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Confrontation to Conflict: South Carolina’s Path to the Civil War
A journey down South Carolina’s path from Nullification to Secession as depicted through the State’s documents.


“The legacy of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession can still be felt today. Now, more than ever, it deserves its place among those documents that fundamentally altered the course of history for our nation and the world,”
Dr. W. Eric Emerson, Director, SC Department of Archives and History

Exhibit is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Saturday except State Holidays at The
South Carolina Archives & History Center, 8301 Parklane Road, Columbia, SC 29223

This program is sponsored by

a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities;
inspiring, engaging and enriching South Carolinians with programs on literature, history, culture and heritage.


Confrontation to Conflict: South Carolina’s Path to the Civil War

The road to disunion was not simple or preordained. It was the result of numerous factors mixed in the turmoil of a young nation undergoing rapid expansion of people, territory, and wealth. In South Carolina, the expansion of cotton cultivation after 1785 had increased her wealth, the value of her land, and the value and importance of slavery.

The addition of new Deep South states suited to cotton and poor farming practices in South Carolina led to an economic decline in the 1820’s. As cotton and land prices dropped, the state became more reliant on northern banks and merchants. A distaste for industrialization made South Carolina more dependent on cotton and upon the slave labor force that underpinned her economy. Meanwhile, the balance of national political power was swinging to the rapidly growing northern and western states and away from Southern states.


In 1828, a new tariff set high duties on a long list of products. Northern and western states promoted the tariffs to protect fledgling industries and finance internal improvements. Southern states, which relied on imported goods and in economic distress, felt tariffs were an excessive burden and viewed them as unjust. South Carolina responded with John C. Calhoun’s The South Carolina Exposition and Protest which claimed that the sovereignty of the individual states gave them the right to nullify Federal legislation.

In November 1832, a state convention passed an ordinance declaring the Tariff of 1828 and a new Tariff of 1832 “null and void.” President Andrew Jackson, a native of South Carolina, reacted strongly. He issued a proclamation calling the State’s actions treason and threatened to use military force to enforce the collection of the tariffs. A compromise tariff resolved the impasse, but South Carolina gained a reputation as a strong advocate for southern issues with a flair for rashness.

To the Brink

South Carolina and the other slaveholding states felt increasingly under attack from a growing and fervent abolition movement. Northern attempts to prohibit slavery in the new territories acquired after the Mexican War were especially seen as a threat to the survival of the South and slavery.

In South Carolina, a small group led by Robert Barnwell Rhett felt that secession was the only solution to protecting slavery. Calhoun’s stature kept the movement in check during the Mexican War, but his death amidst the fight over the Compromise of 1850 unleashed the movement’s growing strength. Other states were not ready for secession and Southern Conventions called in 1850 and 1851 were failures. Even South Carolina’s own convention in 1852 closed without taking action.

The continued agitation over the expansion of the slavery led to increasing hostility between the sections. Violence in the Kansas-Nebraska Territories, northern opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act, the Brooks-Sumner Caning, the Dred Scott Decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry inched the nation closer to the precipice.


The 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston fell apart when delegates failed to adopt a plank protecting slavery in the territories. It became increasingly clear that the next President would be the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. A powerful propaganda campaign in South Carolina equated the Republican Party with the ruin of southern civilization.

When election returns confirmed Lincoln’s election, the General Assembly called for a convention in Columbia on December 17. The convention resolved to secede and appointed a committee to draft an ordinance. Moving to Charleston, the convention on December 20 adopted and signed a simple ordinance repealing the 1788 state convention’s adoption of the Constitution.

The 1860 convention also adopted a “Declaration of Immediate Causes” that defended the state’s right to secede under the compact theory of the Union. The cause of the state’s action was the northern states’ failure to enforce the fugitive slave laws and their election of a President who favored the abolition of slavery. Some favored using the issues of tariffs and internal improvements, but delegates voted 124 to 31 to rest disunion on the issue of slavery.

Preparations and Diplomacy

Upon secession, an immediate issue was the Federal forts in Charleston Harbor. An informal agreement to maintain the status quo while a delegation negotiated with President James Buchanan fell apart when Major Robert Anderson moved his command into Fort Sumter on the night of December 26, 1860. The state quickly seized the remaining forts and the US Arsenal in Charleston.

A Federal attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter in January 1861 failed when the state fired on the Star of the West. In March the newly organized Confederate States took over military operations. President Lincoln informed Governor Pickens in early April of plans to send provisions to Sumter. At 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861 Confederate batteries opened fire. The short and bloodless bombardment that led to the Major Anderson’s surrender on April 14 would be a poor prelude to the bloody four-year war that followed.

Our goal in producing this exhibit was to offer viewers an opportunity to view this time in our history through the historical documents held at the SC Department of Archives and History.

A special thank you to
Dr. W. Eric Emerson
Dr. Chuck Lesser
Mr. Patrick McCawley
Mr. Bryan Collars
Ms. Heather South

for supporting this exhibit.

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