Lincoln knew as well as Buchanan that any post–Star of the West coercive reinforcement of Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens might alienate the Upper South. Within twenty-four hours of his March 4 inauguration, Lincoln responded with ingenious orders to reinforce Fort Pickens without a coercive shot. But throughout most of March, numbing conversations about presidential patronage distracted the inexperienced president from overseeing his military orders. The inattentive hand at the helm allowed Lincoln’s subordinates to botch his clever strategy. They botched to perfection.
– 1 –
The comedy of errors trumped Lincoln’s best cards, in his poker game with Jefferson Davis. The ostensible jackpot: control of Forts Pickens and Sumter, the Union’s only two remaining major Lower South fortresses. The richer winnings: symbolic demonstration that either the Union’s majority rule or the Confederacy’s consent of the governed would prevail.1
The symbolic importance overshadowed the forts’ military unimportance. Lincoln could not save Fort Sumter, and the fort could not conquer Charleston. Nor could Davis capture Fort Pickens, any more than that fortress could control the Gulf of Mexico. Yet neither president could relinquish claims to these forts, lest they surrender their republic’s legitimacy.
A false first step could be as damaging as a surrender. Each president wished the other side to fire any initiating shot. Then the wavering Upper South might renounce the first destroyer of peace. If all eight Upper South states deserted to the Confederacy, the Union’s chances of winning a civil war—and saving majority rule—would be nil. If all Upper South states stayed in the Union, the Confederacy’s chances of winning on the battlefield—and establishing its withdrawal of consent to be governed—would approach zero.
FORTS SUMTER AND PICKENS
Lincoln had equally scant chance to fortify Fort Sumter peacefully. That fortress, on a tiny island in the middle of Charleston’s inner harbor, stood encircled by the South’s most determined rebels. Reinforcing ships would have to sail into the inner harbor through a narrow channel. Since slivers of land, infested with cannon, lined the ship channel, federal vessels would be like eyebrows at the mercy of tweezers. At Fort Pickens, in contrast, a federal relief ship could ignore the now 1800 rebel soldiers along the mainland shore, facing the island fort. On the other side of Fort Pickens’s long, narrow island coursed the open sea, with its open invitation for ships to approach.
Under Buchanan, a reinforcing ship, loaded with soldiers, had anchored at Pensacola, awaiting the president’s order to land troops at Fort Pickens. Because of Buchanan’s truce with secessionists, the lame duck president had never issued the orders. Now the new president had only to speed a messenger, bearing the reinforcing order, to the Pensacola environs. Then soldiers could be peacefully landed on Fort Pickens’s open ocean side, beyond mainland cannons’ range. The Union could thus prove that the majority would rule, without firing a shot.
The ploy, if successful, would hand Lincoln delightful options. He could shun a provocative order to call up more troops, for his current troops could hold the fort. He could evacuate Fort Sumter, for he would have made his symbolic point at Fort Pickens. He could implicitly invite Davis to assault a reinforced Fort Pickens from its landed side, knowing that a massive Confederate bombardment might fail. (The Confederacy would in fact fail to conquer Fort Pickens throughout the Civil War.) With Davis’s men (haplessly) shooting all the guns and Lincoln (successfully) spreading all the pacifications, those indecisive Virginians might wonder about Lincoln’s supposed coercion.
If Lincoln celebrated these prospects, he rejoiced too soon. His early March order for a decisive reinforcement at Fort Pickens yielded no reinforcement. Instead of immediately sending a messenger to Pensacola, his subordinates dawdled for days. Instead of dispatching the message due south from Washington, they first sent Lincoln’s order due north to New York. Instead of speeding the message from New York partly by land and partly by sea (a process that took four days), they sent the command altogether by sea (a process that routinely occupied nine days but this time dragged on a week longer). Instead of ordering the navy to help the army land its troops at Pickens, they dispatched orders only to the army, and the navy balked.2
So instead of hearing by March 21 that the gambit had triumphed, Lincoln heard back definitively only on April 6, and only that his troops remained aboard ship. By then, Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter had scarcely a week of provisions left. So Lincoln could only surely demonstrate that the majority would rule with the reinforcement of Fort Sumter—the worst place to begin the Civil War.
Lincoln cannot be blamed for all his subordinates’ Fort Pickens errors. He did not send the messenger in the wrong direction to the wrong military branch and partly aboard the wrong conveyance. But he failed to monitor the ongoing misdirections. During early and late March, he apparently never even asked, let alone frantically asked, about what had happened to his order.
Inexperience partly caused Lincoln’s error of omission. He had never been an executive. He had not served in Washington for over a decade. He had not commanded a soldier for over twenty years. Furthermore, office seekers swarmed in the White House, diverting his attention at every daytime moment and besetting his sleepless nights with blinding headaches.
One patronage decision deserved his stressed attention. Would the new president use his appointment powers, as secessionists feared, to empower a Southern Republican Party? Lincoln answered in a well-publicized letter to North Carolina’s John Gilmer. “As to the use of patronage in the slave states,” the president-elect wrote on December 15, 1860, “where there are few or no Republicans, I do not expect to inquire for the politics of the appointee.”3
Or to translate Lincoln’s political doublespeak, he did expect to appoint Southern Republicans where they already agitated, in the Border South. And so he did. Lincoln gave two positions in his cabinet to Southern Republicans: Missouri’s Edward Bates (Frank Blair, Jr.’s favorite presidential candidate) and Maryland’s Montgomery Blair (Frank Blair, Sr.’s other prominent son and Lincoln’s key southern swing man at the Republican National Convention). The Blairs also received some Maryland and Missouri local patronage plums. The president-elect here practiced politics as usual—rewarding the friends who had anointed him, and choosing men who favored his policies to administer his government, in order to bolster the party’s fortunes in their area.
Lincoln also here practiced the only antislavery politics he favored beyond containment: empowering Southerners to reform the South. He thereby demonstrated that prescience, not paranoia, characterized his secessionist foes. They understood that he planned no new antislavery laws. They expected that he would boost a southern antislavery party. Most Southerners considered that danger insufficient to justify disunion. But secessionists wanted no part of a wide-open South, with antislavery principles agitated in Border South slaves’ and yeomen’s hearing. Against that democratic persuasion, the minority meant to consolidate a closed society.4
– 2 –
Because disunionists controlled the Lower South and menaced his two forts, President Lincoln eventually had to focus on military instead of patronage predicaments. On March 29, suspecting that his Fort Pickens order had, in his word, “fizzled,”5 and knowing that Robert Anderson had little food left, Lincoln ordered ships prepared to resupply the Charleston fortress. While he decided whether to send the prepared ships, he developed a shrewd contingency plan. He would inform the rebels that only food would be landed at Sumter, if they allowed that mercy mission to be performed. But if they fired on the ships or on the fort, reinforcing troops would be landed. Whether rebels fired bullets against bread or allowed Fort Sumter troops to be fed (and thus to remain), Lincoln would win this round of the battle for Upper South public opinion. This strategy was less clever than the president’s initial Fort Pickens gambit. But he had learned to ensure that clever orders would be carried out. A great president’s growth had begun.
A week after Lincoln ordered the Sumter ships prepared (and two weeks after a prompt fulfillment of the president’s Fort Pickens order could have widened his Fort Sumter options), Robert Anderson’s imminent starvation left no time to wait for better alternatives. On April 6, the president ordered a State Department clerk to speed to Charleston partly by land, faster than the resupplying ships could go by sea, to “notify” South Carolina’s Governor Francis Pickens of “an attempt … to supply Fort-Sumpter [sic].” Only “provisions” would be landed, continued Lincoln’s message, unless “such attempt be … resisted.” But if rebels resisted, Lincoln threatened, a federal “effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made.” On the evening of April 8, Lincoln’s messenger read the communiqué to Governor Pickens, who asked Confederate President Jefferson Davis for instructions.6
The next day, Davis and his cabinet debated their response. Rebel leaders could not know that on precisely April 9, exactly four years hence, Robert E. Lee would surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. But Davis’s cabinet did know that Lincoln’s move left no good countermove. If Confederates allowed the federal ships to sail peacefully into Charleston harbor (assuming, dubiously, that Charlestonians would accept that humiliation), rebels would broadcast their failure to withdraw their consent to be governed. Alternatively, if Davis ordered ships bearing food for hungry men to be sunk, the Confederacy’s first shots could appall Upper South fence sitters. Or to put the rebels’ choice in the appropriate terms, the U.S. president now sat at the poker table with a pair of aces, waiting for the Confederate president to fold or to raise the ante.
Davis raised the stakes. He ordered the fort reduced before ships arrived (lest the Confederacy have to conquer ships and the fort simultaneously). Davis also decreed that Robert Anderson be given a single peaceful option: evacuate immediately. Instead, Anderson only agreed to evacuate on April 15, and only if federal ships had not reached his fort. Confederates, knowing that reinforcements might soon arrive, informed Anderson that their cannonballs would imminently descend.
The U.S. vessels in fact arrived in the Charleston environs on April 12. On that same day, acting under Lincoln’s this time inescapable orders, speedily delivered by land and by sea, the navy conveyed the army’s offshore Pensacola troops to Fort Pickens on its safe sea side, without resistance. If that peaceable triumph at Pickens had transpired per Lincoln’s original orders, three weeks earlier—well, might-have-beens can be intriguing.
Earlier that April 12, at 4:30 A.M., the first Confederate shot exploded over Fort Sumter. To the Virginia fire-eater Edmund Ruffin went the honor of the second shot, fired from Cummings Point opposite Fort Moultrie. Ruffin had gone to bed with only shoes and coat removed, in expectation of this moment. As the old warrior ecstatically pulled the lanyard and sent the cannon shell from his sixty-four-pound Columbian smashing into the Totten defense system’s prize fort, his glee brought back to mind Rhett kneeling before signing the South Carolina Secession Ordinance and Yancey introducing President-elect Jefferson Davis to the Montgomery multitudes. Each symbolic tableau honored the trio of greatest fire-eaters (and hid their slide into climactic irrelevance).
Virginia’s Edmund Ruffin, here literally dressed to kill, had always been the least potent of the three leading fire-eaters (also including Rhett and Yancey). What, after all, could a fiery revolutionary do with indecisive Virginia? Only beg South Carolinians to drive Virginians off the fence, as Ruffin urgently did in the late 1850s. That dangerous strategy ultimately required the provocative fire-eating trio to step unprovocatively back, settling for harmless curtain calls in the climactic moments. Ruffin’s cameo role, firing the second shot of the first Civil War bombardment, set off quite the fireworks. A day and a half later, an early Confederate flag, sporting only seven stars, fluttered over a devastated Fort Sumter, as if beckoning Ruffin’s Virginia to add its star at last. Courtesy of the National Archives (Ruffin) and the Library of Congress (both Fort Sumter images, opposite).
On April 12, after Ruffin’s ball exploded, Confederates’ reduction of Fort Sumter began in earnest. First fireworks lit the sky. Then flames licked Fort Sumter. Charlestonians scrambled atop roofs to watch the grandest light show in memory. Forty hours and 5000 artillery shots later, only the sinking sun illuminated Charleston’s darkening skies, Sumter’s ruins, and Robert Anderson’s white flag. But no soldier lay slain. Anderson surrendered his intact corps on condition that the defeated warriors could leave with flags flying and fifty guns firing two shots apiece. The shots killed two Union soldiers and frightfully wounded four others. An awful war had begun.7
– 3 –
South Carolina’s Governor Francis Pickens immediately telegraphed Virginia’s Governor John Letcher that coercion had commenced. Yet Virginia’s convention delegates continued their indecisive talk. Not the Fort Sumter fireworks of April 12–13 but Lincoln’s proclamation of April 15 shattered the convention’s cocoon. The president called on the several states for a combined total of 75,000 troops, to put down the rebellion. Virginians had been summoned to slaughter South Carolinians.8
In response, Virginia moderates only changed the terms of their delay. Previously, the Majority Report of the Committee on Federal Relations had championed a border state conference, before any decision on secession. Now, the delayers’ leader, Robert Scott, urged a May 23 Virginia popular referendum, charged with deciding (without a convention decision) between “separate and immediate secession” or “cooperation among the slaveholding States yet remaining in the Union.” Scott prayed that cooperation would win. Then a border state conference could begin.9
Scott had previously hoped that a border conference would secure a reconstructed Union. He now hoped that such a conference would secure unanimous secession. If Virginia seceded without a border conference, he feared, the border states would feel ignored, oppressed, unwilling to follow tyrannical secessionists like slaves. Scott would instead turn Upper South compatriots into masters of their fate, cooperating in an Upper South march toward the Confederacy.
Scott celebrated his proposed delay as “a straight road to secession,” for “I cannot doubt that all the Border States will act together … with the Southern States.” But over half his supporters, unreconstructable Unionists, liked his delay because they did not doubt that border states would act together with northern states. Robert Scott proposes “to get out,” scoffed George Randolph, not by seceding but “by getting the States, that everybody knows will not secede, to join with Virginia in a consultation.”10
Against Scott’s latest effort to find a middle way, the disunionists’ William B. Preston proposed that at a May 23 popular referendum, the people should be offered only one choice: approve or disapprove of the convention’s secession ordinance.11 Inside the convention, orations swerved to the merits of Preston’s immediate decision versus Scott’s further delay. Outside Institute Hall, the clamor for instant disunion grew deafening. By a coincidence recalling the Charleston railroad meeting of November 9, 1860, George Bagby’s Spontaneous State’s Rights Assembly, planned in late March, convened in Richmond’s Metropolitan Hall on April 16, just as Preston and Scott crossed oratorical swords in Institute Hall. Wild rumors spilled into Richmond’s streets, as young sports inside Metropolitan Hall intoxicated each other with conspiratorial plots. Should we kidnap Governor John Letcher? Should we seize Newport News’ federal Gosport Naval Yards? Should we raid the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal?
The proposed version of John Brown’s raid, this time featuring Virginia proslavery partisans as raiders, quickly found a formidable champion, himself no stranger to Harpers Ferry.12 Henry Wise starred as a convention delegate in Institute Hall and as a participant in Metropolitan Hall, where Bagby’s “Spontaneous” crowd assembled. The ex-governor preferred younger Virginians’ revolutionary fury to older moderates’ eternal talking. True, in customary seasons of politics as usual, no other Virginian talked more endlessly (and that said something).
Yet in rare seasons of crisis, no other Virginian acted more decisively. At the Virginia state convention of 1851, Wise had championed the saving compromise between eastern and western Virginia. As candidate for governor during Southern Know-Nothings’ key moment, he had pushed the Whiggish alternative back to the Border South. As governor during John Brown’s raid, the ultra-thin, ultra-wiry rabble-rouser had brought off the state’s calm and secure hanging of the Connecticut killer. Now Henry Wise encouraged George Bagby’s young adults in Metropolitan Hall (but not calmly). On April 16, Wise demanded that Harpers Ferry and the Gosport Naval Yards be ambushed, in the name of inescapable revolution.
Acting as if John Letcher had not recently succeeded him as governor, Wise secretly organized an army to march on the morrow, half the troops to stride northwest, to capture Harpers Ferry, the other half to stream southeast, to have at the Gosport Yards. Confronted with this fait accompli, the sitting governor gave the ex-governor’s troops official sanction. Possibly, Governor Letcher responded to rumors that the mob would kidnap a resisting chief executive. More likely, Letcher saw, an instant before his moderate friends in the convention, that revolution could no longer be stalled.
On April 17, as his recruits sallied forth for their successful assaults on Harpers Ferry and the Gosport Yards, Wise strode into the convention. Minutes before the ex-governor stole the show, the convention voted down Robert Scott’s proposal for a double popular referendum on May 23, 77–64.13 A switch of only seven delegates would have suspended any secession for thirty-six days. Subsequently, Virginia’s electorate would have chosen between the border state conference stall and instant disunion action.
After the vote, Henry Wise ended the stalling. As he started to speak, the ex-governor placed his horse pistol before him. He snapped open his pocket watch. He announced that at this hour, by his command, Virginia was at war with the federal government. If anyone wished to shoot him for treason, they could seek to wrestle away his oversized pistol.14
Ten feet in front of Wise, ex-president John Tyler turned his chair around, tears streaming down his worn face, to cheer as the spellbinder ripped into stalling Unionists. To an eyewitness, Wise seemed “supernaturally excited. His features were as sharp and rigid as bronze. His hair stood off from his head, as if charged with electricity.” Lincoln’s bloodthirsty proclamation, he shouted at his foes, makes waverers into traitors. You must now decide whether to kill your kin, and whether to repudiate your soldiers, and whether to return the murder weapons that your patriotic sons have seized. You must additionally decide whether to repudiate the White House despot or assassinate me.
Henry Wise hardly here saved Virginia’s secession. Too many reasons compelled Virginians to fight alongside southern cousins, if a fight commenced. Thanks to Wise’s initiative and Letcher’s concurrence, Virginia troops already marched toward the fight that warriors north and south of Virginia had irrevocably begun. The convention had already voted down Robert Scott’s last bid for Virginia procrastination. But Henry Wise probably forced some reluctant Virginians to accept the unavoidable fact of war days or weeks before these delayers would have otherwise faced this dreaded music. More surely, the image of Wise screaming at the stallers, pocket watch and horse pistol before him, epitomized how reluctantly Virginians chose to become Confederates and how violence alone, as so often, left no room to hide from frightful choice.15
Shortly after Wise roared at the reluctant, Virginia’s convention voted 88–55 to recommend immediate secession to the state’s voters. On May 23, Virginia’s citizens voted for disunion more decisively, 125,950–20,373. But would the western Virginia minority accept the Virginia majority’s decision?16
In the Virginia secession convention, western delegates had denounced slaveholders’ tax breaks rather than Lincoln’s alleged abolitionism. These delegates voted 26–5 against secession on April 17. Their constituents voted down disunion by a three-to-one margin at Virginia’s May 23 popular referendum. These thirty-three Virginia counties contained 33 percent of Virginia’s whites but only 3 percent of its slaves. Wheeling, five times closer to Pittsburgh than to Richmond, traded ten times more with nonslaveholding than with slaveholding states.
Between June 11 and 20, 1861, western Virginians met in a Wheeling convention. The convention in effect seceded from Virginia and entered in the Union as the new state of West Virginia. The Virginia stalemate—and Virginia itself—lay shattered.
– 4 –
A comparison of secession in Virginia and in the Lower South throws light on differences between various Souths—and on the developing southern nationalism that overcame many differences. In South Carolina in early December, Governor (about to be ex-governor) William Gist threatened to organize a private posse and seize Fort Moultrie if Lower South congressmen delayed South Carolina’s departure. Gist’s threats comprised the illegal route to rebellion that Judge Andrew Magrath and Charleston’s 1860 Association had been at pains to control. So too, in early January, Robert Gourdin deterred young Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar’s illegal seizure of Fort Pulaski. In South Carolina, the older generation at last brimmed with determination to bring off secession. Seasoned veterans needed to keep younger hotheads from disgracing an orderly rebellion and weakening reactionaries’ nerve.
In Virginia, Henry Wise, also lately the governor, organized exactly the sort of military seizures that Gist had threatened. The resulting Virginia coups resembled Lower South secessionists’ post–Star of the West seizures of federal military installations west of South Carolina. Once again, troops captured federal installations (and thus consummated the revolution) before voters or conventions had voted to rebel. Once again, the supposedly patriotic heroics outmaneuvered moderates, who once again haplessly squealed. But where Lower South Cooperationists’ worsened plight became an unintended consequence of their governors’ strikes, Henry Wise and his young Virginians fully intended to shove older gentlemen into the maelstrom.
Virginia and the whole Upper South needed to be shoved, albeit far more by Lincoln’s military orders than by Wise’s, because the president’s menace to slavery seemed less threatening where black belts less predominated. Henry Benning brilliantly made his new republic’s case that Lincoln posed an instant danger to the institution and to racial order. A third of the Virginia convention delegates concurred, with George Randolph and James Holcombe superbly developing the argument.
The argument did not suffice. Only when Lincoln called up the troops, to destroy the people of a state’s alleged right to withdraw their consent, did disunion consume Virginia.17 William Rives, for example, led the Central Confederacy movement. But after Lincoln summoned the troops, Rives became a Southern Confederate partisan. “Our justification now,” soared Rives, lies “in the principles of the Declaration of American Independence”—in the right to throw off a “government, which no longer stands upon the only legitimate foundation, the consent of the governed, but seeks to rule by the sword.”18
The Middle South’s belated wave of revolution, sweeping up even William C. Rives (and Sam Houston), repeated the second stage of the shattering of the National Democratic Party. In Charleston, the Upper South majority of southern delegates rejected the Lower South representatives’ case for ripping apart the party over the territorial issue. But in Baltimore, after Northern Democrats threw out some Lower South delegates, most Upper South delegates massed behind the Cotton South. Most Democrats in both southern sections abhorred an imposition of northern will without southern consent. So too, in the secession crisis, the majority of Southerners (and the huge majority of Upper South citizens) rejected Lower South Separatists’ case for ripping apart the nation over Lincoln’s menace to slavery. But Lincoln’s trampling down white men’s right to consent was another matter.
Not only a state’s abstract right to withdraw consent but also Southerners’ visceral loathing of Yankees turned Lincoln’s coercion into a summons to disunion. Now Virginians had to decide who they hated enough to kill; and most Southerners loathed Northerners. The Yanks were hypocrites, puritans, holier-than-thous, meddlers, insulters, sanctimonious, insufferable. The swelling of that image had been the single most important southern phenomenon of the 1850s. The emergence of the horrendous Yank had been the reason why the northern response to John Brown (more than Brown’s blundering raid itself) had been so provoking, why Owen Lovejoy’s tirade in the House of Representatives had been so infuriating, why James Holcombe found Northerners who sneered at his philanthropic parents so appalling, and why William Lowndes Yancey considered his haughty stepfather so outrageous. No true Southerner would murder southern brothers who refused to live with righteous fanatics!
War and the ensuing reconstruction forged a consuming southern nationalism around this prewar kernel of nationalism. Despite their differences over whether slavery should last forever, over whether the African slave trade should be opened, over whether Lincoln’s menace to slavery demanded disunion, those who lived in Upper South or Lower South black belts had long agreed that Yankee intrusion without southern consent would intolerably make whites into slaves. Southern nationalism exemplified sociologists’ “negative reference group.” When black belt Southerners disagreed on what they favored, they agreed on what they despised. They excoriated holierthan-thou outsiders. They would not allow the other section’s phony saints to enslave them—and especially not with rifles.
Strikingly often, they coupled visions of emancipating themselves with hints of somewhat freeing blacks, sometime or other. In the spirit of the Reverend Benjamin Palmer, they demanded total control over their own internal arrangements, not always to freeze slavery in place but sometimes to explore whether icy rigidities could be partially thawed. That had been the surprising hope of Dred Scott’s judges, even when the Southern Democratic jurists slapped outsiders’ hands off territorial slaves. Such occasional surprises do not prove that the South ever would have reformed slavery. But the softer side of southern ferocity demonstrates that Southerners subjected slavery to human prayers for improvement—and that Yankees, in addition to all their other enraging attributes, became infuriating scapegoats for frustrated dreams.
Robert Toombs put this startling side of disunionists’ cry for hands off unforgettably, in his farewell oration to the U.S. Senate. You presume that slavery is your infatuated business, declared Toombs on January 7, 1861. But “this is our question. … We will tell you when we choose to abolish this thing. It must be done under our direction, and according to our will,” in “our native land.” If you seek to invade our soil “with the sword in one hand, and the torch in another,” we will “meet you upon the border.”19
That first blush of southern nationalism—that rage to keep meddlers’ opinions and especially rifles off our sacred terrain without our consent—would flourish rankly as Yankee soldiers (with blacks’ help) battered down slaveholders’ defenses. The defeated South’s Lost Cause nationalism would ascend the more unconquerably after northern reformers (again with blacks’ help) imposed postwar reconstruction. War and postwar occupation, as so often, was midwife of nationalism. But the prewar seed gave enormous leverage to the comparatively few initial secessionists. One more time let posterity remember the wisest sentences on the course of the secession crisis. If our tiny state will alone dare, exclaimed South Carolina’s Congressman William Boyce in August 1860, “our enemies … must let us alone” or “coerce us.” If they “coerce us, then the Southern states are compelled to make common cause with us.”
So history transpired in the Lower South, after the Star of the West sailed. So history repeated itself in the Middle South, after Abraham Lincoln summoned an army. Then the only choice left, where should I aim my bullets, left divided white Southerners—at least in the black belts—divided no longer.
– 5 –
In Upper South white belts, history moved in the opposite direction. Virginia prefigured both directions. Like most white Virginians, most Middle South citizens stood with southern comrades, after Lincoln called them forth to slay their brothers. In early May, the reconvened Arkansas convention seceded, 65–5. In mid May, the North Carolina convention unanimously concurred. In early June, Tennessee’s voters approved disunion in a popular referendum, 104,913–47,238.20
But again as in Virginia, most voters in Middle South white belts dissented. Just as western Virginia mountaineers voted three to one against secession, so eastern Tennessee mountaineers cast seven of ten ballots against disunion. Just as western Virginia departed from Virginia, so eastern Tennessee’s U.S. Senator Andrew Johnson refused to depart from his senatorial chair. The Democrats’ Johnson had the blessings of the ex-Whigs’ Parson Brownlow, who had never before blessed anything about Andrew Johnson.
Eastern Tennessee’s Brownlow and Johnson overcame their mutual antipathy because both despised southern rebels more. Here as everywhere in America at this terrible moment, men had only one decision: who they hated enough to kill. Johnson, Brownlow, eastern Tennesseans, western Virginians, and northwestern Arkansas nonslaveholders all agreed with the North: The rebels were atrocious. The “overbearing tyrants” of “the Slavery Aristocracy,” spat Parson Brownlow, would “drag Tennessee” and all “poor white men … to fight their battles” and be “shot down like dogs.” The secessionists, concurred Andrew Johnson, mounted “a conspiracy” against “the liberty of the great mass of the people.”21
At decision-making time over who was the most loathsome American, the Border South largely concurred with Johnson. Some rough patches occurred in saving the most northern South for the Union. For a few days, an April riot in Baltimore, when Lincoln’s troops passed through, shook the city. For a few months, Kentucky tried to preserve its neutrality (with John Breckinridge’s blessings). For four years, Missouri, repeating its Kansas wars, fell into world-class guerrilla warfare.
But most borderites despised the Southern Confederacy. A barometer of borderland sentiment came in the U.S. congressional elections of mid-June 1861. Unionists won five of six Kentucky seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and amassed more than seventy percent of the vote. Unionists also won all Maryland’s seats, by larger landslides than in Kentucky. In August 5 popular elections for state legislators, Kentucky Unionists trumped themselves, winning majorities of three to one in the House and over two to one in the Senate.22
Just as the Middle South’s whitest belts contained large antisecessionist majorities, so the Border South’s blackest belts displayed large secessionist pluralities. Eastern and Western Shore Maryland, western Missouri, and Blue Grass Kentucky sent tens of thousands of troops to the Confederate army. Thus the largest generalization about secession crisis allegiance held firm: the more and the thicker the black belts, the faster and the more enthusiastically a neighborhood massed behind secessionists.
The Border South simply possessed fewer black belts than the Middle South, while the Middle South contained fewer black belts than the Lower South. So the Lower South seceded first (with its blackest states the first out); the Middle South seceded many months later (and only after Lincoln asked for its troops to slay fellow Southrons); and the Border South never seceded (not even after Lincoln’s war exclusively for white men’s Union belatedly became also a war for black men’s freedom). Exactly the borderland region that Lower South ultras had fretted about for decades—and lately feared would be the locale of a swelling, already existing Southern Republican Party—largely saluted the Union’s colors, at crunch time for slavery.
During the ensuing road to Appomattox, the South would need all of itself, in order to whip the more numerous, more industrialized Yankees. Instead, too many southern folk, controlling too much southern industry and strategic terrain, would support the Union. These southern anti-Confederates, including at least 100,000 Middle South whites, two-thirds of Border South whites, and some 500,000 fugitive slaves, would help turn the secessionists’ panacea into a suicidal gamble. Thus would southern divisions, one of the great causes of the Civil War, become one of the great causes of Confederate defeat.23