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How the North reacted to secession

Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession - Russell A. McClintock

The period between the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 and the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861 is one of the most heavily covered in American history.  Those five months represent a decisive turning point that led to the bloodiest war that the nation ever fought, followed by the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction.  Yet as Russell McClintock notes in the introduction to this book, most of the attention on this period has focused on the attitudes and developments in the South.  By contrast, the events and decisions made in the North have received little attention, with Kenneth M. Stampp’s dated And The War Came dominating the short list of works focused on the secession crisis as it developed there.  McClintock’s book is an effort to redress this by showing how the North reacted to the secession movement and how the decisions they made ultimately led to war.


To do this McClintock focuses on politicians and public opinion in four geographic areas: Washington, D.C., and the states of Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts.  These areas open up a range of reactions to Southern declarations, as well as proposals for how to respond.  He finds that while determination to maintain the Union was widespread, opinions as to how to do this varied widely, with many people supporting some sort of compromise.  These attitudes were strongest in the nation’s capital, where Northern politicians had to address the concerns of Southern unionists working to maintain as many Southern states in the Union as they could.  Yet there was a real vacuum of leadership in these months, with James Buchanan hobbled by a narrow view of his range of action as president and Abraham Lincoln endeavoring to keep his fragile political party together on the cusp of taking power.  In the end, the range of options steadily narrowed, to the point that by April Lincoln faced the choice of resupplying the remaining outposts in federal hands or abandoning them in a further effort at conciliation.  His decision to resupply the forts, and the Southern attack on them, helped to erase temporarily the divisions over secession, uniting the North against Southern disunion and bringing about war.


McClintock’s book is a fine study of how the North reacted to secession.  It is primarily a study of the political response, which is understandable given the extent to which secession in those months was predominantly a political issue.  His depiction of the major political actors is often surprising, with the moderate Lincoln steadfastly opposed to key concessions and the supposedly hardline William H. Seward at the forefront of compromise.  Yet the book suffers somewhat from the author’s focus on the controversy over Fort Sumter, which predominates here to the extent of overshadowing events elsewhere in the South that were contributing to the crisis.  This is a minor issue, though, and one that does not detract from McClintock’s overall achievement in providing readers with an examination of an often overlooked aspect of the secession crisis.