- Opening of the New year -- the people in advance of their Representatives -- conciliatory conduct of Southern members of Congress -- sensational fictions -- misstatements of the Count of Paris -- obligations of a Senator -- the Southern forts and arsenals -- Pensacola Bay and Fort Pickens -- the alleged “caucus” and its resolutions -- personal motives and feelings -- the presidency not a desirable office -- letter from the Hon. C. C. Clay.
With the failure of the Senate Committee of Thirteen to come to any agreement, the last reasonable hope of a pacific settlement of difficulties within the Union was extinguished in the minds of those most reluctant to abandon the effort. The year 1861 opened, as we have seen, upon the spectacle of a general belief, among the people of the planting states, in the necessity of an early secession, as the only possible alternative left them. It has already been shown that the calmness and deliberation, with which the measures requisite for withdrawal were adopted and executed, afford the best refutation of the charge that they were the result of haste, passion, or precipitation. Still more contrary to truth is the assertion, so often recklessly made and reiterated, that the people of the South were led into secession, against their will and their better judgment, by a few ambitious and discontented politicians. The truth is that the Southern people were in advance of their representatives throughout, and that these latter were not agitators or leaders in the popular movement. They were in harmony with its great principles, but their influence, with very few exceptions, was exerted to restrain rather than to accelerate their application, and to allay rather than to stimulate excitement. As sentinels on the outer wall, the people had a right to look to them for warning of approaching danger; as we have seen, in the last session of the last Congress that preceded the disruption, Southern Senators, of the class generally considered extremists, served on a committee of pacification, and strove earnestly to promote its object. Failing in this, they still exerted themselves to prevent the commission of any act that might result in bloodshed. Invention has busied itself, to the exhaustion of its resources, in the creation of imaginary “cabals,” “conspiracies,” and “intrigues,” among the Senators and Representatives of the South on duty in Washington at that time. The idle gossip of the public hotels, the sensational rumors  of the streets, the canards of newspaper correspondents—whatever was floating through the atmosphere of that anxious period—however lightly regarded at the moment by the more intelligent, has since been drawn upon for materials to be used in the construction of what has been widely accepted as authentic history. Nothing would seem to be too absurd for such uses. Thus, it has been gravely stated that a caucus of Southern Senators, held in the early part of January, “resolved to assume to themselves the political power of the South”; that they took entire control of all political and military operations; that they issued instructions for the passage of ordinances of secession, and for the seizure of forts, arsenals, and customhouses; with much more of the like groundless fiction. A foreign prince, who served for a time in the federal army, and has since undertaken to write a history of The Civil War in America —a history the incomparable blunders of which are redeemed from suspicion of wilful misstatement only by the writer's ignorance of the subject—speaks of the Southern representatives as having “kept their seats in Congress in order to be able to paralyze its action, forming, at the same time, a center whence they issued directions to their friends in the South to complete the dismemberment of the republic.”1 And again, with reference to the secession of several states, he says that “the word of command issued by the committee at Washington was promptly obeyed.”2 Statements such as these are a travesty upon history. That the representatives of the South held conference with one another and took counsel together, as men having common interests and threatened by common dangers, is true, and is the full extent of the truth. That they communicated to friends at home information of what was passing is to be presumed, and would have been most obligatory if it had not been that the published proceedings rendered such communication needless. But that any such man, or committee of men, should have undertaken to direct the mighty movement then progressing throughout the South, or to control, through the telegraph and the mails, the will and the judgment of conventions of the people, assembled under the full consciousness of the dignity of that sovereignty which they represented, would have been an extraordinary degree of folly and presumption. The absurdity of the statement is further evident from a consideration of the fact that the movements which culminated in the secession of the several states began before the meeting of Congress. They were  not inaugurated, prosecuted, or controlled by the Senators and Representatives in Congress, but by the governors, legislatures, and finally by the delegates of the people in conventions of the respective states. I believe I may fairly claim to have possessed a full share of the confidence of the people of the state which I in part represented; proof has already been furnished to show how little effect my own influence could have upon their action, even in the negative capacity of a brake upon the wheels, by means of which it was hurried on to consummation. As for the imputation of holding our seats as a vantage ground in plotting for the dismemberment of the Union—in connection with which the Count of Paris does me the honor to single out my name for special mention—it is a charge so dishonorable, if true, to its object—so disgraceful, if false, to its author—as to be outside of the proper limit of discussion. It is a charge which no accuser ever made in my presence, though I had in public debate more than once challenged its assertion and denounced its falsehood. It is enough to say that I always held, and repeatedly avowed, the principle that a Senator in Congress occupied the position of an ambassador from the state which he represented to the government of the United States, as well as in some sense a member of the government; that, in either capacity, it would be dishonorable to use his powers and privileges for the destruction or for the detriment of the government to which he was accredited. Acting on this principle, as long as I held a seat in the Senate, my best efforts were directed to the maintenance of the Constitution, the Union resulting from it, and to make the general government an effective agent of the states for its prescribed purpose. As soon as the paramount allegiance due to Mississippi forbade a continuance of these efforts, I withdrew from the position. To say that during this period I did nothing secretly, in conflict with what was done or professed openly, would be merely to assert my own integrity, which would be worthless to those who may doubt it, and superfluous to those who believe in it. What has been said on the subject for myself, I believe to be also true of my Southern associates in Congress. With regard to the forts, arsenals, etc., something more remains to be said. The authorities of the Southern states immediately after, and in some cases a few days before, their actual secession, took possession (in every instance without resistance or bloodshed) of forts, arsenals, customhouses, and other public property within their respective limits. I do not propose at this time to consider the question of their right to do so; that may be more properly done hereafter. But it may not be out of  place briefly to refer to the statement, often made, that the absence of troops from the military posts in the South, which enabled the states so quietly to take such possession, was the result of collusion and prearrangement between the Southern leaders and the federal Secretary of War, John B. Floyd of Virginia. It is a sufficient answer to this allegation to state the fact that the absence of troops from these posts, instead of being exceptional, was, and still is, their ordinary condition in time of peace. At the very moment when these sentences are being written (1880), although the army of the United States is twice as large as in 1860; although four years of internal war and a yet longer period of subsequent military occupation of the South have habituated the public to the presence of troops in their midst, to an extent that would formerly have been startling if not offensive; although allegations of continued disaffection on the part of the Southern people have been persistently reiterated, for party purposes—yet it is believed that the forts and arsenals in the states of the Gulf are in as defenseless a condition, and as liable to quiet seizure (if any such purpose existed), as in the beginning of the year 1861. Certainly, those within the range of my personal information are occupied, as they were at that time, only by ordnance sergeants or fort keepers. There were, however, some exceptions to this general rule—especially in the defensive works of the harbor of Charleston, the forts at Key West and the Dry Tortugas, and those protecting the entrance of Pensacola Bay. The events which occurred in Charleston harbor will be more conveniently noticed hereafter. The island forts near the extreme southern point of Florida were too isolated and too remote from population to be disturbed at that time; the situation long maintained at the mouth of Pensacola Bay affords, however, a signal illustration of the forbearance and conciliatory spirit that animated Southern counsels. For a long time Fort Pickens, on the island of Santa Rosa, at the entrance to the harbor, was occupied only by a small body of federal soldiers and marines—less than one hundred, all told. Immediately opposite, and in possession of the other two forts and the adjacent navy yard, was a strong force of volunteer troops of Florida and Alabama (which might, on short notice, have been largely increased), ready and anxious to attack and take possession of Fort Pickens. That they could have done so is unquestionable, and if mere considerations of military advantage had been consulted, it would surely have been done. But the love of peace and the purpose to preserve it, together with a revulsion from the thought of engaging in fraternal strife, were more potent than  considerations of probable interest. During the anxious period of uncertainty and apprehension which ensued, the efforts of the Southern Senators in Washington were employed to dissuade (they could not command) from any aggressive movement, however justifiable, that might lead to collision. These efforts were exerted through written and telegraphic communications to the governors of Alabama and Florida, the commander of the Southern troops, and other influential persons near the scene of operations. The records of the telegraphic office, if preserved, will no doubt show this to be a very moderate statement of those efforts. It is believed that by such influence alone a collision was averted; it is certain that its exercise gave great dissatisfaction at the time to some of the ardent advocates of more active measures. It may be that they were right, and that we who counseled delay and forbearance were wrong. Certainly if we could have foreseen the ultimate failure of all efforts for a peaceful settlement, and the perfidy that was afterward to be practiced in connection with them, our advice would have been different. Certain resolutions, said to have been adopted in a meeting of Senators held on the evening of January 5th,3 have been magnified, by the representations of artful commentators on the events of the period, into something vastly momentous. The significance of these resolutions was the admission that we could not longer advise delay, and even that was unimportant under the circumstances, for three of the states concerned had taken final action on the subject before the resolutions could have been communicated to them. As an expression of opinion, they merely stated that of which we had all become convinced by the experience of the previous month —that our long-cherished hopes had proved illusory—that further efforts in Congress would be unavailing, and that nothing remained, except that the states should take the matter into their own hands, as final  judges of their wrongs and of the measure of redress. They recommended the formation of a confederacy among the seceding states as early as possible after their secession—advice the expediency of which could hardly be questioned, either by friend or foe. As to the “instructions” asked for with regard to the propriety of continuing to hold their seats, I suppose it must have been caused by some diversity of opinion which then and long afterward continued to exist, and the practical value of which must have been confined to Senators of states which did not actually secede. For myself, I can only say that no advice could have prevailed on me to hold a seat in the Senate after receiving notice that Mississippi had withdrawn from the Union. The best evidence that my associates thought likewise is the fact that, although no instructions were given them, they promptly withdrew on the receipt of official information of the withdrawal of the states which they represented. It will not be amiss here briefly to state what were my position and feelings at the period now under consideration, as they have been the subject of gross and widespread misrepresentation. It is not only untrue, but absurd, to attribute to me motives of personal ambition to be gratified by a dismemberment of the Union. Much of my life had been spent in the military and civil service of the United States. Whatever reputation I had acquired was identified with their history; if future preferment had been the object, it would have led me to cling to the Union as long as a shred of it should remain. If any, judging after the event, should assume that I was allured by the high office subsequently conferred upon me by the people of the Confederate States, the answer to any such conclusion has been made by others, to whom it was well known before the Confederacy was formed, that I had no desire to be its President. When the suggestion was made to me, I expressed a decided objection, and gave reasons of a public and permanent character against being placed in that position. Furthermore, I then held the office of United States Senator from Mississippi—one which I preferred to all others. The kindness of the people had three times conferred it upon me, and I had no reason to fear that it would not be given again, as often as desired. So far from wishing to change this position for any other, I had specially requested my friends (some of whom had thought of putting me in nomination for the presidency of the United States in 1860) not to permit “my name to be used before the Convention for any nomination whatever.” I had been so near the office for four years, while in the cabinet of Pierce, that I saw it from behind the scenes, and it was to me an office in  no wise desirable. The responsibilities were great; the labor, the vexations, the disappointments, were greater. Those who have intimately known the official and personal life of our Presidents cannot fail to remember how few have left the office as happy men as when they entered it, how darkly the shadows gathered around the setting sun, and how eagerly the multitude would turn to gaze upon another orb just rising to take its place in the political firmament. Worn by incessant fatigue, broken in fortune, debarred by public opinion, prejudice, or tradition, from future employment, the wisest and best who have filled that office have retired to private life, to remember rather the failure of their hopes than the success of their efforts. He must, indeed, be a self-confident man who could hope to fill the chair of Washington with satisfaction to himself, with the assurance of receiving on his retirement the meed awarded by the people to that great man, that he had “lived enough for life and for glory,” or even of feeling that the sacrifice of self had been compensated by the service rendered to his country. The following facts were presented in a letter written several years ago by the Hon. C. C. Clay of Alabama, who was one of my most intimate associates in the Senate, with reference to certain misstatements to which his attention had been called by one of my friends:
The import is, that Mr. Davis, disappointed and chagrined at not receiving the nomination of the Democratic party for President of the United States in 1860, took the lead on the assembling of Congress in December, 1860, in a “conspiracy” of Southern Senators “which planned the secession of the Southern States from the Union,” and “on the night of January 5, 1861, . . . framed the scheme of revolution which was implicity and promptly followed at the South.” In other words, that Southern Senators (and, chief among them, Jefferson Davis), then and there, instigated and induced the Southern States to secede. I am quite sure that Mr. Davis neither expected nor desired the nomination for the Presidency of the United States in 1860. He never evinced any such aspiration, by word or sign, to me—with whom he was, I believe, as intimate and confidential as with any person outside of his own family. On the contrary, he requested the delegation from Mississippi not to permit the use of his name before the Convention. And, after the nomination of both Douglas and Breckinridge, he conferred with them, at the instance of leading Democrats, to persuade them to withdraw, that their friends might unite on some second choice—an office he would never have undertaken, had he sought the nomination or believed he was regarded as an aspirant. Mr. Davis did not take an active part in planning or hastening secession. I think he only regretfully consented to it, as a political necessity for the preservation of popular and State rights, which were seriously threatened by the triumph  of a sectional party who were pledged to make war on them. I know that some leading men, and even Mississippians, thought him too moderate and backward, and found fault with him for not taking a leading part in secession. No “plan of secession” or “scheme of revolution” was, to my knowledge, discussed—certainly none matured—at the caucus, 5th of January, 1861, unless, forsooth, the resolutions appended hereto be so held. They comprise the sum and substance of what was said and done. I never heard that the caucus advised the South “to accumulate munitions of war,” or “to organize and equip an army of one hundred thousand men,” or determined “to hold on as long as possible to the Southern seats.” So far from it, a majority of Southern Senators seemed to think there would be no war; that the dominant party in the North desired separation from the South, and would gladly let their “erring sisters go in peace.” I could multiply proofs of such a disposition. As to holding on to their seats, no Southern Legislature advised it, no Southern Senator who favored secession did so but one, and none others wished to do so, I believe. The “plan of secession,” if any, and the purpose of secession, unquestionably, originated, not in Washington City, or with the Senators or Representatives of the South, but among the people of the several States, many months before it was attempted. They followed no leaders at Washington or elsewhere, but acted for themselves, with an independence and unanimity unprecedented in any movement of such magnitude. Before the meeting of the caucus of January 5, 1861, South Carolina had seceded, and Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas had taken the initial step of secession, by calling conventions for its accomplishment. Before the election of Lincoln, all the Southern States, excepting one or two, had pledged themselves to separate from the Union upon the triumph of a sectional party in the Presidential election, by acts or resolutions of their Legislatures, resolves of both Democratic and Whig State Conventions, and of primary assemblies of the people—in every way in which they could commit themselves to any future act. Their purpose was proclaimed to the world through the press and telegraph, and criticised in Congress, in the Northern Legislatures, in press and pulpit, and on the hustings, during many months before Congress met in December, 1860. Over and above all these facts, the reports of the United States Senate show that, prior to the 5th of January, 1861, Southern Senators united with Northern Democratic Senators in an effort to effect pacification and prevent secession, and that Jefferson Davis was one of a committee appointed by the Senate to consider and report such a measure; that it failed because the Northern Republicans opposed everything that looked to peace; that Senator Douglas arraigned them as trying to precipitate secession, referred to Jefferson Davis as one who sought conciliation, and called upon the Republican Senators to tell what they would do, if anything, to restore harmony and prevent disunion. They did not even deign a response. Thus, by their sullen silence, they made confession (without avoidance) of their stubborn purpose to hold up no hand raised to maintain the Union. . .