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The Winter of the Secession, 1860-61 (2/2)


No more than on secession, there was no unanimity on what to do once it was achieved. Among the southern political class, the question now was whether the newly independent states would remain independent, or whether they would themselves come together in one.a new sovereign entity. It appeared very early on that the secessionist states had, paradoxically, every interest in uniting to ward off any attempt by the Washington government to bring them back into the fold of the Union.

Birth of a nation

Under the influence in particular of Christopher Memminger, one of the main architects of the secession of South Carolina - and author of the declaration, published on December 24, 1860, of the causes justifying it - the legislature of Alabama, by voting secession, also offered to host a convention which would lay the foundations for the new nation. The various states concerned appointed delegates to this end who set off for Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.

They met on February 4, 1861, without their Texan counterparts - their state had just seceded, and had decided to have this decision ratified by a popular referendum - a process which other secessionist states had dispensed with. Coming to Montgomery with a draft constitution under his arm, Memminger was immediately appointed to chair a committee of twelve members charged with drafting the first fundamental law of the new nation. On February 8, this provisional constitution was adopted: the Confederate States of America had just been born.

The very next day, what now constituted the Confederate Congress appointed as provisional president the senator (resigned) from Mississippi and former Secretary of War in the administration of Franklin Pierce (1853-57), Jefferson Finis Davis. Although he spoke out against secession - even though he felt it was legal, Davis accepted the decision of his countrymen and became Confederation head of state for the duration of his brief existence. As for the vice-president, Congress appointed Alexander Stephens of Georgia. The two men were sworn in on February 18.

The constitution provisional was replaced by a final version on March 11. It is essentially a copy, sometimes verbatim, of that of the United States. There are some legal differences, sometimes legally significant, but the power structure remains the same: a two-chamber Congress (Representatives and Senate) and an executive branch (the president and his cabinet). "State law" requires, the control of the legislative power over the executive power is strengthened, which will not be without problems when the necessities of war lead the confederate government to implement a more centralized policy. The most visible difference with US institutions is that the Confederate President is elected for six years instead of four.

Slavery, which was only euphemistically addressed in the constitution of the United States (slaves becoming "persons required to serve or work"), is explicitly mentioned - and protected - in that of the Confederation. If the importation of slaves from abroad is prohibited, it is as much to spare the most moderate fringe of southern opinion as to incite other slave states, for which the internal slave trade constituted a source of income. not insignificant, to join the Confederation. Above all, the southern constitution expressly prohibits Congress from interfering with slavery.

This ban constitutes a major element of the new nation. If the Confederation was born fundamentally out of "state law", it also rests on clearly racist foundations, even if these are hardly more extreme than the current ideas of the time. The Confederate Vice-President summed it up on March 21, 1861, in an intervention still known under the name of " cornerstone speech » (Cornerstone Speech) : « Our new government is based on the exact opposite idea [on equal terms, Editor's note] ; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, on this great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is its natural and normal condition. »

The impossible peace

As Confederation came into being, politicians who still hoped to save the Union continued their efforts. Crittenden's draft was amended by various parliamentary committees and by Crittenden himself, and the proposal was renewed on January 14. However, it was still a question of protecting slavery through a constitutional amendment, and admitting New Mexico into the Union as a slave state, so that the new project went little further than previous.
Three days later, former president John Tyler suggested entrusting a compromise to be made by politicians across the country, an idea that quickly gained popular support. 131 delegates, representing just 21 states, met in Washington on February 4 - just as the Southern delegates began their work in Montgomery. Beyond its symbolic significance, this coincidence alone would sum up the futility of this attempt.

Most of the delegates from the " peace conference In Washington were veterans of the American political class: former ministers, senators, governors, representatives and even judges. After three weeks of work, they resulted in a seven-point amendment proposal which differed little from previous proposals made under Crittenden's aegis. At most, they abandoned the explicit idea of ​​extending the protection of slavery to future territories, but remaining unclear about their exact status.

This result did not suit anyone, let alone republicans because the conference reaffirmed the need for strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. So much so that the amendment, submitted to the Senate a few days before the close of the current parliamentary session, was unequivocally rejected. The conference broke up shortly after in a heavy atmosphere: Confederation had already proclaimed its independence, the swearing-in of Abraham Lincoln was approaching, and the situation was deteriorating day by day.



Still, Ohio Rep. Thomas Corwin seemed to succeed in extremis where its predecessors had failed. At the head of a commission of 33 members (one per state), he ended up submitting to Congress a proposal for ’amendment very simplified, aimed only at prohibiting this same Congress from interfering with slavery where it was already practiced. It was passed on March 2, 1861, and rallied the more moderate Republicans, including Lincoln himself, primarily because they believed that the constitution already protected slavery, and therefore the Corwin Amendment was redundant.

After Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, his administration therefore encouraged passage of the Corwin Amendment as a token of goodwill vis-à-vis the secessionists. The slow process of ratification so set off… much too late. On May 13, 1861, Ohio was the first state to ratify what should have become the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. But the first cannons had already been fired, and the Corwin Amendment lost its usefulness. Although still ratified in 1862 by Maryland and Illinois, it went no further and was forgotten - although, technically, its adoption is still pending, at least in theory, to this day.

John Crittenden will not give up on his ideas, however. While his early compromise proposals were irrelevant once the civil war began, he remained concerned about the interests and especially the loyalty of his fellow Kentucky people. The resolution he passed, along with Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson, July 25, 1861, stated that the objective of the Northern government was not to interfere with the laws of the Southern states, but simply to defend and restore The union. Although it was finally repealed in December 1861 under the leadership of radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, the Crittenden-Johnson resolution nevertheless played a decisive role in the struggle for the "border states", and would define the Union’s war goals for over a year.

A matter of sovereignty

The secession of the southern states had left the outgoing president James buchanan completely apathetic. Seen even by his contemporaries as small-scale, Buchanan had spent most of his tenure making ever greater concessions to the "fire eaters" in the hope of keeping the Democratic Party in power while avoiding secession - to no avail. Buchanan now believed that secession was illegal, but he lacked the constitutional means to prevent it, especially not by force. The Confederation could thus be born and equip itself with institutions with complete impunity.

She could also arm yourself inexpensively. The last two war secretaries to date, Jefferson Davis and, since 1857, John B. Floyd, had reinforced the arsenals and forts of the South in previous years, notably following John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. Already suspected of corruption, Floyd was accused of having deliberately offered arms to the secessionists in anticipation of the coming crisis, which led him to resign on December 29, 1860. A native of Virginia, Floyd joined a few months later. southern army, where he became general.

Once their independence was proclaimed, the secessionist states were faced with the need to demonstrate that it was not simply fictitious, but followed by effect. The first thing they did in this direction was to mobilize their militia, in order to prevent any military intervention. In fact, relatively few federal troops were stationed in the south, other than Texas to guard the border with Mexico. But these forces were ordered by their commander, Brigadier-General David Twiggs, to surrender to the Texan militiamen on February 19, 1861. Twiggs was indeed from Georgia: he entered the service of the Confederacy while his soldiers were evacuated to the North. Many officers of southern origin followed suit, resigning from the federal army to join their state.

In order to mark their sovereignty, the state militias seized all federal facilities - notably the arsenals and depots scattered across the territory - without fighting. There were quite a few incidents, but forts and arsenals were sometimes only guarded by one man and when there were more, the apathy of the Buchanan administration had left them without orders, so the reaction of the troops. Regularity depended mainly on the personal initiative of the officers. The Southerners thus got hold of hundreds of thousands of rifles and hundreds of cannons, practically without firing a single shot.

The takeover of federal buildings in the South quickly left the Washington government with only four forts. Three were located in Florida, a then sparsely populated state, and of that total, two - Forts Jefferson and Zachary Taylor - were in the Keys, an archipelago off the southern end of the state and virtually outside the of attack, for the time being, of the Confederates. The third, Fort Pickens, commanded the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Lieutenant Adam Slemmer took refuge there on January 10, 1861, after rendering the cannons of the other forts defending access to the port unusable. The modest militia of the state of Florida being unable to dislodge it, they contented themselves with blocking it there until Fort Pickens was reinforced by sea, after the outbreak of hostilities.

This is the fourth and last fort, Fort Sumter, which captured the attention of the public and leaders, North and South. It was indeed in the harbor of Charleston, major port and economic capital of South Carolina - and incidentally, the cradle of secession. The 127 men of the Federal Garrison in Charleston, under the command of Major Robert Anderson, had taken refuge there by December 26, 1860, but soon found themselves under blockade and could not hold out indefinitely. However, as long as it remained in the hands of the federal government, Fort Sumter stood, an insult to Confederate sovereignty, in the heart of Southern territory.

Realizing this symbolic significance, President Buchanan decided to act for once by supplying Fort Sumter with supplies. The plan was cleverly put together in order to avoid any incident: officially, the operation was to be carried out by a warship, the USS Brooklyn ; but once at sea, he was to join a merchant ship supposed to call at Charleston, the Star of the West, to secretly transfer its cargo of arms, ammunition and food, as well as 200 soldiers. Once this was done, the civilian ship could quietly approach Sumter without arousing the suspicion of the Carolinians, and unload supplies and reinforcements there.

Unfortunately, the plan was soon stalled, and pro-secessionist government members soon warned their friends in the South. So much so that when the Star of the West appeared at the entrance to Charleston harbor on January 9, 1861, he was greeted with cannon fire by the Carolinians. There were no deaths or injuries but, hit twice, the transport had to turn around without completing its mission. The incident showed that the sovereign inclinations of the South were not just verbal, and that there was little missing to move from political and institutional crisis to civil war.

The situation in spring 1861: in red, the Confederate States of America; in yellow, slave states that have not seceded; in blue, the Free States. The four forts (Sumter, Pickens, Jefferson and Zachary Taylor) still in the hands of the federal government in Confederate territory are indicated. Map made by the author on a background created by Nations Online Project.


Video: 3-2: Lincoln, Secession, and War (September 2021).