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The Union Divides, 1861

Rarely has a presidential election brought such immediate consequences. Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860 triggered the secession of America’s Southern states even before the new president took office in March of 1861. On January 21, senators from Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi rose to bid their Senate colleagues farewell. The last to speak was Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. In an emotional address before a hushed Senate, Davis defended secession, insisting that Mississippians were only exercising their rights.

Within weeks, Fort Sumter fell to the Confederacy. Union soldiers, sent to protect Washington, camped out in the Senate Chamber while the Senate was adjourned. In a flash of anger, one soldier tried unsuccessfully to demolish the desk that had once been assigned to Davis. Americans of all regions recognized clearly that the nation stood at a dangerous crossroads.