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Posted on Sep 11, 2012 in Books and Movies

We Have the War Upon Us – Book Review

By Neal West

We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860–April 1861. William J. Cooper. Alfred A. Knopf. September 2012. 352 pages. $30.

This review is of an uncorrected proof.

William J. Cooper, Boyd Professor of History at LSU, writes a compelling and exciting narrative of the tumultuous six months between Lincoln’s election and the cannonading of Fort Sumter in We Have the War Upon Us. Many historians have written definitive accounts of the country’s fracturing from various angles: William Freehling’s two-volume Road to Disunion, for example, covers the entire basis of secession from the end of the Revolution from the Southern point of view. Michael Holt’s Political Crisis of the 1850s convincingly argues that the collapse of the Second Party system led to a fatal failure of political compromise, and Bruce Levine’s Half Slave and Half Free examined the social and cultural factors leading to separation. Cooper’s goal in We Have the War Upon Us, however, is to look at the events in that perilous half-year through the eyes of the men who attempted to steer the ship of Union across unknown seas. His aim is not to tell why the war came, but how human action, inaction, or miscalculation, "brought the country to the precipice and finally over it." He weaves this story not just through the eyes of Southern "fire-eaters" and Northern Radicals, but examines the roles Northern and Southern conservatives and moderates played in the crisis as well. The result reads more like a political thriller than a historical textbook, though it excels as both.

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While not whitewashing the role Southern radicals had in propelling events, Cooper surprises by serving quite a large dish of blame to Abraham Lincoln. In spite of later professing his willingness to save the Union with or without slavery, Cooper demonstrates, in Lincoln’s own words, that he showed greater loyalty to his party than to the Union. As various congressional plans floated to the surface, Lincoln opposed them all if it meant compromising on the Republican plank of not allowing expansion of slavery into the territories. Cooper faults Lincoln’s intransigence on "his ignorance of the South, his vigorous partisanship, [and] his visceral antislavery commitment." Once Lincoln became president-elect, says Cooper, he found it difficult to transition from partisan Republican candidate to president of the entire country. With such attitudes, Lincoln allied himself with the radical wing of his party that opposed any compromise with sectional conservatives and moderates who were desperate to avoid war —even if it meant caving to Southern demands.

Throughout the book, Cooper has tried to adhere to historian David Potter’s charge to "see the past through the eyes of those who lived it and not with his own omniscient twenty-twenty vision." This reviewer finds this approach to be refreshing; recreating events of 150 years ago is daunting on its own, but attempting to divine the emotions, doubts, motivations, and prejudices of human beings, based solely on what they decided to commit to paper, can be dangerous for a historian. This danger, of course, comes from the unconscious tendency of some to commit "presentism"; to overlay their own biases, experiences, and beliefs to past events. Cooper has avoided this by frankly admitting when the historical record fails to supply an answer to a thorny question. He does not shrink from analysis if he feels the record supports it, but a study of his endnotes demonstrates his desire to look at the subject from all angles and evaluate the evidence before reaching a conclusion.

Some readers may be disturbed that Lincoln fails to come across as the omniscient political master that popular history paints him to be. Instead, Cooper argues that he was a product of his time, a relatively inexperienced politician beholden to the political factions that brought him and the young Republican Party to power. Indeed, the entire history of the coming of the Civil War, its "whys" and "hows," is one of power—gaining it, keeping it, and fear of losing it.

William Cooper has presented a superb history of how faction and party brought about disunion and war. We Have the War Upon Us thoroughly describes how Antebellum politicians failed to heed George Washington’s admonition that, "[faction] is a spirit not to be encouraged … [it is]… A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."

Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland with his wife of 32 years. Mr. West is living history volunteer at Manassas National Battlefield Park, has a BA in American Military History, and will be awarded a Master of Arts in Military History, Civil War Concentration, in November 2012. Neal is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com.

2 Comments

  1. Could it be Lincoln and his party’s moral commitment to halt the expansion of slavery, rather than naked partisanship? Does the phrase “…if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” ring a bell? The Deep South had no interest in compromise, as Cooper dutifully reported, but Lincoln is criticized for holding his ground only on the question expansion? Lincoln meet the South more than half way, but only unfettered slavery would due for the cotton states. I honestly found nothing new or compelling in Cooper’s book, with the added non-benefit of redundancy — the same theme reiterated through each chapter (southern fire eaters vs. northern radicals, with a malicious glace cast back at Lincoln every now and then) .

    • The book demonstrates that Lincoln refused to compromise, something lacking in the telling of the crisis. Seldom is it recounted that Lincoln refused to allow the South to leave peacefully, refusing their offer to compensate the Union for its portion of the debt and any property of the government.

      The book refuses to examine with great care tyhe issue of tarriffs, the union policy of nullification of the law, and Lincoln’s outreach to radicals in the north.

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