From Election to Sumter: How the Union Fell Apart

Historian Adam Goodheart discusses the tumultuous period between Lincoln’s election and the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter

According to historian Adam Goodheart, the media played an important role in driving the country toward secession. When people in the South spoke, people in the North heard it and vice versa. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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The Wide Awakes were a cross between a cheerleading section and a paramilitary group. They were predominantly young—in fact a number of newspaper editors mocked them and said that not only are most of the Wide Awakes too young to vote but many of them are not too old to be spanked by their mothers.

A Wide Awake march was a terrifying thing. If you were, say, a resident of Lower Manhattan you might be awakened in the night by this sound of beating drums and tramping feet. You’d rush to the window and look out, and there would be rank upon rank of marching men dressed in these long black cloaks, and you might know what weapons they were hiding beneath the cloaks. They were holding torches. Some of them might have axes strapped to their backs in honor of their candidate Lincoln.

There’s been this sort of myth that the South was the land of chivalry and military prowess and the North was the land of peaceful shopkeepers. That really was not true; there was a strong military tradition in the North, and at the same time that the Southerners were preparing themselves for battle, the Northerners were too.

What attempts were made by Congress to stave off disunion and civil war?

Many if not most people assumed that things could be settled in Congress, because things had been settled in Congress before. John J. Crittenden, a senator from Kentucky, put together a compromise package. Crittenden came from a slave state. He was a slaveholder himself; he was not one of the great Southern planters, but he owned a handful of slaves. He had been born in 1787, the year of the Constitution, and he was from that older generation of Americans who were committed to that ideal of national unity in a way that the younger generation weren’t. Crittenden’s six-part compromise started with the idea of extending the Missouri Compromise line across the country.

But things had really moved beyond that at that point and there was simply too strong a radical contingent on each side within Congress. The radicals within Congress on both sides were more radical than the voters themselves.

The rhetoric of disunion and inflexibility had created an echo chamber in which people kept upping the ante—each side against the other—saying things that were so extremist it was impossible to back down. Almost from the minute that the Crittenden Compromise was proposed, there were senators like Louis T. Wigfall of Texas who were saying there is absolutely nothing that the North could do to appease them.

How did lame duck President James Buchanan respond to the South’s secession?

Buchanan in some ways was a similar figure to Taney. Buchanan was somebody who was very invested in the way that business was done in Washington. He really believed in a statesmanlike approach to governing and compromise and in the power of reason and argument. Buchanan thought that it was completely illogical for the South to leave the Union simply because of the election of a president they did not like. It was also completely illogical for the North to be so inflexible toward the South. He thought that all he had to do was convince each side in a logical manner.

He immediately sat down to write his annual message to Congress—at that point the president, rather than give a spoken address to Congress would write a lengthy document. Buchanan writes this document that ends up running well over 10,000 words in which he sets out very rationally the arguments for the South not to secede, but he also says at the same time that the federal government has no constitutional right to coerce the South back into the Union. It was a completely lame document that satisfied no one.


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