WE HAVE THE WAR UPON US: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861. By William J. Cooper. Knopf. 332 pages. $30.
The time between the election of 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 was undoubtedly the most unsettled, anxious period in America’s young history.
In the shorthand that most history is now relegated to, the war was a foregone conclusion following Abraham Lincoln’s election as the 16th president. This is a somewhat simplistic view, as history shows a very reluctant march to war — even after Fort Sumter, the North and South were slow to engage in what eventually would become an all-consuming conflict.
As William J. Cooper shows in his well-researched “We Have the War Upon Us,” some men were working feverishly to avoid what would become the most destructive conflict in our history.
Cooper focuses much of his story on John Jordan Crittenden, a U.S. senator from Kentucky who very much wanted to be the Henry Clay of his day — that is, a compromiser. Crittenden makes a good focal point, as he embodied the nation’s contradictory nature: He was a Southerner but favored a sectional compromise, he believed the South had the constitutional power to secede but wanted to avoid it.
History shows us that the Democrats set up the country to fail: Southern Democrats vowed to secede from the Union if Lincoln, perceived to be anti-slavery, were elected president. And then they assured his election by nominating a second presidential candidate in addition to the Northern Democrats’ choice. They split the vote and assured Lincoln would walk into the White House. But Cooper argues the Republicans shoulder much of the blame as well for being unwilling to compromise on sectionalism.
Cooper’s story is well-written and well-told as political drama. But it lacks the narrative drive to make history as compelling as it could be — the way that David McCullough, for instance, used to bring Harry Truman and John Adams to life. This is a very different sort of book from McCullough’s biographies, but it didn’t need to be.
Although Cooper does not write as densely as most academics, and should be applauded for it, his story is merely good. Good history books unfold in a way that leaves the outcome, even when you know it, in some doubt.
This was a period of America’s highest drama, and Cooper’s rational approach rings true, but “We Have the War Upon Us” doesn’t convey the urgency of the situation that this country’s people surely felt at the time.
That, however, is a relatively minor quibble in an otherwise commendable book. “We Have the War Upon Us” tells the story of history’s reasonable men, a story that often is ignored in favor of the zealots and those who won’t compromise.
Reviewer Brian Hicks is a columnist for The Post and Courier and the author of history books.