Eyes Turn to the Upper South

By the end of January, the states of the Deep South had opted to leave the Union. That left the states of the Upper South to decide whether to follow or stay put.

Early this month, an envoy from Mississippi came to Delaware to invite that state to follow his out of the Union. Delaware was the smallest southern state, both in geography and slave population; there were just 1,800 slaves—mostly in the southern counties bordering Maryland—and 90 percent of blacks in Delaware were free. The state legislature recognized the envoy as belonging to a sovereign entity no longer associated with the United States, but “we deem it proper and due to ourselves and the people of Delaware to express our unqualified disapproval of the remedy for the existing difficulties suggested by the resolutions of the legislature of Mississippi.” Delaware would never seriously consider leaving the Union.

In Missouri, Governor Robert M. Stewart spoke for many of his constituents when he called secession “utterly destructive of every principle upon which the national faith is founded.” However, the Republican Party was threatening to force southern states to leave the Union because it “destroyed one of the most vital principles of the Constitution, the right to occupy United States territory with any kind of property.” Addressing the state legislature, Stewart warned that Missouri “cannot be frightened by the past unfriendly legislation of the North, or dragooned into secession by the restrictive legislation of the extreme South.”

Stewart was succeeded as governor this month by Claiborne F. Jackson who, unlike his conditional Unionist predecessor, was a secessionist. When Jackson took office, he declared: “Common origin, pursuits, tastes, manners and customs… bind together in one brotherhood the States of the South.” He called on his state to make “a timely declaration of her determination to stand by her sister slave-holding States.” Jackson’s allies in this sentiment included the lieutenant governor, house speaker, and most Democrats controlling the state legislature.

This panicked the Missouri Unionists, and U.S. Assistant Treasury Secretary Isaac H. Sturgeon frantically called for U.S. troops to protect Federal property in St. Louis. The troops occupied the custom house, post office, and subtreasury, and according to a Missouri militia captain: “This caused much unnecessary excitement, and pushed numbers of conditional Unionists into the ranks of the rebellion.”

Near month’s end, the Missouri legislature approved forming a convention on February 18 “to ascertain the will of the people,” and “to consider the existing relations between the government of the United States, the people and governments of the different states, and the government and the people of the state of Missouri.” Jackson urged Missourians to elect secessionist delegates to the convention.

In Maryland, new governor Thomas H. Hicks and the state legislature voiced strong opposition to secession. In his inaugural address on the 6th, Hicks announced: “Maryland will not stand as a sentinel at the bidding of South Carolina, and we remind her, by the memories of the Revolution, that such a purpose cannot be justified; and, in conclusion, in a fraternal spirit, we entreat South Carolina to suspend all further action until such measures of peaceful adjustment have first been tried and have failed.” Democrats pressed the new governor to call a special session of the legislature to consider secession, but Hicks refused. A force of 30 U.S. Marines from the Washington Navy Yard occupied Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor to protect it from secessionists. The Marines held the fort until relieved by Regular U.S. Army troops.

A special session of the Tennessee legislature assembled on the 7th to consider secession. Governor Isham G. Harris declared that the southern states were seceding because of the “long continued agitation of the slavery question,” as well as “actual and threatened aggressions of the Northern States… upon the well-defined constitutional rights of the Southern citizen.” He also excoriated the Republican Party, which had “uncompromising hostility to the rights and institutions of the fifteen Southern states.” He urged lawmakers to call for a state convention to consider whether Tennessee should leave the Union.

But the Tennessee legislature was not ready to act just yet. It instead resolved that the southern states should join at a convention to discuss the possibility of amending the Constitution rather than seceding. If that could not be done, then secession should be the last resort. The legislature approved holding a convention in February, but with the stipulation that if the convention voted to secede, the decision would have to be ratified by a popular vote. Tennessee would be cautious in deciding on secession.

Arkansas was divided between secessionists in areas where cotton was the staple crop and Unionists in the northwestern region, where the Federal government protected residents against hostile Natives. The General Assembly approved forming a convention to consider secession in February, as well as bolstering the militia “to repel invasion” if necessary. Lawmakers also endorsed putting the secession question to a popular vote.

Kentucky was also divided. Governor Beriah Magoffin told an envoy from Mississippi that Kentuckians strongly favored the South, but they were also “unquestionably in favor of exhausting every honorable means of securing their rights within the Union.” The Kentucky legislature approved a resolution calling for a national convention of states to settle the crisis, with Senator John J. Crittenden’s compromise plan as a starting point for negotiations.

Unionists held a convention at Louisville, Kentucky, and approved amending the U.S. Constitution to preserve the Union. However, the delegates also resolved that “if the disorganization of the present Union is not arrested, agreeing to these amendments of the Federal Constitution shall form a separate Confederacy, with power to admit new States under our glorious Constitution thus amended.” In addition, it was resolved that “we deplore the existence of a Union to be held together by the sword.”

In North Carolina, state militia seized Fort Johnson, and residents of Smithville and Wilmington took Fort Caswell. Since the state had not yet decided on secession, Governor John T. Ellis promptly returned the forts to Federal authorities. The legislature approved a special election in which voters could elect delegates to a convention and decide whether to hold a convention at all. A Unionist majority was elected to the convention, and it was decided that the convention should not be held. North Carolina was staying put for now.


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