The Outbreak of Rebellion: A Review of John G. Nicolay’s Book

Posted on August 21, 2011. Filed under: American History, Book Reviews, The American Civil War |

The Outbreak Of Rebellion in the “Campaigns of the Civil War” series, by John G. Nicolay

A Review by Bryan E. Walker

John G. Nicolay’s The Outbreak Of Rebellion, Castle Books: Edison, NJ 2002 (originally published as part of a 13 book series in 1881; 226pp.) is a wonderful, though intensely partisan, beginning point for a study of the Civil War. Written by President Lincoln’s personal secretary, the book covers the secession of the southern states, Ft. Sumter, the early battles and war preparations to the results of the first major battle at Bull Run, July 21, 1861. While the book is an excellent introduction to the War Between the States, it at times borders on a hagiography of Lincoln. The contempt and calumny for the South and the adoration and praise of Lincoln is prevalent throughout. I would not consider this a weakness, however. Rather, this shows the depths of feelings of the time and is itself a clue to understanding the events 150 years later. I highly recommend this book as a primary source for studying the Civil War if it is used in conjunction with a modern book such as James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. I anticipate reading the other twelve volumes in this series (I read this book fromJune 24, 2011 toAugust 4, 2011).

Johann Georg was born in Germanyin 1832 and immigrated to Americain 1838. A newspaper editor and politician in Illinois, Nicolay was appointed Lincoln’s personal secretary in the President’s first official act after his inauguration. After serving as the United States Consul in Parisduring the late 1860’s, Nicolay returned to Americaand, together with John Hay, wrote a 10-volume biography of President Lincoln and edited, again with John Hay, the 2-volume Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln.

In the preface Nicolay states that his research for a larger project (presumably his biography of Lincoln) “had furnished him (the author) a great variety of new material for the work; and this was opportunely supplemented by the recent publication of the Official War Records for 1861, both Union and Confederate, opening to comparison and use an immense mass of historical data, and furnishing the definite means of verifying or correcting the statements of previous writers.” (p.v.) He continues, “Under these advantages the author has written the present volume, basing his work on materials of unquestioned authenticity- books, documents, and manuscripts- and, indeed, for the greater part, on official public records.”  “He would gladly have appended to his pages full references and citations, but want of space absolutely forbade,” ( In these quotes we see a bit of the historical method of Nicolay. This is no mere personal memoir, which all too often covers up, omits or enhances the truth in order to accomplish the hidden goals of the author. The author lays claim to doing serious, objective work using the best of a variety of sources besides his own memories of the events he witnessed first hand. I do not think the serious nature of his research is impugned in the least by his obvious hatred for the South and his great love forLincolnthat fairly drips from many parts of his book. He writes with great passion and energy. The wounds from the war are still fresh 20 years later.

Nicolay’s first chapter, “Secession”, opens with, “The fifth day of October, 1860, is the initial point of the American Rebellion. Its conception, animus, and probably its plans, lay much farther back,” (p.1.) From this opening sentence we can see the author’s hint that he believes the rebellion was no spur of the moment thing, but was a deep conspiracy widespread in the South. This conspiracy theme shows up time and again. And he is certainly correct. He is more explicit on p.2, “…excepting in South Carolina, the rebellion was not in any sense a popular revolution, but was a conspiracy among the prominent local office-holders and politicians, which the people neither expected nor desired, and which they were made eventually to justify and uphold by the usual arts and expedients of conspiracy.”

Throughout the book Nicolay shows the evidence for the conspiratorial nature of the rebellion, but perhaps overstates the case for the people of the South being against secession. His hatred forSouth Carolinais particularly strong: “The State ofSouth Carolina, in addition, had been little else than a school of treason for thirty years,” (p.3). “The events which occurred inSouth Carolinawere in substance duplicated in the neighboring States of Georgia,Florida,Alabama,Mississippi, andLouisiana. These States, however, had stronger and more formidable union minorities than South Carolina; or rather, if the truth could have been ascertained with safety, they had each of them decided majorities averse to secession, as was virtually acknowledged by their governors’ replies to the Gist circular,” (p.8). “…it was only by persistent nursing, management, and in many cases sheer deceit that a semblance of majorities was obtained to justify and apparently indorse the conspirators’ plots,” (p.9).  In state after state Nicolay shows how the southern, democrat politicians manipulated events to bring about the desired end: secession. He points to much evidence inVirginia,Maryland,MissouriandTennesseewhere sizeable portions of the populations did not want to secede and were not slave owners, but whose politicians corrupted the system to override the will of the people to move toward secession.

It is this feature of his book that leaped off the page and struck me as being applicable to our time. His descriptions of the unethical Democrats of his day seem very familiar in our own. Political corruption remains the same, the two political parties are very close to what they were like in 1860. I got this same sense in reading McPherson’s book as well.

On p.13 is an interesting note aboutTexas: “The famous and somewhat eccentric General Houston was governor. His own long struggle to bringTexasinto theUnionmade him loth to join in its destruction. He resisted the secession conspiracy; but his southern pro-slavery prejudice also imbued him with the prevalent antagonism to the Republican Party. He therefore nursed a scheme to carryTexasback into independent sovereignty…” I mention this because in the current race for President, the Texas Governor, Rick Perry, has been accused of the same thing by the Liberal Main Stream Media and the Democrats (with a major difference being, of course, thatTexasand Gov. Perry are now conservative Republicans). 150 years later, and we see some of the same issues!

In ch.II “CharlestonHarbor” Nicolay begins telling the dramatic story of Major Robert Anderson andFt.Sumter. But beyond that, Nicolay lays bare the Buchanan administration. Look at the choice of words by Nicolay on page 17, the first page of chapter II. “Conspiracy”, “traitors”, “cabal”, “insidious suggestion”. And how he describes President Buchanan, “He possessed the opposing qualities of feeble will and stubborn prejudice; advancing years and decreasing vigor added to his irresolution and embarrassed his always limited capabilities….In the defeat of Breckenridge, whom he had championed, and in the sweeping success of the Republicans, he had suffered scorching rebuke and deep humiliation. His administration was condemned, his policy was overthrown; his proud party was a hopeless wreck. He had no elasticity of mind, no buoyancy of hope to recover from the shock,” (pp.17-18). Again, this is sounding very much like our present day and a Democrat President.

On p.19 Nicolay summarizes the different opinions of the cause of war: “He (that is President Buchanan) charged that Southern discontent was caused by ‘long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States,’ in face of the well-known fact that Southern interference in free territory was the cause of the crisis.” Having read McPherson on this topic, I will have to agree with Nicolay’s judgment. I have met a few people, usually involved in Civil War re-enactment societies on the Confederate side, who have that same mentality. The War of Northern Aggression was all the North’s fault and the South was an innocent victim.

In chapters II-V Nicolay’s in-depth discussion of the political developments surrounding the preparations for the attack on Ft.Sumterin both the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations is ahigh pointin the book for me. And then, his description of the battles to re-supply and holdSumterare like the icing on the cake.

Chapter VI, “The Call To Arms”, includes a wonderful account of howLincoln’s opponent, Stephen A. Douglas came to support President Lincoln afterFt.Sumter. It was a shame thatDouglasdied just a few weeks later.

“Baltimore” is the title for chapter VII and the dramatic story of the Massachusetts Sixth, the first volunteer regiment to form, equip and move towardsWashington. And the first to be bloodied and to shed blood. Having never studied the Civil War in depth before, I was shocked at reading this chapter and realizing the struggle inMarylandand that there had been a bloody battle inBaltimore. “The number of casualties was never correctly ascertained. The soldiers lost four killed and some thirty wounded; the citizens probably two or three times as many,” (p.87.)

In the eighth chapter, “Washington”, Nicolay gives a moving account of what it was like in our capital city which was surrounded by the rebels and sympathizers because, “Washington, in tradition, tone, and aspiration, was essentially a Southern city. Slavery existed and the local slave trade flourished here…” (p.97). Again, due to my lack of in-depth study of the Civil War, I really had not realized that Washington DC was essentially surrounded, almost cut off, and had to become an armed camp to survive. If the South had had the army for it, our national capital would have been captured. Nicolay writes from the perspective of a resident of besiegedWashington.

Part of my joy in reading Nicolay is the rich, 19th century prose with which he writes. I have long admired the literature of the 19th century: Poe, Twain, Dickens, Hardy, and others. Here is a sentence that particularly stood out, (p.104): “in comparison with the unmurmuring endurance that trudged through the Yazoo swamps, and the unflinching courage that faced the dreadful carnage of the Wilderness, later in the war, this march of the ‘Seventh’ was the merest regimental picnic; but it has become historic because it marked a turning-point in the national destiny, and signified the will of the people that the capital of the Union should remain where George Washington planted it.”

Chapter IX, “Ellsworth”, is a very sad war story about a young, 24 year old Colonel, Elmer E. Ellsworth. A native of New York, he had moved to Illinoisand became a leader of a volunteer, National Guard type drill team that became quite famous just prior to the war. After working for Lincolnin Illinoishe answered the President’s call for a volunteer Army and raised a regiment of “Zouaves” from his native New Yorkand took the regiment to Washington. His regiment, and others, were involved in taking Alexandria, Va.and Ellsworth was killed in action on May 24th while personally removing a rebel flag from ahigh point in the city. This kind of detail that Nicolay includes is worth the price of the book! Colonel Ellsworth, though very young, was quite famous throughout the North and was a personal friend of the President. Nicolay writes, (p.114) “Ellsworth was buried with imposing honors, from the famous East Room of the Executive Mansion, the President, Cabinet, and high officers of Government attending as mourners; and as the telegraph filled the newspapers with details of the sad event, every household in the North felt as if the dark shadow of a funeral had lowered over its own hearthstone.” Prophetic indeed.

Chapters X-XII tell the all too often neglected stories of the early fighting in Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia. In these states there was a civil war within the Civil War. Nicolay’s explanation of what was going on in western Virginia was particularly noteworthy as he again shows how a majority of the citizens of that part of Virginia were not slaveholders and did not want to secede, yet many politicians wanted to side with the rebels. Those who were against secession in western Virginiaformed the State of Kanawha, later re-named West Virginia. Nicolay then goes into the battles that McClellan fought against the rebels and gives an excellent account of that part of the war which won McClellan the reputation of a winner that would later propel him to the top position in the Army. Nicolay’s summation of  the battles of Rich Mountain and Carrick’s Ford subtly reveals his contempt for McClellan, (pp.153-4): “But this petty skirmish with three hundred rebels on Rich Mountain, and this rout of a little rear-guard at Carrick’s Ford, were speedily followed by large political and military results. They closed a campaign, dispersed a rebel army, recovered a disputed State, permanently pushed back the military frontier. They enabled McClellan to send a laconic telegram, combining in one report the scattered and disconnected incidents of  three different days and happening forty miles apart, which (without exaggerating literal truth except as to the Union losses and number of prisoners) gave such a general impression of professional skill and achievement as to make him the hero of the hour, and which started a train of circumstances that, without further victories, made him General-in-Chief of all the Armies of the United States, on the first day of November following.”

With chapter XIII, “Patterson’s Campaign”, Nicolay comes to the theme that would plague the Union Army: generals who could not fight and win. He begins the chapter, “Under the President’s three month call…” President Lincoln had issued a call for 75,000 volunteers for a three-month tour of service. One of the weaknesses of the book is that Nicolay fails to criticizeLincolnfor this lame response to the rebellion. Of course I am writing in hindsight, and not many in that day took the southern rebellion all that seriously and they generally had no idea it would be long, bloody war. But Nicolay does avoid criticizingLincolnat all.

This chapter opens with a description of General Patterson that is quite glowing; but it sets you up for his dismal failure that leads to McDowell’s defeat at Bull Run. Nicolay uses sarcasm well in his narrative of Gen. Patterson. “But so leisurely were his preparations and advance, that the rebels had every knowledge of his coming; and when, on June 15th, he finally reached the Potomac River, he found, instead of the ‘desperate resistance’ which had been looked for, that Johnston had hastily evacuated harper’s Ferry after destroying the railroad bridge and spiking his heavy guns, and had retreated….Patterson and his officers were greatly mystified by this withdrawal of the enemy….Advancing with a painful over-caution, as if Johnston were the invader, a part of the army crossed the Potomac on the 16th of June. Finding the rumor of the evacuation true, Patterson took sufficient courage to report a victory.” .Advancing with a painful over-caution, as if Johnston were the invader, a part of the army crossed the Potomac on the 16th of June. Finding the rumor of the evacuation true, Patterson took sufficient courage to report a victory.” Nicolay then gives a very worthy account of why it was the smart thing to do to evacuate Harper’s Ferry, implying that Patterson and his staff should not have been mystified.

He goes into a fair amount of detail to describe the misadventures of Patterson who should have chased down the rebel general Johnston, “It would appear that at this time two impulses struggled for mastery in Patterson’s mind. Apparently he was both seeking and avoiding a battle,” (p.164). He mentions a problem that would also plague McClellan later, Patterson greatly overestimated the number of rebels opposing him, and used the false numbers to convince himself that he could not win if he attacked. Nicolay’s summary of Patterson is noteworthy: “…they had gulped down an absurd rumor about the enemy being forty thousand strong without taking any efficient means to ascertain its correctness. And so lifeless and inefficient had the whole army become under such influences and management, that not till July 20th did Patterson learn the humiliating fact that he had wrecked the fair military reputation of a lifetime by permitting the enemy to escape through utterly inexcusable lack of energy and want of judgment. And if that reflection could be still further embittered, it was done by the early realization that his stupendous blunder had lost to the Union cause the first important battle of the war [Bull Run]” (p.167).

Chapters XIV-XV give us the account of “Manassas” and “Bull Run”. Nicolay defends General Winfield Scott by presenting his plan as reasonable and then he defendsLincolnindirectly by explaining why the army hastened to battle atBull Run. “Important reasons, both military, partly political, conflicted with so deliberate a programme [Scot’s plan]…Chiefly, however, the highly excited patriotism of the North, eager to wipe out national insult and vindicate national authority, was impatient of what seemed tedious delay. The echoes of theSumterbombardment were yet in the air; the blood on theBaltimorepaving-stones was crying loudly to heaven,” (pp.171-2).

In describing the planning for the Manassas campaign Nicolay again  shows us the fear of the Union generals of fighting outnumbered: “McDowell was emphatic in his protest that he could not hope to beat the combined armies of Johnston and Beauregard…” (p.173). As it turned out, Patterson utterly failed to keepJohnstonacross theBlue Ridge, McDowell did fight a combined rebel army, and he almost won! Nicolay goes into intricate detail of the fighting atBull Runand shows us that McDowell actually did a fine job of leading his army and fighting the combined armies of Johnston and Beauregard.

In describing the march to the battle as well as the battle itself, Nicolay goes into detail to describe how unprofessional this army of volunteers was and how frustrating it was for the colonels and generals who were usually professionals. In both books I have read on this first major battle of the Civil War (McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, William C. Davis’ Battle at Bull Run) it was stated repeatedly that the Union troops on the march would wander off to go blackberry picking and stop at every stream to refill their canteens; disrespect for officers was rampant.

Although Nicolay does not discuss it in these terms, but the unpreparedness of both the Unionand the Rebel armies is a theme in the history of the American military. It has only been in the last 35 years, since Viet Nam, that the military has dramatically changed from an army of draftees and underfunding/ill-preparedness into an army of professionals with the latest hardware and technical expertise to wage war effectively anywhere, anytime. Yet in these first years of the second decade of the 21st century, with the great economic collapse upon us due to the effects of the socialist welfare state, and the ten year long war againstAfghanistan andIraq, we are now entering a phase where our political leaders are screaming, “Cut the military”. One clear lesson we can learn fromBull Run and the battles preceding it is that a lack of preparedness is paid for, ultimately, in the lives of our young soldiers and the loss of national honor.

In his description of the battle ofBlackburn’s Ford I find an evaluation by Nicolay with which I disagree. He writes, “The affair ofBlackburn’s Ford thus proved something more than a preliminary defeat; it augmented the causes of a great disaster…. McDowell…abandoned his original plan, and had resolved to make the attack by marching northward and turning Beauregard’s left flank instead of his right.”  As it turned out, Beauregard had certainly planned on McDowell attacking his right flank, as McDowell had originally intended, and thus put the majority of his forces on his right flank. McDowell’s flexibility and willingness to change his plan was a strength. The battle would be lost for other reasons, not this change by McDowell.

Nicolay does a fair amount of criticizing Beauregard as he details the battle, and he also throws a snide comment or two at “Stonewall”Jackson. On pages 190-192 Nicolay gives the account of how the battle turned against McDowell. He stresses that the retreat of the rebels had placed them in a stronger defensive position in the mid-afternoon as the Union forces were weary from the long march and bitter fighting. Then, he gives the bitter account of the loss of a Union cannon battery due to confusion on the battlefield over uniform colors and placement of troops. The loss of these guns at this point in the battle sealed the fate of McDowell’s army.

Chapters XVI and XVII, “The Retreat” and “Conclusion” describe the complete meltdown of discipline as the Union army broke beneath the rebel counterattacks after the piecemeal efforts of the Northerners. Add to the chaos of a defeated army a large contingent of civilians and Congressmen who had come out to watch the war and you get a disaster, covered by the press, of course. Again, Nicolay, rightfully, defends McDowell: “Greatly ridiculed and denounced when it occurred, the battle ofBull Runis gradually finding its vindication. General Sherman says it was ‘one of the best-planned battles of the war, but one of the worst fought,’ and that ‘both armies were fairly defeated.’ General Johnston says: ‘If the tactics of the Federals had been equal to their strategy, we should have been beaten.’”

Nicolay says that the defeat atBull Runhumbled the North but also gave them resolve for a long fight. Of the South he writes, “Vanity of personal prowess is a weakness of Southern character; andBull Runbecame to the unthinking a demonstration of Southern invincibility,” (p.209).

In conclusion, I whole-heartedly recommend this work by John G. Nicolay. His partisan tenor throughout I actually found to be refreshing and I do not think it takes away from the accuracy of his facts. If you want just one quick resource for the Civil War, this would not be the book for you, but if you want to delve deeper into the War Between the States you should find time to read this primary source.

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