North versus South

*In 1860 the Democrats were split.  Northern Democrats, hoping to preserve the Union by serving as a national party opposed to the sectional Republicans, supported Stephen Douglas.  Southern fire-eaters, however, despised him for opposing the Lecompton Constitution and for suggesting through the Freeport Doctrine that popular sovereignty might end up stopping the spread of slavery.

*At the Democratic Convention in Charleston, Southern delegates walked out, effectively ending the convention before a candidate could be chosen.   Northern Democrats then met in Baltimore and nominated Stephen Douglas.  Feeling that their fellow Democrats had gone behind their back, Southern Democrats convened a rival convention in the same city, and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, a future Confederate general.

*Another group, composed mostly of Southerners who wanted to save the Union, primarily old Whigs and Know-Nothings whose old parties were gone and who did not fit into the northern Republican Party, created the Constitutional Union Party to elect a compromise candidate.  Also meeting in Baltimore, they chose John Bell of Tennessee (in a narrow vote over Sam Houston of Texas) and Edward Everett of Massachusetts.  Bell was once the leading Whig in Tennessee and an opponent of the expansion of slavery in the 1850s.  They went through the country ringing bells and campaigning for Bell and for ‘the Union, the Constitution, and the Enforcement of the Laws,’ meaning the Fugitive Slave Law and other laws protecting slavery.

*Although William Henry Seward had felt that 1856 was not a Republican year, many in his party felt that in 1860 their time had come.  At the Republican convention in Chicago, Seward, the most prominent member of the party, expected to be nominated.  However, his appeals to a ‘Higher Law’ had made him seem subversive, and his belief in Abolition as opposed to simply being a Free-Soiler made him dangerous and excessively divisive, even for the Republicans.

*The governor of Ohio, Salmon Chase, was another choice, but even more outspoken as an abolitionist than Seward, and as a former Democrat, was offensive to many former Whigs. 

*Edward Bates, of Missouri, was not as radical, but had still offended some other voters from the Upper South by wanting to limit slavery, and had offended German-Americans, an important Republican constituency, by being a former Know-Nothing.

*There were a number of other candidates with the support of their home states, most notably Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania.

*Abraham Lincoln was no-one's first choice, but he had few enemies in national politics, could attract valuable Western votes, and was chosen on the third ballot.

*The Vice-presidential candidate was Hannibal Hamlin of Maine.

*The Republican platform was 'free soil, free labor, free men,' meaning containment of slavery, a protective tariff, protection of the rights of immigrants, a Pacific Railroad, internal improvements, and free homesteads.

*Southerners feared that Lincoln would try to end slavery immediately and without compensation.  In fact, Lincoln, although a free-soil man, was no abolitionist, and even near the end of the Civil War considered creating a fund to reimburse formers slave-owners for slaves when they were freed.  However, Lincoln’s reputation among Southerners, like that of all Black Republicans, was as a dangerous abolitionist who would steal their property.  Many threatened to leave the Union if Lincoln, a candidate purely for the North, was elected.  In fact, Lincoln was not even on the ballot of most Southern states in 1860.

*Voter turnout was 81.2%, the highest in American history at that point, and the second-highest overall.

*Lincoln won the election, although with less than 40% of the popular vote.

Lincoln:  1,865,593 popular votes, 180 electoral votes
Douglas:  1,382,713 popular votes, 12 electoral votes
Breckinridge:  848,356 popular votes, 72 electoral votes
Bell:  592,906 popular votes, 39 electoral votes

*If Douglas, Lincoln’s closest competitor for the popular vote, and either of the other two candidates’ totals were combined, they would have beaten Lincoln in the popular vote.  However, due to the distribution of electoral districts, Lincoln would probably have won most of the North and thus the majority of the electoral votes even if all his opponents had combined their efforts into one party.  If they had really done so, things might have gone differently, but as it is, Lincoln won with a minority of the popular vote overall—the least popular successful presidential campaign since that of John Quincy Adams in 1824.  Furthermore, he did it entirely through Northern support.  This showed the South that the numerical superiority of the North was such that the North would be able to push around the south whenever it wanted.

*Although almost no one in the South voted for Lincoln, this did not prove they hated the Union. Bell, Breckinridge, and definitely Douglas all supported the Union.  Each had run hoping to hold the nation together in his own way.  Furthermore, the South retained control of the Supreme Court, made up almost half the Senate, and were a sufficiently large part of the Union that any proposed Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery would have been impossible to get ratified by ¾ of the states. 

*Still, the purely sectional victory of Lincoln which demonstrated the power of the North, the supposed the threat of his and his party’s anti-slavery, the decades of perceived slights and insults from the North, and economic concerns about the Republicans’ plan to raise the tariff--although the South paid more tariff bills and saw the revenue spent on Northern improvements (or so Southerners said)--made Southerners, touchy by nature, and badly on edge after John Brown’s raid, certain that Lincoln or at least his party would one day attack them.

*Lincoln was elected in November 1860.  On 20 December, at 1:15 in the afternoon, South Carolina dissolved her bonds with the Union.  The rationale was that South Carolina had always been a free state and a sovereign state, only allied with the other United States as long as it was mutually beneficial to be so.  With the election of Lincoln, it was obvious the North had turned against the South and, even if Lincoln did not have evil designs on the South, the next Republican president might.

*Some questioned the wisdom of South Carolina’s decision, however, describing South Carolina as too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum.

*President Buchanan did nothing.

*In the long period between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, six more states seceded.  In January, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana left the Union (in that order), and in February, Texas did so as well. 

*Meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, representatives of these states created a provisional constitution and government for the Confederate States of America.  Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, hero of Buena Vista, former Congressman, Senator, and Secretary of War, was chosen as the provisional President, Alexander Stephens of Georgia was named Vice-President, and a provisional Constitution was created based on that of the United States.

*President Buchanan did nothing.  Although some opponents of secession wished ‘oh, for one hour of Jackson,’ many Northerners did not feel it was either morally correct, legally proper, or personally appealing to keep the South in the Union by force.  If nothing else, invading the seceding states or threatening to do so might anger other states enough that they might leave as well.  Buchanan himself, legalistic to the end, said that the Constitution as he understood it was a permanent document and the states had no right to leave.  However, he also said that the Presidency did not have the power to stop the South by force of arms.  Had Buchanan acted then despite this debate there might not have been a war or, if there had been, it might have been quick and relatively painless.  On the other hand, the US had a very small army, and might have been easy for the South to hold off, and an invasion of the seceding states might, indeed, have encouraged more to break away from the Union.

*President Buchanan did nothing.  Some of his advisors and many other Americans wanted to compromise.  A Kentucky senator named John J. Crittenden suggested a compromise to keep both sides happy, he hoped.  He suggested that the Missouri Compromise line be extended west until it hit California, a free state.  Any territories in existence or thereafter acquired by the Federal government north of that line would be free and anything south of it slave.  When a territory was ready to join the Union, it could then decide, through popular sovereignty, whether to be slave or free.  Northerners did not approve, because if the Crittenden Compromise passed, Southerners would turn south and try to exploit or conquer Central America or the Caribbean islands.  Southerners, in turn, resented it because it kept slavery out of many territories, and it seemed likely the first step in the process of wiping out slavery by creating areas habitually unaccustomed to it.

*Lincoln rejected the Crittenden Compromise.  He was also willing to use force to bring the South back into line, as long as he could make the South look like the aggressor.

*The Deep South left the Union for many reasons.  Economic issues were important—the South was one of the largest importers and exporters of goods, making the tariff a vital issue, and slaves were valuable property the South could not afford to lose control of either economically or socially.  The South felt threatened by such things as the attack on Harper’s Ferry and Nat Turner’s rebellion back in 1831.  The failure to comply with—indeed, the wilful violation of—the Fugitive Slave Act was a constant insult to Southerners, as was Northern treatment of John Brown as a martyr.  King Cotton was so profitable that Southerners began to feel that they could make it on their own, and no longer needed the North, which passed tariffs and other laws Southerners claimed were meant to hurt them.

*Ostensibly the War would be about states’ rights, tariffs, and the expansion of slavery.  In a deeper sense, the disagreement over these issues was caused by the different systems (slave labour and free labour) of the South and North.  Slavery was always an economic threat to both northern factory owners and northern factory workers, especially once Southerners began using slaves in factories in the South.  Some even blame politics over all else:  either the Jacksonian two-party system failed because it was torn apart over slavery, or it succeeded so well that slavery was the only thing left to fight for.  Mark Twain said the South had read too many novels by Sir Walter Scott.  Regardless of the reason, two American peoples who had been one people would go to war with one another between 1861 and 1865, killing 2% of the American population in the process.

*Lincoln was the first Republican president, and a moderate, compromise candidate.  He had many opponents within the leadership of the Republican Party, and, in order to make them (and the factions supporting them) relatively happy and to keep an eye on them, he put several of them in his cabinet. 

*Secretary of State William Henry Seward had hoped to win the nomination instead of Lincoln in 1860, and considered him soft, at least at first, and actually expected to run the presidency from behind the scenes, sort of like a prime minister. 

*The Secretary of the Treasury was Salmon P. Chase, a former Democrat and then Free Soil Party Senator and later Governor of Ohio who had also tried for the 1860 Republican nomination.  He threatened to resign from the cabinet several times over the course of his career, until Lincoln finally accepted (to Chase's surprise), but Lincoln later named him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

*The Attorney-General was Edward Bates, of Missouri, the first Cabinet member from West of the Mississippi River.   He was an important Republican leader in his own right, a potential nominee in 1860, and a representative of the more conservative branch of the Republican Party.  It was also hoped that he would show that Lincoln respected slave-owning states. 

*The same was true of Montgomery Blair of Maryland, who was Lincoln's first Postmaster-General (who introduced postal money orders and railway cars to the US Postal Service).  Although an abolitionist himself, he had relatives who owned slaves and had been a Democrat until he was disgusted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its bloody aftermath.  His influence and that of his family played some role in keeping Maryland in the Union, although he later disagreed with other Republican leaders and resigned from the Cabinet.

*The Secretary of the Navy was Gideon Wells, a former newspaper editor and an anti-British conservative who did not get along with the other members of the cabinet. 

*Initially the Secretary of War was Simon Cameron, who had also tried for the 1860 nomination and later gave his support to Lincoln in exchange for a cabinet post.  Early on, he hired a Democrat, Buchanan’s former Attorney-General Edwin Stanton, as a legal advisor, and was replaced by him in 1862 after Cameron was fired for corruption—Lincoln said he would steal anything but a red-hot stove.  Stanton initially thought Lincoln was an idiot, but worked well with him despite this, and later they became very close and respected one another deeply.

*By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on 4 March 1861, seven states had left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.  It seemed likely that the eight remaining slave states, from Delaware to Arkansas, and perhaps the Indian Territory might leave the Union as well, although several of them had already had conventions, referendums, or legislative votes on the subject and rejected it.

*Throughout the South, military installations had been turned over to the Confederacy and, indeed, throughout the Union, many Southerners in the Army and Navy (although not all), had resigned and gone back to their home states.

*Initially, both sides waited to see what the other would do.  The South only wanted to be left alone, and Lincoln, although he wanted to keep the Union together, feared that using force to do so might result in more states leaving the Union.  There was also, he feared, insufficient support in the North for a war, as many Northerners did not want to die in a war over slavery.

*While the USA and CSA waited, Europe looked on, with many leaders hoping the Union would split up into smaller countries that Old World diplomats could play off against one another.  Seward publicly threatened war with Britain or France if either tried to help the South, as the South hoped they would due to their supposed dependence on King Cotton, but he privately assured their ambassadors that the USA was not quite so bellicose.

*Lincoln’s official policy was to consider all the South still part of the Union, but not make any move to provoke the South outright.  However, he swore to defend all Federal installations in the South that were still held by the Union Army.  There were four of these:  Fort Sumter at Charleston, Fort Pickens at Pensacola, and Forts Taylor and Jefferson off Key West.

*The most important of these Federal installations was Fort Sumter, and Lincoln would use it to provoke a war much as Polk had instigated the Mexican War with his trans-Nueces expedition in 1846.

*In January the US had tried to send the Star of the West to bring supplies to Fort Sumter, but she was fired upon by the city’s batteries manned by students from the Citadel.  Sumter was low on supplies, and Lincoln had to send more or else Major Anderson would have to surrender without firing a shot.  On 6 April, to make it look like he wanted to appease the South who claimed Sumter as their own and feared he would reinforce it, Lincoln stated that he would send a ship to re-supply it only.  The South was in a bind.  If Sumter was re-supplied, the Union flag would remain in Charleston and the South's most important Atlantic port could be blockaded.  However, if they attacked the fort, they would have begun the war.  After an emergency meeting in Montgomery, the Confederate government felt they could not allow this.

*Although Anderson had told the South he would leave the fort by 15 April if not re-supplied, fire-eating Southern nationalists felt they had to make a point, and General Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter for 34 hours, beginning at 4:30 a.m. 12 April, 1861.  No-one was killed, Anderson surrendered, and the War began.

*Lincoln’s plan had worked.  Pressure on the South had pushed the CSA into firing the first shot, and the North was outraged.  On 15 April, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion by force.  This in turn infuriated the South, who felt they were about to be invaded.  In both the North and South the majority of the people felt the time for reason had ended and rejected further attempts at negotiation and compromise.  Army and militia recruiters got more volunteers than they could handle, to the point they had to turn them away.   

*Moreover, this call for volunteers offended the Border States, who had not wanted to leave the Union, but were willing to let their fellow Southerners go if they wanted to, and would not let the South be invaded by the armies of the tyrant Lincoln, especially as he would have to march through them to do so.

*On 17 April, Virginia seceded and the Confederate capital was soon moved to Richmond, less than 100 miles from Washington.  In May, North Carolina and Arkansas followed.  On 8 June, Tennessee joined the Confederacy, too, despite strong opposition in East Tennessee (there had also been opposition in Middle Tennessee before Lincoln's call for volunteers).

*In parts of many Southern states, especially in the Appalachian Mountains, poor whites did not want to go to war to prop up the wealthy slave-owners who they felt had dismembered the Union. 

*In western Virginia, especially the northern panhandle near Wheeling, some delegates, disappointed by Richmond’s decision, lobbied for the creation of a new state.  Conventions were held to consider the secession of West Virginia from seceded Virginia.  Soon Federal troops moved in and ‘assisted’ in the process of voting for delegates to these conventions.  39 counties chose to secede, but a total of 50 were selected for economic and military reasons, and in 1861 West Virginia asked for admission to the Union as a new state, and was accepted as such in 1863.

*In Maryland and Kentucky there were strong pro-Southern movements, particularly in Baltimore where troops from Boston passing through town on 19 April, 1861 were attacked by war protestors, and fired into the crowd, making the first casualties of the war civilians killed by the US Army.

*In Maryland, the governor supported secession and the legislature opposed it.  The Kentucky the reverse was true, and as a compromise the governor declared Kentucky a neutral state, uninvolved in any warfare.  Lincoln promptly invaded.  He also suspended the writ of habeas corpus in both states, allowing him to arrest and imprison without a warrant anyone he wanted to, including, the governors and legislatures of both Kentucky and Maryland.  Chief Justice Taney said this was illegal and unconstitutional, so Lincoln threatened to lock him up, too.

*Delaware considered secession, with the governor and one county in the state for it, and the other two counties opposed.  The Pro-Southern side called for help from the CSA but none came in time.  Pro-Union militia in the state forced the Pro-Southern militia to surrender without firing a shot. 

*In Missouri a secession convention was held, but no ordinance was passed, and the Union maintained a strong presence there.  Nonetheless, Missouri remained deeply divided, and each of the Border States on both sides would experience an internal civil war, although Missouri’s was one of the worst. 

*East Tennessee and Western North Carolina also saw destruction of public and private property (including most of the railroad bridges in East Tennessee), bloody fighting in the woods, and massacres in remote hollows. 

*Fighting continued in Bleeding Kansas, too, and even in Indian Territory (which was below the old Missouri Compromise line and where many of the Five Civilised Tribes owned slaves), where most tribes divided into Union and Confederate factions based on existing internal rivalries (the leader of the Confederate Cherokees and the last Confederate general to surrender in 1865 was Stand Watie, a relative of a signer of the Treaty of New Echota, while the leader of the Unionist Cherokee was John Ross, who had tried to oppose Removal).

*Ultimately, there were slave-owners in the Union and many non-slave-owners in the South.  When the War began, it was not a fight to free the slaves, but a fight to preserve the Union or the rights of the several sovereign states, depending on one’s point of view, and this debate split not only the country, but states and even families.  That unsuccessful compromiser, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky had two sons, and one fought for the North and one for the South.

*When the War began, both sides had advantages, although in a material sense, the North had more.














Good roads

22,000 miles of RR

Many canals

Bad roads

9,000 miles of RR

Few canals

Sea power


No navy


22 million

5.5 million white

3.5 million slaves

During the course of the War, about 2.9 million Americans would serve in either the US or CS military, almost 2 million in the USA and 950,000 in the CSA.


*Established government


*Superior economy and diversified industry


*Excellent transportation system


*Large population


*800,000 immigrants to replace losses

*European help?  CSA offered tariff-free cotton to Britain

*Defensive war

*Interior lines

*Superior morale

*The Cause:  Independence, Home, and Family (although States’ Rights would also prove to be a problem)


*Military tradition, strong state militia system, several state military schools, brilliant leaders

*When the War began, the Commanding General of the US Army was that veteran of 1812, the Conqueror of Mexico, ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’ himself, Winfield Scott, the highest-ranked officer in the US Army since Washington.  By now, though, he was 75 years old, and had been admired for so long that officers under his command were named after him.  At his age he frequently fell asleep in meetings and was so fat he could not get on a horse. 

*Knowing that he could not command an army in the field, he told Lincoln that the man who should command the Union Armies was his old aide from the Mexican War, Robert E. Lee of Virginia.  Lee was offered the job on 17 April, 1861, but declined, refusing to draw a sword against his native state, which was voting on secession that very day. 

*Instead, command of Federal troops in Washington was given to General Irvin McDowell, a supply officer with no experience leading troops in combat.
*Nonetheless, Scott was the man with the plan, specifically, what came to be called the Anaconda Plan, so-called because it was meant to choke off and strangle the South slowly but surely, like its name-snake. 

*First, the US Navy would surround the South, blockading the Confederacy to prevent it from selling cotton or importing desperately needed supplies, such as British repeating rifles. 

*Second, the US would seize the Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy in half. 

*Only when the South had been weakened in this way would it be seriously invaded; Scott’s original plan focused on devastating the Southern interior, while later versions of the plan, more interested in a dramatic victory, shouted ‘On to Richmond!’  Most Yankees (like most Southerners) thought the War would be over quickly, and, although they implemented the blockade, they then skipped straight to the last part of the plan, thinking the rest too slow and boring.  Indeed, the term 'Anaconda Plan' was first applied in derision by people who wanted faster action.

*In the end, the plan was successful, and although he had been forced into retirement by ambitious younger generals, Scott lived to see its fulfilment.

*Despite this plan, and despite the North’s obvious advantages, the South seemed to have a good chance, especially early on.  Not only were Southerners on the whole much more willing to fight than were most Northerners, many European powers were openly sympathetic.

*The crowned heads of Europe had long disapproved of American democracy, and felt both cultural and economic ties with the Cotton Kingdom.

*British textile mills imported 75% of their cotton from the American South.  The Emperor of France was also sympathetic to the South, as were most major European powers with the exception of Russia.

*Southerners hoped that foreign aid would help them as it had their ancestors in the first War for Independence, and counted on the Royal Navy to break the blockade.  Although some British vessels did operate as blockade runners and covert aid and assistance was given to the CSA by the British Empire, no European country ever officially recognised the Confederacy.

*This was in large part due to the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the reading, working, and voting public of Britain.  Furthermore, the British had been buying excess cotton in the years immediately after the Crimean War, and now had a surplus on which they could temporarily rely.  When they felt more pinched later in the war, they would simply increased their influence over cotton-producing Egypt and India.  The British also found they needed the North.  The North had an overabundance of grain during this period, and the British suffered a series of bad harvests, and needed American wheat more than they needed American cotton.

*In the first years of the War, however, it was not obvious that Britain would not intervene.  On 8 November, 1861, the USS San Jacinto stopped the British mail-ship Trent on the high seas north of Cuba.  On board were two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell.  The US seized them and the British were incensed that anyone might stop their vessels to seize passengers.  War preparations began and redcoats shipped out for Canada.  In keeping with Seward’s policy of public posturing and backroom dealing, after a time, Mason and Slidell were allowed to go to Britain.  Lincoln’s words were ‘one war at a time.’

*Yankees were also upset about Confederate commerce-raiders, most of which were built in Britain.  Many had British crews and Confederate officers.  Although they fought the United States Navy, they mostly attacked US merchant ships, doing to them on the high seas what the US Navy was doing to Confederate merchants who tried to slip through the blockade. 

*The most famous of these ships was the CSS Alabama, which captured or destroyed over 60 Federal ships in all the oceans of the world.  In 1864 the Alabama was destroyed by the USS Kearsarge off the coast of France, but commerce raiding continued, and, indeed, the last Confederate unit to surrender was CSS Shenandoah, which was surrendered in Liverpool on 6 November, 1865.  The British built over 250 ships for the Confederacy over the course of the War.  In return some Yankees considered attacking Canada, which was, in fact, the base of some Confederate operations.

*The Union nearly did go to war with Britain over the Laird Rams.  Built by John Laird and Sons, the same firm the built the Alabama, these heavily armoured ships were meant to ram and sink the Union blockading fleet, opening up Northern cities to Confederate naval bombardment.  The US ambassador to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, grandson of President John Adams, threatened war again, and the British chose not to deliver the rams.  In 1872, Britain paid Americans $15.5 million for damage done by commerce raiders during the War.

*19 October, 1864, a group of Confederates operating out of Canada invaded the town of St Albans, Vermont, robbing three banks and making off with $200,000.  Later, the same town would be used by about 3,500 Irish-born Fenians as a point from which they invaded Canada in 1866 in the hope of seizing it from the British and setting up an Irish Free State.  This attempt failed, as did similar efforts in 1870 and 1871, but neither improved Anglo-American relations along the Canadian border.  One response to the first of these attacks, and to the growing threat of America in general, was the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, uniting most of Britain’s Canadian colonies under one government.

*The French Emperor, Napoleon III also tried to take advantage of the Union’s distraction from world events to violate the Monroe Doctrine conquering Mexico.  After doing so in 1863 (despite a setback on Cinco de Mayo, 1862), he set up the Austrian Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian (brother of the Emperor Franz Josef) as Emperor of Mexico, where he had support among conservative elements, but not the majority of Mexicans.  After the War, Seward reminded France of the Monroe Doctrine and threatened to march the 900,000-man US Army into Mexico unless Napoleon III withdrew his support.  He did so, offering to take Maximilian with him, but Maximilian stood by his supporters until his overthrow and execution by liberal forces in the country.

This page last updated 14 July, 2020.
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