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Why Did the Confederate States Secede?

Entire Unit | South Carolina | Georgia | Mississippi | Texas | Lesson Plans

Entire Unit

Interactive map of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

View the map and become familiar with the location of the free states, the slave states, the regions identified as U.S. territories, the regions identified as not belonging to the U.S., and the 36º30' line. By clicking on each state, students can bring up statistical information about each state in the year 1820, compiled by reference to the U.S. Bureau of the Census from the Department of Commerce. Students will find particularly interesting the statistics of their own state, if it existed by 1820.

Visualizing Secession and Conflict

NOTE: This materials is from the Learning Page at the Library of Congress

President James Buchanan, in his last State of the Union message to Congress (December 3, 1860), denounced the movement toward secession. When Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election was confirmed, South Carolina called for a state convention and by unanimous vote seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. By February 1, 1861, six states in the lower South—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—followed South Carolina, leaving the Union in rapid succession. Buchanan took no overt action as these states seceded. Some of his advisors were sympathetic to the South. Secretary of War John Floyd resigned his office after being implicated in a plot to defraud the government. Before leaving office and returning to his native Virginia, Floyd transferred war materials from Pittsburgh to arsenals in Mississippi and Texas. The Confederacy seized firearms and ammunition held in federal arsenals in their respective states.

Passage through Baltimore Before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had been elected and inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America. Davis called on other slave- holding states to join the CSA. Maryland and Virginia, the states that surrounded the nation’s capital, were pressured to secede, but neither had joined the Confederacy by March 1861.

The president-elect traveled by train to Washington in February, making public appearances along the route until he reached Maryland. Warned of an assassination plot in Baltimore, Lincoln traveled the last leg of his trip in secret, boarding a special train at night.

Floyd off for the South. [Pictorial envelope]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Floyd on galloping horse carrying bags of money. Tan envelope with black ink. Image on left.
All that the seceding states ask is to "let alone."

Passage through Baltimore by John Volck. Etching, Baltimore, 1863. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Lincoln, dressed as a Union soldier, on his way to Washington by train (according to Weitenkampf, to be inaugurated), peers timidly out of the door in Baltimore and is scared by a hissing cat. May refer to the passage of Union troops through Baltimore on April 19, 1861.

Examine the two illustrations above and answer the following questions:

  1. What two events in the period between the election of 1860 and Lincoln’s inauguration do these illustrations depict?
  2. How are the two illustrations similar? How are the two different?
    Summarize each artist’s position in one sentence.

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South Carolina

The Library of Congress has a relevant primary resource for this period:

Washington During the Civil War: The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865.

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, about two weeks before Horatio Nelson Taft's first diary entry, January 1, 1861:

The old year passed away in gloom and sadness and the new one opens today without affording one hopeful ray of light in regard to the future. There seems to be a determination on the part of nearly the whole south to break up the Government. The Comrs [commissioners] from S.C. are still here and little is known in the City about what is taking place betwen them and the President & Cabinet.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865, Volume 1, January 1, 1861"

Even before South Carolina issued its Ordinance of Secession, the state pressed President Buchanan for the transfer of federal forts and arsenals to the state. With secession, Forts Moultrie and Sumter became the focal issue. Major Robert Anderson, commander of the garrison at Fort Moultrie, recognized that it was indefensible and moved his garrison to the more secure Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. South Carolina demanded that Anderson return his garrison to Fort Moultrie and sent commissioners to Washington at the end of December to negotiate a settlement. Although the President originally seemed amenable, considerable pressure from throughout the North convinced him to terminate negotiations. On January 2, 1861, Taft reported that Buchanan had "…refused to acknowledge the Commissioners as being anything more than distinguished citizens from the State of S.C."

What was the significance of recognizing the commissioners as nothing more than "distinguished citizens" from South Carolina?

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A General History of Fort Pulaski from the National Park Service
This resource has an archeological viewpoint and provides details about the fort's construction and signficance in the Civil war.

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Gulf Islands National Seahore in Mississippi from the National Park Service
This resource has two interesting places with a Civil War connection: Fort Massachusetts and Ship Island.

Jefferson Davis and Mississippi
As a U.S. senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis had tried to keep the Union together. When Mississippi seceded from the Union, however, Davis became a Confederate man.

Background Information: Jefferson Davis was President Franklin Pierce's Secretary of War. While Davis achieved fame as President of the Confederate States of America, he represented Mississippi in Washington as a member of both the House and the Senate. Davis was elected as a Representative to the 29th Congress in 1845 and served one year before resigning to command the First Regiment of Mississippi Riflemen in the war with Mexico. He distinguished himself at Monterrey with General Zachary Taylor and at Buena Vista. In 1847, Davis was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Jesse Speight. He became a leading defender of states rights. Davis was subsequently elected, and in 1851 he resigned from the Senate and ran for governor unsuccessfully. After serving as Pierce's Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857, Davis was again elected to the U.S. Senate where he served from 1857 until Mississippi seceded from the Union in January 1861.

January 21, 1861
Jefferson Davis' Farewell

From the US Senate website

By any standard, this scene has to rank as one of the most dramatic events ever enacted in the chamber of the United States Senate. Would-be spectators arrived at the Capitol before sunrise on a frigid January morning. Those who came after 9:00 a.m., finding all gallery seats taken, frantically attempted to enter the already crowded cloakrooms and lobby adjacent to the chamber. Just days earlier, the states of Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama had joined South Carolina in deciding to secede from the Union. Rumors flew that Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas would soon follow.

On January 21, 1861, a fearful capital city awaited the farewell addresses of five senators. One observer sensed "blood in the air" as the chaplain delivered his prayer at high noon. With every senator at his place, Vice President John Breckinridge postponed a vote on admitting Kansas as a free state to recognize senators from Florida and Alabama.

When the four senators completed their farewell addresses, all eyes turned to Mississippi's Jefferson Davis—the acknowledged leader of the South in Congress. Tall, slender, and gaunt at the age of 52, Davis had been confined to his bed for more than a week. Suffering the nearly incapacitating pain of facial neuralgia, he began his valedictory in a low voice. As he proceeded, his voice gained volume and force.

I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that . . . the state of Mississippi . . . has declared her separation from the United States." He explained that his state acted because "we are about to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us." Davis implored his Senate colleagues to work for a continuation of peaceful relations between the United States and the departing states. Otherwise, he predicted, interference with his state's decision would "bring disaster on every portion of the country.

Absolute silence met the conclusion of his six-minute address. Then a burst of applause and the sounds of open weeping swept the chamber. The vice president immediately rose to his feet, followed by the 58 senators and the mass of spectators as Davis and his four colleagues solemnly walked up the center aisle and out the swinging doors.

Later, describing the "unutterable grief" of that occasion, Davis said that his words had been "not my utterances but rather leaves torn from the book of fate."

Citation: Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

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From the US Senate website, Profiles in Courage by John Kennedy:

Sam Houston earned his place in Profiles in Courage by his refusal to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This bill repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and would have allowed the residents of territories from Iowa to the Rocky Mountains to decide the slavery issue themselves. A Southerner by birth and one of the first two Senators from Texas, Houston felt that the act would further divide the Union. He tangled with the powerful John C. Calhoun, saying that Calhoun was trying to destroy the Union by introducing the legislation. He was the sole Southern Democrat to vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Houston’s constituents were furious and rumors of his political demise were rampant. Not one to engage in a defensive fight, Houston announced his plan to run for governor of Texas as an independent—while he was still in the Senate. Despite his oratorical gifts and sheer physical presence, the citizens of Texas did not forget his “anti-Southern” vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Houston was defeated for the governorship and was dismissed from the Senate by the Texas legislature in 1857. However, two years later he was asked to come out of retirement to again run for governor of Texas, and his election was a major setback to Southern pro-slavery extremists. In February 1861, despite Houston’s valiant attempts to stop it, the Texas legislature voted to secede from the Union. His refusal to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy led to his ouster as governor in March 1861.

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Lesson Plans

  • The First Inaugural Address (1861)—Defending the American Union
    How did Lincoln defend the American union from states seeking to leave or "secede" from the Union?
    This lesson examines Lincoln's First Inaugural Address to understand why he thought his duty as president required him to treat secession as an act of rebellion and not a legitimate legal or constitutional action by disgruntled states.


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