1861: Creation of the Confederacy

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Editor: Lawrence W. Baker
Date: 2000
From: American Civil War Reference Library(Vol. 3: Almanac. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 4,609 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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1861: Creation of the Confederacy

In the first weeks of 1861, six Southern states began the process of establishing their own government, even as Northerners debated whether to let them leave the Union in peace or use force to stop them. On February 23, two weeks before Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States, Texas became the seventh state to leave the Union. After taking office, President Lincoln reacted cautiously to these events. He felt very strongly that the states that had seceded (left the Union) had no right to do so, and he was determined to keep the Union together. But he also did not want to upset the large number of states in the mid-South—sometimes called the border states—that had yet to decide whether to join the Confederacy.

On April 12, 1861, however, South Carolina troops attacked Fort Sumter, a U.S. outpost located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. A day later, the Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter were forced to surrender, and Lincoln prepared for war. He promptly proclaimed that the seceding states were in "a state of insurrection" and vowed to drag the states of the newly born Confederacy back into the Union. Lincoln's Page 70  |  Top of Article call to arms was warmly received in the North, but it also convinced four important states—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—to leave the United States and join the Confederate States of America.

The Crittenden Compromise

In the days and weeks immediately following the secession of South Carolina and six other Southern states, the people living in America's Northern states reacted with a mixture of anger, confusion, and surprise. Despite all the pre-election warnings that the South had delivered, many Northerners never really believed that their Southern neighbors might actually decide to leave the Union.

When it became apparent that the slave states of the Deep South were willing to make good on their threat, however, several lawmakers scrambled to bring them back into the fold. Political leaders in Virginia organized a peace convention in which representatives from twenty-one states tried—but failed—to come up with a compromise that would satisfy both sides. President James Buchanan (1791–1868) also made some half-hearted attempts to repair the damage that had been done. But Buchanan, a Democrat, blamed Lincoln and the Republicans for the crisis. After all, the Republicans had been the ones taking a hard line against slavery. The Southern states only planned to secede because they felt that Lincoln could not possibly represent their interests as president. In the end, the outgoing president seemed willing to leave the messy situation to Lincoln, who was scheduled to take over the presidency after his inauguration on March 4, 1861.

The most serious proposal to restore the Union was crafted by a Kentucky lawmaker named John Crittenden (1787–1863). A senator from one of several mid-South states that had not yet decided whether to stay with the Union or secede, Crittenden called for a series of compromises on a wide range of issues. The major elements of his proposal, however, were two proposed Page 71  |  Top of Article constitutional amendments (revisions). One amendment would protect slavery in all of the states where it already existed, and the other one would provide for the extension of slavery all the way to the Pacific Ocean in American territory located south of the old Missouri Compromise line.

The Crittenden Compromise was studied by both sides, but in the end it was rejected. The states that had already seceded were tired of compromising and arguing, and their leaders showed little interest in resuming their tense relationship with the North. Lincoln, meanwhile, was willing to consider an amendment protecting slavery where it currently existed. But he and his fellow Republicans flatly rejected the proposal that would have allowed the South to expand slavery into new areas. "We have just carried an election," Lincoln wrote, "on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance that the government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. . . . If we surrender, it is the end of us and the end of the government."

Formation of the Confederate States of America

By early 1861, the North was engaged in a bitter debate with itself over the secessionist activities taking place in the South. Some people argued that the United States should allow South Carolina and the other secessionist states to establish their own country without any interference. This sentiment was voiced in towns and cities all across the North by citizens and political leaders who were weary of dealing with their stubborn Southern neighbors. This feeling was also strong in some abolitionist circles, since the departure of the secessionist states meant that slavery might be more easily stamped out in other parts of the United States. But other Northern communities called for the Federal government to maintain the Union by force if necessary. These people ranged from farmers, who wanted to make sure that they could continue to transport goods down the Page 72  |  Top of Article
Kentucky senator John Crittenden's proposed series of compromises regarding slavery was rejected by both the Union and Confederacy. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) Kentucky senator John Crittenden's proposed series of compromises regarding slavery was rejected by both the Union and Confederacy. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) Mississippi River, to Northern manufacturers and merchants, who worried about the impact of Southern independence on their business dealings. The most important factor in the North's opposition to Southern secession, however, was the widespread feeling that Southern selfishness was threatening to destroy a growing nation just when it was on the verge of becoming a world power.

In the South, meanwhile, the states that had seceded went about the business of forming a new government. In February 1861, delegates from each of the six states gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, to draw up a constitution for their new nation, called the Confederate States of America. As it turned out, the Confederate Constitution was very similar to the U.S. Constitution in most respects. But the document created in Montgomery was different in two major ways. First, it gave individual states greater freedom to run their own affairs while also putting significant restraints on the power of the central government. Second, the Confederate Constitution explicitly protected the rights of slaveowners and confirmed slavery's importance to the states of the Confederacy. After the Constitution was approved, newly elected Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens (1812–1883) of Georgia rejoiced, saying that "the new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists among us. . . . [Our new government's] foundations are laid . . . 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 moral condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

The Confederacy selects its first president

On February 9, 1861, delegates of the Confederate States of America Page 73  |  Top of Article elected Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), a wealthy slaveholding senator from Mississippi, to be its first president. Davis had served as the United States' secretary of war in the mid-1850s under President Franklin Pierce (1804–1869). Dedicated to the principle of states' rights and respected throughout the South, Davis was seen as a solid choice for the presidency, even though he had expressed reservations about secession in the past.

Immediately after his February 18, 1861, inauguration, Davis began the process of putting together his administration and organizing a military. Forming a new nation involved a multitude of other tasks, from introducing new legal and government systems to developing new commerce and banking systems that were independent from the North. Davis and other Confederate officials spent a great deal of time and energy on these issues. But although this process of nation-building was complex and timeconsuming, it was helped along by a number of different factors.

One major development was the defection of another state to the Confederate side. On February 23, 1861, the vast state of Texas formally seceded from the United States over the strong objections of its governor, Mexican War hero Sam Houston (1793–1863). The addition of Texas to the Confederacy encouraged the white populations of the other secessionist states, some of whom continued to harbor quiet doubts about the course that they had taken.


Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Another factor that helped the Confederacy develop quickly was the undeniable excitement that many Southerners felt upon beginning this new chapter in their lives. Schools, churches, and taverns throughout the Deep South echoed with songs and speeches touting the many fine qualities of the Confederate states, and pride in the region's history and traditions became even stronger than it had already been. All throughout the Confederacy, the move to secede from the Union was compared to the American Revolution of a century earlier, when independent-minded people rebelled Page 74  |  Top of Article
A breakdown of the Union and Confederate states/territories during the Civil War. (Illustration by XNR Productions. Reproduced by permission of The Gale Group.) A breakdown of the Union and Confederate states/territories during the Civil War. (Illustration by XNR Productions. Reproduced by permission of The Gale Group.) against the tyrannical orders of a distant ruler.

Lincoln signals determination to preserve the Union

President Lincoln and other Northern political leaders watched events unfold in the South with considerable concern. After all, the Confederate states had gone about the process of creating a recognizable nation for themselves in energetic fashion, and Federal authority in those states was diminishing quickly. Post offices, courts, military posts, customs offices, financial institutions, and other Federal offices were taken over by state troops loyal to the Confederacy in villages and cities across the Deep South. With each passing day, Confederate leaders worked to erase all signs of their previous membership in the Union. By the time Lincoln took office in March 1861, the only four military institutions located on secessionist soil that were still under Union control were three forts along the Florida coastline and a lone fort, called Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Bay in South Carolina.

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Despite these developments, however, Lincoln adopted a reasonable tone in his March 4 inaugural address. He made it clear that he was determined to preserve the Union, stating that "the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all of the states." But he also declared that he had no wish to go to war against his countrymen. "There needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority," he proclaimed. "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellowcountrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail [attack] you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors." Lincoln then concluded his address with an appeal for reconciliation, saying that "we must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Lincoln's speech reflected his belief that there was still a chance to preserve the Union without resorting to warfare, provided that he did not offend the eight other slaveholding states in the Mid-and Upper South that remained undecided about whether to stay in the Union or join the Confederacy.
Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina. (Illustration by XNR Productions. Reproduced by permission of The Gale Group.) Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina. (Illustration by XNR Productions. Reproduced by permission of The Gale Group.) He also knew that some people in the Confederate states remained doubtful of the wisdom of secession, and he thought that the rebels might eventually return to the Union of their own free will. As a result, he did his best to avoid violent confrontation with the rebel states throughout his first month in office in hopes of keeping Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and other Mid-South states from bolting from the already tattered Union.

On April 12, 1861, though, Lincoln's hopes of restoring the Union Page 76  |  Top of Article
Major Robert Anderson. (Photograph by George Cook. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) Major Robert Anderson. (Photograph by George Cook. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) without bloodshed were shattered. It was on that night that South Carolina troops launched an artillery assault on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, and the awful civil war that had threatened to envelop the United States for years and years finally began.

The controversy over Fort Sumter

Located at the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, Fort Sumter was manned by approximately sixty-eight U.S. soldiers under the command of Major Robert Anderson (1805–1871). A five-sided brick building that stood guard over the port of the largest city in South Carolina, it remained in Union hands throughout the first few months of 1861, even as the Confederacy took control of most other Federal military outposts and offices in the Deep South.

The continued occupation of Fort Sumter by Union troops quickly developed into a major point of disagreement between North and South. In the aftermath of secession, the people of South Carolina and the rest of the Confederacy regarded the Union garrison at Fort Sumter as a foreign military presence that should not be permitted to operate in their territory, especially since it was located right in the middle of one of the Confederacy's most important harbors. With each passing week, the sight of the American flag flying over the fort further infuriated the people in Charleston and other Confederate communities.

Confederate representatives made a number of efforts to convince the Union to hand over the fort to South Carolina troops peacefully during the first few months of 1861, but all of these attempts failed. First, Confederate officials tried to convince President Buchanan to give up the fort before he left office in March. Buchanan had withdrawn Federal troops from other locations in the Confederacy because of his strong desire to finish his term before war erupted. But Buchanan refused to abandon Fort Sumter, which had come to be regarded throughout the Page 77  |  Top of Article North as a symbol of Union strength and pride. "If I withdraw [Major] Anderson from Sumter, I can travel home to Wheatland [after leaving office] by the light of my own burning effigies," said Buchanan, referring to his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The South had no better luck with Lincoln after he took office, despite the secret activities of William Seward (1801–1872), Lincoln's secretary of state. Seward was a talented and distinguished politician who ranked as one of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party. But despite Lincoln's decision to select him for the important position of secretary of state, Seward remained bitter about the party's decision to nominate Lincoln instead of himself as its presidential candidate in the 1860 elections. In fact, Seward did not hold a high opinion of the new president, and he believed that he would be able to shape Lincoln's policies to his own liking from his position as secretary of state.

Seward thought that if the United States avoided angering the Confederate states, they would eventually return to the Union. He thus believed that U.S. forces should vacate Fort Sumter and leave it to the citizens of South Carolina. Acting on this conviction—and on his belief that he could manipulate Lincoln—Seward offered secret assurances to the Confederacy that the Union would soon abandon Fort Sumter. But as the days passed by, it became clear that Seward had underestimated the will of his new president.

Lincoln attempts to send supplies

Almost as soon as he took office, Lincoln found out that the situation in Fort Sumter was even more serious than he had previously believed. A day after delivering his inaugural address, he was informed that Major Anderson and his men had only enough food and supplies to remain at the fort until about April 15. If the Union proved unable to resupply Anderson before then, he and his men would have to surrender the fort or face starvation. Moreover, Lincoln was told that on March 3, South Carolina military troops under the command of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (1818–1893) had taken up positions all around the harbor, their cannons poised to fire upon Fort Sumter at any time.

After consulting with his cabinet to review his options, Lincoln decided that he would attempt to resupply Anderson's troops at Fort Sumter. He knew that any attempt to send food and other provisions to the fort was risky. The Union had attempted to transport supplies and reinforcements to the fort two months earlier via a ship called the Star of the West, only to be turned away by a hail of artillery fire from South Carolina cannons. Despite that earlier clash, though, Lincoln was unwilling to abandon the fort. He knew that if Federal control of Fort Sumter was relinquished, Northern morale would suffer, and Southern confidence in the Confederacy's ability to break away Page 78  |  Top of Article from the Union permanently would increase.

On March 29, 1861, Lincoln ordered the U.S. military to send ships bearing food and supplies to the surrounded outpost, but he declined to send reinforcements to help Anderson defend the fort. He believed that any attempt to increase Federal troop strength at Sumter might be interpreted as an aggressive action by the Confederate military and the remaining slave states in the Union, and that such a step would increase the likelihood of a violent clash between Anderson's troops and the forces under Beauregard's command.

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Determined to avoid a bloody clash if possible, Lincoln notified South Carolina governor Francis Pickens (1805–1869) on April 8 of his plan to send ships carrying food and other supplies to Fort Sumter. Two days later, a small fleet of Union ships headed by Captain Gustavus Fox (1821–1883) set out for the fort from New York to deliver the provisions.

Upon learning of the Union plan to resupply Fort Sumter, Confederate president Jefferson Davis called his cabinet together to discuss their options. The letter that Pickens had received from Lincoln made it clear Page 80  |  Top of Article
Abraham Lincoln. (Painting by Douglas Volk. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) Abraham Lincoln. (Painting by Douglas Volk. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) that Seward's secret assurances of an impending federal departure from the outpost could no longer be believed. Davis and his cabinet were thus left with two choices: permit Fox's fleet to carry out its mission to Fort Sumter, which would allow Anderson's troops to man the outpost for several more months; or attack the garrison before the supplies could be delivered and risk triggering an all-out war with the Union.

Some Confederate leaders cautioned against launching any attack on Fort Sumter. "The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen," warned Confederate secretary of state Robert Toombs (1810–1885). "You will wantonly strike a hornet's nest which extends from mountains to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death." But Davis and many other leaders believed that the Confederacy needed to take a strong stand. On April 10, Beauregard was ordered to take the fort by force if he could not convince Anderson to surrender willingly.

Southern forces attack Fort Sumter

Over the next few days, Beauregard tried to convince Anderson to surrender. But Anderson, who had been one of Beauregard's instructors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, refused to give in. The Confederate assault on Fort Sumter was launched early in the morning of April 12, 1861. All day long, Confederate guns under Beauregard's command rained fire on the fort held by the rebel commander's former teacher. As the onslaught continued, pockets of flame and smoke erupted around the outpost, a sight that delighted the many Charleston citizens watching the battle unfold from their rooftops. Anderson and his men put up a brave defense in hopes of holding their foes off until help arrived, but rough seas and indecision slowed Fox's fleet, and they were never able to lend a hand. Finally, after enduring more than thirty-four hours of cannonfire, the Union troops Page 81  |  Top of Article
The Confederate flag flies following the South's victory over the North at Fort Sumter on April 4, 1861. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.) The Confederate flag flies following the South's victory over the North at Fort Sumter on April 4, 1861. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.) ran out of ammunition. No longer able to defend the fort, Anderson was forced to surrender on April 13. The defeat saddened Anderson, although he took comfort in the knowledge that none of his men had been killed in the assault.

One day later, Anderson and his troops assembled to evacuate the fort as Fox's fleet watched helplessly from just outside the harbor. Beauregard had agreed to let the Union soldiers give the tattered American flag that they had defended a 100-gun salute before lowering it and leaving the fort. Midway through the salute, however, one of the cannons exploded. Private Daniel Hough died in the explosion, and Private Edward Galloway died a few days later from injuries suffered in the accident. Hough and Galloway thus became the first casualties in a war that would ultimately claim more than 620,000 American lives.

Undecided states join the Confederacy

The battle for Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the American Page 82  |  Top of Article Civil War. The Confederate attack on Union forces convinced Lincoln and his cabinet—which had previously been deeply divided over how to deal with the secessionist states—that such aggression could not go unpunished, and that the Confederate states could only be brought back into the Union through the use of force. Lincoln subsequently announced to the nation that "combinations too powerful to be suppressed" by peaceful efforts now controlled the Deep South, and he called on the remaining states of the Union to provide the Federal government with seventy-five thousand soldiers in order to stop the secessionist rebellion.

Lincoln's April 15 announcement was immensely popular in the free states of the North. News of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter had enraged Northerners, and thousands of volunteers eagerly rushed to join the Federal army. Reaction to Lincoln's call to arms was far different in the slave states that sat between the North and the states of the Confederacy, however. Although they had been unwilling to secede over the issue of slavery, these so-called "border" Page 83  |  Top of Article states quickly decided to stand with their Southern neighbors once it became clear that war was imminent. On April 17, the state of Virginia announced that it was leaving the United States to join the Confederacy, and Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina joined the Confederate cause a few weeks later (although much of eastern Tennessee remained loyal to the Union throughout the war). The Confederacy promptly made arrangements to transfer its capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, thus creating a situation in which the Union and Confederate capitals sat only one hundred miles from one another.

The defections of these states were a severe blow to Lincoln, who had hoped that they would ultimately fight to keep the Union intact. Conversely, the addition of these four states greatly strengthened the Confederacy. Each possessed large populations of white men who could be added to the still-forming Confederate Army. Southern strategists recognized that factories located in these states could be used to manufacture ammunition, clothing, and other supplies Page 84  |  Top of Article for its military. Finally, military leaders on both sides recognized that Virginia's decision to stand under the Confederate flag posed a great threat to the Union because the state was located right next to Washington, D.C., the Union's capital.

The Union fights to keep other border states

After losing Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina to the Confederacy, Lincoln turned his attention to four border slave states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—that had not yet announced their support for North or South. Lincoln was certain that Delaware would remain loyal to the Union, but he knew that Confederate sympathies were strong in the other three states.

Determined to prevent any other states from joining the Confederacy, Lincoln took drastic measures in both Maryland and Missouri. Keeping Maryland in Union hands was particularly important because it was situated north of Washington, D.C. This meant that if the state joined the Confederacy, then the U.S. capital would be cut off from the rest of the Union and would almost certainly fall to the Confederate Army. With these considerations in mind, Lincoln acted swiftly.

Lincoln silences Maryland secessionists

First, Lincoln decided to clamp down on secessionist activities in Baltimore, a big city that had become a center of Confederate support. The extent of Baltimore's sympathy to the Confederate cause had become clear on April 19, when the 6th Massachusetts militia—a Union regiment under the command of Benjamin Butler (1818–1893) that was traveling to Washington, D.C.—came under attack in the city from a secessionist mob. By the time the clash ended, dozens of injured people and dead bodies littered the city's streets.

The Union eventually gained control of Baltimore and the rest of Maryland, but Lincoln was forced to establish martial law to do so. Martial law is a situation in which military forces take over the responsibility of administering and enforcing laws in a city or region from civilian lawmakers. Moreover, the president suspended a piece of the Constitution known as the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland in order to quiet anti-Union voices. The writ of habeas corpus was designed to protect Americans from being arrested and held in custody on unreasonable charges or without being charged with a crime. But Lincoln had decided that it would be very difficult to control Maryland if the state's secessionist movement was not neutralized.

Ignoring protests from a wide range of people, including U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Roger Taney (1777–1864), Lincoln took advantage of his suspension of habeas corpus to silence secessionists all around the state. Over the course of several weeks, Federal officials arrested Page 85  |  Top of Article the mayor and police chief of Baltimore, thirty-one state legislators, and a number of newspaper publishers and editors, and threw them all in jail. With his leading opponents out of the way, Lincoln then made sure that Maryland would remain in the Union camp. In the fall of 1861, Federal forces manipulated state elections so that pro-Union legislators assumed firm control.

The Union struggle to keep Missouri and Kentucky

In Missouri, Federal military units managed to establish some measure of control over most of the state through the use of martial law. But despite the sometimes ruthless measures employed by Union authorities to maintain control over the state, violent raids by Confederate supporters tormented Missouri throughout the war, and large numbers of Missouri natives served in the Confederate Army during the conflict.

In Kentucky—the birth state of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis—the struggle for control of the state basically ended in a draw. After four months of official neutrality (showing no support for either side) in the conflict, separate Union and Confederate state governments were organized. Given this political deadlock, it is not surprising that both the rebel (Confederate) and Federal armies eventually included large numbers of Kentuckians.

The struggle in Kentucky seemed to symbolize the larger division that had taken place all across the United States. With each passing day, Kentuckians watched as long-time neighbors and friends marched off in opposite directions, perhaps to face one another again on some future battlefield. Even the grandsons of Henry Clay (1777–1852), the Kentucky senator who had crafted both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 in an effort to ward off civil war, were not immune to this sad phenomenon. As the American Civil War dragged on, three of Clay's grandsons would fight on behalf of the Union, while four others would march under the Confederate flag.

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Words to Know

Confederacy eleven Southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861

Federal national or central government; also refers to the North or Union, as opposed to the South or Confederacy

Rebel Confederate; often used as a name for Confederate soldiers

Secession the formal withdrawal of eleven Southern states from the Union in 1860–61

States' rights the belief that each state has the right to decide how to handle various issues for itself without interference from the national government

Union Northern states that remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War

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People to Know

Robert Anderson (1805–1871) Union major who surrendered Fort Sumter to Confederates in April 1861

Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893) Confederate general who captured Fort Sumter in April 1861; also served at First Bull Run and Shiloh

James Buchanan (1791–1868) fifteenth president of the United States, 1857–61

Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) president of the Confederate States of America, 1861–65

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) sixteenth president of the United States, 1861–65

William Seward (1801–1872) U.S. secretary of state, 1861–69

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President James Buchanan

James Buchanan was president of the United States from 1857 until 1861, when Abraham Lincoln took his place. Born in Pennsylvania, Buchanan established a thriving law practice before turning to politics. He spent ten years (1821–31) as a member of Pennsylvania's U.S. House delegation, then moved over to the Senate, where he represented his home state from 1834 to 1845. A Democrat, he left the Senate in 1845 to serve as secretary of state for President James K. Polk (1795–1849). During his four-year stint in that position, Buchanan helped prosecute the Mexican War (1846–48), which ultimately gave the United States huge expanses of new territory in the West.

After serving as minister to Great Britain in the administration of President Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1856, Buchanan won the 1856 presidential election as the nominee of the Democratic Party. Soon after assuming office, however, he found that the slavery issue made it almost impossible for his administration to get anything done. Indeed, he was assuming leadership of the country at a time when Northern and Southern positions on slavery and states' rights were hardening. As these two sides battled in the legislature and the nation's newspapers, the Buchanan administration's fumbling attempts to resolve these issues did little to bridge the widening gap between America's Northern and Southern regions.

Buchanan's personal views of slavery were mixed. On the one hand, he thought that slavery was morally wrong. But he also believed that the South's claims that slavery was not unconstitutional were correct, and that the region would never accept the abolishment of slavery. This conviction, combined with his knowledge that the Democratic Party owed much of its national power to support in the South, made Buchanan fairly sympathetic to Southern demands.


James Buchanan. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) James Buchanan. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

After Lincoln won the November 1860 presidential election and Southern threats of secession exploded, Buchanan was faced with the task of holding the nation together until the Republican formally took office in March 1861. Buchanan refused to support one side or the other during this period, for while Buchanan did not believe that states had the right to secede from the Union, he also did not believe that the Federal government had the right to force them to stay. During his last months of power, Buchanan adopted a cautious position designed to ensure that he would not preside over the beginning of a civil war.

In March 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as America's sixteenth president, and Buchanan left the White House, relieved that he had managed to get out before hostilities exploded between the nation's two angry sections. Within a few weeks of his departure, Buchanan's worst fears were realized, as a battle for control of Fort Sumter in South Carolina ignited the Civil War. For years, Buchanan, who died in 1868, was often viewed as a key reason why the Civil War occurred. In recent years, however, historians have judged Buchanan's policies more kindly.

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Perspectives on the Battle for Fort Sumter

As the following newspaper accounts show, reaction to the assault on Major Robert Anderson's troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, was far different in the North than it was in the South:

The perspective of the North, as editorialized in the New York Times, April 15, 1861—

The reverberations from Charleston Harbor have brought about what months of logic would have been impotent to effect—the rapid condensation of public sentiment in the Free States. The North is now [united]. . . . In entering upon this struggle [against the South], the great community of Free States does so, prepared to bring to bear on the vindication [justification] of its national honor inexhaustible material resources. . . . As to moral force, it panoplies [armors] the Republic as with a wall of fire. She enters the contest with that triple arming which justice gives to a cause. The moral conscience of the world is on her side. . . . The [Lincoln] Administration is not brought face to face with a Revolution. This is not the attitude. It has to deal with a plot, a conspiracy. There will be no 'fraternal blood' shed, unless it be the blood of men who are willfully and persistently in the position of traitors. . . . That Treason should be claimed as a right—that anarchy [complete absence of government] should rule—it is this which thrills with indignant amazement. How profound has been the humiliation, how hot the indignation, are shown in the tumultuous surgings of passion that are now baptising with one common sentiment of constitutional unity and patriotic devotion every loyal American heart.

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The view from the South, as described in Charleston Mercury, April 13, 1861—

The bombardment of Fort Sumter, so long and anxiously expected, has at length become a fact. . . . [At dawn] the circle of batteries with which the grim fortress of Fort Sumter is beleaguered opened fire. The outline of this great volcanic crater was illuminated with a line of twinkling lights; the clustering shells illuminated the sky above it; the [cannon] balls clattered thick as hail upon its sides; our citizens . . . rushed again to the points of observation; and so, at the break of day, amidst the bursting of bombs, and the roaring of ordnance [artillery], and before thousands of spectators, whose homes, and liberties, and lives were at stake, was enacted this first great scene in the opening drama of what . . . will be a most momentous military act. It may be a drama of but a single act. The madness which inspires it may depart with this single paroxysm [sudden outburst]. It is certain that the people of the North have rankling at their hearts no sense of wrong to be avenged; and exhibiting to those who expect power to reconstruct the shattered Union, its utter inadequacy to accomplish a single step in that direction, the Administration of the old Government may abandon at once and forever its vain and visionary hope of forcible control over the Confederate States. But it may not be so; they may persist still longer in assertions of their power, and if so, they will arouse an independent spirit in the South, which will exact a merciless and fearful retribution [payback].

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3410500093