Rhett & the Lower South’s secession
August 18, 2012
South Carolina statesman, leading Fire-Eater and Charleston newspaper editor Robert Barnwell Rhett, though eventually marginalised by more conservative elements in the Confederate States, exercised great influence in the crucial winter of 1860-61 when Southerners considered independence and what form their new Confederacy would take. As the momentum toward secession spread from South Carolina across the Lower South, Rhett and his fellow Fire-Eaters maintained a hard-line position on independence and resisted efforts from some in the Border States to reach a compromise that would have preserved the Union with the North. Author William C Davis describes these exciting times on pages 418-419 of his book Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Time of a Fire-Eater:
The momentum accelerated on the morning of January 9 when the Star of the West appeared off the harbor and tried to reach Fort Sumter. While Rhett and a crowd of thousands watched from the Battery, Carolinian artillery opened fire and easily persuaded the ship to turn around. Though the vessel had not returned fire, Charlestonians regarded the little incident as a victory. Scarcely was the vessel out of sight before the wires brought news that Mississippi had seceded, and at last South Carolina was not alone. Rhett immediately made plans to go to Georgia to assist if he could in bringing her out, for in her January 2 election for convention delegates the popular vote revealed a state evenly divided between secession and remaining in the Union awhile longer. Even before he left, Florida went out on January 10.
By the following evening, when he arrived in Savannah to meet Ruffin and others, he heard that now Alabama, too, had left the Union. Rhett had been in correspondence with members of Georgia’s state convention for some time now, and on his arrival he found the debate still heavily divided but tending towards secession and the momentum from the other states exerting a powerful influence. All they needed now was Georgia to have a solid band of seceded slave states from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.
…On January 19, by a satisfyingly large majority, Georgia finally voted to secede, and …Rhett could return his attention to Carolinian affairs in the few days before he would have to leave for Montgomery, for each of the seceded states had agreed to send delegates to the proposed convention, and on the terms proposed by the South Carolina convention. He opposed all efforts at conciliating the men from Virginia and Kentucky who were wavering, for he did not trust them not to attempt to reconstruct the Union if they gained any influence in the new confederation to come. They must come, if they came at all, on no terms but full acceptance of the perpetuity of secession.