Secession of the Southern States: Causes & Timeline

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  • 0:05 Two Cultures, Major Conflicts
  • 2:08 Election Upsets
  • 2:53 Eleven States Leave
  • 4:47 The States That Remained
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the secession of the 11 states that made up the Confederate States of America. We will discover their reasons for leaving the Union and take a look at the motives of the slave states that chose not to join the Confederacy.

Two Cultures, Major Conflicts

Ever since the formation of the United States of America, the North and the South followed different paths. By the mid 1800s, the differences between the two regions were so pronounced that many observers felt like the country was home to two distinct cultures.

The North was becoming more and more industrial and dedicated to free labor and immigration. Many Northerners committed themselves to chasing the American dream of the poor man working hard, making a home for himself, and perhaps even doing great things. Slavery was not common and even banned in some states, and a growing abolitionist movement frequently demanded freedom for all people. The North was also more inclined to support a strong federal government.

The South could not have been more different. Its agricultural economy was founded on cotton and slave labor. Southerners tended to favor a less-powerful federal government that allowed more room for states to make their own rules, especially when it came to slavery. Many in the South resented the North and viewed their northern neighbors as trying to destroy their Southern culture with industrial progress and abolitionism.

These two contrasting cultures engaged in some major conflicts during the first half of the 1800s, especially over the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Many in the North believed that slavery should be contained to its current boundaries. They saw the West as a place for small farmers who worked the land themselves and purchased goods made in the North. Southerners, on the other hand, were eying the expansive western lands with the notion of expanding their plantations and, of course, bringing their slaves with them. A series of compromises kept the situation in a tentative balance until 1860.

Election Upsets

Then came the 1860 presidential election. Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform that called for the prohibition of slavery's expansion in the West. Southerners watched nervously; they saw the Republicans as a bunch of abolitionists who wanted to take away their rights and their slaves.

A few impassioned Southerners called 'Fire-eaters' vigorously called for Southern secession if Lincoln won the election, and many of their neighbors agreed. Lincoln did win, and the South was faced with a choice: remain in the Union with a Republican president or take decisive action and secede.

Eleven States Leave

As soon as the election returns were in, South Carolina's governor and legislature called for a secession convention, which convened on December 17, 1860. It didn't take long for the delegates to decide what to do. On December 20, they voted unanimously to leave the Union.

Their declaration of secession reads in part: 'We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain that... the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the 'United States of America,' is hereby dissolved.'

Other states soon followed South Carolina. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas called their own conventions and issued their own declarations of secession by February 1, 1861. On February 4, delegates from the seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama, to set up their new government and officially organize the Confederate States of America.

Still more states, especially those with slave-based economies, watched closely to see how the U.S. would respond to the newly established Confederacy. On April 12, 1861, South Carolina troops opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston after the U.S. commander there refused to surrender. Southern secession had turned violent, and President Lincoln called for troops to put down the rebellion. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee, ignoring the fact that the South had fired first, seceded in protest against Northern aggression. The Confederacy of eleven states was now complete.

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