The Southern Rebellion, 1850-54
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
From its earliest days as an independent nation, America had long been troubled by the moral, social, and political ramifications of slavery in its southern states. No less a figure than the second President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, the very man who incorporated the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, had to grapple with these problems throughout his political career; what made them particularly thorny for him was that he happened to be a slaveholder himself. In the final years of his life, by which time he’d made up his mind to free all his slaves, he accurately predicted the question of slavery would one day touch off a social earthquake which would rock the United States to its very foundations.
The first tremors of this earthquake were felt on September 18th, 1850 when Congress narrowly rejected a so-called Compromise of 1850 bill which would have revived the old 1793 fugitive slave laws and added harsh new penalties for those who failed to comply with such laws. Outraged by this rejection, the senior members of the Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina delegations to Congress walked out of Capitol Hill in protest, taking their fellow Congressmen with them in a boycott of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Within two weeks after the Compromise was defeated North Carolina, Virginia, and Missisippi had joined in the boycott; by mid-October Louisiana, Arkansas, and Florida were on board as well.
For a time it looked as if Maryland and Missouri would bring the number of states taking part in the boycott of Congress into double digits; however, Maryland’s state legislature deadlocked on the issue while Missouri’s narrowly voted down a proposed bill which would have authorized the Missouri governor to recall his state’s Congressional delegation from Washington. The Kentucky state senate did approve an act supporting the boycott, but Kentucky’s governor vetoed it.
Texas finally joined the Southern boycott of the US Congress in January of 1851, but this only came after weeks of fierce and at times vitriolic debate. Sam Houston, a member of the Texas state senate and a hero of the Texan war for independence from Mexico, was among those who voted against the resolution to join the Georgia-led boycott; in what would turn out to be the last speech of his political career, he warned his fellow Texans that casting their lot with the other states participating in the boycott could only end one way-- with a brutal civil war that would see death and bloodshed everywhere across the US and cause the people of Texas untold suffering. One can only wish his warning had been heeded.
In February of 1851 Tennessee became the eleventh state to join the Southern boycott of Congress; a month later representatives from all eleven states met in Charleston, South Carolina to discuss taking the protest one step further and quitting the Union altogether. The secession idea fell on receptive ears at the Charleston convention-- in fact, some of the men present at the convention had been quietly advocating such a move from the day the Congressional boycott started. If there had been any glimmer of hope that war between North and South could be avoided, it died in Charleston.
Even before the Southern Rebellion broke out, Missouri was engaged in a civil war of its own; while many of its citizens sympathized with the Southern boycott, its state government was run predominantly by anti-boycott politicians and anti-slavery volunteer militias fought pitched battles with pro-slavery militias in the countryside. There were also a number of riots in Missouri’s cities; the worst of these happened in St. Louis on the first day of the Charleston convention, leaving 50 people dead and nearly two hundred injured and causing over $45,000 in property damage. In the coming conflict between the federal government and the Southern secessionists, Missouri would be in the unique position of supplying troops to both sides.
On March 12th, 1851, the final day of the Charleston convention, the convention delegates approved by a solid majority a resolution declaring that the eleven states involved in the Congressional boycott were hereby seceding from the Union to form their own country, the Confederate Republic of America. The delegates then adjourned with an agreement to reconvene in two weeks’ time to draft a constitution for the fledgling nation and organize an army for its defense. Now the question was no longer if civil war would come, but when and where the first shots would be fired.
Since South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia had been the first states to walk out of the US Congress, it was fitting they should also be the first states to ratify the new Confederate Constitution. South Carolina’s state legislature ratified it on April 7th, 1851; Georgia’s followed suit on April 10th; and Alabama’s ratified the Confederate Constitution on April 12th. Missisippi passed it on April 16th, followed by Virginia on April 20th1 and North Carolina on April 22nd; by the end of the month Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, and Texas had also all ratified the new constitution.
On May 6th, 1851 the Confederate Congress met in Charleston, the Confederate Republic’s designated capital, for its first session. Not surprisingly, the first bill it passed was one calling for volunteers to enlist in the Confederate Army; also not surprisingly, the bill won unanimous approval in both houses of the Confederate Congress. As Sam Houston had previously learned to his sorrow, few if any Southerners cared to listen to warnings that they were treading down a road which led to catastrophe...
The Confederate Army’s first order of business was to occupy the federal army outpost Fort Sumter, which stood on a massive rock in the heart of Charleston Harbor. Equipped with massive batteries of cannon, it was viewed by the people and government of the CRA as a boil on the nose of the Confederacy....and the Confederate Army intended to lance that boil one way or another.
At 1:30 PM on July 6th, 1851 Confederate artillery regiments started a punishing artillery bombardment against Fort Sumter from shore batteries positioned along the edge of Charleston Harbor; just two hours later the officers and men at the fort surrendered, giving the Confederate Army its first significant victory in what would soon be known variously as the Toombs Insurrection, the Second American Revolution, or the Southern Rebellion War. President Fillmore learned of Sumter’s capture by telegram that night and was, to say the least, appalled by the news-- even after the Compromise of 1850 bill had been defeated in Congress he’d still held out hope that a civil war could be avoided, and the news of Sumter’s occupation was a bitter blow to this hope.
Clinging to the belief that it might still be possible to resolve the situation through non-violent means, Fillmore drafted a letter to Confederate president Robert A. Toombs offering to meet face-to-face with him to negotiate a political settlement of the crisis if Toombs would in return withdraw his troops from Fort Sumter and disband his army. Toombs, a former representative of Georgia’s 8th US Congressional District who’d been elected the Confederate Republic’s first president shortly after the Charleston convention ended, bluntly rejected this offer; the time for talking was past, he said in his letter of reply to Fillmore, and the Confederate Republic would fight the Northern states without pause until it had fully gained its independence from them.
Heartbroken, Fillmore finally acknowledged that his government would have to fight the Confederates, and on July 13th, 1851 he gave his new Secretary of War Winfield Scott the green light to call for volunteers to serve in the federal army.2 At the harbors in Boston and New York City, the Union navy assembled squadrons of warships for the twin purposes of blockading the Confederate coast and defending Union shipping lanes.
Two weeks after Fort Sumter fell the Confederate Army mounted its first major sustained ground offensive, sending three regiments across the Virginia state line into West Virginia to attack the town of Petersburg. Opposing them were a brigade of Union regular troops and three regiments of volunteers from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. On July 23rd, 1851 the pickets of the two armies met six miles east of Petersburg; the resulting engagement was only the first in a series of protracted clashes that would stain the ground of the Appalachians red over the the coming months. 560 Union soldiers and 820 Confederate troops were killed in the First Battle of Petersburg, a grim foretaste of the bloody showdowns that lay ahead as the war went on.
The First Battle of Petersburg was a shock to the system for the Confederate Republic and its army; the Confederate generals had been expecting to take the town with relative ease, but instead the Union forces defending Petersburg had opposed the invaders with a take-no- prisoners ferocity that eventually drove the Confederate troops back across the Virginia border in retreat. Confederate Secretary of the Army Charles Magill Conrad was incensed by his troops’ defeat at Petersburg, so much so that he fired one regimental commander who’d been involved in the debacle and had another commander court-martialed on charges of incompetence in the line of duty.
It was shortly after the Union victory at Petersburg that Conrad appointed Robert E. Lee, a West Point graduate who before the Southern Rebellion War began had been commandant of the Fort Carroll garrison in Baltimore Harbor, to take charge of the Confederate battlefront in northern Virginia. Conrad was highly familiar with Lee’s distinguished service record in the Mexican War and felt that Lee might be just the man the CRA needed to seize the initiative from the Union Army. It had not been an easy decision for Lee to join the Confederate Army-- in fact, shortly after the Charleston convention began he’d written home to his wife that he feared the coming civil war would rip the southern states apart no matter which side gained the final victory. On top of that, he opposed slavery on principle and had freed all his family’s slaves long before the war began. But when push came to shove, General Lee’s devotion to his home state of Virginia had outweighed his oath to serve the federal government, and thus he changed his blue uniform for the gray of the Confederate Army.
One of Lee’s responsibilities in his new assignment was to remedy the problem of disorganization among Confederate forces in Virginia that had contributed to the Confederate defeat in the First Battle of Petersburg. Co-ordination between the three army groups committed to the ill-fated attack on Petersburg had been, at best, inconsistent; the trio of separate commands needed to be merged into a single unified theater of operations if the Confederate Army was to have any luck in the future challenging Union forces on Appalachian soil.
To that end, General Lee issued a directive in August of 1851 consolidating the three armies into a new single unified command, the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee then proceeded to initiate a thorough reorganization of the ANV’s upper ranks; officers that he felt didn’t make the grade were transferred from front-line units to rear-echelon assignments where(it was hoped) they’d be less likely to cause trouble for the men in the field, while on the other hand officers deemed to have ability and good character were sent to take charge of front-line units in need of new leadership.
Shortly after the Army of Northern Virginia was formed one of General Lee’s fellow Virginians, an 18-year-old former West Point cadet by the name of J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart, enlisted in the Confederate Army. Stuart, who like many of his fellow Southern cadets had quit West Point in the months before the Southern Rebellion War broke out, was eager to get into the thick of the fighting and personally wrote to General Lee asking to be sent to the most dangerous sector of the front as soon as possible. That letter would turn out to be the start of a remarkable personal association between Lee and Stuart...
The Confederate Army’s first major victory after Fort Sumter came in late August of 1851, when the Army of Northern Virginia repulsed an attempt by Union volunteers to capture Harrisonburg. Had the volunteers succeeded in taking the city, or even getting within shelling range of it, it could have dealt a major setback to the CRA’s war effort right then and there. But the invaders were overconfident and seriously disorganized, and General Lee made effective use of his cavalry to rout the Union offensive.
Harrisonburg also marked Jeb Stuart’s baptism of fire as a Confederate soldier; his troop was involved in a flanking maneuver to provide additional cover fire for Lee’s main cavalry thrust, and it was an experience he would remember the rest of his days. As Stuart himself wrote: "The scene unfolding before me resembled something out of Dante’s Inferno...the smoke that hung in the air was so thick it wouldn’t have been entirely unreasonable to imagine it was possible to walk across it to the Yankee lines."3
Those Union volunteers not killed or captured by the Confederates fled back to West Virginia as fast as their horses could carry them; resisting what must have been an overwhelming temptation to chase them down, Lee’s cavalry forces paused to regroup and send prisoners to the rear while new Confederate volunteers were brought up to the front to take the place of men killed in the defense of Harrisonburg. But the Union Army was by no means idle either-- new volunteer regiments were being assembled in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut and the governor of Pennsylvania had signed an executive order providing for the formation of a new military service known as the Reserves that was specifically dedicated to providing extra manpower for the Union Army. This body would later be federalized and serve as a prototype for the modern-day National Guard.
Two weeks after the Union attempt to seize Harrisonburg was beaten back, the Union Navy recorded its first confirmed sinking of a Confederate ship. A Union man-of-war patrolling the blockade line off the coast of North Carolina fired on and sunk the blockade runner Star of the Seas after the Confederate vessel was spotted trying to sneak sneak through a gap in the Union naval barricade. In a bitter, highly sarcastic note to Confederate Secretary of War Conrad President Toombs wondered if the ill-fated blockade runner’s captain was a Union spy who had deliberately engineered his ship’s destruction to sabotage the Confederate war effort or simply an incompetent dolt who had gotten got himself killed because he hadn’t been paying attention to what the Union patrols were doing.4
The incident drove home the painful truth that the Confederate Republic had very little in the way of naval power to speak of. Much like Japan’s air forces in the latter stages of World War II or the Iraqi regular army in the Persian Gulf War, the Confederate Navy was seriously overmatched against Washington; much of it, in fact, only existed on paper. Secretary of War Conrad knew that something had to be done to change this state of affairs if the Confederate Republic were to have any hope of winning its war for independence; what Conrad didn’t know was what he should do to make that change come about or if it could be done in time to avert the Republic’s final defeat...
Union Secretary of the Navy William A. Graham, for his part, was determined that the Union side should retain its advantage at sea over the Confederates. Almost from the second the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter Graham had been urging Union shipyards to do their utmost to make sure that the Union Navy’s wartime need for combat vessels was adequately met; indeed, even before Sumter he had tirelessly lobbied President Fillmore and Congress to let him substantially increase both the size and budget of the Union Navy. However, he would have to wait until several months after Fort Sumter to see the first fruits of his labors.
In the meantime, the Confederate Army would be gathering its strength for the next major land battle of the Southern Rebellion War.
To Be Continued...
1Ironically, the day after the Virginia state legislature voted to ratify the Confederate Constitution, several of Virginia’s Appalachian counties seceded from the rest of the state to rejoin the Union as the new state of West Virginia.
2Scott, a hero of the Mexican War, had been appointed to the post by Fillmore after his predecessor, Charles Magill Conrad, resigned to join President Toombs’ cabinet as Confederate Secretary of War.
3Quoted from The War Diaries of J.E.B. Stuart, copyright 1881, reprinted 1965, University of Virginia Press.
4In contrast to the Union government, which placed its army and navy under the auspices of separate departments, the Confederate Republic put both ground and naval forces in the jurisdiction of a single cabinet post.