What Should White Southerners Have Done in the Winter of 1860-61?

I have always thought that the decision of white southerners to seek independence in the aftermath of the election of 1860 was a logical response to the election of Abraham Lincoln (just as I think there’s much sense to be found in the arguments advanced by their opponents in the secession debates). Indeed, one can see what happens during the winter of 1860-61 (and beyond in the case of the upper South) as a debate over the future of the South. Participants in that debate were quite serious in their contention that the fate of the region depended on the choice they made. Those debates also make clear the centrality of slavery to the debate over secession: both advocates and opponents of secession put slavery and its future at the center of their arguments. For many people the primary question was whether slavery was safer inside or outside the United States.

We spend a lot of time talking about secessionists. Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at their opponents. They were not unified: many were, in fact, conditional unionists who held that there was a right of secession but who were not convinced that it was the right step to take to protect slavery. What was their vision of the South? How did they plan to promote and protect slavery?

I’ve argued here and elsewhere that the Confederacy was a counterproductive experience that helped to destroy much of what it was supposed to preserve and protect, and that much of this destruction came at the hands of white southerners. With that experience in mind, I wonder what sort of South would have evolved had secession not taken place. There was very little interest in ending slavery. Although someone may be outraged that I pointed out that secession advocate Elijah Chastain of Georgia called for the reopening of the international slave trade as a way to ensure that every white southerner could own a slave, no amount of denial by Confederate heritage apologists can erase that record. At least we know what Chastain’s South would have looked like. What would the South have looked like in the eyes of an opponent of immediate secession, and what would that person have done to achieve that vision?

Let’s not argue what they should have done (especially if that includes exploring the alternative left unexplored, that of ending slavery). Let’s put ourselves in their place, understand the world as they understood it, and then proceed to figure out what their vision was and how they planned to achieve it.

18 thoughts on “What Should White Southerners Have Done in the Winter of 1860-61?

  1. Charles Lovejoy December 14, 2013 / 12:31 pm

    Having the advantage of hind sight, I would suggest following voices of moderation like Benjamin Hill and even Alexander Stephens of Georgia. It has always been my feelings that the radical fire eaters stirred up the frenzy that ended up leading to Secession. There were moderate voices of reason in the south but the fire eaters seemed to tip the scales in the direction of secession.

    • Joshism December 14, 2013 / 2:21 pm

      I would go so far as to say if anyone should have been hung for treason in the 1860s it was not Jeff Davis or Robert E. Lee, but those who agitated most fervently for secession: Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey.

    • Don December 14, 2013 / 3:58 pm

      I agree. Remember, North Carolina, Virginia, and Arkansas did not secede until the Confederacy fired on Sumter and Lincoln responded by calling for troops to supress the rebellion. I have long thought that the decision to fire on Sumter was made with the intention of forcing the moderates to choose secession. It worked. Fortunately, it had the effect of uniting and galvanizing the free states to suppress the rebellion and preserve the union. It also spelled the death knell of slavery.

  2. John Foskett December 14, 2013 / 1:14 pm

    “How did they plan to promote and protect slavery?” That is the crux of the question. The “fire-eaters'” feared that with Lincoln’s election (1) expansion of slavery in the territories was DOA; (2) the Congress would become increasingly weighted in favor of Northern/abolitionist votes; and (3) eventually this would lead to forced abolition. The first two, at least, were hardly fanciful or unduly paranoid. I’m skeptical that a committed unionist could accept these and yet come up with something other than a self-deluded “plan” to “promote and protect” while still remaining in this union. I don’t know enough about unionists like the elder Crittenden to answer the question. But I believe that the Secession Commissioners shared my skepticism – hence their choice of arguments to their recalcitrant brethren. In short, any rational, savvy Southern unionist who opposed secession probably recognized in some vague way, at least, that he was choosing union over slavery. All speculation on my part.

  3. Joshism December 14, 2013 / 2:35 pm

    I wonders if anything could have been done to prevent South Carolina’s secession in response to Lincoln’s election. Did that state have a moderate faction large enough to mount any meaningful resistance to immediate secession?

    From what I understand, the Conditional Unionists of the Deep South were similiar to the Upper South leaders that lead the second wave of secession in response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers. If South Carolina goes it alone, Lincoln probably still eventually has to call on volunteers to put down a rebellion then the rest of the South secedes anyway – just at a later date.

    If SC is somehow dissuaded from secession then the Conditional Unionists probably agitate for something similiar to the Corwin Amendment to secure protection against perceived threats from the Republicans. In leu of having a rebellion to put down, Lincoln seems unlikely to have made any ‘overt act’ to trigger secession (beyond simply being elected). Radical Republicans might have tried to force through some kind of bill the South would deem offensive, but I’m skeptical on their ability to successfully pass such legislature (although I would have to examine the makeup of Congress elected in 1860 to really dismiss that chance). Perhaps the continued debate over Kansas’ admission as a free state would have caused a spark, or maybe the fuse would have simply burned shorter by 1864 as Radical Republicans and Southern fire-eaters continued to increase the sectional tensions.

    • SF Walker December 14, 2013 / 10:03 pm

      I doubt if anything could have been done to prevent South Carolina’s secession, given that the secession convention formed by the state legislature voted 169-0 in favor of it. There were a few Unionists in the state, notably James L. Petigru, an attorney and politician who was highly respected in Charleston, even after voicing his opposition to the Confederacy. Petigru had successfully opposed Nullification back in the ’30s, but I think that by 1860 the rhetoric of the fireaters along with the political atmosphere created by events like John Brown’s raid had made any real opposition to secession impossible.

    • George December 14, 2013 / 11:03 pm

      It’s interesting that you should bring this up. South Carolina appears to have been a royal pain in the butt back in those days! Remember these guys caused a real stir in 1832 over tariffs (Nullification Crisis) and also threatened to secede in 1850 over California’s statehood. President Andrew Jackson wrote in May 1833 “The tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. the next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.” I know this probably sounds silly but it almost appears as though South Carolina was just a bunch of malcontents who were looking for any any excuse they could find to get out of the union!

      • M.D. Blough December 15, 2013 / 12:32 am

        The mystery to me is why it ever ratified in the first place. I think that’s why it kept agitating to get the other slave states riled up. They knew they couldn’t survive long on their own and, if it tried leaving on its own, the other states and federal government might let it just to have some relief before they had to take it back.

      • SF Walker December 15, 2013 / 6:38 am

        It does almost seem that South Carolina was looking for any reason to leave the Union–especially considering that tariffs weren’t even mentioned in her Declaration of Causes for Secession. So Andrew Jackson may have been onto something when he claimed that tariffs were merely a pretext.

      • Don December 15, 2013 / 5:13 pm

        As one South Carolinian put it at the time about secession:
        We are too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum.

        • SF Walker December 16, 2013 / 4:30 am

          That’s correct—James L. Petigru said that. Secession and the Confederacy’s hostile actions that winter ended up doing far more harm to the South than anything that could have happened to them as part of the Union.

  4. James F. Epperson December 14, 2013 / 6:22 pm

    I think the South had created its own “echo chamber” of discussion, in which the election of a Republican President was, ipso facto, a reason to break away. I think all voices of moderation were being drowned out or co-opted—-“Yes, we will support the Union up until it begins to act like a true nation.”

    • Don December 14, 2013 / 8:15 pm

      I am puzzled by the tendency to analyze the decision to secede in only defense of slavery (real or imagined threats)terms. Even a cursory look at the secessionists reveals a belief in the superiority of a slave society and the need to feed and expand the reach of such a society. Anyone who thinks that the Confederates would have been content with mere seperation ignores the claims made for expansion northward, westward and southward. How long would the Confederacy have accepted the borders of the confederate states? Their eyes were on Maryland, Kentucky , Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Mexico, Central America, Cuba, Haiti and others. Their vision was that of the Roman Empire, another slave empire.

      • M.D. Blough December 15, 2013 / 1:06 am

        Don-I’ve frequently made that point in response to those who believe that “letting the erring sisters go” would have produced peace. Not only would Confederates have sought to liberate areas of secessionist sentiment in union states, there would have been pressure on what remained of the US to do the same for unionist areas. West Virginia wasn’t the only one. It was merely the one that was fortunate enough to be bordered by two states loyal to the Union so that it was comparatively simple for military support to reach the Unionists. The pressure on the US to go to the relief of East Tennessee Unionists would have been enormous (as it was in the real war). Confederate expansionism would have caused international tension as it pro-slavery filibustering during the 1850s.

    • M.D. Blough December 14, 2013 / 8:43 pm

      I think, especially in the Deep South, dissent among whites to the Calhoun slavery as a positive good doctrine had been suppressed for decades. Dissenters, even those like Hinton Helper whose dissent had nothing to do with any sympathy or fellow feeling for the enslaved, were forced into exile, intimidated into silence by social or even physical pressure or even killed (one of those killed during the Texas “arson” hysteria was a minister whose only offense appears to have been staying with the northern branch of the Methodist church after the schism over slavery).

    • Stephen Graham December 15, 2013 / 11:40 pm

      That’s the point made by Joseph Kelly in America’s Longest Siege. The rise of the positive good ideology made it much harder for dissent to exist.

      Adding to the problem was the lack of a unified program and a charismatic leader on the Unionist side. It’s hard to get people fired up about a lack of action; that the best thing you can do is not doing anything. There was a clear problem developing with the Republican party. Waiting for the hotheads to dissipate their zeal might have been the best option. But it’s not actually _doing_ anything.

  5. Michael Martorelli December 16, 2013 / 9:55 am

    In my MA thesis for American Military University in mid-2011, I argued that the Southerns did not appreciate “The Unintended Economic Consequences of Secession”. If they had more completely considered these issues, I wonder if reasonable men could have overcome the fireaters’ pronouncements and developed an alternate response to Lincon’s election.

    • SF Walker December 16, 2013 / 11:37 am

      Very good point. The Confederate economy completely self-destructed within four years. Southern assets were mostly in the form of land and slaves and thus couldn’t be monetized to support their war effort. Add to this their shortage of specie, lack of a sound currency, and their failure to restrict the states, cities, banks, etc. from printing money and the South’s economic disadvantage becomes staggering. Cotton planters made matters worse by hoarding their cotton in an effort to entice Europe to intervene–this just helped to cripple the South’s cotton brokers, banks, and railroads.

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