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  • We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860–April 1861 by William J. Cooper
  • Michael P. Gabriel
William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860–April 1861 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). Pp 347. Maps, illustrations, notes, index. Cloth, $30.00.

The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War has produced a new wave of scholarship on the origins of the conflict. In We Have the War Upon Us, William J. Cooper adds to this literature by examining the five critical months from Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 to the opening shots at Fort Sumter. Rather than concentrating solely on the steps that led inexorably to war, Cooper takes a different tack. Instead, he focuses on why sectional compromise—supported by many in both regions—failed on this occasion when it had repeatedly succeeded in the past. Cooper notes that while Americans today tend to view the secession crisis as a necessary step toward the ultimate preservation of the Union and the destruction of slavery, participants in the conflict did not know of these developments and many strove to prevent the rupture at all costs. To fully understand their worldview, Cooper argues, we must attempt (quoting historian David M. Potter) to “see the past through the imperfect eyes of those who lived it,” rather than with 20–20 hindsight (xiii).

To answer his question of why compromise failed, Cooper examines the views of a wide range of Northerners and Southerners and to some degree divides them into almost diametrically opposite pairs. Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln plays the central role in the narrative, and the author offers a critical view of the president-elect. Cooper portrays Lincoln as unwilling to reassure the South and wary of compromise, and he identifies three reasons for this. Ensconced in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln lacked contact with Southerners throughout his career, and therefore genuinely did not understand them or their profound fear of the Republican Party. As a result, he mistook the gravity of the secession crisis. Beyond this, Cooper maintains that Lincoln was a political partisan who feared splitting his young party at the moment of its greatest triumph to date. Compromise might have alienated members of the Republican “left” who wanted no part of appeasing the South. Finally and most important, Lincoln possessed “a much deeper, more visceral hatred of slavery” than William Seward and others who favored compromise (80). Defending his stance on no expansion of slavery into the territories, Lincoln explained that to do otherwise “acknowledges that slavery has equal rights with liberty” (71). [End Page 139]

Counterbalancing Lincoln was Seward, who, Cooper argues, desperately sought ways to accommodate the South following the 1860 election. A veteran of Washington politics, Seward, assisted by his ally Thurlow Weed, was willing to waive no expansion of slavery to buy time to let the emotionalism of secession die down and allow calmer heads to fashion a compromise. Seward also looked to the future and hoped to expand the Republican Party by attracting Unionists in the Upper South and border states, such as those who had voted for John Bell in 1860.

Cooper maintains that while Lincoln somewhat moderated his stance as he traveled east and arrived in Washington—even suggesting that he would evacuate Fort Sumter if Virginia would not secede—it was not enough. In the end, Lincoln maintained his party’s position on no expansion and attempted to resupply the beleaguered fort in Charleston Harbor. In doing so, he demonstrated that he headed the party, not Seward, and other Republicans ultimately took their cues from him. While serving on committees in both houses of Congress, Republicans consistently obstructed a range of compromises. These included extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, amending the Constitution to guarantee slavery, and admitting New Mexico as a slave state. Cooper notes that such tactics convinced Jefferson Davis and other Southern moderates that the possibility of “‘an honorable peaceable settlement’” no longer existed (111).

Cooper provides equally insightful analysis of the complex situation in the South as fire-eaters or “immediatists” sought to overcome “cooperationists” and take...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-2109
Print ISSN
0031-4528
Pages
pp. 139-141
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-17
Open Access
No
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