In April 1861, the first shots were fired in what would become the bloodiest conflict ever to take place on American soil. Yet just a few months earlier, the notion that any battles would be fought had seemed unimaginable to many. Though it’s easy to look back on the Civil War as an inevitable conflict, to Americans in the spring of 1861, the prospect of disunion seemed anything but.
In the first of a three-part series on the Civil War, the BackStory hosts try to get inside the minds of Americans in the spring of 1861, focusing on the dramatic six months between Abraham Lincoln’s election and the outbreak of war. Along with their guests, they consider the role of race, gender, and the ever-present specter of slavery in the build-up to war, and explore some unexpected questions: why did abolitionists actually dread the prospect of Lincoln’s presidency? Why did slaveholders in many parts of the South argue against secession? What made the leaders of Virginia – a state central to the nation’s founding – decide to break their ties with it?
‘The Road to Civil War’ helps us understand how a divided America came to see war as the only option.
Next week: “Why They Fought.” The second part in our series, which considers what motivated so many individuals, north and south, to take up arms against each other.
View Full Episode Transcript
This is a transcript from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight differences reflecting updates.
Peter Onuf: This is “BackStory,” with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.
Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century guy.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy. [Music] One hundred and fifty years ago this April, the first shots were fired in the American Civil War. In less than four years, more than six hundred thousand Americans would die—the equivalent of six million people today—and the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the world would grind to a screeching halt.
Ed Ayers: Now if you were to travel back in time to the months or even weeks before that April of 1861, and you were to tell people that this was what they could expect in the near future, chances are they would think you are crazy. As much as they might have wanted that outcome, or dreaded it, it just didn’t seem possible that such a thing could happen in the 19th century. After all, politicians had been cutting deals about slavery going all the way back to the very founding of the country.
Peter Onuf: It’s hard not to see things in hindsight when we think about the Civil War. To see it as a conflict that just had to happen, that was predestined, to understand its causes based on our knowledge of its results. But for the rest of the hour today on this special Civil War edition of our show, we’re going to try to make sense of the lead-up to that war the way Americans at the time would have made sense of it. Our story begins in the winter of 1860. [music]
Frederick Douglass Reading: Our last monthly paper announced the probable election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, the Republican candidates for President and Vice President of the United States. What was then only speculation and probability, is now an accomplished fact.
Brian Balogh: This is the lead editorial in the December 1860 edition of Douglass’ Monthly. That’s Douglass as in Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist who had himself escaped from slavery 22 years before. Ed, this was such a crucial election. Can you give us a little background on who was running, what were the parties, all that stuff?
Ed Ayers: It’s an amazing election. The future of the nation in the balance and everybody knew it. The stage had been set really for over a decade as the Whig Party which had been a strong national party tied to holding the country together had disintegrated. The Democratic Party had broken apart between northern and southern factions. A new party, the Constitutional Union Party, had grown up trying to mediate between the North and South. Also, in the space the Whigs had left, the Republican Party emerges in the North and says that the territories may not be taken over by slaveholders, so election day comes and what you find is that Stephen Douglass, sort of a moderate, and John Breckenridge, the strong pro-Southern candidate, split the votes of the big national party, the Democrats. The Constitutional Union Party wins lots of votes, especially in the upper South, but Abraham Lincoln wins 40% of the vote, all that in the North, and with that percentage, he becomes President of the United States, so you have a new president, a brand new party never in political power and finally, in the South, some of the Democrats are saying now let’s start talking about secession.
Frederick Douglass: Unquestionably, secession, disunion, southern confederacy and the like phrases are the most popular political watchwords of the cotton-growing states of the Union. Nor is this sentiment to be entirely despised. If Mr. Lincoln were really a friend to the abolition movement instead of being its most powerful enemy, the disillusion of the Union might be the only effective mode of perpetuating slavery in the southern states, but the South has now no such cause for disunion.
Brian Balogh: Now, hold on. This is Abraham Lincoln he’s talking about, the Great Emancipator, and Frederick Douglass is calling him the abolition movement’s greatest enemy.
Ed Ayers: It’s confusing, isn’t it, Brian, especially for you 20th century people?
Brian Balogh: Yeah. Come on.
Ed Ayers: Here’s the thing. So, Abraham Lincoln really does hate slavery. He and the Republican Party say we are not going to allow slavery to expand into the territories to pollute the rest of the nation, but they do not think that slavery can be ended where it now exists, so from an abolitionist, like Frederick Douglass’s point of view, they cannot help but be ambivalent about someone who acknowledges the constitutional right of perpetual bondage.
Tape (David Blight): It’s the same dilemma others have faced throughout our history.
Ed Ayers: This is David Blight, a Civil War historian who’s written a lot about Frederick Douglass.
Tape (David Blight): You advocate for something for perhaps all of your lifetime. Along comes a political persuasion or a movement or a party that kind of goes partway there. And sometimes you are most disgusted with those who seem to be on your side and yet won’t act on it versus those who you know are not on your side and will never act on it.
Frederick Douglass: With an abolition president, we should consider a successful separation of the slave from the free states a calamity greatly damaging to the prospects of our long enslaved bruised and mutilated people, but under what may be expected of the Republican Party with its pledges to put down the slaves should they attempt to rise and to hunt them should they run away, a disillusion of the Union would be highly beneficial to the cause of liberty.
Tape (David Blight): What he wants to happen is an all-out break that forces some kind of organized military action against the South. He says that only then would slavery really really be threatened and he’s actually saying to the secessionists here, you know, if you just back off and cool it and you stay in the Union, your Godforsaken slave system is going to last a heck of a lot longer than if you bolt the Union, but he wants them to bolt.
Frederick Douglass: In truth, we really wish those brave fire-eating, cotton-growing states would just now go at once outside of the Union and set up for themselves. But no. Cunning dogs. They will smoother their rage and after all the dust they can raise, they will retire within the Union and claim its advantages.
Tape (David Blight): Douglass actually predicts this over and over that what will really happen will be yet another compromise, something on the lines of the Compromise of 1850. He sees this ultimately being assuaged by compromise and that’s his worst fear, you know, he wants one thing. He expects another. He fears where this is going but note how he says that what at least has happened and this he celebrates, is that for the first time American political culture was under the control of people who to some degree were threatening the future of slavery.
Frederick Douglass: For 50 years, the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty and emperist slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been masters of the Republic. They were the president makers of the Republic. Lincoln’s election has broken their power. It has taught the North its strength and shown the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing if not an abolitionist at least an anti-slavery reputation to the presidency of the United States.
Tape (David Blight): Now, that sounds like such a half measure, but it meant a great deal to an abolitionist like Douglass. It’s like this new order of things, a new order of events that is about to take place. The trouble is they just don’t know where these events are yet going.
Ed Ayers: That’s David Blight, Professor of History at Yale University. We’ll post a full version of my conversation with him at backstoryradio.org.
Brian Balogh: So, guys, we understand pretty well that northerners were worried about slavery spreading to the territories and continuing a southern domination of politics across the Union. Were there equivalent fears in the South about northern strangulation of the political rights of southerners?
Peter Onuf: Yes, Brian. Let me pick up on that and I’ll kick it over to our good friend, Ed, and I’d say absolutely there were. There were great concerns that now that the Republicans were in control of the national administration that this was the culminating chapter in a long narrative of southern victimhood, believe it or not, that is that the federal union had been redistributing wealth through its commercial system, the tariff and navigation laws and so forth, and that in effect, the South had been subsidizing the North—
Brian Balogh: Let me just stop there, Peter. You mean that this tariff was protecting northern industries but disproportionately taxing southerners.
Peter Onuf: Yeah. But even when the tariff went down, they analyzed the whole commercial system and saw a maldistribution of benefits, that they were flowing to the North. In other words, the real problem for the South was democracy. That is, under the Constitution, it would be possible for a hostile majority to seize the reigns of central power and they’d been waiting for that to happen since 1787.
Ed Ayers: And so here’s the terrifying vision of secessionists that Abraham Lincoln has a brand new party, they’ve have never been in the presidency before but as soon as he builds the network of patronage that’s going to expand all the ports and post offices of the South. My goodness, what could you do then about abolitionist literature? What could you do then about building party strength?
Peter Onuf: So, Ed, you’re suggesting that there’s a fear among some southerners that Republicanism might gain some traction in the South?
Ed Ayers: Oh, yeah. Three-fourths of white southern men are not slaveholders. Why wouldn’t those guys want to say, you know, what I’d like to have is a party that’s really for me. [laughter] And why is this plausible? Because the South has had a two-party system until very recently which has just collapsed, so there’s a vacuum there that all these former Whigs, all these former people who believed in a lot of the things Republicans believe in which is using the federal government to build railroads and canals and all that sort of stuff, they could be pulled into the Republican Party and the South would begin to fragment from within and as soon as you have that happen, goodness knows what would happen with the enslaved population if they thought they had some white allies.
Brian Balogh: So, that’s a very good explanation of kind of the apparently quite realistic assessment of the politics, but what about the fear of race war, what about the kind of racial situation on the ground?
Ed Ayers: Well, I’ve got two words for you, Brian—John Brown.
Brian Balogh: Yeah.
Ed Ayers: Now, remember, it’s only in 1859, just the preceding year, that he leads a campaign, as he says, to begin the end of slavery through the black men themselves, rising up against their masters and hands out all these pikes and things, right? So they look around and they think, well, we don’t know who Abraham Lincoln is. Who knows what he’s going to do? But what we do know is maybe those black people were listening and they’re waiting for the next John Brown and that when the political system becomes destabilized, that they will cease the opportunity to rise up against us.
Peter Onuf: Yeah, and it’s worth remembering that throughout American history, servile insurrection, the uprising of slaves, is associated with outside interference. If you go back to the American Revolution and Lord Dunmore’s proclamation in March 1775, freeing Virginia slaves as the last royal governor—come to our alliance, join us. In a way, that’s the thing that southerners would fear. It’s not that their slaves would rise up spontaneously by themselves because they think they’ve worked it all out because slavery is becoming a more efficient, even we hate to say it, but a more modern and effective institution.
Ed Ayers: Right.
Peter Onuf: And I think what you’re saying, Ed, is that it’s this vanguard of aliens, foreigners to the South, northerners representing the administration who could tip the balance in dangerous ways.
Brian Balogh: It’s fascinating and, of course, you guys know that persists into the 1960s when the first charge against people demonstrating peacefully for their rights, civil rights.
Peter Onuf: Yeah.
Brian Balogh: Outside agitators, because our own people, although subject—
Peter Onuf: They know their place. Right.
Ed Ayers: Yeah. They would never do this without outside agitators. [music]
Brian Balogh: Well, we’re going to take a short break. When we get back, we’ll pick up our story in South Carolina where the secession train finally leaves the station.
Peter Onuf: You’re listening to a special Civil War Anniversary Edition of “BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.” We’ll be back in a minute.
Peter Onuf: This is BackStory, the show that brings three centuries of history to bear on a single topic. I’m Peter Onuf, the 18th century guy.
Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, the 19th century guy.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy. Today on the show, we’re marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s beginnings with an in-depth look at the pivotal six months before the fighting started. In the first part of the show, Ed and Peter were explaining how utterly different the election of Abraham Lincoln looked in the South to the way it looked to abolitionists in the North.
Peter Onuf: Now, we should be careful to point out that the “North” and the “South” were hardly monolithic entities at this time. Very few northerners were committed abolitionists. In fact, northerners were more likely to think that slavery kept black people in their places and in the South, just because practically everybody hated Lincoln, that didn’t mean that they were ready to walk out of the Union. According to Civil War historian William Freehling, in fact, that was very much a minority position in December 1860.
Tape (William Freehling): So the problem for the minority of secessionists is to figure out how they can get the majority out. And the thing they must above all else avoid is a southern convention. Because in a southern convention to decide the issue of secession, they’re going to lose. What they have to do is do it state by state. And when enough states seceded, then there would be enormous pressure on the majority to reconsider its position.
Peter Onuf: South Carolina is the where the secessionists make their first stand. Three days after the election, it announces it will hold a convention to debate secession and a few weeks later, that convention votes unanimously to leave the Union. University of Virginia historian Elizabeth Varon says that to understand why South Carolina was the first to go, we need to understand this demographic fact.
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): South Carolina is one of the two southern states on the eve of the War that has an African American majority—59% of the population—and what this means as a practical matter is not that blacks have any voice in the politics of the state; of course, they don’t. This is a slave population. But it does signify a sort of overweening dependence on slavery, so South Carolina has long been at the forefront of the defense of the institution.
Ed Ayers: In fact, South Carolina had been at the forefront of that effort ever since the 1830s. Back then, South Carolina said when there’s a law that directly contradicts the interest of a state, it may be nullified, rendered null and void, and South Carolina staked a lot of that back in 1830 and ’31. It lost. President Jackson called their bluff, but the idea that the federal government should not be able to endanger the rights of slaveholders and the security of white people in a predominantly black state endured and it came up again here in the secession crisis. [music]
Reading (Mary Chesnut): My father was a South Carolina nullifier, governor of the state at the time of the nullification row, so I was of necessity a rebel born.
Ed Ayers: This is a passage from the diary of Mary Chesnut, one of the most famous documents of the American Civil War. In addition to being the daughter of a former governor, Mary Chesnut was also the wife of James Chesnut, the first U.S. Senator to quit the Senate after the 1860 election.
Reading (Mary Chesnut): I remember feeling a nervous dread and horror of this break with so great a power as United States but I was ready and willing. South Carolina has been so rampant for years. Come what would, I wanted them to fight and stop talking. So I was a seceder, but I dreaded the future.
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): Americans, Southerners included, had long been encouraged to dread disunion and indeed to imagine it as the worst possible thing that could befall their country.
Ed Ayers: Historian Elizabeth Varon.
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): And this image of disunion as something that was just a cataclysmic apocalyptic tragic outcome had a great deal of political utility because invariably when anyone in the days of the early antebellum period proposed something radical, they were accused of wanting disunion, of fomenting disunion, of opening this Pandora’s box, so, for example, when abolitionists came along and proposed the immediate emancipation of the slaves, those who supported the slave system said, ahh, you’re disunionists, you want to alienate North from South and prompt this kind of terrible unwinnable war and women’s right advocates were accused of the same thing, so people like Chesnut had to unlearn this longstanding set of assumptions. To embrace secession, they had to unlearn the idea that disunion was just a dreadful and horrific prospect.
Ed Ayers: By the winter of 1860, that lesson was well on its way to being unlearned. In fact, one of the most famous quotes from this period is from Mary Chesnut’s husband, the U.S. senator. Or rather ex-senator. A few days after South Carolina seceded, he reportedly said this to a fellow South Carolinian who was nervous about the future.
Reading (Senator James Chesnut): There will be no war, it will all be arranged. I will drink all the blood shed in the war.
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): The secessionists had this sort of a rose-colored view of what secession would mean. Some of them thought the North would quail in the face of this secession movement and either sort of let the South go after a sort of brief dust-up or give the South what it wanted. Interestingly, it was the Unionists in the South who said, yes, secession’s going to bring a war, but it’s going to bring a war we can’t win.
Ed Ayers: And one thing we would need to pause to point out, I think, is that secession was not the only way to protect slavery and that if people opposed secession, and by people, I mean the slaveholders of the South—
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): Right.
Ed Ayers: Does not mean that they were somehow less committed to slavery than secessionists were.
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): That’s such an important point. The debate between unionists and secessionists in the South is not a debate over slavery per se. It’s a debate about how best to protect slavery, whether slavery which has thrived in the Union, as the unionists say, will continue to thrive in the Union or whether slavery is in mortal danger unless the South secedes, and Unionists are absolutely saying the surest way to destroy slavery is to bring a federal army down here. Absolutely.
Ed Ayers: Once again, we see how the election of Lincoln meant so many different things to so many different people, even people who were supposedly on the same “side.” But Varon told me that in many ways, the secession debate was about a lot more than politics.
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): One of the things the secessionists do so well in those critical months in which this all has been debated is tap a kind of martial fervor, particularly among men, particularly among young men, the idea that this war can not only be short and sweet, but it can be fun, it can be a break from the ho hum of everyday life. It can be a field in which men can win honor and glory and the hearts of women and all the rest, and there’s a lot of young men in the South who are eager to sort of recapture the glories of the South’s early history, the time when it dominated the federal government and all the rest, who are very susceptible to this kind of argument.
Ed Ayers: So, as we go into secession, there’s this strange amalgam of dread and exaltation in the South, right?
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): Yes. Right.
Ed AYers: And a sense it’s not that people can’t imagine the terrible things that will happen, they just don’t think they’re going to.
Tape (Elizabeth Varon): They just don’t think that they’re going to, exactly, and, I mean, this is something that is puzzling. Many people have said to me, couldn’t these guys crunch the numbers? It was obvious that the North had not only more people but more industry and more of everything, even more agricultural output, but the secessionists perceived that the South had other advantages that they believed would bring them a quick and decisive victory. [music]
Ed Ayers: That’s Elizabeth Varon, a historian at the University of Virginia. We’ll link to some of her work, and to audio of my entire conversation with her, at backstoryradio.org.
Peter Onuf: Well, Ed, picking up on what Liz just said about the confidence of secessionists it would be a quick war, why didn’t they understand what they were up against?
Ed Ayers: Yeah, it’s a little eerie to see how confident the South is. It’s not merely that they’re playing defense, oh, our rights have been infringed. They’re going, here’s our chance. We control the world’s dominant commodity—
Peter Onuf: King Cotton.
Ed Ayers: We have a monopoly over the equivalent of oil of today. Our labor force has never been worth more. Slaves are worth more than all the railroads and factories and banks of the North added up, and why would we want to constantly be harangued by these Yankees about our moral failings, about our economic failings, about our political failings. They don’t like us and they just demonstrated that they don’t. Hell with ‘em. Let’s leave and be the fourth richest economy in the world by ourselves.
Peter Onuf: And, Ed, wouldn’t you say that there is this assumption that when push comes to shove, they won’t stop us, because they’ve always buckled in and rolled over in the past within the context of federal politics. We’ve had our way, so let’s call their bluff definitively.
Ed Ayers: Exactly. And here’s another reason. Why would they roll over all the time? Because they need us. More than half of all exports are coming from the slave South. The entire northern economy is driven by the cottons coming out of the slave South, so not only are they morally bankrupt and sort of hypocrites and blowhards, but they are under our economic heel.
Brian Balogh: They just didn’t think the Union was really even going to fight.
Peter Onuf: There was no will there.
Brian Balogh: And it does seem on that because there had been so many compromises, because there had not been civil war, that there really might not be— I mean, I guess I can understand why reasonable people might think that.
Ed Ayers: But, the fact is, as Liz points out, other reasonable people said you’re crazy, [laughter] in the same debate, so it’s not like they couldn’t imagine it.
Peter Onuf: Right.
Ed Ayers: So, where is the soft underbelly of the Unionists, that they are not being manly, and the phrase, and I want you to strap yourselves in because this will hurt your feelings, the phrase that they would use—what’s the opposite of a secessionist? Not a unionist, but a submissionist.
Peter Onuf: Hmmm—
Ed Ayers: You would submit, you’d roll over for the Union—
Peter Onuf: Ohhh, yeah.
Ed Ayers: And so that’s what the unionists had a very hard time fighting against.
Brian Balogh: So, guys, did women think about this in the same terms that we’ve been talking about, you know, doubting people’s manhood?
Peter Onuf: Yes. I would defer to Ed on this, but my guess is that women, in fact, take that on in a very big way in some ways. Men can waiver but women are pretty sure. They’re pretty clear on what a man would do. If we were men, that is so much the plaint of Civil War women—how can we show our patriotism; if we were in your place, we would do this.
Ed Ayers: That’s exactly right, and so if you’re going to protect me, then you’re going to act in a manly way and of course, this was the other place the unionists are saying, honey, I am protecting you by not going to war. [laughter] But the thing is that there’s not a manly language of compromise.
Brian Balogh: What happened to the presumably manly language of compromise that had served the nation for decades?
Peter Onuf: Well, yes, to the extent that we revered the fathers and their statesmanlike vision and prescience when they created this strong more perfect union. Then by all means, that was the epitome of manhood but that’s old manhood in a way and there’s a language, a subversive generational language of youth rising up and it takes the form of calling these compromisers and using that word “compromise” in the modern pejorative sense. These guys were old fogies.
Ed Ayers: Yeah, and so looking back, we tried so hard, historians, to try to figure out who’s voting for these people. Who’s voting for the Republicans? Who’s voting for the secessionists and the main pattern they’ve been able to find is that it’s young men on both sides. The Republicans have this group called the Wide Awakes that are not even able to vote yet, but they’re out marching and carrying torches and things, kind of a paramilitary, and down South, it’s the guys who are saying I’ve been listening to this crap my whole life, let’s go. We don’t want these old guys compromising our rights away one more time. The irony, of course, being the young men who are saying these things are the very ones who are going to end up dying in the trenches of the Civil War. [music]
Reading: In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Peter Onuf: On January 9, Mississippi follows South Carolina out of the Union.
Reading: Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.
Peter Onuf: The following day, Florida follows suit.
Reading: We have not acted in haste or in passion but with the utmost deliberation and from what we regard as immeasurable necessity.
Peter Onuf: Alabama goes the next day, and a few days after that, Louisiana and Texas. On February 4th, representatives from all seven states meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to draw up a new constitution. Now it’s often said that the original Constitution was a pro-slavery document. There was the part about slaves counting as three-fifths of a free person, and that other bit about all states having to return fugitive slaves. And the fact that it was ratified at all testifies to how much the slave states felt that it did it protect them. But the Confederate Constitution took the protection of slavery to a whole new level. Here’s the Confederacy’s newly elected vice president, Alexander Stephens, explaining the new and improved version of the founding document.
Reading: The prevailing ideas entertained by Jefferson and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature. It was an evil that they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation and the government built upon it fell when the storm came and the wind blew. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Ed Ayers: So, guys, you know what’s amazing to me? The word that’s repeated several times in here is “new.” We think of the defense of slavery and of race as being the oldest kind of archaic attitude as possible.
Peter Onuf: I see what you’re saying.
Ed Ayers: But what he’s saying, yeah, that was okay for the old fashioned 18th century but now in the 19th century, we know better that the Negro is not equal to the white man.
Peter Onuf: No, Ed, that is so absolutely right and it’s because of emerging understandings among racial scientists, anthropologists, ethnologists in the 19th century about racial difference, it’s because of this realistic political economy that is a sense of what makes the world turn round and that would be cotton which is king. This is getting past the platitudes and the banalities of the Enlightenment of the founding era. All men are created equal. Hmmm— I don’t know about that because they certainly didn’t practice it if they believed it, that is, the founders, and the idea that slavery would go away. No. No, it so manifestly had not. It is a robust institution so let’s face the facts. You can say this is that pragmatic realist American go-go spirit.
Ed Ayers: And you’ll notice the very last sentence, they see this as not just a continuation of something else, but the beginning of a new world order. This, our new government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth. It’s hard to imagine a more chilling phrase in all of American history that this could have been the truth. It could’ve the first new nation based upon the great truths as they imagined it of black inferiority.
Peter Onuf: Yeah, but Ed reminds of the American founding when that same notion of being in the forefront of world history offering a model for the rest of the world that was very much the language of newness in 1776, 1787.
Brian Balogh: Well, it’s lucky that we’re all about the old, guys. That’s all I can say after hearing this discussion because new is really pretty dangerous.
Peter Onuf: Yeah. Well, you know the underlying issue is the question of how the United States and our history is defined according to timeless values. In effect, Lincoln refutes the notion of newness when he invokes the spirit of Jefferson and says, listen, those principles of 1776 articulated in the Declaration, they are the principles that constitute our creed. This is the church we worship in, all of us. This is the rock on which this nation is built, that is to think that the principles of the Declaration infuse the Constitution. All men are created equal, that that’s foundational to how we should understand the Constitution. Well, we like to think that today, but Lincoln is really the author, if you will, of that conflation of those two great documents. [music]
It’s time now for another short break. When we get back, we’ll look at why so many men in Virginia, the Old Dominion, were so reluctant to join up with the brand new Dominion. You’re listening to a Civil War special edition of “BackStory.” And we’ll be back in a minute.
Peter Onuf: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show we’re focusing in on the secession crisis that gripped the nation 150 years ago this spring. When we left off, it was February 1861, and representatives from the seven lower South states that had left the Union were meeting in Montgomery to create a new government.
Ed Ayers: At the same time in Springfield, Illinois, President-elect Abraham Lincoln was boarding a train for Washington D.C. It had been three whole months since his election, and it would be another month still before he would actually take office. And so you can imagine the anticipation all along his route as people gathered in the hopes of hearing something—anything, really—about what the man whose election had triggered the crisis planned to do about it. Radio producer Thomas Pierce is going to tell the story now of Lincoln’s journey to the White House.
Thomas Pierce: [sound: train rattle, steam] We begin in a baggage car, trunks full of books and clothes rattle as the train moves east. On a small card, the trunk’s owner and destination—A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C. The ride is just as bumpy up in the passenger car. Reporters grumble how it’s hard to write down anything at all. They’re here to document the two-week journey of the President-elect who watches tiny Illinois prairie towns pass by outside the window. [sound: train whistle] The stop at each train depot is a similar scene. Brass bands that erupt into old songs like “Hail Columbia,” church bells and cannon salutes. Thousands of people pressing for a first glimpse of their new president.
“He has a large head with a very high shelving forehead,” one reporter writes. “A first crop of darkish whiskers; a clean well-built neck, more back than chest, a long, lank trunk.” Future President Rutherford B. Hayes who’s in the audience in Indianapolis, notes Lincoln’s curious way of bowing uncomfortably to the crowds. “His chin rises. His body breaks in two at the hip. Homely as L is, if you get a good view of him by day light, when he is talking, he is by no means ill looking.”
In town after town, Lincoln addresses the crowds from podiums in the back of the train and at least once standing on a chair in a hotel lobby. At each of these stops, he seems to make a point of not really saying much at all.
LINCOLN READING: You know that it has not been my custom, since I started on this route to Washington, to make long speeches; I am rather inclined to silence, and whether that be wise or not, it is at least more unusual nowadays to find a man who can hold his tongue than to find one who cannot. [Note: This is from the speech he gave in Pittsburgh at the Monongahela House, a hotel.]
Thomas Pierce: In the months after his election, Lincoln had proved he was a man who could hold his tongue, especially on the subject the public most wanted to hear about—how he planned to handle the fact that state after state was leaving the union. Many thought his silence was a terrible mistake. One New York Herald editorial called it “foolish.” The New York Times said the silence had left the “field open for a struggle of factions.”
Alexander Stephens, who would become Vice President of the Confederacy, was at the time still arguing against secession in his home state of Georgia. He wrote Lincoln, pleading with him to say something that could help his cause.
Reading: A word fitly spoken by you now would indeed be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’
Tape (Eric Foner): What could Lincoln say that could change the basic problem, which is the South thought slavery was right and Lincoln and the Republicans thought slavery was wrong.
Thomas Pierce: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of The Fiery Trial, a book about Lincoln and slavery. He says that while Lincoln appeared to be letting history unfold without him in those months, he was anything but silent behind the scenes.
Tape (Eric Foner): Lincoln intervenes fairly forcefully by the end of December in letters to members of Congress, in which he makes it very clear that he is opposed to compromise on what he considers the key issue, which was the westward expansion of slavery.
Reading: Let there be no compromise on the issue of extending slavery.
Tape (Eric Foner): He wrote to Republican allies in Washington—
Reading: Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now, than at any time hereafter.
Thomas Pierce: In Congress, which was starting to thin out with defections, there were increasingly desperate calls for a plan that might head off military action. Kentucky Senator John Crittenden was proposing that the Constitution be amended to protect slavery forever where it already existed, and that the Missouri Compromise be reinstated, allowing for the extension of slavery below a certain line. Lincoln didn’t take issue with the constitutional amendment, but he was dead set against any plan that would result in the creation of even a single new slave state.
Tape (Eric Foner): Lincoln says basically, look, we’ve been elected on this platform. If we compromise now, a year from now they’re going to threaten to secede unless we acquire Cuba as a slave state. In one of his letters to a member of Congress he says, you know, if we compromise, it’s the end of us as a party.
Thomas Pierce: In the end, all five Republicans on the Senate committee considering the Crittenden Plan voted against it. And the Republican Party, of course, lived long and prospered. But the fact that Lincoln proved savvy in his political calculations that winter does not mean he had any idea of what was just around the corner.
Tape (Eric Foner): The great danger here is reading history backwards. The alternative to compromise was not necessarily war. I think Lincoln and many Republicans believed that if they just waited the crisis out, if they delayed, that secession would sort of collapse from within. Lincoln was willing to risk war but I don’t think he saw war as the inevitable outcome of not compromising.
TRAIN SOUND SNEAKS UP UNDER CUT AND TAKES US TO END
Thomas Pierce: And so as Lincoln boarded the train in Springfield on that chilly February morning 1861, a gray shawl wrapped around his shoulders, really, there were no inevitables. Lincoln had drawn his line in the sand, but nobody, including Lincoln himself, knew what might happen next.
Peter Onuf: That special report for “BackStory,” is from radio producer Thomas Pierce. [banjo music]
Brian Balogh: So, Ed, Peter, we’ve talked about how a lot of the secessionists thought the North was just going to let the South go, that there really wasn’t going to be a war over this. Can we read Lincoln’s silences given him trying to hold his party together and everything, his refusal to compromise? Can we read that as Lincoln thinking, yeah, the South really isn’t going to fight, that the secession thing is just going to fall apart if we don’t fan the flames?
Peter Onuf: Yeah, Brian, that’s a plausible interpretation. Lincoln just didn’t get how deep secessionist feeling was in the South. He thought it could be isolated, that it was a kind of a cancer that could be excised.
Ed Ayers: And he has good reason to think that because a lot of people from upper South are telling him that.
Peter Onuf: Yeah, exactly.
Ed Ayers: Mr. President, if you’ll just be patient, we’ll work it out down here, especially in Virginia.
Peter Onuf: And think about this, Ed. Virginia’s right at the center of the union, or at least historically. I mean, it’s the absolute heart and soul of the United States of America and a lot of these border state people, they take all of this Manifest Destiny talk and they say, our future is with this great imperial republic.
Ed Ayers: Yeah, the border states say we’re virtually a third nation.
Peter Onuf: That’s right.
Ed Ayers: We are the reasonable people. The weirdo abolitionists in New England and the weirdo secessionists in South Carolina, they’re not the real America we are. We’ll figure this out.
Peter Onuf: And that’s when slavery comes in, though, because that becomes the issue, doesn’t it, Ed?
Ed Ayers: Yeah. Well, because here’s the fundamental paradox. Virginia is the great compromiser, the great mother of presidents, and also the largest slave state.
Peter Onuf: Right.
Ed Ayers: Not merely in the number of enslaved people who live there, but in its centrality in the slave trade.
Peter Onuf: Yeah. They depended on the rest of the South. That was a big market for their human property.
Ed Ayers: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, if you don’t have that market, you worry about being overrun—
Peter Onuf: Right.
Ed Ayers: By enslaved people, so Virginia is deeply tied to the Deep South. [music]
Brian Balogh: And so, on February 13th, at the very same time that the Confederacy is drawing up its new Constitution, a group of white men gather in Richmond to try and figure out what Virginia should do. They’ve been sent there by Virginia voters, and when they arrive, only one out of six delegates is actually in favor of secession. Here’s Civil War historian William Freehling who’s just published a book about the convention.
Tape (William Freehling): The Virginia convention is often called the Virginia secession convention. But if you look at all its deliberations, well, they finally decide on April 17th, it’s better to call it a Unionist convention, because what most of the deliberations are trying to do is find some way to save the Union. Their dream is to get the lower South to come back into the Union, so they don’t want to alienate it too much. They are classic men in the middle who are trying desperately to keep the extremes from going to war with each other.
Brian Balogh: Just like their counterparts further South, most of these guys make the case that slavery would be safest inside the Union. But Virginia, they argue, has more at stake than anybody.
Reading: I say, sir, that a dissolution of the Union will be the commencement of the abolition of slavery. Will it not, sir, make a hostile border for Virginia, and enable slaves to escape more rapidly because more securely? Will it not, virtually, bring Canada to our doors?
Reading: By Virginia seceding, you transfer the seed of this war to this fertile and salubrious country. Virginia would be the battleground. Their fields would be laid—
Reading: Would you bring this desolation upon us? Will you make northwestern Virginia the Flanders of America and convert our smiling valleys into the slaughter pens of as brave and loyal a people as dwell in the “Old Dominion?” I hope not.
Brian Balogh: So how did secessionists counter this prediction that secession would bring devastation to Virginia? They said if it’s peace you’re after, the best thing we can do is secede.
Reading: We are told that it will bring war. On the contrary, it will tend to avert war. Virginia, united with the Southern confederacy, will present small inducement for war upon that Confederacy.
Tape (William Freeling): That’s what the secessionists keep saying, the issue is not should we ideally secede, the issue is that we’ve already got a secession. The question is now should we stay in the Union when a third of the South has gone out of the Union. Now, that’s a fascinating position because it indicates how much those first third southerners who went out of the Union can manipulate and control the other southerners.
Ed Ayers: And what do you think the key point of leverage was for those states that went out? Was it the importance of those states to the southern economy or was it the fact that the remaining southern states were now a pretty distinct minority in Congress, less able to protect slavery than ever?
Tape (William Freehling): That’s exactly the point that secessionists make. Maybe we would’ve been in a position to stay in the Union if everybody had stayed in the Union, but now we’re stuck in the Union with only eight states against 20 northern states and four of our states are kind of shaky. Delaware owns only 1,700 slaves. Maryland has as many free blacks as slaves. What business do we have trying to protect slavery when our great protectors are now in another nation?
Brian Balogh: That’s William Freehling, senior fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We’ll post an excerpt from his latest book on secession, Showdown in Virginia, at backstoryradio.org.
Ed Ayers: So that’s how the debate in Richmond goes for seven long weeks. While the delegates are inside debating, outside, pro-secession demonstrators are building bonfires, marching in the streets, urging what they call the grannies inside to go ahead and act and to act decisively on behalf of the new nation. Finally, on April 4th, the secessionists force a vote and the result, after all of this, after all the bonfires and parades and speeches, it’s 2 to 1 against secession.
Brian Balogh: Wow.
Ed Ayers: Okay, and so the country’s looking around and going, whew, okay, boy, that was close.
Peter Onuf: We dodged a few bullets. That’s right.
Ed Ayers: Exactly. And it seems like maybe history’s turned a corner, but history was unfolding elsewhere as well, especially back down in South Carolina at Fort Sumter, a federal outpost in the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Right after Lincoln takes office, he finds out that the Union soldiers in that fort are running out of food and that without a resupply, they’re going to have to leave. They’re going to have to pull out and if they do that, the world’s going to say, okay, it looks like South Carolina has actually succeeded in secession. The problem is if he does send the supplies down there, South Carolina could interpret that as an act of war.
Peter Onuf: Well, and they do, Ed, because they fire the shots that are heard round the world, you might say, that start the war and with the shots fired, you might think at last the old fogies in Virginia are going to see the light and they’re going to say, okay, the Rubicon has been crossed. We’ve got to join our sister states to the South.
Ed Ayers: You know, you would think that.
Peter Onuf: Yep.
Ed Ayers: And yet that’s not what happens.
Peter Onuf: Right.
Ed Ayers: Virginia does not secede after the firing on Fort Sumter. A lot of people want them to and they said, no, no, that’s not enough. Sending bread to a fort is not an act of war, but Lincoln looks at this and says, okay, what do we have? We have an explicit attack on the United States. I have no choice as commander in chief but to call out the militia across the country to put down this illicit rebellion against federal authority in South Carolina.
Peter Onuf: Yeah, and in fact, Lincoln is calling the secessionists criminals.
Ed Ayers: Yep.
Peter Onuf: They’re outlaws. They’re traitors. And this is an action that all good Americans are going to want to join in, including Virginians.
Ed Ayers: And that’s when those who had supported Virginia staying in the Union feel that they really have no choice but to go along with secession. They have another vote. This one is the exact opposite of the first vote they’d had. Now, their numbers are switched. Ominously, those who vote to stay in the Union are all in the western part of the state, so Virginia is divided, but in the eastern part of Virginia, a great cry goes up that now history has been fulfilled. Virginia’s destiny has come to fruition. They are joining the Confederacy.
Brian Balogh: So, both of you seem to think that this is an incredibly important moment but, you know, it seems to me totally reasonable. If you’re going to be in the Union, then you need to supply troops. Why did that simple request for a few troops push Virginia over the edge on this issue?
Peter Onuf: Well, remember, that Virginians had already met to consider the possibility of exiting the Union.
Ed Ayers: Because they don’t deny that secession is legal.
Peter Onuf: That’s right. Right. And the very meaning of that convention suggests that there is a right to do it. We decided not to do it. They exercised that right and we have more than a scruple about punishing them about invading a sister state. That’s a big taboo in America.
Ed Ayers: So even if Virginia may not choose to leave, they say South Carolina had the right to.
Peter Onuf: Yeah. I mean, this is crunch time for Virginians and they really have to answer the question—where do our ultimate loyalties and interests lie and if forced to choose, and this whole unionist business is a plea—don’t make us choose.
Ed Ayers: Right.
Peter Onuf: And what Lincoln does is he forces a choice—you’ve got to choose.
Ed Ayers: Or does South Carolina force the choice and that’s precisely what they were trying to do.
Peter Onuf: Yeah. Well, I think you could say that.
Ed Ayers: Because otherwise, South Carolina firing on the fort, there was no particular reason they had to do it right then, right?
Peter Onuf: Yeah.
Ed Ayers: But what it does is it means there can no longer be vacillation in the upper South.
Peter Onuf: That’s right.
Ed Ayers: Okay. So, now it’s a firing war. Which side are you on and as you say, once Virginia had to decide that, they knew that they would have to stay with their other slave states.
Brian Balogh: So, the real issue after all this brilliant exegesis is Virginia’s a slave state and it knows it once the firing begins.
Ed Ayers: That’s right. And, so, you have a paradox here, Brian, of an unbalanced equation. The North does not go to war to end slavery, but the South does go to war to protect it.
Peter Onuf: Absolutely right.
Ed Ayers: But nobody, northern or southern, is imagining that the war will bring this enormously powerful system of slavery to an end in just four years. [music—“sail away, sail away, we will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay”]
Brian Balogh: Well, that’s it for today’s edition of “BackStory.” In part 2 of our Civil War series, “Why They Fought,” we’re going to put aside these wonky policy questions, legal interpretations of the Constitution and we’re going to ask why so many men and their families, North and South, were willing to put their lives on the line as the war unfolded.
Peter Onuf: For more information about that episode, including broadcast times and stations, visit backstoryradio.org. You can also sign up for our free podcast there, and listen to any of our past shows. That’s backstoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger. [music—“sail away, sail away, we will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay”]
Ed Ayers: “BackStory” is produced by Tony Field, with help from Catherine Moore. Jamal Milner mastered the show. Gaby Alter wrote our theme.
Brian Balogh: Special thanks today to the “BackStory” players: Ray Smith, Kate Burke, Matthew Gibson, Carl Thompson, Ed Barbour, Alex Grubbs, Ned Wharton, Burke Hunn, Tom Mansbach, Rob Vaughn, Miles Barnes, Coy Barefoot, and Gerald Baliles. Thanks also to Jose Argueta and Miriam Kaplan. “BackStory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
Ed Ayers: Production support for “BackStory” is provided by Cary Brown Epstein and the W.L. Lyons Brown Junior Charitable Foundation, James Madison’s Montpelier, Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Austin Ligon, and an anonymous donor.
Voice: Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.