It was 1860 in Charleston, South Carolina, the political epicenter of the Old South, at a time of polarized partisanship. Things did not turn out well at all.
Journalist Starobin (After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age, 2009) describes the year before the Civil War officially began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The Southern economy and its way of life depended on cotton and the labor provided by slavery to support it. As many of Charleston’s prominent men argued, if there was agitation to break away from the federal Union, that was the fault of the North, with its increasing reluctance to sanction slavery. The Democratic National Convention in Charleston was riven. Yankee delegates named one presidential candidate; secessionists named another. The city’s gentry imagined a confederacy of states standing alone. Starobin artfully depicts the few townsmen who were more cautious and the many publishers, planters, lawyers, and others who led the secessionists. As sentiment for rebellion increased, so did restrictions on the city’s free blacks, and a diverse selection of uniformed militia—e.g., the Washington Light Infantry and the Charleston Light Dragoons—paraded around town. As the election countdown proceeded with jingoist crowds, meetings, and bombast, Southern blood heated up, ready to be spilled. There was no turning back. A Secession Convention proclaimed the state’s departure from the Union, followed by a great celebration. Throughout, Starobin’s narrative pulses with partisan agitation. With speeches and letters of the period, the author demonstrates that the fight was less about states’ rights than what many Southerners believed were their rights to own human chattel. His story of the fraught year ends before the firing on besieged Sumter, and his final chapter describes utterly destroyed Charleston after Appomattox.
A dramatic and engaging addition to Civil War studies that serves as a fitting bookend paired with Jay Winik’s account of the end of the war, April 1865 (2001).