Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Abe Lincoln, Scapegoat Blaming an 'Inflexible' President for Bringing on the Civil War, 'We Have the War upon Us' Gets History Exactly Wrong

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Abe Lincoln, Scapegoat Blaming an 'Inflexible' President for Bringing on the Civil War, 'We Have the War upon Us' Gets History Exactly Wrong

Article excerpt

"WE HAVE THE WAR UPON US: THE ONSET OF THE CIVIL WAR, NOVEMBER 1860-APRIL 1861"

By William J. Cooper (below).

Knopf ($30).

More than 150 years after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, historians continue to debate the causes of the Civil War. Some claim that the conflict was the inevitable consequence of irreconcilable differences between the North and the South, primarily over slavery and state's rights. Others assert that a "blundering generation" of politicians allowed a small band of extremists to take the nation into war.

In "We Have the War Upon Us," William J. Cooper, a professor of history at Louisiana State University and the biographer of Jefferson Davis, allies himself with the latter school of thought. Examining the five months following the election of 1860, Mr. Cooper argues that the conflict was not "irrepressible."

After all, he indicates, a majority of Americans in every section of the country (including moderates in the Upper South and Border States, who exhibited more courage and commitment than anyone else) supported compromise and conciliation. The action and inaction of radical Republicans and Southern fire-eaters, however, brought the nation "to the precipice and finally over it." Much of the blame, according to Mr. Cooper, should be laid at the feet of an "inflexible" and "tone deaf" Abraham Lincoln.

"We Have the War Upon Us" is provocative. It is not persuasive. Lincoln did not "unequivocally oppose compromise even as the Union fell apart." And Mr. Cooper's analysis of his motives -- ignorance of the South, militant partisanship, and "visceral" anti-slavery commitment -- is incomplete and misleading.

Mr. Cooper presents no evidence, for example, to buttress his claim that because Lincoln did not understand "how deeply slavery had become embedded in Southern society" he "dismissed the seriousness of secession." Indeed, Mr. Cooper acknowledges that the "careworn and anxious" president-elect wished he could take the oath of office immediately because every hour was adding to the difficulties he would have to address. …

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