Southern Ambitions

Leaving the South Alone

As our doors are closed we love to hear from our visitors and connect them with the history that matters most to them. This week, we answer a question about the decision to go to war.
Jonathan asks:

Why did Lincoln and his administration not allow the South to go peacefully before instigating a war that killed up to a million people? Jefferson Davis said all we ask is to be left alone, peace negotiators sent to Washington were rebuffed by Lincoln and team as they refused to recognize their cause. In the true sense of freedom in the same respect as we seceded from Britain eighty some years earlier why not allow those choosing to separate themselves and live their own way to leave?

Chris Graham, our Curator of Exhibits, takes on this question.

As President, simply put, Abraham Lincoln had a responsibility to protect the integrity of the United States. Why wouldn’t he resist secession? Beyond that, loyal American citizens had an investment in the perpetuation of American democracy and the American union–they regarded it as unique, daring, and virtuous form of government that had succeeded in a world of monarchs and autocrats. For it to come apart upon the secession of what they regarded as an aristocratic slaveocracy would be a failure of the great experiment in self-government that the Revolutionary generation had bequeathed. I take these observations from Gary Gallagher’s The Union War

Certainly, as you note, Lincoln’s (and Congress’) rebuffing of peace commissioners in the spring of 1861 hastened the onset of hostilities. (So too, did his call for troops after Fort Sumter–but nowhere did Lincoln or anyone else anticipate or relish the scale of carnage to come.) Those southerners most invested in the peace commissions were upper south unionists who did not want to secede in the first place. The success of those commissions might have emboldened upper south anti-Confederates and given them a platform to resist secession of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Had those states not seceded, the entire complexion of the war would have been different. Daniel Crofts has written compellingly on this in his book Reluctant Confederates.

Interestingly, we interpret Jefferson Davis’ April 29, 1861 “left alone” address as more than just a plea to not be bothered. (In that speech he dismissed the efforts of the peace commissions.) Indeed, Confederates in the spring of 1861 did desire peace and did not want war. But they also did not wish to become a hermit nation. They wished to be “left alone”–meaning free from abolitionist, free labor, and protective tariff interference in the fulfillment of a cotton and slavery fueled global destiny. That aspiration has little to do with the day-to-day unfolding of the secession crisis in April 1861, but it does lay out an aspiration that could embrace a vision of conflict between the Confederacy and the United States. We explore this in an upcoming temporary exhibition called Southern Ambitions, based on the work of Adrian Brettle. It will hopefully be open as soon as this Coronavirus passes. I hope you will be able to visit it. 

Thanks for reaching out! If you have a question that you would like #AskACWM to answer, we’d love to hear from you!


Visitor questions for the Museum