Madness rules the hour Charleston, 1860 and the mania for war

Paul Starobin

Book - 2017

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New York : PublicAffairs [2017]
First edition
Physical Description
ix, 268 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 225-252) and index.
Main Author
Paul Starobin (author)
Review by New York Times Review

READERS OF A POPULAR travel magazine recently ranked Charleston as their favorite American city. Northern Democrats visiting the place in April 1860 for their party's national convention would have demurred. Democrats had settled on Charleston in order to mollify Southern members and ensure a united front heading into the fall presidential election. The opposite occurred. Southern disunionists, emboldened by galleries packed with supporters, rigged the convention to split the Democratic Party - the only national party competing that year. The breakup would inevitably result in the election of the yet-to-be-named Republican candidate. A Republican victory, the radicals theorized, would galvanize white Southerners to form a new nation secure from the economic predations and racial terror that the new administration would inevitably unleash upon the South if the slave states remained in the Union. "Madness Rules the Hour," Paul Starobin's fast-paced, engagingly written account of the hysteria that descended on lovely Charleston - where the unthinkable became the inevitable - is as much a study in group psychology as it is in history. Charleston's course to secession a mere seven weeks after the election of Lincoln and more than two months before he took office was not a willy-nilly, mob-inspired dash to disunion, but rather a wellorchestrated movement (controlled chaos, if you will), extending from John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859 to the fateful Secession Convention in late December 1860 that took South Carolina out of the Union. The conductors of this movement were the city's elite, whom Starobin presents in finely drawn portraits. Mobilizing the news media, especially the widely read Charleston Mercury (even Lincoln was a subscriber), staging boisterous military displays and mass meetings, and establishing secessionist organizations, the disunionists advanced their cause. If you were not with them, you remained silent. The elite ensured solidarity with the white working class by tightening restrictions on the city's free black population, many of whom fled. Secession was not a new fever in Charleston in 1860. Agitation had flared before: in 1832 in opposition to an allegedly punitive tariff, and in 1850 in the midst of the debate on the admission of California as a free state and related issues. But as Starobin notes, the itch to leave the Union was hardly a widely shared view elsewhere in the South, neither on those earlier occasions nor even in 1860. Why was Charleston so in advance of its neighbors? Starobin, the author of "After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age," does not precisely answer this question, but part of the explanation lies scattered in his book. Charleston was one of the most prosperous cities in the country, a major port and a center for the lucrative Sea Islands cotton trade. But its economy was beginning to ebb, as ports to the north eclipsed the city. And a Republican regime that promoted economic nationalism would surely enrich its friends and beggar its enemies. Charlestonians viewed the Republicans as an existential threat not only to their livelihood, but also to their lives. Disunion was an opportunity to regain sovereignty, prosperity and security. Honor, the history of secession agitation and the memory of the failed Vesey slave rebellion of 1822 also figured into the equation. But, as Starobin concludes his story, the equation blew up. Fast-forward to April 1865, and the ruins of this once beautiful city stood as testimony to folly. He appropriately leaves the coda to the Union general WilliamTecumseh Sherman: "Anyone who is not satisfied with war should go and see Charleston, and he will pray louder and deeper than ever that the country may, in the long future, be spared any more war." If you were not with the secessionists in 1860 Charleston, you remained silent. DAVID GOLDFIELD, the Robert Lee Bailey professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, is the author of "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [April 16, 2017] Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Starobin (After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age), a former Moscow bureau chief for Businessweek, reflects on the cultural fissures that led America to civil war in this limited portrait of antebellum Charleston, S.C. Tracking the city's descent into secessionist fervor, he follows a cast of prominent Charlestonians that includes newspapermen, politicians, and religious leaders. Starobin centers his story on the 1860 Democratic National Convention, which took place in Charleston and intensified regional divisions over slavery. The narrative draws heavily on newspaper accounts and letters, capturing the prevailing fear and uncertainty that enveloped the city's white slave-owning elite in the wake of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and Lincoln's election to the presidency. In a disappointing omission, Starobin gives short shrift to the city's large black population, both free and enslaved, as well as other voices that went unheard during the formal secessionist debates, leaving unanswered questions about the texture of Charleston daily life. Starobin's episodic recounting of Charleston's push toward secession uncovers a range of Southern attitudes concerning abolition and national identity, but without a clear organizing argument, the story proceeds in fits and starts. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

On the eve of the Civil War, Charleston, SC, long the most proslavery U.S. city, was the epicenter of the Southern secession movement. Journalist Starobin (After America) provides a vivid description of the mood and events in Charleston that would eventually lead to the Civil War. Secession fever escalated rapidly after John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 and intensified the following year. In April 1860, several Southern delegates walked out of the Democratic Convention (by coincidence, held in Charleston) after a disagreement over slavery in the party platform. In May 1860, the Republican nomination of Abraham Lincoln for president added more fuel to the fire. By December 20, at Institute Hall in Charleston, South Carolinians voted to leave the Union. Many prominent Charlestonians were influential in the secession movement, including Robert Barnwell Rhett, owner of the pro-secession newspaper Charleston Mercury; John Ferrars Townsend, author of the pamphlet The South Alone, Should Govern the South; and Andrew Gordon Magrath, a -federal judge who resigned after Lincoln's election. VERDICT Starobin's narrative is readable and lively; he is skilled at creating setting and character description. Recommended for those interested in the Civil War and its causes.-Dave Pugl, Ela Area P.L., Lake Zurich, IL © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

It was 1860 in Charleston, South Carolina, the political epicenter of the Old South, at a time of polarized partisanship. Things did not turn out well at all.Journalist Starobin (After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age, 2009) describes the year before the Civil War officially began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The Southern economy and its way of life depended on cotton and the labor provided by slavery to support it. As many of Charleston's prominent men argued, if there was agitation to break away from the federal Union, that was the fault of the North, with its increasing reluctance to sanction slavery. The Democratic National Convention in Charleston was riven. Yankee delegates named one presidential candidate; secessionists named another. The city's gentry imagined a confederacy of states standing alone. Starobin artfully depicts the few townsmen who were more cautious and the many publishers, planters, lawyers, and others who led the secessionists. As sentiment for rebellion increased, so did restrictions on the city's free blacks, and a diverse selection of uniformed militiae.g., the Washington Light Infantry and the Charleston Light Dragoonsparaded around town. As the election countdown proceeded with jingoist crowds, meetings, and bombast, Southern blood heated up, ready to be spilled. There was no turning back. A Secession Convention proclaimed the state's departure from the Union, followed by a great celebration. Throughout, Starobin's narrative pulses with partisan agitation. With speeches and letters of the period, the author demonstrates that the fight was less about states' rights than what many Southerners believed were their rights to own human chattel. His story of the fraught year ends before the firing on besieged Sumter, and his final chapter describes utterly destroyed Charleston after Appomattox. A dramatic and engaging addition to Civil War studies that serves as a fitting bookend paired with Jay Winik's account of the end of the war, April 1865 (2001). Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.