Smell the Flowers: Carnage Is Coming

From The Atlantic archives, a celebration of April on the eve of the Civil War

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A hundred and fifty years ago, the opening item in The Atlantic's April issue was a hymn to the final days of this dynamic month--the ones we're experiencing right now. The magazine, merely four years old at the time, took a moment to reflect on the peculiar joys of this time of year.

In our methodical New England life, we still recognize some magic in summer. Most persons reluctantly resign themselves to being decently happy in June, at least. They accept June. They compliment its weather. They complained of the earlier months as cold, and so spent them in the city; and they will complain of the later months as hot, and so refrigerate themselves on some barren sea-coast. God offers us yearly a necklace of twelve pearls; most men choose the fairest, label it June, and cast the rest away. It is time to chant a hymn of more liberal gratitude.

There are no days in the whole round year more delicious than those which often come to us in the latter half of April. On these days one goes forth in the morning, and an Italian warmth broods over all the hills, taking a visible shape in a glistening mist of silvered azure, with which mingles the smoke from many bonfires. The sun trembles in his own soft rays, till one understands the old English tradition, that he dances on Easter-Day.

Stumbling upon this essay in one of the archive books, you will not find the author; the magazine went without bylines during this period. In the copy we have here at the office, however, someone has penciled in a name at the top: Henry D. Thoreau.

Thoreau! That would be spectacular. A quick dig, though, reveals that the penciller got it wrong: Thoreau did indeed write a piece called, as this one is, "April Days"--but in an 1878 issue of The Atlantic. It's a collection of his April diary entries while at Walden. This "April Days"--a much less famous, breathtakingly beautiful cousin--seems to have been written by Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

A hundred and fifty years ago, of course, was 1861. On April 12th of that year the Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War. The April Higginson so praised was to be the first of five Aprils to bear witness to a conflict costing United States over 600,000 soldiers' lives. Higginson and The Atlantic's editors were surely aware of the clouds on the horizon when the issue went to publication: the issue also contains such pieces as "The Reign of King Cotton" and "Charleston under Arms," chronicling discussions between author John William De Forest (the anonymous penciller correctly identifies that one, by the way) and South Carolinians about secession. Take this passage, particularly fascinating given the current revolts in the Middle East against illegitimately held power. In the United States in 1861, if De Forest's account is to be believed, it was the very legitimacy of federal power that enraged some Southerners:

"Then your great grievance is the election of Lincoln?"
"Yes"
"And the grievance is all the greater because he was elected according to all the forms of law?"
"Yes."
"If he had been got into the Presidency by trickery, by manifest cheating, your grievance would have been less complete?"
"Yes."
"Is Lincoln considered here to be a bad or dangerous man?"
"Not personally. I understand that he is a man of excellent private character, and I have nothing to say against him as a ruler, inasmuch as he has never been tried. Mr. Lincoln is simply a sign to us that we are in danger, and must provide for our own safety."
"You secede, then, solely because you think his election proves to you that the mass of the Northern people is averse to you and your interests?"
"Yes."
"So Mr. Wigfall of Texas hit the nail on the head, when he said substantially that t he South cannot be at peace with the North until the latter concedes that slavery is right?"
"Well--I admit it; that is precisely it."

It's a provocative and occasionally entertaining retelling. ("'What if Sumter should open now?' I suggested. 'We should be here to help,' answered the Georgian. 'We should be here to run away,' amended my comrade from Brooklyn.") It shows, too, that no one putting together the April 1861 issue could have been unaware of the looming conflict. How much more poignant, then, Higginson's closing to "April Days":

But April is certainly the birth-time of the year, at least, if not the planet. Its festivals are older than Christianity, older than the memory of man. No sad associations cling to it, as to the month of June, in which month, says William of Malmesbury, kings are wont to go to war,--"Quando solent reges ad arma procedere,"--but it holds the Holy Week, and it is the Holy Month. And in April Shakespeare was born, and in April he died.

In April the American Civil War was started, and in April it was ended. Higginson was himself to become not just the captain of the Fifty-first Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, but later a colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers--the first Union regiment recruited from former slaves, recounted in Higginson's "Army Life in a Black Regiment."

Looking back on his glorious celebration of the seasons, one imagines Higginson would wish us to enjoy these final moments of the month. After all: "There are no days in the whole round year than those which often come to us in the latter half of April," and "in all the Southern year there is no such rapture of beauty and of melody as here marks every morning from the last of April onward."

Image credit: Horia Varlan/flickr

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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