Henry Wirz Among Most Notorious Confederate Prison Officials

This Civil War-period unmounted albumen print of Andersonville Prison by A.J. Biddle went to auction in June 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

Henry Wirz (1823-65) was born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a tailor. He grew up with an abiding passion for medicine, however, his family had limited resources and his father insisted on a more pragmatic mercantile career. After migrating to America, he ultimately claimed to be a physician and successfully started assisting doctors, despite most certainly lacking any formal training or medical degrees.

At the start of the Civil War, he was living in Louisiana. He enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry and became a sergeant. At the important Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in 1862, Wirz was wounded above his right wrist, which incapacitated him for life. Seven Pines was strategically important since it led to the appointment of Robert E. Lee as Confederate Commander, which had a profound effect on the duration of the war.

In April 1864, (now) Captain Wirz was ordered to Camp Sumter near Anderson in Georgia, where he was given command of the prison that would become known as the infamous Andersonville Prison. It was already crammed with war prisoners and low on critical supplies that would only worsen as the war dragged on. Wirz made a feeble attempt to reorganize, but he lacked the necessary authority and all attempts to gain a promotion were denied. He had the support of superior officers, who called him “major,” but it is not clear if he attained that rank.

Henry Wirz

As the war continued, conditions at Andersonville deteriorated and many prisoners blamed Wirz, describing him as a brutal tyrant. Observers were critical of his accent, excessive use of profanity and outbreaks of rage. By the end of the war, he was among the most notorious Confederate prison officials.

Perhaps because of naïveté or unaware of the North’s anger over prison conditions, he made a tactical blunder and did not join the other prison officials who fled. Instead, he stayed at Andersonville, where he was arrested, taken to Washington and tried on charges of murder and mistreatment of prisoners. A hostile military commission limited his defense against conflicting testimony, found him guilty, and hanged him on Nov. 10, 1865, in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison (near the site where the U.S. Supreme Court stands today).

It was a messy hanging since his neck did not break and he was strangled to death. The trial is controversial yet today. In 1909, the Georgia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a memorial to him at Andersonville. It may be a while before monument protestors figure out who he was.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Civil War Has Left a Lasting Scar on This Country

Four scarce cartes de visite of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman sold for $2,868 at a December 2006 auction.

“General Grant stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk. Today we stand by each other.” – Paraphrasing General William Tecumseh Sherman

By Jim O’Neal

Among the towering figures of the Civil War, none is more enigmatic than General W.T. Sherman. Widely denounced as fiendishly destructive for his infamous “March to the Sea” across Georgia, Sherman was a brilliant commander and strategist who helped bring the bloody war to a faster and surer end. Yet he left a legacy of “total war” against unarmed civilians and their property that has haunted military leaders and many Americans to the present time.

William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) was born in a simple frame house in Lancaster, Ohio, the sixth of 11 children. His father died suddenly in 1829 and the 9-year-old boy was forced to live with his more affluent neighbors, the Ewings, since his mother was destitute. Thomas Ewing Sr. was a senator, Secretary of the Treasury, and the first Secretary of the Interior for presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.

Ewing used his influence to get Sherman into West Point, where he finished sixth in his 1840 class. He left the Army along with many other officers when it seemed civilian life offered a greater chance for success. After a string of failures in banking, real estate and law, Sherman was in Louisiana just before the war began, running a military academy that would later become the foundation for Louisiana State University.

Though he had great friendships with many who joined the Confederacy and had no moral qualms about slavery, Sherman shared the view of many professional soldiers that secession was treason. He returned to Missouri when Louisiana seceded.

When the Civil War arrived right on schedule, one only has to read his comments to appreciate his insight and candor: “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly. Madness. A crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you are talking about. War is a terrible thing. You mistake, too, the people of the North … you are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on Earth – right at your doors. You are bound to fail!”

And fail they did.

But it was more than a lost war. So great was the sense of gloom that some wondered if we could ever reconcile. Over 620,000 lay dead – 1/12 of the North and a staggering 20 percent of the South. It was more battle deaths than all of our nation’s other wars combined. An astonishing two-thirds of Southern wealth simply disappeared, but the more daunting challenge was the emotional carnage and pure generational hatred. Said one woman rather simply: “Oh, how I hate the Yankees. I could trample on their dead bodies and spit on them forever.”

Psychologists who have studied the impact of natural disasters on society – earthquakes, hurricanes, fires and floods – speak bleakly of a broad and terrible social numbing that occurs, afflicting not simply those directly affected, but whole generations living in a disastrous, merciless waste. It is impossible to measure the full-fledged effect on the Southern psyche … their incoherent grief, their land diseased, their way of life obliterated – all without a cure.

Yet today, we still see the scars and do little to avoid the current generation of schisms that are being fed by forces seemingly determined to divide us … the most blessed people that have ever lived on this tiny planet. Tsk, tsk on us.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Civil War Saw Train Chase Worthy of a Hollywood Movie

A half sheet movie poster for Buster Keaton’s 1927 film The General sold for $16,730 at a March 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On April 12, 1862, “The General,” a small locomotive on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, pulled into Big Shanty, Ga., 25 miles north of Atlanta. The crew and passengers went to have breakfast, but James J. Andrews hung back. He and 22 other Union volunteers had orders to steal a train and burn bridges while General Ormsby Mitchel attacked Huntsville, Ala.

While a dazed sentry looked on, they uncoupled the General and three boxcars and sped north, while the conductor and two others gave chase on foot. Then they borrowed a handcar until it was derailed by a break Andrews men had made in the track. After righting the car, the railroad men then discovered another engine (the Yonah) on a siding and resumed their chase.

Andrews had stopped the General several times to cut telegraph wires and in his haste had failed to disable the Yonah. To try and stay in sync with the railroads regular timetable, he sidetracked the General and let several other trains pass by. He waited a precious 65 minutes before getting the General back in flight, which allowed the railroad men time to close the gap.

Meanwhile, the pursuing Yonah encountered three southbound trains parked on a main line, abandoned their little engine, sprinted to another junction and commandeered the larger William L. Smith engine. However, another broken rail sidelined the Smith, so the men (on foot again) flagged down the Texas. Engineer Peter Bracken quickly backed his cars into the station and resumed the chase, although still in reverse!

Andrews and his speeding raiders cut loose two boxcars and dropped cross ties across the tracks, desperately trying to gain enough time to burn rain-soaked bridges. The Texas simply pushed both boxcars on to a nearby siding and resumed pursuit of the General… at speeds of 65 mph. Up ahead, the little General, unable to stop for wood or water, ran out of steam and came to a complete stop.

The relentless Confederate pursuit, bad weather and just plain bad luck prevented the raiders from doing any lasting damage. James Andrews and seven of his men were captured, tried and hanged. Eight others later escaped from an Atlanta jail. The remaining six raiders were exchanged for prisoners of war and became the first recipients of the U.S. Medal of Honor.

This event was made into a silent movie in 1927 – The General – starring Buster Keaton in “his favorite role.” Initially a box-office failure, film critic Roger Ebert put it in his personal top 10 films of all time and it is routinely listed among the top 100 movies by the AFI and many others.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Oaths of Loyalty to the U.S. were Common at Time of Civil War

An oath of allegiance to the United States signed by Confederate surgeon Samuel Houston Caldwell at the close of the Civil War went to auction in June 2007.

By Jim O’Neal

One of the primary problems facing the federal government when the Civil War began was ensuring that its employees and military were loyal. Over 300 U.S. officers resigned to join the Confederacy, as did numerous clerks and officials. Fearful of disloyalty among those who remained, President Lincoln on April 30, 1861, ordered all military personnel to retake an oath of allegiance.

Even though these regulations were rigidly enforced, fears of disloyalty remained and numerous ad hoc oaths of allegiance were used as a means of testing and ensuring loyalty. By the summer of 1862, most of the oaths – civil and military – were combined under one oath, the Ironclad Test Oath of Loyalty.

The Ironclad Oath was named because it required an oath-taker to swear, “I have never voluntarily borne arms against the United States.” In addition, the person had to forsake any allegiance to state authority and swear “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic … [and] bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

An oath of allegiance rapidly became a test of loyalty for common citizens. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler as military governor of New Orleans required that after Oct. 12, 1861, anyone who wanted to do business in the city or with the U.S. government had to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. As stated by Butler, “It enables the recipient to say, I am an American citizen, the highest title known.”

Butler’s practice became commonplace as the war progressed, and the Ironclad Oath, or a variant, was required of thousands of federals and Southerners. People who wanted to do business with the government, Confederate prisoners of war who wanted parole, Southerners who wanted to be reimbursed for goods taken by foraging federal troops, and Union sympathizers in the South who wanted to govern themselves – all took the oath. Some took it numerous times; the record may have been set by politician Robert J. Breckinridge, who took the oath nine times between June and December 1865.

After the war, the oath presented an immediate problem for both the South and North. Since its provisions remained in effect, no former Confederate soldier or Southern citizen who had assisted in the South’s war effort could hold federal, state or local office, or serve in the military. To evade the “ironclad” portion of the oath concerning bearing arms against the United States, former Confederates had to petition the president of the United States for a pardon.

In 1884, Congress removed all the iron from the Ironclad Oath when it passed into law a new Oath of Allegiance. The 1884 oath removed all the restrictive portions of the older oaths and left it in its current form – an oath to support and defend the Constitution.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Webster Considered the ‘Father of American Scholarship and Education’

A first edition of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, with a four-page manuscript in Webster’s hand concerning word origins, sold for $34,655 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 when he was 70 years old. It was printed in two quarto volumes with 70,000 word entries. (A quarto was typically 9 x 12 inches or roughly the size of modern magazines.) About 12,000 of the words had never appeared in a published dictionary and Webster tried to harmonize the spelling of a word with its common pronunciation.

Another unique feature was the inclusion of words used in America that were not in British dictionaries. Perhaps that is why George Bernard Shaw – the Irish playwright who won the Nobel Prize in 1925 – is said to have coined the phrase “The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” (There are several variations of this, including one by Winston Churchill.)

Noah Webster

Webster (1758-1843) also collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and other prominent Federalists, which made him a rich target for Jeffersonian-Republicans who peppered him with insults: a prostitute wretch, incurable lunatic, spiteful viper, pusillanimous traitor, to list just a few. He founded the first daily newspaper in New York, The American Minerva, and a semi-weekly publication later known as the New York Spectator. He was a prolific writer and earned the imposing sobriquet as the “Father of American Scholarship and Education.”

I have gradually abandoned the use of printed dictionaries, but a copy of the old reliable Merriam-Webster still occupies a handy spot in the bookcase. One who didn’t was Emily Dickinson, who used Webster as a reference “obsessively.” Scholars studying her immense body of work routinely turn to Webster for clarification. She was such an eccentric recluse that only a dozen of her 1,800 poems were published while she was alive. The hodgepodge of short lines, unconventional punctuation and slant rhymes make her work difficult to appreciate. But the lady could write and may be the finest American poet of the 19th century.

Webster’s name is still synonymous with “dictionary” despite becoming generic and hyphenated long ago. He died in 1843 after playing a critical role in the Copyright Act of 1831.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

British General Had Unfortunate Assignment of Quelling a Revolution

A letter signed by Thomas Gage, a year before the opening shots of the Revolutionary War, sold for $5,625 at an October 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Thomas Gage was the general in charge of Great Britain’s forces in North America from 1763 to 1775. As commander-in-chief, he held the most powerful office in British America, although he spent a disproportionate amount of time in New York City, enjoying the lively social scene.

It was during Gage’s tenure that colonial tensions escalated over political acts in London, starting with the highly unpopular Stamp Act of 1765.

Thomas Gage

Although Gage and his family were in Great Britain in late 1773 and missed the Boston Tea Party (Dec. 16, 1773), it provoked the British Parliament to enact a series of punitive measures that became known as the Intolerable Acts (or the Coercive Acts). Since Gage had experience in North America that extended all the way back to the French and Indian War in 1755, he was selected to be the military governor of Massachusetts in early 1774. It was his job to implement the Acts and quell the nascent rebellion.

In April, John Hancock and Samuel Adams had decided to hide out in Lexington, Mass., in Hancock’s childhood home to avoid contact with the British as they made their way to the Second Continental Congress. It was a wise decision since Gage had received instructions from London to arrest them as ringleaders of the insurgency. He also planned to seize gunpowder that was stored in nearby Concord.

However, the patriots received a tip about the raid and Paul Revere was dispatched to warn Hancock and Adams. When British troops descended on Lexington on April 19, they were confronted by a small band of volunteers. Now-historic shots were fired, killing eight Americans and wounding 10, while the British lost a single horse before they moved on to Concord.

It was a much different story when the British proudly marched back to Boston in their crisp red uniforms. Suddenly, they were engulfed on all sides by armed men, many of them local farmers, who were protected by buildings, trees, rocks and fences. They were known as the Minutemen, since they were highly mobile, self-trained in weaponry, deadly accurate with firearms, and able to respond quickly to military threats.

The British, frantic to seek safety, scrambled back to Boston after 273 soldiers were either killed or wounded. The colonists lost 95 men and were now prepared to challenge the once-invincible British, despite the enormous difference in resources. A larger and longer conflict was finally ignited.

John Adams got it exactly right when he said, “The battle of Lexington on the 19th of April changed the instruments of warfare from the pen to the sword.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Tidbits: Bluebonnets, Sherlock Holmes, Bums and Booze

Julian Onderdonk’s Texas Landscape with Bluebonnets sold for $437,000 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The bluebonnets in Texas are beginning to fade, but two names always come to mind when talking about the flowers: Claudia Alta Taylor (better known as “Lady Bird” Johnson ) and “Cactus Jack” Garner, who lobbied to make the prickly pear cactus the state flower (and lost).

Garner became the 32nd vice president of the United States in 1932 and concurrently was elected back to the House. So for one day, on March 4, 1933, he was both Psident of the Senate and Speaker of the House.

Earlier on Feb. 15, 1933, as VP-elect, he came close to being president when FDR just missed being assassinated in Miami.

Garner served two full terms as VP and died 15 days before his 99th birthday – making him the longest-living VP.

“A Study in Scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes. It was published in 1887 in the magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual – with only 11 copies known to exist today.

Joe Louis by Irving Penn

The last heavyweight championship bout scheduled for 20 rounds was held in Detroit in 1941. Joe Louis TKO’d Abe Simon in 13 rounds. Simon was a member of Louis’ “Bum of the Month Club” – 13 opponents Louis defeated between 1939 and 1941.

After leaving boxing, Simon went to Hollywood, where he won roles in On the Waterfront, Never Love a Stranger and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Our 35th vice president, Kentucky lawyer Alben W. Barkley, was elected with Harry S. Truman in 1948 and is still the only one with the middle name of William (he was actually born Willie Alben Barkley).

One of his career highlights was his keynote address at the 1932 Democratic Convention, where he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and denounced Prohibition (Kentucky bourbon?). It worked … FDR won and prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Although the oldest VP elected at age 71 (Joe Biden was 65 in 2008), Barkley is the only one to marry while in office … a woman half his age. Later, he denounced the 80th Congress as “Do Nothing,” but Truman often gets credit for the phrase.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Civil War Far Worse than Anyone Could Have Imagined

This Charleston Mercury broadside, dated Dec. 20, 1860, and announcing “The Union Is Dissolved!,” sold for $77,675 at a June 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

James Buchanan as a lame-duck president did nothing to stem the tide of disunion. He officially held the reins of power in the four-month period between the presidential election in November and Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, but he had lost any popular mandate to govern.

Secessionists had anticipated his indecision and cited it as confirmation of their argument that disunion would be peaceable. Buchanan – reasoning that just as secession was unconstitutional, so was any attempt by the federal government to resist it by force – preferred to leave the problem to the Republicans.

He sincerely thought they were responsible for the crisis, and he said as much in his last annual message of Dec. 3, 1860. His policy was simply to do nothing that might provoke an armed conflict with any seceding states.

Republicans initially denied the existence of any crisis. They were acutely aware of the pattern of Southern bluster and Northern concessions that had characterized previous confrontations, and they were not about to surrender their integrity as an anti-slavery party by yielding to Southern demands.

At Lincoln’s urging, they drew the line at sanctioning the territorial expansion of slavery. Such a sanction was a crucial feature of the Crittenden Compromise, a package of six proposed constitutional amendments that came out of a Senate committee led by John J. Crittenden of Kentucky in mid-December. Slavery would be recognized south of 36 parallel 30 degrees in all present territories, as well as those “hereafter acquired.” To a man, Congressional Republicans rejected what they interpreted as a blank check for the future expansion of slavery into Mexico and the Caribbean.

The collapse of the Crittenden Compromise in late December eliminated the already slim possibility that the drive toward secession might end with the withdrawal of just South Carolina. Still, when Lincoln took office on March 4, Republicans had reason to believe that the worst of the crisis was over.

February elections in the Upper South had resulted in Unionist victories after five states had called for conventions in January and the secessionists had suffered sharp setbacks in all the elections. By the end of February, secession apparently had burnt itself out.

Throughout March and April, the Union remained in a state of quiescence, but the pressure was too high. A core of secessionists were more eager for war than anti-slavery forces were to making concessions. Besides, everyone knew that if armed conflict began, it would be over very quickly. When it came, however, it was worse than anyone could have possibly imagined (sigh).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Transcontinental Railroad a Significant Achievement that United Nation

A cane celebrating the completion in 1869 of the Transcontinental Railroad, made of wood from the same tree as the last tie and the same gold used to case the “Golden Spike,” sold in June 2012 for $113,525.

“May God continue the unity of our country, as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.” – One of four engravings on the Golden Spike

By Jim O’Neal

The date was May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory and the occasion was a celebration for the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.

Ex-California Governor Leland Stanford (founder of Stanford University) drove in the Golden Spike using a special silver hammer. This “Last Spike” was hooked up to telegraph wires so that news of the completion could reach both coasts as the spike was “tapped” into a hole. Supposedly, Stanford whiffed on the first try, but telegraph operators sent clicks to both coasts – “DONE” – which touched off wild celebrations as the United States was finally connected.

For perspective, the first American common carrier railroad began as a mere 13 miles of track, and formally was known as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (the B&O Line). It was begun in 1828 by a group of Baltimore businessmen and opened in 1830.

At the time, rivers, turnpikes and canals were the primary avenues for both travel and transport. So this was a major transition into the future.

When the Civil War started 30 years later, railroads had become a major American industry with many different companies and 30,000 miles of track. However, plans for broader geographic expansion were plagued with a plethora of issues. Major questions included route selection, right-of-way disputes, subsidies, capital financing sources (public or private), and even the gauge (width) of rails.

Abraham Lincoln was a major supporter of a transcontinental railroad, despite the distraction of the Civil War and other presidential commitments. He even got into the minutia, and he and his Cabinet voted to make the gauge 5 feet in an effort to help (it was later revised by Congress to 4 feet, 8½ inches). Lincoln even decided the eastern terminus should be Omaha, Neb. (a clear conflict of interest, since he owned several properties in nearby Council Bluffs).

On the West Coast, four familiar names – Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Collis Potter Huntington – formed the Central Pacific Railroad, which was to head east from Sacramento. They immediately ran into a major labor shortage since nearby mines were paying such high wages. In a creative but controversial decision, they brought in 12,000 Chinese laborers, primarily from Canton Province.

Next was the issue of how to get over the 7,000-foot Sierra Nevada mountain range (they simply blasted tunnel after tunnel despite cave-ins, nitro explosions and dead workers). This is a story unto itself!

But finally, the two great lines did come together (whew!).

The Golden Spike that Stanford pounded is housed in the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in Palo Alto (no surprise there).

But in a major surprise, a second Golden Spike was discovered in 2005 – exactly like the one from the ceremony. It had been cast at the same time, and held secretly by the family of San Francisco contractor David Hewes for all the intervening years!

It is now in the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Jefferson Davis was a Genuine War Hero When He Arrived in the Senate

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation.

By Jim O’Neal

Thirteen-year-old Jefferson Davis was tired of school. He returned home from Wilkinson Academy, a few miles from the family cotton plantation, put his books on a table, and told his father he would not return. Samuel Davis shrugged and told his youngest son that he would now have to work with his hands rather than his brain. At dawn the next day, he gave young Jeff a large, thin cloth bag, took him to the cotton field and put him in a long line with the family slaves picking cotton.

Three days later, he was back at Wilkinson, happily reading and taking notes with his bandaged hands.

By 16, Jefferson had mastered Latin and Greek, was well read in history and literature, and eager to study law at the University of Virginia. Instead, he spent four years at West Point, graduated in the bottom third of his class and then entered the Army. He was 20 years old and fighting in both the Black Hawk War and the Mexican-American War.

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation. A true war hero at age 36, he was recognized by everyone and warmly greeted by all he met. After all, Jeff Davis was the first genuine war hero in the Senate in its entire 58 years!

His rise to prominence occurred as one generation of leaders died or retired – Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster – and a younger one was set to take over, led by Stephen Douglas (39), Andrew Johnson (39), Alexander Stephens (35), Salmon P. Chase (39) and William Seward (35).

Jeff Davis began to give important speeches in the Senate and everyone sensed he had a future in politics.

The Senate proved comfortable and prestigious, providing an intimate venue to discuss and debate the great issues of the time. Yet despite all the exciting opportunities facing the young nation, the hard fact was that slavery was a pernicious issue lurking in the shadows. It was like a cancer that seemed to grow more lethal after every “compromise” designed to resolve it.

An example was the fateful Compromise of 1850, intended to resolve the four-year controversy over the status of the new territories that accrued to the U.S. after the war with Mexico. California was admitted as a free state, and Texas had slaves, but had to surrender its claim to New Mexico. Utah and New Mexico were granted popular sovereignty (self-determination) and there was a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law (destined to be revoked by the Dred Scott reversal).

Jeff Davis felt so strongly that slavery was a 200-year tradition (to be decided by individual states) and detested the 1850 Compromise so much that he resigned his Senate seat to run for governor of Mississippi, confident this would enhance his national visibility, send a strong message to the North and bolster any wavering Southerners. The strategy failed when he lost the election, leaving him with no political office.

Davis bounced back into the Senate by one vote and new President Franklin Pierce (1852) selected him to be Secretary of War, a powerful position to resist the continuous threat from the North to impose their will on the South by any means necessary. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act just roiled the opposing forces and thoughts of secession were like dry kindling waiting for the proverbial spark. First was President James Buchanan (1856), a Democrat who seemed helpless or resigned to the inevitability of war.

As abolition forces gained momentum and the South grew even more resolute that they would not concede a principle that states’ rights trumped Federal aggression, it was only a question of how or what set of events would tip the nation into a civil war. The answer was in plain sight.

In the critical election year of 1860, though still hopeful of a peaceful settlement on slavery, Davis told an audience that if Republicans won the White House, the Union would have to be dissolved. “I love and venerate the Union of these states,” he said, “but I love liberty and Mississippi more.” When asked if Mississippi should secede if another state did, he roared, “I answer yes!” And if the U.S. Army tried to suppress it? Davis answered even more vehemently. “I will meet force with force!”

Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.

The slavery issue was simply not resolvable by anything but force. Few foresaw how much force would be needed and the enormous carnage and loss of life involved. War always seems to be much more than anticipated. The 20th century would really amp it up and the 21st century has gotten off to a rocky start, as well.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].