A line from Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” In the case of the great American conflict of 1861, the name by which it has become generally known is, of course, the “Civil War.” This term was, however, only occasionally used during the war, such as Lincoln’s reference in his 1863 Gettysburg Address that the country was “engaged in a great civil war.” Even the hundred twenty-eight volume history of the war published by the Government Printing Office from 1881 to 1901 was entitled “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.” Most writers in the North at that time used the same term and others the War for the Union. At least one author, William Crafts, used the title “The Southern Rebellion” for his 1863 history.
In the South, while some such as Richmond Examiner editor Edward Pollard merely called it the “War,” others called it the War of Separation. The terms War Between the States and War of Southern Independence also came into use in the South at that time and are still popular with many Southern writers today. Perhaps, however, the terms employed by some European nations during the war were the truly correct appellations for the conflict. These would be the French expression “Guerre de Sécession” and “Sezessionskrieg” in Germany, both of which mean a War of Secession.
On December 20th of 1860, South Carolina adopted an Ordinance of Secession and reverted to its original status as an independent, sovereign state. During the following month, six other Southern states followed suit and on February 22nd, the seven states reunited in Montgomery, Alabama, as the Confederate States of America. Lincoln refused to recognize the legality of the South’s actions and by calling it an act of rebellion, he felt empowered to use military force to prevent their departure. His primary tool was the Insurrection Act of 1807 which allowed the president to use both the federal military and state militias to suppress an armed insurrection. At Lincoln’s urging, Congress added a new section to the Act that year which authorized him to use such forces in dealing with a “rebellion against the authority of the government of the United States.”
Matters came to a head during April, when Lincoln broke the tacit agreements that had been made between former President Buchanan and the states of South Carolina and Florida wherein no Union reinforcements would be sent to either Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens unless those facilities were attacked. After the small Union garrison in Charleston had made its unauthorized move to Fort Sumter and before the ships containing additional Union troops and munitions could reach them, Brigadier General Beauregard fired on the fort on April 12th and forced its evacuation two days later. The Union troops bound for Fort Pickens in Florida, however, were landed on Santa Rosa Island hours before the bombardment of Sumter, thus making the North, not the South, actually responsible for the first true act of war.
Three days after the firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued his proclamation calling upon the twenty-six states remaining in the Union to provide seventy-five thousand troops to “suppress the rebellion.” Six states, Arkansas, Kentucky. Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, all refused and passed their own ordinances of secession in response. Federal troops acted quickly enough to prevent Kentucky and Missouri from implementing their secession and joining the Confederacy. Similar Union military action also took place in Maryland that April when Major General Butler of Massachusetts threatened to arrest the entire state legislature if they attempted a vote to secede.
Even though the South had neither taken any further military action against the Union after Fort Sumter, nor indicated they had any intention of doing so, the North rushed thousands of troops, mainly from Massachusetts and New York, to Washington to ostensibly defend the nation’s capital. Only a little more than a month after their arrival in Washington and with no hostile moves having been taken against the city, nor any declaration of war made by either side, units of Union infantry, cavalry and artillery led by Major General Sanford of New York departed from the capital and invaded Virginia. They occupied the major cities of Alexandria and Arlington, as well as the important inland port of Front Royal and a large coastal area of the state. Although all of those actions by the North were also acts of war, the question remains as to the real cause behind such acts and whether or not they were justified.
Today, we only hear the simplistic tale that the crusading North merely fought to free the Southern slaves and that the treasonous South began the “Civil War” in order to perpetuate slavery. To start with, the term civil war is itself a misnomer, as such a war only pertains to an armed conflict between two factions within a single country. It is tantamount to calling the present conflict between Russia and Ukraine a civil war based on the fact that both sides were once Russian. In America’s case, while the opposing forces were all Americans, they represented two separate American nations.
The slavery cause can also be dismissed as latter-day propaganda to mask the true motivation behind Lincoln’s efforts to hold the Southern states in the Union, even if it meant plunging the nation into war to do so. The obvious reason for war was one of economics . . . the fact that the South’s secession meant the United States would lose the majority of funds needed to operate the federal government, as such funds were mainly derived from the tariffs on foreign goods shipped to Southern ports. There was also the fact that the vast majority of American exports were the agricultural goods produced in the South, such as cotton, sugar, tobacco and rice.
Lincoln, of course, denied these facts and chose to create the false concept that by their secession, the Southern states were committing an act of rebellion against the United States. In dong so, he turned a blind eye to historical precedent in which previous secession attempts in America had gone unchallenged by the federal government. Lincoln also chose to ignore both the lack of any wording in the Constitution that might forbid secession and the obvious inferences in the document that tend to support a state’s future withdrawal of its ratification. Even a rudimentary knowledge of constitutional history would bear this out.
In 1781, Congress ratified the document to form a perpetual “league of friendship” between the newly created states, the Articles of Confederation, and Article II of that document clearly stipulated that the sovereignty, freedom and independence of each state would be retained. When it was decided six years later that a “more perfect union” was needed, the Tenth Amendment of the new Constitution reiterated that the rights of each state would be retained. Even though the words “sovereign” and “independent” were omitted from that Amendment, there should be little doubt that the term “state” still referred to an independent and sovereign entity.
This was clearly pointed out in the series of articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in support of the new Constitution, the Federalist Papers. In one essay, Hamilton stated that “uniting the states into one national sovereignty would imply an entire subordination of the parts.” He then added in the article that in the proposed compact “the state governments would clearly retain all rights of sovereignty which they before had.” In another essay, Madison wrote that under the new Constitution each state would be “considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others.”
It is evident, therefore, that the Constitution was designed more as a working agreement that would ensure a form of perpetual cooperation between the states and the federal government, rather than a chattel contract that would forever bind the states together in servitude to the federal government. If one considers the unique history of America’s formation, it is not difficult to understand the corporative type of thinking that went into the writing of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
The thirteen American colonies were unique and the sovereign states from which they were formed were unlike any other governmental body in the world. While some of the colonies were started as personal land grants or religious havens, the earliest ones began as business ventures. The first of these were the the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth. In 1606, these entities were established by King James I of Great Britain and given a land mass in North America that extended from Cape Fear in what is now North Carolina to the Kennebec River in the present state of Maine. A year later, in order to create trade centers in the new territory, Jamestown was established in Virginia and Popham on the Kennebec River. In 1630, another British enterprise, the Massachusetts Bay Company, established a trade colony in the Boston area.
About the same time, the Dutch West India Company created the colony of New Netherland and in 1614, set up a trading post on the Hudson River near what is now the city of Albany, with a large area on the southwest side of the Hudson River soon being added to the colony. Ten years later, the company purchased Manhattan Island from the local tribe to create its second colony of New Amsterdam. The Dutch lost their American colonies to Great Britain in 1664 and they were renamed New York and New Jersey. In 1638, a Dutch, German and Swedish consortium established a trading outpost on the Delaware River that became the colony of New Sweden. The colony later joined with William Penn’s Quaker colony of Pennsylvania but separated and became the British colony of Delaware.
Because of such backgrounds, it is no wonder that America’s founding fathers might well have considered that the document needed to govern their new nation should act somewhat like the merger of thirteen independent corporations to be headed, but not ruled, by an elected executive and bicameral board of directors. In all such agreements, it is generally understood that should conditions arise that make continuation of the merger intolerable, each party has the legal right to rescind their ratification and withdraw from the union.
Up until 1860, this concept of the constitutional right to secede was accepted by most legal experts but when it was actually put into practice by the Southern states, Lincoln termed it a rebellion against the United States that justified reunion by force of arms. Unfortunately, most in the North agreed with this and all those who did not were effectively silenced one way or another. While the ensuing war crushed the Confederacy and supposedly settled the matter of secession’s legality, more recent events prove that secession is still very much a moot question. No cry of rebellion was raised when Californians recently called for the secession of their state and the foreign votes to secede taken by those in Quebec and Scotland were never questioned in America. Likewise, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, while unpopular with many, was accepted by all.
As to the American conflict, the long-lasting bitterness created by the decades of sectional rancor prior to the war, the four years of actual internecine combat and the twelve years of reconstructive punishment finally ended in an era of amicable reconciliation that lasted for more than a century. During that period, both Union and Confederate monuments were raised, Union and Confederate heroes were honored and historical and cultural portrayals of the Confederacy and the antebellum South were accomplished with a relatively even hand.
Today, however, Lincoln’s false charge of rebellion has again been raised, with secession once more being deemed as nothing more than treason. Over the past two decades there has been a growing sentiment that anything or anyone connected with the Confederacy or the antebellum South must be demeaned or destroyed. Furthermore, those who attempt to condemn such madness are branded as neo-Confederates, white suprematists, peddlers of “Lost Cause” alternate history or merely the all encompassing term of racist.
From the historical point of view, while the decades of sectional strife that led to the South’s secession involved a number of issues, including slavery, none of them, least of all slavery, should be cited as the true casus belli. It was secession alone that allowed Lincoln to declare that an act of rebellion had taken place which justified the North’s invasion and ultimate conquest and occupation of the South. The great pity is that the issue of secession was not first decided in the halls of the Supreme Court via a case of United States v. South Carolina, rather than a four-year War of Secession fought on so many blood-soaked battlefields.