“Wayward Sisters, Depart in Peace” – Winfield Scott: Quote or No Quote?

Politics in the United States is often divisive. Just in the few short years that this show has graced the podcast world, we have seen a drastic increase in violent political language and, of course with January 6th, 2021 and other incidents, actual physical political violence. (By the way, there is no causal connection between the start of this show back in 2015 and the rise of the vicious politics that we see almost every day now in the USA.)

Increasingly in the 21st century, there has been talk (and, indeed, some serious proposals) about certain states or regions leaving the United States and forming their own countries. Almost routinely now you see news reports of California threatening to leave the Union. Often this proposal includes Oregon and Washington, and the three would form something like the Pacific States of America. Some Texans threaten to revive the old Republic of Texas (which lasted from 1836 to 1846) and go out on their own.

And, of course, states from the old Confederacy (with some border states like Kentucky thrown in) make the same types of threats often. In this specific case, some people in the rest of the country (the north and the west) say things like, “sure, leave; your ideologies and behaviors are so radically different from ours that we’d prefer you to be gone.”

At times like these, pundits and commentators usually drag out the old US Army General Winfield Scott quote about how the American government should react in 1861 to the seceding Confederate states. On March 3, 1861, General Scott wrote to William Seward, soon to be Lincoln’s Secretary of State, advising him to “say to the seceded States, ‘Wayward sisters, depart in peace.’” That quote is repeated all the time, especially in documentaries about the coming of the American Civil War. Ken Burns’s famous and popular Civil War series 1990 used the quote to argue that several important Union politicians and high-ranking military officers thought that it wasn’t worth trying to hang on to states that were so fundamentally different from the rest of the country, and that they were bound to keep rebelling about slavery for decades.

Now, I know you think I’m about to say that Winfield Scott never said that. After all, almost all the historical quotes we discuss on this show are bogus (at least in terms of them being attributed to certain people incorrectly). But, Scott did in fact write this to Seward.

But there are major problems with the standard story that goes along with this quote – that Winfield Scott and many others pressed Lincoln and Seward to let the Confederacy go as the best (and most realistic) policy. That’s the complete opposite of what Scott proposed, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Between Lincoln’s election on November 6, 1860, and his inauguration on March 4, 1861, these things happened:

South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 17th.

Six more states (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded in January 1861.

Jefferson Davis was appointed as provisional President of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861.

(Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee seceded between April and June 1861.)

People in the national government and on Lincoln’s “transition team” (they didn’t actually have formal transition teams back then, but you know what I mean – his advisors between the election and the inauguration) were passing all sorts of ideas around about how to react to the seceding states.

As Commanding General of the Army of the United States, Winfield Scott’s opinions on what to do mattered greatly. He wrote to William Seward just before the inauguration that, in his opinion, Lincoln had four options, none of them good:

1. Keep working on the various compromises that had been rumbling through Congress for the previous six months. Maybe an arrangement could be reached. 

2. Blockade Southern ports. 

3. Invade and conquer the South. It would take three years, require a massive army, resulting in many deaths, and leave an embittered southern region to be occupied by government forces for a long time.

4. Allow the Confederacy (the wayward sisters) to depart in peace.

It’s very clear from the order in which Scott wrote these options, and from his other communications with Lincoln and Seward, that letting the wayward sisters depart in peace was the least preferable option. It would cost fewer lives, sure, but it would also open the door to endless state secessions in subsequent years whenever a state or region disagreed with Federal policy.

So whenever you hear about Winfield Scott giving the “wayward sisters” suggestion to Lincoln, remember it was number 4 on a list of 4, and that the entire quote in its context shows that the issue was a whole lot more complicated than that.

How does this help us understand the current spate of threats to leave the Union? Perhaps the best direct answer is that California (or the Pacific states) breaking off and forming their own country, or Texas becoming its own Republic again, would be extremely complicated and expensive! Far more complicated and expensive than in 1860-1861. Think of how difficult and lengthy a process it was for Britain to break away from the European Union. And Brexit was really only about economics and trade. 

West Coasties or Texicans forming their own country would also require setting up relations with foreign countries, negotiating the transfer of property from the United States government to their new country, creating their own military (and getting rid of the US military bases that are currently within their states), and a thousand other things. The immense complications and expense will probably prevent it from happening.

But there is one thing that we can apply from Scott’s quotation, it seems to me. That is the concept of “wayward sisters.” We have a lot of wayward citizens in our country now, and despite the most recent election results, the number may be increasing. The last few years have shown that some Americans, especially some very powerful Americans, have been willing to: challenge legitimate election results; attack the US Capitol and try to hijack the peaceful transfer of power; reduce voting rights and voting access; encourage the flood of automatic weapons on our streets; ban books; demand denominational religious education in public schools; and a hundred other wayward things that would skew the long arc of our American experiment in democracy, freedom, and self-government.

Recognizing the serious danger presented by these people is the first step in avoiding a civil war. Trying to help them understand that they are trying to halt American progress, and talking them out of pushing the United States over the cliff is the next step. Only that way will these wayward citizens become real citizens again.

Original letter in the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/item/mal0769100/

From Winfield Scott to William H. Seward, Washington March 3. 1861

Dear Sir,

Hoping that, in a day or two, the new President will have, happily, passed through all personal dangers, & find himself installed an honored successor of the great Washington — with you as chief of his Cabinet — I beg leave to repeat, in writing, what I have before said to you, orally, this supplement to my printed “views,” (dated October last) on the highly disordered condition of our (solate) happy & glorious union.

To meet the extraordinary exigencies of the times, it seems to me that I am guilty of no arrogance in limiting the President’s field of selection to one of the four plans of procedure, subjoined:—

I. Throw off the old, and assume a new designation — the Union party; — adopt the conciliatory measures proposed by Mr. Crittenden, or the Peace convention, &, my life upon it, we shall have no new case of secession; but, on the contrary, an early return of many, if not all the states which have already broken off from the Union, without some equally benign measure, the remaining slaveholding states will, probably, join the Montgomery confederacy in less than sixty days, when this city — being included in a foreign country — would require a permanent Garrison of at least 35,000 troops to protect the Government within it.

II. Collect the duties on foreign goods outside the ports of which this Government has lost the command, or close such posts by acts of congress, & blockade them.

III. Conquer the seceded states by invading Armies. No doubt this might be done in two or three years by a young and able General — a Wolfe, a Desaix or a Hoche, with 300,000 disciplined men, estimating a third for garrisons, & the loss of a yet greater number by skirmishes, sieges, battles & southern fevers. The destruction of life and property, on the other side, would be frightful —however perfect the moral discipline of the invaders. The conquest completed at that enormous waste of human life, to the north and north west —with at least $250.000,000, added thereto, and cui bono? Fifteen devastated provinces — not to be brought into harmony with their conquerors; but to be held, for generations, by heavy garrisons — at an expense quadruple the net duties or taxes which it would be possible to extract from them —followed by a Protector or an Emperor.

IV. Say to the seceded States — wayward sisters, depart in peace!

In haste, I remain,

Very truly yours,

Winfield Scott

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