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Before the Cannon Fired
A scholar examines the forces and people that helped start the Civil War.

By Reviewed by Jon Meacham
Sunday, July 1, 2007

THE ROAD TO DISUNION

Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861

By William W. Freehling

Oxford Univ. 605 pp. $35

On the evening of April 11, 1861, Edmund Ruffin, a strident secessionist from Virginia, was so anxious for war that he took off only his coat and his shoes when he went to bed: He did not want to be unduly delayed if the summons to battle came in the night. Around 4:30 the next morning, Ruffin's foresight paid off, and he found himself at a turning point of history. He had taken up a position in Charleston Harbor, and in the opening moments of the Civil War it fell to him to fire a 64-pound Columbian cannon on Fort Sumter. As Ruffin's cannonball struck the federal fort, William W. Freehling writes in this magisterial new history, "an awful war had begun."

Just how it came to begin is the subject of The Road to Disunion, the second and concluding volume of Freehling's splendid, painstaking account of the setting of the stage for what Lincoln called the "fiery trial" of the Civil War. For many Americans, the war seems to have been inevitable, the great middle act of our national story, the moral reckoning of a republic founded in both liberty and hypocrisy. Freedom was for whites, and mostly white men; the Founding Fathers, as great as they were, had blinked at the question of slavery. In the popular imagination, the story runs something like this: The Founders, consumed by countless other problems, compromised on slavery in the aftermath of the Revolution, thus ultimately pitting Northern abolitionists against Southern slaveholders; finally, down the decades, Lincoln was elected and the South rebelled. Four years after Ruffin fired on Sumter, nearly to the day, Lee surrendered, and the drama came to a close. America, as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, had won a "new birth of freedom."

The strength of Freehling's new book, as well as of its predecessor, Prelude to Civil War, lies in how meticulously he recovers the complexities and shades of (non-Confederate) gray that complicate this short account of what Shelby Foote called "the crossroads of our being." As Freehling notes, most Northerners were not fond of abolitionists and did not vote for Lincoln in 1860 as an emancipator, while most Southerners were not fond of fire-eaters and did not regard slavery as a "permanent blessing."

Perhaps most surprising to the general reader of the early 21st century is the diversity of opinion about secession in the South itself. There was not a single, monolithic "South"; border states such as Tennessee and Virginia were much more ambivalent about disunion than South Carolina or Alabama, though there were moderate voices among even the most fervid cotton country fire-eaters.

So why did war come? There were many reasons, and Freehling deserves credit for pointing out the seemingly small but ultimately crucial role of human forces -- the personalities at play, including that of John Brown, one of the most fascinating figures in our history -- over and against larger, more impersonal ones, such as geography and the economy, which were essential, too. Freehling's mature judgments recognize that history is driven by the grand and the minute, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes not. After more than 500 pages of scrupulous scholarship and engaging writing, though, Freehling's bottom-line answer to the question he poses -- "How did slavery cause the Civil War?" -- requires us to look both backward, into the mists of history, and forward, into the sins and shortcomings of our time.

Slavery was an American cancer, and it had to be cut out, or else it would have killed us all. Freehling is not Pollyannaish, however: Slavery may be gone, surgically removed long ago, but its underlying racism afflicts us still. "Southerners called their cornerstone establishment the Peculiar Institution," Freehling writes. "The peculiarity lay not in enslavement itself (a most unpeculiar institution in almost every human culture's history). Rather, the oddity lay in the entrenchment of the New World's most powerful slavery system inside the Western World's most egalitarian (for whites) republic."

In the end, liberty and hypocrisy could not forever co-exist, but what drove Edmund Ruffin to yank the lanyard that fired his Columbian cannon in the dim early hours of April 12, 1861, drives some Americans even now. "Celebrate America's new birth of freedom?" Freehling writes. "Only if celebrants remember that 500,000 Civil War corpses did not hallow a democracy's capacity to solve social problems peacefully -- or consecrate racism's removal from the flawed republic." And so a work of history reaches into the past to illuminate the present. It is light we need, and we owe Freehling a debt for shedding it. ยท

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, is the author of "Franklin and Winston" and "American Gospel."

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