On the afternoon of April 11, 1861, a small open boat flying a white flag pushed off from the tip of the narrow peninsula surrounding the city of Charleston. The vessel carried three envoys representing the Confederate States government, established in Montgomery, Alabama, two months before. Slaves rowed the passengers the nearly three and a half miles across the harbor to the looming hulk of Fort Sumter, where Lt. Jefferson C. Davis of the U.S. Army—no relation to the newly installed president of the Confederacy—met the arriving delegation. Davis led the envoys to the fort’s commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, who had been holed up there since just after Christmas with a tiny garrison of 87 officers and enlisted men—the last precarious symbol of federal power in passionately secessionist South Carolina.
The Confederates demanded immediate evacuation of the fort. However, they promised safe transport out of Charleston for Anderson and his men, who would be permitted to carry their weapons and personal property and to salute the Stars and Stripes, which, the Confederates acknowledged, “You have upheld so long...under the most trying circumstances.” Anderson thanked them for such “fair, manly, and courteous terms.” Yet he stated, “It is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligation to my Government, prevent my compliance.” Anderson added grimly that he would be starved out in a few days—if the Confederate cannonthat ringed the harbor didn’t batter him to pieces first. As the envoys departed and the sound of their oars faded away across the gunmetal-gray water, Anderson knew that civil war was probably only hours away.
One hundred and fifty years later, that war’s profound implications still reverberate within American hearts, heads and politics, from the lingering consequences of slavery for African-Americans to renewed debates over states’ rights and calls for the “nullification” of federal laws. Many in the South have viewed secession a matter of honor and the desire to protect a cherished way of life.
But the war was unarguably about the survival of the United States as a nation. Many believed that if secession succeeded, it would enable other sections of the country to break from the Union for any reason. “The Civil War proved that a republic could survive,” says historian Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College. “Europe’s despots had long asserted that republics were automatically fated either to succumb to external attack or to disintegrate from within. The Revolution had proved that we could defend ourselves against outside attack. Then we proved, in the creation of the Constitution, that we could write rules for ourselves. Now the third test had come: whether a republic could defend itself against internal collapse.”
Generations of historians have argued over the cause of the war. “Everyone knew at the time that the war was ultimately about slavery,” says Orville Vernon Burton, a native South Carolinian and author of The Age of Lincoln. “After the war, some began saying that it was really about states’ rights, or a clash of two different cultures, or about the tariff, or about the industrializing North versus the agrarian South. All these interpretations came together to portray the Civil War as a collision of two noble civilizations from which black slaves had been airbrushed out.” African-American historians from W.E.B. Du Bois to John Hope Franklin begged to differ with the revisionist view, but they were overwhelmed by white historians, both Southern and Northern, who, during the long era of Jim Crow, largely ignored the importance of slavery in shaping the politics of secession.
Fifty years ago, the question of slavery was so loaded, says Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln President-Elect and other works on the 16th president, that the issue virtually paralyzed the federal commission charged with organizing events commemorating the war’s centennial in 1961, from which African-Americans were virtually excluded. (Arrangements for the sesquicentennial have been left to individual states.) At the time, some Southern members reacted with hostility to any emphasis on slavery, for fear that it would embolden the then-burgeoning civil rights movement. Only later were African-American views of the war and its origins finally heard, and scholarly opinion began to shift. Says Holzer, “Only in recent years have we returned to the obvious—that it was about slavery.”
As Emory Thomas, author of The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 and a retired professor of history at the University of Georgia, puts it, “The heart and soul of the secession argument was slavery and race. Most white Southerners favored racial subordination, and they wanted to protect the status quo. They were concerned that the Lincoln administration would restrict slavery, and they were right.”
Of course, in the spring of 1861, no one could foresee either the four-year-long war’s numbing human cost, or its outcome. Many Southerners assumed that secession could be accomplished peacefully, while many Northerners thought that a little saber rattling would be sufficient to bring the rebels to their senses. Both sides, of course, were fatally wrong. “The war would produce a new nation, very different in 1865 from what it had been in 1860,” says Thomas. The war was a conflict of epic dimensions that cost 620,000 American lives, and brought about a racial and economic revolution, fundamentally altering the South’s cotton economy and transforming four million slaves from chattel into soldiers, citizens and eventually national leaders.
The road to secession had begun with the nation’s founding, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which attempted to square the libertarian ideals of the American Revolution with the fact that human beings were held in bondage. Over time, the Southern states would grow increasingly determined to protect their slave-based economies. The founding fathers agreed to accommodate slavery by granting slave states additional representation in Congress, based on a formula that counted three-fifths of their enslaved population. Optimists believed that slavery, a practice that was becoming increasingly costly, would disappear naturally, and with it electoral distortion. Instead, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 spurred production of the crop and with it, slavery. There were nearly 900,000 enslaved Americans in 1800. By 1860, there were four million—and the number of slave states increased accordingly, fueling a sense of impending national crisis over the South’s “peculiar institution.”
A crisis had occurred in 1819, when Southerners had threatened secession to protect slavery. The Missouri Compromise the next year, however, calmed the waters. Under its provisions, Missouri would be admitted to the Union as a slave state, while Maine would be admitted as a free state. And, it was agreed, future territories north of a boundary line within land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 would be free of slavery. The South was guaranteed parity in the U.S. Senate—even as population growth in the free states had eroded the South’s advantages in the House of Representatives. In 1850, when the admission of gold-rich California finally tipped the balance of free states in the Senate in the North’s favor, Congress, as a concession to the South, passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which required citizens of Northern states to collaborate with slave hunters in capturing fugitive slaves. But it had already become clear to many Southern leaders that secession in defense of slavery was only a matter of time.
Sectional strife accelerated through the 1850s. In the North, the Fugitive Slave Law radicalized even apathetic Yankees. “Northerners didn’t want anything to do with slavery,” says historian Bernard Powers of the College of Charleston. “The law shocked them when they realized that they could be compelled to arrest fugitive slaves in their own states, that they were being dragged kicking and screaming into entanglement with slavery.” In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act further jolted Northerners by opening to slavery western territories that they had expected would remain forever free.
By late the next year, the Kansas Territory erupted into guerrilla warfare between pro-slavery and antislavery forces; the violence would leave more than 50 dead. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857 further inflamed Northerners by declaring, in effect, that free-state laws barring slavery from their own soil were essentially superseded. The decision threatened to make slavery a national institution. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, in October 1859, seemed to vindicate slave owners’ long-standing fear that abolitionists intended to invade the South and liberate their slaves by force. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, declaring his candidacy for the Senate, succinctly characterized the dilemma: “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”