A fascinating quality of the human mind is its ability to hold firmly and simultaneously to contradictory ideas. Slave owners were a case in point. They regularly rhapsodized about how pleased their “people” were in slavery. In his famous 1858 speech, South Carolina planter and ideologue James Henry Hammond confidently declared that the South’s slaves were “happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations.”1 Former Florida governor Richard K. Call enlarged on the subject in an 1861 letter to a northerner. The black man’s “inferiority,” he wrote, “physical, moral, and mental,” showed he was “designed by the Creator for a slave.” And because his limited brain was simply unable “to contemplate slavery as a degradation,” he was typically “docile and humble,” both “cheerful and contented.”2
But even as they tirelessly repeated these stock phrases—and at one level believed them, too—slave owners also worried that their slaves secretly longed for freedom and would seize it if given the chance. “Slaves are human beings, and as such, are endowed with volition and reason,” noted one Georgia newspaper editor. That fact made “property in slaves more delicate and precarious than that of any other species of property.”3 Frederick Douglass summarized the masters’ problem more completely. The slaves’ human intelligence combined with their equally human striving for freedom endangered the masters’ power, he said. For that reason, “no property can require more strongly favorable conditions for its existence.”4 Tennessee master Oliver P. Temple confirmed that judgment retrospectively. “The supersensitiveness of slaveholders as to slavery was not unnatural,” he wrote. Because of “the inherent weakness of the institution,” they “had to guard it against attack, whether from without or within, with the utmost vigilance.” They could therefore tolerate no open “opposition to it, without danger of the most serious consequences.”5
Masters’ concerns about controlling their human property lay squarely at the root of the escalating North-South conflict that finally erupted in war. To more firmly hold and work their slaves profitably, they strove to keep their black laborers and servants uneducated, uninformed, isolated from dangerous influences, closely watched, intimidated, and convinced that enslavement was their permanent, immutable condition. To accomplish all that required confronting slaves with overwhelming force. It also required that the white population be dependably and visibly united in support of black servitude—and ready to enforce it. To allow antislavery sentiments to spread among whites might weaken the aura of permanence with which masters tried to surround their “peculiar institution.” That, in turn, would surely encourage slaves to question, test, resist, and even openly challenge the masters’ power.
As the years passed, however, proslavery leaders found it harder and harder to sustain that degree of white unity in the United States as a whole. Their efforts to do so collided with the long-term pattern of economic, social, cultural, and intellectual developments in the North.
In colonial North America, slavery had existed in both the northern and southern provinces of what would eventually become the United States. But bondage had never been central to the more northerly colonies’ economies, and by the time of the Revolution they had already embarked upon a course of economic and social development that differed markedly—and increasingly—from the South’s. The virulent strain of anti-black racism that justified slavery still throve there and consigned African Americans to second-class status, denying them in most places not only the right to vote but also equal access to the courts, public schools, public accommodations, housing, and jobs.
But while racism remained very much alive and well in the North, enthusiasm for bound labor did not. Merchants, bankers, and manufacturers in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, and elsewhere were happy to sell goods and services and to lend money to southern slaveholders. But they did not try to run their own operations with bound labor. An economy based on a combination of small farms, lively internal commerce, and growing urban and manufacturing sectors seemed more compatible with self-employment and the hiring of legally free wage laborers than it did with slavery.
In the North just as in the South, economic development blazed a trail for culture. As middle-class northerners embraced their region’s distinctive social order, they came to view personal autonomy and the ownership of one’s own body as the essential pillars of a good society. As early as the 1780s, the outright ownership of one human being by another came to appear economically backward, morally repugnant, and politically poisonous. By the end of the 1850s, as one South Carolinian complained, even conservative-minded northerners were “conscientiously convinced that slavery in principle is wrong and that the institution is evil.”6 As those sentiments grew and spread, the first casualty was what remained of slavery in the northern states. Within a few decades following the Revolution, every one of them had either outlawed it outright or set legal mechanisms in motion that would do away with slavery over the course of time.
Slavery’s declining support in the northern states reflected an even broader, transatlantic reality. Throughout western Europe and its colonies, popular demands for individual freedoms and self-government were undermining slavery in both thought and action. The Great French Revolution that began in 1789 opened the door to the most massive and most successful slave revolt in the western hemisphere—in France’s Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue, which shortly renamed itself Haiti. Soon afterward, France abolished slavery throughout its empire. When the Bourbon monarchy returned to power in France in 1814, it relegalized slavery. But in 1848 a new republican revolution outlawed bondage once again, this time permanently.
Meanwhile, in 1833–34, Britain began abolishing bound labor in its own empire. Within a few years, it had emancipated slaves in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, and the neighboring islands, as well as in Guiana, Mauritius, South Africa, and elsewhere. In much of Central and South America colonial struggles for independence from Spain’s empire had badly undermined slavery, and by 1860 it seemed to many observers to be living on borrowed time there.7
The slave owners of the U.S. South were keenly aware of these developments. They faced a world, one southern newspaper editor complained, in which “the social system upon which the wealth and power of the South depend” had “enemies by the thousands … all over Christendom.”8
The relative ease with which slavery had declined in the northern United States and the British Empire led many critics of the institution to anticipate a similarly smooth evolution in the U.S. South. Over the course of time, they expected, the same light of reason that had illuminated northern and British minds would do the same for their southern cousins. Slavery would then disappear from the nation as a whole—gradually, peacefully, irresistibly.
But those who expected slavery to die a natural death in the United States seriously underestimated the southern masters’ attachment to what they called their “way of life.” Slavery had been growing steadily more profitable and ever more central to the identity and values of the elite, especially in the cotton-growing states of the lower South. Mounting challenges to slavery’s legitimacy therefore spurred most slaveholders not to emancipate but to dig in.
In 1820, northern congressmen tried to give slavery’s expected nationwide decline a helping hand by legally barring it from the prospective new state of Missouri. To the surprise of some, however, the South’s political leaders dug in their heels, resisting slavery’s restriction tooth and nail with at least as much determination as their opponents sought it. In the process, they revealed a commitment to bondage far less equivocal than were the Jeffersonian phrases they had been repeating by rote for so many decades.9 “The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls,” Massachusetts’s John Quincy Adams noted in his diary. “In the abstract they admit slavery is an evil,” he observed. “But when probed to the quick upon it they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vain glory in their condition of masterdom.”10 It was during this time that the “necessary evil” view of slavery began to give ground to the “positive good” ideology mentioned in the last chapter. In the end, Congress granted statehood to Missouri without requiring slavery’s abolition there. (As a concession to the North, it then outlawed slavery in the rest of the territories purchased in 1803 that were located above Missouri’s southern border.)
This stiffened proslavery stance now helped propel a relatively small but vocal group of northerners toward a more radical and more activist form of antislavery doctrine and program. They demanded immediate steps to put an end to slavery everywhere. The rise of such militant abolitionism, in turn, further irritated and alarmed slave owners. It seemed to prove that masters must assert their rights and prerogatives and exert their power more forcefully than ever. James Henry Hammond put it plainly. “In the face of discussions which aim at loosening all ties between master and slave,” he lectured a British abolitionist, “we have to rely more and more on the power of fear. We must, in all our intercourse with them, assert and maintain strict mastery.… We have to draw the rein tighter and tighter day by day to be assured that we hold them in complete check.”11 State and local governments outlawed the teaching of slaves to read, increasingly restricted slave movement outside their owners’ property, reinforced slave patrols, further reduced the rights of the small free black population, and made it ever more difficult for any master so inclined to manumit (free) a slave.
To “assert and maintain strict mastery,” slave owners also deemed it essential to curb the ability of wrong-thinking whites to cause trouble. They and their allies set out to prevent or punish the open expression of antislavery views by driving dissenters out of southern pulpits, schools, editorial offices, and communities. They set out to purge abolitionist materials from the mail. They barred antislavery petitions and speeches from the U.S. House of Representatives. Their friends and sympathizers organized mob attacks on abolitionists in the North.
Meanwhile, masters sought to prevent unsympathetic northerners from using the government in Washington to challenge their interests. In the early 1830s, the planter leaders of South Carolina experimented unsuccessfully with the tactic of “nullifying” objectionable federal laws, declaring them to be null and void within the boundaries of their state. President Andrew Jackson stopped them cold, and no other slave state came to their aid. With much greater success, slave owners throughout the South strove to shore up their representation in both Congress and the electoral college by increasing the number of slave states in the Union. Most vociferously demanded and lustily cheered first the annexation of Texas and then a war against Mexico that in 1848 transferred to the United States the huge provinces of California and New Mexico—in anticipation of opening much, if not all, of that newly acquired terrain to slavery.
But residents of the free states pushed back. The southern offensive challenged their liberties by telling them what they could say and print, what they could send through the mail, what kind of petitions they could send to Congress, and what their elected representatives could do and say there. It frustrated their practical interests by seeking to load the federal legislature with pro-southern rather than northern representatives and senators. And it affronted their sensibilities by insistently extolling the virtues and extending the life and geophysical reach of a social system that they increasingly found repulsive.
The proslavery offensive, in other words, did not end or even quash the sectional conflict; it escalated it. Northerners in growing numbers came to believe that slavery and its defense not only insulted their deeply held values but also threatened their very liberties. So it was, as Frederick Douglass later recalled, that “whatever was done or attempted with a view to the support and security of slavery only served as fuel to the fire, and heated the furnace of agitation to a higher degree than any before attained.” Thus, “every effort made to put down agitation only served to impart to it new strength and vigor.”12
In the midst of the war with Mexico, northern opposition to slavery’s expansion produced the Wilmot Proviso. Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot asked Congress to exclude slavery from any lands taken from Mexico. Support for the proviso quickly proved overwhelming in the free states.13 Meanwhile, the faster growth of population in the free states was gradually increasing the North’s power in the federal government. In 1846–47, the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed Wilmot’s measure. Only in the Senate were opponents able to block it.
Northern support for the Wilmot Proviso incensed southern leaders. State legislators in Virginia promptly and unanimously denied the federal government’s right to exclude slave property from any territories. Even claiming that such a right existed, they warned, “would tend directly to subvert the Union itself.” Trying to exercise such a right, they added, might well provoke civil war.14
The question of slavery’s future in the United States had thus produced another major political crisis. Attempting to resolve it, Congress eventually enacted a series of measures that together became known as the Compromise of 1850, which President Millard Fillmore signed into law in September of that year.
These measures provided that in the newly created national territories of New Mexico and Utah, the federal government would neither guarantee nor prohibit slavery’s existence; it would leave that question up to their white residents to decide. To placate the South, a new law empowered federal marshals hunting runaway slaves to compel residents of the free states to join their posses.15 To compensate the North, another measure allowed California to bypass the territorial stage entirely and join the Union as a free state. Still another measure prohibited the further use of the District of Columbia as a regional slave market, making it illegal to bring in any additional slaves for the purpose of selling and delivering them elsewhere.
Political leaders hailed this package of measures as the final resolution of the slavery controversy. But it left many in both the North and the South deeply unhappy.
Masters welcomed the fugitive slave law, of course, but many of them also denounced Congress’s failure to guarantee slavery in the new territories. And they knew that California’s admission as a free state for the first time threatened the South’s precious parity (and therefore its veto power) in the Senate.
Mississippi planter and senator Jefferson Davis helped lead the anti-compromise opposition.16 This “aggression upon the people of the South,” he announced, showed that “the decline of our Government has commenced” and pointed toward the Union’s extinction. “The bonds which have held it together,” he warned, were now being cut by a “ruthless” North, whose relentless encroachments upon the rights of the slave states threatened to continue until the South finally responded with “forcible resistance.”17
In November 1850, delegates from seven southern states met in Nashville, denounced the compromise package, and pointedly asserted a state’s right to secede from the Union. Some went further. Clement C. Clay, Sr., once Alabama’s governor and then one of its senators, not only affirmed the right to leave the Union but called on all southern states to defend the first of them that departed. In the meantime, Clay advised, all slave states should cease all commercial intercourse with the North. The venerable South Carolina planter Langdon Cheves, once Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, called secession “the only efficient remedy for the aggravated wrongs” that the slave states had endured.18 Amen, intoned a number of other prominent southerners.19
But popular support for secession was not yet broad or strong enough in 1850 to carry out such threats, and some influential lower South leaders fought energetically against leaving the Union. In the front ranks of that resistance stood Georgians from both parties, including Democrat Howell Cobb and Whigs Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs. Toombs stumped his state to build opposition to secession. He, too, disliked some of the congressional measures, but he accepted them all for the sake of sectional peace and because, he judged, they did not yield anything essential.20
In December, a convention charged with defining Georgia’s stand on the compromise measures sided with Toombs and his allies. While the state did “not wholly approve” the 1850 package, it declared, “she will abide by it as a permanent adjustment of this sectional controversy.” Those words—known as the “Georgia Platform”—effectively summarized the position of most of the South’s slave owners at that historical moment.21
Ten years later, on November 6, 1860, more than 1.8 million voters elected Illinois’s Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the antislavery Republican Party, president of the United States. Nearly all of those voters lived in the free states, where they composed more than half (54 percent) of the region’s electorate. They felt driven to cast their ballots for Lincoln by what they saw as an aggressive campaign to increase slavery’s physical reach and the slave owners’ political power during the previous decade. Most northern voters were now convinced that only a party committed to halting slavery’s expansion once and for all and checking the political power of slavery’s champions could defend their own rights and interests.
The Compromise of 1850 had gone down hard not only with many southerners but with many northerners as well. Congress had refused to outlaw slavery in the new lands taken from Mexico. It added insult to injury by making citizens of free states liable to become active partners in the vile business of catching fugitive slaves. And just four years later, in 1854, the South had pressured Congress into making it possible for slavery to take root in federal territory (Kansas) that Congress had closed to it in 1820.
During the second half of the 1850s, things had gone from bad to worse. Northerners watched in horror as proslavery forces in Kansas employed oppressive laws and wanton extralegal violence to muzzle and intimidate antislavery settlers. On May 21, 1856, proslavery riders based in Kansas and Missouri invaded the antislavery center of Lawrence, destroyed its two newspapers, and pillaged homes and businesses. In the nation’s capital the next day, South Carolina congressman Preston S. Brooks strode into the Senate chamber and with his walking stick beat Massachusetts Republican senator Charles Sumner into unconsciousness as he sat at his desk. Sumner’s offense? He had denounced slavery and proslavery actions in harsh words that Brooks found personally insulting.22
Less than a year after that, the Supreme Court ruled (in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford) that a master could carry human property into free territories and even free states and hold them there for an unspecified period of time without losing ownership of them. The court then added that neither Congress nor territorial governments had the right to outlaw slavery in any federal territory, a ruling that would make null and void all previous measures aimed at stopping the spread of bondage.
The Republican Party arose in the middle of the 1850s to stop this apparent proslavery crusade in its tracks. Its national convention in 1860 took a stand diametrically opposed to the Supreme Court’s, flatly denying “the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to Slavery in any Territory of the United States.”23 Republicans elected to office promised to make that view government policy.
Nor was the issue of slavery’s expansion hermetically sealed off from the future of slavery where it already existed. Republicans and slaveholders alike believed that the South’s slave-labor society could survive only by continuing to expand. Slave-based agriculture seemed to use up the nutrients in the soil, so it required fresh lands onto which it could migrate. The existing slave states, furthermore, feared that if nearby territories and the states carved out of them outlawed slavery, that would give their own slaves sanctuaries into which to flee. New states controlled by slaveholders would add to the masters’ representation in both Congress and the electoral college and thereby strengthen their control over the federal government. But new free states would weaken the masters’ power in Washington. Leading Republicans therefore hoped—and said publicly—that barring slavery from the territories would eventually kill the institution even within the southern states.
Abraham Lincoln was one of the more prominent of those people. By preventing slavery’s further expansion, he said in high-profile 1858 debates with Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, he expected to “put it in the course of ultimate extinction.”24 In 1860, presidential candidate Lincoln proudly reaffirmed that goal by republishing the debates’ text as a piece of campaign literature. But before, during, and after his election, Lincoln solemnly promised not to directly touch slavery within the southern states. He believed that the Constitution gave him no power to do so.25
None of those assurances, however, could calm the winds of rebellion that were by now sweeping through the South and especially through the lower-South cotton kingdom. Robert Barnwell Rhett’s Charleston Mercury declared that Lincoln’s election did, indeed, foretell “the extinction of slavery.”26 South Carolina’s James Chesnut, Jr., resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate within days of the election. His wife, Mary Chesnut, considering herself “a rebel born,” by now “wanted them to fight and stop talking.”27
On December 6, 1860, South Carolina’s voters sent delegates to a special convention that unanimously declared the Palmetto State out of the Union. Charleston’s church bells pealed and cannons bellowed in jubilation. Someone held the freshly signed secession ordinance aloft before three thousand residents gathered at the city’s Institute Hall; the crowd’s roar of approval, claimed the Mercury, “shook the very building, reverberating, long-continued, rose to Heaven, and ceased only with the loss of breath.”28
That South Carolina became the first state to rebel against the verdict of the 1860 election should have surprised no one. The state’s attempt to nullify federal law almost three decades earlier anticipated its later conduct. But as many now remembered, when the 1832 nullifiers had turned to sister slave states for support, they had received none; the silence had been deafening. As a result, the Palmetto State’s planters had confronted President Andrew Jackson and the federal government alone—and quickly lost the duel.
What would happen in this new confrontation? Compared with nullification, secession drastically raised the stakes. The South Carolina leadership was now attempting not merely to limit federal power but to take its state entirely out of the federal Union, and it was calling upon the other slave states to do the same.
For a variety of reasons, the most stubborn southern unionists continued to resist that call. Some outside the black belt and especially in the South’s up-country hill and mountain regions were frankly hostile to slavery or, at least, unsympathetic to the concerns of slave owners. But others opposed secession not out of antipathy toward masters but because they were masters—simply masters who assessed the risks to their beloved institution differently.29 One of them was the planter William Preston, who—even as he opposed secession—emphatically agreed that “Slavery is our King; slavery is our Truth; slavery is our Divine Right.”30 Preston and others who thought like him still hoped to keep their precious slaves and the Union, too.31 The fortunes of a number of prominent southern unionists depended upon the prosperity of a mixed (not only agricultural) economy and on harmonious relations with the North.32 They viewed the Union not as an engine of the South’s destruction but as the necessary framework for and promoter of a nationwide prosperity that benefited the South as much as it did the North.33
Southern unionists also doubted that Lincoln’s election meant slavery’s doom. Lincoln was “powerless to do harm to the South if he desired,” the Wilmington, North Carolina, Herald explained, “inasmuch as he has neither judicial nor legislative power to aid him.”34 Many unionists, in fact, saw the federal government as slavery’s defender of last resort. South Carolina’s James Chesnut, Sr.—Mary’s Chesnut’s father-in-law—had long been a unionist for just that reason. “Without the aid and countenance of the whole United States,” he believed, “we could not have kept slavery” as long as they had. “That was one reason why I was a Union man. I wanted all the power the United States gave me—to hold my own.”35
As many such masters saw it, the greatest immediate threat to slavery’s security came not from the Union but from attempts to break it up. Georgia’s Alexander Stephens was still warning in the summer of 1860 that slavery was “much more secure in the Union than out of it.”36 William A. Graham, North Carolina’s influential former governor, predicted early in 1861 that secession would certainly bring on war, which would mean betting the entire future existence of slavery on a military victory that seemed less than guaranteed.37 In such a conflict, Mississippi planter James Lusk Alcorn foresaw, “the northern soldier would tread [through the South’s] cotton fields,… the slave should be made free and the proud Southerner stricken to the dust in his presence.”38
These were all daunting concerns and strong arguments strongly made. But by 1860–61, none of them any longer seemed compelling enough to keep the states of the lower South—those that contained the country’s proportionately largest slaveholding populations—in the federal Union.39 South Carolina’s call to join it in secession now fell on mostly receptive ears. Within six weeks of the Palmetto State’s departure, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had all declared themselves out of the United States as well.
How did South Carolina’s planter leadership accomplish this feat? How did it manage in 1860–61 to gain the backing that had eluded it during the nullification showdown with Andrew Jackson? Why did Georgia and the rest of the lower South now abandon the Union after refusing to do so just a decade earlier?
The answer, simply put, is that so much had happened in the intervening years to change the way that white southerners assessed slavery’s security within the Union. As one major southern planter put it early in 1861, “We are differently situated” today than we were in “Jackson’s time.”40 And anyone who had looked upon the pro-compromise Georgia Platform of 1850 as an immovable bulwark against disunion was not paying close attention.
In fact, the unionism for which Robert Toombs and his allies had stood in 1850 was conditional. As much as the Georgia Platform’s authors valued the federal union, they had quite explicitly placed a higher value on what they called “the safety, domestic tranquility, the rights and honor of the slave-holding States.” They therefore proposed to remain within the Union only so long as the North continued to abide by three conditions. First, it must accept and respect all parts of the 1850 compromise package, especially the new fugitive slave law. Second, it must abandon all attempts to outlaw slavery in Washington, D.C., and the federal territories. And third, northern congressmen must be prepared to admit additional slave states into the Union. Should these conditions be violated, the Georgia unionists had declared, then their state “will and ought to resist” by all necessary means, including the severing “of every tie which binds her to the Union.”41
Considering how strong northern aversion to slavery had grown by then, these were demanding terms indeed. That fact left the Georgia Platform unable to bear much weight. And to the deep consternation of many slaveholding unionists, the 1850s had proved full of challenges to slaveholder rights. They watched in outrage as one northern state after another enacted “personal liberty laws” that were designed to block enforcement of the new fugitive slave law, one of the principal gains that the South had celebrated in 1850. Meanwhile, the Underground Railroad network grew, and a number of masters attempting to retrieve fugitives in the free states found themselves violently attacked by the fugitives and their various allies. When some northern juries simply refused to punish such attackers, southern tempers flared further.
Then, in 1854, slave owners saw the North erupt in protest against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which nullified the 1820 congressional ban on slavery in that region. In the eyes of most southerners, that new law had given them no more than their due. They then observed the birth and breathtakingly rapid growth of the antislavery Republican Party. In that party’s first national outing—the three-way presidential race of 1856—the Republican candidate (John C. Frémont) received more votes in the free states than did either of his conservative opponents. In 1859, John Brown, a New England abolitionist fresh from the guerrilla war in Kansas, led a group of white and black men in an armed assault on a federal armory in Virginia, plainly hoping to trigger a massive slave revolt that would spread first through the mountains and then down into the valleys. The attempt was a complete failure, and federal troops put it down swiftly. But the image of the slaveholders’ worst nightmare coming true—northern abolitionists fomenting a slave uprising in their midst—was tremendously incendiary.
These events deeply eroded unionist sentiment in the lower South. To many they proved that the northern populace’s views and aims made slavery’s survival within the United States impossible. Were a Republican to be elected president, observed the unionist master Thomas Y. Simons in late 1859, it would signal how many northerners “have endorsed his principles and raised a banner on which is inscribed—death to the institutions of the South.” If that occurred, Simons conceded, we could “no longer with safety remain in the same confederacy” with them.42
With the further passage of time, after all, the northern electorate would surely continue to grow in size relative to the South’s, sooner rather than later placing the whole federal government in Republican hands. What effect would such Republican power in the nation’s capital have on slaveless southern whites? Their public statements of confidence notwithstanding, some masters and their allies had long suspected that many non-slaveholders (especially in the upper South and hill country) were disloyal to the South’s peculiar institution. “I mistrust our own people more than I fear all of the efforts of the Abolitionists,” one prominent Charlestonian confided.43
Wouldn’t a Republican president move swiftly to play upon and exacerbate such divisions within the South? To attract and reward supporters in southern states, a Republican president could offer lucrative printing contracts to newspaper editors and sought-after patronage jobs in both post offices and customs houses to others. Southern whites thereby recruited by the Republicans would then publish dangerous news items and editorials, run candidates for local office, deliver public speeches, and hold campaign rallies trumpeting their party’s subversive antislavery message, inducing even larger numbers of disgruntled and disaffected southern whites to succumb to the Republican siren’s song.
For these reasons and others, cotton states that in 1832 had stolidly abandoned rebellious South Carolina to its fate—and that in 1850 had rejected secession—were in 1860–61 unwilling to do either again. Too much had changed, and now, with Lincoln’s election, too much was at stake.
Symbolizing this turnabout was the fact that Robert Toombs, one of the prime architects of the unionist Georgia Platform of 1850, emerged at the end of that decade as a leading advocate of secession. “The open and avowed object of Mr. Lincoln and the great majority of the active men of his party,” Toombs warned, “is ultimately to abolish slavery in the States.”44 Even more dangerously, Toombs prophesied, Republicans would instigate “revolt and insurrection among the slaves.” At the very least, they would encourage and assist slaves to slip their chains and escape in larger numbers than ever before.45 In that case, Toombs was concluding by the end of 1859, there is “no safety for us, our property and our firesides, except in breaking up the concern.” Toombs preferred to fight off the Republican revolutionaries at the North-South border than await their arrival on his plantation. In his own words, he preferred to “defend ourselves at the doorsill rather than await the attack at our hearthstone.”46
Some of Toombs’s most prominent and influential constituents reached the same conclusions. One of them was Rev. Charles Colcock Jones, Sr., who had also been a unionist in 1850. Jones’s sons followed the same political trajectory. His eldest, Charles, Jr. (known as Charlie), was the mayor of Savannah. A supporter of the Georgia Platform ten years earlier, Charlie was by 1860 demanding forceful action in defense of southern rights and honor.47 Rev. Jones’s second son, Joseph, journeyed to Macon at the end of 1860 to participate in a convention of cotton planters. A noted chemistry professor, Joseph was scheduled to speak about the state’s agricultural resources. But he devoted much of his platform time to furiously denouncing the newly triumphant Republican Party and insisting upon secession. For southerners to call for preserving the Union now, he declared, was to raise “the cry of submission”—submission to a party “who would degrade you to a level lower than that of the native African!”48 The wealthy Mississippi planter Richard Thompson Archer put it more bluntly still. It was time, he declared, for all good southerners to stand “united … in defence of the God given right to own the African.”49
Although Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis had not supported the Georgia Platform, he had worked for many years to keep the federal union safe for slavery. But he left scant doubt how he would respond if ever forced to choose between national unity and slavery. The election of a president hostile to bondage, he told neighboring planters in 1858, would constitute “a species of revolution” transferring power “into the hands of your avowed and implacable enemies.” As far as he was concerned, a federal government in such hands would have no legitimate authority, and Mississippi would have the positive “duty” to bolt from such a Union.50 Davis repeated that opinion many times during 1860.51
When news of Lincoln’s November victory reached Davis, he called on the cotton states to act in unison to safeguard their interests.52 And once he determined that the Republicans would not retreat from their campaign platform, Davis joined other lower-South congressmen in declaring for secession.53 “The argument is exhausted,” they announced in mid-December; the die had been cast. Now, therefore, “the primary object of each slaveholding State ought to be its speedy and absolute separation from a Union with hostile States.”54
The seven cotton-growing states of the lower South did just that. In early February 1861, representatives of six of them (Texas’s delegates arrived somewhat later) met in the small river port city of Montgomery, Alabama, to form a new southern federation, constitute themselves as its temporary congress, adopt a provisional constitution, and elect a president. That congress’s makeup testified eloquently about who was leading the secession movement and would lead the new Confederacy. Of the fifty delegates who eventually assembled in Montgomery, forty-nine owned slaves, and twenty-one were full-scale planters.55 They chose Jefferson Davis to be their president and Alexander Stephens of Georgia as vice president. Robert Toombs became the Confederacy’s first secretary of state.
Davis was at his Brierfield plantation, surrounded by his slaves, when word came of his selection as Confederate president. He accepted the office and on Monday, February 11, 1861, began the five-day journey by river and rail to Montgomery, a journey punctuated along the route by military parades, artillery salutes, and cheers from adoring crowds. Some eighty miles from his destination, a committee of dignitaries formally greeted him. Accompanied by an escort of two militia companies, his entourage reached the new national capital at ten o’clock on Friday night. Once again, artillery bade him welcome, as did large throngs. Addressing them, Davis repeated that the time for compromise had passed and that secession was a fact from which there would be no turning back. If Union officials tried to interfere, he promised, they would “smell Southern powder and feel Southern steel.”56
The new Confederacy’s leaders left little doubt about slavery’s centrality to their cause and conduct. During his journey to Montgomery, Jefferson Davis assured supporters that now, in their new southern republic, “we shall have nothing to fear at home, because … we shall have homogeneity”—because, that is, all the member states would be slave states.57 He repeated the point at his presidential inauguration a few weeks later.58 And during the next few months, both Davis and Vice President Stephens repeatedly identified their new nation as a citadel of (and a sanctuary for) bondage.59 In a major message to his Congress, Davis justified secession by citing the need to keep “the labor of African slaves.” Secretary of State Toombs told his diplomats how to explain secession to European leaders: For the cotton South to remain within the United States would have “threatened not merely to disturb the peace and the security of its [the South’s] people but also to destroy their social system.”60 Rather than stay in an inherently explosive “Union of two different and hostile social systems,” one based on free labor and one on slave, they had opted to create a new country whose members were “bound together by the tie of a common social system and by the sympathies of identical interests.”61
The Montgomery delegates quickly drafted and ratified a provisional constitution. In most respects it proved a carbon copy of the U.S. Constitution. That overall similarity made the few exceptions all the more telling, notably article 1, section 9, paragraph 4, of the South’s version, which flatly promised that no “law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves” would ever be enacted by the Confederate government.62
For a number of months, the newborn slaveholders’ republic remained based in the cotton kingdom of the lower South. Attachment to the Union remained stronger and lasted longer in the upper South, where both personal and commercial ties with the North were firmer and slavery was growing less important to the economy. The political weight of non-slaveholders was also greater there, and their ties and loyalty to large masters less firm. Because they were physically closest to the North, the states of the upper South also feared that civil war would most immediately expose them to attack and devastation. And their slaves would have the easiest time escaping to a hostile Union.63 The special convention called in Virginia in February 1861 proved unwilling to secede. So did the one held in Arkansas. In North Carolina and Tennessee, voters rejected calls even to hold such conventions.64
Like unionist masters and their sympathizers everywhere, however, those in the region’s more northerly tier remained firmly tied to slavery and based their political calculations upon and crafted their plans around its preservation. They intended to remain within the United States, but not if Lincoln’s deeds in office proved as dangerous to slavery as some of his campaign rhetoric and literature had suggested.
Proslavery unionists planned to use their political leverage to pull the teeth of the Republican tiger. One Tennessee editor aimed to “coerce from Mr. Lincoln and from the Republican party … an abandonment of the unconstitutional designs of that organization.”65Indeed, one of his colleagues wrote, the Republicans must agree to make a series of concessions, including “laws giving full protection to slave property in the Territories.”66 The wise move, agreed the slave-owning North Carolina congressman David W. Siler, was to “hold on to the Union, until every remedy has been tried” within its framework to blunt the Republican threat. Should those remedies prove wanting, he added, there “will be time enough then to get out.”67
The most important of these remedies was a series of constitutional amendments that Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden put forward in the early months of 1861. Designed to protect and reassure southern masters and halt the Union’s breakup, Crittenden’s proposal would prohibit Congress from abolishing slavery itself (and not merely the slave trade) in the District of Columbia or interfering with the buying and selling of human beings across state lines. It would also compensate any master who was prevented from recovering escaped slaves in the North. But the key provision of Crittenden’s plan would legalize and permanently guarantee slavery in all federal territories “now held, or hereafter acquired” south of the 36° 30′ latitude line, Missouri’s southern border. (The phrase “hereafter acquired” was a reminder that many masters and would-be masters hoped to annex Cuba and perhaps other parts of central America and the Caribbean and turn them first into slave territories and then into slave states.) All these Crittenden amendments, finally, were to be unrepealable, permanently in force, once ratified.
Abraham Lincoln was prepared to go to some lengths to avoid secession. In the first months of 1861, he approved a draft constitutional amendment—it would have been the thirteenth—that Ohio Republican senator Thomas Corwin sponsored. The amendment would specifically bar Congress from ever interfering with slavery within the states. Both the House and the Senate gave it the requisite two-thirds vote of approval before sending it to the states for ratification.68
But Lincoln refused to abandon the core of the Republican platform—the platform that defined the young party and on which it had just waged and won the 1860 campaign. To retreat on so essential an issue now, Lincoln warned party leaders in a series of letters, would mean that “all our labor is lost and sooner or later must be done over again.… We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten.” Compliance would be unacceptable in principle and futile and suicidal in practice. “If we surrender, it is the end of us,” he said. “They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum [as they wish]. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.”69
Most Republicans stood by Lincoln in this, and enough southerners still in Congress rejected the Crittenden proposal as insufficiently conciliatory to kill it.
In March 1861, at a special convention in Little Rock, a leader of Arkansas’s (slim) unionist majority introduced his alternative to immediate secession. It called upon the nation to revive and adopt Crittenden’s proposed constitutional amendments and a number of others, too. One of those would deny both the right to hold public office and the right to vote to all “persons of the African race”—not only at the federal level but at the territorial, state, and even municipal levels as well. A second would permanently enshrine the ruling in the Dred Scott case and reassert the right of slaveholders to “temporarily” carry their human property into non-slaveholding states. A third would radically change the way in which the American president and vice president were chosen. Those offices would henceforth be regularly passed back and forth between representatives of slaveholding and non-slaveholding states. A fourth amendment would strip Congress of any “power to legislate upon the subject of slavery, except to protect the citizen in his right of property in slaves.”70
Unionist leaders of Tennessee and Virginia had by that time specified the conditions on which they would remain in the United States. On January 21, 1861, the Tennessee legislature’s lower house also called for amending the U.S. Constitution to guarantee the property rights of masters temporarily taking slaves into free territories and free states. The essential provisions of the Crittenden compromise must be adopted as well, it declared. Should the free states reject these demands, the legislators added, all of the slave states should form a new confederation with a new constitution tailored to their own taste.71
Virginia’s lawmakers took a similar stand on the same day. They announced with near unanimity that if compromise efforts at the national level should fail, then “every consideration of honor and interest demands that Virginia shall unite her destiny with the slave-holding states of the South.”72 A few months later the Old Dominion’s special convention spelled out the kind of compromise it considered necessary. Representatives of all the states of the Union must meet to endorse either the legalization of slavery in all federal territories or the formal division of those territories into slave-labor and free-labor zones. If the North refused to go along, the delegates continued, then Virginia would “resume her old rights as an independent sovereignty.”73
One Virginia convention delegate neatly summarized the meaning of that ultimatum. If Lincoln wished to stem the tide of secession, said William L. Goggin, he must “tell the country that, though he was elected upon the principles of the [Republican] platform,” he now accepted that “these principles must be abandoned in his administration.”74 Robert E. Scott, a leader of what passed for a “moderate” faction in Virginia, endorsed that ultimatum even though he presumed that the North would reject it. So much the better, in Scott’s opinion: That would stampede all the states of the upper South out of the Union and into the Confederacy.75
Masters in the South’s two major subregions were thus taking complementary stands toward the Union. All aimed (in Frederick Douglass’s succinct summary) either “to overthrow it, or so to reconstruct it as to make it the instrument of extending the slave system and enlarging its powers.”76
By the spring of 1861, Abraham Lincoln had concluded that lower-South secession leaders were beyond either persuading or pressuring into peacefully accepting Republican rule. That fact, he believed, left him with but two choices—either to accept the Union’s breakup as a permanent reality or to oppose secession firmly even at the risk of war. He chose the second course. He would risk war rather than passively accept the Union’s destruction.77
This decision shaped his policy in the crisis surrounding Fort Sumter, a federal installation in Charleston Harbor, where a small Union garrison was running low on food and medical supplies. Months before Lincoln took office, South Carolina demanded the fort’s surrender. In January 1861, it fired upon a Union-chartered commercial steamer attempting to bring supplies and reinforcements. The damaged ship turned back.
With Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, Sumter became a Republican problem. The new secretary of state, William H. Seward, advised President Lincoln to let the fort fall. Doing that, he argued, would avoid an armed showdown that would precipitate the upper South out of the Union as well. Surrendering the fort, Seward believed, would keep the upper South within the Union long enough for loyal forces there to assert themselves. The new Confederacy, thereby indefinitely limited to the lower South, would recognize its isolation and weakness and lose heart.
But Lincoln did not believe that surrendering Sumter would yield such happy results. On the contrary, he thought, too great a delay in reasserting federal authority would lend legitimacy and energy to the secession movement and encourage European powers to recognize the new Confederacy as an independent country. Surrendering the fort without a fight would also send a terrible signal to the North. It would confess that the Republicans, having challenged the slave owners’ domination, could not muster the courage to back up that challenge. That, in turn, would simultaneously demoralize the Republican Party’s strongest and firmest supporters and leave it open to a charge by northern Democrats that it had provoked and then permitted the Union’s destruction. The still-young Republican Party would be destroyed. This was not a petty, narrowly partisan, careerist concern. The Republican Party embodied the hope of wresting the nation and its government from the hands of slave owners and their allies. If that party now succumbed and broke up, the country’s future prospects would be bleak indeed.
Lincoln therefore decided to resupply Fort Sumter with provisions but no troops. He then conveyed that decision to South Carolina’s governor. By sending supplies, he would reassert the Union’s authority and integrity. By sending only supplies, he gave secession’s leaders a reason not to attack. To put it another way, he would give the Confederates no obvious excuse to attack. Lincoln was not going to surrender Sumter, but he was not going to allow Jefferson Davis to place upon Union shoulders the onus for starting the war. If Davis wanted that war, he would have to take responsibility for starting it.
For their part, Confederate leaders believed that their own resolve, their seriousness about forming an independent country, was on the line. Some also calculated that the outbreak of war with the Union would finally force the upper South off the fence and into their arms. The Davis regime decided to fire the first shot. Before dawn on Friday, April 12, 1861, Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard ordered artillery on both land and sea to open up on the fort. During the next day and a half, southern cannons poured four thousand rounds into Sumter, setting much of its wooden interior afire. At last, on Saturday afternoon, April 13, U.S. major Robert Anderson and his approximately eighty men surrendered. “All honor to Carolina!” Georgian Charles Colcock Jones, Sr., crowed. “I hope our state may emulate her bravery.”78
On April 15, 1861, Abraham Lincoln called seventy-five thousand state militiamen into federal service for ninety days to put down a rebellion against the legitimate authority of the federal government. Within two days of that call to arms, Virginia’s secession convention voted to leave the Union. Arkansas and Tennessee followed suit on May 6, and North Carolina withdrew two weeks later.
Lincoln’s rejection of the upper South’s earlier ultimatums had already seriously eroded unionism in those states. So did the lower South’s secession, by weakening the political power of slave owners as a class within the United States. The major Virginia planter Robert E. Scott, previously a unionist, was soon concluding that the cotton states’ departure had “given to the non-slaveholding States such a preponderance in the Federal Government over the remaining slaveholding States as to make it incompatible with the safety of the latter.” “The free States would control the Government” now, he warned, and any slave states that remained in the Union would therefore “be reduced to the condition of humble subordination.”79
For such people, therefore, Lincoln’s post-Sumter call for troops to put down the rebellion was only the last straw. They would not remain as a helpless appendage to an antislavery Union. They would not sit by idly while that Union made war upon slavery’s strongest redoubt, the cotton kingdom. For they believed, as the North Carolina unionist planter John A. Gilmer had earlier warned William H. Seward, “that the whipping of a slave state, is the whipping of slavery” as a whole.80 All four states joined the Confederacy, which now moved its capital from Montgomery to Richmond, Virginia.
By beginning an armed conflict over slavery, the cotton states had accomplished what longtime South Carolina secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., had told the Virginia firebrand Edmund Ruffin was necessary the previous October. The states of the upper South, Rhett stressed, “must be made to choose between the North & South.” Then, he said, “they will redeem themselves but not before.”81 By precipitating war, the cotton masters had indeed forced their more cautious brethren to choose sides in a fight defined by their own most basic institutions and values.82 The slave owners of Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee could either join one war camp, whose triumph seemed likely to kill slavery everywhere, or the other one, which was pledged to preserve it. The choice that they made in the spring of 1861 finally united the great majority of the southern master class in an armed insurrection against a federal union that most of them had once highly prized.
When secessionist masters set out to break up the Union, they transferred their struggle against the free-labor North from one arena in which they were already being defeated (that of peacetime electoral politics) to another in which they still counted themselves superior—the arena of war. The South’s long-nurtured warrior image of itself made it very confident of victory.
James Henry Hammond had boasted in his Senate speech three years earlier that the South’s might was above challenge. One of the weapons in its arsenal was economic. Cotton was so vital to the transatlantic economy that even “without firing a gun, without drawing a sword,” he predicted, “we could bring the whole world to our feet.” Slave states could accomplish that merely by refusing to sell the world their cotton, without which the textile mills of all nations would grind to a halt. “No,” Hammond confidently assured the North, “you dare not make war on cotton” for the same reason that “no power on earth dares to make war upon it”—because “cotton is king.”
Furthermore, said Hammond, any earthly power that did prove foolish enough to match arms with the South would soon regret that decision. It would find itself confronting armies of peerless fighting quality. Southern whites, after all, were “men brought up on horseback, with guns in their hands.” They were natural soldiers and more than a match for any conceivable enemy. The South, moreover, would field not only better soldiers than its opponent but more of them. “At any time,” Hammond boasted, “the South can raise, equip, and maintain in the field, a larger army than any Power of the earth can send against her.” It could do that because of the loyalty of its slaves. Black field laborers and house servants would raise the crops and keep the home fires burning, thereby freeing all adult white males to serve as soldiers.83
Confederate partisans took pride in their martial skills. For many, those skills showed their descent from a breed—or, at least, a social class—distinct from the one that had sired the northern population. Planters liked to imagine themselves sprung from one or another branch of old England’s warlike nobility. Surely theirs was the blood that had two centuries earlier coursed through the veins of the Cavalier party that stood by King Charles I during England’s civil war. Northerners, in contrast, were the spawn of the miserable Roundhead rabble that pulled the time-honored monarchy down. Southern masters viewed themselves as tempestuous hotspurs, born to sword and lance; their foes were peasant wretches, born to grovel and serve. The men of the South came from “master races,” Virginia’s George Fitzhugh declared in 1861; the “masses of the North” were the brood of “a slave race,” naturally “stupid, sensual, ignorant,” and “depraved.”84 To others less obsessed with ancestry, northerners would make weak enemies because of their unmanly way of life. “Our army is composed mainly of gentlemen,” North Carolina plantation mistress Catherine Edmondston sniffed, while “theirs is the riff raff, the off scouring of their cities!”85 These vulgar, fanatical, cheating “counter hoppers,” these selfish, money-obsessed cowards and weaklings, would flee the field at the first sign of trouble.
It naturally followed from all this that, as one Mississippi master told a slave in the spring of 1861, “I can whip a half dozen Yankees with my pocket knife.”86 So, of course, could any true “Southron.” Within a few years, a southern arithmetic textbook would press these familiar axioms into instructional service. “If one Confederate soldier can whip seven Yankees,” it quizzed young readers, “how many soldiers can whip 49 Yanks?”87 Many secessionists doubted in 1860–61 that the North could long sustain a struggle against them. Virginia’s R.M.T. Hunter, while still a member of the U.S. Senate, had contemptuously assured his northern colleagues that they lacked the muscle to resist secession. If you try, he sneered, you will be compelled to “abandon” the attempt within six months.88 Initially, in fact, many Confederate congressmen questioned the need to enlist southern soldiers for terms any longer than six months. Why impose such a burden if the North would shortly back down without a fight?89 Ideologue George Fitzhugh considered even six-month hitches to be excessive. “The confederacy should sustain a small navy,” he judged in February 1861, but he questioned “whether it would need an army” at all.90 One leading North Carolina secessionist pulled a silk handkerchief from his pocket that month and, waving it before a crowd, promised to wipe up with it “every drop of blood” that would be “shed in the war.”91
When war did break out, many southerners looked forward confidently to a swift and easy victory. “Just throw three or four shells among those blue-bellied Yankees,” another North Carolinian predicted, “and they’ll scatter like sheep.”92 Numberless young men looked forward eagerly to the chance to prove their manhood and cover themselves with glory, all at minimal risk. Louisianan William R. Stone, Katherine’s brother, fretted just a month after Sumter that “the fighting will be over” before he could even reach the front.93
Jefferson Davis, more experienced and sober, held a minority view, one with which (as he later recalled) “very few in the South, at that time, agreed.” He told his wife, Varina, that he expected “a long and exhausting war.” But when the new Confederate president shared this estimate with other southern leaders, most simply waved him off. The governor of his own state, John J. Pettus, complacently assured Davis that “you overrate the risk.”94
Predictions of a swift and easy southern triumph partook of some other assumptions as well. One was that the outbreak of war had finally healed whatever divisions previously plagued southern society. Now whites of all political backgrounds and economic circumstances thought with a single mind and would march to the same drummer. As Katherine Stone enthused, the Confederacy boasted not only “wise rulers” and “brave and successful generals” but also “a united people.”95 The “whole South is now United,” agreed Mississippi planter Edward Fontaine.96 There “never was known,” Catherine Edmondston felt sure, “such unanimity of action amongst all classes.”97
The acceptance by Georgia ex-unionist Alexander Stephens of the Confederate vice presidency symbolized the closing of the once-divided planters’ ranks. Throughout the South, wealthy masters now volunteered for both political and military service. They organized the Richmond government and assumed its leadership. Every man in Jefferson Davis’s cabinet owned or had once owned slaves. Slave owners occupied nine out of every ten seats in the Confederate Congress over the course of the war as a whole. And in four out of every ten of those seats sat fully fledged planters.98 The wealthiest planter families—those with at least 250 slaves each—contributed an outsized number of senior officers to the Confederate army.99
As fighting began, these political and military leaders received the willing cooperation of other masters, major and minor alike. The wealthy paid substantial taxes, bought war bonds, volunteered to outfit whole companies and even regiments, and helped to support the families of poorer soldiers. Formerly unionist planters such as North Carolina’s Thomas P. Devereux gave as generously as longtime secessionists.100
Many southern white women took special pride in their southern patriotism. A handful disguised themselves as men and marched off to war. Thousands more acted within the bounds of gender conventions. They joined ladies’ aid associations that fashioned uniforms, tents, blankets, battle flags, and cartridges. They provided Bibles, bandages, and foodstuffs for the soldiers. They held fairs and concerts and staged dramatic tableaux vivants (in which suitably costumed individuals posed like statues to depict scenes purportedly taken from history) to raise funds with which to purchase items they could not make, donate, or collect by themselves.101
The Confederate government, press, and clergy encouraged women of the planter class to bring their personal habits in line with the spirit of self-sacrifice. They must put aside extravagance, fashionable attire, and frivolous ways generally. “Fold away your bright tinted dresses,” one poem of the day urged. “No more delicate gloves, no more laces.” A popular new song called on wealthy females to “take their diamonds from their breast / and their rubies from the finger.”102 Those who took these injunctions to heart would help foster the idea that all southerners shared a common lot as well as a common purpose—and thereby also help, perhaps, to mute class envy and resentment.
Slaveholding families made their slaves available to labor for the Confederate army. Other slaves were assigned to grow and prepare much of the army’s food; mine iron ore, coal, salt, and saltpeter; fashion horseshoes and nails, harnesses and bridles, collars and saddles, guns and ammunition. Slaves transported essential cargoes for southern armies. They emplaced artillery and built fortifications; they drove wagons and tended horses; they carried stretchers, drove ambulance wagons, nursed the sick and wounded, and buried the dead.103
Meanwhile, small farmers and non-elite urban dwellers flocked to the Confederacy’s new Stars and Bars banner. Raw numbers told the tale. About two-thirds of all white families in the seceding states owned no slaves. The Confederate force later dubbed the Army of Northern Virginia drew approximately the same proportion of its early volunteers from just such non-slave-owning families.104
Towns and villages in up-country districts, too, provided volunteers to the Confederate cause, some units carrying flags emblazoned with mottoes such as “Come, boys, let’s meet them” and “Don’t tread on us.” In May 1861, the president of Alabama’s secession convention, Judge William M. Brooks, pointed proudly to three volunteer companies raised in just two weeks that were “composed almost entirely of men from ‘the hills’—poor laboring men, who own no slaves.”105 Within six months of Fort Sumter’s fall, thirteen hill counties in western North Carolina sent at least 4,400 men into Confederate service. “The mountains,” cheered a Raleigh newspaper, “are pouring forth their brave sons in great numbers, and still they come.” During the war’s first years, perhaps 20,000 soldiers volunteered from the hills of eastern Tennessee.106
One of the South’s leading journalists and most consistent secessionists, Louisianan J.D.B. DeBow, thought he knew why yeomen signed on with the Confederacy. They did so, he said, to shore up the South’s peculiar institution, because they knew that even slaveless whites had an economic stake in the system. They recognized, DeBow wrote at the start of 1861, that “the interest of the poorest non-slaveholder among us is to make common cause with, and die in the last trenches, in defence of the slave property of his more favored neighbor.”107
Leading Texas secessionist W. S. Oldham later attributed southern white unity to something else: a dedication to white supremacy and to keeping the black population down and under strict control. “The great mass of non-slaveholders in the South, and especially in the cotton States,” he judged, shared with masters “an interest in social order and domestic peace, which were threatened to be destroyed by the emancipation of the slaves, and allowing them to riot without restraint.”108 And Judge Brooks of Alabama credited a third factor with filling out the ranks of southern armies: a more general devotion to the southern homeland, an ardent southern patriotism, “a desire to take up arms in defense of their country.”109
In fact, all three of these motives were in play. One sector of the slaveless white population did have (or, at least, felt) a strong if indirect economic stake in slavery’s survival. This was especially marked in the low-country plantation districts. And as South Carolina’s last wartime governor, A. G. Magrath, noted, at least some of “the men who did not own a negro” fought for slavery in “the expectation or hope of having” some one day.110
Secession advocates also mobilized sections of the white South’s slaveless majority by presenting their cause less as a defense of slavery than as a defense of the South’s prerogatives, honor, mores, and right to govern itself. And Republican rule, they stressed, would impair the lives of the non-slaveholding southern white majority in myriad ways. Confederate leaders stoked the provincial small farmers’ notorious suspicion of outsiders, especially those trying to encroach upon local autonomy.
With the actual outbreak of war, these chronic suspicions took on flesh and blood as Union troops marched into the South. At that point, slaveless whites holding various views about slavery’s merits felt duty-bound to protect their states, their local communities, their neighbors, and their families from those perceived as armed intruders. An Alabama corporal thought of himself as defending “the same principles which fired the hearts of our ancestors in the revolutionary struggle” against the British Empire.111 A Virginia private, taken prisoner early in the war, reportedly put it more tersely when his Union captors asked him why he had taken up arms. “I’m fighting,” the man replied, “because you’re down here.”112
Directly or indirectly, however, many appeals to the yeomen touched upon matters of slavery and race. For, in truth, few who thought of themselves primarily as defenders of the South could imagine that beloved South without slavery at its center. Typically, therefore, Joseph D. Stapp of the First Alabama Infantry regiment automatically linked the two things together, declaring his readiness “to bear any hardship” if he and his comrades could “only whip the Yanks … and live independent of old Abe and his negro Sympathizers.”113
It was the nearly universal determination of southern whites to keep blacks subordinate that ultimately proved to be the secessionists’ strongest card. Only slavery, they believed, could guarantee white supremacy. And here southern race and gender mores tightly intertwined. Confederate leaders repeatedly invoked one of the stock-in-trade gambits of antebellum proslavery ideologues by conjuring up lurid nightmare visions of emancipated black males imposing themselves upon helpless white females. In North Carolina, for example, circulars warned that continued statehood in the Union would bring emancipation, which would mean “having three hundred thousand idle, vagabond free negroes turned loose upon you with all the privileges of white men—voting with you; sitting on juries with you; going to school with your children, and intermarrying with the white race.”114 An Alabaman predicted that Lincoln would “free the negroes and force amalgamation between them and the children of the poor men of the South.” A group of South Carolina secessionists, led by Baptist minister James C. Furman, warned that “abolition preachers will be on hand to consummate the marriages of your daughters to black husbands.”115
North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance received a message in November 1862 that both summed up the general point and seemed to confirm it. The writer was the slave owner and now Confederate congressman David Siler, who represented one of North Carolina’s hill counties. It was true, Siler wrote, that his neighbors had “but little interest in the value of slaves.” But there was nonetheless “one matter in this connection about which we feel a very deep interest. We are opposed to negro equality.” “To prevent this,” he declared, and to avoid being “equalized with an inferior race,” he as well as his constituents were prepared to die fighting. “Every thing even life itself stands pledged to the cause,” he affirmed.116
The new Confederacy’s champions counted for achieving military victory over the Union not only on the unity of the white population, master and yeoman alike; they also expected the enslaved population to do its duty. “Our slaves will be found loyal to their masters,” a Tennessee editor assured his readers, “and if necessary, we will arm such of them as we can spare from our fields to resist our foes.” If we do, the North will then find themselves facing “the ugliest customers they will have to encounter.”117
Proofs of slave allegiance seemed everywhere, in high places and in low, in great things and in small ones. Charles Colcock Jones, Sr., needed only to think of Cato, his plantation driver. Cato had assured Jones of his “love and gratitude” for being “so kind a master” and of his determination to “try and be a better Servant than ever.” As a token of his devotion, Cato had even informed on Phoebe, his own sister-in-law, for being insufficiently docile and obedient.118 Catherine Edmondston found reassurance in the conduct of a domestic servant named Gatty. One day in December 1860, Edmondston looked on approvingly as Gatty fed some black children. Gatty told them to thank their mistress for dinner and then “drew a harrowing picture” for the little ones “as to what they would [be] if they didnt have no Master & Missus to give it to them.” To Edmondston, that small scene was big with meaning. It showed clearly that Gatty had no confidence that her own people had “the power of self government.” Obviously, Edmondston concluded, Gatty knew that “their manifest destiny is to wait upon white folks.”119
When Union forces assaulted Roanoke Island in the winter of 1862, Catherine Edmondston’s husband, Patrick, left his plantation to help repel them. Before departing, he called together his slaves and instructed them to obey his wife during his absence. The slaves, Catherine believed, “were much affected” by that tableau; “they entreated me not to leave them” as well.120 Similar scenes took place on the plantations of Katherine Stone and Gertrude Thomas.121 The Confederate president stood at the center of another. Before Jefferson Davis set out from Brierfield for Montgomery on February 11, 1861 (so Varina recorded), he “assembled his negroes and made them an affectionate farewell speech, to which they responded with expressions of devotion.”122
Masters found still clearer proof of slave loyalty on the battlefield. In the early months of war, many took their personal servants with them to camp. Once there, those servants tended to the needs not only of their own masters but of other soldiers as well. Some servants even fired their masters’ weapons at Union soldiers, much to the approval and merriment of the Confederate troops around them.123 A Mississippi body servant named Ike accompanied his owner, Kit Gilmer, to war. When Gilmer was later wounded in battle, Ike loaded his master onto a horse and carried him off to safety.124 Because of such conduct, George Fitzhugh affirmed, southern women did not fear for their men bound for the front. They could be “confident, that when their sons and husbands are called to the field, they will have a faithful body-guard in their domestic servants.”125
Black people in the Confederacy who were not enslaved often asserted their loyalty to the cause as well. In April, a Lynchburg, Virginia, paper reported that some seventy “of the most respectable free negroes in this city” had volunteered to perform whatever tasks “in defence of the state” the governor might assign them.126 Similar scenes occurred elsewhere in that state. A west Tennessee newspaper told readers at the end of 1861 that free blacks there were happily working in a military hospital, and “most of them express their satisfaction that they are able there to contribute to the cause of the country.”127
A group of light-skinned colored residents of Charleston assured city officials that “our attachments are with you, our hopes and safety and protection from you,… our allegiance is due to South Carolina and in her defense, we will offer up our lives, and all that is dear to us.”128 The Charleston Mercury announced in January 1861 that 150 of that city’s free black residents had volunteered to help build redoubts along the coast.129 Other free black men served Confederate military units as musicians, cooks, and in other support roles.
In late April 1861, some 1,500 hommes de couleur libre staged a rally in New Orleans to declare their support for the Confederacy. Shortly afterward, the same population formed a regiment of free blacks, called the Native Guards, which Louisiana’s Confederate governor, Thomas O. Moore, promptly inducted into the state militia.130 A year later, Governor Moore commended “the loyalty of the free native colored population” of the Crescent City.131 Eight months after that, the Alabama legislature authorized Mobile’s mayor to enroll free black males into militia companies. One company of such men, dubbed the Creole Guards, stood watch over Mobile warehouses holding government supplies.132
So it was evidently true: The Confederacy could count on active support not merely from a particular party or class … or even from just one race. “The cry, to arms, to arms! is heard from every lip,” one southern volunteer enthused.133 “Throughout the length and breadth of the land the trumpet of war is sounding,” cheered Katherine Stone, “and from every hamlet and village, from city and country, men are hurrying by thousands, eager to be led to battle against Lincoln’s hordes.”134
And if all that were not enough, there was also the aid of heaven. The vast majority of southern clergymen had long ago committed their churches to slavery’s defense. As one of their most prominent members, the Protestant Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliott, typically put it, “slavery, as we hold it here” was not only “essential to the welfare of the world”; it was also “a sacred trust from God.”135 Surely God would safeguard the new nation being created to observe that trust. As Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., exclaimed, “Surely the Lord of Hosts is with us.”136
Could victory, therefore, be far off? “A short time of conflict & the day is ours,” Catherine Edmondston predicted.137 “On to Washington!” cheered many, including the Confederacy’s new secretary of war, the Alabama master Leroy Pope Walker.138 “The flag which now flaunts the breeze here will float over the dome of the old Capitol at Washington before the first of May,” Walker predicted. “Let them try southern chivalry and test the extent of southern resources,” he added, “and it may float eventually over Faneuil Hall in Boston.”139
If Walker and his colleagues proved right, little would change in the southern states. There would be no second American revolution, and the Union born of the first revolution would not long survive. The first year and a half of war would put such optimistic predictions to the test.