The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South

Author: Nathaniel Wright Stephenson

Chapter I. The Secession Movement

The secession movement had three distinct stages. The first, beginning with the news that Lincoln was elected, closed with the news, sent broadcast over the South from Charleston, that Federal troops had taken possession of Fort Sumter on the night of the 28th of December. During this period the likelihood of secession was the topic of discussion in the lower South. What to do in case the lower South seceded was the question which perplexed the upper South. In this period no State north of South Carolina contemplated taking the initiative. In the Southeastern and Gulf States immediate action of some sort was expected. Whether it would be secession or some other new course was not certain on the day of Lincoln’s election. Various States earlier in the year had provided for conventions of their people in the event of a Republican victory. The first to assemble was the convention of South Carolina, which organized at Columbia, on December 17, 1860. Two weeks earlier Congress had met. Northerners and Southerners had at once joined issue on their relation in the Union. The House had appointed its committee of thirty-three to consider the condition of the country. So unpromising indeed from the Southern point of view had been the early discussions of this committee that a conference of Southern members of Congress had sent out their famous address To Our Constituents: "The argument is exhausted. All hope of relief in the Union . . . is extinguished, and we trust the South will not be deceived by appearances or the pretense of new guarantees. In our judgment the Republicans are resolute in the purpose to grant nothing that will or ought to satisfy the South. We are satisfied the honor, safety, and independence of the Southern people require the organization of a Southern Confederacy—a result to be obtained only by separate state secession." Among the signers of this address were the two statesmen who had in native talent no superiors at Washington—Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

The appeal To Our Constituents was not the only assurance of support tendered to the convention of South Carolina. To represent them at this convention the governors of Alabama and Mississippi had appointed delegates. Mr. Hooker of Mississippi and Mr. Elmore of Alabama made addresses before the convention on the night of the 17th of December. Both reiterated views which during two days of lobbying they had disseminated in Columbia "on all proper occasions." Their argument, summed up in Elmore’s report to Governor Moore of Alabama, was "that the only course to unite the Southern States in any plan of cooperation which could promise safety was for South Carolina to take the lead and secede at once without delay or hesitation...that the only effective plan of cooperation must ensue after one State had seceded and presented the issue when the plain question would be presented to the other Southern States whether they would stand by the seceding State engaged in a common cause or abandon her to the fate of coercion by the arms of the Government of the United States."

Ten years before, in the unsuccessful secession movement of 1850 and 1851, Andrew Pickens Butler, perhaps the ablest South Carolinian then living, strove to arrest the movement by exactly the opposite argument. Though desiring secession, he threw all his weight against it because the rest of the South was averse. He charged his opponents, whose leader was Robert Barnwell Rhett, with aiming to place the other Southern States "in such circumstances that, having a common destiny, they would be compelled to be involved in a common sacrifice." He protested that "to force a sovereign State to take a position against its consent is to make of it a reluctant associate.... Both interest and honor must require the Southern States to take council together."

That acute thinker was now in his grave. The bold enthusiast whom he defeated in 1851 had now no opponent that was his match. No great personality resisted the fiery advocates from Alabama and Mississippi. Their advice was accepted. On December 20, 1860, the cause that ten years before had failed was successful. The convention, having adjourned from Columbia to Charleston, passed an ordinance of secession.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, at a hundred meetings, the secession issue was being hotly discussed. But there was not yet any certainty which way the scale would turn. An invitation from South Carolina to join in a general Southern convention had been declined by the Governor in November. Governor Brown has left an account ascribing the comparative coolness and deliberation of the hour to the prevailing impression that President Buchanan had pledged himself not to alter the military status at Charleston. In an interview between South Carolina representatives and the President, the Carolinians understood that such a pledge was given. "It was generally understood by the country," says Governor Brown, "that such an agreement...had been entered Into...and that Governor Floyd of Virginia, then Secretary of War, had expressed his determination to resign his position in the Cabinet in case of the refusal of the President to carry out the agreement in good faith. The resignation of Governor Floyd was therefore naturally looked upon, should it occur, as a signal given to the South that reinforcements were to be sent to Charleston and that the coercive policy had been adopted by the Federal Government."

While the "canvass in Georgia for members of the State convention was progressing with much interest on both sides," there came suddenly the news that Anderson had transferred his garrison from Fort Moultrie to the island fortress of Sumter. That same day commissioners from South Carolina, newly arrived at Washington, sought in vain to persuade the President to order Anderson back to Moultrie. The Secretary of War made the subject an issue before the Cabinet. Unable to carry his point, two days later he resigned.*

* The President had already asked for Floyd’s resignation because of financial irregularities, and Floyd was shrewd enough to use Anderson’s coup as an excuse for resigning. See Rhodes, "History of the United States," vol. II pp. 225, 236 (note).

The Georgia Governor, who had not hitherto been in the front rank of the aggressives, now struck a great blow. Senator Toombs had telegraphed from Washington that Fort Pulaski, guarding the Savannah River, was "in danger." The Governor had reached the same conclusion. He mustered the state militia and seized Fort Pulaski. Early in the morning on January 3,1861, the fort was occupied by Georgia troops. Shortly afterward, Brown wrote to a commissioner sent by the Governor of Alabama to confer with him: "While many of our most patriotic and intelligent citizens in both States have doubted the propriety of immediate secession, I feel quite confident that recent events have dispelled those doubts from the minds of most men who have, till within the past few days, honestly sustained them." The first stage of the secession movement was at an end; the second had begun.

A belief that Washington had entered upon a policy of aggression swept the lower South. The state conventions assembling about this time passed ordinances of secession—Mississippi, January 9; Florida, January 10; Alabama, January 11; Georgia, January 19; Louisiana, January 26; Texas, February 1. But this result was not achieved without considerable opposition. In Georgia the Unionists put up a stout fight. The issue was not upon the right to secede—virtually no one denied the right—but upon the wisdom of invoking the right. Stephens, gloomy and pessimistic, led the opposition. Toombs came down from Washington to take part with the secessionists. From South Carolina and Alabama, both ceaselessly active for secession, commissioners appeared to lobby at Milledgeville, as commissioners of Alabama and Mississippi had lobbied at Columbia. Besides the out-and-out Unionists, there were those who wanted to temporize, to threaten the North, and to wait for developments. The motion on which these men and the Unionists made their last stand together went against them 164 to 133. Then at last came the square question: Shall we secede? Even on this question, the minority was dangerously large. Though the temporizers came over to the secessionists, and with them came Stephens, there was still a minority of 89 irreconcilables against the majority numbering 208.

"My allegiance," said Stephens afterwards, "was, as I considered it, not due to the United States, or to the people of the United States, but to Georgia, in her sovereign capacity. Georgia had never parted with her right to demand the ultimate allegiance of her citizens."

The attempt in Georgia to restrain impetuosity and advance with deliberation was paralleled in Alabama, where also the aggressives were determined not to permit delay. In the Alabama convention, the conservatives brought forward a plan for a general Southern convention to be held at Nashville in February. It was rejected by a vote of 54 to 45. An attempt to delay secession until after the 4th of March was defeated by the same vote.

The determination of the radicals to precipitate the issue received interesting criticism from the Governor of Texas, old Sam Houston. To a commissioner from Alabama who was sent out to preach the cause in Texas the Governor wrote, in substance, that since Alabama would not wait to consult the people of Texas he saw nothing to discuss at that time, and he went on to say:

Recognizing as I do the fact that the sectional tendencies of the Black Republican party call for determined constitutional resistance at the hands of the united South, I also feel that the million and a half of noble-hearted, conservative men who have stood by the South, even to this hour, deserve some sympathy and support. Although we have lost the day, we have to recollect that our conservative Northern friends cast over a quarter of a million more votes against the Black Republicans than we of the entire South. I cannot declare myself ready to desert them as well as our Southern brethren of the border (and such, I believe, will be the sentiment of Texas) until at least one firm attempt has been made to preserve our constitutional rights within the Union.

Nevertheless, Houston was not able to control his State. Delegates from Texas attended the later sessions of a general Congress of the seceding States which, on the invitation of Alabama, met at Montgomery on the 4th of February. A contemporary document of singular interest today is the series of resolutions adopted by the Legislature of North Carolina, setting forth that, as the State was a member of the Federal Union, it could not accept the invitation of Alabama but should send delegates for the purpose of persuading the South to effect a readjustment on the basis of the Crittenden Compromise as modified by the Legislature of Virginia. The commissioners were sent, were graciously received, were accorded seats in the Congress, but they exerted no influence on the course of its action.

The Congress speedily organized a provisional Government for the Confederate States of America. The Constitution of the United States, rather hastily reconsidered, became with a few inevitable alterations the Constitution of the Confederacy.* Davis was unanimously elected President; Stephens, Vice-President. Provision was made for raising an army. Commissioners were dispatched to Washington to negotiate a treaty with the United States; other commissioners were sent to Virginia to attempt to withdraw that great commonwealth from the Union.

* To the observer of a later age this document appears a thing of haste. Like the framers of the Constitution of 1787, who omitted from their document some principles which they took for granted, the framers of 1861 left unstated their most distinctive views. The basal idea upon which the revolution proceeded, the right of secession, is not to be found in the new Constitution. Though the preamble declares that the States are acting in their sovereign and independent character, the new Confederation is declared "permanent." In the body of the document are provisions similar to those in the Federal Constitution enabling a majority of two-thirds of the States to amend at their pleasure, thus imposing their will upon the minority. With three notable exceptions the new Constitution, subsequent to the preamble, does little more than restate the Constitution of 1787 rearranged so as to include those basal principles of the English law added to the earlier Constitution by the first eight amendments. The three exceptions are the prohibitions (1) of the payment of bounties, (2) of the levying of duties to promote any one form of industry, and (3) of appropriations for internal improvements. Here was a monument to the battle over these matters in the Federal Congress. As to the mechanism of the new Government it was the same as the old except for a few changes of detail. The presidential term was lengthened to six years and the President was forbidden to succeed himself. The President was given the power to veto items in appropriation bills. The African slave-trade was prohibited.

The upper South was thus placed in a painful situation. Its sympathies were with the seceding States. Most of its people felt also that if coercion was attempted, the issue would become for Virginia and North Carolina, no less than for South Carolina and Alabama, simply a matter of self-preservation. As early as January, in the exciting days when Floyd’s resignation was being interpreted as a call to arms, the Virginia Legislature had resolved that it would not consent to the coercion of a seceding State. In May the Speaker of the North Carolina Legislature assured a commissioner from Georgia that North Carolina would never consent to the movement of troops "from or across" the State to attack a seceding State. But neither Virginia nor North Carolina in this second stage of the movement wanted to secede. They wanted to preserve the Union, but along with the Union they wanted the principle of local autonomy. It was a period of tense anxiety in those States of the upper South. The frame of mind of the men who loved the Union but who loved equally their own States and were firm for local autonomy is summed up in a letter in which Mrs. Robert E. Lee describes the anguish of her husband as he confronted the possibility of a divided country.

The real tragedy of the time lay in the failure of the advocates of these two great principles—each so necessary to a far-flung democratic country in a world of great powers!—the failure to coordinate them so as to insure freedom at home and strength abroad. The principle for which Lincoln stood has saved Americans in the Great War from playing such a trembling part as that of Holland. The principle which seemed to Lee even more essential, which did not perish at Appomattox but was transformed and not destroyed, is what has kept us from becoming a western Prussia. And yet if only it had been possible to coordinate the two without the price of war! It was not possible because of the stored up bitterness of a quarter century of recrimination. But Virginia made a last desperate attempt to preserve the Union by calling the Peace Convention. It assembled at Washington the day the Confederate Congress met at Montgomery. Though twenty-one States sent delegates, it was no more able to effect a working scheme of compromise than was the House committee of thirty-three or the Senate committee of thirteen, both of which had striven, had failed, and had gone their ways to a place in the great company of historic futilities.

And so the Peace Convention came and went, and there was no consolation for the troubled men of the upper South who did not want to secede but were resolved not to abandon local autonomy. Virginia was the key to the situation. If Virginia could be forced into secession, the rest of the upper South would inevitably follow. Therefore a Virginia hothead, Roger A. Pryor, being in Charleston in those wavering days, poured out his heart in fiery words, urging a Charleston crowd to precipitate war, in the certainty that Virginia would then have to come to their aid. When at last Sumter was fired upon and Lincoln called for volunteers, the second stage of the secession movement ended in a thunderclap. The third period was occupied by the second group of secessions: Virginia on the 17th of April, North Carolina and Arkansas during May, Tennessee early in June.

Sumter was the turning-point. The boom of the first cannon trained on the island fortress deserves all the rhetoric it has inspired. Who was immediately responsible for that firing which was destiny? Ultimate responsibility is not upon any person. War had to be. If Sumter had not been the starting-point, some other would have been found. Nevertheless the question of immediate responsibility, of whose word it was that served as the signal to begin, has produced an historic controversy.

When it was known at Charleston that Lincoln would attempt to provision the fort, the South Carolina authorities referred the matter to the Confederate authorities. The Cabinet, in a fateful session at Montgomery, hesitated—drawn between the wish to keep their hold upon the moderates of the North, who were trying to stave off war, and the desire to precipitate Virginia into the lists. Toombs, Secretary of State in the new Government, wavered; then seemed to find his resolution and came out strong against a demand for surrender. "It is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North.... It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal," said he. But the Cabinet and the President decided to take the risk. To General Pierre Beauregard, recently placed in command of the militia assembled at Charleston, word was sent to demand the surrender of Fort Sumter.

On Thursday, the 7th of April, besides his instructions from Montgomery, Beauregard was in receipt of a telegram from the Confederate commissioners at Washington, repeating newspaper statements that the Federal relief expedition intended to land a force "which will overcome all opposition." There seems no doubt that Beauregard did not believe that the expedition was intended merely to provision Sumter. Probably every one in Charleston thought that the Federal authorities were trying to deceive them, that Lincoln’s promise not to do more than provision Sumter was a mere blind. Fearfulness that delay might render Sumter impregnable lay back of Beauregard’s formal demand, on the 11th of April, for the surrender of the fort. Anderson refused but "made some verbal observations" to the aides who brought him the demand. In effect he said that lack of supplies would compel him to surrender by the fifteenth. When this information was taken back to the city, eager crowds were in the streets of Charleston discussing the report that a bombardment would soon begin. But the afternoon passed; night fell; and nothing was done. On the beautiful terrace along the sea known as East Battery, people congregated, watching the silent fortress whose brick walls rose sheer from the midst of the harbor. The early hours of the night went by and as midnight approached and still there was no flash from either the fortress or the shore batteries which threatened it, the crowds broke up.

Meanwhile there was anxious consultation at the hotel where Beauregard had fixed his headquarters. Pilots came in from the sea to report to the General that a Federal vessel had appeared off the mouth of the harbor. This news may well explain the hasty dispatch of a second expedition to Sumter in the middle of the night. At half after one, Friday morning, four young men, aides of Beauregard, entered the fort. Anderson repeated his refusal to surrender at once but admitted that he would have to surrender within three days. Thereupon the aides held a council of war. They decided that the reply was unsatisfactory and wrote out a brief note which they handed to Anderson informing him that the Confederates would open "fire upon Fort Sumter in one hour from this time." The note was dated 3:20 A.M. The aides then proceeded to Fort Johnston on the south side of the harbor and gave the order to fire.

The council of the aides at Sumter is the dramatic detail that has caught the imagination of historians and has led them, at least in some cases, to yield to a literary temptation. It is so dramatic—that scene of the four young men holding in their hands, during a moment of absolute destiny, the fate of a people; four young men, in the irresponsible ardor of youth, refusing to wait three days and forcing war at the instant! It is so dramatic that one cannot judge harshly the artistic temper which is unable to reject it. But is the incident historic? Did the four young men come to Sumter without definite instructions? Was their conference really anything more than a careful comparing of notes to make sure they were doing what they were intended to do? Is not the real clue to the event a message from Beauregard to the Secretary of War telling of his interview with the pilots? *

*A chief authority for the dramatic version of the council of the aides is that fiery Virginian, Roger A. Pryor. He and another accompanied the official messengers, the signers of the note to Anderson, James Chestnut and Stephen Lee. Years afterwards Pryor told the story of the council in a way to establish its dramatic significance. But would there be anything strange if a veteran survivor, looking back to his youth, as all of us do through more or less of mirage yielded to the unconscious artist that is in us all and dramatized this event unaware?

Dawn was breaking gray, with a faint rain in the air, when the first boom of the cannon awakened the city. Other detonations followed in quick succession. Shells rose into the night from both sides of the harbor and from floating batteries. How lightly Charleston slept that night may be inferred from the accounts in the newspapers. "At the report of the first gun," says the Courier, "the city was nearly emptied of its inhabitants who crowded the Battery and the wharves to witness the conflict."

The East Battery and the lower harbor of the lovely city of Charleston have been preserved almost without alteration. What they are today they were in the breaking dawn on April 12, 1861. Business has gone up the rivers between which Charleston lies and has left the point of the city’s peninsula, where East Battery looks outward to the Atlantic, in its perfect charm. There large houses, pillared, with high piazzas, stand apart one from another among gardens. With few exceptions they were built before the middle of the century and all, with one exception, show the classical taste of those days. The mariner, entering the spacious inner sea that is Charleston Harbor, sights this row of stately mansions even before he crosses the bar seven miles distant. Holding straight onward up into the land he heads first for the famous little island where, nowadays, in their halo of thrilling recollection, the walls of Sumter, rising sheer from the bosom of the water, drowse idle. Close under the lee of Sumter, the incoming steersman brings his ship about and chooses, probably, the eastward of two huge tentacles of the sea between which lies the city’s long but narrow peninsula. To the steersman it shows a skyline serrated by steeples, fronted by sea, flanked southward by sea, backgrounded by an estuary, and looped about by a sickle of wooded islands. This same scene, so far as city and nature go, was beheld by the crowds that swarmed East Battery, a flagstone marine parade along the seaward side of the boulevard that faces Sumter; that filled the windows and even the housetops; that watched the bombardment with the eagerness of an audience in an amphitheater; that applauded every telling shot with clapping of hands and waving of shawls and handkerchiefs. The fort lay distant from them about three miles, but only some fifteen hundred yards from Fort Johnston on one side and about a mile from Fort Moultrie on the other. From both of these latter, the cannon of those days were equal to the task of harassing Sumter. Early in the morning of the 12th of April, though not until broad day had come, did Anderson make reply. All that day, at first under heavily rolling cloud and later through curiously misty sunshine, the fire and counterfire continued. "The enthusiasm and fearlessness of the spectators," says the Charleston Mercury, "knew no bounds." Reckless observers even put out in small boats and roamed about the harbor almost under the guns of the fort. Outside the bar, vessels of the relieving squadron were now visible, and to these Anderson signaled for aid. They made an attempt to reach the fort, but only part of the squadron had arrived; and the vessels necessary to raise the siege were not there. The attempt ended in failure. When night came, a string of rowboats each carrying a huge torch kept watch along the bar to guard against surprise from the sea.

On that Friday night the harbor was swept by storm. But in spite of torrents of rain East Battery and the rooftops were thronged. "The wind was inshore and the booming was startlingly distinct." At the height of the bombardment, the sky above Sumter seemed to be filled with the flashes of bursting shells. But during this wild night Sumter itself was both dark and silent. Its casements did not have adequate lamps and the guns could not be used except by day. When morning broke, clear and bright after the night’s storm, the duel was resumed.

The walls of Sumter were now crumbling. At eight o’clock Saturday morning the barracks took fire. Soon after it was perceived from the shore that the flag was down. Beauregard at once sent offers of assistance. With Sumter in flames above his head, Anderson replied that he had not surrendered; he declined assistance; and he hauled up his flag. Later in the day the flagstaff was shot in two and again the flag fell, and again it was raised. Flames had been kindled anew by red-hot shot, and now the magazine was in danger. Quantities of powder were thrown into the sea. Still the rain of red-hot shot continued. About noon, Saturday, says the Courier, "flames burst out from every quarter of Sumter and poured from many of its portholes...the wind was from the west driving the smoke across the fort into the embrasures where the gunners were at work." Nevertheless, "as if served with a new impulse," the guns of Sumter redoubled their fire. But it was not in human endurance to keep on in the midst of the burning fort. This splendid last effort was short. At a quarter after one, Anderson ceased firing and raised a white flag. Negotiations followed ending in terms of surrender—Anderson to be allowed to remove his garrison to the fleet lying idle beyond the bar and to salute the flag of the United States before taking it down. The bombardment had lasted thirty-two hours without a death on either side. The evacuation of the fort was to take place next day.

The afternoon of Sunday, the 14th of April, was a gala day in the harbor of Charleston. The sunlight slanted across the roofs of the city, sparkled upon the sea. Deep and rich the harbor always looks in the spring sunshine on bright afternoons. The filmy atmosphere of these latitudes, at that time of year, makes the sky above the darkling, afternoon sea a pale but luminous turquoise. There is a wonderful soft strength in the peaceful brightness of the sun. In such an atmosphere the harbor was flecked with brilliantly decked craft of every description, all in a flutter of flags and carrying a host of passengers in gala dress. The city swarmed across the water to witness the ceremony of evacuation. Wherry men did a thriving business carrying passengers to the fort.

Anderson withdrew from Sumter shortly after two o’clock amid a salute of fifty guns. The Confederates took possession. At half after four a new flag was raised above the battered and fire-swept walls.


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Chicago: Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, "Chapter I. The Secession Movement," The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South Original Sources, accessed June 15, 2024,

MLA: Stephenson, Nathaniel Wright. "Chapter I. The Secession Movement." The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, Original Sources. 15 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Stephenson, NW, 'Chapter I. The Secession Movement' in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, ed. . cited in , The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South. Original Sources, retrieved 15 June 2024, from