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How six men might have saved the lives of 650,000 Americans.

We usually look back on the Civil War an inevitable clash between two cultures. But America’s sectional conflict was actually the outcome of hundreds of turning points, at least six of which occurred between 1859 and 1861. During that period, a different as something foreordained— move by any one of a pivotal group of players might have altered history’s course, postponing the outbreak of the fighting, localizing combat or possibly even sidestepping outright war altogether.

In his book The Emergence of Lincoln, Allan Nevins offered a provocative hypothesis: In 1860 the South had a fighting chance to win its independence, but by 1880, the North’s increased industrial power would have rendered the Union unassailable. Even in 1860 the window of opportunity for a large-scale conflict was narrowing. By then, Americans had already been dodging war over slavery for 30 years. Could they have squeezed out another 20 years of peace, so that all-out warfare between North and South would never have erupted? Possibly.

 Certain things had to happen before war could break out. First, a catalyzing event was necessary to make secession seem possible, and there had to be an election that Southerners could construe as a threat. There were two other requirements: for secessionists in the Deep South to run the table, and for the U.S. government to react passively. Had any of these elements been missing, the chain of events would have snapped. Here, then, are six moments when the war could arguably have been avoided.


Floyd was one of the era’s most incompetent and disreputable figures. In December 1860, as the secession crisis raged, it was revealed that Secretary of War John Floyd was not only hip-deep in a financial scandal involving Indian bonds and a defense contractor, but he was also transferring heavy cannons from an armory in Pittsburgh to uncompleted forts in the secession hotbeds of Texas and Mississippi. President James Buchanan had to personally countermand Floyd’s orders. Decisive action by Floyd could have headed off John Brown’s raid in Harpers Ferry. But once the abolitionist launched his attack, there was another man who might still have been able to neutralize its impact. Floyd would later become a Confederate general, but he proved to be so incompetent that he was soon relieved of command. In 1859 no one thought a war over slavery was likely, but John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry changed all that. His failed effort, though quickly thwarted, had enormous repercussions—terrifying whites of every rank and station in the South, and lending sudden credibility to the idea of secession. Over the following year, these feelings of fear and distrust would be distilled into the fuel that propelled the Southern separatist movement. All of that might have been prevented if someone more responsible than John Floyd had been secretary of war.

In August 1859, two months before he attacked the arsenal, Brown had been in Springdale, Iowa, visiting a community of Quakers. Brown’s hosts had mixed feelings about him, admiring his commitment to abolition but abhorring his taste for violence, documented in battles in Kansas that resulted in the murder of five pro-slavery settlers in 1856. Brown’s plan to raid Harpers Ferry, which he openly discussed in Iowa, divided the community. Two young men from Springdale would join Brown, but three others tried to stop him.

A.L. Smith and his cousins Benjamin and David Gue, who were visiting from New York, thought Brown’s plan suicidal. Fearful for the life of a man they admired, they decided to warn the authorities of Brown’s plans. Smith and David Gue both wrote to Secretary of War John Floyd. Though Smith’s letter never arrived, Gue’s got through. It read in part:

SIR: I have lately received information of movement of so great importance that I feel it my duty to impart it to you without delay. I have discovered the existence of a secret organization having for its object the liberation of the slaves at the South by a general insurrection. The leader of the movement is “Old John Brown,” late of Kansas. He has been in Canada during the winter drilling the negroes there, and they are only waiting his word to start for the South to assist the slaves. They have one of their leading men (a white man) in an armory in Maryland—where it is situated I have not been able to learn. As soon as every thing is ready those of their number who are in the Northern states and Canada are to come in small companies to their rendezvous, which is in the mountains of Virginia. They will pass down through Pennsylvania and Maryland, and enter Virginia at Harper’s Ferry. Brown left the North about three or four weeks ago, and will arm the negroes and strike the blow in a few weeks….

Floyd told a Senate committee in March 1860 that when he received Gue’s letter:

My attention was a little more than usually attracted by it…as the man seemed to be particular in the details, but he confused me a little by saying that these people were at work at an armory in Maryland; and I knew there was no armory in Maryland, and supposed, therefore, that it had gone into details for the purpose of exciting the alarms of the Secretary of War….Besides, I was satisfied in my own mind that a scheme of such wickedness and outrage could not be entertained by any citizens of the United States.

So when the nation’s highest defense official got a detailed warning about the plans of an accused murderer and terrorist—on whose head President Buchanan had already affixed a $250 bounty—he merely put it aside, since there was no arsenal in Maryland. True enough, but the Harpers Ferry arsenal—one of only two in the country—was situated just across the Potomac River from Maryland.


Greene became a Southern hero for his role in John Brown’s raid. Greene resigned from the U.S. Marine Corps to join the Confederate States Marine Corps in 1861. He spent the war in Richmond, eventually becoming a major and adjutant and inspector of that force. He was often asked about that flimsy dress sword. “I lost trace of it….after having come out of the war,” he once said. “I received a letter from a gentleman in Washington, saying that he knew where the sword was, and that it was still bent double, as it was left by the thrust upon Brown’s breast. He said that it was now a relic of great historic value, and asked me to assent to the selling of it upon the condition that I should receive a portion of the price of the weapon. To me the matter had very little interest, and I replied indifferently. Since then I have heard nothing of the matter.”

Brown’s October 16, 1859, raid quickly turned into a debacle. By the morning of October 18, he and his surviving men, along with some hostages, had taken refuge in the armory, which was surrounded by a company of Marines. When Brown refused to surrender, the Marines attacked, with Lieutenant Israel Greene cornering Brown himself.

As Greene later reported, “Quicker than thought I brought my sabre down with all my strength upon his head.” But that first blow failed to kill Brown. At this point, reported Greene, “Instinctively, I gave him a sabre thrust in the left breast,” a blow that could very well have been fatal. But when the Marines were hastily mustered for their mission, the lieutenant had grabbed a ceremonial sword rather than his combat saber. So when he attempted to thrust it into Brown’s breast, the blade bent double. Greene subsequently pummeled Brown until the abolitionist lost consciousness—but he was still very much alive.

As it happened, Brown used the next six weeks to pontificate on his cause, making an indelible impression on the public. “I believe that to have interfered as I have done—as I have always freely admitted I have done—in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right,” said Brown at his November trial. “Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are dis regarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments—I submit; so let it be done!”

Such high-flown statements, and the noble bearing with which Brown accepted his death sentence, cast him as a hero and martyr. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau applauded him. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote him a poem. Victor Hugo penned a letter declaring: “Brown’s agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy.”

Had Greene only used the right sword, John Brown would have been seen not as an international cause célèbre, but as a dead terrorist. The fact that he lived to be celebrated as a morally inspirational figure in the North frightened and disgusted Southerners. It had been bad enough when Northerners called slave holders immoral; now they were countenancing murder. “A thousand John Browns can invade us,” Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis said in a speech, “and the government will not protect us.” Secession began to seem like the only way the South could ensure its own self-preservation.


The “Little Giant” helped to bring about his own political demise. In addition to his role in the 1860 election, Douglas helped to heighten tension over slavery with his controversial 1854 Kansas– Nebraska Act, which allowed “Popular Sovereignty” to decide the slavery status of the territory. Slavery proponents and opponents, including John Brown, soon flocked to the region, which quickly became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” as they battled each other while trying to decide the fate of what would become the state of Kansas. Turmoil over Douglas’ controversial act was a major spur in the formation of his eventual nemesis: the “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” Republican Party, founded in 1854.

At the start of 1860, it was widely assumed that the next president would be Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. He was the leading figure in the Democratic Party, which had won the last two elections by aligning a solid South with a few Northern states, captured with the support of big city Democratic Party machines. Moreover, his opponents, the new Republican Party, seemed bent on nominating William Seward or Salmon Chase, strong abolitionists who would likely have trouble carrying New York, Pennsylvania and, against Douglas, Illinois.

But as a result of John Brown’s raid, the Republicans chose a milder antislavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who had wider appeal. Meanwhile pro slavery Democrats vigorously opposed Douglas—and once he finally won the nomination, it was virtually worthless. The party was split, and two other candidates, Vice President John Breckenridge and former Whig John Bell, had joined the race, dooming Douglas’ hope of winning a solid South.

Now only Lincoln had a chance of assembling an Electoral College majority. To do so, he needed to win 16 of the 18 Northern and Western states, one of which had to be New York. With 20 percent of the votes in the Electoral College, the Empire State was the Big Enchilada.

For most of that year, it seemed Lincoln would fill his inside straight. But once the Tammany and Mozart factions of the New York Democratic machine patched up their differences, Douglas was suddenly on the move. Breaking tradition, he came to New York and campaigned in person, inspiring huge turnouts wherever he appeared. Wherever Douglas actually campaigned in New York, he won more votes than President Buchanan had done in 1856 when he captured the state.

If Douglas had continued campaigning in New York and won that state, pre venting Lincoln’s Electoral College majority, the choice would have been thrown to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would have had one vote. Because the Democrats controlled more delegations, a Democrat certainly would have been picked, though it probably wouldn’t have been Douglas. But Douglas wasn’t interested in stopping Lincoln just to see someone else take the prize; the man known as the “Little Giant” wanted to be president. He took his campaign to Virginia, where it fizzled. Had Douglas managed to stop Lincoln in New York, however, the next president would have been a Democrat, which would have diffused the threat of a powerful anti-slavery executive and stopped the fiery secessionists of 1860 in their tracks.


How would Buchanan have responded to a January outbreak of war? He might have sent troops to Charleston—but given that there were only about 17,000 troops in the entire U.S. Army, it’s difficult to envision what would have been an effective mission and force. At the time, there were a couple thousand soldiers on tap in Texas, whose pro-Union Governor Sam Houston was losing ground to secessionist forces. Buchanan could have ordered the army to quell the rebellion there. In that case, the 1st U.S. Cavalry, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, might have managed to keep Texas in the Union. In that event, the war might have resembled the conflict between Britain and Ireland, where local regimes, loyal to the national government and supported by its troops, fought rebels for control.

Exploiting the anxiety created by John Brown’s raid and the new Republican government, secessionists raced to get Southern states to secede. Speed was essential: Secession had its risks, and the extremists didn’t want the cause gummed up by slow-movers and slow-thinkers who were worried about repercussions. And they certainly didn’t want non-slaveholders to have much of a say in the process.

Late in November 1860, President Buchanan convened his Cabinet to discuss secession. He had an ingenious plan to create a constitutional speed bump by calling a convention of the states, as permitted under Article V of the Constitution, to discuss an amendment that would permit secession. The Constitution is silent on the matter; a convention would offer an opportunity to decide in a democratic way whether it should be permitted.

It was a shrewd idea: Southern leaders would have risked looking entirely unreasonable had they refused an open-handed invitation to discuss this process. Separation raised important issues. For example, were the original states on the same footing as the newer states? Maybe South Carolina had the right to leave, but the United States had just paid $15 million for Texas and had assumed another $3 million in debt. Could Texas just go?

A national convention would also have provided a place where pro-Unionists of every stripe could have come together and shown how greatly they outnumbered the hotheads. Buchanan, who had been a diplomat, knew how to drown ideas in talk. If a convention could get the country past the inauguration and a few months into the new administration, perhaps Southerners would see that Lincoln presented no real threat to the status quo, and secession would have lost much of its urgency.

But Buchanan could not get his Cabinet to support him. The three Southerners in the group, Howell Cobb, Jacob Thompson and John Floyd, protested that it was too late—the time for a convention had passed. This was manifestly untrue. Deliberations had already begun in some states, though not one state had yet held a secession convention. For those three Cabinet members, however, it was indeed too late. Treasury Secretary Cobb was already conspiring with his brother Tom on a plan that would make Howell the president of the new country. Thompson, the interior secretary, was also conniving to secure a post in the new government. Secretary of War Floyd was already abetting the rebellion by trying to transfer U.S. Army cannons to Southern forts.

The traitorous trio received unexpected help from Secretary of State Lewis Cass. A Unionist and the most eminent member of the Cabinet, Cass refused to do anything that would even hint at legitimating the idea of secession, and his stubbornness influenced the rest of the Cabinet. Thus Buchanan’s good idea died in a crossfire of duplicity and intractability.


John McGowan continued to serve the Union forces throughout the war. McGowan (whose tombstone is pictured above) was born in 1805. By the time he skippered Star of the West, he was an experienced “old salt” who had been at sea since his teens. He spent many prewar years as a member of the Revenue Marine Service, and he rejoined that force in August 1861. McGowan then helped to organize and participated in a fleet that patrolled the Chesapeake Bay. He died in his hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., in 1891. Always a staunch Unionist, the captain would be amused, or perhaps irritated, to know that the Citadel now offers the Star of the West International Summer Scholarship, which includes a grant of $7,500, honoring the young cadets who fired on McGowan’s ship.

That crucial Cabinet meeting took place in late November, and by New Year’s everything had changed. On December 20, South Day Carolina had seceded, and six days later Major Robert Anderson moved his troops from crumbling Fort Moultrie into Fort Sumter, in  Charleston Harbor. By that time Cass, Cobb and Thompson had left Buchanan’s Cabinet, and Floyd would soon follow; replacing them were Union men, who persuaded Buchanan to send Anderson more troops and supplies.

The plan called for 200 men to sail to Sumter aboard Star of the West, a civilian steamboat commanded by Captain John McGowan, which had a shallow draft well-suited for the waters around Sumter. After Southern sympathizers in the War Department warned Charleston authorities that the ship was coming, hulks were sunk to obstruct the main ship channel, patrols were launched and a new battery was constructed on Morris Island. This new fortification was occupied by cadets from the Citadel, who brought with them some of their school’s cannons.

Star of the West entered Charleston Harbor before dawn on January 9. At day break a patrol ship, Clinch, approached the vessel and requested identification. When there was no response, Clinch fired a warning rocket, and the cadets on Morris Island lobbed a warning shot across Star of the West’s bow. McGowan then ran up the Stars and Stripes and headed toward Sumter, crying, “You will need bigger guns than that!” The battery began firing in earnest, with two shots hitting the vessel, but inflicting only minor damage. Aboard the ship, the Union soldiers began raising and lowering the flag, signaling their request for Sumter’s support. But Anderson did not respond. Star of the West was soon beyond the range of Morris Island’s cannons—but within range of Fort Moultrie’s guns, which opened fire with increasing effect. As there was still no support coming from Sumter, McGowan turned and left the harbor. Major Anderson later explained that Fort Sumter had failed to fire because the garrison had been conducting firing exercises with the wrong kind of ammunition. By the time Sumter’s guns were finally ready, Star of the West—and the Union reinforcements—had gone.

In the absence of any bloodshed, both sides ignored the exchange. President Buchanan certainly didn’t want a war at that point; he was focused on getting through the last two months of his tenure and leaving the White House. And South Carolina—then the only state that had actually seceded—had neither the troops nor the materiel to prosecute a war on its own. But had anything else happened on January 9—had McGowan reached Sumter or suffered casualties, or had Star of the West been sunk or Fort Sumter opened fire in support of the vessel—the war would almost certainly have started that same day.

Perhaps an earlier exchange of fire would have hastened the same decisions that would be reached in coming months. But in January there was no Con federacy. There was still considerable reluctance in Virginia and Tennessee to throw in with the Fire-Eaters of South Carolina at that juncture, and given that South Carolina had initiated hostilities, the Rebels might have received little support from other Southern states.


Joe Brown’s love of “States’ Rights” hindered the Rebel war effort. Once the war that Georgia’s Governor Brown supported began, he proved to be a thorn in President Jefferson Davis’ side. Brown bristled in particular at the Southern draft imposed in April 1862, and fought to keep Georgia troops within the state. “The Conscription Act,” he said, “not only puts it in the power of the Executive of the Confederacy to disorganize her troops, which she was compelled to call into the field, for her own defence, in addition to her just quota, because of the neglect of the Confederacy to place sufficient troops upon her coast for her defence…but, also, places it in his power to destroy her State Government by disbanding her law-making power.”

Georgia was the wealthiest and most populous of the Deep South states, and it was key to making the Confederacy work. But secession was an iffy thing in Georgia, especially since large parts of the state had very few slaves.  

The state legislature decided to leave the question of secession up to a January 16 convention. Two camps squared off at the convention: a side favoring immediate secession and a mixed group, some of whom opposed secession and others who would consider it only as a last resort.

On election day, driving rain drenched the state. Based primarily in cities and towns, secessionists could reach the polls relatively easily, but their opponents, many of whom hailed from the pine barrens and mountains, had trouble getting out the vote. One anti-secession campaigner estimated that the weather must have cost his side 10,000 votes.

Georgia’s secessionists were jubilant after the vote. “We are safe in estimating…80,000 for secession, to less than 30,000 for submission,’’ declared the Atlanta Daily Intelligencer well before all the results were in. Governor Joe Brown promptly confirmed that projection, saying: “Beyond a doubt the people of Georgia have determined, by an overwhelming majority, to secede.’’

But as the actual results became available, an “overwhelming majority” didn’t seem to be accurate. Many counties showed the pro-Union side winning, and by equally wide majorities. Even stranger, in some districts there had been a turnout higher than during November’s presidential election, which seemed unbelievable given the weather. Calls to publish county-by-county tallies were raised across the state, but Governor Brown ignored them. At the convention, the first item on the agenda was a resolution, not to secede, but professing Georgia’s membership in the Union, and calling for a convention of slave-holding states to discuss their concerns. That measure lost narrowly, 166-to-130. The next day the separatist proposal passed, 208-to-89, and Georgia seceded.

In his 1977 book Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of Georgia, Michael P. Johnson concluded that an honest count would likely have given the anti-secession side a thin majority of perhaps 2,000 votes. At most, Georgia was fairly evenly split, a poor basis on which to justify the radical step of secession. But the secessionists needed Georgia to make their dream come alive, and Joe Brown felt justified in pocketing the results. Had he allowed the chips to fall where they might, the rebellion could very well have died in its cradle.

No single event was crucial to the outset of war. Fear, accident, stubbornness and outright chicanery were as much to blame as any of the loftiest sentiments trumpeted in defense of war. Although the struggle over slavery’s expansion had been brewing in the nation for decades, within a span of two years political feeling in the South had tipped in favor of secession and war.


Jamie Malanowski is the lead writer of The New York Times’ Disunion blog and author of And the War Came: The Six Months That Tore America Apart.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.