Striking While It Is Yet To-day

Florida was the smallest of the Deep South states in terms of population. New Orleans alone outnumbered the entire state, and of the 141,000 Floridians, 63,000 were black. Following the lead of its larger neighbors to the north, the Florida legislature assembled and approved forming a state convention to decide on secession. Delegates were elected later this month, and of the 69 men elected, 42 supported disunion.

By month’s end, Florida secessionists had gathered near Pensacola, poised to seize the valuable Pensacola Navy Yard and the three Federal installations protecting the harbor: Forts Barrancas, McRee, and Pickens. The forts had been designed to protect the harbor and shipyard from foreign invasion from the Gulf of Mexico, not to protect from an enemy on the landward side.

The Federal garrison at Pensacola consisted of a token force commanded by Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer. The secessionists cut telegraph lines and blocked overland communication between the Federals and Washington, thus hampering Slemmer’s ability to get timely instructions from his superiors. Slemmer could also expect little help from the commissary ship Supply and other small vessels in the harbor.

In Georgia, the people got a letter from fellow Georgian and U.S. Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb urging them to support secession because, as he wrote, “In the nomination of Mr. Lincoln for the Presidency, the Black Republicans gave still more pointed expression to their views and feelings on the subject” of slavery. Lincoln “has covered the entire abolition platform—hatred of slavery, disregard of judicial decisions, negro equality, and, as a matter of course, the ultimate extinction of slavery.” Cobb cited speeches and writings from other prominent Republicans as well.

Cobb argued that a Republican-controlled Federal government would refuse to honor three main points: 1) the constitutional right of states to regulate slavery within their own borders without Federal interference; 2) the right (as ruled by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott v. Sandford) of citizens to bring their property (i.e., slaves) into any U.S. state or territory; and 3) the constitutional right of slaveholders to reclaim any property (i.e., slaves) that had escaped into any U.S. state or territory. Cobb concluded:

“Is there no other remedy for this state of things but immediate secession? None worthy of your consideration has been suggested… On the 4th day of March, 1861, the Federal Government will pass into the hands of the Abolitionists. It will then cease to have the slightest claim upon either your confidence or your loyalty; and, in my honest judgment, each hour that Georgia remains thereafter a member of the Union will be an hour of degradation, to be followed by certain and speedy ruin.”

Senator Robert Toombs joined Cobb in calling on Georgians to “strike while it is yet to-day. Withdraw your sons from the army, the navy, and every department of the federal public service. Keep your own taxes in your own coffers; buy arms with them and throw the bloody spear into this den of incendiaries and assassins, and let God defend the right.” The Georgia legislature responded by approving a measure calling on South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi to send delegates to a conference to consider forming a southern confederacy. All four states complied.

In Texas, Governor Sam Houston, who had taken the unpopular stance of opposing secession, saw that he could no longer resist the rush of Texans to secede. State officials had bypassed Houston to call on voters to elect delegates to a legally dubious secession convention, and Houston responded by calling a special session of the legislature to gather. Houston scheduled the legislature to meet one week before the convention was to open in the hopes that the legislators would declare the convention illegal. He would end up disappointed.

Brigadier General David E. Twiggs commanded the immense Department of Texas, which consisted of nearly 3,000 officers and men (nearly 17 percent of the whole U.S. Army) scattered among 20 forts and garrisons. At 70 years old, Twiggs had been on sick leave most of the year and just returned to duty in mid-December. He was also a Georgian whom Federal officials suspected of southern sympathies. When Twiggs got word that Texas might secede, he wrote to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army:

“I think there can be no doubt that many of the Southern States will secede from the Union. The State of Texas will be among the number, and, from all appearances at present, it will be at an early day, certainly before the 4th of March next. What is to be done with public property in charge of the Army?… I would be pleased to receive your views and suggestions. My course as respects myself will be to remain at my post and protect this frontier as long as I can, and then, when turned adrift, make my way home, if I have one…”

Two weeks later, Scott gave an evasive and confusing reply: “In cases of political disturbance involving local conflict with the authority of the general government, the general-in-chief considers that the military questions, such as you suggest, contain a political element, with due regard to which, and in due deference to the chief executive authority, no extraordinary instructions concerning them must be issued without the consent of such authority.”

Scott told Twiggs that since there was no set policy on how to proceed, he would leave “the administration of your command in your own hands.” This meant that a suspected secessionist was left on his own to command a department in a state that was likely to secede.

Alabama voters gathered to elect delegates to a secession convention that would gather next month. The Louisiana legislature met and approved an election for delegates to a convention of their own. The North Carolina Senate approved a measure arming the state for defense. At Raleigh, officials of North Carolina met with delegates from Alabama and Mississippi to discuss the crisis.

Other states were not so quick to get out of the Union. At a courthouse in Winchester, Virginia, locals gathered “to consult together and adopt such measures as, in their judgment, will best promote the peace of the country and maintain the rights of the South.” Although they found recent acts of the Federal government to be unacceptable, “there is no cause at this time to justify the secession of any state from the Union.”

Late this month, Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin called for a special session of the state legislature to consider secession. Vice President John C. Breckinridge, a Kentuckian, supported Magoffin’s call, and his fellow Kentuckians had mixed opinions regarding the congressional compromise drafted by Senator John J. Crittenden, another Kentuckian. Even so, the legislature rejected Magoffin’s call and adjourned for the year.



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