This Sunday marks the 154th anniversary of President Lincoln’s famed Gettysburg Address, delivered at the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. Lincoln’s eloquence gave voice to the sacrifices made by Union soldiers at Gettysburg and his speech stands as a landmark explanation of the war and why it was fought, offering a lens through which to view the entire war and its consequences. Eleven months after he had issued his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln came to Gettysburg to remind the country that the sacrifices of common soldiers were leading to “a new birth of freedom” for the United States.
This year, as many in our nation debate and reevaluate the legacy and meaning of the Civil War, it is also worth noting another speech given on a November 19. Though this one was delivered several years before Lincoln’s famed oration, it also reminds us of what was at stake during the Civil War.
On November 19, 1860, in the midst of a tense debate over secession in the state of Georgia, firebrand politician Henry Benning rose to address the Georgia General Assembly in Milledgeville on the question of whether Georgia should sever its ties to the Union. Just two weeks before, Abraham Lincoln had won the presidency in a bitter and divisive election, bringing the nascent Republican Party to power for the first time in its history. The Republican Party was forged from a coalition of various political groups who all shared the same common principles: opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the western expansion of slavery. In the wake of Lincoln’s election, southern slave owners and politicians feared what it might mean to have a president who had stated his belief that slavery was morally wrong, as Lincoln had on several occasions during the 1850s.
Lincoln’s election intensified an already inflamed atmosphere in the South. As tensions began to boil, Georgia was hearing from those opposed to and in favor of separating from the Union. Benning—who previously had served as an associate justice of the
Georgia Supreme Court — was no stranger to debates over secession. Indeed, in 1850, he was one of many delegates who convened in Nashville to discuss the South’s response if slavery was prohibited from further western expansion, writing at the time, “it is apparent, horribly apparent, that the slavery question rides insolently over every other everywhere… the whole North is becoming ultra anti-slavery and the whole South ultra pro-slavery.” In regards to what the North intended to do on slavery, Benning also made his thoughts clear, writing, “I no more doubt that the North will abolish slavery the very first moment it feels itself able to do it without too much cost, than I doubt my existence.” Benning was a determined advocate of slavery and secession in 1850, and he was again in his remarks on November 19, 1860.In his November 19, 1860 speech, Benning opened by stating what he thought Lincoln’s election meant for the South:
“My first proposition is that the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States means the abolition of slavery, as soon as the party which elected him shall acquire the power to do the deed. … My second proposition is that the North will soon acquire that power, unless something is done to prevent it. I dare say everyone present will agree that this is almost a self-evident proposition.”
Of the potential abolition of slavery, Benning painted a dire portrait for his fellow Georgians:
My third is that abolition would be to the South one of the direst evils of which the mind can conceive. …The cotton States will, at that time, have a large population of slaves, perhaps a larger population of slaves than of whites; but the population of the whites will be respectable. The decree will excite an intense hatred between the whites on one side, and the slaves and the North on the other. Very soon a war between the whites and the blacks will spontaneously break out everywhere. It will be in every town, in every village, in every neighborhood, in every road. It will be a war of man with man – a war of extermination. Quickly the North will intervene, and of course take sides with the party friendly towards them – the blacks. The coalition will exterminate the white race, or expel them from the land, to wander as vagabonds over the face of the earth. …Am I not right then in saying that abolition is one of the direst evils that the mind can imagine? Thus then we have data from which we may announce this position: that abolition, dire evil as it is, is inevitable, unless something is done either to mollify this hostility to slavery on the part of the North, or to prevent the North from acquiring the power to abolish slavery.
By calling abolition a dire evil, and describing it as inevitable with Lincoln in power, Benning was leaving little room for nuance or compromise. According to Benning, the choice was either submit to abolition or act. Benning argued for the latter, urging the following:
It follows that there is not within the Union any remedy by which we can escape abolition, and therefore if we wish for a remedy, a remedy we must seek outside the Union. … I say that a separation from the North would be a complete remedy for the disease – a complete remedy for both diseases, a remedy not merely to prevent abolition, but also to heal the fugitive slave ulcer. … If you were to separate from the North, the power to abolish slavery by the North would be taken away. That is clear. The will to do so would also cease. … I say, then, that whenever the South is separated from the North, and in its stead other questions will spring up which will occupy all their time and attention… If we separate from the North, we could put an end to the alarming process by which the slave population is draining off into the cotton States. The mere act of separation would have that tendency. Fear – the fear that slaves will escape to the North by the under-ground railroad, and otherwise, is the chief cause of the drain. After a separation, stock in the under-ground railroad would cease to pay, and the road would suspend business. … The separation from the North would then be a remedy for all diseases.
Benning urged Georgia to act to preserve slavery, which he believed to be in jeopardy following the election to the presidency of a man who was staunchly opposed to its expansion. Acting otherwise would jeopardize everything the South held dear:
The intent of the Black Republican Party in electing Mr. Lincoln was to make a less perfect union, to establish injustice, and to organize domestic strife. The intent with which he was elected, was, therefore, directly in the teeth of the intent of the Constitution. … Why, then, will you not disregard the objections and adopt that remedy? Is there any other course left to you? If so, what is it? But surely there is none. Why hesitate? the question is between life and death. Well, if these things be so, let us do our duty; and what is our duty? I say, men of Georgia, let us lift up our voices and shout, “Ho! for independence!” Let us follow the examples of our ancestors, and prove ourselves worthy sons of worthy sires!
Benning’s speech was not an appeal to states’ rights, nor was it a discussion of tariff policy. It centered on fear—fear of restrictions of slavery, fear of the underground railroad, fear of racial violence, and fear of abolition itself. It reminds us—just as clearly as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address four years later—of what was at stake in the Civil War, and what the “new birth of freedom” that the war brought about truly meant for the United States. Benning’s arguments, alongside those of others, were clearly persuasive. Two months to the day from Benning’s speech, Georgia officially voted to secede from the Union, adding another state to the growing Confederacy.
Benning would go on to play an even larger role in the approach of the Civil War, traveling to Virginia in February of 1861 and speaking at a secession convention there, coaxing Virginia to break away from the North as well. In so doing, he made clear why Georgia itself had taken the step of secession:
What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery.
Benning was not content just to speak in favor of secession and slavery; he fought for his beliefs as well. When the war began, Benning became the colonel of the 17th Georgia Infantry. His command saw significant action at Second Manassas and Antietam in 1862, and in the spring of 1863 he received a promotion to the rank of brigadier general, commanding a brigade in General John Bell Hood’s division. At Gettysburg, Benning’s brigade was involved in some of the fiercest combat of the battle around Devil’s Den on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. He later went on to fight at Chickamauga, Wauhatchie, and was wounded at the Wilderness in May 1864. He later rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia, and was one of the last officers to surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. After the war, Benning went home to Georgia and practiced law again, as he had done in his youth. He died in 1875.
Henry Benning and Abraham Lincoln each came to Gettysburg for different reasons in 1863, reasons made clear from their respective speeches given coincidentally enough on November 19, though three years apart. Benning’s speech on November 19, 1860 spoke of seceding in order to preserve slavery and maintain White Supremacy; Lincoln’s speech on November 19, 1863 spoke of preserving a government “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Gettysburg National Military Park
Addresses Delivered before the Virginia State Convention by Hon. Fulton Anderson, Commissioner from Mississippi; Hon. Henry L. Benning, Commissioner from Georgia; and Hon. John S. Preston, Commissioner from South Carolina; February, 1861. Richmond: Wyatt M. Elliott, 1861.
Freehling, William W. and Craig M. Simpson, eds. Secession Debated: Georgia’s Showdown in 1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Waugh, John C. On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How it Changed the Course of American History (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2003).
Ulrich B. Phillips, ed. “The Correspondence of Robert Toombs, Alexander H. Stephens, and Howell Cobb,” in Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1911, Vol. 2 (Washington, D.C., 1913).