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Originally published Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'We Have the War Upon Us': Trying, and failing, to prevent the Civil War

William J. Cooper's well-researched book "We Have the War Upon Us" tells the story of how numerous parties tried mightily to forestall the Civil War but failed, partially because Congress could not find the will to take positive action.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861'

by William J. Cooper

Knopf, 352 pp., $30

The aging, lame-duck senator stood for the last time to address his Senate colleagues about the crisis facing the nation. "We see the danger," he said, but "we are acknowledging before the world [that] we can do nothing."

This wasn't Congress arguing over the national deficit in 2012. The year was 1861, the speaker was retiring Kentucky Sen. John Crittenden, and the crisis was the breakup of the Union caused by the secession of Southern states.

Crittenden had tried mightily to patch together some sort of compromise that would keep the nation from breaking apart. Others, including William Seward, President-elect Lincoln's secretary of state-designate, and Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas, who lost to Lincoln in the 1860 election, also had worked tirelessly but unsuccessfully to heal the widening breach between North and South.

It was Douglas who put his finger on the real problem: The South had no real basis for complaint against the North, and no reason to fear it. The trouble was coming from Southern radicals whose real goal was destruction of the Union.

Yet nobody seemed able to stop them. The new Republican Party, having just elected its first president, was opposed to any compromise with those who had lost the election.

Partisan politics during the crucial months between Lincoln's election and the outbreak of the Civil War are the main focus of this well-researched book by William J. Cooper, professor of history at Louisiana State University.

"For three months this Congress had had the fate of the Union in its hands," Cooper writes. "After witnessing the secession of seven states, leaving the Union broken, [Congress] could not find the will or the way to take positive action ... The great American political tradition of compromise stemming from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had foundered." Sound familiar?

Cooper suggests Lincoln might have forestalled the march toward secession by speaking out before his inaugural, but he refused and was as firmly opposed to compromise as the rest of his party. The president-elect also might have misunderstood the South and misjudged the seriousness of the secession threat, Cooper says.

The book gains momentum as the crisis deepens and Cooper describes the enormous pressures on Lincoln as he agonized whether to reinforce beleaguered Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond's latest book is "In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment" (Globe Pequot Press).

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