The 15 slave states can be thought of as comprising three tiers from south to north. The first tier to secede was the southernmost, led on December 20, 1860 by South Carolina, home of the ideological spokesmen of the pro-slavery “King Cotton“ interests. English mills” demand for cotton had created vast wealth and self-righteousness in the six Deep South cotton states. Inspired by South Carolina’s Fire-Eater orators, the states of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas soon followed.
But then, secession ground to a halt.
It is unknowable whether a seven-state Confederacy would have survived the next downturn in world cotton prices, or, disheartened, would have asked for readmission to the Union. We can see now that King Cotton proved to be a bubble. With the North declaring a blockade and the South an export embargo in 1861, the British ramped up cotton growing in Egypt and India, leaving the South impoverished after the war.
A rump Confederacy confined to the Deep South might have eventually been bought off by the plan Lincoln floated in the middle of the war for ending slavery voluntarily by compensating slave-owners with the proceeds from the sale of Western lands. At minimum, a seven-state Confederacy would have been easier to defeat on the battlefield than the eleven-state South that fought for four years.
The next tier of states northward”North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas”didn”t secede until May or June, well after the outbreak of fighting at Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861.
Finally, in the northernmost tier of slave states, above 36.5 degrees latitude, four states never seceded”Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Legend has it that Lincoln wittily replied to a well-wisher who assured him God was on his side, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”
Indeed, Kentucky proved important. Yet Kentucky was hardly as strategically central as the one northern tier slave state that did secede: the war’s main battlefront, Virginia. The most historically prestigious state”the birthplace of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe”Virginia was also much larger back then before anti-slavery West Virginia in turn seceded from it. Virginia had the most to lose from war, and, indeed, it lost the most.
On April 18, 1861, Lincoln’s adviser Francis P. Blair, the father of his Postmaster General, offered Robert E. Lee command of the defense of Washington, DC. It was a clever ploy, but Lincoln’s attempt to appease the most respected Virginians came far too late. Lee responded that since Virginia had voted to secede the day before, “how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”
If Lincoln had begun working on winning over key Virginians in late 1860 rather than after the first shots had been fired at Fort Sumter, could he have succeeded?
While Lincoln waited out the five-month interim in Springfield, Seward, his incoming Secretary of State, had been energetically warning European diplomats to heed the Monroe Doctrine and stay out of the Western Hemisphere during the American troubles. Within the cabinet, the New York statesman advocated abandoning indefensible Fort Sumter because the Union fighting a losing battle might emotionally propel indispensable Virginia into the Confederacy.
On April 1, 1861, Seward sent Lincoln a memo, Some Considerations for the President, advising Lincoln to stop wasting time on jobs-for-the-boys. Instead, the administration should reunite Americans, North and South, by ginning up a foreign-policy crisis over France’s ambitions in Mexico and Spain’s recolonizing of the Dominican Republic:
I would demand explanations from Spain and France, categorically, at once….And if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France, would convene Congress and declare war against them.
Seward, disgusted by Lincoln’s lack of a policy for avoiding the conflagration, concluded his memo indiscreetly by offering to take strategic power within the Administration, allowing Lincoln to serve as the figurehead and small-time politician he so far seemed more suited to be:
But whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it. For this purpose it must be somebody’s business to pursue and direct it incessantly. Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it; or devolve it on some member of his Cabinet….It is not in my especial province. But I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.
Brushing aside Seward’s ingenious foreign-policy proposal, Lincoln jumped on his impertinent political proposition and roundly put Seward in his place.
Today, historians seem to side wholeheartedly with Lincoln in his waging of office politics against Seward while ignoring the substance of the Secretary of State’s audacious attempt to rescue the nation from civil war. The considered judgment of scholars such as James M. McPherson and Doris Kearns Goodwin upon Lincoln’s response to Seward is, roughly, “Ooooh, diss.”
Perhaps, though, 750,000 American lives lost should also be weighed in the balance.
Daily updates with TM’s latest