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

Peace Convention at Fort Scott
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

You seem to identify the Dred Scott decision [which declared that all black Americans –regardless of whether or not they were slaves-- were not protected by the constitution as citizens] as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back on the road to disunion. What was it about Dred Scott that jolted the country out of a period of relative calm?

The problem with the Dred Scott decision is that it really addressed the issue of slavery head-on in a way that it hadn’t been addressed before. The previous compromises had all attempted to paper over these big issues of racial equality or inequality and citizenship—what it meant to be American, what the future of slavery might be. With the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney opened up several cans of worms that people had deliberately left sealed for some time.

He thought that he was going to solve the issue once and for all. He was a very thoughtful man, a very scholarly man. I don’t think that he was an ill-intentioned man; he genuinely believed in his capacity to solve this in a very rational and scholarly way. Of course he turned out to be completely wrong.

The country had four major candidates for president in 1860; Who were they and where was their base of support?

The Democratic Party split in half at two very rancorous conventions in Baltimore and Charleston. The Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats couldn’t agree on a candidate, so there literally was a walkout by the Southerners who ended up nominating John Breckinridge, the Southern vice president at that time. The Northern wing of the Democratic Party got behind Stephen A. Douglas. Meanwhile, at that time, John Bell also came in as a candidate for the Constitutional Union Party. Basically those three candidates split up the moderate vote to one degree or another and left Lincoln with a clear field.

What did people know about Abraham Lincoln when he was elected president?

People didn’t know very much at all. It’s hard for us to imagine today since Lincoln has become such a gigantic figure in our history just how obscure he was. He was really by far the most obscure person ever to achieve a presidency, one of the most obscure ever to become a major candidate for the presidency. He literally hadn’t been to Washington in over a decade. He had served a single term as a congressman from Illinois. He was unknown not just to the voters, but also to the entire power structure in Washington.

People didn’t even know how to spell Lincoln’s name. He was referred to, including in the headline in the New York Times announcing his nomination, as Abram Lincoln. Even after he was elected, many newspapers continued to refer to him that way for a while.

Who were the Wide Awakes?

It hasn’t been appreciated the extent to which that campaign was truly a grass-roots phenomenon—one that quickly came to stand for much more than the party bosses of the Republican Party had expected it to.

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.

The Atlantic Monthly, run by James Russell Lowell, called it the “last juiceless squeeze of the orange” from this sort of intellectually and politically depleted Buchanan administration.

And what about Lincoln? Did he make any public statements during this time?

From the time that he was nominated back in May as the Republican candidate all the way up until he left Springfield, Ill., in February of 1861, so the better part of an eventful year later, Lincoln pretty much kept his mouth shut. People, especially other Republicans, begged him to make some sort of public statement that would soothe the unsettled nation and would give people some kind of reassurance that he was in fact not a Republican radical, and he refused to do that.

Lincoln said that any assurances of conservatism he gave were not going to be believed anyhow; he said that his words would be twisted no matter what he said—as indeed his words had been misused in the past. And he also said that he was simply gathering information about the crisis so he could be fully informed. It’s a little bit odd for somebody who basically stayed in his office in Springfield to say that he was gathering information.

Lincoln did have a number of Republican leaders and even some Democrats come to visit him in Springfield to have private conversations with him, but he certainly wasn’t budging from there. There are many signs that he actually underestimated the gravity of the crisis. He gave several speeches on the course of his roundabout railway journey from Springfield to Washington in February 1861. He would stop at every major city and give a speech. Each was typically a sort of extemporaneous talk, and in a couple of places, notably Columbus, Ohio, he said, “Well, we have nothing to be afraid of. No one is hurting—no one is suffering, yet.” People just thought this was amazing that as the country was coming apart, plunging into a serious financial crisis, and as people on both sides were arming for civil war, that he should say that no one was suffering.

So we have the judiciary branch stoking the fire of disunion with the Dred Scott decision, the legislative branch reflecting the strife with angry outbursts and feeble proposals of compromise, and the executive branch incapacitated by the transition between Lincoln and Buchanan. What about the so-called fourth branch of government, the media? What role did it play?

The media played an incredibly important role in driving the country toward secession. This was an era of a communications revolution. It was a moment of new technologies like the telegraph, the advent of cheap, mass printing and a huge proliferation of newspapers, not just weekly ones but daily newspapers in many, many cities in both parts of the country.

When someone in Charleston said something, the people in Massachusetts heard it and vice versa. Both sides were appalled by the degree of vehemence in the rhetoric that was being said in each section against the other. I think it had an incredible polarizing effect. The way that an editor or a politician wins a reputation is to say things that are completely outrageous that will be quoted all around the country.

Was there Northern support for secession?

It seems amazing to us today that there were people in the North, including most of the intransigently antislavery voices either willing to accept secession or actually pro-Southern secession. There were people like Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison who were ready to say, “Well, this will remove the taint of slavery from our national banner. No longer will the American flag stand for bondage—it will let us be able to claim a pure commitment to freedom in a way that we never have before.” It was a fairly selfish thinking. They cared more about not being morally tainted than they seemed to care about actually liberating the slaves.

There was a significant contingent of people in the North, not just the John Brown radicals anymore, who were ready to say, “We’re going to put our collective foot down and say that we are tired of compromising with the South. Not only are we tired of compromising with the South, but we are ready to fight and risk our lives in order not to have to continue to compromise.”

How was slavery, that “peculiar institution,” embedded in the American economy? And did that create a financial reason on behalf of Northerners to prevent war?

Just two days before the election day in 1860, an editorial in the New York Herald, which was one of the most important newspapers in the whole country, said by electing an antislavery president like Lincoln, we will be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. It reminded Northerners how much of the Northern economy was based on the cotton grown in the South being milled into cloth in the great textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in New England.

A lot of the shipping industry in New York was based on the fact that it was largely Northern ships that would take the cotton bales from Southern ports to European ports and goods from the North down to the South. Northern manufacturers made the cloth for slaves’ clothing. Midwestern farmers grew the corn and raised the hogs that were shipped downriver to feed the slaves on the plantations.

The Northern economy was enmeshed with slavery in many different ways. Northern banks and insurance companies to a degree owned slaves themselves through mortgages and policies.

We forget today that slaves were not simply labor, but they were capital. The price of slaves in the years before the Civil War spiked to the point where in 1860 the combined value of slaves in the South was larger than the value of industry and railroads in the entire country. It was highly unlikely that the Southerners were going to divest themselves of their slaves willingly; slavery was flourishing as it never had before.

Goodheart’s book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, will be published by Knopf in April 2011. He is the director of the Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College and is currently blogging about the Civil War for the New York Times at

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