Secession Hall in Charleston, South Carolina. Credit: The Civil War Trust.

In the wake of the disconcerting result of the Election of 1860, the nature of southern secessionism suggested the imminent secession of at least some southern states from the Union. The timing and execution of states actually seceding from the Union was unclear, but the Deep South was prepared to act first.

Talk of secession had been brewing throughout 1860. Leading up to the Election of 1860, South Carolina Governor William H. Gist wrote to other governors of the Deep South:

“It is the desire of South Carolina that some other state should take the lead, or at least move simultaneously with her. She will unquestionably call a convention as soon as it is ascertained that a majority of the electors will support Lincoln. If a single state takes the lead, she will follow her. If no other state secedes, South Carolina will secede (in my opinion) alone if she has any assurance that she will be soon followed by another, or other states; otherwise, it is doubtful.” See John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (10 vols.; New York, 1890), II, 306-07.

The governor of Florida responded that Florida would “assuredly . . . follow the lead of any single Cotton State” that seceded. See id. at 307-14. Despite Florida’s support, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina gave no explicit encouragement to the idea of secession.

Robert Toombs. By: Mathew Brady.

After Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the Election of 1860, secession rallies were held in Montgomery and Mobile, Alabama as well as Jackson, Mississippi. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 490. When false news that Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia had resigned his seat from the Senate combined with actual news that Georgia’s governor had urged his legislature to call a state convention, Senator James Chesnut of South Carolina announced that he would support secession. See id. He “offered to drink all the blood that might be shed as a result of secession,” which was widely supposed to be little as a common saying illustrated: “A lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed.” Id. citing E. Merton Coulter, The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge, 1950), 15. South Carolina’s legislature passed a law calling for a secession convention on December 17, 1860. See Charles Edward Cauthen, “South Carolina’s Decision to Lead the Secession Movement,” NCHR, XIX (1941), 360-72; Charles Edward Cauthen, South Carolina Goes to War, 1860-1865 (Chapel Hill, 1950), 49-61.

The fact that South Carolina was first in stepping toward secession was not a surprise. A correspondent for the London Times wrote:

“There is nothing in all the dark caves of human passion so cruel and deadly as the hatred the South Carolinians profess for the Yankees. . . . ‘The State of South Carolina was,’ I am told, ‘founded by gentlemen. . . . Nothing on earth shall ever induce us to submit to any union with the brutal, bigoted blackguards of the New England States!'” Frank Moore (ed.), The Rebellion Record, I (New York, 1861), “Documents,” 315.

The Interior of Secession Hall in Charleston, South Carolina. Credit: The Civil War Trust.

South Carolina’s actions propelled other states to follow suit. Whereas Alabama’s governor had previously announced a state convention if a Republican won the presidency only to back down after Lincoln’s victory, following South Carolina’s call for a convention, he announced an election for a convention to meet on January 7, 1861. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 491 citing Clarence Phillips Denman, The Secession Movement in Alabama (Montgomery, Ala., 1933), 89-92. Georgia’s legislature called for a convention to meet on January 16, 1861. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 491. In the 23 days following Lincoln’s election, six Deep South states (Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana) had arranged for either conventions or legislatures convening for the purpose of planning conventions. See id. at 491-92. However, there were no calls for a general convention of southern states, which would have reflected a unified South in potentially seceding in unison. See id. at 492.

Sensing danger in the early part of December 1860, the House of Representatives appointed a Committee of Thirty-three, with one committee member from each state, tasked with considering “the present perilous condition of the country.” See Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 2 sess., 6. When the Committee erupted in acrimony and Republican members denounced the southern discontent, southerners’ patience had been broken. A group of senators and representatives from nine southern states issued a statement: “The argument is exhausted. . . . We are satisfied the honor, safety, and independence of the Southern people are to be found only in a Southern Confederacy—a result to be obtained only by separate State secession.” Edward McPherson (ed.), Political History of the United States . . . During the Great Rebellion (Washington, 1876), 37.

Broadside in the Charleston Mercury. December 20, 1860.

Artillery Militiamen in Late 1860 or Early 1861 in Charleston, South Carolina.

On December 20, 1860, the South Carolina convention unanimously adopted an ordinance of secession. David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 492 citing Edward McPherson (ed.), Political History of the United States . . . During the Great Rebellion (Washington, 1876), 12-16. There was great fanfare surrounding the convention: “scenes of marching bands, firework displays, militia calling themselves Minute Men, and huge rallies of citizens waving palmetto flags and shouting slogans of southern rights.” James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 235. Then, South Carolina sent commissioners to southern states to organize a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4, 1861. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 494.

During this time, two factions emerged regardless of political affiliation: first being those who “believed prompt secession by the states separately was necessary to the defense of southern rights” (“immediate secessionists”) and second those who “believed that southern rights could best be defended by all of the slaveholding states acting in concert, through a southern conference” (“cooperationists”). See id. at 495. There was a brooding atmosphere in the South, where men were beginning to organize and arm themselves, “reveling in warlike preparations,” and denouncements freely flying between immediate secessionists and cooperationists. See id. at 495-96.

When the states held their elections as to secession, the results were unequivocal. In 42 days, seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) voted to secede from the Union and accepted the invitation to meet in Montgomery on February 4, 1861. See id. at 498-99.
The Inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama.

The first few weeks of February 1861 would be monumental for southerners. On February 7, 1861, the delegates in Montgomery, Alabama adopted a provisional constitution for the newly-minted Confederate States of America, and two days later, they elected Jefferson Davis as president, inaugurating him on February 18, 1861. Id. at 499.

One South Carolinian wrote: “I do not believe the common people understand it; but who ever waited for the common people when a great movement was to be made. We must make the move and force them to follow.” A.P. Aldrich to James Henry Hammond, Nov. 25, 1860. A South Carolina commissioner to Florida said:

“I . . . believe that if . . . South Carolina had stated some distant day for future action, to see if other states would join us, and had thus allowed the public feeling to subside, she herself would have lost the spirit of adventure and would have quailed from the shock of this great controversy.” Leonidas Spratt, speech in Charleston Mercury, Jan. 12, 1861, quoted in Laura A. White, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Father of Secession (New York, 1931), 177, 180.

More than anything, secessionists had “seized the momentum of a popular emotional reaction to Lincoln’s election and rode it through with astonishing speed.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Election, 1848-1861, 501. Even with this momentum, eight southern states did not secede, indicating that not everyone believed the new Confederate States of America would be “economically or politically viable.” See id. at 505. The upper southern states had a stronger economic connection to the North and a less fervent pro-slavery position. See id. at 506. Following South Carolina’s secession, the Wilmington Herald of North Carolina wrote: “Will you suffer yourself to be spit upon in this way? Are you submissionists to the dictation of South Carolina . . . are you to be called cowards because you do not follow the crazy lead of that crazy state?” Dwight Lowell Dumond (ed.), Southern Editorials on Secession (New York, 1931), 228, 389.

William Seward.

Virginia, the “mother of states,” the “cultural capital of the South,” and “most populous and economically important of the southern states,” did not secede with the lower South. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 508. A correspondent of William H. Seward assured Seward, “We have scarcely left a vestige of secession in the western part of Virginia, and very little indeed in any part of the state. . . . The Gulf Confederacy can count Virginia out of their little family arrangement—she will never join them.” W.D. Moss, Moundsville, Virginia, to Seward, Feb. 6, 1861, in Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward (2 vols.; New York, 1900), II, 533-34.

By February 4, 1861, circumstances indicated that the wave of secession had passed. Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and North Carolina each voted against secession of their respective states. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 509. Then, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware rejected secession in turn, resulting in disappointment throughout the lower South as the momentum leading into the winter had all but dissipated. See id. at 510. However, Tennessee and Virginia staked their positions in the matter, passing resolutions that should the North invade the South, their respective populations would rise up in resistance. See id. at 511.

Many in the lower South did not fear the isolation that their actions presented. Congressman William Boyce said that if South Carolina seceded alone:

“[T]hen only two courses remain to our enemies. First, they must let us alone; secondly, they must attempt to coerce us. . . . suppose they attempt to coerce us; then the Southern states are compelled to make common cause with us, and we wake up some morning and find the flag of a Southern Confederacy floating over us.” Quoted in Charles Edward Cauthen, South Carolina Goes to War, 1860-1865 (Chapel Hill, 1950), 26.

Taking advantage of the Constitution’s silence regarding the legality of secession, the states in the Deep South believed that state sovereignty “had preceded national sovereignty.” See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 240. Some, like Senator Alfred Iverson of Georgia, believed no state had the constitutional right to secede but had “the right of revolution. . . . The secession of a State is an act of revolution.” Id. citing George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March (New York, 1865), 302. Later, a Confederate army officer would recount his position declaring that he had “never believed the Constitution recognized the right of secession. I took up arms, sir, upon a broader ground—the right of revolution. We were wronged. Our properties and liberties were about to be taken from us. It was a sacred duty to rebel.” George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March (New York, 1865), 302. Jefferson Davis and a fellow Mississippian agreed that the question was: “‘Will you be slaves or will [you] be independent?’ . . . Will you consent to be robbed of your property . . . [or will you] strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life?” See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 241 citing William L. Barney, The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860 (Princeton, 1974), 192.

Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

The Deep South had decisively acted in seceding regardless of lukewarm support in the upper South. The consequences of its seemingly unconstitutional secession were not immediately clear, but with President James Buchanan’s term ending and Lincoln preparing to move into the White House, a northern response was imminent.