excerpts from the new e-book

The Looming Conflict: Radicals, Rebels
and the Coming of the Civil War
A collection of six Civil War essays by Fergus M. Bordewich


1) American Gladiators in a House Divided

Abraham Lincoln's debates with Stephen A. Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1858 turned the backwoods rail-splitter into presidential timber


IN FREEPORT, ILLINOIS, just beyond the somnolent downtown, a small park near the Pecatonica River is wedged next to the public library. In the mid-19th century, however, land along the shore stretched green into the distance, the grassy hills dotted with maples and river birches. It was here, on August 27, 1858, one hundred fifty years ago, that U.S. senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas waged a war of words. read the rest


2) The Radical and the Reactionary

How the historical rivalry between Thaddeus Stevens and James Buchanan shaped America


WHEN JIM DELLE’S crew of student archaeologists broke through the roof of an old cistern in Lancaster, Pennsylvania last December, they discovered something totally unexpected: a secret hiding place for fugitive slaves in the backyard of one of nineteenth century America’s most powerful, most passionate, and most hated political figures, the radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. Although the story of the Underground Railroad is replete with legends of exotic hiding places, they are actually quite rare. “I’ve looked at many tunnels that were alleged to have been used by the Underground Railroad,” says the dark-haired, bespectacled Delle, a man of ordinarily skeptical disposition. “Usually, I’m debunking these sites. But in this case, I can think of no other possible explanation.” read the rest


3) John Brown's Day of Reckoning

The abolitionist's bloody raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry 150 years ago set the stage for the Civil War


HARPERS FERRY, VIRGINIA, lay sleeping on the night of October 16, 1859, as 19 heavily armed men stole down mist-shrouded bluffs along the Potomac River where it joins the Shenandoah. Their leader was a rail-thin 59-year-old man with a shock of graying hair and penetrating steel-gray eyes. His name was John Brown. Some of those who strode across a covered railway bridge from Maryland into Virginia were callow farm boys; others were seasoned veterans of the guerrilla war in disputed Kansas. Among them were Brown's youngest sons, Watson and Oliver; a fugitive slave from Charleston, South Carolina; an African-American student at Oberlin College; a pair of Quaker brothers from Iowa who had abandoned their pacifist beliefs to follow Brown; a former slave from Virginia; and men from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana. They had come to Harpers Ferry to make war on slavery. read the rest


4) The Opening Salvo

Nearly a century of discord between North and South finally exploded in April 1861 with the bombardment of Fort Sumter


ON THE AFTERNOON of April 11, 1861, a small open boat flying a white flag pushed off from the tip of the narrow peninsula surrounding the city of Charleston. The vessel carried three envoys representing the Confederate States government, established in Montgomery, Alabama, two months before. Slaves rowed the passengers the nearly three and a half miles across the harbor to the looming hulk of Fort Sumter, where Lt. Jefferson C. Davis of the U.S. Army—no relation to the newly installed president of the Confederacy—met the arriving delegation. Davis led the envoys to the fort’s commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, who had been holed up there since just after Christmas with a tiny garrison of 87 officers and enlisted men—the last precarious symbol of federal power in passionately secessionist South Carolina. read the rest


5) Field of Glory

African-American soldiers triumphed in defeat at the battle of Morris Island


AS THE CRIMSON light of sunset spread over the darkening waves of the Atlantic Ocean on July 18, 1863, six hundred and fifty African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers poised on the wet beach of Morris Island “like giant statues of marble,” an eyewitness remembered. Behind them, five more Yankee regiments stood at the ready. For nine hours, shells fired by a fleet of ironclads had pounded the Confederate garrison of Fort Wagner, a half-mile north of the 54th’s position. (The fort was named for Confederate Lt. Colonel Thomas M. Wagner, an officer who was killed the year before when a gun exploded during artillery practice.) read the rest


6) The Underground War for the Soul of America

A museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad emphasizes healing and the meaning of freedom


ON A DANK MORNING in 1999, Carl Westmoreland’s phone rang, in his office overlooking the gray ribbon of the Ohio River and downtown Cincinnati. Westmoreland, a descendant of slaves, was an advisor to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the country’s first major institution dedicated to the clandestine pre-Civil War network that assisted tens of thousands of fugitive slaves to freedom. The center, which opens this August, was then still mostly a dream in the mind’s eye of Westmoreland and his colleagues. He listened skeptically as he gazed out his window at the dismal soup of snow and rain. read the rest


These essays originally published in Smithsonian magazine where Fergus Bordewich is a regular contributor.