Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction

McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2001.
Source Type
Secondary
Year
2001
Publication Type
Book
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 105.
Body Summary:
Brown led a party containing four of his sons and two other men on a nighttime raid along Pottawatomie Creek. They seized five proslavery settlers from their cabins and murdered them by splitting their skulls with broadswords. This butchery launched full-scale guerilla war in Kansas. Although shocked antislavery people in the East denied - or chose not to believe- the truth about these killings, most Kansans knew who had done them. For the next four months, hit-and-run attacks by both sides raged in Kansas and were exaggerated by the national press into full-scale battles. Several newspapers had a standing headline for news from Kansas: "Progress of the Civil War." John Brown participated in these skirmishes, and one of his sons was killed. About two hundred other men died in the Kansas fighting during 1856. In September, President Pierce finally replaced the ineffective Gov. Shannon with John Geary, a tough but fair-minded Pennsylvanian who had won his spurs as a captain in the Mexican War and as San Francisco's first mayor. Combining persuasion with a skillfull deployment of federal troops, Geary imposed a truce on the two sides and brought an uneasy peace to Kansas in the fall of 1856. By the time the larger question of which Kansas was a part - slavery in the territories- was the focus of the presidential election.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 87.
Body Summary:
In September 1851, a group of black men in the Quaker community of Chistiana, Pennsylvania, shot it out with a Maryland slave owner and his allies who had come to arrest two fugitives. The slave owner was killed and his son severely wounded in the affray.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 75.
Body Summary:
Whatever the ambiguities and ironies of the Compromise, it did avert a grave crisis in 1850 – or at least postponed it. Most Americans – even those who disliked the Compromise – breathed a sigh of relief. Moderates in both parties and in both sections took their cue from President Fillmore, who announced that the Compromise was “a final and irrevocable settlement” of sectional differences. Acceptance of the compromise was more hearty in the South than in the North. Most Southerners, especially Whigs, regarded it as a Southern victory. “We of the South had a new lease for slave property,” wrote a North Carolina Whig. “It was more secure than it had been for the last quarter of a century.”

These sentiments blunted the fire-eaters’ drive to keep disunionism alive. In four lower-South-states – South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi – Unionist coalitions of Whigs and moderate Democrats defeated efforts by Southern Rights Democrats to win control of the state governments and to call secession conventions. The Georgia Unionists in December 1850 adopted resolutions that furnished a platform for the South during the next decade. It was a platform of conditional Unionist. Although Georgia did “not wholly approve” of the Compromise, she would “abide by it as a permanent adjustment of this sectional controversy.”
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 106.
Body Summary:
By nominating John C. Frémont - whose father was a Catholic and who had himself been married by a Catholic priest – the Republicans dismayed some of their nativist supporters. But Frémont’s nomination was a calculated gamble to attract ex-Democrats. The established Republican leaders, Seward and Chase, were radicals whose notoriety might offend timid voters. The dashing young Frémont, by contrast, had little political experience but had won popularity by his explorations in the West and his role in the California Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican rule.

“Availability” also dictated the Democratic nomination of James Buchanan. The incumbent, Pierce, and the party’s most prominent leader, Douglas, were too closely identified with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Buchanan had the good fortune to have been out of the country as minister to Britain during the previous three years. After sixteen deadlocked ballots at the Democratic convention, Douglas withdrew in favor of Buchanan. The platform reiterated all the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian states’ rights planks, coming out against any government role in the economy or in social reform. It also reaffirmed the Fugitive Slave Law, denounced the Republicans as abolitionists in disguise, and endorsed popular sovereignty in the territories.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 132-133.
Body Summary:
The contest soon resolved itself into a two-party campaign in each section: Lincoln versus Douglas in the North and Breckinridge versus Bell in the South. The Republicans did not even put up a ticket in ten Southern states. And Douglas has no hope of carrying any of the same ten states. In the North, most old Whigs/American constituency had gone over to the Republicans. And while Breckinridge gained the support of the prominent Northern Democrats identified with the Buchanan administration, the Southern rights party could expect no Northern electoral votes. It became clear that the only way to beat Lincoln was by a fusion of the three opposing parties that might enable them to carry a solid South plus three or four crucial Northern states. But formidable barriers stood in the way of such a fusion. The bitter divisions among Democrats could scarcely be forgiven or forgotten. A good many fire-eaters had worked to break up the party precisely in order to ensure that the election of a Black Republican president and thereby to fire the Southern heart for secession. Even among Southern Democrats who deplored schism, the gulf was now too wide to be bridged. The only fusion achieved in the South was a joint Bell-Douglas ticket in Texas, which won a paltry 24 percent of the vote against Breckinridge. Herculean efforts by party leaders in New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Jersey patched together fusion tickets in those states. But this proved futile, for Lincoln won a majority against the combined opposition in the first three states and an electoral plurality in New Jersey.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 319.
Body Summary:
Democrats called on voters to repudiate the Republicans before Lincoln could issue the final emancipation proclamation on January 1. In New York, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Horatio Seymour hoped the election would catapult him into national prominence, party organs announced that "a vote for Seymour is a vote to protect our white laborers against the association and competition of Southern negroes.' Midwestern orators proclaimed that "every white man in the North, who does not want to be swapped off for a free Nigger, should vote for the Democratic ticket. Many observers regarded the outcome of the elections as a sharp rebuke of the Republicans and of emancipation. Democrats scored a net again of thirty-two sets in the House.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 82-83.
Body Summary:
In 1854, a major filibustering enterprise overlapped the official efforts to buy Cuba. The leader of this venture was former Governor John A. Quitman of Mississippi…During the 1850s, American filibusters, mostly from Texas and California, launched dozens of raids into Mexico. Some of them had simple plunder as their goal; others were part of a sporadic border warfare that continued for years after the Mexican war.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 98-99.
Body Summary:
With energy and skill, Douglas piloted the Kansas-Nebraska through the Senate. He maintained that the Compromise of 1850, by introducing popular sovereignty into the territory north of 36º30´, had implicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise. Although this was a specious argument – the 1850 legislation applied only to territory acquired from Mexico, not the Louisiana Purchase – it was to become Southern and Democratic orthodoxy. Douglas also insisted – as he had in 1850 – that Nature would prevent slavery from gaining a foothold in the new territory…Douglass drove the bill to Senate passage on March 3 by a vote of 37 to 14. Northern Democratic senators voted 14 to 5 for the bill. The struggle in the House was harsher and more prolonged, for Northern Democrats there had to face the voters in November. At one point in the House debate, some congressmen drew weapons, and bloodshed was narrowly avoided. The House finally passed the bill on May 22 by a vote of 113 to 100. Northern Democrats divided 44 to 44 on the measure, a sure sign of trouble for the party in the North. In the combined vote of both houses, Southerners provided 61 percent of the aye votes and Northerners 91 percent of the nay votes. It was clearly a Southern victory, a “triumph of Slavery [and] Aristocracy over Liberty and Republicanism,” in the bitter words of a Northern newspaper.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 115-116.
Body Summary:
The Lecompton constitution became the central issue of an acrimonious congressional session in 1857-1858. Douglas declared political war on the administration over the issue, and led the fight in the Senate against admitting Kansas to statehood under the Lecompton constitution. At one point in February 1858, a wild sectional fistfight broke out among thirty congressman during an all-night debate on Lecompton. Northern state legislatures denounced the constitution, but several Southern legislatures threatened secession unless Congress admitted Kansas under this "duly ratified" document: "Rather than having Kansas refused admission under the Lecompton constitution," said a South Carolinian, "let [the Union] perish in blood and fire." Frightened by these threats and browbeaten by his Southern advisers, Buchanan reneged on his commitment to a referendum on the whole constitution. He now declared that the December 21 election was a legitimate referendum while the January 4 election - which was in fact more representative of Kansas opinion - was not. In his message transmitting the Lecompton constitution to Congress, the President declared that Kansas "is at this moment as much a slave state as Georgia or South Carolina.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 117.
Body Summary:
…for weeks, the two candidates followed each other around the state engaging in long-range debates by speaking on the same platform only days apart. Douglas finally agree to meet Lincoln in seven face-to-face debates. These debates have become part of the folklore of American history. Thousands of farmers crowded into the seven towns to listen to three hours of outdoor oratory in weather ranging from stifling heat to cold rain. The campaign took on the character of high drama. It was David versus Goliath-only this time David, at 6 feet 4 inches, was nearly a foot taller than Goliath.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 118.
Body Summary:
Douglas tried to put Lincoln on the defensive by identifying him with the abolitionists. The country could survive half slave and half free, said Douglas. It had done so from the beginning and there was no reason why it could not do so indefinitely. Popular sovereignty gave the residents of territories the choice to have slavery or not. In all remaining territories they were sure to exclude slavery, said Douglas, if given a fair choice. This would achieve what most Northerners wanted without the risk of disunion, which the Black Republicans would provoke with their abolitionist doctrine of 'ultimate extinction.' Moreover, said Douglas, the Republicans favored black equality. He hammered away at this theme ad nauseam, especially in the Butternut counties of southern Illinois. 'I do not believe that the Almighty ever intended for the negro to be the equal of the white man,' thundered Douglas as his partisans roared approval. 'He belongs to an inferior race, and must always occupy an inferior position.' America was a white man's country, 'made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confinnig citizenship to white men.'
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 119.
Body Summary:
In any case, the voters of Illinois divided almost evenly in the election. Pro-Douglas candidates for the legislature polled heavy majorities in the southern half of the state, 125,000 votes, the Douglas Democrats 121,000, and a handful of anti-Douglas Democrats, 5,000. But Douglas carried a larger number of counties, which preserved the Democratic majoirty on the joint ballot in the legislature and enabled the party to reelect him. Elsewhere in the free states, the Democrats suffered another calamity. Their fifty-three Northern congressmen were reduced to a paltry thirty one. Republicans won pluralities in Pennsylvania and Indiana as well in Illinois-states that would give them the presidency in 1860 if they could retain their hold.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 119.
Body Summary:
Although these debates illustrated the deep differences between Republican and Democratic attitudes toward slavery, they also reflected Republican ambivalence toward racial equality and the contradictions inherent in Lincoln's commitment to both 'ultimate emancipation and the indefinite continuation of slavery where it already existed. Douglas's insistence that the Republicans could not have it both ways hit uncomfortably close to the mark. But in 1858 this was the only way for Republicans to mediate the tension between the competing values of antislavery and union.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 122-123.
Body Summary:
The minimal impact of the Panic of 1857 in the South underscored Southern boasts about the superiority of their system. While many Northern businesses failed, banks closed, and factories shut down during the depression, causing unemployment and suffering among Northern workers during the winter of 1857-1858, cotton prices held firm and cotton crops set new records. This led Senator James Hammond to deliver his famous “King Cotton” speech in the Senate on March 4, 1858. Southerners were “unquestionably the most prosperous people on earth.” Only the continued exports of cotton during the Panic, Hammond told the North, “saved you from destruction.” This was conclusive proof of slavery’s virtues.
Citation:
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 65-66.
Body Summary:
On August 8, when the war was barely three months old, an obscure first-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania named David Wilmot offered an amendment to an appropriations bill: “that, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico…neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory.” The principle embodied in this amendment – the Wilmot Proviso, as it came to be known – remained the lodestone of sectional conflict for the next fifteen years…Northern Whigs voted unanimously for Wilmot’s proviso; so did all but four Northern Democrats, while every Southern Democrat and all but two Southern Whigs voted against it. Having passed the House, the proviso failed to come to a vote in the Senate at this session. At the next session, in February 1847, the House repassed the proviso; but the Senate with five Northern Democrats joining the Southerners, passed the appropriations bill without the antislavery amendment. Under heavy administration pressure, twenty-three Northern House Democrats then receded from the proviso and cast the necessary votes to pass the bill unamended.
How to Cite This Page: "Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/17124.