Charleston at War: A simple Ordinance of Secession
It had all come down to this moment.
Robert Barnwell Rhett sat in the grand meeting room at St. Andrew's Hall, waiting for his name to be called. It was just after 1 p.m. on Dec. 20, 1860, and -- decades after he had first suggested the idea -- South Carolina was seceding from the United States of America.
So much had happened in a few short weeks. Since the election of Abraham Lincoln, Charleston had been abuzz with the coming "Convention of the People of South Carolina," as the Mercury called it.
There had been meetings nearly every night, Charlestonians plotting their next moves, speculating on how Washington would react to their secession -- which most people now accepted as a foregone conclusion. The actual vote seemed little more than formality.
The convention had opened in Columbia three days earlier, but panic over an alleged outbreak of smallpox sent the delegates scrambling for the train to Charleston. Rhett likely found it fitting that the secession ordinance he had promoted for years would be approved on Broad Street, a few blocks from the offices of the Mercury, the newspaper he owned.
Rhett listened carefully as John Inglis called the names of convention delegates: "Bonneau … Brabham … Brown …"
Every call was answered with "Aye."
Inglis had been appointed chairman of the committee that drafted the ordinance, but in part the panel used a document Rhett had prepared long before the convention. It sped the process along considerably.
"Middleton ... Miles," Inglis continued. "Palmer ... Porcher."
Over the years, Rhett had fallen in and out of favor for his views -- some thought him a visionary, others believed him a hopeless extremist. But all that had changed since the election. For a while there had even been rumors that he would be elected governor, but that talk had been quickly silenced. He did not campaign for the job, perhaps because he had other ideas.
Finally, Inglis called Rhett's name. In the silence of St. Andrew's Hall, he savored the moment a second before answering.
South Carolina's secession convention had dragged on for days.
At first, the delegates had been bogged down with trivial matters -- what to do with federal employees working in the state, how to handle mail service. They even debated whether to allow reporters into the chamber. Rhett, himself a delegate, had no reason to be overly concerned with the Mercury's access.
Although some protested, most delegates argued that barring newspapers from the room would look bad. It would appear they were ashamed of what they were doing, and they certainly were not ashamed.
They fully believed they were doing the will of the people.
For proof, they only had to look beyond South Carolina's border. In the weeks following Lincoln's election, several other Southern states -- Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia among them -- had begun planning their own separate conventions.
Representatives of at least two of those states were in the audience to assure the men that, if they seceded, they would not stand alone for long. Some of South Carolina's delegates would be appointed to coordinate with these states. Already, there was talk of forming a confederacy with them.
At the same time, Rhett had been selected to join a delegation that would travel to Washington and negotiate a settlement of all debts between the state and the U.S. government.
Among other issues, these delegates would deliver terms for the government to turn over all federal forts in Charleston; the United States no longer would be welcome to hold property in South Carolina.
Of course, first there was the actual business of seceding.
The ordinance itself, which the delegation would carry to Washington, was so simple that the men gathered in St. Andrew's Hall had little need to debate it. It read:
"AN ORDINANCE to dissolve the union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled 'The Constitution of the United States of America.'
We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the 'United States of America,' is hereby dissolved.
Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty."
It took less than 10 minutes to call the roll. When Inglis finished at 1:15 p.m., the vote was 169-0.
Within minutes of the vote, the Mercury had a special edition circulating on the streets of Charleston. Its banner headline -- destined to become an iconic symbol of the coming conflict -- was even simpler than the ordinance. And when the citizens of Charleston read the news, the paper later reported, "loud shouts of joy rent the air." The headline read:
"The UNION is DISSOLVED!"
As word of the vote spread through Charleston, church bells rang and businesses suspended trade. The Citadel fired artillery salutes, volunteers donned the uniforms of local militia and new flags were unfurled.
The officers of the Lewer Guard House stretched a line from their station to City Hall and used it to hang a banner that featured a palmetto with a rattlesnake coiled around it, cannons on either side. The names of the 15 Southern states surrounded the palmetto, along with the words "Hope," "Faith" and "Southern Republic."
The Mercury reported "(a)t the base of the arch the non-slaveholding states are represented divided and broken into fragments, and underneath the whole of the motto, 'Built from the ruins,' indicative of the position of South Carolina and the Southern Confederacy."
According to the newspaper, the entire community was overjoyed by the vote. But somewhere in the city, others were less enthusiastic. One man saved his special edition of the Mercury, and it eventually would be preserved in the Charleston Museum for more than a century.
At the bottom of the paper, the man wrote, "You'll regret the day you ever done it. I preserve this to see how it ends."
Many Charlestonians, however, saw secession as a step into the light of freedom and independence, words that evoked strong emotional responses. South Carolinians had been told by their politicians that a minority was controlling the majority and that wasn't the way the United States had been designed to work.
Such was the rhetoric that secessionists used to rally the masses, but there were more specific reasons. That was evident in the "declarations of causes which justify the secession of South Carolina from the federal union," a report written by a committee of delegates.
Late in the convention, this report was delivered by C.G. Memminger, with significant influence by Rhett. It recounted the entire history of the United States from the adoption of the Constitution forward, with notations of the rights of sovereignty and self-government given to the states.
Reading the report, Memminger spoke of "an increasing hostility on the part of the Northern States to the institution of slavery" that had led to their disregard of sovereignty. He spoke of federal laws that once supported slavery now being used against the institution.
"These states have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery."
The report was so heavily laced with slavery rhetoric that another delegate, Maxcy Gregg, stood up and complained that "not one word is said about the tariff, which for so many years caused a contest in this State against the Federal Government."
Gregg referred to an 1828 tariff intended to protect Northern industries. The "Tariff of Abominations," as Southerners referred to it, cost them more to buy certain raw materials and also led to a decline in Britain's orders for Southern cotton.
The tariff was the direct cause of the nullification crisis. Some delegates wanted to name tariffs as the overriding reason for secession, and introduced a motion to table Memminger's report -- the first sign of division in the convention.
The delegates had agreed to cast a unanimous vote for the secession itself, but they were not in agreement on the reason for their action. Gregg had at least two dozen delegates on his side, men who considered tariffs their greatest concern. But their motion to table Memminger's report failed by a 4-to-1 ratio.
Williams Middleton, owner of Middleton Place, was among the delegates in favor of naming U.S. slavery policy as the cause of secession. According to Tracey Todd, a Middleton Place historian, Williams and his brother John Izard Middleton, who owned a plantation in Georgetown and was also a delegate, held hundreds of enslaved African-Americans, whom they used to cultivate rice, cotton and other crops.
These slaves also managed the plantations' considerable collections of livestock. The Middletons' entire livelihood depended upon slave labor, and it was the perceived threats to the institution that had convinced them that South Carolina must secede.
Other delegates had less specific criticisms of Memminger's committee report. Some wanted to soften it, to downplay the role of slavery in their decision, to make it more palatable. But men such as the Middletons held the most sway at the convention, and Memminger's report was adopted.
The report was accepted by a voice vote on Christmas Eve -- a move, historians would note, that left it unclear how many delegates actually voted to name slavery as the main cause of secession. But it was a majority.
Rhett biographer William C. Davis later would say that although Rhett did not consider slavery "the root cause of secession in his mind," it "was certainly the occasion that brought it about."
In fact, Rhett found Memminger's version of the report tame.
More than 3,000 people crowded the streets of downtown Charleston that evening, eager to catch a glimpse of history. At 6:30 the delegates finally appeared outside St. Andrew's Hall. There they quickly fell in a line and began their march down Broad Street.
There had been considerable debate over when and where to sign the actual ordinance. A few delegates wanted to delay the signing until the next day at noon, which would allow time to have the ordinance printed on parchment.
But a majority did not want to wait -- it had been passed on Dec. 20 and they wanted to sign it on Dec. 20. The ordinance had been rushed to a printer, who was persuaded to have it ready that evening.
When they reached the corner of Broad and Meeting, the delegates turned north on Meeting. The Mercury later would describe the sight as "grand and impressive."
"There were a people assembled through their highest representatives -- men most of them upon whose heads the snows of sixty winters had been shed -- the dignitaries of the land -- the High Priests of the Church of Christ -- revered statesmen -- and the wise judges of the law," the paper proclaimed.
The parade ended at Institute Hall, which had been deemed the most appropriate site for the ceremony. In a fit of patriotism, the building had been renamed "Secession Hall."
Inside, the ceremony began with the Rev. John Bachman offering a prayer about "this great act ... about to be consummated." Then the convention's president, David F. Jamison, read the ordinance off the parchment.
By the time Jamison reached the word "dissolved," the Mercury said, the crowd erupted -- the "men could contain themselves no longer, and a shout that shook the very building, reverberating, long-continued, rose to Heaven, and ceased only with the loss of breath."
The delegates lined up in the alphabetical order of the districts they represented to wait their turn with the document. The actual signing took two hours. As each man wrote his name on the parchment, the cheers increased throughout the hall. By the time Rhett reached the ordinance, the Mercury later reported, the shouts had become deafening.
When Rhett stepped up to the table, biographer Davis later wrote, "Suddenly he fell to his knees, lifted his hands upward toward the heavens, and bowed his head in prayer."
It was, Davis noted, a bit of high drama. But then, Rhett had waited nearly his entire life for this. He signed his name under Memminger's, "R. Barnwell Rhett," and soon after that, it was done.
South Carolina had officially, irrevocably, seceded from the Union.
Next week: Fort Moultrie abandoned