As the secession crisis intensified, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, was summoned from his New York headquarters to Washington. Scott was 75 years old, and although still a powerful figure at nearly 6-feet 5-inches tall, he weighed over 300 pounds, suffered from gout and edema, and could hardly walk or mount a horse. When he arrived in the capital, he set up headquarters near the War Department on 17th Street, where he had easy access to one of his favorite restaurants.
Scott’s greatest challenge was to somehow assemble an army large enough to prevent the South from seceding. There were less than 15,000 officers and men present for duty, and not only were they scattered among installations throughout the continent, but many were southern sympathizers who would most likely resign if their home states seceded. Army appropriations had fallen from $25 million in 1858 to $16 million this year, and of the 198 companies of regulars, 183 were stationed west of the Mississippi River, mostly to protect settlers from Native Americans. This left Scott almost entirely unprepared to meet any potential threat to the capital.
Despite the North’s current lack of military strength, one influential figure believed that the South had no chance to win independence through war. William T. Sherman, an Ohioan who was superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, told a southern friend what he thought would happen if war broke out: “The North can make a steam engine, locomotive or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail.”
Sherman also offered an opinion to his brother, Congressman John Sherman of Ohio: “If Texas should draw off, no great harm would follow–Even if S. Carolina, Georgia, Alabama & Florida would cut away, it might be the rest could get along, but I think the secession of Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas will bring war–for though they now say that Free Trade is their Policy yet it wont be long before steamboats will be taxed and molested all the way down.”
Not all northerners were opposed to the southern secession. Some business leaders hoped that New York City might secede from the rest of the state and become a free trade zone. A New York lawyer told railroad president George B. McClellan that “when secession is fairly inaugurated at the South, we mean to do a little of the same business here & cut loose from the fanatics of New England & of the North generally, including most of our own State.”
Others, like those in the border states, were taking a “wait and see” approach. Judge A.H. Handy, a Mississippi resident who had been born in Maryland, visited Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks in Baltimore to discuss secession. Hicks, who was a Unionist, declared that his state would act in concert with the fellow border states of Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, adding: “I do not doubt the people of Maryland are ready to go with the people of those states for weal or woe.”
This approach was adopted in most of the international community as well. British Rear Admiral Sir Alexander Milne, commander of the North America and West Indies station of the Royal Navy, received orders to avoid “any measure or demonstration likely to give umbrage to any party in the United States, or to bear the appearance of partizanship on either side; if the internal dissensions in those States should be carried to the extent of separation.”
Some still thought that reconciliation was possible. Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois proposed the annexation of Mexico as a slave territory if the South pledged to stay in the Union. Most did not take this idea seriously, but it showed the desperation of Douglas and others like him to maintain the Union. But to most, such a thing was no longer realistic. On Christmas Day, a diarist in Camden, Arkansas, wrote, “Another Christmas has come around in the circle of time but it is not a day of rejoicing. Some of the usual ceremonies are going on, but there is a gloom on the thoughts and countenance of all the better portion of our people.”
- Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.