The Impending Crisis

The Raid on Harper's Ferry

John Brown, a radical abolitionist from the North, led an attack on the federal arsenal Harper's Ferry in 1859.

Learning Objectives

Compare how Southern and Northern states responded to John Brown’s raid

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Brown believed that through violence and bloodshed, he could purge the South of its wickedness and eradicate American slavery.
  • Although this revolt was quickly suppressed by U.S. Marines, the South viewed the attack as an act of abolitionist terrorism and feared future aggression from the North.
  • Northerners' feelings about the raid—that it was the act of a madman, yet one who was righteously motivated—infuriated the South, where fears of slave revolts ran deep. The raid deepened the growing psychological rift between the two regions.

Key Terms

  • militia: An army of trained civilians, which may be an official reserve army, called upon in time of need; the national police force of a country (e.g., Russia, Ukraine, etc.); the entire able-bodied population of a state; or a private force, not under government control.
  • secession: The act of separating from the Union.

John Brown, a radical abolitionist, instigated an armed slave revolt by seizing a U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry in Virginia in 1859. Brown's raid was quickly defeated by a detachment of U.S. Marines (led by Col. Robert E. Lee), but his actions convinced Southerners that their society was under attack by Northern abolitionists, inciting support for secession.

Brown, a failed business entrepreneur, had been raised in a deeply religious and antislavery family in Connecticut. However, Brown's vision of abolitionism was radically distinct from the more dominant antislavery sentiments in the North in that he believed that slavery was an unjustifiable state of war conducted by one group of people against another. Relying on stories in the Old Testament, Brown believed that violence against slavery and slave owners was a righteous, almost holy, act that would bring justice to black slaves and purify the wicked South. For Brown, the destruction of slavery required revolutionary force and violence as well as the shedding of blood.

Brown justified his beliefs using the biblical passage Hebrews 9:22: "Without shedding of blood there is no remission" of sin. Moments before he was hanged, Brown handed a prophetic note to a guard, which said, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood."

Brown had proven himself willing to use violence to attain his ends in the past: He had been involved in a murderous raid on some slavery supporters in Bleeding Kansas on Pottawatomie Creek in the Kansas Territory. Because of Brown's willingness to shed blood (including his own) for the cause, Frederick Douglass was later to comment that Brown's devotion to ending slavery was like a "burning sun" compared to his own candlelight. Douglass had prudently turned down Brown's invitation to take part in the raid.

By 1859, Brown had formulated a strategy for achieving his aim of defeating slavery through violence. He planned to use rifles, pikes, and other weapons that he seized at Harper's Ferry to arm Virginian slaves and lead them in an attack against slaveholders in the region, and from there, march South.


Raid on Harper's Ferry: Harper's Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's "Fort."

However, although Brown and a small group of his supporters sacked the federal arsenal on October 16, 1859, a massive slave uprising did not occur, and a U.S. Marine force quickly captured Brown. He was taken to nearby Charles Town for trial where he was found guilty of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia and hanged on December 2. Six other raiders who joined the revolt were also executed.

Many Northern reactions to John Brown's raid are best characterized as baffled reproach. William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent leader of the antislavery movement, called Harper's raid a "misguided" and "insane" act. However, after Brown's execution (and the escalation of Southern hysteria over the incident), many Northerners came to believe that, although “insane,” Brown's attempts to liberate the slave population reflected moral intentions.

Several prominent writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau even praised Brown as a martyr for the abolitionist cause. For Southerners, on the other hand, John Brown's raid was an act of terrorism perpetrated by Northern abolitionists, an act that spurred Southern state legislatures to pass emergency measures to arm and train volunteer militias to prepare for future conflict with Northern aggressors.

The psychological significance of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry cannot be overestimated. Brown had hoped to lead armed slaves to insurrection. Slave revolts, especially armed ones, were especially terrifying for the South where some families lived on isolated farms and plantations and were outnumbered by their slaves. The South found the North's ambivalent attitude toward John Brown's raid flabbergasting. The raid and its repercussions led to deeper psychological rifts between the two regions of the country. A Southern newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, stated, "The day of compromise is past. . . . There is no peace for the South in the Union."

Lincoln and Republican Victory in 1860

The presidential election of 1860 often is considered the immediate impetus for the outbreak of the Civil War.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the Republican Party platform and why the party was able to secure the presidency in 1861

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1860, sectional conflicts over the expansion of slavery into the territories exploded when the Democratic Party officially splintered into Northern and Southern factions.
  • Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, whose campaign emphasized compromise in order to prevent disunion. Southern Democrats, on the other hand, nominated secessionist John C. Breckinridge.
  • Republicans backed Abraham Lincoln, who ran on a platform that sought to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the territories and implement several economic policies designed to stimulate Northern industry.
  • In the face of divided opposition from the Democrats, the Republican Party secured enough electoral votes to put Lincoln in the White House with very little support from the South.

Key Terms

  • Southern Democrats: Members of the U.S. Democratic Party who reside in the American South. In the nineteenth century, they were the definitive proslavery wing of the party, opposed to both the antislavery Republicans (GOP) and the more liberal Northern Democrats.
  • secession: The act of separating from the Union.
  • electoral college: The body chosen to formally elect the president and vice president of the United States, or the process of such an election.

1860 Presidential Election

Historians have long considered the presidential election of 1860 as the immediate impetus for the outbreak of the Civil War. The nation had been divided throughout the 1850s on questions surrounding the expansion of slavery and the rights of slave owners. In 1860, these issues exploded when the Democratic Party officially splintered into Northern and Southern factions, and, in the face of a divided and dispirited opposition, the Republican Party secured enough electoral votes to put Abraham Lincoln in the White House with very little support from the South. Within a few months of the election, seven Southern states, led by South Carolina, responded with declarations of secession.

Conventions and Nominations

By 1860, the Democratic Party had officially split into Northern and Southern factions with tensions erupting in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision. Southern Democrats resented the Northern Democrats' continued support of popular sovereignty as the best method to determine a territory's free or slave status in spite of Dred Scott. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for president, but Southern Democrats responded by convening separately and nominating John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their candidate.

The Republican National Convention met in mid-May. With the Democrats in disarray, and with a sweep of the Northern states possible, the Republicans were confident going into their convention in Chicago. Because it was essential to carry the West, and because Lincoln had a national reputation from previous debates and speeches as the party's most articulate moderate, he won the party's nomination for president on the third ballot on May 18, 1860. The Republican Party platform stated that slavery would not be allowed to spread any further into the territories. The Republicans also promised to support tariffs that protected Northern industry, a Homestead Act granting free farmland in the West to settlers, and the funding of a transcontinental railroad. All of these political issues alienated the South.

Campaign and Results

In the North, there were hundreds of Republican speakers, a deluge of campaign posters and leaflets, and thousands of newspaper editorials. While the campaign propaganda concentrated on disseminating the party platform, it also drew attention to Lincoln's life story, making the most of his boyhood poverty, his pioneer background, his innate genius, and his rise from obscurity. His nicknames, “Honest Abe” and “The Railsplitter,” were exploited to the fullest. The goal was to emphasize the superior power of “free labor,” whereby a common farm boy could work his way to the top by his own efforts and industry. In 1860, many observers noted that the Republicans had an almost unbeatable advantage in the Electoral College because they dominated almost every Northern state.

Lincoln won in the Electoral College with less than 40 percent of the popular vote nationwide, leading contemporaries to cite the split in the Democratic Party as a contributing factor to Lincoln's victory. Like Lincoln in the North, Southern Democrat Breckinridge won no electoral votes outside of the South. He finished second in the Electoral College with 72 votes, carrying 11 of 15 slave states. Douglas was the only candidate to win electoral votes in both the North and the South (in New Jersey and Missouri), but he finished last in the Electoral College.

An Election for Disunion

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln was the Republican candidate for U.S. president in 1860.

Although Lincoln and his advisors dismissed Southern alarm over the possibility of Republican victory, many observers recognized that Lincoln's election could result in disunion. Both John Bell of Tennessee (the Constitutional Union Party candidate) and Douglas had campaigned on a platform stating that they could save the Union from secession, warning Americans that a vote for Lincoln was a vote for disunion. Meanwhile, in the South, secessionists threw their support behind Breckinridge in an attempt to contest the election in the House of Representatives (where the selection of president would be made by the representatives elected in 1858), while Southern state military preparations were underway in the event of war.

In 10 of the 11 states that would later declare secession, Lincoln's ticket did not even appear on the ballot; in Virginia, he received only 1 percent of the popular vote. In the four slave states that did not secede (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware), Lincoln came in third or fourth. Therefore, the 1860 election was not just sectionally divided—it indicated that the South would never accept any Republican candidate who promised to curtail the territorial expansion of slavery. The early nineteenth-century period of compromise and evasion on the slave issue was officially at an end.

Secession of the South

Seven Deep South states passed secession ordinances by February 1861 in the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election.

Learning Objectives

Examine the South's arguments for secession and the reaction to secession in the North

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Declaring themselves the Confederate States of America, seven states elected Jefferson Davis as the provisional president and began raising an army.
  • Secessionists justified their actions by claiming that the U.S. Constitution was a compact between states that could be dissolved at any time by state legislatures when the federal government encroached upon their sovereignty.
  • As part of its efforts to assert independence, the Confederacy appointed several ministers to European nations and refused to surrender U.S. federal arsenals or properties to Washington, precipitating the events that led to the Battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861.

Key Terms

  • Deep South States: A cultural and geographic subregion of the American South. Historically, it is differentiated from the "Upper South" due to its higher dependence on plantation-type agriculture during the pre-Civil War period. The Deep South also was commonly referred to as the "Lower South" or the "Cotton States."
  • Confederacy: The Confederate States of America (also called the "Confederate States," the "CSA," and the "South") was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states that had declared their independence from the United States union.
  • secessionist: A person who separates or supports separation from a political union or an alliance or organization.

Portrait of Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis: Davis became the provisional president of the Confederate States of America following secession.

As part of their justification for leaving the Union after the election of 1860, secessionists argued that the Constitution was a compact among states that could be abandoned at any time without consultation, and that each state reserved the right to secede from the compact. South Carolina invoked the Declaration of Independence to defend their right to secede from the Union, seeing their declaration of secession as a comparable document. Seven Deep South states passed secession ordinances by February 1861 prior to Abraham Lincoln acceding to office. Declaring themselves the Confederate States of America, these seven states elected Jefferson Davis as their provisional president; declared Montgomery, Alabama, the nation's capital; and began raising an army.

Responses to Secession

In the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election, sitting President Buchanan did little to halt the wave of Southern secession. Believing that the key to good government was restraint, he refused to deploy troops or additional artillery to federal properties under threat. Paradoxically, in his final address to Congress, Buchanan denied that states had a right to secede from the Union, but also held that the federal government could not prevent secession from happening through the use of force. Instead, Buchanan proposed a constitutional amendment reaffirming slavery as a protected American institution, strengthening existing fugitive slave laws, and preventing Congress from legislating against the expansion of slavery into federal territories.

In Congress, many proposals were drafted in an attempt to appease the Southern seceding states. The Crittenden Compromise of December 1860 proposed that the old Missouri Compromise latitude boundary line be extended west to the Pacific. Unfortunately, this proposal was in direct conflict with the stated policies of the Republican Party and president-elect Lincoln, and Southern leaders refused to agree to the compromise without a full endorsement from Republicans. This resulted in a stalemate between both sides, and the Crittenden Compromise was ultimately voted down in the Senate.

The photograph depicts a large crowd of people gathered in front of the Alabama capitol building.

Davis's inauguration, 1861: Jefferson Davis's inauguration, Montgomery, Alabama.

On February 4, 1861, a Peace Conference convened in Washington, D.C., comprised of more than 100 of the leading politicians of the antebellum period.

Many attended with the belief that they could avert the crisis toward which secession was heading, whereas some attended in order to safeguard their own sectional interests in what they believed to be an unstoppable escalation of hostilities. Delegations from Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and all of the Deep South states were not present at the conference.

Lincoln also initially tried to pacify the seceding states in his presidential inaugural address, in which he explicitly promised to preserve slavery in the states it already existed in and implied support for the proposed Corwin Amendment, which would have given further protections to slavery in the Constitution. However, efforts by the Confederate States to forcibly remove U.S. troops and federal presence from its territory, culminating in the Battle of Fort Sumter, pushed the two factions irreversibly toward war.

Progression of Hostilities

After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and Lincoln's subsequent call for troops on April 15, four more states declared their secession. By spring 1861, the Confederacy was composed of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Although slaveholding Delaware and Maryland did not secede, citizens from those states exhibited divided loyalties, and Lincoln implemented a system of compensated emancipation and slave confiscation from "disloyal citizens" in these border states during the Civil War.

The U.S. government did not declare war on the Confederate States, but it did conduct military efforts beginning with a presidential proclamation issued April 15, 1861, which called for troops to recapture Southern forts and suppress a Southern rebellion. Immediately following Fort Sumter, the Confederate Congress declared war against the United States and the Civil War officially began.

During the four years of its wartime existence, the Confederacy asserted its independence by appointing dozens of diplomatic agents abroad. The U.S. government, on the other hand, regarded the organization of Confederate states a rebellion and refused any formal recognition of their government. The United States issued warnings to Europe (particularly Britain) that threatened hostile relations if the Confederacy was recognized internationally. Throughout the early years of the war, British foreign secretary Lord John Russell, Napoleon III of France, and other foreign leaders showed interest in recognizing the Confederacy, or at least in a mediation in the war. However, Europe remained largely neutral in the Civil War, unwilling to lose trading relations with the United States. At the same time, foreign governments curiously watched the political evolution of the Confederacy and sent military observers to assess Confederate autonomy in the event that the South prevailed in its fight for nationhood.

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