When news of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter reached Washington on the 13th, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, in the capital at that time, rushed to Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s office and offered 1,000 men from his state for Federal service. Ramsey submitted his proposal in writing, making Minnesota the first state to offer troops in the wartime hysteria that would soon sweep both North and South.
News of Fort Sumter’s surrender spread throughout the country on Sunday the 14th. President Abraham Lincoln planned to raise a military to bring the Confederate states back into the Union by force, and he knew he had support from his fellow Republicans for such an action. But he needed northern Democrats to back him as well, and their leader was political rival Stephen A. Douglas.
Massachusetts Republican George Ashmun visited Douglas on the night of the 14th and asked him to personally pledge his support of preserving the Union by force to Lincoln. Douglas declined; Lincoln had purged many of Douglas’s friends from their government jobs, and as such, Douglas felt that Lincoln would not welcome his advice. But Ashmun persisted until Douglas finally relented.
Battling severe illness, Douglas went to the White House, where Lincoln cordially met with him in private for two hours. Douglas assured the president that despite their political disagreements, he approved of Lincoln’s resolve “to preserve the Union, maintain the government, and defend the capital.” Douglas said, “The capital of our country is in danger, and must be protected at all hazards, at any expense of men and money.”
Lincoln shared a draft of a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. He then asked Douglas to encourage northern Democrats to support it, thus showing a united political front against the Confederacy. Douglas quickly agreed, suggesting that Lincoln change his proclamation to call for 200,000 troops, because “You do not know the dishonest purposes of those men as well as I do.”
After the meeting, Douglas released a statement to the Associated Press declaring that although he “was unalterably opposed to the administration on all its political issues, he was prepared to sustain the President in the exercise of all his constitutional functions to preserve the Union, and maintain the government, and defend the Federal Capital.”
Lincoln held a late-night cabinet meeting in which his advisors discussed Lincoln’s proposed proclamation. Some members wanted the volunteer call raised to 100,000, and others urged it lowered to 50,000. Lincoln kept it at 75,000. He did not declare war in his proclamation because only Congress could make such a declaration; and besides, this would to be an action to stop a rebellion within the United States, not a war against a foreign entity.
Congress was not scheduled to assemble until December, so Lincoln would need to call for a special session to approve military spending. Secretary of State William H. Seward suggested that Lincoln shape his war policy first before calling Congress into session. Lincoln agreed, setting the date for July 4 and hoping that the congressman would use “their patriotism to sanction the war measures taken prior to that time by the Executive.”
The volunteers would serve according to “The 1795 Act for Calling forth the Militia,” which mandated that militia could serve for either 90 days or 30 days after Congress assembled. Thus, their service would end on August 4. Arguing that the size of the crisis called for extraordinary (and unconstitutional) measures, Lincoln proceeded to carry out his war policies without congressional sanction for the next three months.
In the official proclamation released on Monday the 15th, Lincoln declared that southerners had disavowed Federal law, and they “constituted combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in Marshals by law.” He therefore asked 75,000 volunteers from the 27 states still in the Union to serve for three months “in order to suppress said combinations and cause the laws to be duly executed” in the seven states that had seceded. In accordance with the 1795 Act, black volunteers were prohibited.
Lincoln proclaimed: “I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate and aid in this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government, and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.” A call for rebelling states to disperse their militias and return to the Union within 20 days suggested that no action would be taken against them if they complied.
The proclamation concluded with a call for Congress to remain out of session until July 4. This was a calculation in which Lincoln hoped that northerners would strongly support his policies by that time, and thus Congress would be pressured to sanction all his actions between now and then.
In addition to the 75,000 volunteers, Lincoln also called for an extra 22,700 Regular Army troops to serve. But even during this time of patriotic hysteria, no more than 2,000 men came forward to join the Regular Army; most preferred the shorter 90-day term of service instead.
Lincoln derived his notion of “combinations” from the 1795 law (an amended form of the 1792 Militia Act), which President George Washington had used to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington had referred to individual farmers refusing to pay taxes to distill whiskey as “combinations,” which (though Lincoln refused to acknowledge) greatly differed from seven states leaving the Union to form an independent nation.
Taking the Constitution literally, Article IV, Section 4 prevented Lincoln from calling on Federal forces to invade a state. Moreover, if the states were indeed “sovereign” as documented, then they would also have the right to secede. Others argued that since the states had formed the Federal government, the Federal government did not have the power to suppress a state. But Lincoln, refusing to refer to the Confederacy by name, would not admit that it was a new and independent nation made up of sovereign states.
Critics also noted that Lincoln’s call for “loyal citizens” undermined the idea of a republic, in which the people themselves are sovereign. Under this definition, either requesting or requiring loyalty to the Federal government would mean that the government, not the people, had become the true sovereign, which in turn meant the U.S. was no longer a constitutional republic.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis condemned Lincoln’s proclamation because it was issued when Congress was not in session, thereby usurping the congressional power to authorize military mobilization. Moreover, Lincoln would not assemble Congress for nearly three months, giving him sole power in the interim to wage war. To many Confederates, this decree simply validated what they had suspected all along—that Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to suppress the South and attain absolute rule.
But Lincoln and the Republicans considered the Union indivisible and thus deemed secession illegal. The Confederacy could not be an independent nation and could not receive international recognition. The southern states were merely in such mass rebellion that they required an additional number of citizen militias to disband it. Lincoln avoided the term “war,” which would imply a conflict with a foreign entity, something the Confederacy was not according to his official policy.
Also, proclaiming this a rebellion made it legally easier for Lincoln to call on military force to suppress it because executive acts to oppose a true rebellion did not require congressional approval. But even so, if an insurrection was to occur within a state, the president had no power to use force to put down that insurrection unless requested to do so by the state itself.
Almost as soon as the proclamation was received, northerners began galvanizing behind Lincoln by raising state militia units dedicated to preserving the Union. Massachusetts became the first state to respond to Lincoln’s call by mustering in a militia unit on the 16th. Stephen A. Douglas published his endorsement of Lincoln’s proclamation to unify northern Democrats and Republicans against the Confederacy.
There were also Unionists in largely pro-Confederate states, such as predominantly pro-U.S. eastern Tennessee. At Knoxville, local newspaper editor William G. Brownlow announced that he would “fight the Secessionist leaders till Hell froze over, and then fight them on the ice.” A Knoxville resident raised a U.S. flag and dared anyone to try to remove it.
However, Lincoln’s proclamation sparked intense outrage in the slave states that were still considering secession: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, most of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri. Three of these six would ultimately secede in defiance of Lincoln’s call.
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