Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

Knights of the Golden Circle

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Knights_Golden_Circle

The Knights of the Golden Circle was an organization that existed in the United States from the 1850s through the 1860s which espoused the idea of a radical expansion, and realignment, of the United States into an extremely “pro-slavery” nation.  Their major goal was to promote the idea of the seizure, as part of Manifest Destiny, of additional territory for the United States in Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, with the ultimate goal being that each of these new territories be added to the United States as “slave states” – those allowing slavery.  This planned goal also aimed at potentially creating a new super-Confederacy of states/republics, if necessary, encompassing the Southern states in the United States and the other new territories, with a capital centered in Havana, Cuba.

Golden_Circle_(Proposed_Country)

Now this new nation, (shown above in green), would have represented a major investment of military and cultural power by the United States to be achieved and probably was beyond the immediate capacity of the nation in the 1850s.  However the idea had many adherents in the American South and southern portions of middle states, mainly due to the economic possibilities it presented and concerns about the growing power of abolitionism as a political force in the United States.  The Knights of the Golden Circle were strongly pro-Southern as regional tensions increased in the United States and the organization supported the seceding states in 1861.  Many Democrats in the northern United States during the Civil War expressed support for some ideas purported by the Knights of the Golden Circle and members of the organization took part in some early military actions by the growing Confederate forces.

Knights_of_the_Golden_Circle_History_of_Seccession_book,_1862

The organization had less real impact during the American Civil War but it was a lightening rod for Northern concerns about Southern sympathizers acting as spies and saboteurs during the Civil War.  Members of the Knights of the Golden Circle were regularly targeted for arrest by United States law enforcement and its key leaders were expelled from northern territory when caught.  The image of the Knights of the Golden Circle in the United States as traitors was not helped by activities like the attempting to outfit a secret privateer boat in California to attack Pacific shipping by the United States.  The organization did not survive the defeat of the southern states in the American Civil War and its membership most likely dissolved after the war.

national-treasure

I say “most likely” because the Knights of the Golden Circle have become one of the darlings of conspiracy theorists who posit the group survived the end of the American Civil War and became a key player in efforts to prepare for a second American Civil War.  Such theories are grounded mostly in speculation than anything solid, but it does give the organization a lasting minor place even in modern United States history.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Golden Circle and the Knights of the Golden Circle

Dred Scott and the modern take on the Civil War [OPINION]

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

DredScott

One of the modern threads you will find in United States history is the debate on the causes of the Civil War, which mainly hinges on two major points of contention:  first that states had the right to secede from the union legally and second that the Civil War was fought over states rights.  On the second point the counter-argument brought up is “indeed, the right to have slavery in a state” – which sparks another round of debate.  Honestly though I personally find the argument about states rights as the key issue disingenuous as an argument when discussing the Civil War due to the reaction of many Southern radicals to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision.  In that Supreme Court case an African-American sued for his freedom, claiming that because he had lived and worked in both a free-state and later free-territory, he and his family should be free individuals.  (A gross simplification but it will do for now.)

Roger_Taney_-_Healy

The United States Supreme Court, under Justice Taney, found that Scott was not freed, they also found that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to rule in the case technically and, as a “by the way”, Congress did not have the power to impose regulations in the territories regarding slavery.  Justice Taney had hoped his ruling would result in an end to the debates about the position of slavery within the United States, instead it sparked a massive uproar in the North and the South.

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In the North it was felt that now the Supreme Court was only one ruling away from stating that individual states no longer had the right to outlaw slavery within the United States, on some vague notion it was “protected” in the Constitution.  In the South it was felt that Northern citizens should calm down and embrace the legal ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter.  It was also commonly felt that this ruling would open up the western territories to expanded slave ownership and create a new boom for economic development in the region, many Southern slaveholders after the ruling were excited about the idea of gaining access to cheap, productive land that could be tilled by slave labor.

Mini-BIO-Abraham-Lincoln-SF

Now to my eye the cornerstone problem with arguing states rights as a Civil War major cause occurs in this period, with Southern Radicals and their writing, whose ideas were upheld by many moderate Southern thinkers, that Dred Scott was the ruling that would pave the way towards a United States that allowed slavery to exist in every state, even those that had voted against it.  Some Southern Radicals called for the day that “slave auctions took place in Boston Commons” – ground zero for abolitionists.

To my eye, had the bulk of Southern opinion in response to those fears by the North been “What?  No, you have a right to not have slaves, we have a right to have slaves, calm down, lets pass a cross-sectional law that says as such.  We’ll hammer out the west out, the Supreme Court kind of pooped a biscuit here” – the Civil War would probably still have occurred but it might have been delayed or lessened in impact.  Certainly it would have sparked less paranoia in the North than the actual Southern reaction which could be summarized as “Hell yes!   Eat it North!  It’s SLAVING TIME”

The United States Civil War was a complex war, with roots resting in sectionalism, power balances within the nation, and economic impacts of slavery, along with the more common issues of property, role of national government, and states rights.  But as a common thread throughout all of that runs the solid line…of slavery.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Dred Scott Decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Slave Power

Civil War Intrigues – the Northwest Conspiracy

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Copperhead_Cartoon

The Civil War was a major defining conflict for the United States, one of the simplest ways to describe the change in the United States was how the average citizen referred to the nation, prior to the war it was often called “these United States” and after the war it changed to “the United States.”  But forging that new sense of unity involved a considerable amount of blood and stretching the powers granted the federal government under the Constitution to hold the various parts of the nation.  In particular President Lincoln throughout the war made a point of exercising “expansive” federal powers in the Midwestern states due to a strong pro-South, pro-Democratic party leaning in the region.  Lincoln, although not directly approving extreme actions, often allowed by inaction military commanders to take extreme steps to keep the region loyal, including using intimidation tactics, targeted arrests, suppressing the press, and expelling dangerous political figures to ensure that the American Midwest remained solid in its allegiance.  This in turn sparked its own problems, mainly the growth of groups that advocated separation from the United States and the formation of a new third nation from the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

Clement_Vallandigham_-_Brady-Handy

The center point of this plan was a combination of a local organization that called itself the Sons of Liberty (hailing back to the American Revolution) and lead by Clement Vallandigham (pictured above) working with Confederate raiders to enact a complicated plan in 1864 to split these four states from the rest of the union and create a new nation, the planned working name for this new entity would be the Northwest Confederation.  (The name hails from the regions original designation in the early post-Revolution period as the Northwest Territory.)  The plan was ambitious in its goals – Confederate cavalry raiders would head into the state of Illinois to link up with Sons of Liberty militia units – the combined force would liberate a series of Confederate prisoner of war camps and arm the freed soldiers with weapons taken from state arsenals.  This newly combined force, it was  hoped, would total over 100,000 soldiers in arms and provide enough force to spark other pro-South leaning individuals to join the effort and create a new nation.  This was all to start at the Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago.

The plan collapsed though, a combination of secret police/spies loyal to the federal government discovered the plot and arrested a few key leaders, but mainly internal bickering and the fact that most Sons of Liberty when faced with the call to actually rise up in arms against the federal government and the other Union states backed out of the plan.  It did have one lingering impact though, from 1864 till the Spanish American War the Republican Party was able to bring up this event to brand the Democratic Party as the party of “traitors and backstabbers.”  It was one more effective election tactic that helped ensure the Republicans maintained a dominant political position in the United States for nearly twenty years.

Sources:  Encyclopedia.com entry on the Northwest Conspiracy, Wikipedia entry on Clement Vallandigham, The Northwest Conspiracy by Thomas Fleming in What Ifs? of American History edited by Robert Cowley.

Burning New York – 1864 Style

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Provost-fire01

The United States Civil War was a contentious time and, much like other nations on the losing end of a war, by 1864 the government of the Confederate States of America (CSA) was very open to alternative means of winning the war, specifically using espionage and indirect methods of attack to disrupt Northern military operations against the Southern states.  Several such operations were funded but one of the more potentially spectacular operations was an effort to set the city of New York ablaze by Confederate agents armed with specially formulated chemical bombs.  On 25 November 1864 agents of the Confederate government had smuggled several pieces of luggage filled with a phosphorus chemical compound, their plan was to use the chemicals to start fires in hotels throughout New York as well as burning Broadway and the P.T. Barnum Museum.  Their overall goal was to cause enough fires to break out at the same time that the New York City Fire Department would prove unable to control the fire and, ideally, the city would either suffer major damage or be so damaged to set back the Northern military effort.

Fortunately for New York, and unfortunately for the conspirators, the plan backfired rather spectacularly.  The Southern agents were able to smuggle the chemicals into the city and were able to establish over nineteen fires in the city, however the chemical compound proved far less robust than the conspirators had hoped.  Rather than starting a series of uncontrollable blazes throughout the city in most cases the chemical fires instead smoldered slowly or burned very sluggishly, allowing ample time for the hotel owners to discover the fires and either control them directly or have the New York Fire Department control the blaze quickly.  The end result was the conspirators fled the city and only minor damage was done to several buildings, the 27 November 1864 New York Times article on the subject notes that most of the damage came from water sprayed to control the minor fires.

Booths_Caesar

An interesting historical note is that on the night of 25 November 1864, when the fires were being set, the three Wilkes brothers were performing together in a special single engagement performance of Julius Caesar.  According to the New York Times article a “Mr. Booth” – which was probably the most famous of the three brothers, John Wilkes, spoke to the crowd at the theater when word of the fires spread urging them to remain calm and stay in their seats.  As Booth at the time was a Confederate agent and spy, one cannot help but wonder was he not aware of this plot or, as the conspirators had hoped to destroy Broadway, was Booth trying to keep the crowd in place in the hopes fire would destroy the theater and cause a more massive death count.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Confederate Army of Manhattan and on John Wilkes Booth, New York Times article on the fire, CIA entry on the fire, and entry in 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelen Flood.

Sanitation and Surgery

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

amputation_saw_US_civil_war

amputation_knife_US_civil_war

tenaculum_US_civil_war

This entry leads off with three images of surgical instruments from the United States Civil War, used from 1861-1865, and beyond causing readers to cringe when they remember these items were usually used without benefit of anesthesia on the patients there is another reason for the large images, if you look at them closely you will notice a key similarity, specifically in the grips on each instrument.  Notice the carefully inscribed cross-hatch pattern in the instrument, included to provide the surgeon with a more sure grip when working with the tool, in case of blood or other fluids coating the instrument.  It was also there to ensure the surgeon could maintain his grip when working quickly, again due to the lack of anesthetics.  The other problem though was that grip pattern provided an excellent niche for the growth of bacteria, which during the U.S. Civil War was a singularly significant problem due to the scale of operations being conducted.

The average battlefield surgeon on both sides of the conflict had to work fast to process a previously unprecedented level of injured men from combat, as such they would process the wounded in an assembly line mentality, moving from each injured individual to the next, on the same table, and with the same tools, only stopping to sharpen blades as needed.  Cross-contamination was a major problem and many soldiers on both sides died due to post-operation infections.  Surgeons during this period saw it as a source of pride and professional skill to be able to do this, working fast, some even bragged about the level of stains on their operating garments as proof of their skill and years of experience.  Germ theory did not impact their work because it simply was not widely accepted.

Joseph_Lister_1902

Enter Joseph Lister, who in England was working on the practical application of germ theory to modern surgical practices, based on the work of Pasteur, Lister worked on developing chemical methods for sterilizing wounds, bandages, and instruments as well as proper washing techniques for surgeons to avoid spreading infection.  In testing Lister discovered that a 5% solution of carbolic acid was excellent for the purpose, he tested it on one surgery on an eleven year old who had suffered a compound fracture from an accident with a cart.  Using carbolic acid to clean the wounds, and surgical instruments, Lister discovered that weeks later not only were the wounds still uninfected but they were healing better than previous efforts.  Lister was able to spread the practice, as a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow Lister was able to get surgeons under his authority to use the new technique.  Results impressed and Lister’s new technique slowly but surely spread throughout Europe and to the United States, regrettably for many Civil War veterans years or decades after its discovery.  (President Garfield was one such victim, after being shot his wound was explored by an on-site doctor who just shoved his finger into the hole, followed by further doctors after the incident who probed the wound with non-sanitized fingers and instruments.)

bone saw satterleeLister had one more major impact as well, he was successful in getting the design of surgical instruments changed to use non-natural/porous materials for the handles and to bring about an end to the original cross-hatch designs to ensure a grip.  If you take a look at the modern amputation saws above you’ll notice the saw part of it is functionally very similar to the past, but the handles, now they have a far less pronounced grip design and one that can be cleaned properly.

Sources:  Daily Mail article on U.S. Civil War surgery, Wikipedia article on Joseph Lister.

 

US Civil War – the little state that couldn’t

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Isham-harris-by-brady

The secession crisis of 1860 was one of the pivotal moments in 19th century United States history, the early stages of the crisis defined the civil war that followed and probably set the challenges, failures, and successes of the Lincoln presidency.  As the nation reeled under the question of what membership in the federal entity known as the “United States” was at least one state split over the issue of secession successfully, Virginia, leading to the states western territories breaking free and being admitted as a new state to the nation, West Virginia.  However Virgina was not the only southern state to face the challenge of secession with a sharply divided internal populous, the state of Tennessee went into the crisis facing the same problem.  When the crisis began Tennessee actually strongly leaned towards remaining in the Union, with most of its citizens believing that leaving the United States was a desperate solution to a problem that could be solved by other means, even the election of Abraham Lincoln was not enough to sway the majority of Tennessee citizen base towards the idea of leaving the Union.  Then Lincoln’s proclamation in April 1861 calling for an army of 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion in the South was issued and Tennessee’s position rapidly shifted to pro-secession.  Tennessee’s governor at the time, Isham G. Harris (pictured above) favored secession and worked to bring his state over into the new Confederate States of America.

Felix_Zollicoffer-1

However not all of Tennessee was interested in leaving the Union, Western Tennessee with its broader agricultural system, higher number of slaves, and economy based around large-scale agriculture was sharply in favor of leaving the Union.  However Eastern Tennessee, with a far smaller number of slaves, mountainous terrain, and an economy more based around mining and small-scale agriculture disagreed and held its own convention which decided that East Tennessee wanted to leave the state of Tennessee, form its own new state, and remain within the Union.  This would have taken about a third of Tennessee’s total land area away from the state, something that Harris was not going to have happen.  He ordered the commanding general of Tennessee’s own state army, Felix Zollicoffer (pictured above) to take a sizable force of troops into Eastern Tennessee to secure the region and prevent its pro-Union sympathies from coming to fruition.  This provoked a low-intensity guerrilla war by individuals in East Tennessee against the pro-Confederate, and after a short period fully Confederate, troops garrisoning the region.  In particular a mountainous region known as the “Nickajack” was a site of regular violence and efforts to undermine bridges, destroy communication lines, and ruin rail traffic moving through the state.  Although the Confederates oscillated between a light hand and spanking the region the Confederate States of America was never able to fully bring East Tennessee under control.

Ambrose_Burnside2

The situation came to an end during the Tennessee campaign in 1863 by Union General Ambrose Burnside (pictured above and yes, some believe the term “sideburns” does come from his fabulous whiskers) – who led a successful campaign to secure East Tennessee for the Union in the fall.  By the end of 1864 all of Tennessee was secured by the Union and knocked out of the war.  What, personally, I find particularly fascinating about the story of East Tennessee is the fact that it represents the very narrow view of “states rights” held by the various entities that made up the Confederate States of America – for that institution the idea of “state” was very tightly defined as the entity created by either an original charter or admitted to the United States with carefully enunciated boundaries.  Even the Confederacy, when facing the possibility of part of its own territory attempting to leave it, resorted to violence and military force to maintain its territorial integrity.  (Bonus tidbit – when Sherman led his 1864 march through the south a unit in his forces were composed of Southern men who volunteered to fight for the Union, most of that unit was made up of volunteers from Tennessee, specifically East Tennessee

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Tennessee in the U.S. Civil War, the Nickajack, Isham G. Harris, Ambrose Burnside, and Sideburns.  In addition the article “The Valley of East Tennessee” written by Ernest I. Miller, 1957.

Historiography and Stephen Colbert

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Stephen Colbert and his current SuperPac, The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert SuperPac Americans For A Better Tomorrow Tomorrow, if I have its full name correctly listed, actually provides me a great illustration of the importance of historiography and a shorthand way to talk about the two major schools of thought in how US history is written.  Historiography is, at its most basic, the study of how history is studied.  It is a highly specialized topic, usually only taught to graduate history students, and is usually a course to be sweated through before you get on to other, more fun, topics.  But in the case of Colbert and his SuperPac a rare chance presents itself to explain why it is important and how it shapes our collective story.

Colbert and his SuperPac have made waves, they have had an impact on the 2012 election, and it puts him and John Stewart well into a position to get a mention in future written histories.  The impact Colbert is having on the 2012 election, and people’s perceptions of it, along with his talking about his SuperPac and SuperPacs as a concept, will certainly be analyzed by future historians.  But how they will look at it, well that will really depend on the historical framework they were trained in.  To put this in perspective take a look at two possible, but different, takes on what is happening a future historian might write:

Great Man Theory – In the 2012 Presidential election Stephen Colbert was able to take advantage of a major Supreme Court decision that modified the rules for political action committees so that they could take unlimited donations from corporate and other sponsors.  Throughout the 2012 election Colbert lead the way in exposing, for humorous effect, both the oddities of the rules regarding political action committees as well using his own political funding to launch moderately effective political ads.  Colbert was known for his satirical genius as well as his skill in presenting current events in a manner both humorous, and thought inducing, for his viewing audience.  It was his vision of taking a dry political issue of the period, the political action committee and its impact on politics, and presenting it through mass media and humor as a ludicrous concept, that spearheaded broader political activism in a younger voting block in the 2012 election.  Colbert not only lead the popular groundswell of disquiet at the impact political action committees’ wielded, he spearheaded the movement and ensured its widespread growth.

Social Forces Theory – The year 2012 is a pivotal year when analyzing early 21st century political movements in the United States, during this period due to a widespread economic contraction in the United States, along with the rest of the developed world, a polarization of the electorate was evident in the 2010 and 2012 elections.  In particular, among left leaning younger voters, there was a widespread rejection of many traditional political loyalties and a growing cynicism towards new funding institutions in US politics, in particular the so-called “SuperPac” – a political action committee allowed to take large scale donations from corporate or other organized entities without needing to disclose information on the source of the donations.  In 2012 a popular entertainer, known as Stephen Colbert, sensed a latent potential in the younger voting population for discontent over this particular change to the political scene and, using his late-night television show as a tool to raise awareness of this issue, created his own “Super Pac” and made a humorous mockery of the proceedings.  Colbert’s show was influential in focusing this disorganized and broad discontent in the voting electorate towards a single issue, a focused cynical anger that was reflected in the voting results of the 2012 election (see table 1.6 comparing the elections of 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 against polling responses showing rising discontent with the actions of elected officials.)  Colbert was able to carve for himself an unusual place in the electoral process of 2012 by riding a broad wave of young voter discontent.

Now, both takes on what is happening right now are, roughly, valid, and both could be proven using data from the period.  What is key to understanding why this is important is to understand that history is not really about finding the right answer, or even necessarily the best answer, instead it is an attempt by someone with hindsight to try and make a larger story about what happened in the past, point out the most critical bits, and give the reader a sense of an order to what happened.  As well history strives to prove a theory behind events, it tries to sift out a grand plan to the random chunky goodness of what actually happened.

You may ask why this is critical – a small example will show you – ask yourself this, what was the main cause of the US Civil War?  If you answered slavery, congrats, the history you were taught was influenced by the late 19th century take on the US Civil War that treated it as a morality play.  If you answered states rights, congrats, you were taught a historical take influenced by the early 20th century “Southern School” of thought, which discredited the idea of slavery as a key issue and pushed a broader political and legalistic take on what happened.  If you answered economic forces, congrats, you were trained on histories written in the 1960s and 1970s.  If you answered that there was no single main cause, congrats on last time, you were trained on post-modern historical theory which argues that there were many causes for events and weighing them distorts the true complex pull of history.

Spencer M. Clark – Civil War Currency Lord & Sugar Daddy Extraordinare

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Ladies and Gentleman, meet Mr. Spencer Morton Clark, head of the newly formed Currency Bureau in the Treasury Department in 1861, he was the literal “money maker” of the US Treasury at the time.  Clark was responsible for producing the newest form of banknotes in the United States, federal banknotes, specifically the first incarnation of the ubiquitous “greenback.”  Up until the Civil War currency in the US was produced solely by private banks, each of which generated their own currency, backed by their own security reserves (gold, silver, external securities), and good over limited geographic areas.  But with the outbreak of the US Civil War the federal government was caught with inadequate reserves of coined money to meet their spending needs, and rather than resort to just increased taxation the US government turned to producing additional cash, backed by the faith and credit of the US government, and also usable to pay ones taxes and obligations to the government.  (In other words, modern money.  This gentleman was the person responsible for producing the actual physical bills.  He was also famous as the first person to hire women to work for the federal government, he hired young women to separate the sheets of bills.  He hired women, he said, because their work was neater and they were less “boisterous” than men.

What people didn’t realize for a couple of years was the other reason Clark hired female workers for these duties, he apparently enjoyed having a string of attractive young ladies available who he could seduce/coerce into having sex with him and other male employees at the treasury.  It became a minor scandal in Civil War Washington because female workers were known to often work late at the treasury, often leave work drunk, and Clark as well as other officers of the Treasury routinely spent the night with these young ladies at an infamous hotel known as the “Central Hotel” – well known to the people of the period as a place that rented beds for the night to whomever and asked no questions.  Now Clark got some negative press from this but his dalliances were generally tolerated, he didn’t land himself in real trouble until Clark did something very silly:

That right there is a five cent ($0.05) bank note – for complex economic reasons the US was short on small change at the time, and that is indeed Spencer Clark’s head on the bill.  As he was the currency lord and this was a new bill being issued, he figured “what the hell, I’ve got an awesome beard!”  Congress did not respond to this self-promotion well and seized the newly made currency and destroyed it.  They also passed a law prohibiting anyone being depicted on US federal currency until they were dead.  Clark was investigated by Congress, the minority report from the investigation found him officially an immoral man and a sugar daddy, but officially he was found to be a decent government figure who made a mistake (the above bill) and whose conduct was…questionable.

Unfortunately the report did not quote text from the testimony given by Clark’s former mistresses but by all reports of the period the relationships were “spicy.”  In some ways politicians never change.

Sources:  Greenback, Jason Goodwin; Congressional Edition, US Congress 1864; Spencer Clark on Wikipedia

United States – Civil War – States Rights

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

From a book that I just finished on the period in the history of the United States between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, Dissonance:

“In essence, slavery i snot simply enslavement.  Any monster can enslave another person, chaining him or her to a radiator or a piano leg (of, if one chooses to be cynical, to a variety of social arrangements based on threats).  But for a system of slavery to exist in a society, it must be enforceable by law – like the ownership of any possession – a horse, for example.  Once the necessary laws are in place, a police force is involved: the executive branch of government.

As soon as America had even a single state without slavery (that is, with laws prohibiting the institution), the subject – from a legal point of view – grew unstable.  If a runaway escaped from a slave state to a state without slave laws, did that person become free?  Were law-abiding citizens of a free state obligated to return this human being to his or her “owner” far away – much as they might return a stolen carriage (especially since the out-of-state “owner” could not legally own anyone in a free state)?”

The author goes on from there and describes how the framers of the Constitution argued that indeed, free states had to return runaway slaves, and how the United States government until the 1860s followed a policy of enforcing the return of runaway slaves.  But the analysis provided above blew my mind, for years I’ve wrestled with how to frame a response to people who argue states-rights was the cause of the United States Civil War over slavery – a foolish position but one I’ve had difficulty properly expounding upon in the past.  But this argument does it for me neatly because it takes the argument “it was over states rights – the right to own slaves” to a higher level and actually links it all together for me intellectually.  The issue is the right of the states – in how they interact with each other and with the federal government.  The slave holding states versus the free states were divided fundamentally prior to the United States Civil War and that divide tore across the entire fabric of the nation – for one part of the population a right to property they held, under their law, was simply denied to them in another state.  In turn, for those in free states, they were being asked to uphold in many cases the right of a state other than their own, a right contrary to their own legal code.

An issue that touches on similar legal ground today is the controversy over allowing homosexual couples to marry – traditionally states recognize each others acts of marriage – that is why a married couple who were legally wed in one state can move to another state and do not have to marry each other, nor does changing states negate the standing marriage.  Homosexual marriages challenge that convention, some US states have banned it, others permit it, so what happens when a homosexual couple in a state that permits their marriage then relocates to one that either doesn’t grant such marriages or, worse, banned them.  Take that same controversy today and whip the emotional load associated with the issue up to a fever pitch.  Slavery ignited passions on both sides of the ideological divide to fanatical levels in the early to mid 19th century, as honestly it should have.  For slave holders in the United States anti-slavery sentiments became an attack on their property, culture, way of life, and value code.  For abolitionists in the United States slavery became a barbaric, vile, ancient custom that had no place in the culture or society of the United States and, for the most extreme, was a legal institution so vile those who benefited from it should receive no recourse or compensation when their “property” was freed.

It is an issue that literally tore the country in twain in 1861 and prior to that in the 1850s threaten to cleave the nation several times.  (By the way for those of you who feel passionate when the Supreme Court makes a ruling you disagree with sharply, read up on the Dred Scott decision sometime, took place in 1857.  In it the Supreme Court, in a ruling probably with more politics than law in it, not only ruled slaves could never be taken away from their owners but also: slavery could not be prohibited by Congress in the federal territories, African-Americans had no right to sue in the courts, and African-Americans who were slaves or descendents of slaves could never be US citizens.  Put simply – the Supreme Court took a bundle of political compromises that had held the nation together for decades on this issue, set them on fire, and told half the nation “Screw you bitches, slavery is in, American, and cannot be contained!”  In reaction emotions were quite heated.)

Book Review PortionDissonance: The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run by David Detzer, 2006.  Fabulous book, very human, an incredibly skilled way of telling the story of these days with a human face upon them.  I’ll be reading more of Mr. Detzer’s work and I highly recommend his book, even if you are not a history buff.  This is a toe-grit history at its finest, it uses the personalities and stories of the people involved as an engine to tell the broader historical narrative.