United States Senate
 GO
United States Senate Senators HomeCommittees HomeLegislation & Records HomeArt & History HomeVisitor Center HomeReference Home
United States Senate
People
Origins & Development
Senate Stories
Art & History Exhibits
Decorative Art
Paintings
Sculpture
Graphic Arts
Oral History Homepage


  
 
 
The Civil War Senate Reacts to Secession

Clement Claiborne Clay, Jr. a senator from Alabama, 1853-1861

Declares Seats Vacant and Expels Disloyal Members


Senate Action Against Disloyal Members (by state)

Background

In November 1860 a deeply divided nation teetered on the brink of civil war. Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election prompted a rapid succession of dramatic events. On November 10 James Chesnut of South Carolina became the first senator to leave the Senate to support the Confederacy. On December 20 South Carolina seceded from the Union. That same day, the Senate established a “Committee of Thirteen” to examine plans to save the Union, including the proposal of Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden to extend to the Pacific the line established by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery north of the 36th parallel.

On January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to secede. This action prompted Senator Jefferson Davis to address the Senate on January 10, imploring his colleagues to allow for peaceful secession of the southern states. On January 21 five senators from Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, led by Davis, bade farewell to the Senate. The secession of southern states and the withdrawal of their elected representatives forced an unprecedented constitutional crisis in Congress.

On March 14, 1861, senators debated what to do with seats left vacant by their southern colleagues. Did the states or their representatives have the right to leave the Union? Some senators, such as Maine’s William Pitt Fessenden, insisted that southern states did not have the right to withdraw from the Union. By leaving the Senate, Fessenden argued, southern members had effectively resigned their seats. Others, such as Delaware’s James Bayard, believed states did have the right to secede and that seats held by southern secessionists no longer existed. The Senate should not declare their seats vacant but simply strike their names from the roll. After a heated exchange, the Senate sided with Fessenden and passed a resolution declaring the seats of six of their departed colleagues “vacant” and authorizing the Secretary of the Senate to strike their names from the Senate roll.

In July the Senate debated the fate of southern members whose terms had not expired and who had not formally notified the Senate of their withdrawal. An intense debate followed. Senator Milton Latham of California opposed expulsion, insisting that it reflected poorly “upon the personal character of the individual” and implied “turpitude.” The author of the resolution, New Hampshire’s Daniel Clark , urged his colleagues to pass the resolution and “deny here, on the floor of the Senate, the right of any State to secede,” by expelling southern members “from the councils of the nation.” The Senate approved Clark’s resolution on July 11, 1861, expelling 10 absent members by a vote of 32-10.

Senators barred four more members for disloyalty during the course of the war. On December 4, 1861, the Senate expelled   John Breckinridge of Kentucky for taking up “arms against the Government he had sworn to support.” On January 10, 1862, the Senate voted unanimously to expel Missouri’s two senators, Waldo Johnson and Trusten Polk, for “sympathy with and participation in the rebellion against the Government of the United States.” On February 5, 1862, the Senate passed a resolution to expel Indiana’s Jesse Bright for disloyalty to the Union based on a letter he addressed to “His Excellency Jefferson Davis,” in which Bright introduced his acquaintance, a Texas arms dealer, to the president of the Confederacy.

A few states, such as Missouri and Kentucky, elected new members to replace those who were expelled. The Unionist government in Virginia sent two senators to Capitol Hill. Many desks remained unoccupied in the Senate Chamber throughout the war years and into the Reconstruction era, serving as painful reminders of the nation’s disunion. The Senate continued to admit southern members from reconstructed states to representation through the early 1870s.


Senate Action Against Disloyal Members, 1861-1862

Alabama

    Clement Clay, Jr : Did not appear on March 14, 1861; salary paid to January 21, 1861; seat declared vacant on March 14, 1861; member of the Confederate Senate 1861-1863; was a diplomatic agent of the Confederate States; arrested and imprisoned in Fortress Monroe in 1865.

    Benjamin Fitzpatrick : Salary paid to February 4, 1861; term expired on March 3, 1861, and Senate took no formal action against him; president of the constitutional convention of Alabama in 1865.

Arkansas

    William K. Sebastian : Expelled on July 11, 1861; returned to Helena, Ark., where he resided during the Civil War and practiced law; after federal troops occupied Helena, Ark., moved to Memphis, TN., in 1864 and resumed the practice of law.

    Charles B. Mitchel : Expelled on July 11, 1861; elected to the Confederate senate at the first session of the State legislature and served until his death in Little Rock, AR, September 20, 1864.

Florida

    David Yulee : Withdrew on January 21, 1861; salary paid to this date; term expired on March 3, 1861, and Senate took no formal action against him; due to his support of the Confederacy, was a prisoner at Fort Pulaski in 1865; president of the Florida Railroad Company 1853-1866.

    Stephen Mallory : Withdrew on January 21, 1861; seat declared vacant on March 14, 1861; salary paid to this date; Secretary of the Navy of the Confederacy; imprisoned at the close of the Civil War 1865-1866.

Georgia

    Robert A. Toombs : Withdrew on February 4, 1861; salary paid to this date; seat declared vacant on March 14, 1861; during the Civil War served in the Confederate Provisional Congress; Secretary of State of the Confederate States; brigadier general in the Confederate Army; in order to avoid arrest at the end of the Civil War, fled to Havana and then to London; returned to his home in Washington, GA., in 1867.

    Alfred Iverson, Sr : Withdrew on January 28, 1861; term expired on March 3, 1861, and Senate took no formal action against him; resumed the practice of law in Columbus, Ga., until 1868, when he purchased a plantation in East Macon, GA., and engaged in agricultural pursuits until his death there on March 4, 1873.

Indiana

    Jesse D. Bright : Expelled on February 5, 1862 for disloyalty to the Union; unsuccessful candidate for election in 1863 to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by his expulsion.

Kentucky

    John C. Breckinridge : Expelled on December 4, 1861, for disloyalty to the Union; entered the Confederate Army during the Civil War as brigadier general and soon became a major general; Secretary of War in the Cabinet of the Confederate States from January until April 1865.

Louisiana

    Judah P. Benjamin : Withdrew on February 4, 1861; seat declared vacant on March 14, 1861; appointed Attorney General under the provisional government of the Confederate States, February 1861; appointed Acting Secretary of War of the Confederate States in August 1861 and served until November 1861, when he was appointed Secretary of War; served in this capacity until February 1862, when he resigned to accept the appointment as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President Jefferson Davis, in which capacity he served until the end of the war.

    John Slidell : Withdrew on February 4, 1861; salary paid to this date; term expired on March 3, 1861, and Senate took no formal action against him; on November 8, 1861, while on a diplomatic mission from the Confederate States to England and France, was taken from the British mail steamer Trent, sailing from Havana to England, and confined in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor; was later released and sailed for Paris.

Mississippi

    Jefferson Davis : Withdrew on January 21, 1861; seat declared vacant on March 14, 1861; salary paid to this date; elected President of the Confederacy for a term of six years and inaugurated in Richmond, Va., February 22, 1862; captured by Union troops in Irwinsville, Ga., May 10, 1865; imprisoned in Fortress Monroe, indicted for treason, and was paroled in the custody of the court in 1867.

    Albert G. Brown : Withdrew on January 12, 1861; salary paid to January 14, 1861; seat declared vacant on March 14, 1861; served as captain in the Confederate Army; elected a member of the Confederate Senate in 1862 and served in the First and Second Confederate Congresses.

Missouri

    Waldo P. Johnson : Expelled on January 10, 1862, upon rumors he aided the Confederacy; served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War; attained the rank of lieutenant colonel of the Fourth Missouri Infantry; appointed a member of the Senate of the Confederate States to fill a vacancy.

    Trusten Polk : Expelled on January 10, 1862, upon rumors he aided the Confederacy; served as colonel in the Confederate Army; judge in the military courts of the department of Mississippi in 1864 and 1865.

North Carolina

    Thomas Bragg : Withdrew on March 8, 1861; expelled on July 11, 1861; appointed Attorney General of the Confederate States November 21, 1861, and served two years.

    Thomas L. Clingman : Withdrew March 11, 1861; expelled on July 11, 1861; served as brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

South Carolina

    James Chesnut, Jr. : Withdrew on November 10, 1860; salary paid to this date; expelled on July 11, 1861; served as colonel in the Confederate Army; appointed brigadier general in 1864.

    James H. Hammond : Withdrew on November 11, 1860; salary paid to this date; term expired on March 3, 1861, and Senate took no formal action against him; died at “Redcliffe,” Beach Island, SC, November 13, 1864.

Tennessee

    Alfred O. P. Nicholson : Withdrew on March 3, 1861; expelled on July 11, 1861; chief justice of the supreme court of Tennessee 1870-1876.

Texas

    Louis T. Wigfall : Withdrew on March 23, 1861; expelled on July 11, 1861; served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War; represented the State of Texas in the Confederate Congress.

    John Hemphill : Did not appear on March 4, 1861, for the 38th Congress; expelled on July 11, 1861; represented the state of Texas in the Congress of the Confederate States of America until his death.

Virgina

    James M. Mason : Withdrew on March 28, 1861; expelled on July 11, 1861; appointed commissioner of the Confederacy to Great Britain and France.

    Robert M. T. Hunter : Withdrew on March 28, 1861; expelled on July 11, 1861; Confederate Secretary of State 1861-1862; served in the Confederate Senate from Virginia in the First and Second Congresses 1862-1865 and was President pro tempore on various occasions.

 
  

Civil War Sesquicentennial

View online features that explore the Senate's wartime experience.


E-mail a Senate historian

Information provided by the Senate Historical Office.

Questions about Senate History?
Email a Senate historian.


  Civil War Expulsion Cases 1 (1862)
  Civil War Expulsion Cases 2 (1862)