Interview with Russell McClintock, author of Lincoln and the Decision for War

I just finished reading Russell McClintock’s recent book, “Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession.”  I have been on a Lincoln reading marathon, since early this year.  It is, after all, our greatest Buy Lincoln and the Decision for Warpresident’s 200th birthday.  I have read SO much about Lincoln over the past 30+ years, of studying the Civil War, I was sure the newer books about Lincoln would be repetitive.  Some have been, and two definitely have not.  I had heard a lot about Harold Holzer’s new book, “Lincoln President-Elect,” written about the “Great Secession Winter,” so I read that a few weeks ago.  It was a very good book, and was devoted to the time between Lincoln’s election, and his inauguration.  This book had a great deal of information, quotes and research that were “new to me.”  You can click HERE, to read my review on it. 

After reading Holzer’s book, I started reading, “Lincoln and the Decision for War,” by Russell McClintock.  I purchased this book last summer, and unfortunately had many other reading priorities that kept me from reading it sooner.  It would be an understatement to say that this book was a pleasant surprise.  It fit perfectly with Holzer’s book, examining a similar period (McClintock’s book extends the analysis to the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 90–day troops) but from a different perspective: the reaction of common citizens of the North to secession, political reaction to secession and Lincoln’s actions before, and after, his inauguration.  Like Holzer’s book, “Lincoln and the Decision for War,” is extremely well researched.  McClintock’s research is impeccable, and his writing makes reading the book very easy.  While the book has been in print for a year, I would highly recommend this book.  It will be especially interesting for those who have recently read Holzer’s, “Lincoln President-Elect.”  I really enjoyed learning what common citizens thought about the events of 1860–1861.  Needless to say, it was a period of uncertainty, fear and finger pointing.  McClintock paints a vivid picture of the public sentiment, that will make you feel as though you were there, to witness it.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Russell.  The following is a transcript of that interview.

Michael Noirot (MN):  Russ, I want to thank you for taking time for this interview.

Russell McClintock (RM):  You’re more than welcome, Mike – thanks for inviting me. 

MN:  When did you become interested in history?Russell McClintock

RM: I’ve always loved stories about the past, and especially about people from the past.  I remember in fourth or fifth grade getting a biography of Kit Carson out of the school library week after week and reading it over and over.  I’ve always read everything I can get my hands on, and history and historical fiction have been among my favorites for as long as I can remember.

MN:  Did you have any mentors that influenced your interest in history?

RM: Not until I got to college.  In elementary and high school I had teachers that influenced my love of learning, including a couple that happened to teach history, but I have only vague memories of actually learning history in class.  The interesting history I got outside the classroom, in books I’d read on my own.  Once I got to college, though (I graduated from Siena), I met professors who opened up a whole new world to me – for the first time I realized how rich and complex the past really was, and how much fun it can be to look for the connections that make it fit together in ways that make sense.  I learned to take the professors that the other people avoided, the hard ones.  They were always the best.  In particular I wanted to be like Professor Tom Kelly, who was no-nonsense, extremely demanding, and knew just about everything – but never tried to act like he knew something he didn’t.  To me he epitomized intellectual rigor and honesty, and oh man, did I admire him.  Later, in grad school at Clark University, Drew McCoy was a similar role model for me in terms of the high, unyielding standards, and he also added a depth of thought that challenged me to expand my thinking in ways that had never occurred to me before.  Both men were very loose on the reins, letting me find my own way, but lending a guiding hand when I needed – and always demanding my very best.

MN:  Do you remember how you became interested in the Civil War?

RM: Oddly enough, it was through reading westerns.  When I was in junior high and high school I read every book Louis L’Amour had published, along with a ton of other western authors.  Running through a lot of those books was this backdrop of the Civil War, mostly just vague references to battles and other events – Gettysburg, Shiloh, Lookout Mountain, Bull Run.  I was intrigued; I wanted to know what those references meant, what happened at those places.  I felt like I was missing a key piece of America.  So when a high-school teacher recommended Bruce Catton to me, I started reading him – and that was it.  I was hooked.

MN:  Are there any specific books, or authors, that have influenced your writing?

RM: Plenty, but in a lot of different ways.  I’ll give you just a few.  David Potter’s Impending Crisis is my favorite history book of all time; Potter’s analysis of the events that led to the Civil War is so insightful that I learn new things every time I read it.  I mentioned Bruce Catton already; he and Shelby Foote taught me that history should be a story, and that it can be and should be well told.  James McPherson’s work convinced me that history can be well written and also academically rigorous, and even though I don’t always agree with him he brings a common-sense approach to the sources that I like.  Bernard Bailyn’s work on the Revolutionary period convinced me of the importance of grasping the ideas and culture of a society in order to understand what really made people do what they did.  And David Potter, Kenneth Stampp, Philip S. Paludan, and Dan Crofts have all had a huge impact on my thinking on the secession crisis, each in different ways – and they also set the bar dauntingly high in terms of the level of research and analysis required to join in their debate.  What stands out to me as I read down this list is what good writers every one of those authors is – good writing is so essential to good history.

MN:  Your recent book, “Lincoln and the Decision for War,” is part of Gary Gallagher’s “Civil War America” series.  How did you and Gary become acquainted?  Was he looking for a specific topic from you?

RM: Actually, beyond reading several of his books and using some of them in classes, I had no acquaintance with Gary Gallagher before my book was published.  UNC Press editor David Perry contacted me because he saw the title of my PhD dissertation on the list of nominees for some prize; I sent him a chapter, he wrote back asking for the rest, and we were on our way.  I didn’t find out until later that it was Professor Gallagher who approved that initial chapter and who also served as one of the anonymous readers who critiqued my manuscript for the Press.  Since then he’s sent me a couple of very nice emails, but I’ve still yet to actually meet him.  I saw him at the Society for Civil War Historians conference last summer, but he was always surrounded by a crowd of people, so I never did get a chance to introduce myself.  I’m sure we’ll come across each other, though.  One thing I’ve learned over the last year or two is how welcoming and generous the community of Civil War scholars is – it’s been such a kick to meet so many people whose books I’ve read over the years, and they’ve all been so supportive and encouraging.  I didn’t expect it.

MN:  You teach history at St. John’s High School.  What reaction did your students have when your book was published?

RM: They got a big kick out of it.  A thing like this is pretty standard at most colleges, but it made a big splash here at St. John’s when it came out last year.  Some of my older students knew it was in the works because I’d forced them to read a chapter from my dissertation, but most of the kids were surprised.  Some of this year’s freshmen didn’t find out at all until the book got a fresh burst of press around the Lincoln bicentennial a couple of months ago.  Several of my students have promised to read it, but with a couple of exceptions I’m still waiting for them to come back and tell me they have.  But everyone at St. John’s – kids, teachers, administration, parents – have been very supportive and encouraging.  My principal actually read through the whole manuscript and commented on it for me.  It’s a terrific community.

MN:  While “Lincoln and the Decision for War” has been in print since January 2008, I recently read it, after reading Harold Holzer’s new book, “Lincoln President-Elect.”  Both books are fabulous, and complement each other.  Do you know Mr. Holzer and were you aware of his upcoming book?

RM:  Thank you, first of all, for your kind words.  I don’t know Mr. Holzer, actually, although I’m looking forward to the day when our paths finally cross.  His book came out in September(ish) of last year, and I didn’t know anything about it until about June.  It was a little intimidating, given his reputation and the quality of his recent book on Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, but he wrote a very nice review of my book, and of course I realized once I picked up his book that we had approached the crisis from very different angles – he focuses almost solely on Abraham Lincoln, to the point where everything else fades into the background, while I’m really telling the story of how and why the North responded to Southern secession, to the point where at times Lincoln fades a bit into the background.  In a narrow sense, it’s like a “Life and Times of” where he emphasizes the life and I emphasize the times.  He also stops the story at the inaugural, when Lincoln stops being the president-elect, while my story climaxes with the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter six weeks later.  I think you’re absolutely right to say that our books complement each other.  It’s pretty funny, actually, that they came out at the same time like that.

MN:  I have read a great deal about Abraham Lincoln.  There are a plethora of books, in print, that focus on his entire life, his presidency, his handling of the Civil War and his assassination.  Your book, to my knowledge, is one of the only ones to focus on the period of time between his election and the firing on Fort Sumter.  Was there something particular that interested you in this period?

RM: Yes, absolutely.  As I said earlier, the Civil War got its hooks into me early on, when I was a teenager.  One of the things that fascinated me about it was how it possibly could have happened – it’s almost surreal to think of armies of Americans battling each other across the American countryside.  Like a lot of your readers, I’m sure, sometimes when I’m out walking or driving I’ll catch myself looking out over whatever fields or woods I’m passing and imagining soldiers fighting there.  I think partly that comes from the actual battlefields looking so, well, normal, that once you suspend disbelief and imagine a battle there it’s easy to transfer that vision anywhere – but it’s also so out of place as to drive it home just how bizarre the whole thing was.  So in grad school I read a lot on secession to try to understand how something so out of character as a civil war could have happened here, and gradually I came to focus my attention on that final, irrevocable step when America crossed the Rubicon and fighting actually broke out: Fort Sumter.  It wasn’t until I sat down to map out a broad study of the secession crisis, which was my original plan, that I realized how much the Northern perspective has been ignored by historians – there are dozens of books examining why the South seceded, but hardly any on why the North decided to fight rather than let them go.  So I decided to find out for myself.

MN:  In your book, you focus on the reaction of the North, during the “secession winter,” in three different states: Massachusetts, New York and Illinois.  Can you elaborate on why you chose these states?

RM: I wanted to get a good, broad look at what was going on across the entire North, but it’s such a large area that I was worried that I’d end up just skimming across the surface and making vague generalizations.  What I wanted to do was combine the depth of a focused study of a particular area with the comprehensiveness of a broad look at the North as a whole – so I chose three states that seemed to me to be particularly important in the crisis politically and also representative of the three main regions of the North (New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Old Northwest).  I didn’t confine my research to those states, but I did go into far more depth there.

MN:  One of the reasons “Lincoln and the Decision for War” complements Harold Holzer’s book is that you focus on the reaction of common citizens, the press and even politicians, to the secession crisis.  Why did you decide on this approach, instead of a more traditional analysis of Buchanan and Lincoln?

RM: I wanted to know why the North responded as it did, and I knew that political leaders don’t operate in a vacuum.  The US was a democracy, in some ways more so then than now (and in other ways less).  So understanding how such a monumental decision was made required that I look outside of the spotlight.  In fact, I started out with the crazy idea that I would focus almost wholly on common people and keep the politicians in the background, but it turns out that politics at that time wasn’t as bottom-up as a lot of recent historians have made it out to be – regular people certainly injected their voices into the debate,  but the important decisions were all made by government leaders.  So the real story of the Northern decision lay in how different people at the various levels of politics – voters, newspaper editors, local and state party leaders, congressmen, the president and president-elect – interacted and influenced each other.  Much of the story wound up in the hands of the usual suspects, people like Buchanan and Lincoln, but telling their story in the context of what was going on in cities and towns and state capitals all over the North added, I think, a new and very important depth.

MN:  So much of the material in your book is new.  How did you approach your research?

RM: Unfortunately, it’s impossible to gauge public opinion in a pre-Gallup age with any real certainty.  Different historians approach that fundamental problem in different ways, none of which is truly satisfactory.  I took advantage of my narrow focus in time – it was just over five months from Lincoln’s election to Fort Sumter – by casting my net wide.  I went into archives like the New York Public Library and the Illinois State Archives and tried to look at everything written during that winter – letters, diaries, pamphlets, sermons, petitions, whatever.  But since my main interest was in the decision itself, I paid special attention to letters from constituents to political leaders, because that was how common people participated in the process most frequently.  I also wanted to know what was going on at the state level; most Northern legislatures were in session during the secession winter, and I suspected – correctly, it turned out – that those sessions would be dominated by debates over the crisis.  So I looked at their records, too.  But really it was whatever I could find.  And I could have kept going – there are manuscript collections with materials from that winter in archives and historical societies everywhere.  But at some point I had to stop if I was ever going to get anything written.  I encourage people to go visit their local historical society or public library and see what you find – I’ll bet you’ll be surprised.  And please send me an email to let me know what comes up.

MN:  Much of your source material came from ordinary citizens.  Gus Frey of Oswego, New York, Mason Brayman of New York, NY and A.G. Dickerhoff of Quincy, Illinois are not well known.  How were you able to find letters from these relatively unknown citizens when you were researching your book?

RM: Dickerhoff was a constituent of Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull, who was historians’ very favorite kind of person: one who saved and preserved his correspondence religiously.  His papers, which are at the Library of Congress, were a goldmine.  Gus Frey was part of a large upstate New York family whose papers I came across in the New-York Historical Society.  That was a great day, let me tell you.  Their letters were so rich I thought I was in heaven.  Brayman was actually an Illinoisan who happened to be doing business in NYC during the crisis, which worked out great for me because his letters brought two of my regions together; I could get an Illinois perspective on events in New York.  But to your larger question, Mike, I was amazed at how many diaries and collections of letters survive.  They’re out there, and they’re not all that hard to find.  It’s just that no one looks.

MN:  You used a significant amount of newspaper articles as source material.  Was it difficult to locate these articles?

RM: I actually relied much less on newspapers than other historians have; the traditional approach to finding public opinion in this period is to focus on newspaper editorials.  I did look at a lot of those, but my approach was a little more complex: to me, editorials didn’t reflect public opinion so much as party opinion.  Editors at that time were party activists, and newspapers were usually subsidized by a party and intended to be the voice of the party.  So I used them as such, and looked for rank-and-file opinion elsewhere.   I also mined newspapers for details about doings in Washington and the state capitals, since assigning reporters to cover Congress or the legislature or the president-elect had recently come into practice.  As for finding the papers, it wasn’t hard at all – one of the big advantages of Clark, which was where I was when I did my research, is that it’s right down the street from the greatest repository of 18th and 19th-century newspapers in the world, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass.  But I also used Howard Cecil Perkins’ Northern Editorials on Secession, a wonderful two-volume collection.  It doesn’t give an accurate indication of how widespread or popular a particular view was, so I had to be careful with it, but it does offer a great sample of editorials from across the spectrum.  Dwight Lowell Dumond published a similar collection of Southern editorials, and more recently Furman University, among other institutions, has placed some great prewar editorials on line.  Plus, hundreds of old newspapers are on microfilm, which people can find or interlibrary loan at their local public or college library.

MN:  Do you have another book planned?  If so, can you provide any details?

RM: Raising a young family while teaching high school leaves very little time for research, so the only thing I’m working on actively right now is a local study of the secession crisis here in central Massachusetts.  In my Introduction I challenge historians to fill in the gaps in the Northern response to secession by undertaking the kind of local, state, and regional studies that the literature on Southern secession is filled with, and I figure I should put my money where my mouth is.  But this is not a book-length project, more an article for a journal like Civil War History.  What I really want to do next, although I haven’t done much yet beyond identifying the major document collections, is a book on William Seward.  He’s not only a fascinating character but one of the most important figures of the era, and it’s crazy that his last major biography was published over 40 years ago.

MN:  Thank you for your time.  Congratulations on a great book.

RM: Thanks so much, Mike.  This was fun.  Keep up the great work.

About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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