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What Happened in February 1861? ©
The Confederate Government Is Formed
On February 6, 1861, the six seceded states—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, soon to be joined by Texas—sent delegates to Montgomery, Alabama, to attend a constitutional convention. Two days later a constitution was adopted which mirrored, in its language, the Constitution of the United States.
On February 9th, the convention chose Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederate States of America, with Alexander H. Stevens, of Georgia, as Vice-President. A week later, on February 18, Mr. Davis appeared on the steps of the Alabama State House and delivered his inaugural address, stating a hope for peace, and relying for it on a principle of nature, not of law:
“I enter upon the duties of the office with the hope that the beginning of our career, as a Confederacy, may not be obstructed by hostile opposition to our separate existence, which, with the blessing of Providence, we intend to maintain.
“Our present political position. . .illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established.” In the case of the Union, of course, those “ends” were expressed to be: to establish “justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves (not including African Negro slaves) and our posterity.” The Constitution of the Confederacy embraced these same predicates as the basis of its government.
President Davis, in his address, explained the theory of American government as he understood it, this way:
“The right proclaimed at the birth of the United States. . . recognizes in the people the power to resume the authority delegated. Thus the sovereign States here represented have proceeded to form this Confederacy; and it is by abuse of language that their act has been denominated a revolution. They formed a new alliance, but within each State its government has remained, so that the rights of persons and property have not been disturbed. The agent through which they communicated with foreign nations has changed, but this does not necessarily interrupt their international relations. . . .
If we may not hope to avoid war, we may at least expect that posterity will acquit us if we fail”
The Confederate President’s Cabinet
Mr. Davis selected as his cabinet, Mr. Toombs of Georgia,
Secretary of State, Mr. Mallory of Florida, Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Benjamin
of Louisiana, Attorney General, Mr. Reagan of Texas, Postmaster General, Mr.
Memminger of South Carolina, Secretary of the Treasury, and Mr. Walker of
Alabama, Secretary of war.
President Davis Sends Envoys to Washington
On February 25th, President Davis appointed three men—A.B. Roman, Martin J. Crawford, and John Forsyth—to act as his envoys or “commissioners,” to travel to Washington and present themselves to the Union government; in Davis’s words, “to the end that by negotiation all questions between the two governments might be resolved peaceably.” Mr. Forsyth arrived first in Washington, on February 27th , the day the Peace Convention finally adjourned. He attempted to present to President Buchanan a letter from President Davis, but Buchanan declined to meet with him or receive the letter, on the ground that his term of office had all but expired, so that the matter was for his successor, Mr. Lincoln, to resolve.
President Buchanan Stands on the Defensive
On February 5th, the sloop of war, U.S.S. Brooklyn, arrived at Pensacola, Florida, with troops, munitions, and provisions on board. Waiting for her were U.S. Navy warships—Sabine, Macedonian, Wyandotte, and St. Louis—called to the Gulf of Mexico from distant stations. Between the time the Brooklyn went to sea and its arrival at Pensacola, President Buchanan had rejected South Carolina Attorney General Hayne’s effort to negotiate the purchase of Fort Sumter from the government, and he had received ex-President John Tyler of Virginia, who arrived in late January with a request from the State of Virginia that Buchanan maintain the status quo, pending Virginia’s effort to convene a “Peace Convention” in Washington, to be attended by delegates from all the States; a last ditch effort to achieve a political resolution of the crisis caused by secession.
In consequence of his communications with Tyler, President Buchanan agreed to a truce at Pensacola which his secretaries of war and navy jointed communicated to Captain Vodges, commander of the troops on board the Brooklyn.
Sir: In consequence of assurances received, that Fort Pickens will not be attacked, you are instructed not to land the company on board the Brooklyn, unless you see preparations being made for an attack. The provisions necessary for the supply of the fort you will land.
J. Holt, Secretary of War
Isaac Toucey, Secretary of the Navy
About the same time as this, South Carolina Attorney General Hayne left Washington, his effort to negotiate the purchase of Fort Sumter having been rejected by Buchanan. During Hayne’s stay in Washington, a truce existed at Fort Sumter, through an agreement made between Major Anderson and Governor Pickens that the State would allow provisions to be delivered to the fort from Charleston, and in exchange Anderson would not act offensively, pending the result of Haynes’s effort at Washington.
At this point, President Buchanan held several conferences with General Scott, other officers, and a civilian named G.V. Fox, who offered a plan of entering Charleston Harbor during the night with troops in small boats. Buchanan determined to prepare an expedition, under the command of a naval officer, composed of “a few small steamers” which “might enter the harbor at night and anchor, if possible, under the guns of Fort Sumter.”
While these conferences were being held, the engineering officer at Fort Sumter, Lt. J.G. Foster, sent almost daily reports to the War Department describing the frenetic activity the Confederates were engaged in, building artillery batteries. His diagrams tell the story:
The expedition did not sail. General Scott had made it clear to Buchanan that it was impossible to expect success in reinforcing Sumter, using such a small and defenseless force as Fox had suggested. In his opinion, nothing less than a full fleet of gun ships, capable of suppressing artillery fire from the Confederate batteries encircling the fort, along with a body of troops numbering 20,000, to land on the beaches, was required. This force Buchanan plainly did not have. Influencing Buchanan’s decision, too, was the fact that the State of Virginia had sent an emissary to Governor Pickens, who reported that South Carolina would respect Virginia’s plea that no hostile act be done at Charleston while the Peace Convention was underway at Washington. President Buchanan’s decision was conveyed to Major Anderson by Secretary of War Holt.
WAR DEPARTMENT, February 23, 1861
I state distinctly that you hold Fort Sumter as you held Fort Moultrie, under the verbal instructions communicated by Major Buell, subsequently modified by instructions dated the 21st of December.
In my letter to you of January 10th, I said: `You will continue to act strictly on the defensive and to avoid a collision with the hostile forces by which you are surrounded.’
The policy thus indicated must still govern your conduct. The President is not disposed at the present moment to change the instructions. . . This will be but a redemption of the implied pledge contained in my letter on behalf of the President to Attorney General Hayne, in which, speaking of Sumter, it is said: `The people of South Carolina have nothing to fear from Sumter’s guns, unless, in the absence of all provocation, they should assault it and seek its destruction.’
The labors of the Peace Convention have not yet been closed, and the presence of that body here adds another to the powerful motives already existing for the adoption of every measure for avoiding a collision.”
J. Holt, Secretary of War
And again, on February 28, 1861:
Major Anderson: The Secretary of War directs me to say that the Peace Convention today agreed upon a basis of a settlement of our political difficulties, which was reported to Congress. The Secretary entertains the hope that nothing will occur now of a hostile character.
S. Cooper, Adjutant General
Lincoln Travels by Train Roundabout to Washington
During the first three weeks of February, President-elect Abraham Lincoln made his journey from Springfield to Washington. He took his time coming; stopping at Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus, Pittsburg, New York, and Philadelphia. In the course of his zigzag trip he met in private conference with the Republican governors at the helm of the State governments in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, gathering their support for what he told them would be coming next. In his public speeches, he made conflicting statements: though he intended to hold the forts of the Union he saw no need for war; indeed, he said, “there is no occasion for alarm as nobody’s been hurt.” From these utterances, the newspapers reported that Lincoln considered the country to be in no danger, that there would be no occasion to use force.
Reaching Philadelphia, he told the audience surrounding him at Independence Hall that he could see no need for war unless. . . “I may say in advance that there will be no bloodshed unless it is forced upon the government.” How “forced?” “The government will not use force, unless force is used against it?” Moving then to Harrisburg, Lincoln met with Governor Curtin, and to the public said a few words: “With my consent, or without my great displeasure, this country shall never witness the shedding of one drop of blood by fraternal strife.” Then back to Philadelphia he went and in the night changed trains and reached Washington at dawn.
When he arrived in Washington, on February 23rd, he took rooms at the Willard Hotel—the same location where the Peace Convention was being held—and entertained the crowds of people who came to see him, touch him, and get a job from him. He was sized up by all concerned as easygoing, convivial and a bit droll.
But when he encountered one of the New York money kings in the halls of the Willard, he projected a different impression to the public altogether. Dodge, the capitalist, came to Washington with an entourage of bankers and wall streeters.
“Now,” said Dodge, “it is for you, sir, to say whether the whole nation will be plunged into bankruptcy, whether the grass shall grow in Wall Street.”
“Then, I say it shall not,” Lincoln is reported to have retorted. “If it depends upon me, the grass will grow only in the fields and meadows.”
“Then you will not go to war with the South on account of slavery?”
All merriment gone suddenly from his face, Lincoln locked eyes with Dodge and said: “I do not understand your meaning, Mr. Dodge. I will preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution until it is enforced and obeyed in every one of the United States, let the grass grow where it may.”
For a week, waiting for Inauguration Day, Lincoln went about the business of politicking; he called upon President Buchanan at the White House, shook hands with the members of Buchanan’s Cabinet, visited with Stephen Douglas, interviewed General Scott, and met with the Republicans in the Senate and House.
The Peace Convention
On January 19th, the Assembly of the State of Virginia had issued a resolution, inviting the States to send delegates to a conference in Washington, to debate measures and design a political solution to the crisis secession posed.
“Resolved, Virginia wants to employ every reasonable means to avert so dire a calamity as war between the states, and is determined to make a final effort to restore the Union and the Constitution in the spirit in which they were established by the fathers of the Republic: Therefore, an invitation is hereby extended to all such States, as are willing to unite with Virginia to adjust the present controversies, so as to afford to the people of the slaveholding states adequate guarantees for the security of their rights.”
The convention was called to order on Monday, February 1, and finally adjourned on Wednesday, February 27th. In the sessions that daily occurred between these dates, the delegates debated the elements of a plan that might induce the seceded states to return to the Union, chief among the planks was the idea that slavery not be confined to the existing slave states. Late in the course of the convention, Salmon Chase, of Ohio, a national leader of the Republican Party and soon to be Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, addressed the Convention.
“Whatever our actions may be here, dismiss the idea that all that is necessary to secure amendments to the constitution, is to secure for them the sanction of a majority in this hall.:”
“The result of the national election has been spoken of as the effect of a sudden impulse, as an irregular excitement of the public mind; that, upon reflection, the hastily-formed opinions which brought about Lincoln’s election will be changed. I cannot take this view. I believe that the election must be regarded as the triumph of principles cherished in the hearts of the people of the free states. Chief among these principles is the restriction of slavery within existing State limits; not war upon slavery within those limits, but fixed opposition to its extension beyond them. By a fair and unquestionable majority (plurality actually) we have secured that triumph. Do you think we will throw it away?
Do you say that all we propose embodies no substantial guarantees of immunity to slavery through the preservation of Federal powers? We reply that we think the Constitution as it stands, is sufficient. If you think otherwise, we are ready to join you in recommending a National Convention to propose amendments to the Constitution in the regular way. Kentucky, a slave state, has proposed such a Convention; Illinois, a free state, has joined in the proposition. Join us, then, in recommending such a Convention, and assure us that you will abide by its decision. We will join you and give a similar assurance.
The only alternative to this proposition is the proposition that the present Congress be called upon to submit to the States a thirteenth amendment embodying the amendments recommended by the committee. In order to submit these to the States by Congress, a two-thirds vote in each House is necessary. That, I venture to say, cannot be obtained. Were it otherwise, who can assure you that the proposed amendment will obtain the sanction of three-fourths of the States, without which it is a nullity?
Gentlemen say, if this proposition cannot prevail, every slave state will secede. Let me say for the people of the free states, that they will not surrender their Constitution nor give up the Union without great struggles and great sacrifices. If forced to the last extremity, the people will meet the issue as they best may; but be assured they will meet it with unity.
Gentlemen, Mr. Lincoln will be inaugurated on the 4th of March. He will take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States—the whole of it. That oath will bind him to take care that the laws be executed throughout the United States. Will secession absolve him from that oath? Will it diminish one jot its awful obligation? If the President does his duty and undertakes to enforce the laws, and secession resists, what then? War! Civil war!”
A vote then was taken on the proposition being considered—“The Union is indissoluble and no State can secede from the Union.” The Ayes were: Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The Noes were: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia. So the proposition was not agreed to.
On the last day of the Convention, the following proposition was passed and sent to the Congress for ratification. “Neither the Constitution nor any amendment thereof shall be construed to give Congress the power to regulate, abolish, or control, within any State, the relation established or recognized by the laws thereof touching persons held to labor or involuntary service therein, nor to interfere with or abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of Maryland and the owners.” The Ayes were: Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Noes were: Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. New York and Kansas were divided. So the proposition was adopted. The following delegates dissented from the votes of their states: Mr. Clay of Kentucky, Mr. Cook of Illinois, Mr. Slaughter of Indiana, Mr. Chase of Ohio.
On the day before Mr. Lincoln was swore into office, the Congress of the United States approved the proposed thirteen amendment to the Constitution, substantially in the form presented to it by the Peace Convention and, after passing it to the States for ratification, adjourned its last session; though the Senate remained in executive session to consider the new president’s appointments. All intelligent persons knew the amendment had no chance of ratification and, thus, Virginia’s effort at peace had failed.
BOOKS AVAILABLE TO READ
Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government Vol. I. Thomas Yoseloff New York (1958)
L.E. Chittenden, Debates and Proceedings of the Peace Convention, D.Appleton & Co. (1864)
Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years Vol I Charles Scribner’s Sons (1936)
T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals, The University of Wisconsin Press (1941)
Albert B. Hart, Salmon P. Chase, Chelsea House (1981)
John Niven, Salmon P. Chase, a Biography Oxford University Press (1995)
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Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
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