On Georgia’s secession, 150 years ago yesterday…

Posted on January 20, 2011 by

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As the anniversary of each state’s vote to secede goes by, I see a tweet or two announcing the fact, but little discussion about the same. Occasionally, a newspaper article or editorial appears in a state newspaper’s online edition. Pretty much, it seems at times as if the states seceded… and that was it.

They seceded, they were Confederates, and that’s all we need to know… end of story.

Fact of the matter is, that’s what many (not all) a Confederate celebrationist would like us to believe (picture that unified, solid South), yet, the facts behind the secession of each state are far more complicated… and interesting… making for a much more fascinating story of the South in the Civil War.

Because I know that there are greater stories behind the states and the decisions to secede, I find myself referring back to several books on my shelves. With Georgia’s secession, for example, I took time to look at David Williams, et al (Teresa Crisp Williams, and David Carlson) in Plain Folk in a Rich Man’s War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia. The first chapter, Secession and Dissent, has a nice overview of events… and how all weren’t so enthusiastic to secede. I’ll give you a little about some of the interesting details…

Regarding the public opinion on secession…

On January 2, the voters went to the polls to choose convention delegates. The Athens Southern Watchman declared anti-secessionists the victors; the popular vote: 42,744 opposing secession; 41,717 supporting. Voter participation was twenty-one thousand (20 percent) below that of the previous November’s presidential election. Alexander Stephens estimated that the poor weather cost anti-secessionists at least ten thousand votes.

Regarding the “democratic process”…

Williams notes that some charged outright fraud.

Shortly before the convention met, one furious voter accused Singleton Sisk, a Missionary Baptist Minister, of cheating Habersham County out of its vote. In an open letter to the Athens Southern Watchman, he told how this “janus-faced expounder of the Gospel” had declared himself a Union man to gain the nomination of Habersham’s antisecessionists. With their backing, Sisk was elected to the convention. “After the election, we find that he had privately promised the Secessionists that he would, in the Convention, support Secession.” Sisk indeed betrayed his constituents and backed secession at the convention. Similar betrayals occurred among the representatives of at least twenty-eight other Georgia counties. In Campbell County, the fraud was so transparent that some who went to the polls declined to vote for the candidate.

As early as December 22, 1860, a disgusted Thomaston editor complained bitterly that Georgia voters would not have a truly representative state convention:

“We do not believe that the character of the sentiments of a majority of the Convention will reflect the wishes of a majority of the people. The delegates appear to be nominated by mass conventions assembled at the county sites; and it is plain that not half of the citizens attend these nominations. But few men living ten or fifteen miles from [the] county site go to such conventions… and as it is an admitted fact that the secession sentiment is much stronger in and around the cities than it is among the common people in the country, it is easy to see the advantage the ‘immediate secessionists’ will have in the Convention.”

When the convention met at Milledgeville, Eugenius A. Nisbet proposed a test prosecession resolution to gauge the feeling of the delegates. Enough delegates who had been elected on a promise to vote against secession were enticed by the promise of “a slave republic” to pass the resolution by a vote of 166 to 130. The next day, with more delegates switching sides, the convention approved a secession ordinance 208-89. It could hardly have been surprising that the convention ultimately went for secession despite the popular vote. While little more than a third of Georgia’s electorate owned slaves, 87 percent of the convention delegates were slaveholders. Setting down its justifications for secession, the convention listed first and foremost “causes of complaint… in reference to the subject of African slavery.”

So, let’s think about this a bit more. What are you seeing in this? Is it really as simple as “they seceded, they were Confederates, end of story”?

Southerners weren’t as quick to jump on the secession bandwagon as some suggest, in fact, it appears evident that the populace was being thrust into a series of unfortunate events. Sure, with Lincoln’s call for troops, opinions changed… more Southerners rallied behind the “defense of the Southland”, defense of hearth and home from an invader… but would they have needed to do so had it not been for those pushing for secession? Had it not been for many of those delegates (many of these being slaveholders, and therefore the motivation to secede) who misrepresented the common man, would Lincoln have felt the need to call for troops? Secessionists pushed the issue… not the common man of the South… not the future common soldier in the ranks of the Confederate army.

More Southerners should be making the argument that blame rests at the feet of secessionists, not Lincoln.

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