‘A Bombshell on the American Public’

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress
President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan (second from left) after the Battle of Antietam, October 3, 1862

In a Thanksgiving sermon in 1862 at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the prominent clergyman Reverend Albert Barnes reflected on the momentous events of that second year of the Civil War. “It has been such a year as our country has never experienced before,” he said, “and will make more work for the calm and impartial historian of future times, than any one year in all our public history.” The four historians whose books are reviewed here have written about 1862 in a manner that is perhaps neither entirely calm nor impartial, but quite suitable to the tumultuous atmosphere of wartime crisis that pervaded the era. All four point toward the climax on the first day of 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, one of those “great national acts,” in the words of the black leader Frederick Douglass in a speech that year,

which by their relation to universal principles, properly belong to the whole human family…. Henceforth that day shall take rank with the Fourth of July. [Applause.] Henceforth it becomes the date of a new and glorious era in the history of American liberty.

When Lincoln published a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, warning Confederate states of his intention to issue a final edict on January 1, he did not realize that those two dates stood precisely one hundred days apart. Louis Masur’s Lincoln’s Hundred Days focuses on that crucial period, but it starts more than a year earlier to set the stage for those hundred days, and follows up with the aftermath and consequences of Lincoln’s historic action. Masur and Harold Holzer argue persuasively that the progression of events during that critical autumn of the war were full of contingencies and that the final outcome was by no means certain.

Seven Southern states had seceded in 1861 because they feared the incoming Lincoln’s administration’s designs on slavery. In a vain effort to stem further secessions and bring back the states that had gone out, Lincoln declared that he had no intention or power to interfere with slavery in the states, but only to restrict its further expansion. Southerners were not reassured. When the war began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, four more states seceded. Many members of Lincoln’s own Republican Party urged him to strike against slavery. The slaves provided much of the labor that sustained the Southern economy and the logistics of Confederate armies. From almost the first days of the war, slaves began coming into Union lines wherever Northern armies and naval vessels penetrated the South. By the fall of 1861, tens of thousands of them had gained sanctuary and a practical if not yet legal freedom. Their labor was lost to the Confederacy…

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