Charleston at War: Divided Democrats set the stage
There was great excitement on Broad Street that evening.
Local men dressed in fine suits congregated on Charleston's busiest thoroughfare, their voices carrying along the dirt street, their shadows dancing on the walls of three-story storefronts, most of which had been closed for hours.
It was Nov. 6, 1860, and the "enthusiastic" gentlemen of the Holy City had gathered in front of the telegraph offices and the headquarters of the Charleston Mercury to await news of the nation's presidential election.
Years of strife, decades of conflict, had all come down to one vote. Nothing less than the future of the country rested on the electorate's decision.
Although the mood outside the newspaper office was festive, there was a palpable anxiety running through Charleston. For decades, the South -- and South Carolina in particular -- had grown increasingly restless with the state of the Union.
In 1832, South Carolina had nearly brought the country to war over tariffs that state politicians considered unfair. Two decades later, the Legislature declared that the state had the right to secede, although lawmakers stopped short of following through on the threat.
These politicians claimed the federal government was growing too powerful, infringing on the rights of states to control their own destinies. Much of this was a response to limitations that Congress had put on slavery and the actions of Northern states, which often refused to return fugitive slaves to their owners.
It was, to Southern politicians of the day, largely an issue of economics. While the North was marching into the Industrial Age, the South clung to an agrarian economy, one that was almost wholly dependent on slave labor. To the men who controlled South Carolina, it seemed the federal government wanted to put that most "peculiar institution" out of business.
And that would cripple the South's economy.
The intricacies of the situation eluded most Southerners. They knew only what they were told by firebrand politicians: the sectional strife was an issue of states' rights and that the North was trying to establish a permanent subjugation of the South.
The man who had come to personify the villainy of the North, the symbol of what Southerners considered wrong with the country, was an Illinois Republican named Abraham Lincoln. And it appeared that the country lawyer had a good chance of becoming the next president of the United States.
For much of the year, South Carolina politicians had claimed that if Lincoln were elected, the state would have no choice but to secede. These men had promoted Kentuckian John Breckinridge for the presidency, promising the Union would remain intact if he were elected. They likely offered such bold pronouncements with their minds made up: Breckinridge was the longest of long shots, the nominee only of Southern Democrats.
All of this consternation culminated on election night in Charleston.
The first dispatch to arrive that evening came from Connecticut. The telegraph reported that the state had gone for Lincoln by a majority of several thousand votes.
Soon after that, the telegraph operator received word that North Carolina had chosen Breckinridge.
It was the third dispatch that finally stirred the crowd into a frenzy. The Associated Press sent out a bulletin that declared, according to the Mercury, "Lincoln's election was certain, and that trifling details were unnecessary."
The reaction of the men on Broad Street might have seemed odd at first. The Mercury reported that when the Associated Press story was read, "a long and continued cheering" went up. This was not, the paper felt compelled to clarify, a celebration of Lincoln, but for "a Southern Confederacy."
"The greatest excitement prevailed, and the news spread with lightning rapidity over the city," the Mercury reported.
Decades of discontent
Robert Barnwell Rhett had anticipated the moment for decades.
A lifelong politician, Rhett had served as South Carolina's attorney general, a state legislator and a member of Congress, both in the House and the Senate. For much of that time, he had been one of the country's most extreme proponents of secession. His position had become so strident that it long ago had caused him to break with his political mentor, John C. Calhoun.
The late Calhoun, former vice president and father of South Carolina politics, had been an outspoken proponent of nullification, limited government and slavery. But the old man had not been willing to go far enough on secession to suit Rhett.
Rhett had so zealously promoted his idea of a separate Southern nation that he -- like other secessionists, such as Edmund Ruffin -- had been dubbed a "fire-eater" by Northerners. He once had tried to stir sentiment for secession at a convention of Southern states in Nashville. When he failed, Rhett had receded from public view somewhat.
For a long time, most politicians distanced themselves from his rhetoric.
In the decade since his appearance in Nashville, he had continued to push his views in the Charleston Mercury, the newspaper he owned and that was edited by his son, R.B. Rhett Jr. Now, after years in the political desert and countless papers editorializing his positions, Rhett's views were fashionable once again.
He had become a local hero of sorts. Earlier that fall, he had been honored with a life-size transparency of himself in the window of the Charleston Restaurant. The city had even named its new militia the Rhett Guard.
As his biographer, William C. Davis, later would write, Rhett "could hardly help being immensely satisfied with all these expressions that he had been right all along and that at last South Carolina had caught up to him."
Of course, the long discourses on secession published in the Mercury were largely preaching to the choir. No place in the United States was more ripe for revolution than South Carolina, and Charleston in particular.
Charleston had become a world left behind by much of the country. In 1800, it had been the fifth-largest city in the country -- a city nearly the equal of New York or Philadelphia. But times were changing and, as the decades of the 19th century began melting away, Charleston's standing -- and population -- failed to keep pace.
By 1860, Charleston's influence was on the wane. Harper's Weekly declared that one of the oldest cities in the country was "once one of the greatest cities on this continent."
Part of the reason for this seemed to be the state's political leaders and their fierce devotion to the agrarian economy, an economy fueled by slave labor. In 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the United States -- and 10 percent of them were in South Carolina, where they made up 57 percent of the population. More than 400,000 African-Americans in South Carolina were enslaved while a mere 10,000 of them were "free."
In Charleston, 36 percent of the city's 48,409 people were slaves, which represented a decline from past decades. Michael Allen, a historian with the National Park Service, would later note that the city had one of the most complicated class systems in the country.
The wealthy elite, largely made up of plantation owners who lived in the city part time, mingled in exclusive clubs and societies. But downtown was also the home of working- class whites -- bakers, cobblers, blacksmiths, artisans. Just below them on the social ladder were free African-Americans (a large portion of the state's free black population lived in Charleston). And then there were the slaves.
Some of these enslaved African-Americans worked as servants in the city's mansions, but just as many could be seen on any given day in the city market, selling their own wares or produce from their owners' farms. Many even worked as artisans or laborers, although their pay went to their owners. There were restrictions on where these slaves could be in the city at any particular time, and they had to carry papers or tags so that they were easily identified (free blacks also had to carry papers to avoid confusion or arrest).
The men who owned these slaves were among South Carolina's most powerful politicians. No other state had such a large contingent of slave owners in its Legislature. From the point of view of many politicians in Washington, the city's -- and much of the South's -- ways had passed. This was never more evident than in April 1860, when Charleston had hosted the Democratic National Convention at Institute Hall.
It was a disaster of sectional rivalry.
Massachusetts politician Caleb Cushing, a former U.S. attorney general and congressman, was elected presiding officer of the convention, and his opening remarks seemed to take aim at the men of the convention's host city.
"Ours, gentlemen, is the motto inscribed on that scroll in the hands of the monumental statue of the great statesman of South Carolina -- 'Truth, Justice and the Constitution,' " Cushing said to raucous applause.
"Opposed to us are those who labor to overthrow the Constitution, under the false and insidious pretence of supporting it; those who are aiming to produce in this country a permanent sectional conspiracy of one-half of the states of the union against the other half -- those who, impelled by a stupid and half insane spirit of faction and fanaticism, would hurry our land on to revolution and civil war."
He said this to somewhat lighter applause.
Cushing had set the tone for a divisive meeting. The Democrats argued over a nominee for a week, going through more than 100 ballots without agreeing on their presidential candidate. The Northerners wanted Stephen Douglas, who had defeated Lincoln for his Senate seat two years earlier; the Southerners wanted Breckinridge, at that time the vice president. Neither side would relent. At an impasse, the delegates finally gave up and returned to their home states.
The Northern Democrats later reconvened in Baltimore and nominated Douglas. The Southerners, including Rhett, held a separate convention in Richmond that summer, where they nominated Breckinridge. In effect, they split the national ticket, providing a boost to Lincoln's candidacy.
Two years earlier, in the speech that alerted Southerners to Lincoln's politics, the candidate -- paraphrasing the New Testament -- had said, "a house divided against itself cannot stand."
The Democrats themselves were fulfilling that prophecy: dividing themselves, and dividing the country.
'At all hazards'
In the days following Lincoln's victory, the Mercury beat the drums of secession through Charleston. On Thursday, Nov. 8, the paper's lead headline declared that, as a result of the election, "The States Rights Flag Thrown to the Breeze."
This warning was the talk of Charleston. In conversations around town, locals swore they would resist Lincoln's rule "at all hazards." The Mercury gleefully reported many such overheard conversations and idle threats.
No doubt, Rhett's seeds of discontent had taken root. The newspaper reported that most people think "the South would soon govern the South."
"The tea of 1860 has been thrown overboard -- the revolution of 1860 has been initiated," the Mercury opined.
For the rest of the week, Charleston was overwhelmed by impromptu meetings, strategy sessions and even a rally outside City Hall. The wife of one United States senator, who arrived in town the day after the election, later wrote that she could hear the men's excited conversations one floor below her hotel room.
"The noise of the speaking and cheering was pretty hard on a tired traveler," Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote. "Suddenly, I found myself listening with pleasure. Voice, tone, temper, sentiment, language -- all were perfect."
On Nov. 10, the state Legislature called for a convention Dec. 17 "to take into consideration ... their relations with the Federal Government." At a ceremony to ratify the convention a few days later, a triumphant Robert Barnwell Rhett set the tone for the meeting.
In his speech, Rhett outlined the numerous sins the North had perpetuated against the South: It had invited foreigners to settle the territories bought in the Louisiana Purchase to dilute the power of the Southern states in Congress. It had initially declined to admit Missouri to the Union because it "tolerated slavery." It had imposed tariffs on the South that exclusively benefited Northern interests.
For all those reasons, Rhett declared, the South should withdraw from the Union much as the United States had withdrawn from Britain.
The South could form its own nation, Rhett said, and three principles should guide the new country: slavery should be permitted, powers of taxation should be limited and "the forts and fortresses in our bay should never again be surrendered to any power on earth."
"My friends, the Union is dissolved," Rhett said. "The long weary night of our humiliation, oppression and danger is passing away, and the glorious dawn of a Southern Confederacy breaks on our view. With the blessing of God, we will soon be a great people -- happy, prosperous and free."
All that remained was for one state to take the first step.
Next week: The Secession Convention.