A Sesquicentennial Blog
by Walter Russell Mead
One hundred fifty years ago the election returns led the morning news: Abraham Lincoln gained enough electoral votes against a split Democratic opposition to elect him the 16th President of the United States. His election would set off first a secession crisis, as South Carolina almost immediately began preparations to secede from the Union, and later the Civil War.
That war was the bloodiest and most consequential struggle in the history of the United States. It freed the slaves, established the principle (though not, alas, the reality) of equal civil rights for all races, recreated the American nation in a new and more potent form, introduced the most fundamental changes to our institutions since the adoption of the Constitution, and created the two party system that still dominates our national life today. Nobody can hope to understand the United States without understanding the Civil War and its legacy.
At The American Interest, we have decided to use the opportunity of the Civil War Sesquicentennial to reflect on the war and its consequences. Over the next few years both our online and print editions will feature articles about this defining conflict. To kick off this venture we are publishing The Long Recall: An Aggregator of the Civil War. We are not sure yet how our commemoration will evolve; for now we will present a daily digest of the news and commentary that an intelligent American might have had accessible 150 years ago.
We will use a modern form to present the daily news: our Civil War aggregator that combines a short daily summary of the news along with links to articles that a well-informed Civil War-era reader would have wanted to read. Our goal is to allow readers today to get a feel for what it was like to experience the conflict in real time, to hear the many voices trying to make sense of the conflict, and to sift through sometimes confused and misleading news accounts to try to discern what was actually taking place.
Readers in the Civil War era did not get their news the same way we did today. While the telegraph (introduced only 15 years before the war broke out, but already connecting most of the US east of the Mississippi in a web of near-instantaneous communication) meant that newspaper readers got most domestic news within 24 hours, the media of 1860 was even more partisan and less professional than it became in later decades. In the absence of television and radio, much commentary was delivered in speeches by politicians and other prominent Americans. These speeches, either summarized or quoted in full, were often widely circulated. Politicians, especially when campaigning for office, often revealed important policy positions in the form of letters to friends. Those letters were then printed and circulated where they would do the most good. Public intellectuals were often found in the pulpits of major churches north and south; sermons by widely respected clergymen like Henry Ward Beecher and John Thornwell articulated the intellectual and political views of many prominent people and were widely followed. Leading figures also published their views in pamphlets. We will include all these sources in the coverage; our aim is to allow readers today to watch the war unfold much as people then would have done.
Economic news poses special difficulties. The economy has changed substantially since 1860, and so have the conceptual tools we use to think about it — and the statistics that we use to measure it. In 1860 there was no Dow Jones index; the concept of GDP had not been invented. There was no Federal Reserve to set interest rates; paper currency notes were issued by private banks and carried no government backing. There was no measurement of the unemployment rate, or the consumer price index, or any of the other statistics we use today to see how the economy is doing. Many of the economic concepts that are second nature to people today had not been developed.
Yet the people of 1860 were as interested in the economy as people are today. Investors followed stock and bond markets closely; the health of the economy was an overriding concern for everyone from wealthy merchants to day laborers. More, then as now economic indicators moved in response to political events. First the prospect and later the reality of disunion and war affected virtually every economic interest in the country. Holders of South Carolina bonds had to wonder what would happen to their investments if the Palmetto State left the Union. The cotton trade linked important interests in the North and South. Once the seceding states had set up the Confederate government and war broke out, economic indicators became if anything more important. The price of Confederate bonds and the relative exchange rates of US and Confederate currency was an indicator of market sentiment about the direction of the war. The question of whether Britain would intervene on behalf of the Confederacy was key to the outcome of the war; contemporaries eagerly studied the effects of the cutoff of cotton shipments to Britain to see whether an economic crisis in the (then critical) textile industry would lead Britain toward war.
The Long Recall will do its best to help 2010 readers understand the economic dimension of the conflict. At times this will involve us in something more active than simply linking to Civil War era news sources; we will provide commentary that helps the readers of today understand what yesterday’s news meant to intelligent readers of the day.
Foreign news also presents unusual problems. During the Civil War, as at other times, thoughtful and well-read Americans were deeply interested in international news. Some believed from the beginning that the South’s best hope of winning its independence lay in its ability to attract the support of foreign powers (especially of Britain and France). These two countries did not make their American policy in a vacuum; the attitudes of the other Great Powers significantly influenced British and French decision making. American readers North and South anxiously scrutinized the international scene for any clues about European attitudes toward the conflict. Were Confederate commissioners meeting with French officials? Was the Union ambassador well received by the Czar? What did foreign newspapers and leaders say about the American war?
But Americans had other reasons for following world news. Events like the unification of Italy, the conflicts in North Germany and the emancipation of the Russian serfs — to say nothing of France’s attempt to foist a Hapsburg emperor on Mexico — continued to interest Americans during the war and helped form their ideas of where the world was headed.
Yet foreign news came to the US only after delays. The first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid during President Buchanan’s administration, but it almost immediately stopped working and permanent transatlantic cable service was only available after the Civil War ended. Foreign news reached the United States in ships carrying periodicals. Enterprising news editors often sent small boats out to oceangoing vessels to get copies of foreign newspapers early; once received in port cities the news went out by telegraph to the rest of the country.
Although steamships had reduced the transatlantic crossing time significantly since the start of the nineteenth century, the voyage could still take weeks in either direction depending on weather. News took that much time to travel from Europe to America. Transit time from Asia and Latin America was even longer. (News from Brazil, for example, generally traveled to Britain before then being resent to the United States.) When it came to news of foreign reaction to American developments, the time gap was even longer: news of a battle, for example, had to travel from the US to Europe and then news of the reaction had to travel back.
In The Long Recall, we will carry foreign news as it became available to American readers, not the day it actually happened. At times of crisis, as during the Trent Affair late in 1861, this uncertainty about foreign events was a major factor in American politics and policy. Because the US economy and financial markets were so dependent on London at this time, the uncertainty about foreign developments was also an important factor in the economic news. The price of gold and interest rates in the United States would often move on speculation about where prices were headed in London. News of a stock market crash in London could set off panics in the US — even if stock prices had already begun to recover in the UK.
Finally, a word on language and ‘political correctness.’ The United States has always been and remains a prudish society with strict limits about the kind of language that is allowed — and about the subjects that may be discussed. In the Civil War era, Americans were very strict about sexual matters — but when it came to race, they were extremely permissive. People could use the ugliest words and express the ugliest ideas about different racial groups with little fear of censure. Cartoonists casually used the ugliest stereotypes in their commentary. A Civil War-era reader would be horrified by the kind of frank coverage Americans today get about sexual matters; the Monica Lewinsky scandal could have been mentioned only very cautiously and delicately in a newspaper of the 1860s, and it is unlikely that the question of gays in the military could even have been discussed. On the other hand, words that could never be used today in polite discourse were routinely used in those days to describe different racial groups. Worse, racial humor and stereotypes were deeply embedded in the culture. Politicians and political writers frequently resorted to anecdotes and humor that would justifiably end careers today to score points with public audiences.
At The Long Recall, we have made the decision to link to Civil War era material without censoring or toning down racial language, images and ideas that modern readers (including, we must say, ourselves) find offensive. The use of such language and the prevalence of such ideas is too central to American life and culture at the time — and too vitally involved with attitudes toward the Civil War — to be edited away or softened down. This is our past, for better and for worse, and our aim is to show it as it was rather than as it ought to have been or as we wish it were. We will not link to such material casually or gratuitously, but we will not flinch from giving our readers an accurate portrayal of the Civil War era, warts and all.
The Long Recall is not the only online effort to commemorate the Civil War. The New York Times and the Washington Post have already launched their coverage. We hope others will follow. As our project develops we will link to these and to other sites and sources for commentary about the war; we hope that our community of readers, North and South, will join in as well. The sesquicentennial is an important opportunity for Americans to think about who we are as a people, where we come from, what are the sources of our union, and what is our duty to one another and to the rest of the world.
This is the first time Americans have had the resources of the internet to assist the national project of reflection and recollection that, so far, have marked each fifty year interval since this war. The internet offers new ways for writers, readers and contributors to develop richer, more comprehensive and more useful resources than past generations have had. We invite our readers to help us think through the best way to present the Civil War to new generations, and that as the project matures, more readers will join with us as co-creators of the site and co-interpreters of the war.
One feature of The Long Recall will be a “Time Machine”; under this heading readers can find commentary written after the war that reflects on the events of that day. This is a space that we hope will increasingly feature contributions by regular readers of the site. We also invite readers to share links and information about additional publications and resources that we can use to make the daily aggregator richer and more representative.
There is no point in concealing the fact: The Long Recall is being assembled by a group of convinced Union loyalists. However, we hope to present Confederate views and news fairly and accurately as well. Most histories of the war scant the internal politics of the Confederacy as well as the state and local politics of the Union side. We hope that the use of local newspapers north and south will help us give readers a fuller picture of the complexity of the war than conventional histories give. We hope as well to be able to capture the human realities of the war: disrupted lives and households, the privation and the anguish of loss, the bitterness and horror of the guerilla conflicts that spread across the country, the fate of slaves gradually moving towards freedom, the stories of millions of women suddenly faced with the responsibility of feeding and clothing families and running farms in the absence of men.
We will rely on our readers to keep us honest, fresh and well informed. If you aren’t getting the news you want, let us know. If we are neglecting an important aspect of the conflict, or being less than fair in our coverage, let us know. Over time, with your help, we can build a new kind of monument to the Civil War and to the heroism, idealism and self-sacrifice that allowed a reunited people to emerge from the conflict and preserved a legacy of liberty that is still ours today.