This winter marks the 150th anniversary of the secession of seven states and the formation of the Confederate States of America. At a time when people like to discuss issues of patriotism, loyalty, and citizenship, it behooves us to look back at the great secession winter of 1860-61 and explore what happened and why. One can’t restrict that exploration to a single post, and so, over the next eight weeks, all the way up to the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Confederacy, I propose to explore various aspects of that process in an effort to understand what happened and why.
In this initial post, I want to set forth some parameters and assumptions that will guide this exploration. First, the reasons people supported secession may not be the same as the reasons they went to war. Second, it’s more important to read what the participants said in explaining what they were doing and why than to rely on interpretations offered long after the fact, even when those explanations are offered by participants. Both Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens changed their justification for secession and the formation of the Confederacy after the war, when it was no longer popular to stress the role that slavery played in the origins of the conflict. Third, for purposes of this discussion I’m going to focus on the original seven states that seceded. I may turn to looking later on at what happened to the Upper South, but for the moment I’m looking at the Deep South.
So it really doesn’t matter what Robert E. Lee said or did in 1860-61, for example, in terms of this post: after all, he was a Virginian, and the decision for secession in Virginia took place in April 1861. Nor does it really matter if someone’s ancestor did not own slaves yet fought for the Confederacy, because this discussion is about secession, not war. People try to use individual biography all the time to discredit larger explanations (for example, the fact that Ulysses S. Grant once owned a slave is sometimes cited as evidence that the war was not about slavery … or that the Yankees were hypocrites … or whatever). As part of this approach, I’ve seen assertions that neither Lee nor Stonewall Jackson owned slaves, the records of their ownership to the contrary notwithstanding (there’s the seeds of another series in refuting such claims, but one thing at a time). Neither Grant nor Lee nor Jackson played a role in the secession winter of 1860-61, however, so we can set aside such statements for another time.
Let’s look instead at asking and answering the important questions. Why did many white southerners support secession? Why did many white southerners oppose it? What were the issues at stake? What was the political environment at the time? What was the state of slavery as an institution at the time? Why did secession prevail, and what can we learn about the Confederacy by looking at its formation? I have fairly established answers for some of these questions, but I’m still working through other matters, and of course input and response is welcome. Just don’t confuse that with denial.