Thursday, April 28, 2011
The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site.
Historians like to remind us that collective memory is a process of remembrance and forgetting. In the case of contemporary Civil War historiography, there is a growing recognition that historians themselves have lost sight of something important in recent decades: the depth and power of Northern unionism. Much of the work of the last half-century has focused on American racism (cause in its own right in the case of the Confederacy, fact of life in the case of the Union), or impersonal structural forces like capitalism, whether industrial or slave-based, in the coming of the conflict. And the major social changes of the sixties -- that's the 1960s, not the 1860s -- have placed great emphasis on the role of individual struggles and collective oppression of important demographic segments of the population. Amid these legitimate and useful avenues of scholarship, it is sometimes hard for students of the war to imagine, much less remember, that millions of Americans had a deep and abiding commitment to the idea of a constitutional republic, one for which hundreds of thousands proved willing to risk their lives. Books like Joan Waugh's recent biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Gary Gallagher's newly published The Union War and Adam Goodheart's recent 1861: The Civil War Awakening have reconnected with these currents. In an indirect but powerful way, so do brothers John and Charles Lockwood in The Siege of Washington.
This volume is the first book-length treatment of a standard episode of the master narrative: the tense two-week period in April 1861-- exactly 150 years ago -- following the fall of Fort Sumter, when Washington DC was essentially a federal island in a Confederate lake, situated between a Maryland itching for the chance to secede from the Union and a Virginia that would formally succeed in doing so. In these desperate days, with railroad and telegraph lines cut, the national capital was extraordinarily vulnerable. Nearby Baltimore was ruled by mobs determined to prevent Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York regiments from reaching the District of Columbia, and the mayor of that city as well as the governor of Maryland were at a minimum enablers that obstructionism. The soon to be retired General Winfield Scott showed tremendous energy (notwithstanding some sagging spirits) in trying to maintain order in the capital and managing the destruction of Union munitions at Harper's Ferry, to prevent its resources from falling into the hands of the rebels. In these tense days, we see a stream of other characters -- Benjamin Butler, Robert Gould Shaw, and Dorothea Dix, among others -- crossing the Lockwoods' narrative of this episode, on their way to exploits for which they would be better remembered.
What the brothers are best at, though, is capturing the awakening of Northern patriotism in the face of the crisis. This was apparent in the enthusiasm with which the the Union states responded to President Lincoln's call for volunteers, but also a newly assertive unionism that surfaced in what had always been a de facto Southern city. Lincoln himself, a recent arrival to the District, became a potent symbol of that unionism. The Lockwoods describe a moving moment when Pennsylvania soldiers arrived at the capitol and were met at the House of Representatives by the president. "Here, towering tall over the room was the great central figure of the war," they quote a private recalling. "I remember how I was impressed by the kindliness of his face and awkward hanging of his arms and legs, his apparent bashfulness in the presence of these first soldiers of the Republic."
The Confederate side of the equation is a bit more murky. The Lockwoods periodically check in with the Davis administration, still in Montgomery, as well as Virginia politicians and Robert E. Lee, who declined Scott's offer to command the U.S. army. We learn at one point that Washington never fell in large part because Lee commanded that Virginia troops would not take the city, but we get no clear sense of why, or why the Confederacy as a whole did not capitalize on what appeared to be a golden opportunity. (The early Civil War is typically told as a story of Northern failure to act decisively in moving on Richmond, but here it's the Confederates who appear afflicted by what Lincoln would call "the slows" in moving on Washington.) In part, the problem here seems like a function of the Lockwoods' perspective; both lifelong Washingtonians, the locus of their interest is clearly the city. In part, too, it's a function of the way the book is organized, as a dense narrative of day-by-day developments. But this granular rendering of the trees does sometimes leave one wishing for a bit more forest.
Still, The Siege of Washington manages to seem like a synecdoche for the the war as a whole. When the Seventh New York regiment finally manages to make it into the nation's capital, it feels like a whole war has been won already. The Union would go on to experience a seemingly unending string of setbacks that would extend from Manassas to Chancellorsville and beyond. But the will of the Union's people, and their belief in power of the federal government as a force for good, would prove mighty when finally unleashed against those who had spent decades denying its legitimacy and sapping its strength. May those politicians who would do the same 150 years later be mindful of this useful precedent. Long live the Union!