December 20, 1860


South Carolina’s Secession Convention was called to order in Columbia on the 17th.  For some delegates, this was a moment reached after a forty day sprint, and for others after a trek three decades in length, but all had come to proclaim their liberty and to sire a new nation, and the air was filled with promise and glory. “To dare! And again to dare! And without end to dare,” said the president of the convention, the scholar-planter D.F. Jamison, invoking the noble Danton’s defiance of the enemies of France. Inspired by his words, the convention then took as its first order of business the question of whether if it might dare move itself to Charleston. An outbreak of smallpox had erupted concurrently with the arrival of the delegates. Rumor had it that abolitionists had contaminated a box of rags with the disease in an effort to decapitate the rebellion, and many delegates thought it would be prudent to hightail the convention to Charleston on the four o’clock train. No, protested the longtime fire-eater William Porcher Miles, his voice acquiring the tone of a keyless bridegroom confronting a locked bed chamber on his wedding night. “We must not allow mockers to say that we were prepared to face a world in arms, but that we ran away from the smallpox.” The suitably chagrined delegates then voted unanimously to promise they would consider secession just as soon as they got to Charleston, but for now there was the matter of that train.

After being greeted in smallpoxless Charleston with applause, band music and a fifteen-gun salute, the delegates invested two days in procedures. Shortly after one o’clock on the 20th, however, the critical vote was cast, and by unanimous decision, South Carolina declared its independence. On the streets, delirium prevailed. As the bells of St. Michael’s Church pealed, the taverns disgorged their roisterers, who sang and marched and shot rockets into the air.

In the evening, a more solemn celebration was held.  At 6:30, the members of the convention marched in ceremonious procession to the venerable Institute Hall, Jamieson at their head. He carried the official Secession Ordinance, a 23 inch by 28 inch rectangle of thick linen parchment which had been inscribed with the statement of dissolution and stamped with the great silver Seal of the State of South Carolina. As the procession entered the hall, a crowd of 3000 shouted and whistled its approval. Reverend John Bachman then blessed the proceedings, and the delegates were summoned forward, alphabetically by election district, to sign the document. It took about to hours for all 169 delegates to affix their names.

Ninety percent of these men are slave owners.  Sixty percent of them own at least twenty slaves. Forty percent of them own at least fifty. Sixteen percent of them own a hundred slaves or more.

The final delegate to sign was the former governor, John Laurence Manning. Like Moses holding the tablets of Decalogue, Manning lifted the Ordinance above his head. Flanked by two palmetto trees, he was joined in this tableau by Jamieson, who proclaimed South Carolina to be an independent commonwealth. The members of the crowd cheered and cheered, and once the proceeding adjourned, pressed forward. Searching for souvenirs of the great moment, they began stripping the palmettos of their razor-sharp fronds, which they then waved about their heads like Napoleon’s mamelukes as they surged from the auditorium and waded into the pandemonium of the streets.

In Washington, a mood far more somber prevailed. The holiday season, normally an occasion for gaiety, has acquired a distinctly gloomy cast. Friends of decades’ standing now find themselves on opposite sides; men and women whose fathers stood with Washington on the battlefields of the revolution cannot bear to meet one another’s eye. Northerners visit only Northerners, and Southerners the same; and even at those occasions, the mood is heavy.

There was one party, however, that would not be postponed, that of the wedding of John Bouligny, the popular Congressman from Louisiana and one of the very few officials from the deep South who opposed secession, to Mary Parker, daughter of Washington’s wealthiest grocer.  The bride’s father had produced a magnificent spectacle, filling his large home with roses and lilies and illuminated fountains. The president came, joined by his niece Harriet Lane, and was the first to kiss the bride. It was a happy event in a beautiful setting, reminiscent of so many other happy events and beautiful settings the president had enjoyed in his younger days as a diplomat in Russia and Great Britain. But soon the mood was broken by a commotion instigated by the entrance of Lawrence Keitt, the brash, bombastic, recently resigned congressman of South Carolina. Jumping, bellowing, waving a piece of paper over his head,  he shouted “Thank God!” again and again. Finally he elaborated. “South Carolina has succeeded! Here’s the telegram! I feel like a boy let out of school.”

When eyes at last left the jubilant Keitt, they fell on Buchanan, his face ashen, who slumped in his chair as though he had been struck. “Madam,” he at last said, “might I beg you to have my carriage called?” And with that he returned to the White House, to resume his time on the rack.

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.


How so?

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.