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The South and Secession: 150 years later

In April 2011 we will be 150 years from the secession of Virginia and the upper South from the United States to join the just formed Confederate States of America. Led by South Carolina in December 1860, seven “deep South” or “cotton” states formally withdrew from the Union in the winter of 1860-1861. But when the upper South states left in April 1861, the Civil War followed quickly as both the U.S. and the Confederate States battled over national supremacy. As we mark the anniversaries of these key events, secession and civil war, we should look more than ever at what the participants said and wrote.

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on The South’s Secession Commemoration on Thursday of this week does just that in a satirical review of whether slavery had anything to do with secession.

Slavery was at the core of secession, of course–see also the Making of Modern America blog post on Why Did Virginia Secede? which takes up this question.

Re-examining South Carolina’s Secession–the story of the Blue Ridge Railroad

If we are to explain South Carolina’s secession in 1860, we might look more closely at its fractious legislative struggle over railroad development. South Carolina, like Virginia and Georgia, embarked on major railroad projects aided by state finances and backing. These projects aimed to break the mountain barriers separating them from the rest of the South and fulfill the idea that Nature favored their region, a persistent theme in the late 1850s among Southern expansionists. It became an important refrain in the years leading up to secession. The political implications of the notion could not be ignored: they hinged on what Nature bestowed and how people reconfigured Nature to their own advantages. The basis for most of these claims came from the experience with railroads. Up and down the mountainous chain separating the seaboard from the interior, projects got underway in the 1850s to break through Nature’s barriers and substitute for them a second Nature of rails, tunnels, embankments, grades, and structures.

The South Carolina Blue Ridge Rail Road, for example, was planned to connect Charleston to the west across the mountains, much like the Virginia project to tunnel through the Blue Ridge and the Baltimore and Ohio’s effort to break through the Alleghenies. For South Carolina the stakes placed on the Blue Ridge Railroad were especially high and so were the expectations. The road’s new president, Edward Frost, a Charleston attorney turned railroad investor, argued that once built the railroad would reshape the geography of the state and that “Charleston will then be 46 miles nearer to Knoxville than Richmond and 96 miles nearer than Savannah.” Both of these rival cities with their railroads had drawn off the trade from the West and left South Carolina imprisoned by its mountains. He urged that stockholders and legislators to look at a map and they will see that “without the Blue Ridge Road, Charleston and South Carolina have little opportunity of sharing in the advantages of a commercial connection with the navigable waters of the West.” In fact, Frost argued, the neighboring states constructed railroads that “belt” South Carolina and once North Carolina completed its work “then the cordon of railroads around South Carolina will be complete and close.”1

If the state was about to be shut off from the modern commercial economy developing on its very borders, enabled by the railroad’s capacity to conquer nature, then South Carolina, according to Frost, had the opportunity to open itself up. He would not predict the Blue Ridge Railroad’s earning potential once it was completed because the importance of the road would be measured “by the trade which it will, in time, attract.” He pointed out instead that other railroads outperformed even their most optimistic projections and he concluded that a maxim could be drawn from these comparisons: “railroads create the trade they need.”

The idea was alluring. It went beyond confidence or optimism. It was understood as a kind of natural, economic, and technological law whose operations were in effect whether the citizens of a state or city wished it or not. Frost pointed out that wheat traveled 456 miles from Knoxville to Richmond, and much of it further to Baltimore. “Why may not Columbia, having advantages of water power greater than Richmond, and as favorably situated, not manufacture wheat, with a carriage from Knoxville of 321 miles?” Frost asked.

South Carolina’s isolated position on the ever-changing map of railroad growth in the 1850s worried Frost. He cautioned his stockholders as well as the public and the legislature that the state was one of the smallest “in territory and one of the least in white population, while it is one of the wealthiest, of the Southern States.” Only “moral force and character” had allowed it to remain a leader, but railroads and the reconfiguration of the South with them threatened South Carolina’s position, and presumably its wealth. The Blue Ridge, he argued, was too large in scale for private capital to complete. The railroad was a “great national highway, uniting the geographical divisions of the continent, across the great mountain barrier which separates them.” And railroads of this magnitude, including those already built by neighboring states and others under construction, “superseded” every other mode of trade. “Commerce is no longer dependent on the natural advantages of sites at the estuaries of large streams,” Frost maintained, “Even the Mississippi cannot protect New Orleans from the successful rivalry of railroads.”2

Despite the excitement and progress on the Blue Ridge tunnels and tracks in 1858, the road again needed more capital by the end of the year. Frost and the company’s directors appealed to the state legislature to amend the original charter and authorize another one million dollars in state aid and bonds. The fight in the Legislature over the Blue Ridge Railroad funding grew heated and intense debate followed. Men who had supported every other railroad in the state turned against the Blue Ridge. They maintained that the road was too expensive and too speculative, that it could never pay for itself, and that if private capital could not be raised then the state should not built it. Supporters held that the state debt would not be materially affected by an additional two million dollars, that the state could (and probably should) raise taxes, and that other southern states were taking on similar levels of state aid. They pointed to Georgia which invested $5 million in the Western, and Virginia which spent $3 million on its Blue Ridge Railroad and Tunnel and was busy undertaking a $12 million project on the Covington & Ohio. Besides, the bill’s proponents argued, the State legislature was already spending $3 million on a lavish new state house widely seen as an extravagance.3

When the legislature of South Carolina voted to withhold continued public support for the Blue Ridge Rail Road in late 1858, all of the work on the railroad and the tunnel stopped. The Charleston Mercury mocked the legislature and the railroad’s critics as shortsighted and foolish. Who would not “feel ashamed” of the “inconsistency and irresolution” that the state “has exhibited before the world?” the Mercury asked. Too many of the state’s leaders, it argued, were measuring the impact of the railroad “by the little pocket rule of immediate dividends.” Instead, “we look upon it as a project on a grander scale, and destined to confer measureless benefits–social, political, and commercial.”4 In the South Carolina House, Christopher Memminger argued that “modern nations,” like the ancient Greeks and Romans before them, build monuments to “their genius and enterprise,” but the abandonment of the Blue Ridge left “half finished tunnels,” “crumbling bridges, and ruined cuts through hills and mountains” as a monument to the state’s “inconstancy and feebleness.” Whether South Carolina could avoid isolation and encirclement and join the rapidly evolving Southern railroad commercial network remained an open question after 1859. In the coming years South Carolina’s desperate need for a unified South only grew more pronounced.5

The prominent railroad engineer and friend of John C. Calhoun, A. H. Brisbane was appalled at the turn of events. Brisbane asked his South Carolina readers what Calhoun would think if the state did not support the railroad to connect to the rest of the South. Calhoun was its first visionary and “to the hour of his death its unceasing supporter.” Brisbane appealed to those who voted against the state support to reconsider their position and to ponder Calhoun’s legacy. Could it be, he wondered, “they have already forgotten the man whose reputation, even now when he is dead, is defending them in their dearest rights.”6

To white South Carolinians, Brisbane’s reference to rights could mean only one thing: the right to hold slave property. To be sure that they understood Calhoun’s linkage between these rights and the railroad economy he hoped to develop in the South, Brisbane conjured up the Calhoun who had walked the passes of South Carolina and Georgia and who in planning the route with Brisbane circled Rabun Gap on a map and exclaimed: “There is your gap, there is the great pass; there the mountains recede . . . as though they invited the States of this great confederacy to pass and repair them.” Calhoun had great faith that the railroad would bring the South to “the gates of Cincinnati” and that even though “we may fail sir, in our endeavors now, but the result must come, and our industrial independence be secured by this boon of Providence–this inexplicable pass, through a mighty range of mountains, unless for some great moral purpose, such as is now proposed.”

In this context South Carolina had a choice, according to Edward Frost, the railroad’s president. It could go forward with the Blue Ridge Railroad, bore through the mountains, and reap the potential advantages of altering nature’s barriers, or it could “recede from the position of moral eminence she has heretofore occupied, and be reconciled to a diminution of her political power and consequence proportioned to her territorial area.”7

The choice was implied for the South as well. The language, ideas, and practices of the local conflict could jump tracks and become an important resource in the South’s claim to nationhood. City and state rivalries within the South translated arguments easily to the sectional or national competition. South Carolina’s leading men were aware of the consequences of their state’s isolation. And although conservative Democrats remained suspicious of state development schemes, enough to finally block the Blue Ridge’s financing in 1859, the questions raised by the railroad projects were profoundly significant for South Carolina. They indicated the ways railroads were reconfiguring the nation’s borders, geography, and commerce. The debates in South Carolina coming as they did on the eve of the 1860 presidential election, moreover, rehearsed a series of arguments that would emerge in the following year over the best means to ensure the South’s future wealth and independence. They also revealed the slow process of reshaping identities. Because the railroads connected places, linked subregions, and crossed natural barriers, their potential prompted a series of questions for those who supported and opposed them: what is our region, who are our allies, and where are we going?

Notes and Sources:

1 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

2 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

3 For a collection of criticisms, see the series of articles by “Nolumus” in The Charleston Mercury in “The Blue Ridge Railroad” Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. “The Blue Ridge Railroad Enterprise,” The Charleston Mercury, December 30, 1858, Issue 10,427, Col. C.

4 “The Blue Ridge Railroad Enterprise,” The Charleston Mercury, December 28, 1858, Issue 10,425, Col. C.

5 “Speech of C. G. Memminger, Esq. In the House of Representatives, of the Bill to Afford Aid to the Blue Ridge Railroad,” The Charleston Mercury, January 10, 1859, Issue 10,436, Col. C.

6 “General Brisbane’s Compliments to the conductors of the Press,” Charleston Mercury, June 1, 1859, Issue 10,558, Col. D in Nineteenth Century U. S. Newspapers. See also, Betty L. Plisco, The Rocky Road to Nowhere: a History of the Blue Ridge Railroad in South Carolina, 1850-1861 (Salem, SC: Blue Granite Books, 2002): 69-73.

7 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

Lincoln’s First Inaugural and American History

When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as President of the United States, he faced an unprecedented crisis. Seven states had already formally seceded from the Union, set up their own government in Montgomery, Alabama, and were actively recruiting more states to join them in forming a rival national government. Lincoln’s inauguration speech has often been admired for its moderation. The new President stated clearly that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” the federal government’s buildings and forts in the seceded states, but also that “there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” Lincoln tried to speak past the fanatics to “those who love the Union.”

We can admire Lincoln’s calm restraint, yet in retrospect Lincoln would seem to have misjudged the temper of the times and the resolve of the Southern whites. At the core of Lincoln’s first inaugural address was his assertion that “plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” Hundreds of thousands of white southerners disagreed, of course, and saw their nation as an independent republic, fully justified in peaceable separation from the Union. Lincoln asserted that “one section of the country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.” Although he knew well that many Northerners found little wrong with slavery, Lincoln claimed that “physically speaking” the country could not be separated. And in his beautiful and poignant closing, calling on the “mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature,” Lincoln hoped Americans would set “passion” aside and renew their bonds of affection in the Union.

Lincoln had reason to believe in these feelings for the Union and that they might avert the looming conflict and violence; indeed, he probably had to have this faith on that day. His personal qualities and his political calculation led him to take a position of open invitation to the white South to return their hearts to the Union. He hoped time would cool off the angry response to his election, and with this expectation his inaugural address was genuinely offered as an attempt at reconciliation. Despite the elegance of his rhetoric, Lincoln’s idea that the American continent could not be physically separated into two or more republics was an assertion unsupportable by history or logic. Various empires had controlled large parts of the American continent and national identities in other parts of the world constantly changed the maps and atlases.Lincoln, however, challenged his “dissatisfied countrymen” to think twice about their actions. He vowed to uphold the constitution and his oath to defend the government, and he said that they in choosing secession bore the responsibility for a civil war. Most of all, Lincoln urged that both sides take time and move deliberately. With time, he hoped, these sad divisions might heal.

The difficulty Lincoln faced was in convincing white Southerners that these sentiments mattered. Few were listening. What happened to make such a distance of feeling, such alienation, possible? Lincoln likened the separation to a divorce, but all such analogies fail. Lincoln’s inaugural address, brave and elegiac as it was, was speaking into a hurricane. The white South in spirit and identity left the Union long before March 4, 1861. The divergence is difficult to time and locate in American history. Too often, our histories have followed Lincoln’s logic that separation was impossible, secession was a “sophism,” and the civil war was the product of discontented extremists–a set of arguments most forcefully made in his message to Congress on July 4, 1861. We might reconsider, however, the national purpose of the Confederate South and its origins. Historians, such as Drew Gilpin Faust, Anne S. Rubin, Peter and Nicholas Onuf, and Edward L. Ayers, have helped us see the white South’s national identity as deeper and more complex that Lincoln might have admitted. These historians and others suggest a white South whose Confederate national loyalties proved durable, even advanced and logical, drawing on the same sources of American nationalism in the Revolution and early national history. They knew what they were doing. We need to retain Lincoln’s sense of historical contingency, for he (almost alone) in his inaugural held out the possibility that things might be different, that persuasion and good will might be reciprocated, and that a reservoir of Unionism might save the nation from war and bloodshed. But we also might consider how sectionalism reinforced its own logic by slowly recasting forms of national identity, and in the process how two modern nations of Americans emerged ready to fight one another on modern scale of conflict. Then we might understand how Lincoln’s eloquent first inaugural fell on deaf ears.

Why Did Virginia Secede?

Today it seems almost inconceivable. Eleven states, in the Southern region of the United States, called constitutional conventions and in a matter of months formally withdrew from the nation. In breathtaking speed they had established an entirely new and separate nation with a capital at Montgomery, Alabama. What made this possible?

After all, secession seems entirely counterintuitive. Why would the most wealthy individuals, the men with the most to lose in society, risk everything, including slavery, as well as their lives, peace, property, prosperity, position, and inheritance? Why would they knowingly bring on a war with the United States by creating a new and risky republic in the South, and then throw everything into its defense until their capital lay in ruins, their population half-starved, and every army battered into total submission? 

Historian and leading scholar of the Civil War, James McPherson answers that secession was a “counter-revolution” not a “revolution.” White southerners, he argues, saw the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party as the revolutionaries. The move to secede was a counter-revolution, a conservative  effort designed to protect what they had and stem the tide of change sweeping across the nation. All of their resistance, he argues, was aimed at maintaining slavery and their position in society. To McPherson the answer is straightforward–they saw a greater risk in the Union and perceived themselves as the inheritors of the true republican virtues of the Revolution. Their new republic was, therefore, modeled on the “union as it was” before the slavery issue threatened their principles and prosperity. McPherson indicates that the South was in a way seeking to turn back the clock or at least stop time. Their vision was not progressive but regressive. 

When you read the four volumes of The Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, or an updated history of what the southern delegates said to the Virginia convention (Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion), however, a number of further considerations become equally important. Virginia, of course, included West Virginia at the time and so delegates came from the far western, mountainous counties too where slavery was less prominent. The convention met for weeks in Richmond and those favoring immediate secession maneuvered to keep the convention in session, hoping for a dramatic event that might tip the votes their way. Eventually, the got their wish, as President Abraham Lincoln called for troops from Virginia and the other states after the firing on Fort Sumter. Lincoln clearly intended to suppress secession in the South and Virginia’s delegates voted the next day 88-55 to secede with the South and join the Confederacy.

Let’s reconsider, though, what these delegates said. 

First, not a single Virginia delegate criticized slavery. Indeed, many of the western delegates were slaveholders and those that did not spoke in support of the institution. No delegate wanted to be branded an abolitionist. Delegates outdid one another to voice their commitment to slavery. Slavery and its protection was clearly in the forefront of their motivations.

Second, slavery was not just an abstract or political issue, but one that for these white men was centered on “property.” When Thomas Branch of Petersburg offered his constituents’ views in the form of a resolution to the Convention, it was to affirm that “negro slaves are property.” Somehow, these white Southerners thought, the North had lost sense of slavery as a form of property and needed to be reminded of the bare, essential nature of the rights the South was going to defend. Branch for his part only needed to state that he would represent the will of his constituents and that meant immediate secession.

Third, the debates read as if they took place outside of time, and indicate that the delegates, however duly constituted, had few ways to articulate what was happening in the spirit of the white South. Despite the fast pace of events and the complex political and diplomatic issues at stake, the Virginia delegates spent hours and days parsing words such as “sovereignty” and “person” and “vital” and “social institution.” The delegates gave long-winded explications of constitutional history and read into the record as evidence the speeches, letters, and proclamations of Lincoln, New York U. S. Senator William H. Seward, Massachusetts U.S. Senator Henry Wilson, and others. There was remarkably little discussion of the real events taking place, the possibilities of war, the nature of the conflict, or the resources at their command. The delegates were assembled to debate “secession” as a legal right and to craft an ordinance that would tender Virginia’s withdrawal from the United States of America.

Fourth, despite the close votes in February 1861 and the reluctance of some to cause a war, the majority of these delegates already understood themselves as part of a Southern, modern nation on equal footing with the North, as well as Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. Indeed, a number of delegates placed the idea of the Confederacy in the context of newly forming nation-states in Europe. They saw themselves as part of the vanguard of modern state formation. Their sense of Southern progress, civilization, and modernity may be the most surprising aspect of the debates.

This last point is critical. The state conventions and legal machinations that flowed from them structured the debates over secession in very specific and circumscribed ways, especially in Virginia. Unlike the deep South states where the procedures moved quickly in December 1860, Virginia with its long history of Revolutionary heritage stood in the breach for months, the decisive tipping point, and the Virginia delegates knew it. It was no wonder they acted cautiously.

Only when we take the debates for what they were–a constitutional forum burdened with the history of Virginia’s role in the United States–can we begin to see the underlying frameworks that made secession not only possible but likely. The view of slaves, of course, as property offered the decisive common ground for these white Virginians. But confidence was equally important. Not confidence in a constitutional right worthy of defense, but instead confidence in the capacity to hold up a modern nation-state on the world stage. In this respect nothing about Virginia’s secession might be considered counter-revolutionary. “Nations act on their interests,” one Virginia delegate argued, “not on their sentiments.” (Vol. II, p. 673)

The idea itself is strikingly modern. As for the South, and indeed Virginia, it could not do otherwise if it purported to be a nation, to be sovereign to itself, to be a civilization worthy of the world’s respect. “It is a fact, Mr. Chairman,” the delegate concluded, “that there is a separate national existence at Montgomery.” (Vol. II, p. 675) The question was when, not if, Virginia would join it.

Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has become especially relevant this week as Americans undertake a sixth year in the Iraq War, a struggle that has now exceeded the Civil War in length. It might be time to take stock of what Lincoln meant in the middle of one of our longest and bloodiest wars. We might ask how the Northern (and Southern) public managed to sustain the war for as long as they did. Certainly, there were significant interests at stake in the Civil War and ideals as well. But after even four years of numbing casualties, resolve in both sections became tenuous. We might recall that the purpose of the war was not always entirely clear to its participants and the higher ideals we have inscribed on the Civil War were not entirely self-evident to those fighting it. Numerous commentators and politicians have invoked Lincoln several times since September 11, 2001, and they have often depicted the Iraq War as a struggle for freedom. The concept of freedom, however, has had more modern meanings, often associated with the Cold War struggle against totalitarianism. In Lincoln’s day the concept of “liberty” resonated more deeply among white Americans, since its meaning was tied directly to the Revolution. Liberty invoked rights, either those of the individual or the states, rights that were to be guarded vigilantly and defended vigorously against the inevitable encroachments of tyranny. Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke most directly about equality, and in his opening line quoted “all men are created equal” from the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s invocation of a “new birth of freedom” came at the end of his address, and specifically in the context of the stunning threat to free government that secession and war had caused. Freedom also stood in opposition to enslavement, and in this context to be free meant simply to not be enslaved. Free men were masters of themselves. The political cry of “free soil, free labor, free men” caught on with white Northerners because slavery was perceived as restricting their [free whites] movement and economic prospects. Still, “freedom” had little of the purchase that “liberty” did in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead, it was Lincoln’s emphasis on equality that was revolutionary and in the year of his Emancipation Proclamation so very important. It was the concept of equality in the Gettysburg Address that set Democrat’s teeth on edge and prompted southern scorn. So, what did Lincoln say and do in the Gettysburg Address and why should we remember it? Was it the beginning of a modern experience of national mourning and dedication, aimed at finding meaning in war?

These questions lie at the center of several recent books. Gabor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows is only one example of a growing (and seemingly endless) interest in Lincoln and his Civil War leadership. In addition, Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: The Civil War and Death has recently called considerable attention to the question of the Civil War in our national identity and culture.

We remember Lincoln’s words commemorating the dead at Gettysburg, but we might ask whether Americans at the time found them worthy of comment. Surprisingly, few Americans, it seems, heard these words or even read them. If you scan the newspapers in the weeks after the address, you will find it gets barely a mention and almost nowhere was it reprinted in full. On November 19, 1863, the occasion was a poignant and most modern of national events–a commemoration, a remembering of the dead in wartime and the creation of a national cemetery. Lincoln tried to speak beyond the immediate circumstances, however, and risked losing his own audience but gaining one for the generations. In the first instance the Address was received by many in the North as an opportunity to consider the great battle and its place in the national struggle. At Gettysburg over 23,000 Union soldiers, or 25 % of the Army of the Potomac were killed or wounded or missing. For Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia the toll was even higher: 33 % of his army, over 28,000 men. On the 3rd day in Picket’s division all 3 brigadier generals and all 13 regimental colonels were killed or wounded.

The reaction to the battle in the North in early July was ecstatic. Josiah Strong, Presbyterian minister, wrote in his diary that “the charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken” “the copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment” “the government is strengthened 4 strong at home and abroad.”

But many white southerners took a far different view of the battle at Gettysburg. It took weeks for many to understand much of what had happened, the information trickled in with the wounded and from northern newspapers. Southern papers told of a large battle with heavy casualties but presented Gettysburg as a stalemate rather than a loss, and one in which southern soldiers gave every bit as good as they got.

Soldiers wrote home, of course, but many were uniformed about the larger consequences. One, Jed Hotchkiss, Stonewall Jackson’s mapmaker, took a view shared by many in the Confederate ranks. The northern papers were full of nonsense, he wrote his wife Sara on July 14th, “we did not take the heights at Gettysburg” but, he noted, Lee and the army waited 3 more days to “offer” battle and when the Yankees did not come into the open for a fight, Lee and the Army came away from Gettysburg “at our own pleasure.”

For the white South Gettysburg was less troubling than the simultaneous loss of Vicksburg. There, indeed, a place, a Southern army, did fall, was lost, and the consequences for the Confederacy were plain–it had been cut in two.

But even with this loss on top of Gettysburg Jed Hotchkiss could find a way to dismiss it. “She is not the Confederacy,” he observed of Vicksburg. The North would find out, he thought, that it had only an “imagined possession” of the Mississippi. Vicksburg was “no vital blow.”When Hotchkiss looked north after Gettysburg he saw a people afflicted with political divisions. Many in the white South hoped, as Lee did, that the battle would widen those divisions and so weaken northern resolve to win the war. White Southerners saw their solidarity, so clearly displayed on the field at Gettysburg, in sharp relief to the Northern political divisions.

After the November 19th events at Gettysburg, these issues framed how Lincoln’s address was received. Republicans in the Northern press focused on the importance of the battle itself, the only battlefield in the North–distinguishing between it and the raids into other parts of the border North. Gettysburg as a place for the battle, then, was significant because it was “the first trial of the capacity of the rebels to fulfill the boasts, so often made by their leaders at the outset of the war, that they would march through the free States in triumph. . . The ambition of their chieftains, the plunderous lust of their predatory followers, the domineering pride of a vainglorious people, all went into that battle with high hopes and banners flying, and came out of it crushed, despirited and despairing.” (North American and United States Gazette, (Philadelphia, PA) Saturday, November 21, 1863; Issue 26,639; col A)

In nearby Franklin County, the Republicans there had been architects of Lincoln’s victory in 1860 and they saw in the events at Gettysburg a higher national purpose. They focused not on Lincoln but on the sanctity of the commemoration of the dead: there was “no eulogy too eloquent, no granite too enduring to extol and perpetuate their virtues.” The key to the memory of the event was its character: “Inseparably with this event, which has become history–must be recorded this fact, that the proceedings of the day were conducted with profound solemnity, and that in no instance was the bounds of decency and propriety disregarded. No accident of any character occurred, and the demeanor of all, without scarcely a single exception, was in conformity with the rules of law, respect and good order.” (Franklin Repository, November 25, 1863) In the same issue the Republican editors noted that Delaware voted to end slavery. Republicans, as a rule, paid much more attention to Edward Everrett’s long address than to Lincoln’s short talk.

Northern Democrats, however, found little to praise in either man’s words. The Buffalo Courier, called the consecration of the cemetery at Gettysburg a “national wake” and denounced it as “a relic of barbarism.” (New Haven Daily Palladium, (New Haven, CT) Friday, November 27, 1863; Issue 308; col A) The New Hampshire Statesman ridiculed, “so far as it was a pageant, it did not reach the public expectation.” It called Edward Everett’s speech manufactured if mildly eloquent. Of Lincoln the paper wrote nothing. (Concord, NH Friday, November 27, 1863; Issue 2217; col B)

In the Southern press the events provoked a curious response. Most papers did not publish a single notice about them. Those that did focused not on Lincoln’s now famous words but on his impromptu speech the night before.

Here is the Richmond Examiner’s headline:

“The Dedication” of the Gettysburg Battle-Field—Details of the Ceremonies—The Cemetery—Speech and Wit of Lincoln Dropped on the Wayside

The Examiner used the occasion to ridicule Lincoln–on his arrival by train the evening before Lincoln gives a humorous short speech but according to the Examiner “the scene here, one would think, was one to inspire solemnity and reverence, but it seems to have given the Yankees quite another feeling–Lincoln seems to have regarded it as a very fit occasion for merriment and wit!”

The editors in Richmond zeroed in on the image of Lincoln as disconnected from the suffering and oblivious to the carnage and loss he and his administration had created. They noted that Lincoln tried to joke about whether the local Pennsylvanians had seen the rebels last summer and fought them, but “the people looked at each other with a half amused, half puzzled expression, while the long, tall form of the President leaned from the car as he waited the reply.” (Daily Richmond Examiner, (Richmond, VA) Wednesday, November 25, 1863; Issue 217; col C )

The Richmond Daily Dispatch (November 24, 1863 ) called the ceremony the “National Necropolis.” The celebration was “entirely Yankeeish. The Star Spangled Banner was all over the ground, but was adorned with some strings of black in view of the occasion.” As for Everett’s speech they could not believe his assertion that if the secession vote had been put to the people of the South they would never have voted for it: “With the stiff corpses of one thousand two hundred and eighty eight men lying in a semi-circle around him, killed on the field for the express purpose of giving the lie to all such statements, this Massachusetts Yankee stood on the platform at Gettysburg and read aloud this printed folly.” (Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 25, 1863)

If we look at eyewitness accounts, most observers focused on the great speech of Edward Everett and on the solemnity of the occasion. On November, Wednesday, 18, 1863, Amos Stouffer from nearby Franklin County went to Gettysburg, for the “Dedication and consecration of the National Cemetery will be tomorrow.” The next day he recorded in his diary his eyewitness account of the Address: “A very fine fall day. The day opened with the booming of cannon. Abe Lincoln, Gov. Curtin, Gov. Seymour, Gov. Todd, Gov. Brough, Maj. Gen Schnock, Maj. Gen Couch, Gen. Stoneman & several other Maj. Gens. were there and about a doz. Brigadier Gens. Shook hands with Old Abe & Curtin. Everet delivered the oration. The dead of the different states are all kept separate. It was a grand affair. About 30,000 people here. We came home in the evening. Emma & Matty Snivel went over with Adam.” The next day he wrote: “A fine day . . . . the affair at Gettysburg was certainly imposing. The military display was good. The Lodges from different parts of the state marched.”

Two hundred miles to the South, Joseph Waddell, editor of a Virginia newspaper, did not attend the ceremony of course, but instead wrote in his diary about the war on the same day as Lincoln spoke. The contrast is significant:

“A general feeling now that the war will be interminable. All round the horizon there is not a glimmer of light or hope. Yet the war does not weigh as heavily as it did for many months after it began. The recollection of the security and abundance formerly enjoyed seems like a dream. — I picture to myself the scenes in our streets three years ago — piles of boxes before every store door, shelves and counters within filled and piled up with goods, merchants begging customers to buy; groceries running over with sugar, molasses, coffee, tea, cheese fish +c; confectioners making the most tempting display of fruits, cakes and candies; wagon loads of country produce calling at every house and farmers earnestly inquiring who wished to purchase flour, corn, potatoes, beef, pork, apples — Now, the stores (still so called by courtesy) will furnish you thread, buttons, pins, and other light articles which ‘run the blockage,’ cotton cloth of Southern manufacture (at $3.75 per yard!), vessels made of clay instead of glass or china ware, and occasionally a few yards of calico or linsey; the confectioner’s saloons are like ‘banquet halls deserted’ ; and you will be lucky if, by dint of entreaty and as a special favour , an ‘independent farmer’ will sell you at a high price a barrel of flour or a few bushels of corn.”

Like many white Southerners, Waddell had nothing to say about Lincoln’s address in later diary entries. Only a handful of Southern newspapers carried notice of it and none printed his remarks in full.

In the fall of 1863, however, the war was taking its toll on Waddell and other white southerners. To them, few of their expectations seemed to have been met. The political ruptures that Lee and his army hoped to see in the North after Gettysburg, at least for a time, faded with the national commemoration. The peace Democrats, Waddell thought, were “dead” in the North. The hope of secession had been pinned for some time on the idea that the North would tire of the war and eventually sustaining the war would become politically untenable for Lincoln and the Republicans. Yet, the Gettysburg Address and the speeches there had the opposite effect.

As we look back at Lincoln’s message and at the context of it in the Civil War, we cannot help but see the real political conflict Lincoln was managing, as well as the ways the newspapers tried to influence public opinion and everyday citizens. Lincoln’s war was not like ours today, of course, either in its aims or its origins. But Lincoln’s reelection hung in the balance in 1863 and 1864, and the war did too. Lincoln, in fact, was the first president to face reelection in the middle of a major war. His words at Gettysburg, so revered today, were received in the context of the modern nation’s political struggle, especially its battle to define the meaning and purpose of so many deaths. Lincoln meant what he said and the humility with which he delivered the address was genuine. But he seemed to know also that modern nations fought and sustained wars differently from the empires and feudal states of the past. There could be no calls to religious heritage, or ethnic identities, or past grievances at the hands of infidel invaders. Instead, there were the stage at the cemetery, the dead in the ground, and the sweeping battlefield within easy sight. This tableau offered a setting for national identity and national purpose, and Lincoln seized the opportunity to inscribe his words there.

The idea of commemorating, in fact, has had and continues to have a powerful appeal to a citizenry at war, even, perhaps especially, in a democratic republic. Lincoln’s address helped sustain the idea that the staggering deaths of the Civil War must have a purpose. Lincoln names that purpose in ways that white Southerners found ludicrous and Northern Democrats scoffed at. Still, the modern American nation has practiced this form of what we might call “remembering-as-meaning” ever since. The difficulty for the citizens of a modern democratic republic at war, ever since Lincoln’s brilliant Gettysburg Address, lies in discerning whether the act of commemoration is making meaning or giving voice to shared purpose. We Americans will probably always search for meaning when we are at war, and we will disagree. But also, like the citizens who gathered at the battlefield and those who later read about the events at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, we will need to ask ourselves whether remembering the dead in war has obscured our vision about the nature of the struggle.