South Carolina Unionists

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South
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The Union is in danger posterIn 1860, South Carolina ‘unionists’ believed in unionism as a matter of policy and not of principle. In other words, they saw it as a vehicle to continue to maintain the Union in order to rule the Union.

The South had held the upper hand in the governance of the United States for several reasons. There was an absolute solidarity among the Southerners in the Congress. Every so-called compromise had been devised to assuage Southern beliefs on the issue of slavery. Threats of secession and nullification kept their northern adversaries on edge.

The counting of slaves as 3/5th of whites allowed the South to maintain a numerical advantage in the House of Representatives from the very beginning of the Republic.

The measure of the South’s actual power can be seen in the office of the Presidency. Of the first fifteen Presidents seven were from the South while two more were born in the South. Seven of the fifteen were born in Virginia. This southernness gave the southern Presidents a sense that the South was right about slavery. They tended to favor their native region on national policy issues.

In fact, during the years leading up to the 1860 Presidential election the radical secessionists in South Carolina led by Robert Barnwell Rhett had lost their ascendancy to a union of National Democrats and co-operationists. This party held that the dominance of the South in the national government could only be maintained by the Democratic Party. They also believed that the South would not be ruined economically by the continuation of the Union.

The secessionists continued to attempt to split the Democratic Party. By doing so they believed that the upcoming Presidential election would be won by the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, and precipitate a split in the Union. But the majority of South Carolinians were in favor of a candidate who would be agreeable to both wings of the Democratic Party. This would assure a victory for the party and continued dominance of the South on the national stage.

But the South Carolina state convention after beating back the Alabama proposal to withdraw from the national convention inexplicably sent sixteen delegates to the Charleston convention without instructions. Succumbing to pressure from both the secessionists and telegrams from South Carolina’ Congressional representatives, thirteen of the sixteen voted to withdraw from the national convention. The stampede had begun.

Over the following weeks the radicals gained the upper hand in South Carolina. The state convention was totally controlled by the radicals. After the election of Robert Rhett as their leader the conservatives withdrew allowing the radicals to fill the delegation with like-mined individuals. The Richmond convention nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky who was the sitting Vice President. The South Carolinians vowed to campaign for the continuation of a ‘Constitutional Union’.

As Lincoln’s strength began to grow serious discussions took place among politicians in South Carolina. Voices in South Carolina began to be heard for dissolution of the Union in the event of a Republican victory. Meanwhile, the conservatives began to argue that the state should not go it alone but only in concert with the other Southern states.

As election day approached South Carolina teetered on the edge. The secessionists attempted to win the majority of Presidential electors while the conservatives still held the upper hand in Charleston and the Upper Districts along the South Carolina-North Carolina border. Lincoln’s election ignited the desire of the secessionists for a state convention to discussion secession. The conservatives attempted to stem the emotional tide by calling for delay.

The event that precipitated the calling of the secession conventions appears to be the resignation of A.G. McGrath as United States District Court Judge who announced that he was preparing to obey the wishes of his state. This news caused the wildest excitement in Charleston and Columbia. Once it appeared that Georgia was prepared to join South Carolina the convention was pushed up by a month to December 6th.

The delegates to the South Carolina were considered to be the best men that the state had: ex-governors, members of the bench, clergy, congressmen and businessmen. These were men of moderation and thoughtfulness who had the confidence of the people.

The convention was originally slated to meet in Columbia but the threat of a smallpox epidemic had many calling for a move to Charleston. On December 17th the convention voted to adjourn and meet in Charleston. But speeches by commissioners from Alabama and Mississippi urging the immediate secession of South Carolina changed the delegate’s minds. They voted for immediate secession and appointed a committee to draw up the ordinance of secession. Three days later the delegates met in Charleston and signed the fatal document of secession.

Something like 23% of South Carolina’s white men would serve in the Confederate Army and state militia. Among Union troops not a single South Carolinian can be identified. South Carolina is the only state of the South to have that distinction. Five regiments of African-Americans were raised in the state after the Union Army occupied the coastal areas.

 

 

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