Bracing for the Sesquicentennial

A little bit of the backstory of our favorite war

Over the next four and a half years, whether you like it or not, you're going to be hearing a whole lot about the Civil War. The Sesquicentennial is upon us.

Few compound fractions come with their own Latin prefixes, but 1 ½ gets sesqui; sesquicentennial denotes 150 years. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War bodes to be a big deal. Knoxville's in a strategic spot in that regard, with a fine exhibit at UT's McClung Museum—which folds in serendipitously with the unexpected discovery of a rebel gun emplacement on new sorority row—permanent exhibits at the Museum of East Tennessee History, a new exhibit at Blount Mansion's interpretive center, and the in-progress attempts to preserve and link the remains of Union Forts Dickerson, Higley, and Stanley on the heights of the south side of the river, to make a greenway like no other in the world. Last week, a delegation of travel writers was in town having a look at Knoxville's offerings for prospective Civil War pilgrims, and they were reportedly impressed.

Scholars who specialize in other eras have always been envious of the attention that particular four-year period gets. A great deal of interesting and relevant stuff involved this city in the 19th century. There were three or four other wars, the whole Jacksonian Era, Whiggery, the riverboat era, the industrial revolution, and the Gilded Age, which treated Knoxville pretty well.

But the Civil War preoccupies our imagination. Look up the current Wikipedia entry for "Knox County." In the Table of Contents, there's a heading called "History." Knox County's 218-year history has exactly one subheading: "Civil War." I've been checking it once or twice a year, curious about when anyone in Knox County might feel obliged to note something else. No one ever does.

Chronologically, that war accounts for less than 2 percent of Knox County's history, but it accounts for almost two-thirds of Wikipedia's narrative. The entry implies that nothing of much interest happened in Knox County after 1865. Not, at least, until the P-card scandal of 2007.

We love the Civil War, we really do. That's easy to prove. It's harder to find evidence that we understand it. Next week marks the sesquicentennial of the event that triggered the war, the election of 1860.

Some folks who think they know the Civil War may find 1860 disorienting. The first act of the Civil War had an almost completely different cast of characters.

Most Southerners who read the papers in 1860 would recognize the name of Jefferson Davis—but mainly as Franklin Pierce's old secretary of war, and more recently a U.S. senator from Mississippi. There was a pretty good chance they'd remember having heard the name Robert E. Lee: He was the U.S. Army colonel who had recently led the capture of terrorist John Brown the year before. Neither was seen to symbolize the South as a whole, or secession; in fact, at the time, they both opposed it. The names of Thomas J. Jackson, not yet associated with stone walls, was unfamiliar except to some fellow soldiers and students at the Virginia Military Institute. With most Southerners in 1860, the names of Jeb Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest, James Longstreet, wouldn't ring any bells. And of course no one had ever seen a flag with 13 stars on a bold cross.

The Southern pantheon wasn't yet formed, four and a half years before it would all be over.

The election that triggered secession is remembered in some textbooks as a race between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, but in the South, it was mainly a contest betweent two pro-slavery candidates, John Breckinridge, the 39-year-old vice president, and John Bell, the former Whig and Constitutional Unionist from Nashville. Both visited Knoxville, but the 64-year-old Bell had been a familiar face here for more than 40 years, as a deliverer of rousing Whig speeches.

Lincoln got no votes here. He wasn't even on the ballot in Tennessee and most Southern states.

It's hard to read the personal thoughts and convictions of voters and candidates. Politicians said what they were obliged to say to get elected, and in 1860, it was the Southern politician's job to out-slave the next guy. Loving slavery was like loving low taxes; you had to pay it homage. Politicians treated Southerners as single-issue voters, and slavery was as emotional as gun rights or abortion rights. On the subject of slavery, moderates could seem like dangerous radicals.

There had once been an abolitionist vogue in East Tennessee; it had long since disintegrated. Southern politicians were never as excited about the moral justice of slavery as they were in 1860. Pro-slavery sentiment came in a dozen different shades, and politicians argued amongst each other about whether the surest way to preserve slavery was to secede or stay in the Union. But the most important thing was to maintain slavery forever. It was a moral imperative, an economic necessity, and a safety issue. Slavery, they said, protected both blacks and whites.

It's hard to find local men in 1860 who sound wise. Breckinridge was best at waving the slavery flag. There are times when Tennessee's John Bell, the Constitutional Unionist, seems like a reasonable fellow. A rare Southern senator who voted against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he ran as a Unionist, with a surprising running mate—a Massachusetts moderate, Edward Everett, who had spoken against slavery, and three years later would stand with Lincoln at the Gettysburg battlefield. But any time Bell's pro-slavery credentials were questioned, he and his supporters would find some way to insist that he was really more pro-slavery than Breckinridge. Bell's trump card, played often in the days before the election, was that he owned slaves himself.

Read a few campaign speeches from 1860 Tennessee, and you may feel the need to take a good hot shower. Still, I recommend it. As hateful and idiotic and divisive as the current political dialogue can seem, it's been worse.