Louisianans traditionally had not been quick to want to leave the Union. They had the largest city in the South in New Orleans, which was a key hub for international travel and trade, and the state’s primary commodity, sugar, was protected by the Federal tariff. However, Abraham Lincoln’s presidential victory prompted many Louisiana Unionists to switch sides. In the election for delegates to the secession convention, voters chose 80 secessionists versus just 50 who either leaned toward secession or favored staying in the Union. The fact that five states had already seceded no doubt influenced the final vote.
But before the convention even assembled, Governor Thomas O. Moore received a message from the state’s two U.S. senators, Judah P. Benjamin and John Slidell, who passed on rumors they had heard in Washington: “Secret attempts continue to be made to garrison Southern ports (with Federal troops). We think there is special reason to fear surprise from Gulf squadron.” To counter this perceived threat from the sea, Moore ordered state militia to seize Forts Jackson and St. Philip, which protected New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River, as well as the nearby U.S. Marine Hospital. A second militia force seized Fort Pike at Rigolets Pass on the Mississippi.
Farther up the river, the Washington Artillery battalion led by Braxton Bragg seized the Federal arsenal and barracks at the state capital of Baton Rouge. The garrison was held by a token force of about 40 men under Major Joseph A. Haskin of the 1st U.S. Artillery. Haskin was initially determined to hold his ground, but after a parley with Bragg, he was convinced the Louisianans had overwhelming force on their side. Bragg’s men confiscated 50,000 stands of small arms and 40 cannons. Moore sent some of the guns to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus, who feared that his state might be vulnerable to a Federal attack.
Moore directed William T. Sherman to accept the arsenal’s surrender. Sherman was the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy at Pineville, but he was also an Ohioan, and he wrote Moore that “… Recent events foreshadow a great change, and it becomes all men to choose. If Louisiana withdraw from the Federal Union, I prefer to maintain my allegiance to the Constitution as long as a fragment of it survives; and my longer stay here would be wrong in every sense of the word…” Sherman asked Moore “to take immediate steps to relieve me as superintendent the moment the State determines to secede, for on no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile to or in defiance of the old Government of the United States.”
The secession convention opened on the 23rd at Baton Rouge. The secessionist majority tended to come from the richer cotton-growing parishes, while the Unionists and cooperationists came mostly from the small farms of the northern parishes or where sugar was the principal crop. The delegates debated and passed resolutions over the next three days before finally approving the measure to make Louisiana the sixth state to leave the Union. The vote was 113 to 17.
Lincoln’s election and the threat of Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge slaves as “private property” served as key causes for secession. The delegates also approved a motion that “any attempt by the Federal Government, or others, to coerce any State that has seceded, or may hereafter secede from the Union, will be regarded by Louisiana as an act of war upon all the slaveholding States.” Gold pens were passed out to sign the ordinance of secession, with the declaration “that the union now subsisting between Louisiana and other States under the name of ‘The United States of America’ is hereby dissolved.” Delegates were appointed to attend the convention of the seceded states, scheduled to begin at Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4.
In New Orleans, businesses closed as talk of war increased. Most residents supported secession, which was significant considering that the city had major business ties to the North. When news of Louisiana’s secession reached Washington, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois fiercely declared that any state which had been bought “with the national treasure”—as Louisiana had been through the Louisiana Purchase—must not be allowed to secede and control a part of the vital Mississippi River.
Undeterred by Federal threats, Louisiana militia seized Fort Macomb and all Federal property in New Orleans on the 28th. Governor Moore had asked the garrison commander, Lieutenant Colonel Abraham C. Myers, for “possession of all the quartermaster’s commissary stores, and of all property under your control and in your possession belonging to the United States of America, for which the State of Louisiana is and will be accountable, and receipts for the same will be given you.”
Myers, a southerner, immediately complied. He notified his superiors at Washington of the surrender and added: “South Carolina, the State where I was born, and Louisiana, the State of my adoption, having in convention passed ordinances of secession from the United States, I am absolved from my allegiance to the Federal Government. My resignation as an officer of the U.S. Army is accepted for me by the States above named.”
The next day, U.S. Treasury agent W. Hemphill Jones attempted to assume Federal authority over the revenue cutter U.S.S. Robert McClelland, which was used to collect Federal tariffs at the port of New Orleans. Jones had been sent by Treasury Secretary John A. Dix to secure all revenue cutters at New Orleans, Mobile, and Galveston. However, Captain J.G. Breshwood of the Robert McClelland refused to recognize Jones’s authority because he had already turned the ship over to the state of Louisiana.
Jones passed this on to Dix, who immediately replied: “Tell Lieutenant Caldwell (of the U.S. Navy) to arrest Captain Breshwood, assume command of the cutter, and obey the order I gave through you. If Captain Breshwood, after arrest, undertakes to interfere with the command of the cutter, tell Lieutenant Caldwell to consider him as a mutineer, and treat him accordingly. If anyone attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.”
This aggressive response helped inflame northern passions against the South. However, it was intercepted by southern telegraphers before it reached Jones, so Breshwood was not arrested and the Robert McClelland remained in Louisiana’s hands. On the 31st, in compliance with a resolution passed at the secession convention, Governor Moore directed that militia seize the U.S. Branch Mint and Customs House in New Orleans, as well as the U.S. revenue cutter Washington. Moore collected $500,000 in gold and silver from the mint, of which he later gave $147,519.66 in customs house receipts to the new Confederate treasury.
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