The South’s Slide to Secession

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

The election of 1860 concluded with Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans triumphant. The great question facing the United States: How would the South react? Take a closer look at the Lower South’s immediate move toward secession.

Wood engraving
Secession Convention held at Institute Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, Monday, Nov. 12, 1860

Most white Southerners, certainly most white Southerners in the Deep South or the Lower South, read the election returns as a clear-cut victory for those in the North who hoped to put an end to slavery, “the peculiar institution” as it was called in the 19th century.

A Richmond newspaper summed up the feelings of many people across the South: “A party founded on the single sentiment of hatred to African slavery is now the controlling power. No claptrap about the Union can alter this or weaken its force.”

Republicans pursuing the abolishment of slavery was the feeling on the part of this newspaper editors and on the part of the white South.

The Start of Secession

The first published Confederate imprint of secession.
South Carolina was the first state to declare secession on December 20, 1860.

Contrary to what most Republicans expected and in contrast to how the white South had reacted in the past to perceived threats from the North, the states in the Lower South moved very quickly toward secession in the wake of Lincoln’s election. South Carolina called immediately for a convention to consider secession, and, within another six weeks, the rest of the Lower South had followed suit. Each of the seven Lower South states voted to leave the Union, within a very brief period.

Learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of the Confederacy

South Carolina was the first state to declare secession, passing its ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860. The official vote was 169 to 0 in South Carolina to leave the Union. Next was Mississippi on January 9, 1861. The vote: 85 to 15. Then came Florida, the next day, on January 10. The vote: 62 to 7.

Alabama followed on January 11. The vote: 61 to 39—a much closer vote that reflected the divisions within that state. There were tremendous geographical divisions in terms of how Alabamians viewed the sectional crisis. For example, the hill country of northern Alabama reacted very differently than the Black Belt counties did.

Georgia was next on January 19. Its vote: 208 to 89. Next out was Louisiana, which left on January 26 with a vote of 113 to 17.

Sam Houston’s Great Refusal

Sam Houston, Democratic Senator from Texas
Governor Sam Houston refused to recognize the Secession Convention, which met in Austin in January 1861.

The final Deep South state to take up the issue and to vote to leave was Texas, which voted on the 1st of February 1861 to leave the Union.

Texas left over the strenuous objections of Governor Sam Houston, the most famous man in the state and the great hero from the days of the Texas Revolution. Sam Houston was a staunch Unionist, and his staunch opinions illustrate the fact that not everybody in the Deep South favored secession.

Learn more about Lincoln’s diplomatic successes during the Civil War

Houston refused to recognize the Secession Convention, which met in Austin in January 1861. After the state voted to go out of the Union, Houston’s days were numbered. He was removed from office.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Houston continued to insist that Texans owed no allegiance to the Confederacy. But he was a voice in the wilderness, or at least he was in a distinct minority in Texas as the secession movement rolled on.

Houston retired to his home as a very unhappy and embittered man because of the road that Texas had taken in this crisis after Lincoln’s election. The Secession Convention in Texas simply declared the governor’s office vacant, and the lieutenant governor replaced Houston.

Learn more about everyday hardships on the Confederate homefront

Very quickly, by February 1, there were seven states out of the Union. The entire tier of Deep South states had decided they could not remain in the Union, and they were gone.

From the lecture series The American Civil War, taught by Professor Gary Gallagher

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Images courtesy of:
by Library of Congress via https://www.loc.gov/item/99614053/
by Charleston Mercury [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons