Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Category: Causes of the Civil War

Tiptoe on the edge of an abyss: A review of The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War

A parable:  Joke-telling Abraham Lincoln (Republican) in a stovepipe hat; sober-minded Jefferson Davis (Ultra-secessionist Democrat); and diminutive Stephen A. Douglas (national Democrat) stood at the top of a cliff.  Davis threatened to jump off the cliff, and Lincoln scoffed at that absurd notion.

Stephen A. Douglas believed Davis and knew that if Davis jumped, he would drag Lincoln and Douglas with him in a horrible, bloody crash.  Douglas believed that only he could stop Davis from jumping.


Historian George Fort Milton describes the lead-up to the Civil War in The Eve of Conflict:  Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War.  Weighing in at almost 600 pages, and published in 1934, this book has forever changed how I look at the causes of the war.

Prior to reading this book, I thought that the war basically occurred because of disagreements between Republicans (led by Lincoln) and Ultra-Secessionists (led by Jefferson Davis).  Author Milton demonstrates that the national Democratic party, led by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, had a reasonable chance of holding the country together as late as March 1860 (about a year before Fort Sumter).

Bitter enmity

Milton describes how the Buchanan administration mortally opposed Stephen A. Douglas and the national Democrats.  The Buchanan machine naturally allied with the Ultra-Secessionist Democrats to defeat Douglas, thereby allowing Lincoln to be elected president.

The author describes the political strategies of all three groups as they engaged in hardball.  In retrospect, the gamesmanship was breathtaking.

Clash of Ideas

Lincoln had stated in his “House Divided” speech:

…A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free … It will become all one thing, or all the other.

Douglas responded that Lincoln actually predicted the following:

A war of sections, a war of North against the South, of the Free States against the Slave States – a war of extermination to be continued relentlessly until the one or the other shall be subdued and all States shall either become free or become slave.

Lincoln rejected Douglas’s claim and said:

There is no danger that the people of Kentucky will shoulder their muskets, and, with a young nigger stuck on every bayonet, march into Illinois and force them upon us.  There is no danger of our going over there and making war upon them.

With hindsight, we see that Lincoln’s remark was recklessly confident.

A different view of “Honest Abe”

Douglas experienced Lincoln as a shrewd debater when they competed for a U.S. Senate seat.  This experience enabled Douglas to say the following:

When I make a mistake, as an honest man I correct it without being asked to, but when he, Lincoln, makes a false charge, he sticks to it and never corrects it.

A fresh look

In The Eve of Conflict, we see Douglas step out the shadows as a living, breathing, witty politician.  By the end of the book, Douglas has become a statesman, and I share Milton’s admiration of Douglas.

I found the over-arching sense of story, the quotations, the insights, and the analysis to be very compelling.   I highly recommend this book.

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Good books about early Iowa, the Underground Railroad, and the Civil War

I am a fan of well-documented books with solid reasoning.  I recommend the following books about early Iowa history, the Underground Rail Road, slavery, causes of the Civil War, reasons for enlisting, and the U.S. Constitution:

Early Iowa History

Bright radical star cover from AMAZONRobert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star:  Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (Cambridge, 1993).  This detailed, thoughtful book covers from 1833 (when Iowa Territory was officially open to settlement) to 1880.

Morton M. Rosenberg, Iowa on the Eve of the Civil War:  A Decade of Frontier Politics (Norman, 1972).  Rosenberg discusses 1850s Iowa demographics and politics.

Chandler C. Childs and Robert F. Klein, ed., Dubuque:  Frontier River City (Dubuque, 1984).  This book aptly covers Dubuque’s early history, stretching from 1830 (territorial days) through 1857.  It reminds me that Dubuque Democrats of this period called their city “The Gibraltar of the Iowa Democracy.”

Iowa Underground Railroad

Necessary Courage SoikeLowell J. Soike, Necessary Courage:  Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle Against Slavery (Iowa City, 2013).  This is a good introduction to the Iowa Underground Railroad.  Soike is a veteran UGRR researcher and former director of the Iowa Freedom Trail project.

Bill Silag, Susan Koch-Bridgford, and Hal Chase, eds. Outside In:  African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000 (Des Moines, 2001).  I especially appreciated chapters two through four, covering Iowa Territorial Census figures, the Underground Rail Road (written by scholar G. Galen Berrier), and African-American legal history, starting with the Iowa Territory.


Civil War as a Theological CrisisMark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, 2006).  Noll does an excellent job of presenting the biblical texts quoted by abolition-minded ministers, and passages quoted by pro-slavery ministers.  I found the most compelling abolition argument (derived from Scripture) to be more nuanced than the proof-texts cited in support of slavery.  In open debate, crowds in the 1840s and 1850s seemingly had little patience for nuanced arguments.

Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire:  The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens, 2009, original ed. 1998).  Genovese offers compelling and reasoned insights into Southern perspectives on slavery.

Causes of the Civil War

The impending crisis AMerica before the Civil WarDavid M. Potter, The Impending Crisis:  America before the Civil War, 1848 – 1861 (New York, 2011, original ed. 1976).  As a boy, I enjoyed Bruce Catton’s Civil War trilogy.  As an adult, I appreciate Potter’s profound insights and compelling logic regarding the causes of the war.

Donald E. Reynolds, Editors Make War:  Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis (Carbondale, 2006).  Reynolds creates a picture of the changing political face of the South as it headed toward Fort Sumter.  Editors Make War is a well-written combination of quotations and analysis.

Reasons for Enlisting

James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades:  Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford, 1997).  This thoughtful book draws upon the correspondence of many Union and Confederate soldiers.  McPhersons examines reasons why men enlisted and why they continued fighting at different stages of the war.

U.S. Constitution / Civil Liberties

Constitutional problems under lincolnJames G. Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln (New York, 1926).  This thought-provoking book is rich in detail.  It covers a host of topics, ranging from the legal nature of the Civil War to habeas corpus, illegal arrests, martial law, and more.  It was interesting to see how President Abraham Lincoln framed the argument over secession in such a way that readers would conclude that secession was an illegal revolution.

Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York, 1991).  Neely records how the Lincoln administration dealt with civil liberties, often trampling on them for various reasons.  He charts how the president quickly responded to new situations, beginning in the earliest days of the war.  Overall, Neely justifies the actions of Lincoln and his administration.  I highly recommend this richly detailed book.

Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press (New York, 1951).  I was interested to read about the opposition press in the North during the Civil War.  Harper paints a picture of the Federal government suppressing many newspapers.  A number of newspapers were barred from the mails, editors were arrested, and in some cases, Union soldiers destroyed printing presses.

What about you?

Have you read any books on these topics that are well-documented and have compelling arguments?  Please leave a comment!

Next Week

Next week, I plan to recommend more books related to the Civil War.  Topics will include Copperheads, Civil War medicine, foreigners in the Confederacy, the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy, and Confederate national identity.

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