In the opening days of the Civil War, long before Saturday Night Live appropriated the idea, Louis Trezevant Wigfall earned the distinction in Washington, D.C., of being the Thing That Wouldn’t Leave. Elected to the United States Senate from Texas to fill a vacancy in 1859, Wigfall wasted no time in making himself obnoxious to his colleagues and the public alike. He was lavish in his disdain for the legislative body in which he had sought a seat. On the Senate floor, he said of the flag and, especially, the Union for which it stood, “It should be torn down and trampled upon.” As the southern states broke away, Wigfall gleefully announced, “The federal government is dead. The only question is whether we will give it a decent, peaceable, Protestant burial.”
By then Wigfall had been appointed to the Confederate congress, and the only question that occurred to many of his colleagues was why he was still bloviating from the floor of the U.S. Senate. Wigfall was worse than a mere gasbag. As Fergus M. Borde wich points out in his provocative new book, Congress at War, he “passed on military information to his southern friends, bought arms for the Confederacy, and swaggered around encouraging men to enlist in the secessionist forces.” At last, in March 1861, Wigfall quit the U.S. capital and showed up a few weeks later in South Carolina. Commandeering a skiff after Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, he rowed out to present terms for the fort’s surrender. He had no authorization to do such a thing; he was simply following his passion to make trouble and get attention. He went down in history as a triple threat: a traitor, a blowhard, and a shameless buttinsky.
Wigfall, one of the many strange and colorful characters tossed up by the politics of the Civil War, typifies the time in important respects. The years leading to the Civil War, and the war itself, were political intensifiers; radicalism was rewarded and could be made to pay. This was as true of the Republican reformers who are the heroes of Borde wich’s book as it is of secessionists like Wigfall.
Bordewich’s ungainly subtitle—How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America—telegraphs the grand claims he sets out to make for a group of congressmen who mostly styled themselves as Radical Republicans. In his account, it is they who pressed for aggressive military campaigns when the will for war flagged among Abraham Lincoln’s generals; who invented the financial mechanisms that funded the war; who pushed for punitive measures against the southern slaveholders; and who deserve credit (or blame!) for the birth of big government—achievements more commonly attributed to their far less radical president. A popular historian and journalist blessedly-free of academic affiliations, Bordewich is a master of the character sketch, summarizing complicated figures in a few swift phrases. But Lincoln himself never comes alive in his pages. Indeed, he scarcely appears. He lurks just offstage, stepping forward now and then to try, briefly and usually without success, to stymie the righteous zeal that propels the Radicals. The last line of the book declares that “a whole generation of politically heroic Republicans … led Congress to victory in the Civil War.” It’s an odd formulation—you probably thought the North won the war.
BORDEWICH HAS CHOSEN to tell his sprawling story of legislative activism and ascendancy mainly through four members of Congress: Senators Benjamin Wade of Ohio and William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, and Representatives Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Clement Vallandigham of Ohio. Vallandigham is the only Democrat, a leader of an anti-war faction whose preference for the Union was complicated by his pro-slavery sympathies. The rest are Republicans, and two of them, Stevens and Wade, proudly called themselves Radicals and behaved accordingly. Fessenden, at one time a conservative, grew more sympathetic to the Radicals’ aims as the war dragged on.
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