BackStory - Civil War 150th: The Road to War

To mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War's beginnings, the History Guys take an in-depth look at the pivotal six months between Abraham Lincoln's election and the outbreak of war.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see the Civil War as a conflict just waiting to happen. But to Americans in the spring of 1861, disunion was anything but inevitable. In the days leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter, in fact, Virginia officials rejected secession by a two-to-one margin. Even among those who expected war, few imagined the scale of devastation that was just around the corner.

Taking as a starting point this uncertainty about what was to come, this episode focuses on the dramatic six months between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the outbreak of war in April 1861. Over the course of the hour, the American History Guys reflect on various speeches, letters, and diary entries in an effort to get inside the heads of people on both sides of the conflict. Why did abolitionists like Frederick Douglass dread the prospect of Lincoln’s presidency? Why did slaveholders in many parts of the South argue against secession? What made the leaders of Virginia, a state long known as “the mother of presidents," finally decide to break its ties with the nation? How did 19th century ideas about race and gender inflect debates about disunion? And finally – did the existence of slavery mean some kind of civil war would come sooner or later, or might war have been averted?


* David Blight (historian, Yale University)
* Elizabeth Varon (historian, University of VA)
* Eric Foner (historian, Columbia University)
* William Freehling (historian, VA Foundation for the Humanities)

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