Georgia to U.S.: ‘Don’t Tread on Me’

Nov. 9, 1860

Across the country, the day’s headlines blazed with reports of Southerners’ response to Lincoln’s election. Perhaps most disturbing to many Americans, though thrilling to others, was news of a mass meeting in Savannah, Ga., the previous afternoon. Thousands of citizens – the largest gathering that the city had ever seen, newspapers said – had filled Johnson Square at the heart of downtown, thronging around a monument to Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene to launch a revolution of their own. The crowd cheered wildly as a speaker declared that “the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the Presidency and Vice Presidency of the United States, ought not and will not be submitted to.” The shouts and whoops redoubled as a flag was unfurled across the white marble obelisk: a banner with a coiled rattlesnake and the words “SOUTHERN RIGHTS. EQUALITY OF THE STATES. DON’T TREAD ON ME.”

Library of Congress The first flag of Southern independence, raised in Savannah, Ga., on November 8, 1860.  

Probably no one mentioned the ironic fact that this Southern banner, one of the very first flags of secession, was raised atop a monument to a Northerner: General Greene had been born and raised in Rhode Island. Like many Americans of the founding generation, he had harbored mixed feelings about slavery – to say the least. “On the subject of slavery, nothing can be said in its defence,” he wrote to a Quaker acquaintance in 1783, while he was in the process of moving to Georgia to take possession of a large plantation and its hundreds of enslaved African Americans, a gift from the state of Georgia. Greene justified this acquisition by claiming that he planned to treat his new chattels kindly. Two years later, just before his early death, he still harbored vague plans to free his slaves and keep them in a system resembling medieval feudalism.

Cleveland Plain Dealer headline, Nov. 9, 1860

In 1860, however, Georgia’s leaders felt no such ambivalence about human bondage. As the secessionists gathered in Savannah, Governor Joseph E. Brown issued a proclamation vindicating Georgia’s right to withdraw from the Union rather than submit to “proud and haughty Northern Abolitionists.” Brown, who came from a family of hardscrabble farmers in northern Georgia, struck a populist tone, as he often did, reminding the South’s poor whites how much better off they were than Northern factory workers:

Here the poor white laborer is respected as an equal. His family are treated with kindness, consideration and respect. He does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense of the term his equal. Be feels and knows this. He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of white men. …

These [laborers] know that in the event of the abolition of Slavery, they would be greater sufferers than the rich, who would be able to protect themselves. They will, therefore, never permit the slaves of the South to be set free among them, come in competition with their labor, associate with them and their children as equals – be allowed to testify in our Courts against them – sit on juries with them, march to the ballot-box by their sides, and participate in the choice of their rulers – claim social equality with them – and ask the hands of their children in marriage. …[T]he ultimate design of the Black Republican Party is to bring about this state of things in the Southern States.

But the crowd in Savannah on Nov. 8 probably needed no reminder about the current state of race relations. One of the largest slave pens in Georgia – a business establishment where hundreds of people at a time were often imprisoned, awaiting sale – faced the Greene Monument across Johnson Square.

Sources: New York Times, Nov. 9 and Nov. 12, 1860; Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 9, 1860; Macon Daily Telegraph, Nov. 12, 1860; Terry Golway, “Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution”; Gerald M. Carbone, “Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution”; George Washington Greene, “The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major-General in the Army of the Revolution”; William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, “Secession Debated: Georgia’s Showdown in 1860”; Walter J. Fraser, “Savannah in the Old South”; Malcolm Bell Jr., “Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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