The Upper South Secedes … well, some of it

Explanations of secession often obscure the fact that of the fifteen slave states in 1860, eight had not seceded at the time of Fort Sumter.  Even after the firing on Fort Sumter, four slave states still remained within the Union, although three were divided (and I think Kentucky’s “neutrality” is in its way a form of conditional unionism that comes close to secession, and that’s being kind).  Only Delaware seemed fairly safe: in Maryland and Missouri rival sides continued to class, just as in Tennessee and Virginia there remained significant pro-Union elements.

What I find interesting about scholarship covering the secession crisis is that most of it concerns the decision-making of the Lincoln administration.  Yes, there are some very nice studies of politics in the upper South (Dan Crofts’s Reluctant Confederates takes pride of place in my mind), but we don’t have much of a Confederate counterpart that talks about how Jefferson Davis chose confrontation and risked war.

That said, and setting aside the role of slavery in the secession of the Deep South, how do you explain the secession of the Upper South?  What role does slavery as an issue play in that decision?  What role does what happened at Fort Sumter trigger secession?

11 thoughts on “The Upper South Secedes … well, some of it

  1. Jeff Davis August 1, 2011 / 6:09 pm

    I think A little pre-Sumter history is in order. Remember Davis was Secretary of War to Franklin Pierce. John B. Floyd succeeded Davis and was Secretary of War to James Buchanan. As Secretary of War, both Davis and Floyd set about stocking southern forts and arsenals with weapons, equipment and ammunition. So, as early as 1853 there was adefined path by the slave interests toward was and secession [they would have to secede to fight a war of independence].

    The night before he resigned from the Senate, January 20th, 1861, Davis wrote a letter to Franklin Pierce in which he wrote:

    “Washington D.C. Jany. 20. 1861
    “My dear friend,

    “I have often and sadly turned my thoughts to you during the troublous times through which we have been passing and now I come to the hard task of announcing to you that the hour is at hand which closes my connection with the United States, for the independence and Union of which my Father bled and in the service of which I have sought to emulate the example he set for my guidance. Mississippi not as a matter of choice but of necessity has resolved to enter on the trial of secession. Those who have driven her to this alternative threaten to deprive her of the right to require that her government shall rest on the consent of the governed, to substitute foreign force for domestic support, to reduce a state to the condition from which the colony rose. In the attempt to avoid the issue which had been joined by the country, the present Administration has complicated and precipitated the question. Even now if the duty “to preserve the public property” was rationally regarded the probable collision at Charleston would be avoided. Security far better than any which the federal troops can give might be obtained in consideration of the little garrison of Fort Sumpter. If the disavowal of any purpose to coerce So. Ca. be sincere the possession of a work to command the harbor is worse than useless.

    “When Lincoln comes in he will have but to continue in the path of his predecessor to inaugurate a a civil war and, leave a soi disant democratic administration responsible for the fact. Genl. Cushing was here last week and when we parted it seemed like taking a last leave of a Brother.

    “I leave immediately for Missi. and know not what may devolve upon me after my return. Civil war has only horror for me, but whatever circumstances demand shall be met as a duty and I trust be so discharged that you will not be ashamed of our former connection or cease to be my friend.

    “I had hoped this summer to have had an opportunity to see you and Mrs. Pierce and to have shown to you our children. Mrs. Davis was sorely disappointed when we turned Southward without seeing you, I believe she wrote to Mrs. Pierce in explanation of the circumstances which prevented us from executing our cherished plan of a visit to you when we should leave West Point.

    “Mrs. Davis joins me in kindest remembrance to Mrs. Pierce and the expression of the hope that we may yet have you both at our country home. Do me the favor to write to me often, address Hurricane P.O. Warren County, Missi.

    “May God bless you is ever the prayer of your friend

    “Jeffn. Davis”

    In his second paragraph, Davis obviously writes as though a grand plan has come to fruition. [This was about eleven days after the Star of the West incident, a failed attempt to resupply Ft. Sumter.

    Based on this I have felt for a long time that the states were pretty much lined up ahead of time to secede and the secession conventions were probably pro forma in nature.

    That said, when the deep south began to secede, I think the upper south’s reluctance was in hopes of avoiding war. Certainly the Virginia state government had to know that if they seceded and war commenced, there was a strong likelyhood that more than a little fighting would occur in Virginia, and North Carolina probably felt the same way.

    When Beauregard ordered the firing on Sumter in April, the proverbial fat was in the fire. I believe Davis ordered that move to pull the upper south into the secession movement. Lincoln’s call for troops from Virginia to put down the rebellion was something Virginia could not tolerate. Where Virginia went, the rest of the upper south would follow, some unsuccessfully [border states].

    Slavery was simply THE issue that caused secession. But as noted above, I believe the whole thing was mapped out years in advance.

  2. James F. Epperson August 1, 2011 / 6:52 pm

    I think the reason for the delay was that the Unionist faction—conditional though it was—had more political “oomph” in the Upper South, and so was able to delay things. The role of the Sumter incident is that it made clear that there was going to be a war to resolve secession; in that case, many of the political elites in the Upper South, especially in VA, NC, and TN, wanted to side with the Deep South. In the Border States, the Unionist faction was strong enough, politically, to prevent outright secession, although wars within the war raged in MO and, to a lesser extent KY (and TN and VA, of course).

    This is all very conventional, but it is no less true for being so, IMO. The role of slavery was that it was the reason for the desire of the elites to take their states out—they wanted to be with their slaveholding comrades.

  3. Al Mackey August 1, 2011 / 7:19 pm

    To quote a friend, “Indeed.” 🙂 Regarding Sumter, Grady McWhiney’s essay in Civil War History comes to mind. There was an earlier one by Richard N. Current that I’m trying to get my hands on, and there was an article by Ludwell Johnson in the Journal of Southern History.

    There is some scholarship on the Conditional Unionists that, I think, is relevant to the Upper South’s secession. Slavery was still their motivation, but they felt that the best way to protect it up to Lincoln’s call for troops was to be in the Union. Freehling’s “Showdown in Virginia” shows pretty clearly that protecting slavery was uppermost in the minds of the Virginia secession delegates. They were divided over whether secession at that time was the expedient solution. After Sumter, though, as Thomas Goode said [in response to none other than Jubal Early], “The great popular heart of Virginia is now throbbing in sympathy and unison with those gallant men who, upon Carolina’s soil, are battling unto death for the common rights of the South.” The delegates did talk about resisting coercion as well, so that certainly played a role also. What I found interesting is this from Crofts: “Though secessionists did not go out of their way to advertise the fact, they received enthusiastic and tangible support from the slave traders of eastern Virginia. Sending slaves south was one of the most lucrative businesses in Richmond. … Unionists could point out that few Virginia products were sold in the deep South, but slaves were the major exception to that generalization. The prospect of a seven-state nation in the deep South, in relationship to which Virginia would be part of a foreign country, did not please slave traders. Their support for a united South was intensified when the new Confederacy established a policy of refusing slave imports–either from Africa or from the upper South.” [pp. 315-316]

    Crofts later writes of the Virginia Unionists, “Many concluded, after the events of mid-April, that Lincoln had deliberately chosen ‘to drive off all the Slave states, in order to make war on them and annihilate slavery.'” [pp. 337-338] So even “coercion” as a motive had a slavery tinge to it.

  4. Michael Furlan August 1, 2011 / 7:20 pm

    A quote from the above mentioned document goes a long way to give an answer to Brooks questions.

    Dan Croft speaking:

    “It is hard to say that Virginia was the master of its destiny in
    1860-61. After all, over two-thirds of the voters on February 4
    voted against secession for existing causes. See mine to Barton.
    Note also the wonderful summation by David Potter in his classic
    book, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861:

    Was not the upper South rather more in a position similar to
    that of a moderate and powerful nation which has made an
    unlimited alliance to protect a weak but belligerent
    neighbor, and which has thus placed its own peace at the
    discretion of its trigger-happy ally? (p. 512)”

  5. marcferguson August 1, 2011 / 7:38 pm

    The protection of slavery had dominated the debates over secession prior to the firing on Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops, so in my opinion it is not accurate to say that Virginia didn’t ultimately secede over the issue of slavery. This was clearly central to the decision-making in Virginia, and cannot be dismissed because it took other events to push Virginia into the Deep South secessionist camp. The attack on and fall of Sumter created an enthusiasm among young hotheads in Virginia who viewed many of those meeting in Convention as old fuddy-duddies, and along with Lincoln’s call for troops spurred them into action to force the issue.

  6. Kevin August 1, 2011 / 8:26 pm

    I think we should also keep in mind that white Southerners debated amongst themselves over the future of slavery. Consider William Freehling’s analysis of Virginia, which emphasizes the bitter disagreements between the eastern and western counties over how much slave properly should be taxed. It adds an important dimension to the North – South disputes. Western Virginians believed that the tax exemption on slave property above $300 meant that they would have to pay a higher percentage on taxable property.

    Perhaps another way to put it is that the future of slavery in the South had a great deal to do with internal political disputes as it did with the broader national debate. I hope that makes sense as it is late.

  7. Brooks D. Simpson August 1, 2011 / 8:32 pm

    I’d just like to remind everyone that the Upper South is more than Virginia.

    • Jeff Davis August 2, 2011 / 10:34 am

      Indeed it is.

      In all the upper south states, secessionism was pushed by the slavery interests.

      My opinion is that though Davis and the deep southern Confederacy manipulated events that forced Virginia to move to secession. And as stated above, as Virginia went, so went the whole of the upper south.

      Indeed, Maryland went through secession gyrations that bordered on treasonous actions that Taney attempted to shield from his Circuit Court bench. But unionist maneuvering and Benjamin Butler short circuited Maryland secessionists.

      Kentucky had a bit more unionist sentiment in power, not enough to sway it away from a compromise of neutrality, however. A summer, 1861 election brought more unionists to elected office seemingly to seal Kentucky for the Union, but invasions in fall of 1861 [saved by Grant] and again in 1862 [saved by Buell] put Kentucky’s status into question temporarily.

      Missouri stayed in the Union but was almost as much of a battlefield as Virginia, and had been going through the fighting for several years, though not on the scale of what Virginia would endure.

      In all the upper south states, secessionism was pushed by the slavery interests.

      Again, I also think geography has a bit to do with things, too. The farther you got from the deep south slave states, the less political power was held by secessionists and the more was held by unionists. It was not just moving north, it was moving west as well.

  8. Kevin August 1, 2011 / 8:52 pm

    Thanks for the reminder, Brooks. 🙂

  9. marcferguson August 2, 2011 / 6:35 am

    “What I find interesting about scholarship covering the secession crisis is that most of it concerns the decision-making of the Lincoln administration.  Yes, there are some very nice studies of politics in the upper South (Dan Crofts’s Reluctant Confederates takes pride of place in my mind), but we don’t have much of a Confederate counterpart that talks about how Jefferson Davis chose confrontation and risked war.”

    Yes, I’ve often wondered why no one has written the Confederate equivalent to Potter’s, Stampp’s, and McClintock’s books focusing on the decision-making process of the Lincoln administration. There is much to be examined, from the “Peace Commissioners,” to the decisions around Fort Pickens and Fort Sumter, to the relationship of that government with the Secession Commissioners, and the role of the newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s