Thursday, March 15, 2007

William W. Freehling Talk: Part II

South Carolina’s decision to secede, a military crisis and a misunderstanding dramatically changed the decision facing the other southern States. Professor Freehling stated that James Buchanan was one of the most misunderstood presidents. He was not a wimp. After South Carolina seceded, Buchanan decided to reinforce Robert Anderson, who had moved his men to Fort Sumter. As we know, The Star of West was shelled when it approached the fort and turned back. If it had not, the war would have started then. That was the military crisis.

The misunderstanding was that of the southern commissioners then meeting in Washington. They assumed that Buchanan’s reinforcement of Fort Sumter meant that he was reinforcing every federal fort and installation throughout the south. They sent out telegrams to this effect. The lower southern states responded by seizing every federal fort in their territories. Having done so, they no longer faced the simply the question, “Shall we support South Carolina?” Instead, they faced the question, Shall we support our troops, our boys, who were already in the field, as it were. The seizure of the forts “utterly changed the equation” in the lower south. Throughout the lower south, military engagements had, in effect, already taken place before votes for secession took place.

Even so, the mid- and upper-southern States did not secede. They still wanted to try to work things out. All this changed when Lincoln asked for 75,000 troops. This would have, for example, forced Virginia boys to fight against South Carolina boys. “All hell broke loose.” Just days earlier, the Virginia Convention was 2-1 against secession. All that changed. Immediately after, Henry Wise, an ex-governor with no authority, ordered troops to seize federal installations in Virginia, including Harper’s Ferry.

And even after that, the border south states did not secede. They thought secession was a terrible mistake. Where would the war be fought? On their soil. Whose slaves were most at risk? Theirs. They hated those South Carolina “hot heads.” In the end, States containing one-third of the southern white population did not secede.

Professor Freehling believes that the war was won in the West. The failure of the border States to secede was tremendously important. Think of Kentucky. Think of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Returning to why the lower southern States, other than South Carolina, seceded, Professor Freehling stated that he did not believe that they did not do so simply to protect and preserve the institution of black slavery. They were also motivated by the desire not to be coerced. Their mistaken understanding that Buchanan was reinforcing all federal forts meant coercion, and coercion meant slavery. If white men did not resist, they would not be free; and if they were not free, they were slaves. This was probably the most important factor.

(I would add that, with the significant twist of the forts issue, Professor Freehling’s brief discussion of white perceptions of freedom and slavery as bearing on secession seemed to reflect agreement with the arguments of H. Mills Thornton in Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama 1800-1850. You can read my post about that book here.)

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