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When the Nation Split.

Long before Kosovo and Chechnya demanded independence, America faced its own "breakaway republic"

In the Russian republic of Dagestan near the Caspian Sea, Islamic separatists are fighting Russian soldiers to make their land independent. In the Serbian province of Kosovo this spring, ethnic Albanians fought for separation from Serbia. Other separatist movements have popped up around the globe, from India to Iraq.

Does part of a nation have the right to break away and become a nation itself? The United States faced that question in 1861, when 11 Southern states tried to secede from--or leave--the Union and form their own country. The effort led to the roar of cannons on an early April morning--and a four-year Civil War.

The conflict had its roots in black slavery. That institution, which had died out in the North, was now the foundation of the South's plantation economy--and the legal backbone of a social system for keeping blacks in submission.

Southern leaders feared that a growing antislavery movement in the North threatened slavery's survival. New territories seeking statehood became the testing ground: Would they permit slavery? And if they didn't, would their votes in Congress tip the scales against the South, putting it under the North's domination?

Those questions hung in the air in 1850, when Congress was deciding what to do about the new state of California. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun held that because the original 13 colonies had voluntarily formed the Union, states could leave at will too. If California was admitted as a free state, he thought, it might be time for the South to secede. Ailing and near death, he sat in the Senate while a colleague read for him a speech Calhoun was too weak to deliver. It warned the North:

If you are unwilling we should part in peace, tell us so; and we shall know what to do when you reduce the question to submission or resistance.... California will become the test question ... [showing the North's] intention of destroying irretrievably the equilibrium between the two sections.

Three days later, in his famous "Seventh of March" speech, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster rejected secession on both moral and practical grounds:

Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility... The disruption of the union ... must produce war.... We could not sit down here today and draw a line of separation that would satisfy any five men in the country.

California was admitted, but Congress pleased the South with another law requiring the return of runaway slaves. Tempers cooled--for a while. By 1860, they had become inflamed again with the Presidential candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, whose Republican party opposed the extension of slavery. One Senator, Kentucky's John Crittenden, said the Republicans

think it their duty to destroy ... the white man, in order that the black might be free. [The South] has come to the conclusion that in case Lincoln should be elected ... she could not submit to the consequences, and therefore, to avoid her fate, will secede from the Union.

Lincoln won, and then things happened fast. South Carolina's legislature called a convention, which voted 169 to 0 for secession. Within weeks, six other states followed suit.

No one had a rule book telling what to do about secession. Democratic President James Buchanan, still in office until Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, disapproved of secession, but didn't know if he could use force to suppress it. And many in the North opposed force. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, wrote:

If the Cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace.... We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.

But The New York Times disagreed, claiming that if Southern states were allowed to secede,

a thousand sources of hostility would be created by the very fact of separation ... War would inevitably follow.

In February, the seceding states formed the Confederate States of America. Upper South states didn't secede at first, but vowed to join the Deep South states if the government tried to force them back into the Union.

As the rebels took over federal post offices, forts, and arsenals within their borders, attention focused on one fort still in U.S. hands: Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina (often misspelled as "Sumpter" in the Northern press).

Everyone waited to see what President Lincoln would do. In his inaugural address, he offered friendship to the South--but also signaled that he would defend Fort Sumter:

The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government.

The next month, Confederate authorities responded by asking for Fort Sumter's surrender. Its commander refused. On April 12, the Southern guns opened fire, and the next day's Times told the story:

War is inaugurated. The batteries... opened on Fort Sumpter at 4 o'clock this morning. [The fort] has returned the fire, and a brisk cannonading has been kept up.

Badly in need of supplies, Fort Sumter surrendered the next day. But the gunfire spurred both sides to action. Four more states seceded, and Lincoln issued a call for troops to put down the rebellion. Secession had begun to exact its toll in blood.
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Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 20, 1999
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