Dec. 20, 2021

South Carolina Secedes

South Carolina Secedes

December 20, 1860. South Carolina secedes from the Union precipitating the Civil War

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Cold Open

It’s before sunrise on April 12th, 1861.

But the sky above Charleston Harbor is ablaze with light.

Mortar shells whistle through the air. The thunder of artillery rolls across the mouth of the harbor and echoes off the red-brick walls of Fort Sumter – a military base off the South Carolina coast, and the target of this bombardment.

Striding down the seawall, ordering volley after volley of cannon fire, is General Gustave Beauregard. A dandyish Louisianan with a black goatee, Beauregard is a military officer for the Confederacy – the name adopted by the Southern states which have recently declared their independence from the Union.

Beauregard’s eyes gleam as he watches Fort Sumter burn. To the Confederacy, the presence of the Stars & Stripes flying above Charleston Harbor is a reminder of the US government’s refusal to acknowledge their independence.

After repeated requests to surrender the fort peacefully, the government refused. And so, the Confederate Army readied their canons and, at 4:30 this morning, fired the first shots of the American Civil War.

Inside Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson of the US Army struggles to be heard over the deafening noise. Amidst the fire and smoke, disoriented soldiers scramble to mount a defense, but Anderson orders them not to fire. There are only 86 men defending Fort Sumter against a force of thousands. If they’re going to have a chance of withstanding the siege, they must preserve ammunition.

But even as he says it, Anderson knows there's not much hope in resistance. They are stranded, surrounded, and running dangerously low on food and supplies. Their only chance of fighting off these rebels is if reinforcements arrive by sea. If they don’t arrive in time, Fort Sumter will fall – and the future of the Union will be in peril.

But long before the first shots were ever fired at Fort Sumter, the nation was already in peril, and on a course for war. Over the last few decades, many events accelerated a widening ideological division between the North and South, culminating on December 20th, 1860, when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, setting off a series of events that would eventually lead to war.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 20th - South Carolina Secedes From the Union.

Act One: The Union is Dissolved!

It’s February 1819, decades before the attack on Fort Sumter, and South Carolina secession. 

As Western expansion continues across the United States, newly populous territories have become eligible for statehood. One such territory is Missouri, whose statehood is currently being debated inside the House of Representatives in Washington D.C.

The mood in the House is fraught with rancor and discord. Tensions have been boiling over the question of whether slavery will be extended to this new territory, or prohibited. Many Southern members of the House, who represent slave-owning interests, are adamant it should be extended. But a Northern faction – led by New York Representative, James Tallmadge Jr. – believe that slavery is an abomination and should be restricted.

There are currently 11 slave states and 11 free states in the Union. If Missouri joins as a slave state, it will upset that balance. And so, in 1820, after months of heated debate, the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, skillfully crafts a compromise. Missouri will join as a slave state. But another territory, Maine, will also join the Union as a free state, maintaining equilibrium. Furthermore, as part of what will come to be known as the “Compromise of 1820”, slavery will be prohibited in all states north of Missouri’s southern border.

But it is an unhappy compromise. Many Southerners oppose it because it sets a precedent for Congress restricting slavery. Many Northerners dislike it because it expands slavery into new territories. The compromise only further divides the North and South; a bitter schism is brewing.


Years later, in 1828, Congress introduces an import tariff to protect Northern manufacturing interests. In South Carolina, politicians vehemently oppose the new tariff, since the state’s agrarian economy relies on foreign imports. So, under the authorship of the South Carolinian Vice President John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina state legislature drafts a document declaring the tax unconstitutional, affirming that individual states have the power to veto unconstitutional federal actions. 

Then when another tariff is introduced in 1832, South Carolina issues what it calls its Ordinance of Nullification – a decree that both tariffs are null and void. President Andrew Jackson finds this exercise of state autonomy a step too far. He deploys federal troops to forcefully collect South Carolina’s taxes. Eventually, South Carolina agrees to a compromised tariff, once again proposed by Senator Henry Clay. But the Nullification Crisis, as it comes to be known, highlights to Southerners the danger of the Northern majority growing in Washington.

Vice President, John C. Calhoun is so incensed over the crisis that he resigns as Vice President in anger. He returns to South Carolina, where he becomes a devoted spokesman for Southern interests, establishing the intellectual foundation for secession.

During the 1830s and 40s, the clamoring for secession grows louder, centered around the question of slavery in the new Western territories. Congress manages to keep all factions temporarily happy by cobbling together a series of imperfect compromises. 

But then, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln is elected President. Though Lincoln will advocate for the abolition of slavery, in the fall of 1860, he is a political moderate. He does not advocate for slavery’s abolition where it already exists. But he does believe slavery should not be allowed “to spread into the… Territories”, and to overrun the “Free States.” But however moderate he might be, Lincoln's election as President, to many slave-owners in the South, makes it inevitable that slavery will be ruled unconstitutional and abolished for good.

So, one month after Lincoln’s election, the South Carolina General Assembly call a convention with one mission – draft Ordinances of Secession.


It’s December 18th, 1860, two days before South Carolina secedes from the Union.

A somber mood prevails over a packed Senate in Washington D.C. Ever since the election of Abraham Lincoln in November, Southern senators have been leaving the Senate to join secession conventions in their respective states.

Faced with this crisis of national unity, loyal members of the Senate have convened to try to avoid the complete disintegration of the United States.

Many have pinned their hopes for a peaceful resolution on a 74-year-old senator from Kentucky named John Crittenden. The former Attorney General is known as a great mediator in the Senate - a wise and moderate Unionist - who has often been able to find middle ground between competing factions. 

But this is Crittenden’s toughest challenge yet. Previous tears in the threadbare fabric of the Union have been stitched together with compromise. Crittenden hopes that another compromise might again save the Union today.

So before the grave faces of the Senate, Crittenden proposes a series of constitutional amendments barring Congress from abolishing slavery in existing slave states and permitting the extension of slavery into new southwestern territories.

In theory, the Crittenden Compromise appeases many Southerners by safeguarding slavery within the Constitution, and for many Northerners, by assuring slavery would remain illegal in two-thirds of the country.

Crittenden ends his speech, hopeful that he has saved the Union. His proposed compromise draws support from many Southern political leaders, but it’s rejected by many Republicans, including the President-Elect, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, like many of his Republican colleagues, refuses to support any law extending slavery. And as a result, the Crittenden Compromise will ultimately fail. And in a matter of days, South Carolina will secede from the Union, setting the nation on a course for war.

Act Two: Dark Prospects

It’s December 20th, 1860, four months before the Battle of Fort Sumter.

In Charleston, South Carolina, a crowd has assembled outside Institute Hall on Broad Street. There is an atmosphere of feverish anticipation as bystanders throng the front steps and sidewalks, awaiting news from inside the hall.

For the last two days, delegates to South Carolina’s General Assembly have been debating whether or not to secede from the Union. Many Southerners have been advocating secession for years, but today – with national unity beyond repair – it’s time to put the matter to a vote.

Inside the oak-paneled chamber, the air hums with animated conversation as the delegates bemoan the federal government, which they believe has grown increasingly hostile towards the way of life in the South.

A hush descends as South Carolina’s governor, William Henry Gist, steps onto the stage and strides over to the lectern. He picks up a sheet of paper – the official document outlining the reasons behind this dramatic act. 

And reading from the Declaration of Secession, he pounds the lectern in righteous indignation and decries the Federal Government’s “violations of the Constitution” and its “encroachments on the rights of the States.”

His words are met with roars of approval from the Chamber.

But the loudest cheers are reserved for something Gist says next: “[the Northern] States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions… [and] they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.”

Gist has arrived at the fundamental reason for secession: the desire among white southerners to protect their slave-owning rights. Thanks to the abolitionist movement gaining momentum across the country, eighteen states have already abolished slavery by 1860. Kansas will follow suit next year. The fifteen remaining slave-owning states are exclusively in the South.

A geographical division has emerged. Many Northerners see slavery as evil; many Southerners see it as an essential part of their economy, and as the foundation of civilized society. Today, these South Carolinian delegates codify their vision for the future.

Inside Institute Hall, after the President of South Carolina’s Secession Convention, D. F. Jamison, reads the terms aloud – the delegates vote unanimously in favor of leaving the Union. Once they have all signed the ordinance, Jamison announces to the chamber, shouting to be heard over the cheers and stamping feet:

“We the people of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, that the Union between South Carolina and other States, under the name “United States of America”, is hereby dissolved.”

Townspeople in Charleston will ring church bells and light bonfires to celebrate the good news. And soon, word of secession will spread throughout the South, inspiring other states to follow South Carolina’s lead and split from the Union.


In the aftermath, tempers flare across the country. Many Northerners accuse Southerners of treason for threatening the Union and berate them for clinging onto the barbaric practice of slavery. In turn, many Southerners argue that by overruling the individual sovereignty of the states, the Northerners are desecrating the constitution.

Then on January 9th, 1861, Mississippi follows South Carolina and also secedes from the Union. Members of the secession convention declared: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”

Over the next two days, Florida and Alabama also secede. On January 16th, the Senate votes against the Crittenden Compromise. And shortly after, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all follow suit, bringing the total number of seceded states to seven.

On February 4th, representatives from these newly independent states meet in Montgomery, Alabama. They declare themselves a new nation: the Confederate States of America, and appoint Jefferson Davis – a Senator from Mississippi – as President.

In Washington DC, an atmosphere of impending doom darkens the halls of the capital. War cannot be far away. One former president – 70-year-old John Tyler – organizes a Peace Conference at the Willard Hotel in Washington, held on the very same day that the Confederacy declares itself an independent nation.

At the Conference, 131 delegates from 21 states come together to try to preserve both the Union and slavery – and prevent war. Many of the Southern delegates are moderate Unionists, supporters of slavery but aghast at the actions of the secessionists. Peace talks go on for days, but no agreement can be reached. There is a widespread feeling of desperation, and of time running out.

A notable absentee from the Peace Conference is President-Elect Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is resolute in his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy. His absence, and his intransigence, infuriates many of the delegates who want to avoid war.

When he eventually turns up at the Willard Hotel, Lincoln is bombarded by frantic appeals from the Southern delegates. But the President-Elect remains unbending. He asserts that secession defies the will of God, saying that “those who fight the purposes of the Almighty will not succeed. They have always been, they always will be, beaten.”

The delegates can only hope Lincoln’s words hold true. Just days later, on February 28th, the Confederacy forms a provisional army and sets about taking control of federal military bases. By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4th, the US Army in the South has been reduced to just 86 men guarding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

The Confederate Army forms a blockade around Fort Sumter, preventing deliveries of food and ammunition. The two opposing forces are locked in a stand-off. On April 11th, the Confederate General, Gustave Beauregard, sends messengers to the Fort to present an ultimatum: surrender now, or we will attack at dawn.

But the Union commander of Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, does not surrender. True to his word, General Beauregard will open fire at exactly 4:30 AM, plunging America into Civil War.

Act Three: Surrender

It’s April 13th, 1861, thirty-six hours into the Battle of Fort Sumter.

The battlements have been reduced to smoldering rubble. The flagpole lies on its side, the Stars & Stripes ragged and singed. General Beauregard decides that Fort Sumter has taken enough punishment. At 1:00 P.M., the Confederate guns fall silent.

A Confederate officer, Colonel Louis Wigfall, sails across the bay to the island, waving a white handkerchief. He meets with Major Robert Anderson, telling him: “You have defended your flag nobly, Sir… on what terms will you evacuate this fort?”

Anderson, content that he and his men have done everything in their power to defend the Union, agrees to surrender. Later that afternoon, the Confederate flag is raised over Charleston Harbor, while Anderson and his troops sail north to New York, defeated.

Not a single man was killed on either side during the Battle of Fort Sumter. But by the time the Civil War ends in 1865, the conflict will have claimed the lives of over 700,000 soldiers – more than any American war before or since.

The first decisive act which made war inevitable, took place on December 20th, 1860, when South Carolina seceded from the Union.


Next on History Daily. December 21st, 1968. Apollo 8, the first crewed spacecraft to successfully orbit the Moon and return to Earth, launches from the Kennedy Space Center.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.