150 Years Ago in the Civil War

This is the first of a series of overviews of the events of the Civil War in chronological order. These overviews will cover varying lengths of time depending on the number of events that occurred within the time frame covered. In this first post, I’ll cover November and December of 1860, when the election of Abraham Lincoln as President set off a series of events that would lead to the outbreak of the War between the States only five months later.

On November 6th, 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was elected the 16th President of the United States. It had been a four way race, with the four political parties holding different views regarding slavery, especially about the expansion of slavery to new territories as the nation expanded. Lincoln was the Republican Party candidate. The Republican platform called for prohibition of the expansion of slavery into new territories. The Democratic Party had split in two. The Northern Democrats ran Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois as their candidate. The Northern Democrats position on whether slavery should be allowed in the new territories was that the decision should be left to the people of those territories, or should be decided by the Supreme Court. The Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky as their candidate. The Southern Democrats position was that neither Congress nor territorial legislatures could prohibit slavery in new territories, and that it was up to the Federal government to protect slavery in those territories. Finally, the Constitutional Union Party selected John Bell of Tennessee as its candidate, on a platform that did not directly address the slavery issue.

The split in the Democratic Party was a huge advantage for Lincoln, who won 180 electoral votes. Breckenridge won 72 electoral votes, Bell won 39, and Douglas had 12.  Lincoln had more electoral votes that the other three candidates combined, but had only a little more than a third of the popular vote. He carried every free state but none of the slave states.

Southern states were concerned about the effects of Lincoln’s election, none more so than South Carolina. On November 10th, the South Carolina state legislature called for a convention December 17th to consider secession from the Union. The state also began raising troops for its defense.

For his part, the current president, James Buchanan, was against secession but did not believe the Federal government had the authority to stop it from happening.  His cabinet, consisting of both northerners and southerners, was split on the issue. Several cabinet members would resign before the end of Buchanan’s term. Buchanan was unable or unwilling to take action as the crisis unfolded throughout the rest of his term.

As South Carolina prepared to hold its secession convention, there were calls from some southern politicians to explore not only secession, but also the formation of a possible Southern Confederacy. And on December 20th, representatives at the South Carolina secession convention in Charleston declared “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ‘The United States of America’ is hereby dissolved”. The vote to secede was 169 to 0 in favor of secession. There was rejoicing in the streets of Charleston.

On December 26th, Major Robert Anderson moved his small U.S. Army garrison from Fort Moultrie in Charleston to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The next day, South Carolina authorities took over Fort Moultrie, and seized the U.S. Revenue Cutter William Aiken.  (The Revenue Service was the forerunner of the modern U.S. Coast Guard). On December 30th, the U.S. arsenal at Charleston was seized by South Carolina.

In Philadelphia in late December, actor John Wilkes Booth wrote a draft of a speech that was never delivered. In it, he declared he was a “Northern man” but believed that South Carolina and the other southern states had the right to slavery under the constitution. He also stated the north had no right to prohibit the extension of slavery to new territories.  Although declaring himself to be a northern man, the contents of the speech showed that John Wilkes Booth’s sympathies were clearly with the south. The draft of the speech was discovered in the 1870’s by Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth. It was preserved in the archives of the Player’s Club in New York City until it was rediscovered in 1991.

Tensions were rising, one state had seceded, other states were considering seceding, and a new president would be taking over on March 4th of 1861. The nation faced an uncertain future as 1860 drew to a close.

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