Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Jamie Malanowski's "And the War Came"

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. A member of the original staff of Spy, where he worked seven years, Jamie has also been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor. Currently he is the lead writer of the Disunion Blog, about the Civil War, for The New York Times; the series was presented with the 2010 Cliopatria Award for Best History Writing on the web.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, And the War Came: The Six Months That Tore America Apart, and reported the following:
And the War Came is about the six months between the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 and the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, six months during which the country argued, blustered, manipulated, stole, bluffed, bumbled, and denied its way into the greatest tragedy in our nation's history. Those six months were an intensely political period during which the country wrestled through issues first of union and disunion, and then of war and peace. Among the things that makes the period so rich is that the crisis inspired enormous creativity, especially in argument, justification, and rationale.

The book takes the form of weekly dispatches about the events of the preceding seven days, and how they fit with recent developments, and what they might portend for the murky future. On Page 99 of the book, we are in the midst of the dispatch from the week of February 9, 1861. This is quite a good place to get a sense of the aforementioned creativity, because the events of that week had rather little to do with President Buchanan or President-elect Lincoln or other main players. Instead, it was one of those weeks when everybody was getting into the act. In Washington, a Peace Convention—a collection of former officials and other public men—had come together under the leadership of former President Tyler, to see if they could work out a compromise that their hopelessly deadlocked successors could not. On the face of it, there is something emotionally gripping and even majestic about these old patriots braving winter to once again ride to the aid of their nation. But soon it’s clear that these are mostly a bunch of windbags, vain has-beens who are in no better position to rescue the nation than their stubborn sons.

To underscore the hopelessness of their cause was, even if they had fashioned a compromise, the leaders of the already-seceded states had no interest in making a deal. Those states had split, and their leaders were at that moment in Montgomery, Alabama, writing the constitution of the Confederate States of America (which, as it turns out, bears a strong similarity to the US Constitution, departing most notably to state the legality, and the centrality, of slavery in the new government.) It was also at this time that the delegates began to give serious consideration to choosing Jefferson Davis as president. The leading contender had been Robert Toombs, the fire-eating Senator from Georgia. But the bibulous Toombs showed up drunk at too many receptions, and his dreams were dashed.

Finally, what really shows the creativity of the moment were reports from that week that William Seward, the prominent senator who was to become Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was busy floating one of his pet solutions—start a war with a European power. It didn’t much matter to Seward if it was Great Britain over Canada or Spain over Cuba, or somebody else over something even less pressing; he just thought that a European war would reunify the country, and, once won, would deliver sufficient spoils to placate even the rebels. Evidently Lincoln did not take the sly, cynical Seward very seriously; otherwise we may today never think of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator who ended slavery, but the Great Imperialist, the one who conquered Cuba, Salavador, Nicaragua, and so on.

Anyway, the events go to show that history seldom moves in a straight line, but instead by fits and starts, with plenty of room for error and missed opportunity.
Watch the trailer for And the War Came, and learn more about the book and author at Jamie Malanowski's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue