Revolutionary Furor in Full Sway

Soon after President Abraham Lincoln issued his proclamation calling for volunteers to destroy the Confederacy, North Carolina militia seized Forts Macon, Caswell, and Johnston, as well as the Federal arsenal at Fayetteville. North Carolinians had been reluctant to secede a few months prior, and had even condemned a hasty seizure of Forts Caswell and Johnston earlier in the year. This sudden change reflected the angry reaction to Lincoln trying to force North Carolina’s sister states back into the Union.

William Howard Russell, a correspondent for the London Times touring the South, was in Greensboro when the news came that the Confederates captured Fort Sumter. Although North Carolina had not yet seceded, Russell wrote that celebrations exploded with “flush faces, wild eyes, screaming mouths hurrahing for ‘Jeff Davis’ and ‘the Southern Confederacy,’ so that the yells overpowered the discordant bands which were busy with ‘Dixie’s Land’… Here was the true revolutionary furor in full sway.”

North Carolina Governor John T. Ellis sent a response to Lincoln’s proclamation in the spirit of the furor in his state:

“Your dispatch is received, and, if genuine–which its extraordinary character leads me to doubt–I have to say, in reply, that I regard the levy of troops made by the Administration, for the purpose of subjugating the States of the South, as in violation of the Constitution, and a usurpation of power. I can be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country, and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina.”

According to Ellis, Lincoln’s call for troops was a “high-handed act of tyrannical outrage, conceived in a spirit of aggression unparalleled by any act of recorded history.” He declared that for the people of North Carolina, their “first allegiance is due to the sovereignty which protects their homes and dearest interests, as their first service is due for the sacred defence of their hearts, and of the soil which holds the graves of our glorious dead. United action in defence of the sovereignty of North Carolina, and of the rights of the South, becomes now the duty of all.”

Ellis called for a special legislative session to assemble and consider secession. The legislature approved forming a secession convention to start on May 20. But North Carolina was effectively already out of the Union as soon as Lincoln issued his proclamation. The state also had practical reasons for seceding; the states north and south of her had already seceded, so it was only natural that she would follow.

To the west, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris responded to Lincoln’s call in similar fashion: “Tennessee will not furnish a single man for the purpose of coercion, but 50,000 if necessary for the defense of our rights and those of our Southern brothers.” Harris was a secessionist, and he had already been raising a “State Militia” for the purpose of joining the Confederacy, even though such a move had been defeated by 10,000 votes in a referendum held prior to the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter.

Harris also protested to Republican Governor Richard Yates of Illinois for posting Illinois militia at Cairo, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers met, and imposing “a rather tight blockade of the rivers.” Harris asserted that Tennessee still belonged to the Union, and the “obstruction of the navigation of the Mississippi River and the seizure of public and private property by an armed force are violations of the comity of States and a palpable infringement of the Constitution.” This helped move Tennessee closer to secession.

President Lincoln’s militia proclamation pushed even moderate Tennesseans into the secessionist camp. John Bell, the Constitutional Union Party’s 1860 presidential candidate who enjoyed popularity among upper South moderates, told a Nashville audience that he supported a “united South” in “the unnecessary, aggressive, cruel, unjust wanton war which is being forced upon us” by the Lincoln administration. The Nashville Patriot reported that the “community of interest existing in all the slaveholding States” must serve to unite them to defend “justice and liberty.”

Arkansas Governor Henry M. Rector also rejected Lincoln’s call for troops: “In answer to your requisition for troops from Arkansas, to subjugate the Southern States, I have to say that none will be furnished. The demand is only adding insult to injury. The people of this Commonwealth are freemen, not slaves, and will defend to the last extremity their honor, lives, and property against Northern mendacity and usurpation.” Arkansas militia seized Fort Smith, an important frontier post, and U.S. Army subsistence stores at Pine Bluff.  A secession convention was scheduled to assemble on May 6.

It seemed just a matter of time before three more states joined the Confederacy.


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