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The State of Affairs in America

The Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1087, pp. 407-408.

May, 4, 1861

THE STATE OF AFFAIRS IN AMERICA.

It is believed by those whose experience of men and institutions in the States of America is founded on personal observation that predictions uttered to-day by lookers-on on this side of the water may be utterly falsified by the intelligence brought by the next mail. A singular blending of expediency and impulse which pervades the idiosyncrasy of the American people renders the formation of any judgment as to what their conduct will be in certain conditions of things very difficult. One cannot reason in this case according to the ordinary rules of cause and effect, nor is there a fair chance of calculating results from combinations of circumstances. The profound interest with which we in this country contemplate the situation as it existed at the last accounts is intensified by an uncertainty more marked than usual, even in the instance of an internecine quarrel. On the one hand, much that has occurred, many minor and less important matters, would seem to indicate that both parties are laudably loth to put their dispute to the last arbitrement. Take, for instance, the circumstances which accompanied the capture of Fort Sumter. There has been a disposition to look at the bloodless nature of the contest which took place on that occasion from a comicpoint [sic] of view, and much small wit has been expended on the remarkable fact that a bombardment of forty hours should have led to no casualty on either side. It should, however, be recollected that in the fort there were scarcely a hundred men, who, if it was a well-constructed fortification, might easily have found shelter from any ordinary fire. On the other hand, it would seem that its defenders, whose object could only have been to establish the point of honour that pertained to their character, may have been unwilling to shed the first blood in a contest between men of the same nation, as well as to avoid the rousing of that retributive spirit in their adversaries which might have led to their undergoing another fate than that of marching out as prisoners of war. In short, we are willing to give both parties credit for a praiseworthy desire to avoid that responsibility which would be involved in the direct initiation of the slaughter and calamities of a civil war. There are other marks of hesitancy which might well have been interpreted into a hope that the moment of extremity was yet distant. But, if we take the formal declarations which have now been made on either side, it is not easy to see how a civil war of the most fearful description can be anything but a question of time for preparation. The policy of Mr. Lincoln is obvious enough. It was clearly his cue to have all the credit of forbearance on his side, while at the same time he was enabled to test the resources of the South and to marshal his own. It was the interest of the seceding States rather than his to provoke a hostile collision, and it needed an overt act of that which he could technically designate rebellion to justify the Chief Magistrate of the Republic in calling those whom he as technically could term well-affected citizens to arms in order to restore federal law and order. It is evident that the President never proposed to himself to take the initiative in an actual contest, and that with this view he abstained from any attempt to relieve Fort Sumter. The responsibility has thus, with some tact, been thrown on the seceders, and the actual capture and occupation of a stronghold of the Federal Government by them is at once the origin and the justification of that proclamation in which the President of that great nation, which has been at once the wonder and the envy of the world, gives the signal for all the havoc and misery of that most dire of contests—one between men of the same country and the same race, who, diverging on questions of principle and prejudice, can find no other adequate settlement of their difference than that organised and systematic cutting of each other's throats which is dignified by the name of war.

Assuming that which we cannot help calling a melancholy fact—namely, the positive, overt reference of the matters in difference to the issue of a civil war—a curious and interesting inquiry naturally arises, and that is the relative strength and state of preparation with which each party will enter on the contest at this moment. If we may judge from report and their own statements, the Southern Confederation, at the time


Page 408

when the accounts were brought by the last mail, had a force which, at least for purposes of defence, was greatly superior to any army which the North could bring into the field for purposes of aggression. No doubt that the course of events in Carolina and the other seceding States has tended to give them up to the present time a more demonstrative appearance. Their levies of men have been going on, and we have heard a great deal of the casting of cannon and the manufacture of the munitions of war. If they are to have an army at all, they have already attained to something more than its nucleus; and, as the Federal Army proper at the disposal of President Lincoln is only some twelve or fifteen thousand strong, and those much scattered in distant frontier service, it would seem as if the South would commence the war with a certain advantage on their side. Passing by for a moment the circumstance, by no means unimportant, that the party of the North is in the possession of the Federal Navy, and would thus have the command of the seaboard, Mr. Lincoln can have, and has had, recourse only to the calling out of the Militia, on which, in the case of foreign war, every possible reliance is to be placed. The question then is, will the demand which he has made for the force necessary to carry on any warlike operations which he may contemplate now, or hereafter find necessary, be responded to. We are assured, on very competent authority, that it will. It is confidently stated that the spirit of the North is now equally pronounced with that of the South—that there will be no difficulty in raising any force that may be required for an immediate campaign. The accounts which have been received go far to justify this opinion. The State of New York offers 30,000 men instead of the 13,000 which was asked as her quota; and we hear that even the so-called peace community of Pennsylvania has declared its readiness to contribute no less than 100,000 fighting men. We must, therefore, come to the painful conclusion that neither inclination nor means is wanting for the commencement and the carrying on of the impending struggle.

The secession of the border States, and of Virginia especially, will necessarily increase the difficulties which Mr. Lincoln has to encounter; and, admitting in their fullest extent the material advantages which are possessed by the North, those difficulties are formidable enough. As regards those pecuniary resources which have been emphatically designated the sinews of war, there is probably little or no comparison between the two parties. In the South the main dependence appears to rest on a duty of a cent per pound which has been imposed on the staple commodity, cotton, and a loan which has been already raised. Another recourse to this latter expedient, and also to voluntary contributions, will be found necessary, we suppose, if the contest assumes those dimensions to which, unhappily, there is every prospect that it will reach. The question then arises whether the means of the seceding States are equal, not to a drain of money merely, but to an actual and necessary supply. We are assured on good authority that much that has been said of the wealth of the South is in a manner an exaggeration, or, at least, that riches there do not take the decided shape of ready money to the extent which has been supposed. On the other hand, the volunteer spirit of the North embraces both men and money, and the contributions of the latter can be counted in current coin. The power which Mr. Lincoln possesses, and of which it appears he is about to avail himself, of blockading the Southern ports, must have a material if not an overwhelming influence on the pecuniary resources of his opponents.

Everything, however, tends to point to a struggle of the most energetic and unyielding description when once it has actually begun. Notwithstanding some inequities of strength, we know enough of the spirit of all Americans, when their blood is up and their impulsive feelings thoroughly enlisted in a cause, to be sure that conquest, in the strict sense of the term, of the seceding States is just an impossibility. It may happen that the power of the North may be so far predominant after a time as to enable its forces to devastate the territory of its adversaries, although even that is not by any means a proximate event. It may be that ere long a slave insurrection will be added to the difficulties which the South will have to encounter, and who shall say what may be the consequences of such a thing? But that the revolting communities will ever be brought by coercive measures into the federation which we have hitherto known as the United States is about as likely as the return to their allegiance to England of her then colonies in North America was after the Declaration of Independence. Unless some miracle of compromise be performed, the world must henceforth expect to see two moderate Republics established on that continent where for many years it has been accustomed to contemplate the growth of a nation which bade fair to be stupendous in its greatness.

Apart from many causes which would render it the obvious interest of this country to lament the political and social severance of the States of America, there are peculiar reasons why we Englishmen should look with pain and sorrow on a civil war between men of a kindred race with ourselves. We have ourselves, indeed, gone through the fiery ordeal of many civil wars; but in some way or other, directly or indirectly, these contests have had a bearing on the attainment of these liberties which we at present enjoy; and, if we now look back with sadness on the brothers' blood which has been spilled in our land, at least we have the consolation that it has not been shed in vain, for it has tended only to the consolidation of our empire and the building up of our constitutional rights on a sure foundation. It is to be feared that the Americans will have no such retrospect in the history of these events. This internecine contest has been in a certain sense provoked by an idea which did not need an appeal to the sword; and if, as we believe, it will result in the disruption of a great commonwealth, even if it should not tend to weaken or destroy the liberties of the citizens of either of the contending communities—which, at least, it may put in peril—it cannot in any case be otherwise than a calamity to all concerned in it, and a subject of regret, and indeed of grief, to all thinking men in the old country.

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