American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path to War - the Situation Nov 1860 – Mar 1861
When the Presidential Election of 1860 came to pass, the fate of the United States was literally at stake. If a candidate favoring slavery expansion was the winner, the United States would remain whole. If a candidate favoring slavery limitation was the winner, the southern portion of the United States would reconsider its position in the Union.
Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election on Nov 6, 1860. As mentioned in the previous article, Lincoln was in favor of restricting slavery to its current boundaries and not expanding the institution into the West.
The pro-slavery faction’s course thus became clear, and the effects of the election were nearly immediate.
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States, and small, unmanned or minimally manned U.S. military installations were soon seized by South Carolina armed forces. However, a U.S. major named Robert Anderson refused to surrender his small force in Fort Moultrie outside of Charleston, SC and, instead, evacuated it to a fortress (90% completed) on a man-made island in Charleston Harbor. This fortress was called Fort Sumter, and it was designed to be one of the most formidable fortifications in the world, with three levels of casemates (platforms for cannon) and thick masonry walls. South Carolina forces soon had this fort under a virtual siege, having quickly erected emplacements for cannon along the coast surrounding the harbor, and demanded its surrender. Here, though, the United States made a stand. Fort Sumter was not to be surrendered.
The soon-to-be-departing Buchanan administration refused to yield or abandon the fort. However, President Buchanan did not believe he could constitutionally force South Carolina to submit to U.S. authority. Therefore, he only made plans to reinforce and resupply the garrison at Fort Sumter so as to enable it to defend and sustain itself a while longer, perhaps until the new administration took office. The USS Star of the West, an unarmed civilian ship, was dispatched January 5, 1861 to fulfill this mission. When it approached the fort a few days later, on January 9, the ship was fired upon by the South Carolina artillery batteries and driven out to sea, suffering no damage. Arguably, these were the first shots fired of the war.
Other slave-holding states seceded from the United States in January – Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana - intending to join with South Carolina as a new nation, and more and more United States military installations were falling into the hands of the armed forces of these seceded states. The small, scattered U.S. Army could do very little to prevent this.
Kansas’ inclusion into the United States, as a free state, in January 1861 was a victory for the Anti-Slavery faction. Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, it was intended that the settlers of both Nebraska and Kansas territories vote on whether or not to allow slavery. With Kansas bordering slave-holding states and territories just east and south of it, the assumption was that Kansas would become a slave-holding territory. Nebraska, mostly bordered by free states and territories, assumedly would become a free territory. When the two territories were to achieve statehood, the near-parity in number of states, free and slave, would also thus be maintained. Surprisingly, Kansas became a free state, but it was too late for that to have any effect on the events of the day. This victory for the anti-slave faction simply did not make up for the loss to the country of several southern states via secession.
Texas seceded in the beginning of the month of February, 1861, thus rounding out the first wave of secession from the United States. A total of seven slave states had seceded. They joined together that same month to form a new nation – a confederacy – where the individual states had sovereignty over the federal government. The capitol of this new “country” was Montgomery, Alabama.
Lincoln’s inauguration occurred in March 1861. In his inaugural speech, Lincoln stressed that the two sides of this crisis were not enemies, but friends. However, events began to unfold that eroded any friendship that existed, and deteriorated to outright, armed belligerence.
Shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration, the secession of the southern New Mexico Territory, which became known to the fledgling Confederacy as the Confederate Territory of Arizona, added to the growing tensions.
An interesting side-note to this last secession: there was an attempt to create a Territory of Arizona, out of the western half of the Territory of New Mexico, shortly before the War began, but this was never authorized by Congress. A "de facto" Territory of Arizona existed, however, in anticipation of such a new territory being confirmed eventually, but at the time, it wasn't a federally recognized territory. It was indeed ironic that when an “Arizona” was finally created, it was done so via secession from the U.S.
The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path To War - Northern Reaction to Secession.