union to provide a force totaling 75,000 men, to suppress the “combinations” that were opposing U.S. laws in the states that had seceded. In Richmond, a convention had been meeting for a month to decide the state’s future course. Until now, the votes had been to stay with the Union; but Lincoln’s proclamation called for Virginia to provide three regiments for the new Federal force, and that was too much to take. On April 17, 1861 the state convention voted 88-55 to repeal Virginia’s ordinance that had ratified the U.S. constitution. Nine days later, the new Confederate Congress decided to move the capital of the Confederacy from Montgomery north to Richmond.
The first troops sent south to Washington after Virginia seceded, 460 Pennsylvania volunteers, were met by a mob in Baltimore but managed to reach Washington without loss of life. The next southbound troop train, 35 cars carrying mainly men of the new Sixth Massachusetts, were assaulted by a Baltimore mob that killed or badly wounded forty of them. Worse, bridges and telegraph lines were cut, isolating not just Baltimore but Washington from the Northeast. There were of course also water routes to both cities, but the Confederates might be able to stop vessels from steaming up the Potomac River or Chesapeake Bay–especially after the Federal authorities abandoned the Gosport navy yard near Norfolk on April 20.
The main merit of Detzer’s new book is to bring out, as too few histories of the Civil War have done before this, the desperate situation of the Federal government in these weeks. Besides the threat to Washington, the important Federal arsenal up the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry fell into Confederate hands that April. (There were other potential weaknesses in the Union’s position. For example, westward on the Mississippi, as Detzer mentions briefly, the key city of St. Louis might well become a Confederate prize. The South might well gain the support of the powerful Europeans. None could know how many in the North were really willing to fight a war.)
Lincoln was deeply worried but did not fail to act. He ordered General Scott to be prepared to take strong measures to keep Maryland in the Union. The rail route north through Baltimore was reopened; the state capital, Annapolis, was occupied by Federal troops; as the war continued, Detzer tells us, over two thousand Marylanders were jailed as Southern sympathizers. With questionable legal justification, the President suspended habeas corpus and suppressed free speech and the press.
The author might have added that Lincoln’s overall approach to Maryland, and other border states, nevertheless remained a cautious one for a long time. As late as the autumn of 1863, months after the Emancipation Proclamation declared an end to slavery in the rebel states, the New York Times commented that Lincoln “has studiously avoided all interference” with slavery in Maryland and the other border states. There were fifty thousand Union soldiers from these states, and Lincoln did not want them to change sides.
Professor Detzer says that for this trilogy he “pored through so many thousands and thousands of books and letters and diaries.” Having done so, he made what were necessarily difficult choices about the use of his material. He tells us in great detail what happened in the critical months of 1861 at Richmond, Gosport, and particularly Baltimore–but we hear too little about what was happening in many other parts of the country; too little about the critical search for leadership on each side, as each side mobilized. Winfield Scott was a seasoned general, and as Detzer notes, Jefferson Davis was unusual among his political peers for his military experience. But of the two men who eventually became the great leaders of the war, Robert E. Lee was in 1861 just a colonel, who had spent dull years on the Texas frontier; U.S. Grant was a former captain who had left the army in 1854. Some of the others who became generals, career officers but also lawyers and merchants (and one bishop), eventually proved able. Many did not. The tale of how the two armies grew in the months leading up to Bull Run is fascinating, full of mistakes and malfeasance as well as cases of selfless patriotism.
I also wished Detzer had told more about people across the continent, Californians and Chicagoans and Texans and Carolinians, as America geared up for war. There are stories to be told, if only briefly, of sadness and miscalculation and dreams of glory. The author includes, to be sure, some interesting accounts of individual Americans, people like Elizabeth Lomax, who locked up her house in Washington and crossed the river into the Confederacy; that “soft and gooey” lawyer in Lowell, Benjamin Butler, who began his war career by leading the first Massachusetts troops down to Washington; and the young, well-educated Theodore Winthrop who enlisted as a private in the Seventh New York. But all told, there is too much about Baltimore and its place on the key Northeast corridor, and too little about other American places, events, and people, in those critical months of Dissonance.