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Final Madness: Charleston Just Before the Civil War
Thursday, June 28, 2018 -- The title of an unsettling but engaging recounting of Charleston's pivotal role in the days just before the Civil War--Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War--effectively summarizes this nonfiction work.

It also serves as a warning, especially today, about how the dreams of glory of leaders and their citizen followers often result in utter destruction and utter despair. As one review in The New York Times suggests, Madness Rules the World is "as much a study in group psychology as it is in history."

In this cautionary narrative, written in clear and lucid prose by Paul Starobin, the die is cast by the time 1860 dawns. Most of the white population of Charleston--beautiful and prosperous, port city and center of Sea Island cotton trade, America's most pro-slavery city--already has decided that they will have to secede if Abraham Lincoln becomes president on the relatively new abolitionist Republican ticket. They feel secession is necessary to preserve their superior way of life, one that is based on the institution of slavery. Charleston wants to lead the way, not only for its home state of South Carolina, but also for the entire southern tier of slave states.

The madness to which Starobin's title refers begins when the Democratic Party convention--held in Charleston in April, 1860, in a failed attempt to appease Southerners--falls apart. The fires of secession are lit, a phenomenon that proceeds unchecked. Lincoln is elected in November, South Carolina secedes seven weeks later and, the following April, the South opens fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

Having convinced themselves that Lincoln would abolish slavery and take away their "rights," some Charleston residents thought they could secede and live happily ever after. Their euphoria, of course, is not based on reality. But one South Carolina jurist, the Unionist James Louis Petigru, knew better. He advocated reason above zeal. "South Carolina is too small for a Republic, but too large to be an insane asylum," he famously remarked.

In an interview with Historynet, Starobin explains that he was surprised "How joyful so many in white Charleston ... felt about the act of secession." It was "the occasion for a big party, literally so ... because it meant that confrontation with the North, with the 'cowardly Yankees,' could no longer be postponed." Besotted with such righteous conviction, the South even failed to appreciate the impact on its commercial relationship with the North, its major customer for the states' cotton and rice.

Charleston's "road to madness" is strewn with a great many interesting facts and sidebar stories. By 1860, for instance, there were some 3,000 former slaves living fairly comfortably. As the possibility of disunion loomed, white Charleston cracked down harshly on the black community and even freedmen and freedwomen realized that their way of life was in jeopardy.

One cogent example: The Johnson family, father James D. and son James M., who had built a profitable tailoring business in a section of Charleston where the most successful free blacks lived. Considered among the "brown elite," the Johnsons, who themselves owned slaves and whose customers included white locals, had thought they were safe from being harassed and terrorized. But in the summer of 1860, fearful that blacks might support the North, whites began to more fiercely enforce the rules and regulations for freed blacks. Now the Johnsons lie awake at night anticipating a dreaded knock on the door--a fear many others would experience years later in Nazi Europe. If they could not satisfy various requirements, they could lose all of their property--and, worse, they could be deemed slaves again.

Things weren't much better for Northeners in Charleston in 1860. An example: Catherine Bottsford, a widow from New York, who worked as a seamstress. She was taken by force by the police, accused of being an abolitionist and therefore guilty of treason. When she failed to pay the exorbitant "bail," she was jailed for two months in a notoriously squalid Charleston jail. She was released on condition that she leave the city permanently.

(Meanwhile, Abner Doubleday, a Unionist and career Army officer from the North, served as a spy in the South. As the second in command at Fort Moultrie's garrison in the summer of 1860, Doubleday was a regular in Charleston and had access to what was happening locally. He relayed details via coded letters that were passed on to Lincoln. But you may recognize the Doubleday name for another contribution to American history. He is credited with starting the game of baseball in the summer of 1839.)

In the book's coda, Starobin quotes the Harper's Weekly take on post-war Charleston in 1865: "Ruinóruinóruinóabove and below; on the right hand and the left; ruin, ruin, ruin, everywhere and always."

That's an unsurprising assessment. Beginning in 1863, Charleston was under siege and shelled daily for almost 20 months, something akin to the contemporary destruction of Syria by both sides in that civil war.

Could the Charlestonian proponents of secession have anticipated the inevitable level of destruction that would befall the city? Would it have made any difference?

Madness Rules the Hour, published last year, is available from Amazon.com in hardcover, Kindle and audiobook formats.

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