Civil War maps can sometimes be misleading.
A typical map will usually show the Confederate states solid gray, and the Union states all blue. In reality, there were pockets of Northern sentiment even in the Deep South, and secessionist groups in the North. One of the larger secessionist movements flared into view in southern Illinois, a free state.
The “South” of Illinois was centered around the strategic town of Cairo (pronounced there as Cay-roe), along the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
The area was often nicknamed Egypt. It had always been more pro-Southern, as well as poorer, than the rest of the state. In 1842, Charles Dickens glimpsed it during his first visit to the United States, and he so loathed the place that he satirized it in “Martin Chuzzlewit,” under the name of Eden:
“At last they stopped. At Eden too. The waters of the Deluge might have left it but a week before: so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp which bore that name.”
At any rate, the Illinois secessionists did not let the grass grow under their feet. The new Confederate government began firing upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., on April 12, 1861. Just three days later, on April 15, there was a secession meeting that evening in the Illinois town of Marion.
A series of resolutions were drawn up and published in several newspapers of both North and South. After a pro forma opening in which attendees professed their allegiance to the Union, the assembly blamed a “strictly sectional party” (i.e., the Republicans) for driving the Southern states out of the Union and predicted that the border states would soon follow them.
The statement also went on to demand that Northern politicians withdraw troops from all forts in the South and recognize the Confederacy. There were two key resolutions at this point.
One read, “That in the event the interest of the citizens of Southern Illinois imperatively demands at their hands a division of the State, we hereby pledge ourselves to use all means in our power to effect the same, and to attach ourselves to the Southern Confederacy.”
The really explosive part would “urge upon our citizens the necessity of forming military companies, and to hold themselves ready to meet any emergency that would need their services.”
The loyal people of Marion had their own gathering the next day and “repealed” these resolutions, but the time was long past when words could stop people resolved on revolution.
Meanwhile, on April 17, a pro-Southern newspaper in Washington, D.C., of all places, the States and Union, claimed that five companies in Illinois had already been recruited and sent south. The next item — printed just below, by the way — added that one Samuel Basker from Washington was raising recruits in Terre Haute, Ind., for the Southern armies.
On April 20, another southern Illinois secession meeting was held, this time in Carbondale. The town “resolved itself out of the Union” and called on the rest of Egypt to do the same.
The Illinois secessionists’ chances, of course, would be determined largely by what went on just to the south, in the border slave state of Kentucky. If Kentucky seceded, the Confederacy would border on the Ohio River, and the people of southern Illinois — and perhaps of southern Indiana and Ohio, too — would find it easier to join their friends just across the river. President Lincoln himself is supposed to have said, “I should like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”
In those early days of the war, the Kentucky state government announced its neutrality.
Everyone knew this couldn’t last very long, of course, and eventually Kentucky made its choice — to stay with the Union.
That settled the Egyptians’ chances. With loyal Kentucky in the way, southern Illlinois was essentially cut off from Tennessee and points south. In addition, the Lincoln administration hastily reinforced Cairo.
The war of ideas was not neglected either. Col. John A. Logan and several other officers fanned out across Egypt, explaining and arguing with their fellow Illinoisans.
Eventually, loyal newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune were proclaiming that southern Illinois was a loyal section all the time, except for a small fringe element. Some of the editorials had a slightly strained quality, hailing the loyalty of the Egyptians perhaps a bit too much.
Fringe or not, the Illinois secessionists could still stir up trouble during the rest of the war, even if secession was out of reach.
For example, in June 1861 a Mr. J.D. Publey was arrested for helping recruit 35 men for the Southern armies. And in March 1862, during a state constitutional convention of some sort, the Egyptians voted with most of the Democrats to keep free black people from moving into the state — and allowing slaveholders to bring their slaves in. Moreover, the slaves would remain slaves and not be freed simply by living in a free state. These proposals were eventually dropped.
In its Jan. 14, 1863, issue, the Chicago Tribune wrote that the 109th regiment, raised in southern Illinois, had mutinied. Also, the regiment’s lieutenant colonel had defected to the South. The Tribune added: “There are one or two other Southern Illinois regiments that are not to be depended on.”
The Jan. 21, 1864, Tribune described Union operations in Illinois against secessionist guerrillas, some 400 having been captured that month alone. Even as late as March 6, 1865, scarcely more than a month before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, the Tribune would report, “Lieutenant-Colonel T.W. Campbell, 17th Kentucky Cavalry, has been making thorough work with the guerrilla gangs which have been infesting Southern Illinois.”
All this time, there were still loyal people in Egypt, of course. Many served in the Union Army and Navy. Loyal civilians continued to conduct their own meetings and political campaigns on behalf of the North. Their efforts must have had some effect, too.
Guerrillas notwithstanding, as the war went on the people of southern Illinois began voting more and more for loyal Democrats and even for Republicans. Then, Lee’s surrender was the beginning of the end, and soon American slavery and secession slipped into history.
One can speculate on what might have happened if Egypt had somehow broken away succcesfully. Would it have joined the South as a free state, a free enclave in a slave-state Confederacy? Or — perhaps more likely — would it have declared itself a slave state?
The Daily Louisville Democrat, of Kentucky, addressed this very point on April 13, 1861. It seemed that the Confederacy’s constitution required a two-thirds majority of each house in their Congress “for the admission of the Border slaves States and the free States.”
At one Confederate government meeting about this time, a politician named Thomas R.R. Cobb opposed admission of any free states, or even border states, since the latter might lobby for the admission of the former.
This leads to an almost comical thought. What if all the free states had joined the Confederacy? The country would have been united again. True, Jefferson Davis would be president, but the more populous Northerners would now control the Southern Congress.
Would the South have seceded from its first secession?
John Lockwood is a Washington writer.