One hundred and fifty years ago today the state of South Carolina seceded from the Union thus putting into motion a chain of events which culminated in four of the bloodiest years in American history. There was no debate at all among the 170 delegates who assembled in Charleston, South Carolina to discuss the matter. (The reason why the secession convention met in Charleston instead of the state capitol in Columbia was because of a smallpox outbreak was taking place there in Columbia at the time). The ordinance of secession passed unanimously and was immediately followed by great public celebrations.
If you visit Charleston, South Carolina today (and I recommend that you should because it is a very quaint and beautiful Southern city) you will find when you visit many of the historic homes and mansions there a copy of the ordinance of secession signed by an ancestor of the person who once owned the home. New Englanders liked to boast about how their ancestors signed the Mayflower Compact. South Carolinians like to boast about their ancestors signed the ordinance of secession.
In the months that followed ten other Southern states followed suit. Secession took on many forms. Some states held special conventions to secede. Most states were content to let their state legislatures do the work. A few others coupled state legislative action with plebiscites which allowed voters to add their voices to the question.
Still the act of secession was not without internal division. Just because eleven Southern states seceded didn’t mean every resident in those states wholeheartedly supported the act. There were dissenting voices. Historian Eric Foner in his landmark book on Reconstruction devotes a sub-chapter in his book in discussing Southern Unionism. Opposition to secession and the newly formed Confederate States of America flourished in Western Virginia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Northern Alabama and Georgia and in the Ozark Mountain region of Arkansas and Missouri. Even in Texas there were pockets of pro-Union sentiment. Every Confederate state except for South Carolina contributed volunteers to the Union cause.
My own maternal ancestors, the Heatherlys, were living examples of this. The Heatherlys of Eastern Tennessee fought in the Union Army (where they were called Tennessee Tories). Two members of the Heatherly family of Cullman County, Alabama fought in the Union Cavalry (where they were called Mossbacks). The younger brother of my maternal great-great-great-great grandfather Aaron Heatherly (Moses Heatherly) first joined the Confederate Army and fought with Jeb Stuart before deserting to join the Union army in 1864—Aaron who lost three sons in the Civil War never forgave his brother for what he did.
Secession had been percolating in the American crucible since the Revolution. The eternal question that vexed our Founding Fathers was: where did Federal power end and where did States Rights begin?
Up until 1860 there had been false starts. The Kentucky Resolutions of the late 1790s, the Nullification crisis of the 1830s, and the Compromises of 1820 and 1850 either ignited or tried to dowse the flames of secession.
When secession did come and with it Civil War the issue was decided not in legislative halls but on the battlefield. In many ways the Civil War was the second Constitutional Convention where the political future of our young country was written in the blood shed by 600,000 dead Americans.
What’s striking about the North’s reaction to secession was how passionate Unionists were about upholding the powers and forms of the government. In Ken Burns’ Civil War he quotes the famous Sullivan Ballou letter where Ballou wrote “I know how American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government…” and who could forget what Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Today we mock, damn, and demonize our government.
Were we more naïve back then or have we become more foolish and obdurate now?
When we contemplate this anniversary we must also be aware that there is a Civil War going on in American today. Even though there are no bullets flying there is an ideological war going on inside this country and with it—a form of symbolic secession from the Union.
The founding fathers of secession of 1860 damned the Federal Government for what they saw as attacks upon their property (i.e. their slaves) and the rights of the individual states. Today Americans damn the government on a more individual basis. Discontent is rampant and no solutions are in sight.
What’s sad is that America has become just as much an ideological tinderbox now as we were back in 1860. Even though we might not erupt into armed conflict our nation is being torn asunder in the name of ideologies that really do not resolve our problems or our conflicts. Instead we fight one another merely for the sake of fighting and our nation continues to implode from within.
And in this Civil War there are no winners….