Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown was committed to secession, and he would use the power of his office to see that it happened. After the election was held for delegates to the state convention, Brown reported to the press that secessionists had won 57 percent of the votes (50,243 to 37,123). However, the actual count was slightly in favor of moderates, 42,714 to 41,717, or 51 percent.
Then, not waiting for the convention to start, Brown ordered Colonel Alexander R. Lawton and his 1st Georgia to seize Fort Pulaski near the mouth of the Savannah River. This was one of the strongest installations in the South, having been built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under supervision of Colonel Robert E. Lee. This fort could hold a large garrison, and if the Federals got to it first, it would have been very difficult for the Georgians to get them out. Brown quickly notified the governors in neighboring southern states what his men had done and suggested that they follow suit.
Nearly two weeks passed before the secession convention began at the state capital of Milledgeville on the 16th. Initially, Georgia had approached secession with caution, led by moderates Benjamin H. Hill, Herschel V. Johnson, and Alexander H. Stephens. But the election of Abraham Lincoln and the departure of neighboring states helped secessionists such as Francis S. Bartow, Howell Cobb, and Thomas R.R. Cobb to shift sentiment toward disunion. Impassioned speeches by representatives of South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi also helped, though by this time Georgia’s exit was a foregone conclusion.
The convention was headed by George Crawford, a former Georgia governor and secretary of war under Zachary Taylor. The moderates floated a test vote to delay secession, which was defeated 133 to 164. This made secession inevitable. Three days later, the vote to secede was cast, 208 to 89 in favor, making Georgia the fifth state within a month to leave the Union. The resolution declared “that the Union now subsisting between the State of Georgia and other States, under the name of the ‘United States of America,’ is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Georgia is in the full possession and exercise of all those rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.”
That night, celebrations abounded as the flag of independence was raised over the Capitol and cannons were fired. The mayor of Savannah proclaimed: “Southern Civilization—It must be maintained at any costs and at all hazards.” Moderates hoping for a postponement acknowledged that four states “have already seceded… In order to act with them, we must secede with them.” Georgia officials began making plans to print their own national currency and appoint envoys to Europe, but these plans were shelved when Governor Brown decided to join the southern convention slated to begin at Montgomery in early February.
Now that Georgia was out of the Union, Brown looked to expel the Federal presence from his state. He authorized 800 troops of the Georgia state militia to seize the U.S. arsenal at Augusta. Commanded by Captain Arnold Elzey, this arsenal contained a battery of artillery and 20,000 muskets. Elzey had received prior permission by the secretary of war to surrender the arsenal if he believed he could not defend it.
When the troops surrounded the place, Elzey asked to meet with Brown and agreed to surrender. Brown’s terms were generous: he allowed Elzey’s men to fire a salute before lowering their flag. They were escorted out of the arsenal with military honors and permitted to keep their arms and personal property. They were then sent to Savannah, where they could be transported by sea to New York.
Brown quickly learned that the northern states would not help him bolster his state’s defenses. The governor requested 200 muskets from the Macon firm D.C. Hodgkins & Sons, and the firm sent an order to a New York manufacturer to fulfill Brown’s request. The New Yorkers arranged for the muskets to be shipped to Georgia aboard the Monticello, but before the ship could leave the harbor, New York police stopped her and seized her cargo.
Robert Toombs, a recently resigned U.S. senator from Georgia, contacted New York Mayor Fernando Wood regarding the seizure: “Is it true that any arms intended for and consigned to the State of Georgia have been seized by public authorities in New- York? Your answer is important to us and to New- York. Answer at once.”
Wood, who had recently suggested that New York City secede from the rest of the state, answered: “In reply to your dispatch, I regret to say that arms intended for and consigned to the State of Georgia have been seized by the Police of this State, but that the City of New-York should in no way be made responsible for the outrage. As Mayor, I have no authority over the Police. If I had the power I should summarily punish the authors of this illegal and unjustifiable seizure of private property.”
The order to stop the shipment likely came from New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan, a Republican who strongly opposed secession. Thus, Georgia would have to look elsewhere for her defense.
- Garrison, Webb, True Tales of the Civil War: A Treasury of Unusual Stories During America’s Most Turbulent Era. New York: Gramercy, 1988.
- 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.
- Longacre, Edward G. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- 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.
- Robbins, Peggy (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.