Chronology of Major Events Leading to Secession Crisis
December 2, 1859—Radical abolitionist John Brown is hanged in Charles Town, Virginia for attempting to foment a slave revolt.
December 5, 1859-February 1, 1860—A protracted and acrimonious debate over the House speakership occupies Congress for nearly two months. The Republicans initially nominate John Sherman, an Ohioan with moderate views on slavery, but Sherman’s support for a controversial anti-slavery book entitled The Impending Crisis derails his nomination. The Democrats counter with several nominations, including Thomas S. Bocock of Virginia and John A. McClernand of Illinois, but these nominees are also unsuccessful in part because of splits within their party. In February, the Republicans elect William Pennington as Speaker of the House with 119 votes, the exact number needed to win. The debates in Congress during this period are heated and many members carry weapons. Southern congressmen talk openly of secession in the event of a Republican presidential victory in November.
January, 1860—The Democratic Party of Alabama adopts a resolution which instructs the state’s delegates to the Convention in Charleston to “insist” on a clause in the national platform calling for a law to protect slavery in the territories. Moreover, the delegates are instructed to withdraw from the convention if such a clause is rejected.
February 2, 1860—Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis introduces a series of resolutions in the upper house which call for a federal code protecting slavery in the territories. The resolutions are passed by the Senate Democratic caucus, an action which further divides the party along sectional lines.
February 27, 1860—Abraham Lincoln delivers his famous Cooper Union Address in New York City, which presents a compelling case on the Founding Fathers’ objections to the spread of slavery. The speech is widely reprinted in northern newspapers and helps Lincoln secure his party’s presidential nomination.
March, 1860—The Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly rejects a proposal by South Carolina to organize a convention of southern states.
March 5, 1860—The Republican-controlled House of Representatives approves the formation of a committee to investigate alleged corruption and malfeasance in the Buchanan administration. The president criticizes the investigation as a partisan plot to besmirch his “personal and official integrity.” Hearings continue through June.
April 30, 1860—Fifty southern delegates to the Democratic national convention storm out of Institute Hall in Charleston, South Caroli na in order to protest their party’s unwillingness to endorse a federal code protecting slavery in the territories.
May 9, 1860—The newly-formed Constitutional Union Party opens its convention in Baltimore. John Bell of Tennessee becomes the party’s presidential nominee. Comprised mainly of conservative Whigs and Know-Nothings concerned about the gathering crisis, the party advertises itself as an alternative to “Black Republicanism” and Democratic demagoguery. The delegates refuse to adopt a platform, instead pledging themselves solely to the preservation of the Union and the Constitution.
May 16, 1860—The Republican convention opens in Chicago. William Seward emerges early as the party’s strongest presidential candidate, but is defeated by Abraham Lincoln on the third ballot. Lincoln has fewer enemies within the Republican ranks and is viewed by most members as a political moderate. The party platform calls for a higher tariff, a ban on slavery in the territories, federal money for internal improvement projects, and a homestead act.
June 11, 1860—Delegates who joined the walkout in Charleston meet in Richmond in an unsuccessful attempt to nominate a candidate and approve a party platform.
June 18, 1860—The Democratic national convention reconvenes in Baltimore after the Charleston impasse. Anti-Douglas delegates from Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, California, Oregon, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas withdraw from the meeting in order to protest the assembly’s decision to seat newly-elected, pro-Douglas state delegations. Stephen A. Douglas is nominated as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate by the remaining delegates. Shortly thereafter, a group of disgruntled delegates assembles a competing convention in Baltimore which nominates John C. Breckinridge, a federal slave code supporter, for president. The Democratic Party is split into two sectional factions.
June 22, 1860—Under pressure from the Southern Democracy, President James Buchanan vetoes a homestead bill which calls for the distribution of 160 acres of government land to each citizen willing to improve it. The vote in Congress is along sectional lines. In the House, 114 of the 115 votes in favor of the bill are cast by free-state representatives, while 64 of the 65 “nays” come from slave-state Congressmen. Southerners realize that the homestead bill will disproportionately benefit the free states. The sectional divide within the Democratic Party strengthens the Republican Party’s chances for victory in November.
July 6, 1860—In a letter intended for publication, New York City Mayor Fernando Wood proposes that Democrats run John Breckinridge unopposed in southern states and Stephen Douglas alone in northern ones in order to thwart Lincoln’s election.
August 13, 1860—During a speech in Boston, William Seward describes Lincoln as “a soldier on the side of freedom in the irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery.”
August 25, 1860—From the steps of Norfolk’s City Hall, presidential candidate Stephen Douglas tells a crowd of seven thousand Virginians that he believes Lincoln’s election would not be a just cause for secession and that the federal government has the right to use force in order to preserve the Union.
September 5, 1860—Presidential candidate John Breckinridge tells a crowd in Lexington, Kentucky that Democratic rival Stephen Douglas espouses principles which are “repugnant alike to reason and the Constitution.”
October 5, 1860—A massive “Wide-Awake” torchlight parade takes place in New York City. The Wide-Awakes were young Republicans who staged theatrical nighttime rallies during the campaign of 1860 to show their support for Lincoln’s candidacy.
November 6, 1860—Americans go the polls and elect Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln receives 1,866,452 popular votes and 180 electoral votes from 17 of the 33 states. Not a single slave state endorses Lincoln. Stephen Douglas receives 1,376,957 popular votes and 12 electoral votes; John Breckinridge receives 849, 781 popular votes and 72 electoral votes; and John Bell receives 588, 879 popular votes and 39 electoral votes.
November 9, 1860—Lame duck president James Buchanan convenes a cabinet meeting to discuss the national crisis that has been unleashed in the wake of Lincoln’s election. Like the country as a whole, his advisors are split over the issue of secession. Buchanan proposes a convention of the states with the object of hammering out a compromise. Secretary of State Lewis Cass (MI) argues that the Union should be preserved at all costs, even if that means using force. Attorney General Jeremiah Sullivan Black (PA) shares Cass’ opinion. Postmaster General Joseph Holt (KY) opposes both secession and Buchanan’s idea for a convention. Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb (GA) believes secession is legal and necessary. Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson (MS) agrees with Cobb and says any show of force by the U.S. government will force his native Mississippi out of the Union. Secretary of War John Floyd (VA) opposes secession because he believes it is unnecessary. Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey (CT) endorses Buchanan’s convention idea.
November 10, 1860—Both of South Carolina’s senators, James Chesnut, Jr. and James H. Hammond, resign their seats. The legislature of South Carolina orders a convention to meet in Columbia on December 17 to decide whether or not the state should remain in the Union.
November 13, 1860—The South Carolina legislature authorizes the raising of ten thousand men for the state’s defense.
November 14, 1860—Alexander Stephens, the future vice-president of the Confederacy, addresses the Georgia legislature and speaks out against secession. He argues that the South should pursue a more moderate course and, “Let the fanatics of the North break the Constitution, if such is their fell purpose.”
November 18, 1860—The Georgia legislature authorizes one million dollars for weapon purchases.
November 23, 1860—Major Robert Anderson issues a report from Charleston which identifies Fort Sumter as the key to the defense of the city’s harbor. In addition, he argues that secession is a fait accompli in South Carolina.
December 4, 1860—President Buchanan sends his State of the Union message to Congress, which attempts to appease both northerners and southerners. He views secession as a consequence of the “intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery” and urges the North to respect the sovereignty and rights of the southern states. At the same time, Buchanan condemns secession and signals his intent to defend any federal forts in the South that come under attack. Both sides are displeased with the speech. The House of Representatives creates a Committee of Thirty-three (one member per state) to study the country’s crisis and issue recommendations.
December 8, 1860—The first rupture in Buchanan’s cabinet occurs when Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb (GA) resigns his post. A former unionist, Cobb has come to believe that the “evil” of Black Republicanism is “beyond control” and must be met with resistance. The same day, a group of South Carolina congressmen visits the White House and encourages Buchanan to relinquish federal property to their state.
December 10, 1860—South Carolina congressmen meet with Buchanan and promise that their forces will not attack U.S. forts before the issue of secession is debated, or the two governments reach an agreement, as long as the military status quo is maintained.
December 12, 1860—Secretary of State Lewis Cass (MI) resigns over Buchanan’s decision not to reinforce the federal forts in Charleston.
December 13, 1860—Twenty-three House members and seven Senators from the South make a public announcement calling for the creation of a Southern Confederacy.
December 17, 1860—South Carolina’s Secession Convention opens in Columbia.
December 20, 1860—Delegates to South Carolina’s Secession Convention vote 169 to 0 to leave the Union. President Buchanan is stunned by the news. The Palmetto State’s decision emboldens secessionists in other southern states.
December 26, 1860—Major Robert Anderson moves his small force from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter. He believes the former location will soon be attacked and that the change of location is necessary to “prevent the effusion of blood.” South Carolinians view the troop transfer as a violation of their agreement with Buchanan to maintain the status quo.
December 29, 1860—Secretary of War John B. Floyd (VA) resigns over Buchanan’s decision not to overrule Anderson’s troop transfer.
December 30, 1860—South Carolinians seize the Federal Arsenal at Charleston, making Fort Sumter the last piece of federal property in the state controlled by the United States government.
January 8, 1861—President Buchanan sends a special message to Congress which endorses Senator John J. Crittenden’s proposal to resurrect the old Missouri Compromise line. Also, Buchanan places the onus of responsibility for solving the crisis on the legislative branch. The last southerner in the president’s cabinet, Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson (MS), resigns.
January 9, 1861—Mississippi secedes from the Union. In Charleston, southern guns fire on the Star of the West as it attempts to re-supply Fort Sumter. The ship withdraws and sets course for New York.
January 10, 1861—Florida secedes from the Union. Lieutenant Adam Slemmer moves his small federal garrison from Barrancas Barracks at Pensacola to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island. Slemmer refuses repeated surrender demands from Florida authorities, allowing Fort Pickens to remain in Union hands for the duration of the war.
January 11, 1861—Alabama secedes from the Union.
January 14, 1861—The chairman of the Committee of Thirty-three, Thomas Corwin (OH), presents the group’s report to the House of Representatives. Recommendations include a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing slavery where it exists, a repeal of northern “personal liberty laws”, and jury trials for fugitive slaves. The committee does not unanimously approve of the proposals.
January 16, 1861—The Crittenden Compromise is defeated in the Senate.
January 19, 1861—Georgia secedes from the Union.
January 21, 1861—Five senators from Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi bid farewell to their colleagues in the upper house. Among them is Senator Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy.
January 26, 1861—Louisiana secedes from the Union.
January 29, 1861—Kansas is admitted to the Union sans slavery.
February 1, 1861—Texas secedes from the Union.
February 4, 1861—The convention of seceded states opens in Montgomery, Alabama as a Peace Convention called by Virginia gets underway in Washington. One of the delegates at the latter meeting is former president John Tyler. Louisiana Senators Judah Benjamin and John Slidell resign their seats.
February 8, 1861—Delegates in Montgomery adopt a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America. The document contains only a few variations from the U.S. Constitution, among which are a clause protecting slavery and one that prohibits tariffs designed to protect domestic industry.
February 9, 1861—Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens are elected Provisional President and Vice-President of the Confederacy respectively. Both men are considered political moderates. In Tennessee, voters reject a call for a secession convention.
February 18, 1861—Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as president of the Confederacy during a ceremony in Montgomery, Alabama.
February 23, 1861—Abraham Lincoln arrives in Washington on a special train at the behest of his security team. The President-elect’s clandestine journey is lampooned by a number of newspaper cartoonists, who inflate wild rumors that he was disguised as a Scotsman.
February 27, 1861—The Peace Convention proposes six constitutional amendments to Congress—most relate to the impasse over slavery. None passes. The House of Representatives rejects a call for a constitutional convention and the Crittenden Compromise.
February 28, 1861—The House passes a measure supported by President-elect Lincoln which prohibits the federal government from interfering with slavery in states where it exists.
March 1, 1861—Confederate President Jefferson Davis appoints P.G.T. Beauregard as commander of southern forces guarding Charleston. Congress organizes two new territories, Nevada and Dakota, and passes the Morrill Tariff Act, which raises taxes on imports.
March 4, 1861—Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as President of the United States in Washington. He tells the crowd gathered around the Capitol that he has no intention of interfering with slavery, but that secession is illegal and the Union perpetual.
March 5, 1861—Lincoln learns from Major Anderson that Fort Sumter must either be re-supplied or abandoned within a matter of weeks. The president understands that surrendering the fort would mean a loss of federal sovereignty, but that sending supplies would likely start a war. He loses sleep over the situation.
March 29, 1861—After days of deliberation and careful consultation with his cabinet, Lincoln decides to re-supply Forts Sumter and Pickens.
April 4, 1861—In an 89 to 45 vote, the Virginia State Convention rejects an ordinance of secession.
April 6, 1861—Lincoln dispatches a State Department employee to inform South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens that the federal government will re-provision Fort Sumter. The president makes it clear that no additional troops will be sent to the fort if supply ships are allowed to land.
April 10, 1861—Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Walker authorizes Beauregard to use force if the federal government attempts to re-supply Fort Sumter.
April 11, 1861—Major Anderson refuses a request from the Confederate government to surrender Fort Sumter. A final request would come in the early morning hours of April 12, shortly before the bombardment of the fortress began.