The Coming Fury (The Centennial History Of The Civil War #1), by Bruce Catton
This book is one I read somewhat out of order, it being the third book I read in the series after having read the second and the third ones before. And intriguingly, this book would have been a very worthwhile setup for the other two, even if it only covers the area between the Democratic convention of 1860 and the immediate aftermath of Bull Run. Reading this book is akin to reading the first part of a Greek tragedy, where the reader is aware that things do not turn out well and where the people themselves warn others of the disaster that is looming but where the people in charge of events cannot be stopped no matter how many sound omens they receive. Far more than the other two books in the series, this one offers a granular look at what happened between the Spring of 1860 and the summer of the year following, when the United States first faced divided political parties struggling over power and then faced the gradual buildup and sudden release of tension that led to brutal and all-out warfare between the North and the South over issues of Union and slavery.
The nearly 500 pages of text in this book are divided into seven chapters with various subjects. Catton begins by looking at the spring of 1860 and how it was that the Democratic convention of that year, held disastrously in Charleston, ended in disaster because a majority of delegates from the North would accept no other nominee than Stephen Douglas but a blocking minority would not accept him under any circumstances, while the Republicans went for availability and cast aside the favorite Seward for the more unknown and thus less objectionable Lincoln. After that the author moves to a discussion of the further division of the Democratic party and its split into northern and southern wings and the campaign of 1860 and its eventual election of Lincoln and the immediate reality of coercion. The third chapter looks at the long farewell of Buchanan and the way that Union was ripped apart by separatist pressures in the winter of 1861. The fourth chapter compares Lincoln and Davis as they prepared to take office in their respective republics along with the final efforts at compromise and Lee’s travel from Texas to Washington DC. The fifth chapter looks at the attack on Ft. Sumter and the way that it pointed the nation into the unknown, after which the author discusses the revolutionary beginning of the war in Maryland and efforts at diplomacy in Kentucky in the sixth chapter. Finally, Catton concludes with a discussion of the war in West Virginia as well as the failure at Bull Run and the way that the death of the minute man led to Union resolve to fight even harder.
What is it that made the Civil War so inevitable? Demographic patterns meant that the North was able to elect a sectional candidate who had no appeal to the South and who was hostile to slavery. The fragility of slavery led those who wanted the system to continue, not least because they were elites who profited from their ownership of others and the resulting wealth and influence that gave them in their society, to undertake revolutionary behavior that would destroy the fragile social system they were trying to protect. Yet there was really no choice between a consent to a slow destruction of the slave power through the demise of slavery first in the border regions and then further south and the rapid destruction that came about because of the Civil War. The south’s romantic belief in an elan vital that would overcome their obvious logistical difficulties also led to disaster, which was perhaps inevitable but was no less destructive for all that. Catton does a great job here at pointing out the early stages of that disaster as a nation long divided by rhetoric decided that words were going to be replaced or at least supplemented by deeds of violence. Let it be a lesson to us all.