The South Secedes

Lesson Content

Inquire: The South Secedes


President Lincoln’s inaugural promises not to abolish slavery were in some ways irrelevant; the country was already divided by the time he arrived in Washington D.C. in February of 1861. There had been — and were — offers of compromise, even including proposed amendments to secure slavery forever, but these compromises were not enough to reverse the tensions between the North and South of the nation.

This left the border states, where slavery was legal but not the driving force behind the economy or society, with a difficult choice to make. The decisions made were certainly not unanimous.

From the election of Lincoln in November of 1860 until the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the nation held its breath and watched, hoping for a peaceful resolution. Following the battle at Fort Sumter, it was apparent to all that there was no going back.


Big Question

What efforts were made to avoid the Civil War, and what decisions did the border states make?

Watch: “The Tea Has Been Thrown Overboard, The Revolution of 1860 Has Been Initiated.”

Read: Comprises Rejected - Conflict Imminent - Confusion in the Border States

Crittenden Compromise

John J. Crittenden

Before Lincoln took office, Senator John Crittenden from Kentucky, who had helped form the Constitutional Union Party during the 1860 Presidential Election, attempted to defuse the explosive situation following the election. Crittenden proposed six constitutional amendments and a series of resolutions, known as the Crittenden Compromise. His goal was to keep the South from seceding by transforming the Constitution to explicitly protect slavery. Specifically, Crittenden proposed an amendment that would restore the 36°30? line from the Missouri Compromise and extend it all the way to the Pacific Ocean, protecting and ensuring slavery south of the line while prohibiting it north of the line. He further proposed an amendment that would prohibit Congress from abolishing slavery anywhere it already existed or from interfering with the interstate slave trade.

Republicans, including President-Elect Lincoln, rejected Crittenden’s proposals because they ran counter to the party’s goal of keeping slavery out of American territories. In response to the proposal, Lincoln said:

“We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten… if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government.” *

The Southern states also rejected Crittenden’s attempts at compromise, because it would prevent slaveholders from taking their human chattel north of the 36°30? line. On December 20, 1860, only a few days after Crittenden’s proposal was introduced in Congress, South Carolina began the march toward war by seceding from the United States. Three more states in the Deep South — Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama — seceded before the U.S. Senate officially rejected Crittenden’s proposal on January 16, 1861. Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas joined them in rapid succession on January 19, January 26, and February 1, respectively. On February 4th, delegates from all the seceded states, excluding Texas, met in Montgomery, Alabama to create and staff a government for the confederation of states they called the Confederate States of America.

The Corwin Amendment

Following the Crittenden Compromise, other politicians still hoped to resolve the crisis and avoid war. In February of 1861, in an effort to entice the rebellious states to return to the Union without resorting to force, Ohio representative Thomas Corwin introduced a proposal to amend the Constitution in the House of Representatives.

DecorativeThe Corwin Amendment, one of several measures proposed in early 1861 to head off the impending conflict and save the United States, would have made it impossible for Congress to pass any laws abolishing slavery. The proposal passed the House on February 28, 1861, and the Senate on March 2, 1861. It was then sent to the states to be ratified; once ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures, it would become law.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln stated that he had no objection to the Corwin Amendment, and his predecessor James Buchanan supported it. However, by the time of Lincoln’s inauguration, seven states had already left the Union. Despite the effort at reconciliation, the Confederate states did not return to the Union. Indeed, by the time the Corwin Amendment passed through Congress, Confederate forces in the Deep South had already begun taking over federal forts, such as Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

In many cases, state secessions occurred after extremely divided conventions and popular votes — a lack of unanimity prevailed in much of the South. Texas Governor Sam Houston did not favor secession and resigned after the Texas convention voted to secede despite his objections. There were strong feelings on both sides of the issue throughout even the Deep South.

Border States

The Upper South and border states — Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia — were the most divided. Not all residents from these states wished to join the Confederacy, despite being slave-states. Pro-Union feelings remained strong in Tennessee, especially in the eastern part of the state where slaves were few and consisted largely of house servants owned by the wealthy. Virginia — home of revolutionary leaders and presidents such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — was split on the issue of secession. Residents in the north and west of the state, where few slaveholders resided, rejected secession. These counties subsequently united to form West Virginia, which entered the Union as a free state in 1863. The rest of Virginia, including the historic lands along the Chesapeake Bay which were home to early American settlements like Jamestown and Williamsburg, joined the Confederacy. Virginia’s addition to the Confederacy came with General Robert E. Lee, arguably the best military commander of the day, and brought Washington D.C. perilously close to the Confederacy. Fears that Maryland, a border state, would also join the Confederacy and trap the U.S. capital between Confederate territories plagued the Union.

In the end, four crucial border states remained in the Union. Delaware, which was technically a slave state despite its tiny slave population, never voted to secede. Maryland, despite deep divisions, remained in the Union as well. While Missouri became the site of vicious fighting and the home of pro-Confederate guerillas, it never joined the Confederacy. Finally, Kentucky declared itself neutral, although that did little to stop the fighting that occurred within the state. By not seceding, these four border states deprived the Confederacy of key resources and soldiers.

Five Civilized Tribes

The Confederacy was more successful in appealing to what was called the Five Civilized Tribes, in the Indian Territory, comprised of the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokees. These tribes supported slavery, and many members owned slaves, aligning them with the South on the slavery issue. The Five Civilized Tribes, who had been forced from their lands in Georgia and elsewhere in the Deep South during Andrew Jackson’s presidency backed the Confederacy, despite being driven from their homes by white settlers and a Democrat president from Tennessee.

President Jackson had orchestrated and approved the infamous Trail of Tears, which resulted in thousands of Native American deaths as they were forced to march to Oklahoma. Yet, in the 1860s, the Five Civilized Tribes then found an unprecedented common cause with the Southern white slaveholders, even sending delegates to the Confederate Congress.

Reflect: Avoiding Civil War


If the Crittenden Compromise had been passed before the 1860 election, do you think the Civil War would have taken place?

Expand: Fort Sumter: North vs. South

DecorativeFort Sumter

Finally, it all began at Fort Sumter.

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Five days later, 68 federal troops stationed in Charleston, South Carolina withdrew to Fort Sumter, an island in the Charleston Harbor. The North considered the fort to be property of the United States government while South Carolinians believed it belonged to the new Confederacy. Four months later, the first engagement of the Civil War took place on this disputed soil.

Fort Sumter’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, was a former slave-owner, but nevertheless unquestionably loyal to the Union. With 6,000 South Carolina militia surrounding the harbor, Anderson and his soldiers were cut off from reinforcements and resupplies. In January of 1861, as one of the last acts of his administration, President James Buchanan sent 200 soldiers and supplies on an unarmed merchant vessel, Star of the West, to try to reinforce Fort Sumter. The ship quickly departed when South Carolina artillery started firing on it.

In February of 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the provisional president of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama. Abraham Lincoln took his oath of office as president of the Union in Washington D.C. on March 4, 1861. Fort Sumter’s fate lay in the hands of the two leaders.

DecorativeLincoln thought the Southern secession was “artificial,” so when Jefferson Davis sent a group of commissioners to Washington D.C. to negotiate for the transfer of Fort Sumter to South Carolina, they were promptly rebuffed.

Yet, as weeks passed, pressure grew for Lincoln to take some action on Fort Sumter and to reunite the states. Meanwhile, Fire-Eaters pressured Jefferson Davis to take Fort Sumter and thereby demonstrate the Confederate government’s resolve. Some also hoped that the Confederacy would gain foreign recognition, especially from Great Britain, by taking a fort in the South’s most important Atlantic port.

The situation grew dire as local merchants refused to sell food to the fort’s Union soldiers and, by mid-April, the garrison’s supplies began to run out. Lincoln had a dilemma; Fort Sumter was running out of supplies, but sending in navy warships with supplies and reinforcements could appear as Northern aggression. States that still remained part of the Union (such as Virginia and North Carolina) might be driven into the secessionist camp while people at home and abroad might become sympathetic to the South. Yet Lincoln could not allow his troops to starve or surrender and risk showing considerable weakness.

At last, he developed a plan. On April 6, Lincoln told the governor of South Carolina that he was going to send provisions to Fort Sumter. He would send no arms, troops, or ammunition — unless, of course, South Carolina attacked. Now the dilemma sat with Jefferson Davis.

Attacking Lincoln’s resupply brigade would make the Confederacy the aggressive party, and risk the same foreign and domestic issues Lincoln had been concerned about. But, Davis simply could not allow the fort to be resupplied. J.G. Gilchrist, a Southern newspaper writer, warned, “Unless you sprinkle the blood in the face of the people of Alabama, they will be back in the old Union in less than ten days.” Davis decided he had no choice but to order Anderson to surrender Fort Sumter.

Anderson’s refusal ended the back and forth. The Civil War began at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861 when Confederate artillery, under the command of General Pierre Gustave T. Beauregard, opened fire on Fort Sumter. After Confederate batteries showered the fort with over 3,000 shells over a three-and-a-half day period, Anderson surrendered. Ironically, Beauregard had developed his military skills under Anderson’s instruction at West Point, and the two became the first of countless relationships and families to be devastated by the Civil War.

Check Your Knowledge

Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Topics in Chronicling America – Battle of Fort Sumter

Sample articles from the Library of Congress’ Newspaper and Current Periodical Room showing how the Battle of Fort Sumter was covered in newspapers around the country

Fort Sumter: How Civil War Began With a Bloodless Battle

A National Geographic article explaining how Fort Sumter began the Civil War, despite having no fatalities on either side

Compromises On Slavery Held the Union Together

An article discussing the compromises that were successful in postponing the Civil War prior to the Crittenden Compromise and the Corwin Amendment, which were both unsuccessful

The Civil War, Part I: Crash Course US History #20

A Crash Course video discussing the beginning of the Civil War and the border states

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • border state
    states where slavery was legal but not the driving force behind their economy or society, who had to decide whether to secede or remain part of the Union
  • Confederacy
    (Confederate States of America); a nation founded on February 4th, 1861, by six of the seven original states to secede from the Union
  • Crittenden Compromise
    compromise which would have explicitly protected slavery and extend the line of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific; proposed by Senator John Crittenden in hopes of preserving the Union but rejected on both sides
  • secede
    decision to withdraw from a union; in the South, secession began with South Carolina in 1860
  • the Corwin Amendment
    amendments proposed by Thomas Corwin in 1861, that would have made it impossible for Congress to pass any laws abolishing slavery; while passing both the House and Senate, it was not ratified by the states and did not end secession

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library.  CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: U.S. History: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The South Secedes: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Fort Sumter: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeHJRes80 Corwin AmendmentThomas CorwinWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeJohn J. Crittenden – Brady-HandyMathew Brady, Levin Corby HandyWikimedia Commons Public Domain
Decorative The seceding South Carolina delegation (Boston Public Library)BPLWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeFort sumter 1861Alma A. PelotWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeCharleston Harbor 1861HljWikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0
DecorativeFive-Civilized-Tribes-PortraitsRobWikimedia Commons Public Domain