The tales of the fleeting conspiracy and the railroad coincidence throw light on the precise way disunion came—on how South Carolinians mustered the daring to do it and on how close they came again to faltering. But this story of how history actually transpired cannot reveal what might have happened if these short-term occurrences had not crossed the path of the long-term sectional controversy. Or to put the might-have-been question more colorfully, if the Charleston and Savannah Railroad had happened to be completed a month earlier or later, might disunion have come at a different time, and/or in another form, or even not at all?
The guess here is that without the chance occurrence of the railroad’s completion date, and thus without the chance presence of the right comforting Georgians at the peak uncomfortable moment, the South Carolina legislature would have finalized the delayed date for a state convention. Then the scenario that the 1860 Association most dreaded might well have occurred. An outraged Charleston mob might have illegally nullified the legal delay.
All the conditions for a disreputable coup d’état flourished. The desperation was there: Ever after Christopher Memminger’s debacle in Virginia, Charlestonians dreaded a southern convention. The fury was there: Lowcountry grandees found Lincoln’s election (and their own faltering) an intolerable humiliation. The vigilante precedent was there: Lynch mobs had been roving the parishes for months after the Texas fire scare. The opportunity for mob triumph was there: Robert Anderson’s exposed federal troops in feeble Fort Moultrie, located in an accessible Charleston suburb, could have been easily annihilated. The leadership was there: In 1851, an exasperated Robert Barnwell Rhett had urged the South Carolina governor to void Separate State Secessionists’ defeat by seizing Fort Moultrie. In mid-November 1860, an even more exasperated (and infuriatingly deposed) ex-father of secession would have been even more likely to call forth the troops.
The potential troops were also there. Henry Ravenel reported that “thousands of men at the South … will never yield obedience to Black Republican rule. … If resistance comes from individuals against the law, it will be met as treason.”65 Treasonous individualswould have thrown away that Separate State Secessionist trump card—the concession throughout the Lower South of a state’s right to secede.
The post–1860 election situation augured still another illegal rebellion, if secession was delayed. On November 10, the most important newspaper in Mississippi (not in South Carolina!) promised that anyone who accepted Lincoln’s offer of a federal post inside the state would be lynched. The pledge demonstrated that a Southern Republican Party, using normal democratic agitation to criticize slavery within earshot of Lower South slaveholders’ yards, would have raised the old collision of democratic and despotic requirements to new levels of disruption.
If illegal mobs failed to cancel a South Carolina legislature delay, a Mississippi convention might have seized the Separatist initiative, leaving the initial John Pettus–Jefferson Davis preference for a southern convention in the dust. Alternatively, a southern convention might have met and served Separatists ironically well. Uncompromising Lower South delegates might have stormed out in protest against Upper South compromising. Such an exodus would likely have led to a cooperative Lower South secession. (This time, no clandestine letters needed!) Or the Lower and Upper South might have agreed on demands for northern concessions that Lincoln would have rejected. A northern rejection of a southern convention’s ultimatum could have led to disunion as swiftly as did the Charleston and Savannah Railroad’s celebration. All in all, the chances for the nation to finish 1861 peacefully intact were very poor.
And yet—and yet against all the probabilities, Union savers just might have hung in there, until the next slavery crisis. That until is crucial. The slavery issue would surely have continued to provoke fury between the sections. But even the angriest conflict need not necessarily produce its climactic explosion at any one time or in any one form; and the form or time can yield a hotter or cooler conflagration. Peacemakers can usually accomplish no more than keeping talks open, keeping meetings going, in prayer that some shaky armistice can preserve an uneasy peace until the next crisis explodes.
Delayers in this crisis had some advantages, if South Carolina would allow a pause. Most southern citizens favored WAIT. Those four capitalized letters gave the southern convention strategy viability, including deep in the South. A possibly helpful (and shaky) armistice plan would imminently be in the air. The vast impersonal forces that moved American and southern culture, in short, had not yet progressed so far as to ensure this particular blowup at this particular moment. That is why luck, accident, and coincidence—or the personal strivings and agency of individuals—must usually enter the most impersonal narrative of a disaster.
Thus as South Carolina Separatists feared (and Cooperationists elsewhere hoped), several weeks of delay just might have dulled the first sting of Lincoln’s election, even in South Carolina and then in Mississippi too. Subsequently, a southern convention just might have settled for an overt act ultimatum: No secession now but automatic disunion hereafter, if Republicans secured a federal antislavery edict. Or perhaps a southern convention just might have insisted on northern concessions that Presidentelect Lincoln might have considered negotiable. Or perhaps an unexpected coincidence, akin to the accident of the railroad’s timing, might again have deflected history a little off course. All humans know, or should know, that the fortuitous can somewhat deflect apparently remorseless trends at any time or place.66
The South Carolina reactionaries who ignited disunion wanted no part of any uncertainties. They aimed to preclude meetings, preclude talk, preclude mobs, preclude further contingencies, preclude southern conventions, preclude the chance that as in 1850 Mississippi would falter, preclude the chance that as in 1833 and 1851 they would falter, preclude riots against Southern Republican appointees. They meant to seize their surest escape route from Lincoln’s menace, following the strictest state’s rights rules for withdrawing consent. A week after the railroad coincidence threw the best exit door wide open and South Carolina’s lawmakers seized the opportunity to barrel through, exultant disunionists had more reason to cheer their good fortune. An historic debate in Georgia’s legislative chambers publicized an ultimatum to the North that Lincoln just might have found negotiable and that South Carolinians therefore dreaded—and in their dread had convulsively precluded.