Michael Pierson on the start of the Civil War

UMass Lowell History professor Michael Pierson gave a spirited lecture today at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium’s Hall of Flags as part of the Moses Greeley Parker Lecture series. Pierson, the author of two books on the Civil War ( “Free Hearts and Free Homes: Gender and American Antislavery Politics” and “Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans”) had as his topic “Prelude to the Civil War: The State of the Union 150 Years Ago.” Pierson explained that with the 150th anniversary of the election of 1860 rapidly approaching (the election was on November 6, 1860), he hoped that today’s gathering would serve as the starting point for many commemorative events during the next five years.

Professor Pierson began with the basic question, “why was there a Civil War?” Most people would answer “slavery” and, if you had to give a one word answer, that was probably most accurate. America had fought over this issue for a very long time; the dispute had already caused the shedding of blood during the 1850s (John Brown, Kansas, and in Fugitive Slave activities which Pierson explained is an area of increasing interest to historians today).

But slavery wouldn’t be the only answer that explains why the northern states went to war to force the southern states back into the union. Slavery was an important issue to free blacks in the north and to Abolitionists, but they only represented a small percentage of the population and many of them (black and women) were unable to vote. Members of the Republican Party wanted to restrict the spread of slavery but felt constrained by the Constitution to leave it as it was in the southern states. What else besides slavery caused the people of the north, especially the Democrats, to be so committed to war?

Pierson suggested that intense nationalism or patriotism propelled the north into war once Fort Sumter was attacked, but he described that as the “false ending” of his talk. He continued on, explaining that the plunge into war was not just a knee jerk reaction to Fort Sumter. The people of the north were very thoughtful and there was a vigorous public debate on whether to proceed to war. While many thought that a war would end quickly, not a few envisioned a very deadly conflict with a high cost. Pierson ended his remarks by observing that studying how Americans act in times of great stress discloses much about where we are as a culture.