The Feeling of Secession Grows Stronger

South Carolina led the charge out of the Union, with many prominent South Carolinians loudly pushing for secession. Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., editor of the Charleston Mercury, had written the day after Abraham Lincoln’s election that “the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.” Two days later, he wrote another editorial that read in part: “There exists a great mistake… in supposing that the people of the United States are, or ever have been, one people. On the contrary, never did the sun shine on two people as thoroughly distinct as the people of the North and… South.”

That same day, a special session of the South Carolina legislature gathered at the request of outgoing Governor William H. Gist. The legislators unanimously approved a resolution calling for a convention to assemble on December 17 to consider seceding from the Union. The special election for convention delegates would take place on December 6.

Both James Chesnut, Jr. and James H. Hammond resigned their seats in the U.S. Senate. Chesnut had once been a Unionist, but the idea of living under a Republican president changed his mind. Hammond had always been a disunionist; he had strongly defended the benefits slavery and coined the phrase “Cotton is King.” South Carolinians were clearly preparing to leave the Union regardless of whether any other states followed them out.

The legislature approved raising 10,000 militiamen for state defense. This did not bode well for Federal troops stationed in Charleston Harbor, who now found themselves virtually surrounded by a hostile populace. The Federals reported to Washington on Charleston’s defenses, which consisted mainly of Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, and Castle Pinckney. Less than 100 men garrisoned these three installations; most were at Moultrie and none were at the uncompleted Sumter.

The report further stated that the forts were especially vulnerable because they had been designed to defend against attacks from the sea, not the city behind them, which was now where the most dangerous threat came from. Unsubstantiated rumors spread that mobs of South Carolinians had taken over the Charleston defenses and expelled the Federal forces there. A correspondent from the Philadelphia Pennsylvanian reported from Charleston:

“The feeling of secession grows stronger. Many openly express the fear that Alabama or Georgia will secede before South Carolina holds her Convention, and thus rob her of her long-coveted glory. Some even express the hope that it will not be a peaceful secession, but desire blood to be spilt to cement it forever… A large number of banners, bearing the device of a Palmetto tree, with a lone star, have been hung out in various parts of the city during the day… The firemen in this city, who number about fifteen hundred, have organized themselves into military companies, and drill nightly.”

Harbor view from Charleston | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, 26 Jan 1861

The mayor of Charleston adhered to warnings from his constituents and directed the Washington Light Artillery, a state militia unit, to protect the city arsenal against secessionist mobs. The militia was to also guard against Federal efforts to seize the arsenal, based on a report of an “unsuccessful attempt… by troops to remove the government arms from the arsenal in the city to Fort Moultrie.”

Georgia joined South Carolina in clamoring for secession. This was important because Georgia was the most populous of the Deep South states, and if she went, others would surely follow. In an address to the Georgia legislature at Milledgeville, U.S. Senator Robert Toombs strongly urged secession because the Republicans could not be trusted to honor constitutional protections of slavery. Referring to Abraham Lincoln’s pledge not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, Toombs said that “guarantees from men who had already violated their plighted faith to uphold the Constitution were worthless.” He announced that he would resign from the Senate.

The next day, U.S. Congressman Alexander H. Stephens delivered a rebuttal to Toombs’s speech. Stephens was a moderate who urged his fellow Georgians not to be tempted by the supposed benefits of secession:

“I think… if we can, without the loss of power, or any essential right or interest, remain in the Union, it is our duty to ourselves and to posterity to–let us not too readily yield to this temptation–do so. Our first parents, the great progenitors of the human race, were not without a like temptation when in the garden of Eden. They were led to believe that their condition would be bettered–that their eyes would be opened–and that they would become as gods. They in an evil hour yielded–instead of becoming gods, they only saw their own nakedness. I look upon this country, with our institutions, as the Eden of the world, the paradise of the universe.”

Stephens declared, “Good governments can never be built up or sustained by the impulse of passion…” He acknowledged that Republican principles represented “antagonism to our interests and rights” and would “subvert the Constitution under which we now live.” But he asked, “Shall the people of the South secede from the Union in consequence of the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States?” He then answered, “My countrymen, I tell you frankly, candidly, and earnestly, that I do not think that they ought. In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office, is sufficient cause for any State to separate from the Union.” Stephens called on southerners to hold firm and “Let the fanatics of the North break the Constitution, if such is their fell purpose.”

Most Georgians did not share Stephens’s sentiment. But Lincoln, who happened to be an old friend of Stephens’s from their days in Congress together, reached out to him late this month with a letter: “I have read in the newspapers your speech recently delivered (I think) before the Georgia legislature, or its assembled members. If you have revised it, as is probable, I shall be much obliged if you will send me a copy.” Lincoln hoped this might open a discussion with Stephens on how best to preserve the Union, but by this time, Georgia was already on her way out.

Other southern state governments went into motion on the secession question as well. Alabama Governor Andrew B. Moore announced that an election would be held on December 6 for delegates to a secession convention opening on January 7. Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus called on his state’s legislature to begin a special session on November 26. And in New Orleans, Louisianans urged the creation of a minuteman force to defend the city.

But secessionist zeal in the South was not unanimous. Citizens of Kingwood, the seat of western Virginia’s Preston County, unanimously declared that regardless of whether Virginia seceded, their county would remain loyal to the Union. Even prominent county slaveholders such as William Zinn supported the motion. In Kentucky, a peace rally took place at the Baptist Church in Russellville; among those attending was Senator John J. Crittenden, who was working on a compromise bill that he planned to unveil when the Senate reconvened next month.

In the North, Indiana Governor-elect Oliver P. Morton became one of the first public figures to call for keeping the South in the Union by force if necessary. Morton had once been a moderate who supported Indiana’s constitutional provision barring blacks from entering the state. But now he moved firmly into the anti-secession camp by declaring: “If South Carolina gets out of the Union I trust it will be at the point of the bayonet after our best efforts have failed to compel her submission to the laws.”


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