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Secession Crisis

Following the Election of 1860, some prominent Southern leaders, Jefferson Davis among them, wanted to give the Lincoln administration a chance to sooth the sectional strife. However, South Carolina sized the initiative, having clearly warned that if the Republicans won the 1860 election then the state would leave the Union.

A special convention, attended by Robert Rhett and other noted “fire-eaters,” was convened following the election and unanimously passed a resolution of secession on December 20, 1860.

The second to secede was Mississippi. Mississippi had passed resolutions on November 20, setting out their reasons for seceding, but the actual break did not take place until January 9. Before the end of the month, four more states -- Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana -- had formally seceded. Texas followed suit on February 1.

After the secession decisions of the first seven states had been made, the movement halted. Resolutions for leaving the Union were prepared in other Southern states, but not passed. Some observers felt this was an encouraging sign and hoped that war could be averted.

President James Buchanan did little. He expressed the view that it was illegal for the seven states to secede, but he also felt that it was illegal for the federal government to take any steps to halt secession. Buchanan believed, and would so maintain to the end of his life, that the problem was caused by the actions of the Northern abolitionists. No plan was forthcoming from the president, who eagerly awaited the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile the Southern states were taking steps to bolster their military preparedness. Aided by Secretary of War John Floyd, a Virginian, large stockpiles of arms were turned over to officials in the seceded states. Arsenals and forts were seized by state officials.

Two fortified positions did not fall immediately into Southern hands—Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and Fort Pickens near Pensacola. Buchanan, for once taking a firm stance, refused a demand from South Carolina to hand over Fort Sumter. The President attempted to reinforce the position, but the ship carrying supplies and soldiers was dissuaded by Southern guns.