January 21, 1861
By any standard, this scene has to rank as one of the most dramatic events ever enacted in the chamber of the United States Senate. Would-be spectators arrived at the Capitol before sunrise on a frigid January morning. Those who came after 9:00 a.m., finding all gallery seats taken, frantically attempted to enter the already crowded cloakrooms and lobby adjacent to the chamber. Just days earlier, the states of Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama had joined South Carolina in deciding to secede from the Union. Rumors flew that Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas would soon follow.
On January 21, 1861, a fearful capital city awaited the farewell addresses of five senators. One observer sensed "blood in the air" as the chaplain delivered his prayer at high noon. With every senator at his place, Vice President John Breckinridge postponed a vote on admitting Kansas as a free state to recognize senators from Florida and Alabama.
When the four senators completed their farewell addresses, all eyes turned to Mississippi's Jefferson Davis—the acknowledged leader of the South in Congress. Tall, slender, and gaunt at the age of 52, Davis had been confined to his bed for more than a week. Suffering the nearly incapacitating pain of facial neuralgia, he began his valedictory in a low voice. As he proceeded, his voice gained volume and force.
"I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that . . . the state of Mississippi . . . has declared her separation from the United States." He explained that his state acted because "we are about to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us." Davis implored his Senate colleagues to work for a continuation of peaceful relations between the United States and the departing states. Otherwise, he predicted, interference with his state's decision would "bring disaster on every portion of the country."
Absolute silence met the conclusion of his six-minute address. Then a burst of applause and the sounds of open weeping swept the chamber. The vice president immediately rose to his feet, followed by the 58 senators and the mass of spectators as Davis and his four colleagues solemnly walked up the center aisle and out the swinging doors.
Later, describing the "unutterable grief" of that occasion, Davis said that his words had been "not my utterances but rather leaves torn from the book of fate."
Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.