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. 🙂
As Brooks well knows, a modest collection of primary source documents relating to secession (of all the Southern states) can be found at:
Might be considered good reading material for this series of blog posts.
What issues were at stake? Slavery, i.e. the loss of millions of dollars in property; and the loss of the slavery and class culture that emanated from that peculiar economic system.
I have a question Professor. This is a little bit beyond the parameters you’ve laid out so I hope you’ll indulge me, but didn’t Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens not support secession at all, like as late as 1859 (Stephens until ’60)? Neither were Fire-Eaters correct? Didn’t Jefferson Davis himself only turn in favor of secession once he realized popular opinion had turned in favor of secession, metastasized by the belief that a Republican Presidency would be a serious democratic challenge to slavery?
In partial answer to Lyle, here is what Davis had to say about the resistance of Free Staters in Kansas:
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to Bvt. Major General Persifor F. Smith:
Washington, September 3, 1856
The position of the insurgents … is that of open rebellion against the laws and constitutional authorities, with such an open manifestation of a purpose to spread devastation over the land, as no longer justifies further hesitation or indulgence. To you, as to every soldier, whose habitual feeling is to protect the citizens of his own country, and to only use his arms against a public enemy, it cannot be otherwise than deeply painful to be brought into conflict with any portion of his fellow-countrymen, But patriotism and humanity alike require that rebellion should be promptly crushed, and the perpetration of crimes which now disturb the  peace and security of the good people of the Territory of Kansas should be effectually checked. You will, therefore, energetically employ al the means within your reach to restore the supremacy of the law, always endeavoring to carry out your present purpose to prevent the unnecessary effusion of blood.
Adjutant General to Bvt. Major General Persifor F. Smith, 24 September 1856, quoting Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to the Adjutant General, 23 September 1856:
“The only distinction of parties which, in the military point of view, it is necessary to note, is that which distinguishes those who respect and maintain the laws and organized government from those who combine for revolutionary resistance to the constituted authorities and laws of the land. The armed combination of the latter class came within the denunciation of the President’s proclamation, and are proper subjects upon which to employ the military laws.
“… And it is to be feared that with the time thus lost will pass the opportunity for that full vindication of the supremacy of the law which the reputation and dignity of the government demand.”
Senate Executive Documents, 34th Congress, 3rd session, Report of the Secretary of War, Serial 876.pp. 29-30, 33