Thursday April 17, 1861
Commentary: Secession of the Upper South
Since Lincoln's appeal for troops precipitated the secession of Virginia and the rest of the upper South, some historians hold Lincoln accountable for this result. In their leading textbook of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods,
James G. Randall and David Donald interpret the upper South's actions as the "unfortunate effect of Lincoln's April policy." According to Randall and Donald, the upper South desired peace, conciliation, and respect for southern rights,
but felt that Lincoln was insufficiently conciliatory and should have avoided a crisis at Sumter. Lincoln's proclamation calling forth troops was the final straw, for "it served in one flash to alienate that whole mass of U
nion sentiment which, while not pro-Lincoln,
was nevertheless antisecessionist and constituted Lincoln's best chance of saving the Union without war."
However plausible this view may be, one can question whether a more conciliatory policy, such as yielding Sumter to the Confederacy, would have permanently kept Virginia and the other southern states in the Union.
Conciliation might only have played into the hands of the Confederacy, giving it added legitimacy, permitting it to strengthen its military position, encouraging its recognition by European governments, and allowing it to threaten such vital economic interests as the Mississippi River.
And would conciliation have stayed the hand of fire-eaters like Edmund Ruffin, who were eager to provoke conflict so as to compel the upper South to join the Confederacy?
Bibliography: Randall and Donald, Civil War, pp. 180, 188-89.