The History Cat Classroom
"I worked night and day for twelve years to prevent the war, but I could not. The North was mad and blind, would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came."
-Jefferson Davis. 1st and only president of the Confederacy.
A House Divided
In 1860, the United States was like an old married couple who finally had come to realize that they probably should never have gotten married in the first place. Back in 1776, the North and South had united because they needed each other to win the war for independence. But over the years the two regions grew apart and had almost nothing in common. The North was quickly transforming into an industrialized nation with large cities and huge pools of cheap immigrant labor while the south stubbornly clung to its aristocratic plantation economy that depended entirely on slave labor. With each passing year, The South was growing paranoid that their way of life was fast becoming obsolete in this new America. The election of Abraham Lincoln pushed the already edgy southerners to the decision that it was time for a divorce. In December 1860, South Carolina became the first of eleven states to leave the Union. The tension was a thick as cold butter as neither side dared make the first move towards war.
Most southerners believed (or wanted to believe) that Lincoln would just let the rebellious states go their separate ways. Jefferson Davis told the Confederate Congress that all they wanted was to “go in peace”. By seceding, the Confederacy could now trade directly with Europe, which just couldn’t get enough of southern cotton to feed its textile mills. Southerners also wouldn’t have to pay back their debts to northern banks- bonus! In the eyes of the secessionists, the United States was a voluntary agreement. Each state had to agree to join back in 1776, so secessionists believed, why couldn’t each state leave when it wanted to? This idea of state’s rights was one of the big issues that northerners and southerners couldn't seem to agree upon either.
Lincoln saw it differently. The Constitution was not some gym membership that you could join and leave at will, but a sacred and binding document. Of course, the Constitution didn’t say much of anything about secession and that was the problem. For now, all Lincoln could do was to avoid war. In his inaugural speech, Lincoln reached out to Southerners by saying, “we are not enemies, but friends.”
However, the war was just around the corner and the southern planters needed those millions of poor whites to defend their way of life. They had little chance of convincing men to enlist in the army and risk getting their heads blown off by a cannonball by asking them to defend slavery; most were too poor to even dream of owning slaves. So, they whipped up the fears of whites by painting a picture of what would happen if those Yankees put a stop to secession. Blacks would not only be freed from slavery but would be given full equality with the whites. The Governor of Georgia, Joseph Brown, bluntly put it this way, “The race of white men is the only true aristocracy.” Some even claimed that if Lincoln and “his crew” got their way whites and blacks would soon being intermarrying. Nothing scared 19th Century white Americans like racial equality.
Last Ditch Compromise...The Crittenden Plan
Meanwhile, the nation tried to scramble to find a compromise. Lincoln believed that he could use diplomacy rather than cannons to get the rebellious states to return to the Union. Kentucky Senator, James H. Crittenden, drafted a compromise bill- called snappily enough- the Crittenden Compromise and sent it to Congress. This plan basically extended the old Missouri Compromise along the 36 parallel (the northern border of Arizona and New Mexico). North of that imaginary line slavery would be banned forever (except where it was already legal).
South of the line, slavery would be forever protected, including future territories. Had the bill passed, Hawaii, Arizona, Oklahoma, and New Mexico would have been slave states. Oh yeah, and the south was still hoping for a hostile takeover of Spanish Cuba. But the plan failed- Lincoln rejected it outright. Many criticized Lincoln for not accepting the last shot at peace. Lincoln saw it differently; the Union would never last half free and half slave. Sooner or later these conflicts would tear the nation apart. Plus, Honest Abe had been elected on a platform of not extending slavery. If he compromised, he would be going back on his election promises. Oh, the dilemma!
December 1860- February 1861
For the first time in U.S. history, a president had been elected without carrying a single southern state. Southerners, who were outraged and completely convinced that Lincoln planned to end slavery as soon as possible, started talking about secession from the Union. When South Carolina held a special convention a few days after the election, few people believed the measure would actually pass. Southerners had been crying ‘secession’ for the last thirty years, and no one ever cried louder than South Carolina. It must have come as a real shocker when on December 12, 1860, the votes came back unanimously in favor of breaking all ties with the rest of the country.
While the secessionists were partying it up like cats at a fish fry, support for the Confederacy wasn’t as unified as history has made it out to be. There were many southerners-- especially among the 80% who owned zero slaves-- that weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about committing treason. Thousands of Unionists spoke out against secession. But the rebel plantation owners weren’t about to let a little thing like democracy stand in the way of their dreams. Pro-Unionists were threatened, beaten, and lynched for taking a stand against secession. Some southern counties even went so far as to make secession the only choice on the ballot. And in one extreme example, secessionists in Mount Crawford, North Carolina forced a group of Unionists to change their vote at gunpoint. New evidence suggests that secession would probably have been defeated in Georgia and Louisiana had it been a fair vote. But none of these “what ifs” really matter because the secessionists succeeded in forcing the South out of the Union.
On January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to leave the Union followed by Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. On February 8, 1861, delegates from each of the six seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama and set up a new government called the Confederate States of America with a new constitution that was pretty much ditto the old one, except that the right to own slaves was now guaranteed in writing. The capital of the new CSA was established in Montgomery, Alabama and the newly ex-Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis was selected to be the Confederacy's first Commander-in-Chief.
The secessionist hot heads might have gotten their way but not everybody was so convinced that the South would be allowed to leave without a fight. Sam Houston- the hero of the Texas Rebellion, and now its governor- had these words to say about secession. “Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence, but I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve this union. They are not as fiery and impulsive as you are…” Houston was forced out of his position a shortly after.
With seven slave states already divorced from the Union, Lincoln’s first days on the job were spent playing the role of the police negotiator talking a jumper down from the ledge. By the time the Confederacy had been formed the secessionist slave owners had become too radicalized and paranoid to listen. It was now too late to preserve the Union with sweet words and compromise. Clearly, Lincoln misjudged the situation, leaving him with only two options: plunge the country into war or let the Confederacy walk away peacefully. If Lincoln fired the first shot, he would come across as the bad guy who started the war. On the other hand, if Lincoln had let seven states just walk away he would forever be known as the president who let America fall apart. And so, he did the smart thing and waited for the Confederacy to make the first move... he didn’t have to wait long.
Firing on Fort Sumter
Hanging over the nation like a guillotine were questions such as would the Union respect the Fugitive Slave Act? Did the Confederate States have to pay back their debts? And most importantly, what would happen to federal property that was now technically on enemy soil? As soon as the Confederacy was formed, they began taking over federal mints (we’re not talking chocolate here), weapons arsenals, and forts that they claimed were now theirs.
Most of these forts were manned by a single, retired soldier called an Ordnance Sergeant. When a troop of Confederates came knocking on the door they were just handed the keys and that was that. However, two federal forts, Fort Pickens in Florida and Fort Sumter in South Carolina, were manned by regular soldiers. Of these two, Fort Sumter guarded the entry to Charleston, the Confederacy’s most important Atlantic seaport. Confederate troops surrounded both of these forts and demanded that they be handed over.
Whatever choice that Lincoln made now, it was bound to be a bad one. If he handed over the forts to the Confederates, he would lose face. If he fired the first shot, then the North would be the aggressor and those skittish slave states still loyal to the Union would most certainly join with their rebellious sisters. This last option was exactly what the Confederacy was hoping for. If every slave state joined together then the Union didn’t stand much of a chance of winning a war.
On April 12th, 1861 Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave the southern independence movement a nudge by ordering the attack on Fort Sumter, one of the last southern forts still in Union hands. By the time Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office in March, Fort Sumter had only six weeks of food left. This was the first crisis of Lincoln’s presidency. Neither side wanted to be seen as instigating a war but southern delegations were rebuffed by Lincoln who felt they had no authority since the Confederacy wasn’t even a real country in his eyes. Lincoln pledged to resupply the fort.
The Confederates had no idea that the fort was so poorly manned and armed. Even the newly appointed Secretary of State, William Seward, warned that attacking the fort “…will only strike a hornet's nest.” But at 1 a.m. on April 12th Confederate commander P.T. Beauregard sent a message to the fort politely asking if the Fort Commander Major Robert Anderson would, “…tell us when you will evacuate and we will abstain from firing on you.” The reply from Major Anderson came, “We will evacuate on April 15th.” Southern hospitality notwithstanding, Beauregard felt this was too late and must be some kind of Yankee stall tactic. When this last message was passed to Confederate officers, Major Anderson stoically added, “If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we meet in the next.” He then looked around to make certain someone wrote that bossness down. “We will open fire in…in one hour,” was the answer he received.
At 4:30 am Lt. Henry Farley fired a 10” mortar (siege cannon used for indirect fire) to signal everyone on shore to open up on Fort Sumter. Forty-Three cannon from two forts and even a barge commenced firing. No less than 3000 enemy rounds had been fired at Fort Sumter. The formal surrender was agreed to at 2:30 pm on the 13th. From the rooftops of their mansions and businesses, Charlestonians crowded to cheer on their troops. Women waved handkerchiefs and everybody had a good show of the Yankee fort being pounded. The shelling continued, for thirty-four hours without a single life being lost, but Fort Sumter was in ruins. Finally, Major Robert Anderson lowered the shredded Union flag and raised the white flag of surrender. Beauregard allowed his former teacher at West Point to fire off a one hundred gun salute to the Star and Stripes. Before they got to fifty, one of the guns exploded killing two soldiers and wounding others. Ironically, these were the only deaths in the entire affair. Most of the Union soldiers were allowed to return home.
Fort Sumter became a symbol. For the Confederacy, it showed that they could stand up to the Union, to the North it nudged them into action. The flag that flew during the battle was paraded around the north and volunteers flocked to join the war. It was said that 75,000 men tried to volunteer from Ohio alone while four additional southern states decided to join the Confederacy. The war was on…
This Means War!
After capturing Fort Sumter the rebels got down to the business of building a country. The secessionists relocated their capital to Richmond, Virginia, elected Jefferson Davis, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, as their president, and basically plagiarized the United States Constitution except for parts added in making slavery legal and permanent. Newspapers whipped the people into a frenzy to gain support for independence (while bands played ‘Dixie’) and that apparently is how a country is born.
Lincoln and the nation had waited for the South to make the first move. And now the battle of Fort Sumter changed everything. The South had made the first move. Lincoln immediately called for 75,000 volunteers to bring the Confederacy back into the Union by force. Jefferson Davis called for 100,000 volunteers to join the Confederate side. Excitement ran high on both sides as thousands of men raced to the recruitment office. Ironically, the north had so many volunteers that they had to turn some away.
Between April and June, four more states: Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas voted to split. The four remaining border states, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware stayed with the Union not only because many folks in those states had more in common with the north, but also because Lincoln used what some might call shady Constitutional methods to keep the "sesch's" from getting their way.
Maryland was the most important border state. Had Maryland gone South, Washington D.C. would have been completely surrounded by enemy territory. As it was the fight for Maryland was a tough one from the start. The mayor and chief of police as well as the governor all had their hearts in Dixie and ordered the police not to interfere as mobs tore up rail lines carrying supplies to Washington. When the first Union volunteers started got off the train in Baltimore they were greeted by an angry mob of Confederacy supporters. Pelted with bricks and rocks the Union soldiers tried to rush through the crowd to a rail line that connected Baltimore to D.C. Some had to turn back. Eager to avoid adding fuel to the secessionist fire, the soldiers were ordered not to fire unless fired upon first.
Throughout April and May of 1861 southern saboteurs did their best to try to wreck the Union war effort. Lincoln made it a crime to support secession and batches of secessionists (including the mayor and governor of Maryland) were rounded up and jailed without trial. Many people criticized “King Lincoln” for suspending the right of Habeas Corpus, (the right to be charged with a crime).
If Maryland left the Union, Washington D.C. would have been completely surrounded by the enemy. If Kentucky left, the Ohio River would have been lost. If Missouri seceded, the Confederates would have nearly complete control of the Mississippi River- the most important waterway in the west. The Confederacy had already recognized those states as fellow members but was unable to force out the Union army, they were Confederates only on paper. Lincoln saw suspending the Fourth Amendment as a necessary evil to preserve the Union. Right or wrong, the plan worked and the rebellious border states stayed loyal to the Union throughout the war.
If those Deep South states thought that they could win a war for independence all by themselves, they must have been dreaming. The original seven Confederate states had a lot of cotton but not much else in the way of materials that could help them actually win a war. The Confederacy kept pushing their sister slave states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) to join them in their fight for state’s rights. Without them, the Confederacy couldn’t hope to win a war against the industrial might of the north.
The Upper South had half of the southern white population who would one day make up the Confederate army, not to mention that most of the South’s crops, railroads, and factories. The stakes were high for both the north and south. The Confederacy was desperate to get their hands on these raw materials. The Union was equally desperate to keep them out of southern hands.
Dealing With the Crisis
From the window of the White House Lincoln could literally see the flag of the enemy flying just across the river in Alexandria, VA. But his troubles didn’t end there. The four remaining slave states of Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland were full of secessionists who any day could join the Confederacy, leaving the capital of Washington D.C. entirely surrounded by enemy territory. Not a good way to begin a war.
In response to this national security threat, Lincoln made the first of many unpopular decisions by suspending the privilege of Habeas Corpus. We’ll spare you the torture of a drawn-out legal history by saying that this core part of our Constitution protects America from becoming Nazi Germany or North Korea in preventing the police from knocking on your door and hauling you away without a good reason. Although the Constitution gives the government the right to suspend this law in times of national emergency few presidents have opted to play this card. Fearing the total collapse of the United States was at hand, the suspension of Habeas Corpus was put into effect making it a crime to even talk favorably about secession. Newspapers were shut down and thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers were rounded up and jailed for months without trial-- including the mayor and police chief of Baltimore. Lincoln was denounced as a dictator and tyrant. Newspapers mockingly ran cartoons of King Lincoln. Not a good way to begin a presidency.
Secession Demonstration in Savannah, GA
The Vote on Southern Secession
was far from unanimous
The Confederates used the principles of the American Revolution to support their claim for secession. They even adopted Ben Franklin's "Join or Die" used 60 years before by the American colonists.
April 4, 1861. The Confederate Flag flying over the captured fort.
The Baltimore Plot
In Baltimore, Maryland a plot was uncovered to assassinate President-Elect Lincoln before he ever reached Washington. The leader of the assassins was Cypriano Ferrandini who told his co-conspirators that “Never, never shall Lincoln be president ...He must die—and die he shall.” The plan was to distract the police at the Camden Station with a riot and in the chaos rush Lincoln's railroad car and strike the fatal blow.
Alan Pinkerton, one of the countries top detectives, had infiltrated the group pretending to be a Confederate agent. With plot revealed, Pinkerton swung into action to ensure that Lincoln made it to Washington alive.
Using deception and disguise Lincoln snuck out of Philadelphia under the cover of night. His train reached Baltimore in the dead of night, hours ahead of schedule. But in Baltimore the most dangerous part of the journey had just begun. In those days most railroad tracks didn't connect and Lincoln had to secretly escorted to another station a mile away. Outside Lincoln's car unsuspecting crowds were gathered and singing Dixie. If it was discovered that Lincoln was on board a mob was certain to be called and the assassins would be given time to make the kill.
But everything went according to plan and Lincoln's train arrived in Washington preventing the assassination.
Baltimore Riot of 1861
On April 19, 1861 Confederate sympathizers openly attacked federal troops on their way to Washington in preparation for war with the South.