Civil War Profiles – A fateful ‘change’ election in 1860

On the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, millions of people awoke to the news that a man without previous governmental experience, Donald John Trump, was the president-elect of the United States. The ballots counted late into the night determined this unanticipated reality had taken place.

The result startled a majority of the people in this nation and angered many, who took to the streets in protest. The unrest today, however, pales in comparison to the election 156 years earlier, in 1860.

Then, a relatively inexperienced candidate from the “western” state of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, engineered a similar surprise victory in the presidential election. His success was assured when three other candidates divided the opposition vote.

Not unlike today, divisions in the country seemed insurmountable. After news of Lincoln’s victory reached Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, citizens took to the streets in protest, urging state officials to separate from the Union.

In a convention of delegates on Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina unanimously voted to secede, followed by six other states — Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, in that order. The country was torn asunder.

George C. Rable wrote in the Spring 2016 issue of Civil War Monitor magazine that emotions in the United States were at fever pitch. Georgia Sen. Alfred Iverson Sr. declared, “Disguise the fact as you will, there is an enmity between the northern and southern people that is deep and enduring, and you never can eradicate it.”

Two years earlier, abolitionist John Brown had fanned the flames of hatred by attempting to engineer a slave insurrection in Virginia. Although he was unsuccessful, Southerners were horrified when significant numbers of their Northern brethren sanctioned the incendiary venture.

In “Battle Cry of Freedom,” James M. McPherson quoted Brown’s justification for his actions when brought to trial: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice [for the enslaved] … I say, let it be done.”

He paid the ultimate price, and attained martyrdom in the eyes of many Northerners.

The newly inaugurated President Lincoln attempted to dispel the sectional animosity. In his address to the people, he emphasized, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Lincoln’s words fell on deaf ears. Passions, ignited over whether slavery could be expanded into the territories, overcame attempts at compromise.

Placing Southerners’ attitude toward the North in perspective, a New York Times correspondent wrote, “The magnitude of their love [for their families] is only equaled by one single thing, and that is their contempt — yea, their utter loathing — for the Yankees.”

The New York Evening Post editorialized that the Founding Fathers rebelled against authority “to establish the rights of man … and principles of universal liberty.” However, in its view, “The South was rebelling … not in the interest of general humanity, but of a domestic despotism … [Their] motto is not liberty, but slavery.”

Animosity and disunion spread to four additional states, motivating Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee to withdraw from the Union. The four remaining slave states — the so-called border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware — chose to remain in the Union for a variety of economic, political and geographic reasons.

The most far-reaching “change” election in the history of this country took place in 1860. Newly elected President Lincoln ran on a platform to prevent the expansion of slavery in this country, not to eliminate it.

Southerners, nonetheless, believed they saw the handwriting on the wall, and abhorred any change in their deep-rooted lifestyle. Unrest led to hatred, and hatred led to the most devastating war this nation ever witnessed.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at or visit his website at