South Carolina’s aristocratic republicans could all but finalize disunion before other states’ egalitarian republicans could even convene a legislature. Only in this state did the legislative elite, not the citizens, continue to select Electoral College representatives. On Monday, November 5, the day before most American white males voted for president, South Carolina’s legislative patriarchs met to exercise their archaic prerogative.
After South Carolina’s legislators unanimously chose John Breckinridge’s electors, Governor William Gist persuaded them to remain in session. If Lincoln won on the morrow and if legislators dispersed until their regular session (scheduled to begin on November 26), compromisers elsewhere would have three weeks to seize the initiative. But since South Carolina’s legislators agreed to remain in Columbia, they could produce an instant secessionist fait accompli—if they could summon the nerve to capitalize on their head start.
– 1 –
The legislature could preserve South Carolina’s head start by calling an almost immediate state secession convention. According to southern state’s rights gospel, only the people of a state, in a state convention or popular referendum, could shift their consent to be governed from one government to another. The South Carolina constitution required a two-thirds legislative majority to summon a state convention. The summons must set dates for delegates to be elected and to convene. Early dates would prevent Cooperationists elsewhere from catching up with South Carolina precipitators.
While early dates came under heavy fire, no South Carolina legislator denied that the Union portended only curses—dishonorable insults, confiscatory taxes, and that Southern Republican Party. In contrast, disunion, if successfully achieved, offered only advantages—no insults, no protective tariffs, and no Lincoln party agitating inside the South. But when should secession be attempted, to have the best chance of success?
That “when” swelled with the 1850–52 difference between Cooperative State Secessionists and Separate State Secessionists. Cooperationists wished to hesitate long enough to prearrange collaboration with other Lower South states. They would delay a South Carolina state convention until mid-January at the earliest, so other Lower South states’ conventions would meet first or simultaneously. Instead, Separate State Secessionists wished to preclude other Lower South states’ alternatives to instant secession. Separatists would hurry a South Carolina state convention into session by mid-December at the latest, so other states’ conventions would face an accomplished revolution.
A Kentuckian declared that the Separatists’ haste “reminds me of the bull that undertook to butt the locomotive off the track—Courage admirable—Discretion small!” An anonymous Charleston Courier correspondent, “Festina Lente,” cheered by the editor, skillfully developed the Cooperationist case for more discretion. “Festina Lente” would “make haste slowly. … Hasty and impatient advisers are bad advisers.” Only “ardent and irregular minds” would supply the “calamitous counsels” that one state “should secede singly, under present circumstances.” Instead, a southern “Congress of the States proposing to secede … should exhaust all honorable efforts to reform and restore the purity of the present Union on a safe basis, before they proceed to destroy it.”1
Separate State Secessionists retorted that a southern convention would dawdle, or worse. William Porcher Miles emphasized that South Carolina must not delay “for a day. … All our best friends in the entire South urge … that our delay, under any pretext, would demoralize them at home,” while our state’s instant secession is “the best step … to advance the great cause … in all their states.”2
Delay might also kill the great cause in South Carolina. Only for this one fleeting moment, U.S. Marshal Daniel H. Hamilton wrote, did South Carolina hold “the decision in her own hands.” If “she falters, wavers for one moment, … ‘Union-savers’” will “ask for delay” until “the first overt act on the part of Lincoln’s Administration.” Then, “the spirit of our people will either be broken, or they will themselves commit an ‘overt act’ by an attack on the [federal] Forts.” That illegal “popular outbreak” would “destroy” South Carolina’s “moral effect … upon the other Southern States and leave her with but little sympathy from her sisters.”3 Secession’s fate thus seemed to hover in the balance, after the South Carolina legislators cast their votes for presidential electors on November 5 and declared war on each other over when the South Carolina convention should meet.
– 2 –
The odds on an early date improved that preelection Monday evening, when U.S. Senator James Chesnut, Jr., publicly swallowed his late private funk about fellow White Sulphur Springs vacationers. In the summertime, Chesnut had scorned other Southerners’ presumption that South Carolina should suffer all the first risks. But speaking before a thousand cheering secessionists in Columbia on the nation’s election eve, Chesnut urged that immediate peril compelled instant disunion, even with no assurances from other southern states.
One question, he declared, covers “all questions” now demanding “immediate solution”: Should South “Carolina be governed by Carolinians”? Should outsiders’ “blind consciences and crazy brains” govern you? Should you suffer a foe who condemns your folk as “semicivilized barbarians”? Shall you allow a northern enemy to “establish post offices at every crossroads, and fill them with the minions of the Black Republican power”? Should you permit “your cars and your coaches” to “groan beneath the weight of [abolitionists’] noxious matter”? If so, when Southerners at last revolt against the incendiaries, they will have “the army and navy” to subject us “to the fate of traitors.”4
Certainly South Carolina’s supreme power couple (and probably the Old South’s too): James Chesnut, Jr., who belatedly came out for Separatism at the most timely moment, and Mary Chesnut, whose lyrical reports on traumatic events bested even William Henry Trescot’s bon mots. Courtesy of the Mulberry Plantation, Camden, South Carolina.
Our greatest danger, Chesnut would add in a December 3 oration, is the “peculiar character of the Puritan mind,” at war with “any model save its own pattern.” Because of Yankee puritans’ invasive mentality, incendiary documents would flood our region. Southern Republicans would fill our offices. Enemies would control our mails. The resulting upheaval would make “Lincoln’s election … a decree for emancipation. Slavery cannot survive the four years of an administration whose overwhelming influences” will be “brought to bear against it.” To submit now is to guarantee that before 1865, we must “slay the Negro, or ourselves be slain.”5
After Chesnut demanded immediate disunion at the Monday evening, November 5, Columbia rally, U.S. Congressman Milledge Bonham concurred. Bonham, previously rather vague about whether South Carolina should go it alone, now warned Columbia’s citizens to act before other Southerners decided to hesitate. “If South Carolina goes, the other Southern States will follow.” But if South Carolina failed to depart first, the South might wait, allowing Lincoln to put his agents “into the post office. If our own citizens refuse his offered positions, Lincoln will put in some others. … It would not be long before they would have a party formed against us.” Like Chesnut, Bonham shuddered at the incendiary consequences.6 With Chesnut and Bonham demanding that the legislature immediately call an early convention, only the dreaded Hammond, among the state’s congressional representatives, remained unannounced. That loose cannon, Separatists privately fretted, still might stall the momentum that Chesnut had generated in Columbia, on the eve of Lincoln’s election.
– 3 –
On Wednesday, November 7, the day after Lincoln triumphed, just the right sober Charleston revolutionaries staged just the right controlled rebellion. In a minor coincidence that preceded an imminent major coincidence, Robert Gourdin, chairman of the 1860 Association’s executive committee, happened to be in the right place at the right time to make the right first move. Some obscure selection process, having nothing to do with secession, had placed the Charleston merchant in the foreman’s chair of Charleston’s U.S. District Court’s grand jury, at the moment when news of Lincoln’s election enveloped the city. After Judge Andrew Magrath asked Gourdin to deliver the grand jury’s presentments, the foreman balked. A federal grand jury could not “proceed with the presentments,” Gourdin announced, for the “ballot-box of yesterday” effectively ended federal jurisdiction in South Carolina.7
In his second-floor courtroom of the U.S. Court House building at 23 Chalmers Street, with its red-brick façade plastered over with gray cement, Judge Magrath wanted the federal grand jury’s defiance to be seen as gray and safe, not as red hot and revolutionary. If private citizens on a grand jury could close courts, they might also seize forts. Then disunion would be discredited. Three days later, Andrew Magrath would raspily tell Columbia lawmakers that he became “hoarse in [the] best of causes. I lost my voice in the attempt to say to the people of Charleston, wait the action of the state.” The “thousands of men” who “stand on the sea shore with their guns, where three [federal] fortresses bristle with cannon,” must allow legitimate authorities to “give the word.”8
In his courtroom on November 7, after Gourdin gave the word that the people of Charleston would no longer bring indictments in a federal court, Andrew Magrath wished to demonstrate that only a judge could close a court. To emphasize his demonstration, he paused a suspense-filled moment before responding to Gourdin’s defiance. Then he slowly rose, declaring that given the probable “action of the state,” he must “prepare to obey its wishes.” He “must close the Temple of Justice, raised under the Constitution of the United States,” before mobocracy had “desecrated … its altar.”
As he pronounced federal judicial process legally closed, Magrath’s fingers crept to the spot where his silken judicial robe was fastened. He slowly undid the garment. He languidly slipped it off. He calmly folded it over his chair. He had, he announced, “for the last time, … administered the laws of the United States.” Now, “the laws of our State” must become “our duties.” Let all South Carolinians remember that “he who acts against the wish, or without the command of his State, usurps” its “inviolate … sovereign command.”9
“There were few dry eyes among the spectators and auditors,” reported the Charleston Courier, “as Judge Magrath divested himself of the Judicial Robe.” Or as a Magrath worshipper marveled, “Here was a great political movement precipitated, not by bloody encounters in the street or upon the field, but by a deliberate and reasoned act in the most unexpected and conservative of all places—the United State courtroom.”10
Magrath was just the Charlestonian to make the closure of a court seem to conserve law and order. Where Rhett looked like a disheveled revolutionary, Magrath bore the demeanor of a future Wall Street conservative. His hair was impeccably trimmed, precisely parted. His elegant English suit was fastidiously pressed. His head, too large for his body, advertised heavy learning. He had trained at Harvard Law School under Joseph Story, prince of nationalistic jurists, and in the Charleston law offices of James L. Petigru, guru of the scarce lowcountry unionists.11
This previous Cooperationist had first earned his reputation as the ultimate non-Rhett (Petigru aside!), in another of those symbolic tableaus in which Magrath seemed born to star. He had gained his U.S. judicial berth by becoming almost the only prominent lowcountryman to assist the upcountry’s James L. Orr in achieving Rhett’s then-horror, a South Carolina delegation to the 1856 National Democratic Convention. Rhett’s Charleston Mercury had insulted Magrath as an especially self-serving traitor after Franklin Pierce, Northern Democrat in the White House, raised the South Carolina “recreant” to the federal bench.
Edward Magrath, Andrew’s brother, had thereupon challenged the Mercury’s editor (and Rhett’s cousin), William Robinson Tabor, to a duel. Mary Chesnut considered Tabor the most beautiful young man in the state. But bullets disfigure beauty on the dueling grounds. Edward Magrath’s shot ended Rhett’s cousin’s life. Andrew Magrath lived on as the man Rhett most loved to hate.12
On November 7, Magrath and Gourdin may well have planned their seemingly spontaneous courtroom drama precisely to seize the revolution from Rhett. The two longtime friends, both favorites of Charleston’s drawing rooms, had graduated together in South Carolina College’s tiny class of 1831. Both squires embodied the high-toned revolutionary—the only kind of rebel that the drawing room set could abide.
But one fact casts doubts on a prearranged scenario. Gourdin, a skilled orchestrator of political drama, had not prearranged a large audience. With only a handful of stragglers watching the foreman, Gourdin may have heard of Lincoln’s election and spontaneously seen how a gray courthouse could spotlight a safe revolution. If so, Magrath spontaneously added his own insight into how a judge could advertise a revolution shorn of popular recklessness.
Whether planned or spontaneous, the Gourdin-Magrath spectacle, by hitting the right soothing lowcountry notes, inspired an answering chorus of resignations. Within hours, William F. Colcock, U.S. collector of the port of Charleston’s custom duties, James Conner, U.S. district attorney, and Daniel Heyward Hamilton, U.S. marshal, all resigned. Only poor Alfred Huger, postmaster general since nullification times, endured in a Charleston federal post, to face charges of “traitor” and to pray “to God” for His “protection … in this Emergency.”13
Gourdin and Magrath had indeed precipitated an emergency. A democratic government must supply courts. Lincoln could supply court officials only by handing the resigned offices to someone, with all the fury that such a potential Southern Republican could arouse. The Charleston Mercury had the symbolic and actual importance of the Gourdin-Magrath performance pegged perfectly: “The tea has been thrown overboard. The Revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”14
Magrath initiated the next cautiously revolutionary scene. At the public celebration of the contagious resignations, the ex-judge, after being introduced, stood on the extreme left of the platform, motioning for cheers to cease. After waiting another of his eternal moments, he barely whispered, in the manner of a cautious nonagitator, that “the time for deliberation has passed.” He then paused and crept, with slow, measured steps, to the extreme right of the stage. As he inched along, he passed his large handkerchief, perfectly folded on its diagonal, through his hands, as if pondering what to add. Finally, with no space left to travel, he turned, raised a clenched fist, and screamed that “the time for action has come.”15
The audience (this time packed!) screeched its glee. This arguably first rebel yell could not be heard in Columbia. But news of the Magrath uproar sped across the telegraph wires. “The telegraphic announcement of the resignations in Charleston,” exulted an observer, “was altogether unexpected and produced a thrill of sensation.”16 The revolution seemed to have commenced before legislators could even deliberate on whether to delay it.
– 4 –
Undeterred by the Charleston resignations, Cooperationists in the House and Senate still demanded proof that at least one other state would follow, if South Carolina seceded almost immediately. Other states’ leaders could not be summoned to Columbia in time for an immediate legislative decision on an early convention date. Thus Separatists could only assuage Cooperationists’ fears by reading encouraging secret letters, previously received from other states. For the moment, the success of immediate disunion would thrive or die on the credibility of a dozen or so clandestine missives.
The first batch of conspiratorial letters, exchanged between Gist and his gubernatorial colleagues, had provided insufficiently comforting assurances. “At first,” winced Rhett’s longtime ally William F. Colcock, our “correspondence with the leading men … of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi” displayed “considerable division of sentiment. But now I believe we have good ground for hope that those States will follow and sustain South Carolina.” Colcock, however, also found grounds for “some doubt” that Georgia would cooperate.17
James F. Pettigrew, the patriarch who had been most responsible for defeating South Carolina’s African slave trade reopening, read Colcock’s letters. Pettigrew concluded that ultras again must be deterred. “We receive numerous letters from the Cotton states,” noted Pettigrew, “urging us to secede alone” and professing confidence “that that the rest would certainly follow.” But Pettigrew, seeing insufficient evidence for that “certainly,” saw our “only safety” in “a Union of the Southern States in Convention.”18
Robert Gourdin’s secret letters from Georgians showed why Colcock confessed “some doubt” and why Pettigrew preferred a doubt-free southern convention. “Do not understand me to say that I am entirely without fear of our state,” James Mercer Green wrote Gourdin from Macon. But “we all think here” that “the stern march of events will drag us out, if the cowards do not go willingly.” So too, John M. Richardson of Perry, Georgia, warned Gourdin that cowards here “fear the possible consequences of secession.” They forgot the “certainty” that Lincoln’s rule “must lead first to the formation of a black republican party in our midst and then to a civil and servile war.” Thus your “delay … will injure us.” But speedy “action will exert a great influence.”19
Great influence, yes, but an irresistible influence? The Rhetts, fearing this key question about the crucial state of Georgia, believed that their own secret letters would sway doubters. A visitor to Columbia, writing on the day of Lincoln’s election, reported that the Rhetts are “in daily communication with various gentlemen from Geo Ala and Fla who say that if South Carolina goes out, those states will follow.” The following morning, Wednesday, November 7, at 10:00 A.M. in Kinsler’s Hall, the Rhetts put their private letters on public display, at an unofficial caucus of the legislators. To make the unofficial proceeding feel like an official occasion, General W. E. Martin, clerk of the Senate, read aloud the Rhetts’ “letters from many of the Leading men of the different Southern States, giving their views and advice as to the course South Carolina should pursue.”20
After Martin finished reading the letters (and almost at the same moment that Magrath in Charleston removed his robe), the Rhetts strode over to the legislative halls. There Robert Barnwell Rhett, Jr., in the House and Edmund Rhett in the Senate introduced resolutions that called for a South Carolina state convention to meet on December 17, forty days hence and before any other state’s convention could assemble. Delegates to the convention would be elected on November 22, fifteen days hence and before South Carolina’s outrage at Lincoln’s election could cool.
The Rhetts swiftly discovered that their unofficial caucus had left doubters still unconvinced about such early dates. Qualms about immediacy’s safety remained strongest in the old Cooperationist areas, the Charleston mercantile centers and the least enslaved, semimountainous upcountry districts. Representatives from these cautious areas preferred two suggested alternatives.
George Trenholm’s anti-Rhett alternative, introduced in the Senate, particularly alarmed the Rhetts, not least because Trenholm urged it. This renowned Charleston merchant headed John Fraser and Co., a formidable rival of the Gourdins, with branch offices in Liverpool and New York. A hard-driving capitalist, Trenholm was also a debonair charmer, a favorite of cultivated ladies and of hearty outdoorsman. To this impeccable Charleston persona, Trenholm added impeccable secessionist credentials. He had been one of the few leading Charleston merchants who had favored Separate State Secession in 1850–52. Jefferson Davis would soon choose him to be Confederate secretary of the treasury.
In November 1860, this trusted capitalist considered seceding alone too risky. He especially saw Georgia’s support as too uncertain. So Trenholm’s Senate resolution called for the legislature to adjourn, with no convention called but a commissioner to Georgia elected. Trenholm hoped that the commissioner would arrange an early joint secession.
South Carolina’s ultras despaired that the cursed Georgians would instead force Trenholm’s commissioner to arrange joint attendance at a southern convention. Meanwhile Charleston’s Henry Lesesne’s second alternative to an immediate state convention, presented to the House, would give the governor power to call a convention later, if and when that chief executive had assurances that some other state would secede.
The legislative majority preferred the Rhetts’ gamble on immediacy to the Trenholm-Lesesne preference for a later, supposedly surer thing. All those clandestine letters from other states had convinced most legislators that Separate State Secession would be safe enough. But the Trenholm-Lesesne options rallied a Cooperationist minority of indeterminate (and indeterminable) size, still unconvinced by the secret letters.
The South Carolina constitution gave doubters some leverage. Convention bills required a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Even if delayers could not quite scrape up one-third of either Senate or House members, precipitators’ need for unanimity would refortify Trenholm and Lesesne. If word went out that South Carolinians disagreed, other states might dodge the state’s Separatist force. But if South Carolina legislators unanimously supported immediate action, the epidemic might consume at least some Lower South states.
Sometime on either Wednesday, November 7, or Thursday, November 8, the Charleston delegation met in caucus for five angry hours, seeking a compromise between the Trenholm-Lesesne Cooperationist proposals, with no convention date arranged, and the Rhetts’ Separatist proposal, with a December 17 convention assured. Exhausted debaters finally split the difference. They settled on a January 15 date for the South Carolina convention to convene, with delegates elected on January 8. On Friday, November 9, the Senate passed the compromise, 44–1, with Trenholm’s blessings. Alfred Aldrich’s House Committee on the Territories almost immediately sent the Senate bill to the House floor, with its blessings (and Lesesne’s).21
The Rhetts found nothing blessed about a delayed state convention. Against their insistence that South Carolina citizens must vote for convention delegates immediately, lest the people’s white-hot rage at Lincoln’s election would freeze, the legislature’s decision for a January 8 election might allow cooler second thoughts to prevail. Against the Rhetts’ demand for an early state convention, lest other states’ momentum for a southern convention would swell, the legislature’s decision for a January 15 convention might allow a southern convention trial balloon to soar. Georgia’s resistance could especially become consuming, as it had been in 1850.
Above all else, the Rhetts had exhorted South Carolina to act first, so that the most secessionist state would drag its less secessionist Lower South compatriots out of the Union. Instead, the legislature’s timetable might well leave South Carolina deciding last, so that the Lower South majority could drag the most fiery state into a southern convention, where an Upper South majority might rule. Three days after Lincoln’s election, Separate State Secession seemed at least temporarily overthrown and Cooperative State Secession in the saddle, by the Senate’s 44–1 margin, no less.
– 5 –
Separatists’ initial defeat proved that conspiratorial weapons had been too blunt. Secret letters had provided the best source of information on the subject that nervous South Carolinians had to see illuminated: Would the state again stand alone? The information had left doubts about Georgia. As Jefferson Davis had emphasized, without Georgia, a gaping geographic hole might preclude any viable Lower South republic.
Worse, the Rhetts had provided the only secret letters available in Columbia, and those agitators faced grave suspicion. While few thought that the Rhetts had cooked the letters, such fanatics might be displaying some missives and hiding others. Worse still, they might not have even written to Lower South correspondents who would discourage disunion. Worst of all, the Lower South leaders who had written the Rhetts back, including Mississippi’s Davis and William S. Barry and Alabama’s Leroy P. Walker, were Southern National Democrats. Such trimmers were, by Rhett’s own standards, suspect dissimulators. Could such wily politicos’ secret guarantees be trusted?
Suspicions lingered partly because the letters were secret. No one could watch the pledgers’ body language as they pledged. Nor could anyone know whether promises rendered in private would be kept in public. Conspiratorial information, never a republican’s favorite, always has the shady feel of the closet. Any democrat who depends solely on pledges shrouded in shadows wishes that promises had been rendered in the glaring sunlight. Here, suspect conspiratorial information stood burdened with suspect South Carolina communicators, plus suspiciously politic Lower South guarantors, plus suspiciously incomplete Georgia guarantees. Conspiratorial letters required supplemental assurances, hopefully proclaimed in the open air.
– 6 –
Instead, the ultras received another secret blow—and an indication that an open-air campaign would further boost the Cooperationists. On November 6, Alfred Aldrich had written U.S. Senator James Henry Hammond on behalf of several legislators, asking Hammond’s views on Separate State Secession. Aldrich perhaps had hoped that Chesnut’s belated endorsement of instant action would pull along the state’s other U.S. senator.22
Hammond, anticipating the request, had been drafting his answer since mid-October. On November 8, the senator sent back his thirty-five-page response. The potential bombshell arrived in Columbia that day, or more likely November 9, just as Aldrich’s House committee surrendered to the Senate’s 44–1 vote for a delayed, mid-January state convention. Richard Yeardon, the Cooperationist editor of the Charleston Courier and recent admiring publisher of “Festina Lente,” suspected that the author of the Barnwell Court House Address might have again questioned South Carolina’s rashness. So Yeardon requested that Aldrich release Hammond’s letter for publication.
Aldrich knew that Yeardon’s request, if granted, might make the Charleston caucus’s compromise, that January 15 convention date, seem recklessly early, not disastrously late. Picking up where the Barnwell Court House Address left off, Hammond’s letter declared that “I do not regard our circumstances in the Union as desperate.” Like almost all other South Carolina delayers, the U.S. senator conceded that “the South would be better off” in a “properly reorganized” southern republic. The present Union “drains us of our money” and “deprives us … of our good name.” To “be freed from the antislavery agitation … would be a greater blessing to the South even than all the blessings of the Union.”23
Still, Hammond believed that the Union had its blessings, for “the South … can, when united, dictate, as it has always done, the internal and foreign policy of the country.” The senator based his optimism on typical South Carolina pessimism about mobocratic politics. “At the North,” Hammond declared, “politics is a trade.” The spoilsmen “go into it for gain.” For that reason, no Yankee has “ever been twice elected President.” Mr. Lincoln’s administration will also break down “before it can accomplish anything detrimental,” for its “antislavery agitation” will “not gain them spoils and power.”
Hammond called Lincoln’s doomed administration safer than disunion by South Carolina alone. Here again, the senator saw federal politicos through contemptuous aristocratic lenses. He called Southern National Democrats, as he had observed them in depraved Washington, better than Yankees but not by much. They remain so “passionate for” federal “place, for power, and for spoils” that “it would probably require two defeats … to bring” them “up to the point of secession.” Moreover, southern spoilsmen’s “prejudice” against South Carolina’s precipitancy has not “abated.” For us to “attempt to take the lead” would subject South Carolina “again to the indignities which other states have heaped upon her, by mocking her.”
Such insufferable mockery, continued Hammond, forces us to “consider our power before we rush into a contest for our rights.” Our state convention must not secede until “one, two, or more other states should, by similar conventions, resolve also to secede.” Before we risk secession, all seceding states must also agree to “adopt, without any modification, alteration, or addition, the present Constitution of the United States.” Otherwise, the mob’s flatterers will “seek notoriety by proposing” popular elections of “judges, Senators, and Representatives annually.” Such seducers of the rabble “must be kept from putting their hands upon our Constitution or we shall have the guillotine at work.” He feared “our own Demagogues at home more than all enemies abroad.” Let us not, James Henry Hammond concluded, risk “utter anarchy” and traitors’ “halters around” our “necks” with an “impolitic, unwise, and unsafe … attempt” by “one state … to dissolve the Union.”
Hammond’s letter, if rescued from Alfred Aldrich’s pocket, could only enhance the senator’s reputation for aristocratic brilliance. Where Judge Magrath almost lost his voice in pleading that a revolutionary mob must not close federal courts or seize federal forts, and where James Henley Thornwell preferred the abolition of slavery to the risk of revolutionary chaos, Hammond would shut down the revolutionary process until the masses had been contained. Where disunionists feared that southern demagogues’ desire to feed at the public trough would arouse a Southern Republican Party, Hammond answered that southern spoilsmen’s appetite at the federal banquet table would dissipate any disunion movement. Where disunionists claimed that Lincoln would perpetuate Yankee tyranny, Hammond answered that no Northerner had ever perpetuated his own presidency. Furthermore, a united South had always dethroned corrupt Yankees.
With delayers in control of the South Carolina legislature, and with James Hammond likely to defuse a popular uprising against legislative delay, the world was closing in on the ultras. Within three days, the bill that delayed a state convention, already approved once by the Senate and by the relevant House committee, would likely pass the required three readings in both the House and Senate. Alfred Aldrich would be fortunate to keep Richard Yeardon’s Charleston Courier from disseminating James Hammond’s letter for even that seventy-two hours.
Only one last ploy seemed possible to stymied legislative Separatists. If a public outburst for instant disunion could be stimulated, before Hammond’s letter became public knowledge and before the legislature finalized a delayed state convention, perhaps an early secession convention could be salvaged. Accordingly, Rhett asked others to telegraph William F. Colcock down in Charleston, pleading that an instant public outcry against a delayed convention must be whipped up. Rhett, despairing that his reputation for wildness would poison any such emergency rescue, dared not send the telegraph himself. His, for once, lack of daring again showed that cautious thinking like Hammond’s could rule this hour.24
– 7 –
But the Separatists’ hour was coming, thanks not at all to Rhett’s indirect plea to Colcock. Instead, the cautious revolutionaries in Charleston’s 1860 Association, the very new leaders who sought to rescue revolution from Rhett, had for days planned a monster public rally in Institute Hall. But no secessionist could have planned the amazing coincidence that allowed this meeting to reverse the legislature’s late decision. Because a railroad happened to be completed two weeks before the legislature tentatively voted for a delayed state convention, and because just the right Georgians happened to be in Charleston on the night of the legislature’s decision, to celebrate the railroad’s opening, the 1860 Association could marshal the perfect speakers in the open air to quiet those qualms about secret letters.25
A modern railroad might seem an ironic engine to further a reactionary revolution. But that aspect of the railroad coincidence was not as incongruous as it seems. The Charleston mercantile community had long exuded the capitalistic creativity that its best customers, the absentee lowcountry planters, mocked as overly Yankee. Robert Gourdin’s organizational flair with the 1860 Association had been one result of a modern capitalist spirit that thrived among Charleston merchants.
For three decades, Charleston merchants had pursued a challenge worthy of Yankee capitalism: snatching the Savannah River trade from Savannah itself. Charleston’s would-be pirates had previously built a railroad from Hamburg to Charleston in the early 1830s. From Hamburg, located up the Savannah River’s South Carolina side, produce could be hauled overland the 136 miles to Charleston and then shipped to the outside world.
This then longest railroad in the world deployed the first locomotives built in America for regular steam service. The initial dinosaur, the Best Friend of Charleston, blew up before the railroad line had been finished. Subsequent locomotives, puffing along at ten miles per hour, proved tolerably profitable. But the Best Friend’s demise epitomized the initial failure of the city’s grand dream to rob Savannah of its river’s trade.
As Savannah boomed in the 1850s while Charleston limped, South Carolina capitalists decided that sharing the lush Savannah River trade would be more plausible than stealing it. So the city’s merchants determined to build another 100-plus-mile railroad, this time running from Charleston to Savannah. Charlestonians dreamed that Savannah’s trade with the North would then run through South Carolina’s more northerly Atlantic outlet. Alternately, Savannah merchants conceived that Charleston’s trade might then run through their more prosperous port.
SOUTH CAROLINA’S KEY RAILROADS DURING THE SECESSION CRISIS
The Charleston and Savannah Railroad Company, chartered in 1854, had laid down only thirty miles of track from Charleston by 1857. Then the national economic panic forced work to be suspended. On October 28, 1858, construction resumed on tracks over the remaining seventy-three miles of swampy muck to Savannah. Exactly two years later and precisely one week before Lincoln’s election, the 300-plus black hands happened to finish their brutal swamp labor. They had lost ten of their number, half to killing fevers and half to brutal accidents.26
On November 1, 1860, the first white passengers breezed along the latest fruits of black men’s burdens. The next day at 9:00 A.M., eighty prominent Charlestonians boarded their city’s (hopefully) new best friend for the sixhour bumpy ride to Savannah. At 3:00 P.M., Savannah’s Mayor Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., met the train and began the rendezvous of the two city’s elites.27 The visitors delightedly found that Jones Jr., not yet thirty and Harvard educated, exuded a sophisticate’s manners. Savannah’s mayor also possessed an ancestry that even Charleston blue bloods could envy. His father, Charles Colcock Jones, Sr., a Presbyterian prophet of so-called slavery, had contributed famously to the movement to bring the Word to the slaves.
The son’s contempt resembled a South Carolina reactionary’s. When the young Harvard graduate talked of “two races,” he meant not blacks and whites but Yankees and Southerners. Jones pronounced the Yanks “a poisonous brood, … with hissing tongues and noxious breath,” raving amidst their “cold hills” about their “heresies and false conceptions of a ‘higher law.’” Obviously, “the sooner we separate, the better.”28
The young mayor with the silver (to Charlestonians) tongue and the awesome (to high-minded planters) father led his guests through exquisite Savannah, planned in the eighteenth century and lately gloriously enhanced. The old plan had featured twenty-three squares, erected several blocks apart, each a little park lined with mansions. The squares ran in rows from the riverfront to mammoth Forsythe Park. This climactic park’s huge 1858 fountain, wrought in iron, charmed as delicately as many European cities’ fanciful sprays.
Savannah’s far greater prosperity than Charleston’s in the 1850s had yielded not higher and thicker walls between older “single” houses but many spectacular new dwellings to accompany the fine new fountain. Many of the new mansions featured a wide-open view, to and from the squares. This opulent city, as open as its profuse parks, could offer a southern republic so wonderfully much, if its fathers would only merge their more public elegance with Charleston’s more private brand.
The banquet that November 2 evening at the Pulaski Hotel enhanced the possibility. The main Savannah speaker, Francis Bartow, exuded as much youthful cultivation as Jones Jr. and as congenial visions as Jones Sr. After graduating with highest honors from the University of Georgia, the Savannahian had studied at Yale before coming home as heir apparent to John Berrien. Berrien, Whig Nationalists’ longtime U.S. senator from Georgia, laid multiple hands on young Bartow. The heir studied law under the U.S. senator, married his daughter, assumed his partnership in one of Savannah’s finest legal firms, and reinvigorated his Lower South nationalistic Whiggery. Meanwhile, Bartow directed eighty-nine slaves, accepted the captaincy of Savannah’s elite corps, the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, and traded Harvard-Yale taunts with Harvard’s Jones Jr. The Old South did not make cavaliers more at ease than Francis Bartow.
During the Civil War, Savannah’s prime ex-American nationalist, now turned into its prime Confederate nationalist, mustered his men into the Confederate, not the Georgia ranks. When Georgia’s arch state’s righter, Governor Joseph Brown, objected, Bartow wheeled on his state’s chief executive, declaring that “I shall never think it necessary to obtain YOUR consent to enter the service of my country.” At First Manassas on July 24, 1861, Captain Bartow would not stop changing for his new nation. After a ball killed his horse, he clamored aboard a killed rebel’s horse and galloped toward a fatal bullet. As the contemptible Yankee’s shot crashed into his heart, he screamed, “They have killed me, but never give up this field.” When the coffin containing this first famous Confederate casualty rolled through Charleston, more of its citizens turned out to mourn than ever before.29
Back at the November 2, 1860, celebratory dinner at the Pulaski Hotel, Francis Bartow earned Charlestonians’ adulation with his “pledge that we will defend South Carolina, rash though we think her, precipitate though we deem her, with all the energy and courage of a brother.” A “sovereignty” on your “side of the Savannah River,” and a colliding “sovereignty on this side,” the ex-Whig nationalist explained, is an “absurdity,” as “all history teaches. … Are we to play the game now playing in Italy today?” Are we to allow South Carolina to “be a Tuscany” and Georgia to “be a Piedmont,” with “one little province … under the protection of England, and another tied to France”? If so, “we shall ever be a degraded people.”
Bartow conceded that “if you think that the time has come” for disunion, we “differ.” But should “you choose to” break up the Union “without consulting us, you have the power of precipitating us into any kind of revolution that you choose. But my counsel to you is not to do it.” The balding, mustached patriarch received “tremendous applause” from both coastal Georgia and South Carolina squires.30
The next day, the Charlestonians begged their Savannah hosts to let them repay the hospitality, a week hence. Come see us, they urged, and help us celebrate the completion of our mutual railroad, on our terrain next time. On November 3, three days before Lincoln’s election (and before South Carolina’s ultras had any idea they would be in trouble on November 9), Savannah’s finest accepted the invitation to come on over—on November 9! Thus would the chance completion date of a railroad yield the chance presence of just the right Georgians in Charleston on just the right evening.
– 8 –
Chance leads to destiny only when beneficiaries of luck seize advantage of their good fortune. Robert Gourdin, with mercantile offices in both Charleston and Savannah, became one of six members of the committee to welcome the visitors. From this position, Gourdin joined with fellow leaders of the 1860 Association to plan an extravaganza that would still be called the grandest Charleston party a half century later. After the Charleston and Savannah Railroad puffed into its Ashley River station at 3:00 P.M. on November 9, the Charleston city council escorted Savannah’s patriarchs onto the steamer Carolina. The ensuing tour of Charleston’s lovely harbor proceeded up and down the Ashley, up and down the Cooper, with multitudes cheering on all shores. After the Carolina landed on Charleston’s side of the Ashley, the best Charleston carriages with the finest decorated horses transported the guests to the Mills House. At this hotel, Charleston’s plushest, the visitors barely had time to splash their faces before the early evening feast beckoned.
The spread at the Mills House, the Charleston Mercury rightly claimed, “would have satisfied the Lord Mayor of London.” Seventy-seven Georgians and 123 South Carolinians consumed turtle soup; then turkey, mutton, capon, ham, tongue, lamb chops, and duck with olives; then shrimps, fried oysters, and turtle steak with wine sauce; then pies, pastries, ice cream atop meringue, figs, and coffee; all washed down with sherry, bourbon, scotch, wine, champagne, claret, port, brandy, and Madeira. As the tables groaned less under the weight of the disappearing edibles (and some gourmands secretly groaned more), toasts and speeches came fiery and heavy, first for the wondrous new railroad, then for a collaboration of cavaliers, whether from Charleston or Savannah, to fight to the death for southern honor. Mary Chesnut, trying to sleep in a room above the din, found relief from the “hot, fervid, after supper southern style” only in one sweet voice. She sent down to “ask the name” of the exception. It was old Alfred Huger, still called a traitor for continuing to deliver the U.S. mails, still chanting for Union while other diners ranted for secession.31
With the banquet cheers assaulting Mrs. Chesnut’s ears, Gourdin and several fellow impresarios escorted several handpicked Georgians over to Institute Hall to speak to the gathering of a thousand and more Charlestonians, less well fed than the Mills House crowd and eager to take in some Georgian oratorical treats.32 After what they had heard the previous week in Savannah and just now in the Mills House, the 1860 Association leaders figured that Francis Bartow would offer the richest oratorical delights.
Bartow outdid his effort of seven days since. The ex-Whig first reestablished his credentials as a fervent nationalist, still a fancier of the American nation. “I am a Union man,” Bartow proclaimed to frowning disunionists, “in every fiber of my heart. I have gloried in its missions of humanity. … God has never launched a nation on a more magnificent career. It has been the home of the oppressed and the asylum of the desolate from every land. In it today are wrapped the hopes of universal man.”
No other wordsmith in Charleston that word-saturated night, save for Alfred Huger, exuded such spread-eagle American patriotism. At Savannah’s Pulaski Hotel a week earlier, Bartow’s nationalistic fervor had led him to urge South Carolina not to create an alternate nation. Still, his unionism had made him the more compelling when he conceded that, if his neighboring state did it, their new nationalism must become his too.
In Institute Hall, Bartow reinvented himself as the sincere unionist who had already been yanked away from his adored nation. He now wished South Carolina to tug the South harder toward an inescapable new nation’s destiny. After a week of mulling over his personal exposure to these rabid South Carolinians, Bartow declared himself “tired of this endless controversy. I am wearied with seeing this threatening cloud.” Since “the storm is to come,” as I now know “it must, be its fury ever so great, I court it now, in my day of vigor and strength.” He was tonight “ready for it. Put it not off until tomorrow,” for “we shall not be stronger by waiting.”33
This aristocratic soulmate’s pledge, presented in person with obvious sincerity, trumped a dozen half-hedging promises, especially about Georgia, in duplicitous politicians’ clandestine letters. Gourdin’s crowd’s other handpicked main speaker was just the Georgian to complete Separatism’s stunning new credibility. Back at the Mills House, Savannah’s Henry Rootes Jackson had answered the toast that “Southern Civilization … must be maintained at any cost” with a tirade for a southern nation.
Yet the “trumpet-tongued” disunionist also possessed all the old unionist credentials that made Francis Bartow so creditable. Jackson had helped his cousin and political intimate Howell Cobb save the Union in 1850. He had brought to his unionist alliance with his Cobb cousins the same urbane sophistication that Bartow brought to his nationalistic alliance with his Berrien in-laws. Where Bartow had pursued graduate education at Yale, Jackson had there finished first in his undergraduate class. Where Bartow’s love of history made him determined not to allow the Georgia–South Carolina environs to repeat Italy’s folly, Jackson would be for twenty-five years president of the Georgia Historical Society.34 To this respect for historical learning, Jackson added the gifts of a minor poet, much like William Grayson in style and substance. Where Grayson’s couplets celebrated so-called slavery’s superiority to a hireling’s bondage, Jackson’s Tallulas (1850) lamented the elderly South’s deserters to the new Southwest:.
Ye citizens of Georgia!
Ye have a noble State …
Oh where in South or West,
Can ye meet a sweeter realm …
Does the exile and the rover
A true contentment find …
Not in the wild adventure
Not in the restless mind …
You were born in Georgia …
Could you ask a better home …
She needs but zealous spirits
Her riches to unfold.35
With a gentleman’s manners to match an amateur’s poetry and with an impeccably carved beard and mustache to advertise his gentility, Henry Jackson delighted the Institute Hall celebrants with another pledge of Georgia’s support. His words on that occasion have not survived. But in 1860–61, whenever this hero of Georgia’s unionism in 1850 suspected even a “shadow of a doubt” about “going out of the Union at once,” he roared that “everything may be lost by any sort of delay.” We must “cow,” as they ought to be cowed, “the cowards.” If we retreat “an inch, … the cowardly … will take to their heels” in flight from disunion.
Jackson loved to excoriate not only southern “cowards” but also the “corrupt … Yankees, and Yankee gold” that infected North and South too. Anything Yankee, wherever it “skulks,” was “impure, inhuman, uncharitable, unchristian and uncivilized.” He would add “barbarism and heathen,” but those words were “scarcely applicable to demons of hell in the guise of men,” who have spawned “all … hellishisms, including … equalityism and negrophilism.”
This Yale man’s fighting words were as sweet to the Charlestonians as Jones Jr.’s and Francis Bartow’s excoriations had been. The three ex–Ivy Leaguers had lived with those Yankees, knew them intimately, and could not abide the fiends. But equally important, the three wealthy patriarchs were like carbon copies of Charleston’s 1860 Association leaders. These Georgians were gentlemen to their heels, fond of elegant morsels for the stomach and for the brain, brethren whose word could absolutely be trusted. Georgia’s candid guarantees had come far from the half-guarantees in Rhett’s secret letters, written by suspected Southern National Democrats. Now Savannah stood pledged in the open air, and “hurrah” screamed the crowd of Charleston and Savannah dandies, leaping up and down as if in a Baptist revival camp and throwing their hats toward Institute Hall’s towering ceiling.36
“A wild storm seemed suddenly to sweep over the minds of men,” the Mercury reported, and “every man” in Institute Hall “instantly recognized … that he stood in the presence of the Genius of Revolution.” Around 10:00 P.M., ecstatic revolutionaries resolved to telegraph the legislature, demanding a state convention “at the earliest possible moment,” to “sever our connection with the present Government.” The celebrants also resolved to send messengers on “a special train of cars from Charleston to Columbia” on the morrow to repeat the insistence on immediatism in person.
At 10:30 P.M., the telegraph wires conveyed the news to Charleston’s startled representatives in Columbia. The telegram declared that “the greatest meeting ever held in this city is now assembled in Institute Hall. … Mr. Jackson, Mr. Bartow, and others from Georgia … have pledged their state.” Charlestonians’ demand for a convention “at an early date … cannot be restrained.” Coming “by train tomorrow” will be further evidence of the “unprecedented and indescribable … feeling” here.37 With Georgia lined up behind South Carolina, how could South Carolina pause?
Early the next morning, three of the four lately resigned federal officials boarded the special train, to carry that question to Columbia. The travelers included ex-judge Andrew Magrath, ex–U.S. attorney general James Conner, and ex–collector of the customs William Colcock. Mary Chesnut rode the train too, beginning her streak of being in the right place at the right time during the Civil War drama. Taking up her pen, she took advantage of her good fortune, giving posterity, in her unrivaled diary, uncanny descriptions of surpassing events. Her literary triumph would follow the formula of the 1860 Association’s political exploitation of their railroad coincidence: enjoy incredible good luck, squeeze it for all it is worth, and obscure folk can make—or write—history.
The train riders, wrote Mary Chesnut, “were a deputation from Charleston rising against tyrants,” warning representatives in Columbia that “they were too slow, to hurry up, dissolve the Union or it would be worse for them—there was a fire in the rear.” As ex-judge Magrath would emphasize in Columbia, Charlestonians came to warn the legislature that the hottest fire, illegal mobs seizure of federal forts, would consume patriarchs who delayed a legal revolution. Ex–U.S. marshal D. H. Hamilton, who remained in Charleston to savor the mood, marveled at “the most impressive sight,” a “people rising … to hasten the action of the legislature.”38 It was an especially unusual sight in South Carolina, where legislators customarily told citizens when to act. But then again, “the people” who rose up in Charleston were patriarchs such as Gourdin, milking the words of patriarchs such as Bartow, seeking to prevent Charleston’s own mob no less than a Yankee president from pitching an upperclass universe into chaos.
– 9 –
Upon arrival in Columbia around 2:00 P.M. on Saturday, November 10, William F. Colcock articulated the new mood in Charleston. “We now stand in the presence of history,” cried Colcock, “about to perform the greatest Drama ever enacted.” The epic has been delayed because the wrong question has been “asked: ‘Do you expect aid in any other quarter.’” The right question must now be asked: “Can we not reasonably expect to have allies from other quarters.” After our Institute Hall meeting last night, “I tell you yes! From distinguished sons of Georgians, we have the highest assurance—nay I almost feel at liberty to call it a guarantee—that Georgia will be with us.”39
Colcock shrewdly here did not overstate his case. One mass meeting with two Georgians did not an unconditional guarantee make. Robert Gourdin and other 1860 Association leaders, after all, had picked and chosen among potential speakers, just as the Rhetts had probably picked and chosen among potential correspondents. But the new filtered information did supplement the old filtered information to create exactly what Colcock claimed: a reasonable expectation that if South Carolina acted, even Georgia would follow.
Henry Ravenel, formerly a Charleston delayer, explained in his diary why reasonable expectation had now turned his head. “I have heretofore always opposed separate state action,” he affirmed, because “we could do nothing successfully alone—but in joint action we can accomplish our deliverance.” Now, “I believe we have assurances” of “co-operation. … That contingency now seems so sure, that I approve most heartily [of] the intention of our State to secede first.” Ravenel’s shift lent truth to William Porcher Miles’s whoop of triumph. We “feared” Charleston, wrote the congressman, because “its mercantile interests” might again “hold back and prove lukewarm.” Now the city “has led the van in the movement for secession.”40
The race toward revolution became irresistible because the secret letters and the railroad coincidence eased each other’s limitations. Clandestine letters had been too suspect without the railroad meeting. Closed discourse, even in so aristocratic a republic as South Carolina, bore the smell of manipulated distortion. But one public meeting, without all those letters, would have seemed a noisy exception. Taken together, otherwise suspect secret letters and an otherwise suspect open public demonstration had created Charlestonians’ reasonable expectation. And if Charleston would finally dare, what legislator could hold back? Or as John Cunningham asked in the state legislature, when Georgians “invoke us to lead, is there a Cooperationist … who will ask us to wait?”41
– 10 –
Still another coincidence, arriving precisely at this moment of decision, polished off any lingering Cooperationist attempt to wait. Amidst the excitement of the Charleston special train’s arrival in Columbia, rumors flew around town that Georgia’s U.S. Senator Robert Toombs had resigned, in anticipation of his state’s imminent secession. No one in Columbia could be sure that fact lay behind rumor. But Bartow’s and Jackson’s speeches in Charleston made the apparent news about Toombs seem more creditable, just as the apparent news about Toombs made Bartow and Jackson seem less exceptional. The resignations seemed to be coming as fast as the train and the telegraph could convey them: first Gourdin as foreman, then Judge Magrath, then Colcock and Conner and Dan Hamilton, now Bobby Toombs. With federal officials disappearing, Cooperationists might as well allow Separatists to have their early state convention, rather than hold out for delay and a southern convention.
William F. Colcock, in his November 10 address to the Columbia crowd that met the Charleston train, demanded that all doubters now give way. A “unanimity,” he urged, “will have a tremendous effect” in making our reasonable expectation of Lower South secession accurate. Secession’s Lower South opponents, explained Colcock, expect “division and discord among ourselves.” But if news “goes out to the world that South Carolina, by a unanimous vote,” has shucked her doubts, “she will decide the destiny of the South.”42
Henry Lesesne, along with a few Charleston representatives and a few legislators from South Carolina’s least enslaved, partially mountainous districts, still preferred a surer secessionist destiny. They were underwhelmed by two Georgians’ after-dinner speeches and by one Georgia U.S. senator’s purported resignation. But even to whisper for Cooperation, they had to brave as ferocious an insistence on “traitors’” silence as had ever befouled the Slave South’s not-so-republican politics of white republicanism.
The politics of loyalty, with its trademark insistence that disloyalty to the Southland remain undercover, had limited democratic discourse in every presidential election in the South since the 1830s. During the South Carolina secession crisis, intensified social pressure assured dissenters’ silence. “In this great turning point in the destiny of the South,” wrote John Townsend, “no man can remain neutral. … He who is not with her, in the hour of her extremity is, without being conscience of it perhaps, against her … and will be an Abolitionist.”43
With every legislator who still urged delay now called an imminent abolitionist, opponents of a December 17 state convention dove under cover. Henry Lesesne reported that “numbers of men,” while “holding the [delaying] views” that he had “expressed,” now do “not like to speak openly, so violent is the opposite feeling.” With Lesesne already “suspected,” any report of “these remarks,” warned a friend, must not “mention his name.”44
This smothering atmosphere engulfed Columbia after the transforming news from Charleston arrived. By 4:30 P.M. on Saturday, November 10, almost exactly twenty-four hours after the Senate had voted 44–1 for a January 15 convention (with elections for delegates on January 8), the House voted 117–0 for a December 17 convention (with elections for delegates on December 6). That evening, the Senate concurred 42–0. Two days later, the Rhetts’ hasty convention date sailed unanimously through all three readings in both houses.45
Only one threat to South Carolina’s apparent unanimity remained. James Hammond’s letter still smoldered in Alfred Aldrich’s pocket. Knowing that Aldrich’s censorship would have to end if Hammond objected, William D. Porter wrote the U.S. senator on November 11, a day after the legislature’s unanimous vote for a December 17 convention. Porter, president of both the State Senate and the 1860 Association, begged Hammond to forge a “common cause” and “a united front.” Because “things have taken a new aspect since you wrote,” Porter explained, “I have not shown your letter to a soul.” Charleston, the South Carolina site “most exposed” to federal cannon, has become most “clamorous for secession. The advice seems to indicate that Georgia will secede.” Since you “are known to have inclined against immediate action,” you can “help us with Georgia and with Georgia, we can do everything.” Our “ball is in motion.” No South Carolinian “can resist the current.” I hope “you will not oppose it but help it on. It will at least make them respect us.”46
William Porter’s plea marked another turning point. Just as William Gist’s response to southern governors’ late October letters could have advanced or precluded a southern convention, so James Hammond’s response to the South Carolina legislature could have provoked or canceled a South Carolina public brawl between Separatists and Cooperationists. If Gist had written back encouragement of the budding southern convention movement (and encouraged the South Carolina legislature to set a late date for a South Carolina convention), representatives of the people of all the South, in southern convention assembled, could have made the crucial decision on disunion. If James Hammond had defied the South Carolina legislature by leading a public crusade for cooperation with other states, during the imminent election of delegates to the state convention, the people of South Carolina could have made the crucial decision on Separate State Secession.
But Hammond deplored such mobocratic decisions. Porter’s plea that Hammond must not help the world again mock South Carolina counted with the U.S. senator. Still more impelling was Porter’s declaration that the aristocracy in legislature assembled had spoken, and all elitist republicans must fall silent. Porter reported “a great desire here that you should follow the example of Toombs” in resigning from the U.S. Senate. “Chesnut has done so.”47
Chesnut had indeed just done so, even if Toombs had not. On Monday, November 12, thirty minutes after Hammond received Porter’s half-false plea, the U.S. senator sent his resignation to the legislature. By quitting, Hammond joined Chesnut in proclaiming to the world that the game was over in their state. The state now had no U.S. senators, no federal judicial officials or federal grand juries in Charleston, no customs collector, no remaining inclination to consult other states before departing the Union, and no chance for public campaigns against Separatism. To be sure that Hammond kept the aristocracy’s decision for Separate State Secession unanimous (and kept the public out of the decision-making loop), Aldrich retained the senator’s former letter for three more weeks before returning it.48
Hammond resented the censorship. He “thought Magrath & all those fellows were great asses for resigning.” The “very foolish … epidemic” reminded him of the “Japanese who when insulted rip up their own bowels.” Why, then, had the one man who might have stalled the epidemic “done it myself”?49
Hammond explained that he felt compelled to follow Chesnut’s and Toombs’s lead. Besides, he claimed, he had always wanted out of the U.S. Senate. He confessed only half the truth. He had indeed always wanted out—out of the House of Representatives halfway through its gag rule session, out of the Barnwell Court House speech halfway through his presentation—for he had always feared that he was not up to his fellows’ visions of his genius. But he had always prayed that the state’s legislators, final arbiters in an aristocratic republic, would proclaim him up to the highest mark. Their judgment, to be creditable, had to be an unpressured verdict, with no politicking or whining or begging on his part. So Hammond had never protested their verdict, not even when they ostracized him for twelve years for sexual misbehavior that they lacked the knowledge even to identify (or the imagination even to suspect). But now they asked him to quit, and as ever he would not complain.
The younger Hammond (left), risen bully, and the older Hammond (right), dissolute quitter, both revealing a soul rendered too insecure by ugly personal demons to bring enormous political talent to full flower. Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library (both images).
Thus did the most talented—and tortured—aristocrat in South Carolina give way before the legislature’s aristocratic storm. Ironically and apparently without his realizing the irony, Hammond’s surrender actually embraced his best strategic moment. Back in 1850–52, after the state had cowered from seceding, Hammond had suggested that her congressional representatives secede from Washington. South Carolina’s U.S. Senate and House resignations, he had suggested, would give other southern states a flag to rally around and an assurance that South Carolina would someday really do it.50 Now, Hammond’s and Chesnut’s flag made unmistakably clear that South Carolina had already decided to do it, and fast.
The resignations were symbolically crucial. If the legislature had alone acted and South Carolina luminaries had kept their federal posts, the rest of the Lower South could have wondered if the state’s convention might delay the final blow. But with this precipitous state’s political giants already gone from the U.S. Senate, and with the Barnwell Court House delayer among the seceders, other Lower South delayers faced a unanimous, accomplished South Carolina decision, a month before the accomplishment became official.
On Tuesday, November 12, the day after Hammond sent his white flag to Columbia, the legislature appropriately celebrated the end of its historic week. As the House and Senate met in joint session to finalize, unanimously, the December state convention, all the events of the last seven days seemed palpably in the air: Chesnut coming out for immediate action, Gourdin and Magrath staging their perhaps spontaneous drama in Charleston’s gray U.S. courthouse, the Rhetts’ less than successful clandestine caucus, the State Senate’s almost unanimous vote to delay secession, the Charleston and Savannah Railroad coincidence, the Mills House and Institute Hall orgies, Francis Bartow and Henry Jackson and William Colcock too, Hammond coming out for Cooperation only to be shoved back into Aldrich’s pocket, the legislature’s vote to reverse itself, Hammond’s move to reverse himself, and now, all South Carolina legislators pronouncing the Union finished. With dissenters stifled and Hammond silenced, the imminent popular election of delegates on December 6 became the nonevent after the epic. To the relief of Alfred Aldrich, the South Carolina public would not have to vote itself a revolution, any more than a southern convention would be given the opportunity to vote itself a continued Union.
– 11 –
During the early December campaign—or rather noncampaign—for South Carolina convention delegates, social pressure prevented any surprise event from developing. When Judge David L. Wardlaw tried to express “his decided wish for Cooperation” at an Abbeville mass meeting, “he was almost scouted, told he had nothing to do there.” The judge, “greatly moved, … came down so far as to endorse their [Separatist] platform.” The retreat “satisfied in a manner,” but not in the “grand” manner of Wardlaw’s fellow judge, Andrew Magrath. After Magrath “warmed up” this “community … to almost a raving pitch—no one dared dissent.”51
Or to be accurate, the strongest individualist in the strongest outpost of Cooperationism alone dared to defy the intimidators. Seven months earlier, Benjamin F. Perry had refused to depart from the National Democratic Convention in Charleston, whatever the jeers from the Institute Hall galleries. Perry’s home base, semimountainous Greenville County, contained one of South Carolina’s rare predominantly yeoman populations. Throughout the nullification confrontations of the 1830s and the secession crises of the early 1850s, Perry’s redneck constituents had supported his defiance of South Carolina ultras. Perry’s original slate of Cooperationist candidates for the December 6 election included two of the state’s most respected men, James Petigru Boyce (president of the Baptist Theological Seminary) and John Belton O’Neall (South Carolina chief justice). Judge O’Neall saw no “cause” for “a Revolution exactly equal to that in ’76.”52
But of the formidable trio who led this promising Cooperationist ticket in this promising district, only Perry outlasted the latest jeers of “traitor.” After Boyce and O’Neall quit the canvass, Perry’s support shrank to but 225 votes, one-fifth of the winners’ total. That beat the tally of any other Cooperationist candidate statewide. Only a dozen of those hapless fellows could be found on December 6 ballots.53
The forced unanimity made Separatists, ironically, more nervous than ever. Their intimidation hid what might lie beneath the surface. It was all too reminiscent of forcing slaves to play Cuffee and then wondering who Cuffee really was. Frank De Bow, brother of the De Bow’s Revieweditor, meant to “foreswear … my native state” if South Carolina failed to secede again, “after all the fuss and furor she has been making.” De Bow found intolerable the “storm of ridicule … heaped upon South Carolina.”
But “I begin to fear” that while “all classes of people in SC” raise secessionist banners, “the state will not secede.” He saw “too many flags hung out, too much unnecessary show.” I fear that “many of those who hang out flags are afraid their fidelity will be doubted.” With Separatists’ proscriptions only elevating suspicions, James L. Petigru had it right: “They are afraid to trust the second thoughts of their own people.” Or as Howell Cobb added, “It looks as if they were afraid that the blood of the people will cool down.”54
Leonidas W. Spratt conceded the truth of Petigru’s and Cobb’s diagnosis. In January, speaking before the Florida secession convention as commissioner from South Carolina, Spratt explained why his state could not delay secession in order to confer with other states. First of all, “other Southern States themselves would have … lost the courage necessary,” as a result of our “backing down.” Worse, we would have lost the necessary courage. By appointing “some distant day for future action, to see if other States would join us,” we would have “allowed the public feeling to subside.” Then our state “would have lost the spirit of adventure, and would have quailed from the shock of this great controversy.”55
Mary Chesnut was at her best in describing this malaise of the almost triumphant spirit—this relief and disbelief and exaltation and foreboding of a culture that could not quite believe that at last it was meeting its destiny. “I remember feeling a nervous dread and horror of this break,” she wrote in February 1861, “but I was ready & willing—SC had been so rampant for years. She was the torment of herself & everybody else.” Her ultras “had exasperated & heated themselves into a fever that only bloodletting could ever cure.”56
– 12 –
The South Carolinian who had worked longest and hardest for the bloodletting thought that this should be his moment. But everywhere, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., found himself discarded. Throughout the state, folks preferred to hear speeches from the coolheads who had supplanted the hothead during that fateful legislative week: Magrath, Gourdin, Memminger, Conner, even Orr. Stung, Rhett tried to force all Charleston candidates for the state convention to pledge for immediate, irrevocable disunion.
The 1860 Association’s main leaders denounced Rhett’s presumption. They had sought a measured revolution, congenial, fastidious, and safe, with sufficient assurances that others would join and with all legalities observed. Rhett’s notion of illegally seizing a fort back in 1851—of doing anything to get out of the Union immediately and irrevocably, on the assumption that other Lower South states would follow any exit—that supposed folly had seemed as much an immediate menace as Lincoln’s patronage. The fastidious leaders of the 1860 Association, not Rhett, had lately prevailed, especially in taking advantage of the railroad coincidence.
On December 6, Charleston voters officially denied Rhett’s claim for paternity of the revolution. The self-proclaimed father of secession squeaked into seventh place as a Charleston delegate to the secession convention, barely ahead of Memminger, a thousand votes behind the leading vote getter, Magrath, and also behind Miles, Townsend, Gourdin, and Conner.57 Stung once again, Rhett tried to become governor five days later. This time he could muster only third place. The winner was another slap in Rhett’s face, Francis Pickens, an old National Democrat, a former Cooperationist, an ally of James L. Orr, and a feeder at the trough of national patronage. Pickens had lately been U.S. minister to Russia. The new governor had also been slow and stolid in coming around to Separatism. He was yet another of the cautious, elegant, law-abiding patriarchs who had finally made revolution seem safe, to reactionaries who trembled at Lincoln—and at Rhett too.
Appropriately, the climactic sermon on secessionists’ triumph over recklessness came from the state’s most frightened reactionary, James Henley Thornwell. Thornwell had been so nervous that a disunion revolution would topple social order that he had almost called for slavery’s abolition. His sigh of relief, published in the Southern Presbyterian Review’s January 1861 issue, celebrated America’s newest Founding Fathers as patriarchs “unmoved by the waves of popular passion and excitement,” not a “collection of demagogues and politicians” or “defeated place-hunters.” They were “sober, grave, and venerable men, … aloof from the turmoil and ambition of public life, … devoting an elegant leisure … to the culture of their minds, and to quiet and unobtrusive schemes of Christian philanthropy.”
To have “completed a radical revolution,” Thornwell breathed, “gravely, soberly, dispassionately, deliberately … transcends all the measures of probability.”58 This revolution without excesses—and without Rhett—certainly transcended what Hammond had considered probable. “People are wild,” Hammond had shuddered as he resigned from the U.S. Senate. “The scenes of the French Revolution are being enacted already. Law & Constitution are equally and utterly disregarded.”59 But Robert Gourdin, Andrew Magrath, and John Townsend epitomized the nonwild. This scrupulously legal revolution was—had to be—theirs.
– 13 –
On December 17, 1860, when the South Carolina state convention met in Columbia’s First Baptist Church, another gentle squire stepped to the fore. Rejecting poor Rhett Sr., who received only 5 of 169 votes, the secession convention elected David Flavel Jamison its president. This cultivated planter lived in Orangeburg County, on the border between upcountry and lowcountry. Jamison’s neighbor William Gilmore Simms admired his “great calm of temper,” his “thoroughly true” integrity, and his “not brilliant but sensible” mentality. When this balanced patriarch could steal time from directing his people, black and white, he labored on his learned two-volume biography, a decade in the making, of Bertrand Du Guesclin. That early fourteenth-century Frenchman had swept his nation almost clean of English conquerors. Jamison hoped his volumes would illuminate world history at the crossroads, with feudalism and papacy expiring and the modern world dawning. No trace of South Carolina parochialism could be found in this dreamy intellectual’s sophisticated oeuvre.60
Upon accepting the secession convention’s gavel, this exemplar of a gentlemen’s revolution struck a scholar’s balanced stance. Jamison told his fellows to avoid “too great impatience.” No illegal action must tempt them. Yet he also urged them “to dare! And again to dare! And without end to dare.”61 Jamison then presided over a comic version of South Carolina’s tortuous daring.
The torture this time involved some cases of smallpox that had arrived in Columbia simultaneously with the delegates. Gentlemen’s bravery drooped as the scourge advanced. They wished to cut and run to smallpox-free Charleston, before daring to free themselves from the Union. But that retreat elicited extravagant protest. We must not allow our mockers to say, warned William Porcher Miles, that South Carolinians “are prepared to face a world in arms, but they run away from the smallpox.” He would rather risk his life than “budge an inch … until we have sundered every tie” with the Union.
Laurence Keitt used humor to pop this nervous fit. We will not invite ridicule, he counseled, by delaying a day. “If we are to go to the tented field tomorrow,” declared this irretrievable secessionist, and if “I can sleep in a comfortable bed tonight, I will do it.” Delegates tittered. But they would not take the 4:00 A.M. train toward Charleston until they had passed, unanimously, a pledge to secede upon arrival.62
One of Benjamin F. Perry’s friends still twitted these “sons of sound and fury” who turned tail and evaporated when “the smallpox met them in all its terrors.” He mockingly wrote that
Our brave secessionists have met, and
Tarried but a day …
Like children scared and terrified …
They broke and ran away.63
An usually warm December 18–20 period greeted the runaways in Charleston. This time they sped into the history books.64 After passing secession unanimously, they sought a ceremony as grand as Philadelphia had staged for the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At 6:45 P.M. on December 20, the delegates marched toward the Institute Hall festivities. They were the cream of their world. Ninety percent of them owned at least one slave; over 60 percent owned at least twenty; over 40 percent owned fifty or more; and 16 percent owned a hundred or more. No other southern secession convention would approach this mass of wealth, unknowingly stepping toward class suicide.
At Institute Hall, legislators met the imminent suicides at the foot of the stairs. James Simons, Speaker of the House, and William Porter, president of the Senate, stood decked out in kingly robes of office, puddling on the ground. The delegates followed these patriarchs and Jamison into the hall to thunderous applause from 3000 spectators, with the Senate and House members following.
Jamison carried the Secession Ordinance. The historic document was engrossed on thick linen parchment, twenty-three by twenty-eight inches in size. Jamison spread the latest declaration of independence on a thick table with stubby legs, a weighty platform for a weighty document. The Great Seal of South Carolina, designed by William and Arthur Middleton and executed in silver by George Smithson in 1776, was stamped into the linen. Not since the seal shone on the Nullification Ordinance in 1832–33 had this silver invaded parchment. It has not happened since.
After the Reverend John Bachman prayed for peace, wisdom, and the permanent opportunity “to protect and bless the humble race that has been entrusted to our care,” the clerk of the House of Representatives, John T. Sloan, read the delegates’ names, alphabetically by election district. As Sloane called each name, the delegate mounted to the great table and affixed his name to the document, with 3000 voices cheering every step.
The procession proceeded uneventfully until Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., stepped forth. At the table, Rhett sank to his knees and prayed to his Lord in thanks for thirty years of work triumphant. On so glad an occasion, no one questioned whether the, of late, nonfather of secession deserved to stand out. Rhett, after all, had long kept the fires burning, while such Johnny-comelatelies as John Townsend warned against too hot a flame. After two hours, the Founding Fathers had all signed. At 9:15 P.M. on December 20, 1860, David Flavel Jamison proclaimed the “State of South Carolina an Independent Commonwealth.”
After the cheering crowd rushed the stage, a spontaneous tableau crowned the evening. On each side of the table, a palmetto tree, South Carolina’s symbol, decorated the stage. The trees, a variety of palm, displayed a bark of sharp profusions, easily stripped away from squishy soft trunks (so soft that during the Revolutionary War, ships built with palmetto logs had harmlessly absorbed the English balls fired into them). As the Institute Hall spectators flooded the stage, they looked like precursors of twenty-first-century football fans who would triumphantly storm the goalposts. The celebrants peeled off the two palmetto trees’ sharp profusions. They waved their souvenirs as they paraded into the night, with bands marching down the streets and rifle companies strutting behind.
David Flavel Jamison (left), solid, stolid, troubled scholar and thus the perfect choice to urge cautious South Carolina gentlemen to dare. Jamison presided over the Institute Hall secession ceremonies with a palmetto tree (famous for its sharp bark and soft core) on each side of his desk—the apt final touch for revolutionaries who had long trembled at revolution. Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library (Jamison) and Special Collections, University of Virginia Library (palmetto tree).
Back at Institute Hall, the two denuded palmetto trunks remained on each side of the signing table. The Republic of South Carolina had symbolically left its soft core behind. Now the question was whether a broader, rock-hard southern republic would develop, around its daring segment.