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Who decided the southern states would secede?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: March 19, 2013 
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Who decided that the southern states would secede?

—BL

? ? ?

Dear BL,

It was the state legislatures, made up of state representatives elected by white slave owners, who determined their states' secessions in turn, starting with conventions that ratified a series of thirteen Ordinances of Secession, beginning with South Carolina on December 20, 1860. Actual secession did not reach a point of no return until the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, but after that eleven states seceded, some (e.g., Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee) not doing so until President Abraham Lincoln's call to mobilize 75,000 troops led to a perceived threat to the states themselves that drove many Southerners who had previously opposed secession (including Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Jubal A. Early) to commit to the cause. Even then, Virginia, Tennessee and Texas only adopted ordinances of secession after follow-up referendums. Kentucky and Missouri passed ordinances of secession, but ended up staying in the Union, although some Kentuckians who favored secession formed Confederate "orphan" units and similarly inclined Missourians fought in both formal regiments and "bushwhacker" guerrilla bands. Virginia's ordinance was rejected by 26 northern and western counties, which held two conventions in Wheeling in May and June that gave Richmond a taste of its own medicine by laying the foundation for a secession of their own—to form the Unionist state of West Virginia (See "Virginia's Great Divorce," America's Civil War magazine, May/June 2013).

Sincerely,

 

Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
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