Thursday, March 13, 2014

Let us 'crush the eggs of rebellion'

“Why did the Civil War happen?” seems like a simple question, but it is not. It has a northern answer and a southern answer. Historians often disagree in their interpretations of the key events that, in retrospect, formed the winding road to this brutal, fratricidal war. The historical record is dynamic, not static.

The minds of North and South at the start of the war are easier to know. Though diverse in their opinions, Americans spoke and wrote them freely. I'm always on the lookout for clear voices on this subject, whatever opinion they expound. Thus I loved finding a letter written by Capt. William W. Dobbins of Erie, Pa., on May 19, 1861.

Daniel Dobbins, shipbuilder and captain,
helped Oliver Hazard Perry win he Battle of
Lake Erie. Dobbins's son William later
wrote a book about the battle. 
Dobbins was the son of a military hero. Daniel Dobbins (1776-1856) was a shipbuilder and ship captain whose dominion was the Great Lakes. After escaping capture by the British during the War of 1812, he helped Oliver Hazard Perry win the battle of Lake Erie.

In 1861, weeks after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, W.W. Dobbins, a distinguished maritime officer himself, received a letter from an acquaintance. Its writer had just returned from the South, and he wrote Dobbins in Erie to say:

“There is, underlying the secession sentiment, a deep and abiding love of the old union silently praying for deliverance from despotism which has few parallels in the history of the world.”

Dobbins could not let this stand.

“This is my opinion and has been for some time,” he wrote to his friend. “The leaders of secession are ambitious, self-sacrificing, corrupt and desperate. It is ‘life and peace’ as ‘death and disgrace’ for them. Therefore they play a desperate game, and so far have monopolized the enthusiasm, all of which they turned to this account in the way of firing the minds of the middle and lower class of the Southern people against the administration of Lincoln and the North, making them believe the whole North had become completely abolitionized and sought the destruction of slavery at any hazard. Whereas the Union men in the South, such as merchants, planters, manufacturers, etc., who are not politicians were and are browbeaten and kept down by the dictatorial and coercive course of the former.

“But as they say, ‘Let  them once be confronted by the strong arm of the federal power, and they will soon crush the eggs of rebellion out of which are hatched the serpents of disunion.’

“It is to be hoped as soon as Virginia votes on secession* (I presume that is all the govt. is waiting for) a vigorous offensive policy will be adopted and when once commenced  I desire to see the whole power of the North used to the best advantage, and the matter settled as soon as possible.

“I am an advocate for the abolition of slavery. But I want those pompous barons in the seceding states humbled and convinced that the united North, although borne long with their insolence, have not done so from fear, but on the other hand, were activated by a spirit of forbearance as long as there was a possibility of a peaceful solution of the matters at issue.”

Dobbins was in his early 60s when he expressed this opinion. In 1876, a year before his death. an Erie publisher brought out his book on his father’s war: History of the battle of Lake Erie (September 10, 1813) and reminiscences of the flagships “Lawrence” and “Niagara.”

The whole book is here, but here is Dobbins’s brief preface, which includes a paragraph about his father:

*A Virginia convention voted to secede on April 17, 1861, just after the South captured Fort Sumter, but the decision was contingent on the approval of the voters. Ratification came on May 23, four days after Dobbins wrote his letter.

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