The Americans Who Long for Civil War

Author : dfdsgsgdfh
Publish Date : 2020-12-21 05:12:16


The Americans Who Long for Civil War

Some stalwart loyalists to President Trump have threatened — or “merely predicted,” as they might say if they were ever charged with sedition — a civil war over the results of the November 2020 presidential election.

More disturbingly, radical right-wing leaders in the Republican Party like Allen West, the Chairman of the Texas GOP, have floated the idea that “law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.”

The attempt to steal the name of “Union” and affix it to this pathetic reincarnation of a secessionist-curious Confederation may just be, in the end, the most damaging result of West’s unhinged rhetoric.

We can hope that the true believers in Trump’s false narrative of election fraud and deep-state skullduggery — not the cynical West, but the less well-informed and less well-connected people he and his ilk frighten and mobilize in their effort to cling to minority rule — will come to value their own lives more than Trump has, with his indifference to COVID and his irresponsible and inflammatory lies meant to stoke rage and sow chaos.

Though we have recently been treated to outrageous and unsubstantiated claims of tyranny and accusations of treason coming from right-wing pundits and — shamefully — Republican members of Congress and Republican governors and attorneys general, we are far removed from a situation in which senators from “Trump states” will leave their seats, or high-ranking U.S. military officers will resign their commissions and break their oath to protect and defend the Constitution, in order to form some sort of Mississippi Valley Delusional Society and wage a shooting war against the constitutional government of the United States and its law-abiding citizens.

But Zeynep Tufekci’s recent analysis of the perils of the present should not be ignored.

Nor should we ignore the perils of the past.

I just finished teaching six classes of U.S. History to the Civil War/Reconstruction Era this semester. Knowing what I know now about the seditious rumblings within whatever passes for the mainstream Republican Party these days, never mind the more radical Trumpists who have vowed to destroy the party itself for being insufficiently seditious, I probably would have covered the run-up to the Civil War a little bit differently. What can I say? We historians are the Olympic champions of hindsight.

If I were teaching the election of 1860 and the secession crisis again, right now, here’s what I would emphasize more pointedly: we traditionally date the beginning of the U.S. Civil War with the shelling of Fort Sumter by South Carolina state troops, but that’s not really how it started, and that’s not really when it started.

The U.S. Civil War — or, as the United States government officially referred to the conflict in military and legal documents from the time, the “War of the Rebellion” — began the day after the presidential election of 1860. The voter suppression began before Election Day, certainly. Many of the future Confederate states refused to even print the Republican nominee’s name on the ballot. But the attempts of an illiberal white supremacist minority to deny an electoral victory to a politician who ran on the platform of halting the spread of slavery came to naught.

In a four-way election that saw the Democratic Party split in two over the slavery issue and a new party emerge whose only issue was the preservation of the Union, the Republican candidate won a plurality, though not a majority, of the popular vote, and — despite being denied a place on the ballot in many slaveholding states — won a majority of the Electoral College delegates.

We might think that the Civil War was still a ways off at this point, that there was some route that James Buchanan’s administration could have taken that would have forestalled open rebellion, but we would be wrong. Seditious resistance to constitutional government began the day after Abraham Lincoln’s electoral victory.

On Wednesday, November 7, 1860, chronicler E. B. Long informs us, city authorities in Charleston, South Carolina “arrested a federal officer for trying to transfer supplies from the Charleston Arsenal to Fort Moultrie.”

The Charleston Arsenal and Fort Moultrie were, of course, U.S. military installations, much like the Harper’s Ferry Armory that had been attacked and seized the year before by John Brown and his radical abolitionist militia. The Arsenal in Charleston served as a storage facility of supplies, equipment, munitions, and rations for the scant United States troops garrisoned at Fort Moultrie, a fortification that had been part of the United States’s coastal defense network since the Revolutionary War. The fort was almost a hundred years old, and a newer fortification at a superior defensive location was under construction in Charleston Harbor: Fort Sumter.

I am sure that a Civil War history buff — which I am not — can tell us the name and rank of that detained officer who was unable to fulfill his mission. (I have been looking, but haven’t found it yet. Lots of newspapers to comb through here.) But not enough Civil War history buffs, in my judgment, focus on the significance of this petulant and provincial instance of interference by local officials in the functions of the United States military.

Sure, this was just one small act committed by officers of a single city in what had long been a querulous and abrasive member of the Union. But even a single small act of official resistance to the authority of the United States government was laden with meaning, especially in South Carolina.

During the nullification crisis of 1832, when South Carolina had threatened to arrest any federal agents sent to the state to enforce national tariff laws, an infuriated Andrew Jackson laid down a policy that would prove as significant for domestic affairs as the Monroe Doctrine or the Bush Doctrine have been for foreign affairs: “Resistance, by armed force, is treason.” Sending armed agents to arrest Treasury officials in 1832 would have been an act of treason, Jackson warned. Sending armed agents to arrest a civil servant or a quartermaster from the War Department in 1860 was no less so.

Yet that small act of local resistance to the U.S. military in Charleston went unrebuked by the state government of South Carolina, and that small act emboldened more audacious resistance on a much broader scale, both within the state of South Carolina and across most of the slaveholding states of the U.S. south. Along with the secession conventions came armed takeovers of United States forts and armories, long before the shelling of Fort Sumter in April of 1861.

Throughout the South, state militias seized United States military installations and United States Navy ships where they could. And in most places they could, for many U.S. military installations in the Eastern United States were manned by skeleton crews, or — in some cases — by a single sergeant or even a civilian caretaker who might live at the Fort with his family. Most soldiers in the U.S. military — a force of about 16,000 in 1860 — were stationed in the Western United States, to protect the long-running genocidal land-grab of white settlers fulfilling America’s “manifest destiny.”

So it was fairly easy for southern militias to seize U.S. fortifications south of the Mason-Dixon line. And as federal forces in the Western United States found themselves outmanned and outmatched in firepower by local militias and eventually a multi-state army organizing against them, many abandoned their posts to preserve the lives of their men. Some of those men — and their commanders — no doubt joined the rebellion, and some of them made their way back to safety and awaited their next orders. Then there was General David Emanuel Twiggs, a career Army officer who voluntarily handed over his entire command, The Department of Texas, to Confederate authority — all the troops, all the forts, all the materiel. The United States expelled him from the Army for treason, but the damage was done.

Despite the perfidy of traitors like Twiggs, in the months leading up to April 1861, many commanding officers, like Maj. John L. Gardner, who relocated his command from Fort Moultrie to the more defensible but unfinished Fort Sumter, did what they could to resist the Confederate seizure of U.S. military resources, spiking the guns at their old fortifications and moving when they could to more secure positions. Indeed, there were five crucial United States installations within the territory of the so-called Confederate States of America that never fell into treasonous hands throughout the whole course of the war.

Among those five were Fort Pickens at Pensacola and Fort Taylor at Key West, Florida; by holding those forts throughout the war, the United States ensured that the Navy had safe coaling stations and key positions from which to intercept southern blockade runners. The garrisons at each of those two fortifications numbered fewer than 60 men before their meager forces were reinforced by sea. Only their superior strategic position made it possible for the commanders to defend them so long and so well, but defend them they did, as was their duty.

Given how early were these acts of insurrection against the U.S. military committed by local municipalities and state governments throughout the Southern states, it might be useful to rethink how we frame the beginnings of the actual armed conflict we now call the Civil War — though it was anything but civil.

Certainly, the conflict did not erupt all at once at Fort Sumter. But it also didn’t date from South Carolina’s attempted secession from the United States on December 20, 1860. I say “attempted secession” because the secession of the Confederate states was never recognized as legal by the United States, and after the war, in Texas v. White (1869)the Supreme Court ruled secession not only unconstitutional but actually impossible.

What this decision means for us today — and this is something that Allen West and his fellow Texas Republicans would do well to keep in mind — is that there is no legal route to secession. To talk of secession is to talk of breaking the law of the land and destroying the integrity of the United States as a political entity via some implicitly violent, extrajudicial means. I am not a lawyer, but that sounds like sedition to me.

I am a history professor, though, and if I had this semester to do over again I would tell my students that the Civil War effectively started the day after Abraham Lincoln’s election. Well before Fort Sumter, well before his inauguration, well before the secession conventions — the Civil War started with a single act of lawlessness committed against the United States government under the aegis of local law enforcement.

As a resident of Texas, I find that a little unsettling. Local officials in the state of Texas — the Category : news


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