The Alabama Secession

Three days before the Alabama State Convention was scheduled to begin at Montgomery, Governor Andrew B. Moore issued orders for state troops to seize all Federal forts and military facilities in Alabama. Troops seized Mount Vernon that same day, which had been guarded by just 17 Federal troops under Captain Jesse L. Reno. Reno wrote his superiors: “As it was impossible for me to hold this place with my seventeen men, I trust that the Department will not hold me responsible for this unexpected catastrophe.”

Governor Moore wrote to President James Buchanan explaining the reasons why he felt compelled to order the seizure of Federal property before the convention began: “I was fully convinced by the evidences which I had that that convention… withdraw the State of Alabama from the Government of the United States… Being thus convinced I deemed it my duty to take every precautionary step to make the secession of the State peaceful, and prevent detriment to her people… The purpose with which my order was given and has been executed was to avoid and not to provoke hostilities between the State and Federal government.”

On the 5th, Alabama militia took Forts Morgan and Gaines, which were vital in protecting the entrance to Mobile Bay. The Richmond Daily Dispatch reported: “The forts contained 78,000 stand of arms, 1,500 boxes of powder, 300,000 rounds of musket cartridges, and other munitions of war.”

Despite these preliminary maneuvers, the convention that opened on the 7th included fewer diehard secessionists than in other Deep South state conventions. Many were cooperationists who either leaned against seceding or favored a more moderate path out of the Union. These delegates came mainly from cities where there were few slaves, or from northern Alabama where small farmers still adhered to Andrew Jackson’s notion of an indivisible Union. Those favoring immediate secession were mainly influential cotton planters from central and southern Alabama, which included the key areas surrounding Montgomery and Mobile.

A test vote resulted in 54 to 46 for secession. Diehards hoping to widen this pro-secession majority tried not to alienate the moderates; when William L. Yancey delivered a speech calling anyone opposing secession a traitor, secessionist leader Thomas H. Watts quickly followed up with a speech downplaying such talk. After four days of debate, enough moderates had joined the secessionist camp to make the final vote 61 to 39. Alabama became the fourth state, and the third in three days, to leave the Union. The secession resolution cited “the election of ABRAHAM LINCOLN… by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions, and the peace and security of the state,” as reason for secession.

Of the 39 delegates who opposed leaving the Union, 15 signed the secession resolution. A second resolution passed that enabled the remaining 24 opponents to sign a document acknowledging Alabama’s decision without taking part in it. All but three signed. One, C. Christopher Sheats of Winston County, continued arguing against secession until he was dragged out of the hall by celebrating citizens and put in jail for the rest of the convention.

Large celebrations took place in the streets of Montgomery, as cheering crowds fired rockets and firecrackers, amid displays of the Southern Cross and the Lone Star emblems. The hysteria quickly spread throughout the state, as 100 cannon were fired in Mobile and a Federal judge yelled out his courtroom window that the U.S. Court for the South District of Alabama was “adjourned forever.” One Alabaman, mocking President-elect Lincoln’s “Eminence as a Rail Splitter,” wrote to him asking if he could recommend wood to use “in fencing in my South Carolina Georgia Alabama Mississippi Louisiana and Florida Lands.”

After approving secession, the convention delegates went one step further by passing a resolution inviting delegates from other southern states to come to Alabama: “In order to frame a revisional as a permanent Government, the people of the States of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri, be and they are hereby invited to meet the people of the State of Alabama, by their delegates in convention, on the 4th day of February next in Montgomery.”

Acknowledging the moderates’ contribution to the cause, diehards such as Yancey were passed over as delegates to the southern convention in favor of former Unionists such as David Peter Lewis. Moderates were also placated by a motion to continue the ban on the African slave trade. Governor Moore’s order of the past week to seize U.S. forts and military installations was retroactively endorsed.

Later this month, Alabama troops seized the lighthouse tender U.S.S. Alert at Mobile. The troops then confronted the revenue cutter U.S.S. Lewis Cass, stationed at Mobile to collect U.S. tariffs. The captain was ordered “to surrender into my hands, for the use of the State, the revenue cutter Lewis Cass, now under your command, together with her armaments, properties and provisions on board the same.”

The demand was followed by an offer: “I am instructed also to notify you, that you have the option to continue in command of the said revenue cutter, under the authority of the State of Alabama, in the exercise of the same duties that you have hitherto rendered to the United States, and at the same compensation, reporting to this office and to the Governor of the State.” The captain accepted, and by month’s end, Alabamans had expelled most Federal personnel from their state.

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Bibliography

  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
  • Schultz, Fred L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.

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