“So Much Was All Compressed”
The year began with a day so warm and fine that only the calendar said January. There would be few pleasant moments in 1862, but New Year’s Day in Washington, D.C., was one of them. Everyone was out enjoying the sunshine that morning—women in demure bonnets, men wishing they had left their overcoats at home, children dodging and shouting. The dusty streets of the half-built city were filled with people making their way toward the White House, where, by tradition, the president threw open the doors on the first day of each year.
Never had there been so large a crowd. The capital had doubled in size in the previous six months and was rapidly doubling again, as young men by the tens of thousands poured into Washington to join the Army of the Potomac. In April 1861, when war broke out between North and South, the entire U.S. Army numbered about 16,000 men, spread in little garrisons across the continent. By November, nearly five times that number, some 75,000 troops, could be mustered in a single field outside Washington for a presidential review. The ranking U.S. general planned to lead a column of more than a quarter of a million troops against the rebellious South.
Everywhere one looked in the capital, there were soldiers and more soldiers, brimming with zeal, eager for action, ignorant of war. They filled camps covering miles of hillsides in all directions. By day, the untested warriors marched and drilled, or cut logs and dug trenches to ring the capital with forts and firing pits. By night, some crowded into slapdash saloons and boardinghouse brothels. This instant army, like a great magnet, attracted regiments of merchants, job seekers, journalists, do-gooders, adventurers, spies, thieves, and would-be war contractors. A dull, swampy city was transformed in weeks into an overcrowded hive of patriotism, opportunism, and paranoia.
On the new year’s first morning, multitudes packed themselves into the blocks around the Executive Mansion, flowing down wooden sidewalks and dirt streets onto Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington’s only paved thoroughfare. There, the clip-clop of horseshoes and clanking of swords signaled the passage of freshly minted officers in full regalia: gold braid, white gloves, yellow sashes, obsidian boots. Carriage wheels rattled and friends called greetings, while somewhere in the distance, a Marine band blared martial music. Directly north of the White House, in the grand town houses around Lafayette Square, servants hurried to finish polishing the silver and laying out refreshments, for it was also tradition that the owners of these houses—cabinet members and sea captains and confidants of presidents past and present—would open their own doors.
The New Year’s Day open house was a ritual of democracy in the spirit of Andrew Jackson, whose statue, atop a rearing horse, adorned the center of Lafayette Square. On this one day, everyone was welcome in the halls of power, from statesmen to workingmen, from consuls to clerks, from the Roman-nosed senator Orville Hickman Browning to the scoundrel who picked Browning’s pocket. It was “the greatest jam ever witnessed on any similar occasion,” one newspaper correspondent observed. The people of Washington, it seemed, had somehow agreed for a few hours to forget their desperate situation and celebrate a new beginning.
Absent the holiday exuberance, however, a cool assessment of the country’s present circumstances would show that the American republic was in grave danger. The hope that secession fever would burn itself out was being trampled in the rush to battle stations. Strategies for reviving pro-Union sentiments in the South were stymied by the sheer size of the breakaway Confederate States of America, which covered an expanse larger than the entire European territory conquered by Napoleon. A pocket of loyalists in western Virginia had been liberated the previous summer by Union troops marching eastward from Ohio, but the pro-Union population of the more remote Appalachian Mountains, in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, was scarcely reachable down long dirt roads through hostile territory. Elsewhere in Dixie, what Union sentiment survived was scattered and cowed. The Confederacy was in the process of mobilizing a greater percentage of its population as soldiers than any European power had ever achieved. Those troops were led by some of the most experienced military men on the North American continent, starting with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate, combat veteran, and former U.S. secretary of war.
The Confederacy also wielded a powerful economic weapon: near total control of the global cotton supply, at a time when textiles were driving the industrial revolution and cotton was perhaps the world’s most important commodity. The cotton embargo enforced by rebel leaders was a gun to the heads of the British and French governments, putting tremendous pressure on them to support Southern independence. Pressure aside, the idea that the Confederacy—now a powerful country in its own right—could be tamed and forced back into the Union by an army of raw volunteers, led by an unschooled frontier lawyer as commander in chief, struck most European observers as far-fetched, even preposterous. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.
Such skepticism was reinforced by conditions on the ground. Rebel soldiers menaced Washington from nearby Manassas, Virginia, where they had routed a Union army a few months earlier. Jefferson Davis was weighing a campaign into Maryland to stir up secessionists and cut off the capital from the North. Confederate artillery commanded the Potomac River above and below the capital, effectively sealing the waterway. No one in civilian authority had any detailed knowledge of the plans being prepared by the Union’s top general, George B. McClellan; worse, McClellan was ill and rumored to be dying.
The federal government, meanwhile, appeared overwhelmed. The president was increasingly seen as feckless and inadequate. Congress was in the hands of a political party that had never governed before. The Treasury Department was broke, yet federal spending was multiplying as never before; in 1862, the government would spend six times as much as in 1861. (Northern banks, fearing a panic by demoralized investors, had closed their exchange windows, refusing to redeem paper money with gold or silver.) The War Department was a corrupt shambles, its chief on the verge of being fired. Despairing State Department envoys to Britain and France believed that the great powers were aligned against their besieged government; it appeared to be only a matter of time before Europe would intervene to settle the conflict in favor of the Confederacy. A rebel diplomat crowed from London, “At present there is a probability that our recognition by her Britannic Majesty’s Government will not be much longer delayed.” President Davis considered European intervention almost inevitable, and he shaped his strategies around that confidence.
To the east of the White House, at the far end of that lone paved avenue, stood the unfinished U.S. Capitol, darkly crowned by the cast-iron skeleton of an enormous dome. To the south of the mansion, across a fetid bog, rose the sad stump of the Washington Monument, abandoned for lack of funds. These uncompleted projects were silent reminders that great things had been planned in this city, and large dreams dreamt. The boldest of all the American dreams was the vision of a great new nation that would span the continent, dominate the hemisphere, and rival any country on earth. This dream of one nation indivisible, from sea to shining sea, was the true prize at stake in the terrible months ahead.
Americans in 1862 understood what later generations have largely forgotten: if secession managed a first success, there would be no logical end to it. Why would two nations, North and South, neatly divide the space and resources they once had shared? New and more complex fault lines would surely open. Already, respectable New Yorkers could be heard suggesting that their city ought to declare itself an independent free port, like Hamburg in Europe. The bonds holding New England to the old Northwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin—were weak and fraying. And if the Union shattered east of the Mississippi, there would be little to connect any of the pieces to the treasure lands of the West. A strong current of independence still ran through the old Republic of Texas; how could anyone be confident that the Lone Star State would remain bound to the Confederacy? In Missouri, the celebrated explorer and politician John C. Frémont was said to be scheming to create an independent nation on the western banks of the Big Muddy. Beside the Pacific, Californians were talking about striking out on their own—after all, less than a dozen years of statehood tied them to the faraway Union.
Secession, then, was a tiger that might bite in many directions. As Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a leading Southern Unionist, asked, “If there is one division of the states, will there not be more than one?” Wouldn’t North America soon be as fragmented and war-prone as Europe, “thirty-three petty governments with a little prince in one, a potentate in another, a little aristocracy in a third, a little democracy in a fourth, and a republic somewhere else; a citizen not being able to pass from one State to another without a passport . . . with quarrelling and warring among the little petty powers, which would result in anarchy?” Johnson argued persuasively that dissolution of the Union would “only be the beginning of endless war.”
Nor was territory the only thing at stake. Secession, if allowed to stand, would deliver a fatal blow to the ideal of constitutional government in a diverse nation. If the U.S. Constitution could be dissolved by a dissatisfied minority, then it was unsustainable for the long run. Such a system could solve only easy problems and survive only mild disagreements. If secession prevailed, the Constitution of Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and Washington would fail the test of great governments, which is the ability to endure, even flourish, through crisis. As the president had recently put it in his annual message to Congress, “The insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government—the rights of the people.” (Two years later, at Gettysburg, he would put the case more memorably.) Southerners maintained that they were fighting for their own rights, especially the right to their lawful property, namely slaves; and to travel with that property through Northern states; and to live without fear that abolitionists would encourage runaways or incite slave uprisings. But many in the North believed that the integrity of the nation came first, for no rights of any kind could be guaranteed by a powerless government. Union, in fact, was the cornerstone of the Constitution, and it said so with the opening words of the Preamble: “We the People, in order to form a more perfect Union . . .”
In the speeches and posters and banners and newspapers that rallied the soldiers to Washington, the words “Union” and “Freedom” were virtually inseparable. But when the cards of history were still facedown, to believe that the United States would ultimately survive this crisis required a leap of faith, and as the second year of secession began, that leap was increasingly difficult to make. From the days of the Romans to revolutionary France, no republic had ever survived such a calamity. Both experience and history suggested that—with so much at risk and such strong enemies—only a dictatorship could reunite the country.
In the smoke-choked barrooms of Washington’s finest hotels, at the dinner tables of senior Union officers, in the drawing rooms of Washington’s leading politicians, the possibility that a military dictator might soon replace the president was endlessly discussed. McClellan, the Union commander, had toyed with the idea that he might become exactly that sort of savior: “I almost think were I to win some small success now, I could become Dictator,” he wrote to his wife, and he did nothing to discourage the press from assigning him the nickname “the Young Napoleon.” He even posed for official photographs with his hand tucked into his tunic.
Other murmurings around Washington conjured John Frémont delivering the coup d’état. Frémont’s wife, the formidable daughter of Missouri’s legendary senator Thomas Hart Benton, had threatened something along those lines during an angry meeting with the president. Even Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, found himself pining for a despot. The man in the White House could wield virtually unlimited power in this crisis, Sumner wrote to a friend, “but how vain to have the power of a God, if not to use it God-like.” Whatever face it wore, dictatorship seemed at least as plausible to reasonable people as the notion that a constitutional republic of elected leaders could somehow survive a trial as profound as the Civil War.
As thousands of people made their way to the White House on the first day of 1862, the city swirled with talk of conspiracies and coups, swinging wildly from military mania to existential dread and back again. With the nation sundered by war, the stakes were as plain as the morning’s blue sky: the American experiment was on the brink of failure, a half-finished dream at risk of becoming as forlorn as the abandoned obelisk, as unrealized as the Capitol dome.
That balmy January day began what would prove the most eventful year in American history, and perhaps the most misunderstood. It was the year in which the Civil War became a cataclysm, the federal government became a colossus, and the Confederacy came nearest to winning its independence, yet suffered the key losses that led to its doom. Eighteen sixty-two sounded the death knell of slavery, and it forged the military leaders who would eventually win the war, men like Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Farragut. In indelible ink, it fashioned the astounding blueprint of modern America, an America of continental breadth, rapid communication, networked transportation, widespread education, industrial might, and high finance. At the same time, it revealed the dear cost of entry into that future, payable in blood and misery, on battlefields from Shiloh to Sharpsburg, Pea Ridge to Fredericksburg. Most of all, though, 1862 was the year the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, rose to greatness.
As the year approached, one U.S. senator presciently observed: “Never has there been a moment in history when so much was all compressed into a little time.” And never since the founding of the country had so much depended on the judgment, the cunning, the timing, and the sheer endurance of one man.
Copyright © 2012 by David Von Drehle