Where did you get the idea to write And the War Came?
Watching Chris Matthews talk about Christine O’Donnell, who, in case you may have already forgotten, was briefly famous last year for being a Tea Party insurgent who won the Delaware Republican primary. I realized that when most of us study history, we read about great figures and landmark moments, and it can get really boring really fast because everything is chiseled in marble and written in granite, and it doesn’t seem real. Whereas the way we experience politics in our daily lives is with tumult and energy, with nobodies vying for attention and often eclipsing truly significant people, with bad ideas outshouting good ones. And in no period was this more true than in the six months between the election of Abraham Lincoln and the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
This was the most intensely political period in American history. There were four candidates in the election of 1860. Lincoln won less than forty percent of the vote. Only a late surge by Lincoln in New York kept the election from being thrown into the House of Representatives. After that, the states began thinking about secession. The usual phrase we hear is “The South seceded.” In fact, there were 15 states where slavery was illegal, and so there were fifteen separate debates about what to do. Several went quickly, but four of the states did not secede at all. Virginia and Tennessee at first voted against secession before voting for it. The slaveholding faction almost certainly resorted to vote fraud to take Georgia out, and there was practically a coup in Virginia before the governor supported secession.
Opinion in the north was just as divided. New York business interests wanted to appease the south. Abolitionist New Englanders said good riddance. A faction thought they should let the slave states leave in peace, confident that they would come crawling back. And others believed that the Union was worth preserving, and that these rebels should not be permitted to have their way.
Do you see similarities between that time and today?
Sure. The capacity of people to lie is the same. The capacity of people to act on their fears is the same. The capacity of people to self-dramatize and then believe their own bullshit is the same. And the capacity for people to misjudge how bad things can become is just the same.
Most people in the North did not believe the slaveholders were serious; they had heard this secession song before. Most people in the South could not believe that the North would fight, and those who did were sure that the South would win within a matter of months, this despite the south being much poorer, much less industrialized, and far outnumbered. As a result, they got a war that killed 620,000 men. It reminds me of this debt crisis debate, which is full of people who are placing a narrow interest over the country’s general good, and who refuse to imagine the catastrophe of default.
What surprised you the most in your research?
I was surprised to recognize how nakedly this war was a rebellion created by slaveholders, for slaveholders, which was then sold to non-slaveholding southerners—who were the vast majority of the population—that this was an attack on their freedom and their way of life. The slaveholding interests had held enormous power in early America, but with the settlement of the west, the influx of European immigrants, and the growth of industrialization, the planters of the South had reached the zenith of their influence. They wanted to break away, have their own nation, conquer territory in the Caribbean and Central America, and establish a vast slaveholding empire that controlled cotton and sugar, two of the world’s most desirable commodities. This was not a secret; they made it clear in their speeches. They miscalculated, they blundered, they laid waste to their society, they brought carnage to their communities.
And still there are people in the South who accord them and their cause great honor, and a general vestigial honor that lingers. In Tennessee, for example, there is a state park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who, besides being a Confederate general, was a slave trader before the war, and one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Is there no one else Tennessee could think to honor?
What figures did you find the most interesting?
It is fascinating to watch the inexperienced Lincoln get his act together; he clearly underestimated the South’s seriousness, and was behind events through most of this period. It is fascinating to watch the weakness of President Buchanan, and to see selfish men taking advantage of that weakness, and stronger men try to fill the void. I am personally drawn to the Christine O’Donnell types—actors with small parts who momentarily appear but influence the drama: the Gourdin brothers of Charleston, who stage-manage South Carolina’s secession, for example; or Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, who alone among Lincoln’s cabinet, advocates fighting for Fort Sumter, and carries the day; or Katie Skillen, the teenage daughter of an army sergeant who was in an arsenal in Charleston that was taken over by rebel militia. When they replaced the US flag with one of their own, she began crying.
“Don’t be afraid,” a member of the militia assured her. “Nobody shall hurt you.”
“I’m not at all afraid,” she shot back. “I’m mad to see our flag go down and that dirty thing take its place.” The drama, the passion, the intensity—that’s what I love.