New York Times: Disunion

Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln's Election to the Emancipation Proclamation


By The New York Times

Edited by Ted Widmer

With Clay Risen

With George Kalogerakis

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A major collection of modern commentary from scholars, historians, and Civil War buffs on the significant events of the Civil War, culled from The New York Times’ popular Disunion on-line journal.

Since its debut, The New York Times’ acclaimed web journal entitled ‘Disunion’ has published hundreds of original articles and won multiple awards, including “Best History Website” from the New Media Institute and the History News Network. Following the chronology of the secession crisis and the Civil War, the contributors to Disunion, who include modern scholars, journalists, historians, and Civil War buffs, offer contemporary commentary and assessment of the Civil War as it unfolded chronologically.

Now, this commentary has been gathered together and organized in one volume. In The New York Times: Disunion, historian Ted Widmer has curated more than 100 articles that span events beginning with Lincoln’s presidential victory through the Emancipation Proclamation. Topics include everything from Walt Whitman’s wartime diary to the bloody guerrilla campaigns in Missouri and Kansas. Esteemed contributors include William Freehling, Adam Goodheart, and Edward Ayers, among others.

The book also compiles new essays that have not been published on the Disunion site by well-known historians such as David Blight, Gary Gallagher, and Drew Gilpin Faust. Topics include the perspective of African-American slaves and freed men on the war, the secession crisis in the Upper South, the war in the West (that is, past the Appalachians), the war in Texas, the international context, and Civil War-era cartography. Portraits, contemporary etchings, and detailed maps round out the book.



The Question of Disunion


“But what can I say of that prompt and splendid wrestling with secession slavery, the archenemy personified, the instant he unmistakably showed his face? The volcanic upheaval of the nation, after that firing on the flag at Charleston, proved for certain something which had been previously in great doubt, and at once substantially settled the question of disunion.”

—Walt Whitman, Specimen Days

It is not easy to find a new way to write about a subject as well-reconnoitered as the Civil War. But 2013 seems a particularly appropriate year to take stock of our national epic. Historic anniversaries can pile up on themselves, and it requires concentration to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at the same time. Yet they are part of the same broad story, a rhyme that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appreciated, as he used Lincoln’s temple to preach to the nation about the unfinished business of the Civil War. That business remains unfinished. For despite the peace that came, finally, at Appomattox, the Civil War remains a ghostly presence in American life. It will never vanish, as long as its principal monument, the United States of America, survives. Of course, the armies laid down their arms, and the soldiers came home to build new lives. Some tried desperately to forget the war. Then, inevitably, the prodigious act of remembrance began. Politicians waived their bloody shirts, generals wrote their memoirs, and, ever-dutiful, the veterans themselves reunited, on both sides, well into the 20th century. They decorated graves, they listened to speeches, sometimes they re-assembled on those original battlefields.

A century ago, in 1913, what was probably the most extraordinary Civil War reenactment of all took place at Gettysburg, played out by the former soldiers themselves, 53,407 of whom showed up, roughly a third of the number who had originally fought there. They were the same people, in the same place, but the Civil War had changed considerably since they last met there. A new Southern president, Woodrow Wilson, called it “a forgotten quarrel,” when it was nothing of the sort. But reawakening the bitterness of the conflict was nowhere near the agenda in 1913, and the majority of speakers that day preferred to remember how, rather than why, they had fought.

Each generation reenacts the Civil War in its own way. Even after the demise of the warriors (the last known veteran, Albert Woolson, died in 1956), it has never lost its power to fascinate. Today’s re-enactors are so numerous that one wonders if their swampy battlefields are, in fact, spawning grounds. The Union lives on, in all of the ways that its adherents hoped, and more than a few that they could not have anticipated. Nor is the Lost Cause lost—its acolytes populate State Houses and Southern rock songs, and even in Northern shrines like Gettysburg, Confederate memorabilia vastly outsells the less romantic souvenirs of the side that actually prevailed. On election night in November 2012, the map of red and blue states bore an uncomfortable similarity to a map of November 1862, an anniversary moment that no one had quite intended.

More than merely relevant, the Civil War remains essential. Each year, millions of students encounter it in the middle of year-long surveys of American history, halfway between the Revolution and the Atomic Age, when it interrupts our mostly happy national narrative with an explosive bang, just before the end of the fall semester. But its centrality stems from more than its timing. For the Civil War determined an enormous amount of the history that ensued, from the rise of mechanized conflict, so tragically a part of the 20th century, to the spread of multi-racial democracies, a happier chapter in recent history. It also permanently redefined the relationship between American citizens and their government. Ralph Waldo Emerson got it right when he said, “We are undergoing a huge Revolution.” What Lincoln called a “new birth of freedom” often felt like a straitjacket to those who opposed it, and their legacy is still felt, in the many forms of opposition to the federal writ that we witness on a daily basis. But the important fact with Lincoln is not simply that he wrote well; it is that he won. His fuller vision for the United States triumphed, with ramifications for nearly every walk of American life.

Superlatives come quickly in any discussion of the war. It was our most lethal conflict, by far, and its list of casualties continues to rise, as our means of counting improves. The Battle of Gettysburg killed more Americans than the recent fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Historian and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust has reminded us that our dead in the Civil War exceeded those of the Korean War, the two world wars, the Spanish American War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812 and the American Revolution combined. Yet out of those terrible statistics, our greatest president emerged. Abraham Lincoln has never strayed far from the popular imagination, and in the wake of the 2012 film “Lincoln,” his position as our most beloved president is secure for some time to come. Writing instructors like to say “keep your hero in trouble,” and Lincoln was true to that injunction, frustrating generals, disappointing Senators, changing his stance on emancipation, appearing crude and indecisive to many, and nearly falling short in his bid for reelection. The worldwide adulation that he now commands never seemed possible, let alone likely, during much of his presidency. As he said, the Almighty has his own purposes.

American history continues to move forward, relentlessly, and one might expect the Civil War to fade into the past, and become more visibly antiquarian. Yet it shows no sign of doing so. Robert Penn Warren called it our most keenly “felt” history. Although the Vietnam War had not yet been fought when he wrote that in 1961, most would still agree. We don’t need to refight it, but there is an intensity to our feelings about the Civil War that remains volatile and unfinished. (A bumper sticker I once saw in Tennessee read “North 1, South 0: Halftime Score.”) As new malls threaten battle sites, and high school textbooks assert (or fail to assert) painful chapters from the past, we realize, all over again, just how much we care to get this story right.

That may be the most compelling reason we come back to the war. For more than a century after it was fought, as Dr. King reminded America in 1963, victory made little difference to African-Americans. The work of the historian David Blight has shown how narrowly Americans chose to remember the war, effectively removing slavery from the story. In the bitter aftermath of the fighting, that may have achieved the temporary expedient of reuniting the North and the South. But it did so at a cost, preventing the full story from being told.

The writing of history began as soon as the war commenced, as each side struggled to place its cause in a sympathetic light. The past, too, became a battlefield, with each side claiming the mantle of George Washington on important days like his birthday. But both governments found it difficult to compress the largeness of current events inside that older narrative. The South ultimately renounced the Declaration of Independence, which inconveniently promoted human rights, and even Lincoln, for all of his reverence toward the past, asked Americans to “disenthrall” themselves from the past.

One significant result of the war was the federal government’s recognition that it had a responsibility before the bar of history. In 1864, before the war had ended, the government committed to collect and publish a documentary history of the war, which appeared in seventy volumes, published between 1881 and 1901, as “The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.” The Navy Department undertook its own history, appearing in 30 volumes between 1894 and 1922 (the Navy was still writing its Civil War history as Theodore Roosevelt and then Franklin D. Roosevelt climbed the ladders of Navy bureaucracy, early in their careers). Other massive efforts were done privately, like the ten-volume “Photographic History of the Civil War” (1911), and the comprehensive papers issued by the Southern Historical Society from 1869 to 1959.

Of course, historians were far from alone in writing about the war. Nearly everyone did, in letters home, and in memoirs after the fact, and of course, in the newspapers, where the first draft of history was served up to a voracious reading public. There were no fewer than 3,700 of them publishing on the eve of war, clamoring and competing for attention. In his book on Civil War literature, “Patriotic Gore,” Edmund Wilson asked, “has there ever been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861–65 in which so many people were so articulate?” Throughout the United States, observers recorded the story, from stay-at-home diarists to photographers to the armies themselves, which were filled with literate young men. The classicist Edward Everett is often ridiculed for having given a long and pedantic speech before Lincoln’s jewel-like Gettysburg Address. Yet Everett’s oration, filled with allusions to Greek antiquity, spoke eloquently to Americans, satisfying their sense that the United States had, at long last, an epic of its own.

The result, 150 years later, is a mountain of literature that will always exceed our ability to read it, and shows no sign of abating. In his preface to “Battle Cry of Freedom,” the historian James McPherson estimated that more than 50,000 works had been written, and that was back in 1988. Year after year, new works add to our knowledge, and sometimes they overwhelm it. But if the Civil War is the best-known subject in American history, there remains much that we do not know and cannot know. To this day, it retains a beguiling capacity to surprise us. Each generation of historians finds new heroes and causes, and the work of challenging earlier interpretations will never cease.

That element of surprise was present from the beginning. In his second inaugural, Lincoln called the war “astounding,” and it seems to have caught many Americans that way when it erupted in 1861, despite the fact that it had been predicted for some time. Each side looked for, in Lincoln’s words, an “easier triumph” than the long, entrenched conflict that resulted. At the beginning, the idea of war was so new that there was little consensus how to refer to it. Walt Whitman called it “the Secession War,” the United States government called it “the War of the Rebellion,” and it was only with some hesitation that Lincoln came to use “civil war,” the phrase we all now use. But he did so in lower case letters, as if hesitating to admit an inter-family split.

If the war’s name was up for grabs, its causes were even more elusive. Over 150 years, many have tried to impose an overarching meaning on the great conflict, usually with mixed results. As usual, Lincoln brings us down to earth. In a letter to Senator Lot Morill of Maine, he wrote, “I don’t know but that God has created some one man great enough to comprehend the whole of this stupendous crisis and transaction from end to end, and endowed him with sufficient wisdom to manage and direct it. I confess that I do not fully understand and foresee it all.”

Many observers felt the same way. To most foreign visitors, the idea of a huge industrialized war breaking out in North America, so far from Europe’s problems, and in a time of general prosperity, was inconceivable. Anthony Trollope, traveling in the United States as the war broke out, wrote of his shock that such a calamity had happened in a country whose politics seemed to be arranged around consensus. “It would seem that they could never be great at war; their very institutions forbid it, their enormous distances forbid it,” he wrote. But Americans proved to be quick learners, and soon, the scale and efficiency of their violence stupefied the world. That is only one of the ways in which the United States changed, forever, during the crisis of disunion.

The war especially haunts us during a major anniversary. The centennial, from 1961 to 1965, coincided with an exciting new decade, and offered a chance for history to speak with great authority. The civil rights movement gave an electric charge to the memory of the war, and on occasion its leaders referred directly to it to remind Americans how old their quest for justice was. On May 17, 1962, Martin Luther King formally requested a national rededication to the Emancipation Proclamation, and as federal troops were again dispatched to Mississippi and Alabama, it was easy to remember the ghosts of Corinth, Vicksburg and Mobile Bay. But the official celebrations of the centennial largely muted any references to the civil rights agenda, and the result was a celebration longer on rhetoric than relevance.

Indeed, one could be excused for thinking, in the middle of the 1960s, that the Civil War had been catalogued enough. Did we really need thousands of new books on the best-covered terrain in our history? The answer, evidently, was yes. Asking some of the questions that the civil rights movement had asked, and which America’s most beloved historians had failed to, a new generation of scholars brought a refreshing impatience into the profession. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. they expanded our horizons, giving readers a far deeper knowledge of the African-American perspective on the war, and that of women and other groups underrepresented in the first century of scholarship. The arrival of number-crunching computers brought a democracy of their own, and allowed scholars greater command over the raw data of the experience. In countless other ways, as Internet access has become nearly a first amendment right of its own, and great libraries like the Library of Congress have put their holdings online, we have seen a dramatic rise in self-published writings about the war. One can’t help feeling that the self-publisher who occupied the White House during those years would approve.

Furthermore, we continue to learn new things about the war. Documents turn up, and improved approaches to old information—for example, the death toll is now estimated around 750,000, twenty percent higher than before. Works of synthesis still remind us, in new language, why these old events remain important. Sometimes a book breaks through to a wide audience—McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” which perfectly anticipated the arrival of a president who asked his principal adversary to serve as his secretary of state. Occasionally, it is simply the fact of a new medium that brings the Civil War to a new audience. When Ken Burns aired his nine-part series, “The Civil War,” on PBS in the fall of 1990, it became the most-watched program in the history of public television, and attracted forty million viewers, more than the population of the United States in 1860. In a different way, no less visceral, the 1977 television series “Roots” and the 1989 film “Glory” brought the war to life, finally offering wide audiences a glimpse of the African-American perspective.

With all of these thoughts in mind, The New York Times turned to the legacy of the Civil War in the fall of 2010, on the eve of its 150th anniversary. We asked ourselves how we might write a new history, in a new medium, that would express a multiplicity of perspectives. How could we display our respect for the past, and a restless spirit of innovation at the same time? We knew from the start that we wanted these online posts to be more dynamic than the elaborate arguments of academic journals. We wanted serious essays, but we also hoped for some of the snap, crackle and pop of lively online writing, with quick links, illustrations and a spirit of experimentation. Emerson almost seemed to predict our laptops and tablets when he wrote, “the war is a new glass to see all things through.”

Most of all, we wanted readers to feel the same awe before the war that Lincoln confessed in his second inaugural. We wanted to get away from the sense, all too easily found in textbooks, that history is a foreordained conclusion. And we hoped to explore some of the lesser-known qualities of the war—its international impact, its broad geography and its huge range of different participants. As Tony Horwitz wrote in an early post,

“You find Rebel Choctaws and Union Kickapoos; Confederate rabbis and Arab camel-drivers; Californians in gray and Alabamans in blue; and in wondrous Louisiana, units called the Corps d’Afrique, the Creole Rebels, the Slavonian Rifles and the European Brigade. By war’s end, black troops constituted over 10 percent of the Union Army and Navy. The roster of black sailors included men born in Zanzibar and Borneo.”

If there is a 19th century figure who would have enjoyed the 21st century pleasure of posting discursive essays online, it is Walt Whitman. His 1882 book “Specimen Days” captured the essence of the Civil War memorably, with short blog-like essays, about his time in army hospitals and around Washington. Famously, he complained that “the real war will never get into the books,” in a phrase often quoted by historians (more or less proving him right).

In the same book, Whitman advanced his hope that his memories of the “fervid atmosphere” of the Civil War would serve as a rejoinder to the “mushy influences of current times.” True to that spirit, we sought something robust and alive in the American past. We wanted a multiplicity of perspectives, including those doing the fighting, the Native Americans who fought on both sides, the freedmen who were trying to join the fight, the huge numbers of foreigners who continued to arrive before, during and after the conflict, and Lincoln himself. Whitman called the Civil War a “many-threaded drama”; we hoped to follow some of those threads, including the long threads of reader responses that accompanied each piece.

As Disunion continued, through the winter and into 2011, we were faced with a problem—now that our experiment had succeeded, how and when would we kill it? None of us expected to cover the entirety of the war—four years!—yet the posts were so good, that we kept going. Now, past the two-year mark, it feels like an appropriate time to pause, publish and reflect. The sections of this book are divided into major topical categories, with short introductions by Disunion contributors. We hope, if you enjoy the essays, that you will consult the full roster of Disunion articles at the website that accompanies this publication.

At this stopping point, midway through Disunion’s coverage, it is antithetical to the spirit of the series to close with a heavy-handed message. But readers willing to take the time to relive the agony of disunion will, I hope, come away with an appreciation for the privilege of Union. Our era is not especially civil; perhaps this front-row seat at the Civil War will make it more so. After all, Disunion will last but a while longer; the Union endures forever.



On December 20, 1860, just 42 days after the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina seceded from the United States. In the following months 10 more states would follow suit, eventually forming the Confederate States of America. Then, on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, a former commandant at West Point, launched an attack on the Union soldiers at Fort Sumter, an artificial island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, precipitating the Civil War. These two events seem, in retrospect, to follow one from the other. But did they?

Historians have long debated whether widespread secession and war were, in the long view, inevitable. There can be little doubt that Lincoln’s election guaranteed that at least several slaveholding states would secede. Though Lincoln the candidate took pains to emphasize that he would not move against slavery where it already existed, and as president-elect remained studiously silent on the question, many Southerners believed that the man from Illinois and his new and newly empowered Republican Party would move aggressively to limit slavery’s expansion, isolating the South and putting the institution on a short road to extinction.

But secession was not an immediate, sudden step for every state. Though six states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—had joined South Carolina by the end of January 1861, the final four—Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee—did not leave the Union until after the war began. Four more slave states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri—remained in the Union. In reality, secession was a fractious, drawn-out process in most places, with degrees of pro-Union sentiment pushing back against secession advocates. In some parts of the Confederacy, primarily the Appalachian Mountain regions of Virginia and Tennessee, Unionist sentiment remained a force throughout the war, generating significant guerrilla activity. Western Virginia undertook a “reverse” secession as a result of the Wheeling Conventions of May and June 1861, leading to the creation of the loyal state of West Virginia.

Though a war was not inevitable, Lincoln did everything he could to ignite one. He understood that the Union would be hobbled without the South’s resources; more importantly, he understood that a successful secession over a political dispute would fatally undermine the core premise of American democracy as a system for working out political differences. And if the Union were to be re-formed, it had to happen quickly; should the South win diplomatic recognition, it would be nearly impossible to force it to rejoin without completely defeating it in battle. While that is precisely what it took to end secession, Lincoln was probably still correct in his calculation: allowing the South to gain diplomatic recognition might well have meant fighting not just Richmond, but London and even Paris as well.

It is harder to determine just how eager the Confederacy was for war. Certainly, many of its military and political leaders were keen to fight. But others cautioned against rushing into conflict, recognizing how ill prepared the new country was for a drawn-out war. Fatally, the South did not have the deliberative political structure, let alone the vibrant public sphere, to allow for such a discussion. Put simply, the same hotheads who pulled the South out of the Union were then able to dictate the speed with which it went to war. Rather than negotiate a deal over the Union installations on Confederate soil still held by Northern forces—most notably Fort Sumter—the Confederacy simply occupied them, or demanded their surrender. It was precisely the pretext that Lincoln was looking for to begin a fight, and he soon found it, in Charleston Harbor.

The Last Ordinary Day


Nov. 1, 1860

Seven score and 10 years ago, a little Pennsylvania town drowsed in the waning light of an Indian summer. Almost nothing had happened lately that the two local newspapers found worthy of more than a cursory mention. The fall harvest was in; grain prices held steady. A new ice cream parlor had opened in the Eagle Hotel on Chambersburg Street. Eight citizens had recently been married; eight others had died. It was an ordinary day in Gettysburg.

It was an ordinary day in America: one of the last such days for a very long time to come.

In dusty San Antonio, Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army had just submitted a long report to Washington about recent skirmishes against marauding Comanches and Mexican banditti. In Louisiana, William Tecumseh Sherman was in the midst of a tedious week interviewing teenage applicants to the military academy where he served as superintendent. In Galena, Ill., passers-by might have seen a man in a shabby military greatcoat and slouch hat trudging to work that Thursday morning, as he did every weekday. He was Ulysses Grant, a middle-aged shop clerk in his family’s leather-goods store.

Even the most talked-about man in America was, in a certain sense, almost invisible—or at least inaudible.

On Nov. 1, less than a week before Election Day, citizens of Springfield, Ill., were invited to view a new portrait of Abraham Lincoln, just completed by a visiting artist and hung in the statehouse’s senate chamber. The likeness was said to be uncanny, but it was easy enough for viewers to reach their own conclusions, since the sitter could also be inspected in person in his office just across the hall. Politically, however, Lincoln was almost as inscrutable as the painted canvas. In keeping with longstanding tradition, he did not campaign at all that autumn; did not so much as deliver a single speech or grant a single interview to the press.

Instead, Lincoln held court each day in his borrowed statehouse office, behind a desk piled high with gifts and souvenirs that supporters had sent him—including countless wooden knicknacks carved from bits and pieces of fence rails he had supposedly split in his youth. He shook hands with visitors, told funny stories and answered mail. Only one modest public statement from him appeared in the Illinois State Journal that morning: a small front-page ad, sandwiched between those for a dentist and a saddle-maker, offering the services of Lincoln & Herndon, attorneys at law.

The future is always a tough thing to predict—and perhaps it was especially so on the first day of that eventful month. Take the oil painting of Lincoln, for example: it would be obsolete within weeks when its subject unexpectedly grew a beard. (The distraught portraitist tried to daub in whiskers after the fact, succeeding only in wrecking his masterpiece.) Or, on a grander scale, an article in the morning’s New York Herald, using recent census data to project the country’s growth over the next hundred years. By the late 20th century, it stated confidently, America’s population would grow to 300 million (pretty close to accurate), including 50 million slaves (a bit off). But, asked the author, could a nation comprising so many different people and their opinions remain intact for that long? Impossible.

Writing about the past can be almost as tricky. Particularly so when the subject is the Civil War, that famously unfinished conflict, with each week bringing fresh reports of skirmishes between the ideological rear guards of the Union and Confederate armies, still going at it with gusto.

In many senses, though, the Civil War is a writer’s—and reader’s—dream. The 1860s were an unprecedented moment for documentation: for gathering and preserving the details of passing events and the texture of ordinary life. Starting just a few years before the war, America was photographed, lithographed, bound between the covers of mass-circulation magazines, and reported by the very first generation of professional journalists.


  • From the annals of the New York Times Opinionator column and timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Brown University historian Widmer has pieced together a selection for readers both mildly and deeply interested in the Civil War. Did you know that four slave-holding states remained in the Union after the Civil War began? That President Lincoln was elected without a single electoral vote from the South? Or that West Virginia came into existence when the western part of Virginia "seceded from secession"? Tidbits like these populate pages culled from brief essays in the paper's online column, and the book's format allows for smaller, captivating stories to be told?the kind that are often over-looked in epic histories?like Lincoln's last visit with his step-mother or how Nick Biddle, an African-American servant to a captain in the Union Army, might have been the first to shed blood in hostility during the war. Well-known historians such as Ken Burns, Stephanie McCurry and Adam Goodheart are all represented in this absorbing and important series. B&W photos.

On Sale
Jun 11, 2013
Page Count
464 pages

The New York Times

The New York Times

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The members of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol include Bennie Thompson (chair), Liz Cheney (vice chair), Zoe Lofgren, Adam B. Schiff, Adam Kinzinger, Pete Aguilar, Stephanie Murphy, Jamie Raskin and Elaine Luria.

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