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Posted at 10:21 AM ET, 01/24/2011

Chandra Manning: Did the seceding states believe they could leave peacefully without provoking a war?

By Chandra Manning

Associate professor of history at Georgetown University


Secession meant war, as almost everyone in 1860 and 1861 knew, which was part of why so many white Southerners opposed secession. The way war might have been avoided would have been for other states not to secede; in the Nullification Crisis of 1828-1832, secession had simply withered on the vine when no other state took South Carolina’s side. But once it became apparent that the seceded states would not voluntarily revoke their ordinances of secession, and especially once the four late-seceding states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) joined the Confederacy, few observers would have seen viable alternatives to war, which was why the Confederate government in Montgomery immediately put the Confederacy on a war footing.

Confederates in 1860 and 1861 were no strangers to world history and knew as well as anyone that governments do not typically consent agreeably to their own rupture, nor do populations cheerfully accede to the seizure by one part of the population of property held in common by the entire population. The seizure by the states, then, of federal forts and ports (constructed and supported with national resources) was unlikely to be let pass without a fuss, especially in states that had started out as territories, and therefore the national installations there had been U.S. property even before there was a state of, say, Alabama or Mississippi.

Confederates also knew the particularities of the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century. It might sound odd or even hollow to us to hear northern voices in 1860 insist that either the Union had to survive or the hopes of the whole world for self-government would be dashed because despots everywhere need only point to the smash-up of the United States to prove that self-government did not work, but those claims did not sound odd to Confederates; most leading secessionists had served in the national government in Washington and were well acquainted with the high stakes many Northerners and their political representatives believed rested with the survival of the Union.

Finally, we need not content ourselves with guessing what was on Confederates’ minds to determine if they expected war. A look at their actions will do. In 1860, the United States Army consisted of about 16,000 troops, most of whom were in the West. One of the Confederate Congress’s earliest actions was to answer the request for troops that Jefferson Davis included in his February 1861 Inaugural Address by authorizing the raising of 100,000 men, 60,000 of which had been raised by the time shots rang out at Fort Sumter in April. The only reason for numbers so much higher than the usual peacetime number was the expectation of war.

By Chandra Manning  | January 24, 2011; 10:21 AM ET
Categories:  Views  | Tags:  Chandra Manning  
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Next: Dennis Frye: Did the seceding states believe they could leave peacefully without provoking a war?


If the northern states were so against secession, why were they so often willing to secede themselves when things weren't to their liking?

Posted by: Sherando | January 26, 2011 4:40 AM | Report abuse

The answer to the question of why the Northern states would oppose Southern secession when they, on at least 4 separate occasions, had threatened to do the same thing, is quite simple. You do what is in your best interest at the time. If something is in your best social, political and economic interests, you do it. If someone else does it and it happens to conflict with your social, political and economic interests, you oppose it.

In 1811, Massachusetts Congressman Josiah Quincy publicly and loudly advocated “dissolution of the union” over the admission of Louisiana into the Union. Admission of a new state which would vote with the southern voting block would have upset the balance of power in Congress. Thus, it was in his best interest to threaten to secede.

Still alive and kicking 50 years later however, he wholeheartedly supported Lincoln’s decision to invade the South. It seems that one changes one’s tune according to whether or not the condition suits or does not suit them. In 1811, secession suited his interests. In 1861, when someone else was seceding, it did not.

Posted by: wildbill4dixie | January 28, 2011 8:44 AM | Report abuse

One would presume that the South accepted that the provisions of the Constitution were sacrosanct , and believed that the North would not violate said provisions.

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Posted by: TerryMKl | January 31, 2011 5:07 PM | Report abuse

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