The Civil War has been rightly estimated as the central event in the American historical consciousness. But a people cannot have a consciousness of something that has not yet occurred, of history yet to happen. For the generation that saw the prospect of a civil war grow larger and larger, for Clara Barton's generation, the 1850s must have appeared as an impending tragedy at once formidable and dangerous, but at the same time uncertain as to its onset, its dimension uncharted and its outcome unknown. To the very last there were many, more numerous no doubt in the North than in the South, who felt that open warfare could be averted, that still another compromise would forestall bloodshed. Barton was among the optimists. In January, 1861, she ventured the opinion that the Southern fever "was wearing itself out in its infancy and if wisely left alone will die a natural death long before its maturity." 1 And the last efforts at compromise continued to be frustrated by a lack of support in the Congress, which itself reflected a lack of trust among the states, North and South. After ten years and more of rivalry and jealousy, of accusation and counteraccusation, of failed leadership and failed partnership, the war between the states became a reality.
Viewed backward from 1861, the Civil War took on the design of ordination, what some later historians were to term "the irrepressible conflict." The forces promoting separation had overmatched the