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A House Divided:

The Southern Rebellion, 1850-54

By Chris Oakley

Part 14

(adapted from material previously posted at

Summary: In the previous 13 episodes of this series we looked at the boycott of Congress which precipitated the Southern Rebellion War and the course of the war itself right up to the fall of Biloxi, Mississippi in the spring of 1854. In this chapter we’ll recall the capture of notorious Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill; the end of Robert Toombs’ tenure as president of the Confederate Republic; and the accession of Toombs’ vice-president Alexander H. Stephens to the Confederate presidency .


With the last traces of Confederate resistance in Mississippi crushed, panic was setting in among the ranks of President Robert Toombs’ administration in Charleston. The rebellion which had been launched nearly three years earlier in hope and burning passion for states’ rights was now coming to an end in despair and the crushing weight of superior Federal numbers and firepower. The vital seaports of the Gulf Coast had been lost to Union forces; Virginia was fully in Union hands; the pro-slavery insurgencies in Kansas and Missouri were collapsing in the face of relentless hammer blows by volunteer militias fighting under the Union banner; Tennessee and Georgia were both under Union control; the Confederate campaign to retain control of Texas was failing disastrously; Union troops occupied all of North Carolina and were steadily pushing deeper into South Carolina; and in Alabama the last remaining pockets of Confederate resistance in that state were hemmed in by Union regiments ready, willing, and able to sweep them off the face of the earth. Even in Florida, the one state other than South Carolina still largely under Confederate control, a sense of impending doom prevailed among most of the civil population.

Jefferson Davis, who in spite of everything was continuing to publish the Charleston Mercury on a daily basis, had by now become the lead singer in the growing chorus of critics who wanted to see Toombs replaced as Confederate president. In the past Toombs and his allies had been-- to say the least --forceful in expressing their displeasure with Davis’ editorials, but with the Confederate Republic falling apart at the seams those allies were becoming fewer and fewer every passing day and their strength was vastly diminished. In sharp contrast the demands for Toombs’ resignation were growing louder and more frequent every day; even some Confederate Army officers joined in these calls for Toombs’ departure.

The protests were to get even more strident on April 7th, 1854, when Union cavalry squadrons in Alabama smashed a Confederate relief force sent to break the siege of the city of Tuscaloosa. The cannons had barely fallen silent before fingers started pointing at Toombs as the man chiefly responsible for this disaster; protest rallies were held in Charleston to demand Toombs not only resign from office but also be put on trial for his perceived incompetence. Anger over the Tuscaloosa defeat continued to steadily mount until, on the morning on April 13th, it erupted into the worst riot Charleston had seen up to that time. The violence devastated the Confederate capital’s main business sections and had to be put down by Confederate Army reserve troops.

Two days after the riot, President Toombs appeared before a joint session of the Confederate Congress to deliver a speech defending his conduct of the war. As one might expect, the speech was not especially well-received by most of the Confederate lawmakers in attendance; many of them openly jeered his remarks, and at least one senator had to be retrained by his colleagues from rushing the podium to attack Toombs. The Confederate president left the congressional chambers looking very shaken and white as a ghost-- he had long known that many in the ranks of the Confederate Senate and House of Representatives disapproved of his governmental policies, but he’d had no idea they so fiercely hated him as a person.

And the news just kept getting worse for Toombs; on April 19th, 1854 General Alexander Doniphan, erstwhile commander of the Army of the Tennessee, resigned from the Confederate Army and used his letter of resignation to publicly demand that the Confederate president be impeached for what Doniphan described as “hideous, inexcusable crimes against the Republic”. Of all of Toombs’ generals, only Lee enjoyed greater prestige and respect than Doniphan, and to hear Doniphan call for Toombs’ impeachment was a highly devastating personal blow to the Confederate president. Although a handful of Toombs’ remaining backers denounced Doniphan as a traitor for his call to convene impeachment proceedings against the CRA’s commander-in-chief, a growing number of other Confederate citizens raised their voices in Doniphan’s defense, and a sizable faction among the general’s supporters even advocated his nomination for the Confederate presidency.


One young Confederate citizen took his disgust with the Toombs government to a dramatic and violent extreme. John Wilkes Booth, an actor’s son whose father had fallen prey to a sniper’s bullet while on a tour of Confederate Army training camps to bolster Confederate troops’ morale, blamed Toombs for the senior Booth’s death and had vowed to avenge that death by killing the Confederate president. He was still a few weeks shy of his sixteenth birthday at the time that Alexander Doniphan left the Confederate Army, but he’d taught himself to fire a gun with the speed and accuracy of someone much older-- and he intended to use what he’d learned to take revenge on Toombs.

On May 4th, 1854 Booth left the boarding house where he and his widowed mother had been staying since his father’s death and rode the stage to the center of Charleston, a Colt revolver tucked inside his coat. He got off the stagecoach about two blocks from the executive mansion where President Toombs and his cabinet had their offices; as he waited for his intended target to emerge from the mansion and step into the line of fire, he took a seat on the porch in front of a local café just across the street. He thought he could use the nearby alley as an escape route once he’d shot Toombs dead, but his plans would go spectacularly and fatally awry. Around 1:00 PM in the afternoon, Booth caught a glimpse of Toombs starting to walk out the front door of the executive mansion and drew his revolver with the intention of shooting the Confederate president through the heart. Unfortunately for Booth, President Toombs’ bodyguards happened to step out that door at almost exactly the same instant and spotted Booth’s revolver right as he was about to pull the trigger.

In a panic Booth shot and wounded one bodyguard, then fired two bullets in President Toombs’ direction that missed Toombs by less than half a foot; the second bodyguard squeezed off a round that caught the Virginia expatriate square in the face and shattered his brain. He was dead before he hit the ground and would be buried the next day; Toombs was shaken but unhurt. An infuriated band of Toombs supporters, sure that Jefferson Davis had sponsored or at least encouraged the attempt on the Confederate president’s life, marched toward the offices of the Charleston Mercury with the intent of burning those offices down. Only the last-minute intervention of a detachment of South Carolina militia troops kept the mob from fulfilling their intentions. Discouraged from lynching Davis, the mob vented its frustration by smashing windows at a nearby saloon and beating up a bystander who had made the mistake of complaining about the noise the mob was making.

Her psyche shattered by overwhelming grief over her son’s death, Booth’s mother committed suicide two days later, but her passing was overshadowed in most Charleston newspapers by the attempt on Toombs’ life and the near-riot that ensued in its wake. Already strident calls for the Confederate president’s resignation became even louder, and as Toombs saw what was left of his political capital rapidly evaporate, a new blow to his battered pride came on May 10th in the form of a letter from Robert E. Lee warning the Confederate president that disaffection with his administration among the Confederate Republic’s military was reaching epic proportions. Any hope he might have held out for staying in office until his term was up-- or the war ended, whichever happened to come first --was, if not dead, certainly very weak.

Floored by the realization that both his nation and his political career were about to crumble into ruins, Toombs went into seclusion to ponder his options. While he was doing that, Jefferson Davis wrote the first draft of his most scathing anti-Toombs editorial yet and Union Army regiments marshaled their forces in preparation for launching the final great campaign of the war....


In the hinterlands of what was popularly known in newspapers of the day as “bleeding Kansas”, a long-running and bitter pro-slavery guerrilla campaign against the state’s abolitionists was also coming to an end. When the Southern Rebellion War initially broke out in 1851 William Quantrill, a passionate young advocate of both slavery and the Confederate Republic, had volunteered to join a band of insurgents who were waging war on anti-slavery Kansans. The insurgency had gotten off to a promising start, but when the Confederacy’s fortunes began taking a turn for the worse so too did those of the guerrilla forces, and now Quantrill was in danger of being captured or killed by the very enemy he’d spent much of his early teenage years trying to destroy. Federal military authorities in the state were offering a $5,000 reward to any person with reliable information leading to the arrest or death of the young insurgent.

It wouldn’t take much more time before that reward was collected. On May 15th, 1854, five days after Robert E. Lee’s fateful dispatch to President Toombs, a pro-Union farmer living near Wichita alerted local authorities to an impending raid by Quantrill and eight of his fellow guerrillas on a Kansas state militia munitions storage facility; that afternoon Union cavalry detachments hit the guerrilla camp full force, killing four of Quantrill’s comrades and arresting Quantrill himself. A military tribunal convened two weeks after Quantrill’s capture found him guilty on sixteen counts ranging from theft of federal property to treason against the U.S. government. He was sentenced to death on June 1st and hanged on June 2nd.

Reaction to the hanging was mixed among Kansans; some viewed Quantrill as a monster-in-training who had richly deserved his fate, while others saw him as a young latter-day William Tell who’d been a victim of Federal persecution and must be avenged. Among those who fell into the second category were two Baptist minister’s sons whose names would one day be synonymous with outlaw activity across the Wild West: Frank and Jesse James.


By the time William Quantrill was buried, the endgame had been played out in Robert Toombs’ desperate and ultimately futile struggle to retain the Confederate presidency. In a final act of contempt for his old enemy Jefferson Davis, Toombs had held a closed-door special meeting of his cabinet on May 20th at which he announced his intention to have Davis deported to Mexico at once; his cabinet emphatically and immediately advised against such action, saying it would make him look like the tyrant Northern abolitionists accused him of being. And when he instructed Confederate secretary of state Judah P. Benjamin to send a telegram to the Mexican government notifying them of Toombs’ plan to exile Davis south of the border, the Mexican foreign ministry quickly dispatched its own telegram in reply flatly declaring that it refused under any circumstances to accept Toombs’ decision. The wording of the Mexican foreign ministry’s reply to Benjamin’s telegram made it clear that they were outraged over what they considered a blatant affront to their country’s sovereignty; one can only imagine how much greater the Mexican government’s anger might have been had Toombs actually gone ahead with his plans to deport Davis; some people have even suggested the Mexican army of that era had contingency plans drafted to use the contretemps over Davis as a pretext for sending troops across the Rio Grande to recapture Texas for Mexico, a claim in which few mainstream historians on either side of the border put much stock.

In any case, when word leaked out of Toombs’ attempt to banish Davis the Confederate president’s political career was effectively finished. Those who weren’t condemning him as a despot were laughing at him as a fool; newspaper cartoons on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line showed Toombs in a dunce’s cap, looking utterly befuddled at the way the war was going. Not surprisingly, the Charleston Mercury was only too eager to accept such cartoons for publication; in some cases Jefferson Davis himself even supplied the caption for them. Conceding that he’d lost his ability to lead the crumbling Confederate Republic, Toombs met with Judah P. Benjamin at 12 noon on May 31st, 1854 and gave him a brief letter tendering his resignation as Confederate president. Toombs’ vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, was officially sworn in as the new Confederate chief executive at 12:01 PM.

In his first speech as the new Confederate president, Stephens pledged to “fight to the last bullet” against the Union armies that were even as he spoke closing the ring around Charleston. He was just going through the motions, however; even the most cockeyed optimist at that point couldn’t believe the South had any real hope of holding out against the Federal armies that much longer....

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To Be Continued

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