Reviewed by Doug Crenshaw
With Twelve Days: How the Union Nearly Lost Washington in the First Days of the Civil War, author Tony Silber offers readers a thorough examination of the first days of the war, when things were far from certain and much hung in the balance. At the time, the United States Army was small compared to what it would soon become and spread thin across the nation. Many forts and posts were located at great distances west of the Mississippi River in the territories. The North was clearly unprepared for war, and therefore vulnerable.
The Lincoln administration feared that the infant southern Confederacy would organize troops quicker than a necessary force of U. S. Regulars could arrive in Washington for the capital city’s defense. Eastern Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, was a hotbed of secession. President Lincoln was extremely concerned that Maryland might decide to leave the Union, leaving the seat of government surrounded and susceptible to attack from that state and or Virginia. In addition, many people at that time, as well as Silber in this study, described Washington as having a southern character. What effect would that have in the days to follow? Could Washington survive as the nation’s capital? What would happen if the seat of government was lost?
Silber’s writing style is engaging, and even though the reader knows the eventual outcome, his narrative creates a sense of tension that makes one feel as if they are there and gives a true sense of what the residents must have experienced at that time. The storyline compels readers to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. For example, when Lincoln exclaims, “why don’t they come?” it makes the urgency of the situation real and felt. Questions swirled and rumors spread like wildfire: Would Maryland secede? Could the northern states raise troops quickly enough to counter threats? Which states would respond? How soon before they arrived? Would the war be over before it really even got started? Aged Gen. Winfield Scott’s level of concern showed when he stated, “They are closing their coils around us.”
There is marked apprehension in Silber’s discussion of the Baltimore riots. The tense situation there created serious concerns about how feasible it was to get Federal troops to Washington if they had to pass through that city. Could there be another route? If enough of Maryland’s citizens proved secessionist, how might additional bloody confrontations with Union troops be avoided?
The story of the fall of the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk on April 20, 1861, is also a fascinating part of the story, as is the inability to remove or destroy the USS Merrimac. That failure eventually manifested itself in the troublesome ironclad CSS Virginia. In addition, the inability to destroy all of the arms manufacturing equipment at Harper’s Ferry also haunted the Union in months to come. Added to all of this was the resignation of military officers and federal employees. Would the government even be able to function? Dramatic stuff … and at the time, of course, no one knew the answers.
Twelve Days is well organized. Silber’s solid research and engaging prose includes numerous first-hand accounts that support his thesis. During the first days of the war the United States was probably in its greatest peril. Could the capital be saved? As the author asks, in a free government, did a minority have the ability to break up the government? Was a nation of free people capable of rising to the occasion to save their nation? Silber answers those questions skillfully. His work is a valuable addition to an often neglected part of the Civil War story.