April 12, 1861
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. Less than 34 hours later, Union forces surrendered. Traditionally, this event has been used to mark the beginning of the Civil War. In the Senate, however, the fall of Sumter was the latest in a series of events that culminated in war.
On November 6, 1860, in an election that brought the new Republican Party to national power, Abraham Lincoln was elected president by a strictly northern vote. Four days later, on November 10, Senator James Chesnut resigned his Senate seat and returned home to South Carolina to draft an ordinance of secession. One day later, South Carolina’s James Hammond also pledged to support the Confederacy “with all the strength I have.”
In the wake of these dramatic events, the Senate convened the 2nd session of the 36th Congress on December 3, 1860. Vice President John Breckinridge presided as the Senate chaplain offered a benediction. “Hear our petitions, and send us an answer of peace,” he prayed. “May all bitterness and wrath” be put away, and may senators “deliberate . . . not as partisans, but as brethren and patriots, seeking the highest welfare . . . of the whole country . . . . Hear us . . . , and heal our land.” The clerk then called the roll. Ten southern senators failed to answer.
The secession crisis grew with each passing week, forcing the Senate to deal with vacant seats and diminishing quorums. When Mississippi voted to secede on January 9, Senator Jefferson Davis issued a warning. “If you desire at this last moment to avert civil war, so be it,” he told his colleagues. “If you will not have it thus . . . , a war is to be inaugurated the like of which men have not seen.” Six more senators were gone by the end of January, and three others left in February. Eventually, 25 of the Senate’s 66 members left to support the Confederate cause. Even Vice President Breckinridge walked out, although his state of Kentucky remained loyal to the Union.
Long before Lincoln took the oath of office, and long before those fateful shots were fired at Fort Sumter, the Senate faced its own civil war. Yet, it managed to fulfill its constitutional duties. During these months, it confirmed five cabinet secretaries and a Supreme Court justice and passed important legislation, such as the 1861 tariff bill that provided badly needed revenue. It established a Committee of Thirteen to consider peace proposals, including Senator John Crittenden’s plan to extend to the Pacific Ocean the Missouri Compromise line dividing free from slave states. Crittenden hoped for another peaceful solution, but Radical Republicans like Charles Sumner dismissed such efforts. Secession was not “merely political,” Sumner argued, it was “a revolution.” The era of compromise was gone. Crittenden’s proposal failed.
By the time Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, rumors were circulating of a threatened Confederate attack at Fort Sumter. Northern Republicans, backed by an abolitionist press, demanded military action. “Reinforce Fort Sumter at all hazards!” became the northerners’ cry. Lincoln agreed to re-supply the fort, but with food rather than weapons. Fort Sumter fell. Now the lines were drawn, not only in the Senate, but across the nation. “Every man must be for the United States or against it,” proclaimed Senator Stephen Douglas. “There can be no neutrals in this war.”