Fort Sumter under fire
This morning at 6:45 AM (2 hours and 45 minutes late), a single mortar round was fired (from Fort Moultrie) marking the 150th Anniversary of the commencement of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor by Confederate forces under the command of General Pierre Gustave Toussaint Beauregard, the military action which both initiated the American Civil War and made practically possible the Confederate states’ conquest and defeat.
Decades of sectional rivalry, animosity, and ever-increasing friction provoked by Northern hostility toward, and demonization of, the Southern institution of Slavery were followed rapidly by, first, a terrorist attack on the civilian population of Virginia and the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry by a murderous fanatic armed and funded by some of the wealthiest and best-educated citizens of the Northern states, then by the minority election of a prominent Northern radical to the presidency.
Firebrand South Carolina responded with secession on December 20th, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana in January, and Texas on February 1th. On the 8th and 9th of the same month, an Alabama convention of the seceded states adopted a Constitution forming a new Confederacy, and elected former Secretary of War and hero of the Mexican War, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, as its president.
General Winfield Scott (who had had trouble with Davis over his expenses) remarked: “I am amazed that any man of judgment could hope for the success of any cause in which Jefferson Davis is a leader. There is contamination in his touch.”
Davis was an able man, intellectually gifted, honorable, and dignified, but prone to self-righteousness. He was, in almost every respect, his adversary Lincoln’s polar opposite. Abraham Lincoln was a cunning and flexible Machiavel, who skillfully concealed a razor-sharp, minutely calculating and selfish intelligence behind a populist masque of warmth and folksy humor. Davis was aristocratic, formal and austere. Sam Houston thought him “cold as a lizard.”
Seven states had left the union and formed a new government before Abraham Lincoln was even inaugurated.
As secession fever raged, back in December, William Tecumseh Sherman, A West Point graduate and Ohioan serving as superintendent of the Louisiana State Military Academy, exploded to a Southern guest at hearing of South Carolina’s secession:
You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you are talking about. War is a terrible thing!
You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides where are your men and appliance of war to contend with them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with on of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth — right at your doors.
You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people would stop and think, they must see that in the end you will surely fail.
Sherman resigned his post in February, came North, and was introduced to Lincoln in late March.
“How are they getting along down there?” inquired the recently inaugurated president.
“They think they are getting along swimmingly,” Sherman replied. “They are preparing for war.”
“Oh, well,” drawled Lincoln. “I expect we’ll manage to keep house.”
Lincoln’s expressed confidence was, however, at odds with his dilemma. If Lincoln moved to assert federal authority over the seceded states, he would test the limits of both his constitutional authority and of his political support. Moreover, any attempt to initiate force, to make war on the seven seceded states, would very probably precipitate the secession from the Union and addition to their numbers of Virgina and other slave-owning states outside the Deep South.
The only immediate, natural conflict between the new Confederacy and the government of the United States lay in the basically trivial territorial issue of sovereignty over four Federal forts located within Confederate territory: Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Pickens off Pensacola Bay, Taylor at Key West, and Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
Possession of none of these was of vital necessity to anyone.
During mid-March, President Lincoln’s cabinet voted 5 to 2 to abandon Fort Sumter. Secretary of State Seward felt strongly that civil war might yet be averted, as long as a confrontation was avoided and passions allowed to cool. But second cabinet vote at the end of March tied 3-3, and Lincoln decided to employ the fort in Charleston Harbor as bait.
On April 8th, South Carolina’s governor was notified that the federal government would attempt to resupply Fort Sumter with provisions only.
When the Confederate cabinet in Montgomery debated, Robert Toombs of Georgia warned President Davis:
The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen… Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and you will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornets’ nest which extends from mountains to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.
But President Davis ignored this counsel, trusting that the world would realize that President Lincoln was the real aggressor. Davis, of course, could hardly be more wrong.
Fort Sumter was reduced to defenselessness, its guns silenced, by the fire of more than 4000 rounds from 47 howitzers and mortar over a day and half. The only casualty occurred during the fort’s honorable capitulation, when a spark from the fifty gun salute to the descending US colors fell into a barrel of gunpowder producing an explosion which took the life of Private Daniel Hough, the first of more than 600,000 Americans to be killed in the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln had his causus belli. He could call for 75,000 men to serve for 90 days against “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.”
Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina seceded and joined in the defense of the Confederacy rather than participate in the conquest and subjugation of sister states. Kentucky and Missouri and Maryland were kept in the union by force.
Robert Toombs was perfectly correct. The decision of Jefferson Davis to assert Confederate authority by force made the Confederacy into the aggressor, infuriated the North, and freed Lincoln to act. In essence, Jefferson Davis’s unwise decision broke open a stalemated situation in which delay operated entirely in favor of the newly-formed Confederacy, providing it with a longer period to ready itself with supplies, training, and defensive preparations and making the new republic into ever more of a fait accompli, accepted by both foreign and domestic opinion.
Firing on Fort Sumter assured a Northern military response against an attack on US soldiers and the US flag, and transformed the role of its great adversary, Abraham Lincoln, from that of aggressor to defender.
This single bad decision represents a perfect metonymy for the differences in judgment and temperament between Davis and Lincoln explaining precisely why the latter was ultimately successful in overcoming enormous difficulties as a war leader, while the former led his cause to ruin.