April 1861 editorial shows divided sentiments within US

fort-sumter-bombardment

Among the misconceptions surrounding the American Civil War is that both North and South were monolithic in agreement that their side was in the right and the other in the wrong.

The fact is that there were many Unionists in the South and plenty of Northerners with pro-Southern sentiments, particularly at the beginning of the 1861-65 conflict.

Still, it is sometimes startling to see such counterintuitive views expressed in print. Consider an April 8, 1861, editorial from the New York Herald, titled “Invasion of the South – The Inauguration of Civil War”.

After beginning with a description of Union warships sailing “for parts unknown,” but accepted to be the recently seceded states of the Deep South, the publication writes, “It is thus evident that a bloody civil war is resolved upon by Mr. Lincoln and his Cabinet. After long hesitation, the President has screwed his courage to the fighting point. At what precise spot he intends to commence hostilities or to provoke them – whether at Charleston, Pensacola, the mouths of the Mississippi or in Texas, where there is an evident design to excite ‘domestic insurrection,’ or at all of these places together – does not yet appear; but a few days will unfold the mystery.”

The Herald continues that as of that date, which is still four days before the bombing of Fort Sumter, Lincoln has three options:

 … first, to yield to the Confederate States and to all the slaveholding communities their just rights as coequal partners in the Union, which would have had the effect of healing the breach and reuniting the sections; second, to permit a peaceable and bloodless separation, either in the hope of reunion at a future day, or at least of a friendly alliance for mutual defense against foreign foes, and for the establishment of commercial relations, which, if not specifically favoring the North, would at least not discriminate against her; and third, to wage a war of subjugation against seven sovereign States, which will be ultimately extended to fifteen, to compel them to submit to the authority of the government at Washington, and to pay tribute to it, whether they are represented in its Congress or not, in contravention to the great principle for which the colonies fought and conquered the mother country in the Revolution of 1776 – the principle that ‘without representation there can be no taxation.’

The Herald goes on to display a grasp of history that would be utterly out of place in a newspaper today, stating that the impeding war “ … is a revival of the struggle which took place two centuries ago in England between the Puritan Roundheads and the rest of the nation. The vast majority of the people were against them, but by the military genius and iron will of Cromwell the fanatics were rendered successful for a time, after putting their king to death and deluging their native land with seas of blood.”

But when their chieftain died, their cause died with him, showing that it had no root in the affections of the people, and that it was equally opposed to human nature and the freedom of man. Hence, when Charles II, who had nothing personally to recommend him, was restored, he was ‘proclaimed with a pomp never before known.’ A fleet conveyed him from Holland to the coast of Kent; for that republic had no sympathy with the fanaticism of the Puritan republic of England. When Charles landed the cliffs of Dover were covered with thousands of gazers, among whom, says the historian Macaulay, ‘scarcely one could be found who was not weeping with delight. The journey to London was a continued triumph. The whole road to Rochester was bordered by booths and tents, and looked like an interminable fair. Everywhere flags were flying, bells and music sounding, wine and ale flowing in rivers to the health of him whose return was the return of peace, of law, of freedom.’

The Herald’s final paragraph includes a line that states that Lincoln and Republican Party are descendants of Cromwell’s Puritans, “the inheritors of their principles and their blood, (who) now seek to inaugurate another civil war upon a question of morals, religion and social polity, in States over which they have not, and ought not to have, any control.”

New York Herald, April 6, 1861, edition.

New York Herald, April 6, 1861, edition.

One can certainly question the veracity of the Herald’s editorial stand, but a couple of things stand out:

First, the publication, which at that time had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the US, obviously didn’t dumb down its editorials. One suspects few current editorial writers, for example, have any understanding of Thomas Babington Macaulay, never mind the ability to quote him.

Second, the Herald apparently wasn’t afraid to take what was likely an unpopular stand. Yes, it was a decidedly Democratic paper in age when politics determined editorial stands and New York City had strong commercial ties to the South, but it still came under attack by mobs angered by the publication’s pro-South editorial policies.

Alas, Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett switched to a more pro-Union tone a few days later after the bombing of Fort Sumter, due no doubt to the attack on his offices. However, he also quickly purchased a small arsenal of guns and ammunition in case of future incidents, according to The Lincoln Institute.

(Top: Bombardment of Fort Sumter, four days after New York Herald editorial decrying President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to send warships south.)

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4 thoughts on “April 1861 editorial shows divided sentiments within US

  1. Somewhat akin to an expat forum I’ve been reading lately…when the hits are few up comes a ‘controversial’ subject to raise the numbers and keep the advertisers happy…

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