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Troops Assembled in Front of the U.S. Capitol Building in 1861.

Although the Confederacy had awakened the North’s spirit by initiating hostilities at Fort Sumter, both sides could have still hoped for reconciliation. While some advocated for immediate peace, others wished for a full prosecution of war against the South, viewing its expanding secession as nothing short of treason. By the end of spring 1861, there was a decisive answer to the question of whether there would soon be peace.

In the days after the firing on Fort Sumter, Virginia held a convention for secession, which resulted in a 103 to 46 vote for secession, ratified shortly thereafter by a popular vote of 96,750 to 32,134.[i]  Even former president John Tyler, a Virginian, chose to join the Confederacy. From Richmond, Virginia, he wrote to his wife Julia Tyler, a native New Yorker:

“The North seems to be thoroughly united against us. The Herald and the Express both give way and rally the hosts against us. Things have gone to that point in Philadelphia that no one is safe in the expression of a Southern sentiment. . . . At Washington a system of martial law must have been established. The report is that persons are not permitted to pass through the city to the South. . . .”[ii]

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The Ordinance of Virginia’s Secession.

Julia Tyler later wrote to her mother that “[m]ore and more we have the realization of war; from day to day the people, the entire people, are making up their minds to it, until every family of high and low degree are seeing their male members don the soldier’s dress and shoulder their musket to go forth for the protection of their invaded firesides.”[iii]  Southerners appeared to be aware that a full-scale war would require a devoted effort from every segment of southern society in order to survive concentrated northern aggression. From this standpoint, the Confederacy was delighted with Virginia’s joining it, as its “industrial capacity was nearly as great as that of the seven original Confederate states combined,” and it had the Tredegar Iron Works, the “only plant in the South capable of manufacturing heavy ordnance.”[iv]

Secession sentiment was not pervasive in the upper South, however. The governors of Kentucky and Tennessee vowed not to provide support for the North’s coercion of the southern states.[v]  Missouri’s secessionist governor echoed the beliefs of the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas, stating to President Abraham Lincoln: “Your requisition is illegal, unconstitutional, revolutionary, inhuman. . . . Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade.”[vi]

North Carolina was the last state to secede from the Union and reluctantly did so: its residents had more pro-Union sentiment than surrounding states. Jonathan Worth, who would later become governor of the state, wrote that dissolving the Union was the “greatest misfortune which could befall the whole nation and the whole human race.”[vii]  He continued: “I see no hope of any good and stable government except in the United government we are pulling down. It can not be united by war. If peace be immediately made, it will soon re-unite, with an anti-secession clause.”[viii]

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Samuel Tilden.

Some northerners also believed that peace was the best option. John L. O’Sullivan, a lawyer and the man who coined the phrase “manifest destiny,” wrote to Samuel Tilden that the war had been provoked by the Radical Republican branch of the Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln.[ix]  He speculated that only the most radical of Republicans would fight for the Union.[x]  Writing from Lisbon, Portugal, he vowed to return home and fight for “peaceful separation if reunion has become indeed impossible.”[xi]  He even expressed the hope that the “border States should now all go at once, so as to make the North feel the absurdity of further prosecution of war.”[xii]

Further prosecution or not, the events since Fort Sumter had divided the states into three categories: the Union, the Confederacy, and neutral states. The Confederacy had grown to encompass Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Four states were neutral: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, which created somewhat of a border between the northern states supporting the Union and the Confederacy.

Amidst the developing events and the cacophony surrounding them, Lincoln sat in the White House peering through its windows and wondering aloud whether the 75,000 troops he had called for would come.[xiii]  He visited a group of Massachusetts soldiers injured in a brief riot in Baltimore and told them: “I don’t believe there is any North. . . . The [New York] Seventh Regiment is a myth. Rhode Island is not known in our geography any longer. You are the only Northern realities.”[xiv] Approximately 500 Pennsylvanian troops came to Washington with no arms and no training; hardly an inspiring show of the North’s military capabilities.[xv]  The sight of Washington itself only accentuated the direness of the situation: its public buildings were barricaded with “sandbags and barrels of flour,” and even the famous Willard’s hotel shrunk its guest count from 1,000 to 50.[xvi]

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The Seventh Regiment of New York Departing New York City.
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Benjamin Butler. By: Mathew Brady.

Then, on April 25, 1861, train after train pulled into Washington and poured out troops from New York, Massachusetts, and other northeastern states.[xvii]  Benjamin Butler, who would later earn the nickname Spoons in New Orleans after confiscating a woman’s silverware collection, accompanied the troops to Washington and would be a figure reviled and admired in battles to come. By the end of April, Washington had 10,000 troops standing guard and ready to defend the capital. Lincoln’s worries had been eased, knowing that the North did in fact have an inspired response to his call to arms. No longer would there be whispers about the Confederate campfires flickering across the Potomac River; rather, there would be calls of “On to Richmond!”[xviii]


[i] See Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 45.

[ii] Id. at 45-46.

[iii] Id. at 46.

[iv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 280.

[v] See id. at 276.

[vi] Id. at 276-77.

[vii] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 48.

[viii] Id. at 49.

[ix] See id. at 50.

[x] See id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 286.

[xiv] Tyler Dennett, Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, 11.

[xv] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 53.

[xvi] See id. at 53-54.

[xvii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 286.

[xviii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 54.

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