- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002



By Mark E. Neely Jr.

Harvard University Press

257 pages. $24.95


What happens to domestic partisan politics when a nation goes to war? There is no clear answer in America today, for in spite of lip service and protestations of patriotism, the battle between the parties goes on pretty much as usual while the war against terrorism continues.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Mark Neely Jr. ("The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties") takes this interesting question back to the Civil War and with original research discovers hidden drama. Mr. Neely uncovers a new picture of the Union at war, revealing deep splits between the two parties and detailing in fresh ways how anti-war, anti-abolitionist Democrats fought Lincoln Republicans, courting accusations of treason and widespread calls for martial law and censorship.
"The Union Divided" is a book of insights and new angles on Civil War history, yet it suffers from the air of the lecture hall and the tone of academia. Mr. Neely writes to make a point among his fellow history professionals, not to enthrall the general reader, who is expected to be quite conversant with the names and currents of 1860 party politics.
Critics, we forget, were calling for Lincoln's head from the first day of his presidency. If not for the Constitution, which guaranteed the president command of the armed forces for four years, these attacks might have torn the Union apart before the cumulative weight of Northern victories swung public opinion.
If America had been a parliamentary democracy, the author contends, Lincoln well might have been defeated after the North's early military disasters.
Continuing domestic political conflict seriously hampered the North's ability to wage the war. The politics of the South were bare-bones: Seccession was the only issue.
It's a story that has been almost completely hidden behind the myth of Lincoln's popularity, a belief that the two parties actually helped the Northern war effort, and the changes wrought by the eventual victory of the Union.
In the war's early years, things looked very different. The scholarly and inquisitive Mr. Neely develops theories and linkages seldom mentioned in standard histories.
First, he argues, there was a complete misunderstanding of the war itself. Northern editors and reporters, an overwhelming percentage of whom had never experienced "modern" warfare, were incompetent at reporting it to the public. This resulted in national confusion when the North lost battles such as Bull Run.
The Northern press was routed along with the Union troops; they somehow had imagined war was like the clash of noble knights on horseback and that right would triumph from the first.
In the wake of that debacle, Northern newspapers called for manly bayonet charges, utterly misunderstanding the deadly effect of the rifled barrel and the necessity for protective entrenchments.
Such reporting (plus the fact that 80 percent of Northern papers were organs of one political party or the other) fed the fires of the anti-war Democrats, causing Lincoln many an hour of fury and convincing some that the war could be won without a bloody struggle.
Then, too, Mr. Neely shows that the unique American system of frequent, regular elections "this inexorable election clock," which guaranteed political news was never off the front pages kept the Democrats and Republicans at each other's throats.
He also reminds us that in the 1860s armies stopped fighting during the winter, retiring to static camp positions, where the men had little to do save talk and argue about the war and politics. It should be remembered that Lincoln's top general, George B. McClellan, became his political foe and ran against Lincoln in 1864.
Along with regular elections, the "spoils system," under which the victorious Lincoln Republicans exercised patronage as usual during the war, proves that partisanship survived the national emergency in spite of "all for country" rhetoric.
Democratic opposition to Lincoln, of course, could not survive Northern success in battle. As the war ran on and as the hopes of Southern victory dimmed, opposition voices became ever more hysterical and unrealistic.
No one, Mr. Neely argues, particularly the Democrats, could have seen the war's length, its magnitude or the enormous changes to every part of Northern (not to mention Southern) society that it wrought.
As fascinating as this is to the general reader and the Civil War enthusiast, it is somewhat disappointing to watch Mr. Neely mount his arguments, present his research and his ample store of anecdotes and documentation, only to realize that his aim is to score points off other scholars who have boarded other trains of thought, rather than simply to state his newfound truth and explain its consequences.
Mr. Neely, who is McCabe-Greer Professor of the History of the Civil War Era at Pennsylvania State University, clearly hopes to unseat theorists who have argued that the two-party system in the North, by giving vitality to politics and freedom to dissent, actually assisted the eventual victory. It's a theory he goes far to discredit. It is a deft piece of scholarly politics or political scholarship.
Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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