The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-64


By HORACE GREELEY. Vol. I. 8vo. pp. 648. Hartford: O. D. Case & Co.
THE plan of this work contemplates not only a faithful and complete historical description of the leading events in the stupendous conflict now raging between the interests of Slavery and the principles of Freedom, but an accurate analysis and lucid exposition of the antagonist ideas which have attained their full development in the present civil war. With this purpose, the issue of the portion now submitted to the American public cannot be regarded as premature or unseasonable. If the time has not arrived tor the elaboration of a thorough historic survey of the mighty struggle which has convulsed the nation to its deepest heart, there are ample materials for a profound review of the past, and an instructive exhibition of the moral and intellectual movement, the pregnant conflict of thought, which has found its ultimate issue in the bloody deaththroes of the battle-field. No nobler theme could tempt the pen of the philosophic historian. No subject of study could present more attractive features, or prove of more fruitful import to every intelligent American thinker.
Mr. Greeley’s position and professional training as a prominent journalist give him, in many respects, excellent facilities for the accomplishment of his delicate and by no means easy task. Nor is he less admirably qualified for its execution by the native bent of bis mind, and his experience as one of the leaders of a great political party. With an instinctive passion for freedom, a profound faith in social and humanitary progress, and an ardent devotion to the interests of the masses, irrespective of artificial and temporary distinctions, he has long watched the conflict of opinions and the development of ideas with reference to their hearing on the great American principle of political justice and individual right. Without following the lead of any special class of reformers, he has been keenly sensitive to the wrongs and outrages which, under the semblance of freedom, have blended themselves with the institutions of the country. His clearheaded sagacity has enabled him to foresee the perilous consequences of political inconsistencies. For many years he has anticipated the disastrous effects of the social anomalies for which our statesmen of all parties have sought a remedy in compromises and concealment. He has adhered to the policy of attacking political evils with political weapons. The institution of Slavery, in his view, was one of the crying wrongs for which the cure was to be found in the ballot-box. Not so much by denouncing and exhorting as by giving effect to popular sentiment through the elections, has he aimed at social regeneration. To this principle he has steadily adhered throughout his public life. Ilis political relations have been formed in accordance with this idea. The character and tendency of parties have been judged by this standard. Hence the present work is eminently the record of his personal experience. It presents in vivid outlines and with striking illustrations the action of political causes with which he has been as familiar as with the alphabet of his mother-tongue. The principles of the great rebellion are traced back to the little germs which have since expanded, into a tree of such mighty proportions and of such baleful character. Few men, we may perhaps safely say no man, among us, could bring to the composition of a work with this intent such a rich fund of observation, such intimate knowledge of the practical working of parries, such true insight into the aims and motives of the conspicuous American statesmen, such accurate judgment in regard to the leading measures of governmental policy, combined with such prevailing fairness of mind, and such a high degree of literary skill and mastership.
Regarded as a contribution to the historical treasures of which American literature Can boast such rare wealth, Mr. Greeley’s work may challenge, if not perhaps unqualified, sincere and respectful commendation. His style is eminently his own. Familiar with tire best models, he follows none. Although aiming at vigor and popular effect, rather than at graceful and polished elegance, it shows a remarkable sense of the power and aptness of words, and an unusual command of the resources of expression. He does not hesitate at a certain quaintness of phrase which gives an antique air to many of his sentences ; but he is never dull, never languid, never commonplace, always free, emphatic, and racy. The purely narrative portions of the volume are truly excellent. In the immense range of his productions as a journalist, to our thinking, Mr. Greeley has written nothing better. Compact, sustained, and enlivened with a choice variety of coloring, the story as it comes from his pen is uniformly clear even to transparency, and never fails to read with singular interest, while it abounds in fresh and novel information. He cannot always resist the temptation to a little episodical pleasantry ; but his humor is never illtimed, and often mercilessly effective by its keenness and truth, though for the most part genial and good-natured. Sometimes, however, we notice a mischievous delight in calling attention to the dead flies in the apothecary’s ointment. The author’s sincerity of conviction and honesty of purpose are apparent on every page of his work, and give it a sterling, permanent value, irrespective of its other merits.
In the selection of his materials, Mr. Greeley has made great use of the speeches, messages, letters, and other public documents relating to the different branches of his subject, the essential points of which he often interweaves into his narrative, though in all suitable cases he does not scruple to present from them full and copious citations. In most instances which involve the opinions of his political antagonists, he has confined himself to the latter method. Impressed with the difficulty of exhibiting the views of an opponent with fairness and accuracy, he has wisely preferred to employ the very language of his original authorities, wherever the exercise of perfect impartiality might appear too sublime a virtue for our fallen and frail human nature. In the mutations of opinion, moreover, many persons are apt to forget that the faith which they zealously defended but two years ago is at war with their present creed. The surest guaranty of exact and satisfactory statements, accordingly, is to fall back on the primitive authentic platform.
The subject of compromises, under the Federal Constitution, between the conflicting interests of the country, occupies, of course, a prominent place in these pages, and is treated by Mr. Greeley, as we think, with signal discretion and ability. His views on this point are marked by candor and moderation, though he is firm and uncompromising in his hostility to concession for the purpose of conciliating the Slave-Power. Political compromises, he maintains, though liable to abuse, are the necessary incidents of all governments, excepting pure and simple despotisms. Liberty cannot exist without diversity of opinions. Unless one will is permitted the supremacy over all others, a medium must be sought between widely differing convictions. If a legislature composed of two distinct bodies differs with regard to a special appropriation, a partial concession on each side is often the only practicable mode of adjustment. When the object is unprecedented, or not essential to the general efficiency of the public service, such as the construction of a new railroad, canal, or other public work, the opposition of either house should suffice for its defeat, or, at least, for its postponement. Neither branch has a right to demand from the other conformity with its views on a disputed point as the price of its own concurrence in measures essential to the existence of the government. Hence the movement of the United States Senate in 1849, dictating to the House a certain organization of the Territories, under penalty of defeating the Civil Appropriation Bill, was totally unjustifiable. But the fact should never be lost sight of, that differences of opinion often occur on momentous questions where the rights of each party are equal, and where an ultimate concurrence in one common line of action is essential. Without some mutual concession to adverse views, the union of the States would have been impossible. In cases, moreover, where the Executive is permitted a veto on legislative measures, a certain deference to his views is necessary to the practical working of the government. A compromise, accordingly, is at times indispensable and laudable. But no valid defence can be made of the celebrated compromise of 1850. It was a monstrous corruption in legislation, which not even the great name of Henry Clay could shield from subsequent opprobrium.
Still, this compromise was accepted and ratified by a great majority of the American people, both in the North and in the South. The announcement that all sectional differences had been adjusted was hailed with almost universal joy. The terms of settlement were regarded as of subordinate consequence. The people wanted peace and prosperity, and were content with driving a lucrative business. They had no disposition to shed each other’s blood in a quarrel concerning the condition of negroes. The compromise had taken no money from their pockets. It had imposed upon them no pecuniary burdens. It had exposed them to no personal dangers. It had rather appeased the terrors of disunion, increased the facilities for money - making, and opened a brilliant prospect of national greatness, security, and peace.
But this same compromise contained the seeds of disunion and civil war. The extreme State-Rights party in the South resolved not to submit to it, but to prepare the people for forcible resistance. Still, the time had not yet come for open demonstrations. The new Fugitive-Slave Law produced a wide-spread excitement at the North. This was increased by the frequent cases of brutality which occurred under its execution. The progress of opinion was rapid and decisive, preparing for the bloody conflict which commenced with the attack on Fort Sumter.
The development of events from this cardinal epoch to the defeat of the Union arms at Ball’s Bluff, is traced by Mr. Greeley with a vigorous and discriminating pen. His comments may not always command conviction, but they cannever fail to win respect. He expresses himself with freedom, although temperately, in regard to the character of the prominent military leaders, and subsequent facts have confirmed the sagacity of his judgment. He holds General Scott to a rigid responsibility for the inglorious days of Bull Run, which dispelled all lingering illusions as to his capacity for the conduct of a great war. The Fabian policy of General McClellan in the campaign of the succeeding winter is ably discussed. According to Mr. Greeley, this is not to be accounted for by a constitutional aversion on the part of our young Napoleon to the shedding of blood, — that is, of other men’s; since he was eager to involve the country in another war by the refusal to surrender Mason and Slidell. Natural timidity and irresolution no doubt had their influence. But beyond this was the slowly awakened consciousness that Slavery was the real assailant of our national existence. General McClellan saw, that, in order to carry out the policy to which he had been long committed, in order to save both slavery and the Union, there must be little fighting and a speedy compromise. It is only on this hypothesis that his course while in high command, but especially during that long autumn and winter, admits of a consistent and intelligible explanation.