They weren't just whistling `Dixie'

May 06, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

The Road to Disunion

Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861.

By William W. Freehling

Oxford University Press / 752 pages / $35

In the Border States and on the frontier, attachment to slavery was weakening, opined the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser in 1858: "Are we not hemmed in, cramped, encircled, driven to a corner?" Rep. Sherrard Clemens of Tennessee agreed. If slavery was "abolished in the District of Columbia, in the Territories, in the arsenals, dockyards and forts" by a Republican administration, Clemens predicted, the South would be "surrounded like a camp in a prairie or a scorpion with fire." Might it not then "sting itself to death"?

This "undercover anxiety" pervaded the South in the 1850s, according to William W. Freehling, an emeritus professor of the humanities at the University of Kentucky and a world-class historian of the American Civil War, despite a booming economy, an aggressive pro-slavery ideology and control over the national Democratic Party. In The Road to Disunion (a sequel to Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854), Freehling explains how a relatively small band of extremists exploited suppressed fear, regional pride and racial solidarity to persuade the majority of Southerners, "who never liked fire-eaters, or saw slavery as a permanent blessing, or disapproved of remaining in the Union" to support secession.

In a masterful, dramatic, breathtakingly detailed narrative, Freehling walks down the road to disunion, "step by crooked step." He provides fresh interpretations of familiar events - Rep. Preston Brooks' caning of Sen. Charles Sumner, pro-slavery "filibustering" in the Caribbean, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. He presents vivid portraits of dozens of highly influential, but less well-known "Southrons," including William L. Yancey, Leonidas Spratt, James Hammond, Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs. And he dissects, with surgical precision, the Southern state conventions that were designed by the "ultras" to make secession a necessity, well before March 4, 1861, "the dreaded date" of Lincoln's inauguration.

Acknowledging that the odds against "some kind of civil war, at some moment," were large, Freehling emphasizes that accidents, coincidences and quirks of character "can slightly divert the most relentless forces." Like few professional historians, he is willing to ask "what might have been?" If on Nov. 9, 1860, a delegation from Georgia had not visited South Carolina on the newly completed Savannah-Charleston railroad and endorsed secession, Freehling suggests, then the South Carolina legislature might have hesitated to act alone, agreed to set a later date for a state convention and made it possible for "Union savers" to fight another day. If James Henry Hammond, an "insecure bully," and Alexander Stephens, a "wounded invalid," had been more willing to wage political war against the establishment in their states, then an "unfocused majority" might have rallied to their "qualms about Separatism"-and considered substituting demands about the return of fugitive slaves, which Lincoln might have accepted, for an ultimatum about territorial expansion, which he was bound to reject.

Given the profound economic, political and cultural differences between the North and the South, Freehling does not push his counter-factual analysis too far. If the South Carolina legislature had delayed, he acknowledges, an "outraged Charleston mob" might have taken matters into its own hands. Or a convention in Mississippi "might have seized the Separatist initiative." Although public debate initiated by Hammond or Stephens might have calmed "skittish" Southerners, Freehling recognizes that Separatists in South Carolina and Georgia "were not disposed to find out."

The Road to Disunion brilliantly delineates the differences between the Upper and Lower South, "Cooperative" and "Separatist" secessionists, those who wanted to wait and those who were chomping at the bit. The "destructive sway of minority leverage" prevailed, Freehling suggests, because a despotic Southern culture nurtured hatred of Yankees, fury at outside criticism and suppression of internal dissent. While black-belt Southerners "disagreed on what they favored, they agreed on what they despised." A "prewar kernel of nationalism" convinced them that the Republicans would open post offices to abolitionist pamphlets, use the patronage to weaken the Democratic Party in the region and slowly destroy slavery, as "a poisoned rat dies, of rage in its hole."

And so, the "tribe" massed behind "first agitators." Virtually no one objected when the governors of Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana ordered the seizure of federal forts and 75,000 guns - before their states had seceded. And the establishments of the Upper South, which had declined to call conventions or voted down secession, suddenly reversed themselves and left the Union when Lincoln responded to the firing on Fort Sumter by calling for 75,000 troops. "The only choice left, where should I aim my bullets," Freehling writes, "left divided white Southerners" - except in the Border States - "divided no longer."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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