Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

The Civil War: Was secession illegal?

There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution or any other legal document which precludes any state or group of states from seceding from the United States. This was also true in 1861. Today, countries are split and otherwise reconfigured almost daily and the United States has evolved as the world's moral leader in supporting rights of peoples to declare themselves independent. This is a comfortable position for U.S. politicians to take... as long as secession occurs in Europe, Asia, South America, or Africa.

In 1860 controversy between the North and South raged over tariff laws. Also, the North had begun to openly defy fugitive slave laws. All across the North, states refused to honor warrants for return of slaves -- an attitude in direct defiance of federal law and of the Constitution which clearly mandates that each state must recognize Constitutional laws of all other states. Additionally, the federal government refused to intervene on behalf of the South.

A present day analogy would be if those states which have no death penalty refused to enforce fugitive warrants from states with the death penalty. Refusing to honor such warrants would create a Constitutional crisis similar to the one which existed in 1860. Would the question then be over the death penalty, or would the question be over obeying the Constitution and the law of the land?

In December 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union and other states followed early in 1861. The South was irate over federal laws restricting exports and imports from Southern harbors. The laws were enforced by naval blockades at Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. Of course the South was angry over the fugitive slave laws, but that effected less than 3% of the people in the South. The tariff laws effected all Southerners.

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. He had not given any indication that he was opposed to slavery within those states where slavery was legal. He had, however, given several signals that he regarded secession as illegal. He had further indicated that he would not recognize secessionist decrees and would continue enforcement of Federal law everywhere within the United States. The South bitterly opposed to his election.

To assert federal authority Lincoln sent ships into Charleston, SC, harbor to supply the U.S. Army post of Fort Sumter and to assure that the United States Flag flew over the fort. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces under General Pierre G. T. Beauregard attacked Fort Sumter. The Union troops surrendered on April 13 and evacuated the fort the next day.

The South began a war with virtually no iron foundries, steel making capability, textile manufacturing, credit, or money, and with a war raging, both sides needed instant cash. The North owned almost every ship, river boat, and train. The South had plenty of food, tobacco and cotton, but the North controlled the established ports for foreign trade along with existing lines of credit. With ships the North could embargo Southern ports. However, the North had lost the important trade commodities of cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane. Ignoring the Constitution, Congress enacted an income tax which not only supplied cash but served as collateral for foreign loans. The South was left on its own.

The South, although doomed from the outset, was still grossly under-rated by Northerners who thought the whole affair would be over in three months. By July, 1861, Union General Irvin McDowell moved into eastern Virginia along a creek called Bull Run near Manassas, about 25 miles west of Washington, D.C. A Confederate army under Beauregard faced McDowell at Manassas while General Joseph E. Johnston commanded Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley. Those forces, along with other scattered troops, added up to about 35,000 Confederates. In July 1861, McDowell approached Manassas. McDowell thought his troops could destroy Beauregard's forces while the Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley kept Johnston occupied. But just before the battle Johnston slipped away and traveled by rail to join Beauregard.

The opposing forces, both composed mainly of poorly trained volunteers, clashed on July 21. The North launched several assaults. During one attack, the Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson stood his ground so firmly that he received the nickname "Stonewall." After halting several assaults, Beauregard counterattacked and the tired Union forces fled toward Washington in wild retreat. After the battle, some Southerners regretted not moving on to capture Washington but such an attempt would probably have failed.

The North now realized that it faced a long fight and that the war would not be over in three months. Confederate confidence in final victory soared and remained high for the next two years.

The North adopted a strategy to surround the South by controlling the Mississippi River and Confederate seaports. This presented a relative easy task from the sea but capture of the river was another matter. Union troops assembled in Illinois and began to move south between Kentucky and Missouri, then on between Tennessee and Arkansas, eventually capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi in May, 1863. This completely isolated the South but, astonishingly, the Confederacy fought on for another two years.

After the fall of Vicksburg the South was fighting along three major fronts at once: West from Mississippi to defend against invasion from the river; Northwest from Tennessee against invasion; and North. Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas were fighting alone west of the Mississippi. The rest of the Confederacy had been reduced to eight states but even those were not fully effective because most of Tennessee and parts of Northern Virginia were under the control of Union forces. In March 1864 Grant became general-in-chief of the Union armies and soon thereafter Sherman began his march into Georgia which was the beginning of the end.

During the war the South had virtually no seaports and only limited access to imports through New Orleans. Meanwhile the North had unchallenged foreign trade as well as a strong and stable federal government to assess and collect an income tax. Essentially, it was an unfair fight.

The war ended with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 although the last troops did not give up until May 26th.

Other notes about the war:

Eleven states fought for the Confederacy. They were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Twenty-three states fought for the North. They were California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

The territories of Colorado, Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington also fought for the Union.

Secessionist groups set up separate state governments in both Kentucky and Missouri, even though those states stayed in the Union. Those groups also sent delegates to the Confederate Congress which accounts for the 13 stars in the Confederate flag even though only 11 states actually joined the Confederacy.

Some people in border states supported the North, but others believed in the Southern cause. The heaviest fighting of the war occurred in the border states.

Border states on the Southern side were Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

Border states that supported the North were Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

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