Books: Fateful Lightning

I finished Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction by Allen C. Guelzo earlier this morning. I have to say its one of the better written Civil War books that I’ve read in the last 6 years. Its 536 pages plus an additional 40 pages of Further Reading and an index. Compared to some books its a short read.

The book begins with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address of March 4, 1865. It then provides a short history of the American colonies and how our republic came to be. And of course that leads to the beginning of a history of the Southern agrarian society and how slavery came to be the work model of the antebellum South. There’s  also several interesting arguments about how slavery was rotten for all included, black and white.

“And as whites made grudging concessions that their slaves were human beings after all, this produced a clamorous urge on the part of white Southerners to justify the continuation of slavery on the grounds that slavery was an actual benefit of sorts to African Americans[…]At the same time, though, the guilt that provoked white people to justify slavery on the grounds of its good works also provoked revealing displays of disgust and helplessness over slaveholding.” (32)


There’s discussion about the “game of balances” in Congress in the antebellum years. Southerners threatened secession whenever plans for expansion of slavery fizzled. The first compromise began in 1819 when Missouri applied for statehood.

At that time there were 11 free and 11 slave states. Missouri’s attempt to join the Union would throw this situation out of balance. A rider was added to the Missouri statehood bill that would bar slaves into Missouri and emancipate all slaves in Missouri once they reached the age of 25.

This was the first time that slavery and sectionalism became a national issue. The Missouri Compromise, authored by Henry Clay, called for 36* 30′ line where lands to the north would be reserved for free settlement and lands to the south open for slave states in the former Louisiana Purchase territory.

In 1836, Santa Ana was routed and signed an agreement recognizing Texas independence. Texas was not planning to remain a free republic but wanted to join the Union. After the land grab known as the Mexican War, Mexico gave up territory that’s now New Mexico, California, parts of Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.

When gold was discovered in California a stampede of Americans bounded off into the new territory. Pennsylvanian representative David Wilmot attempted to add an amendment to a bill that stated, “As an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico…neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist ever in any part of said territory, except for crime.”

Aging Henry Clay again came to the rescue with 8 resolutions that came to be known as the Compromise of 1850: California was admitted immediately as a free state, New Mexico and Utah would be allowed to organize themselves according to “popular sovereignty”, the Fugitive Slave Law was tightened up and a final resolution was added that denied Congress the authority to regulate interstate slave trade. Disunion was avoided, but only for the time being.

The Fugitive Slave Law proved to be the fly in the ointment. Northerners who’d never had anti-slavery ambitions witnessed a series of public captures and extradition of runaways. The Fugitive Slave Act required local marshals and citizens assist with captures and threatened fines up to $1000.00 and civil liability if they harbored fugitives or refused to cooperate. As Northerners rejected the Fugitive Slave Law they also began to question the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Law also was roundly denounced in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.

Stephen A. Douglas continued to tout the idea of “popular sovereignty” as the Kansas and Nebraska Territories began their journey from territory to state. This is where the power keg exploded. During 1855, as Kansas Jayhawkers and Missouri border ruffians fought it out, Kansas became known as “Bloody Kansas.”

Along the Pottowatomie Creek, John Brown and four of his sons, massacred pro-slavery farmers with broadswords. Over 200 people were killed in pro-slavery and anti-slavery clashes. This was evidence that “popular sovereignty” did not work after all.

In 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States issued the Dred Scott decision. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney denied that Scott had the privilege of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court since he was of African descent and therefore not a citizen. He also asserted that “They had for more than a century before been regarded as being of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”(91).

Into the slavery and popular sovereignty arguments came Illinois politician Abraham Lincoln. He was an unknown outside of Illinois when he challenged Stephen Douglas to a series of debates over the Illinois Senate seat. While Douglas eventually “won” these debates, Lincoln’s message was printed in newspapers throughout the North and South. And that added to his reputation.

In 1859, John Brown and his 22 fighters attempted to capture Harper’s Ferry, VA and instead were all either killed or captured. Brown was wounded, captured and tried for treason, murder and insurrection against the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Brown’s last words were given to jail guard, Hiram O’Bannon, on a slip of paper. He stated, “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done. (118).

Less than a year later, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. After the firing on Ft. Sumpter April 12, 1861. The war that John Brown predicted came. July 16, 1861 was the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).

As the war began in earnest, action against slavery began as well. May 1861, 3 runaway slaves showed up a Fortress Monroe. Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to return them to their master calling them “contrabands of war.” By July over 900 others found refuge at Fortress Monroe.

July 1861, Congress passed the Confiscation Act. November 7, 1861 Captain Samuel F. Du Pont steamed into Port Royal Sound and with a small group of Federal soldiers cleared Hilton Head, Port Royal and St. Helena of Confederates and left the land to the use of the blacks. July 1862 a more stringent Confiscation Act was passed. In September 1863, Lincoln published his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Control of the Mississippi river was of vital importance for the Federals and the Confederates. Unfortunately for the Confederates, once Ft Henry and Ft Donaldson and New Orleans were captured by the Federals, it was only a matter of time before the Mississippi returned to Federal control.

“The fall of New Orleans was probably the severest single blow the Confederacy sustained in the war.” (211).

One chapter that particularly stand out is The world turned upside down.

“Like blacks, Indians seized on the war as an opportunity for advancing or protecting political agendas of their own, although in the case of Indians, those agendas varied from place to place and tribe to tribe.”

American Jews served in Union and Confederates armies while also dealing with prejudices of the times. “Those prejudices guaranteed that American Jews would be regularly targeted in both North and South as aliens and swindlers who fattened themselves, through war contracts and shady dealing, on the sufferings of their presumably Christian neighbors.”

US Grant went so far as to order the expulsion of Jews from the Mississippi military district in December 1862.

Hispanic Americans helped repel an invasion of New Mexico on March 28, 1862 at Glorieta Pass. That battle ceased further Confederate hopes of a Southwestern Confederacy.

“Much to the surprise of those who thought that the Civil War would be a “white man’s war” the conflict quickly broadened, by policy and by accident, to include a kaleidoscope of races and ethnic minorities, from Battery Wagner to Glorieta Pass. (389).

Women, mainly white middle class women, also saw gender roles interrupted during the maelstrom of the Civil War. With husbands, fathers, sons and brothers off fighting the war, women had farms and plantations to run. Some women even doned mens’ clothing and fought as soldiers. Other women had non-combat war related roles such as nursing and spying. School teaching, a mainly male profession, opened to women with most of the men away at war.

The rest of the book goes on to talk about Civil War soldiers, the production power both North and South, the importance of 1863 to the Union and Confederates, the times of stalemate & triumph and the last remaining months of the war until Lincoln’s assasignation by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1864. And the failure of Reconstruction.


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