For the South, the last straw was Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, with only 39.8 percent of the vote. In a four-way contest against Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Constitutional Unionist John Bell and the South’s favorite son, Kentucky Democrat John Breckenridge, Lincoln received not a single electoral vote south of the Mason-Dixon line. In her diary, Charleston socialite Mary Boykin Chesnut recounted the reaction she had overheard on a train when news of Lincoln’s election was announced. One passenger, she recalled, had exclaimed: “Now that...radical Republicans have the power I suppose they will [John] Brown us all.”Although Lincoln hated slavery, he was far from an abolitionist; he believed freed blacks should be sent to Africa or Central America, and declared explicitly that he would not tamper with slavery where it already existed. (He did make clear that he would oppose the expansion of slavery into new territories.)
However, the so-called Fire-eaters, the most radical Southern nationalists who dominated Southern politics, were no longer interested in compromise. “South Carolina will secede from the Union as surely as that night succeeds the day, and nothing can now prevent or delay it but a revolution at the North,” South Carolinian William Trenholm wrote to a friend. “The...Republican party, inflamed by fanaticism and blinded by arrogance, have leapt into the pit which a just Providence prepared for them.” In Charleston, cannon were fired, martial music was played, flags were waved in every street. Men young and old flocked to join militia companies. Even children delivered “resistance speeches” to their playmates and strutted the lanes with homemade banners.
In December 1860, a little more than a month after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina’s secession convention, held in Charleston, called on the South to join “a great Slaveholding Confederacy, stretching its arms over a territory larger than any power in Europe possesses.” While most Southerners did not own slaves, slave owners wielded power far beyond their numbers: more than 90 percent of the secessionist conventioneers were slaveholders. In breaking up the Union, the South Carolinians claimed, they were but following the founding fathers, who had established the United States as a “union of slaveholding States.” They added that a government dominated by the North must sooner or later lead to emancipation, no matter what the North claimed. Delegates flooded into the streets, shouting, “We are afloat!” as church bells rang, bonfires roared and fireworks shot through the sky.
By 1861, Charleston had witnessed economic decline for decades. Renowned for its residents’ genteel manners and its gracious architecture, the city was rather like a “distressed elderly gentlewoman....a little gone down in the world, yet remembering still its former dignity,” as one visitor put it. It was a cosmopolitan city, with significant minorities of French, Jews, Irish, Germans—and some 17,000 blacks (82 percent of them slaves), who made up 43 percent of the total population. Charleston had been a center of the slave trade since colonial times, and some 40 slave traders operated within a two-square-block area. Even as white Charlestonians boasted publicly of their slaves’ loyalty, they lived in fear of an uprising that would slaughter them in their beds. “People talk before [slaves] as if they were chairs and tables,” Mary Chesnut wrote in her diary. “They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?”
According to historian Douglas R. Egerton, author of Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War, “To win over the yeoman farmers—who would wind up doing nearly all the fighting—the Fire-eaters relentlessly played on race, warning them that, unless they supported secession, within ten years or less their children would be the slaves of Negroes.”
Despite its decline, Charleston remained the Confederacy’s most important port on the Southeast coast. The spectacular harbor was defended by three federal forts: Sumter; tiny Castle Pinckney, one mile off the city’s Battery; and heavily armed Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, where Major Anderson’s command was based but where its guns pointed out to sea, making it defenseless from land.
On December 27, a week after South Carolina’s declaration of secession, Charlestonians awoke to discover that Anderson and his men had slipped away from Fort Moultrie to the more defensible Fort Sumter. For secessionists, Anderson’s move “was like casting a spark into a magazine,” wrote one Charlestonian, T. W. Moore, to a friend. Although a military setback for Confederates, who had expected to muscle the federal troops out of Moultrie, Anderson’s move enabled the Fire-eaters to blame Washington for “defying” South Carolina’s peaceable efforts to secede.
Fort Sumter had been planned in the 1820s as a bastion of coastal defense, with its five sides, an interior large enough to house 650 defenders and 135 guns commanding the shipping channels to Charleston Harbor. Construction, however, had never been completed. Only 15 cannon had been mounted; the interior of the fort was a construction site, with guns, carriages, stone and other materials stacked about. Its five-foot-thick brick walls had been designed to withstand any cannonballs that might be hurled—by the navies of the 1820s, according to Rick Hatcher, the National Park Service historian at the fort. Although no one knew it at the time, Fort Sumter was already obsolete. Even conventional guns pointed at the fort could lob cannonballs that would destroy brick and mortar with repeated pounding.
Anderson’s men hailed from Ireland, Germany, England, Denmark and Sweden. His force included native-born Americans as well. The garrison was secure against infantry attack but almost totally isolated from the outside world. Conditions were bleak. Food, mattresses and blankets were in short supply. From their thick-walled casements, the gunners could see Charleston’s steeples and the ring of islands where gangs of slaves and soldiers were already erecting bastions to protect the Southern artillery.
Militiamen itching for a fight flooded into Charleston from the surrounding countryside. There would soon be more than 3,000 of them facing Fort Sumter, commanded by the preening and punctilious Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, who had resigned his position as West Point’s superintendent to offer his services to the Confederacy.
“To prove it was a country, the South had to prove that it had sovereignty over its territory,” says historian Allen Guelzo. “Otherwise no one, especially the Europeans, would take them seriously. Sumter was like a huge flag in the middle of Charleston Harbor that declared, in effect, ‘You don’t have the sovereignty that you claim.’ ”
With communications from his superiors reaching him only sporadically, Anderson was entrusted with heavy responsibilities. Although Kentucky born and bred, his loyalty to the Union was unshakeable. In the months to come, his second-in-command, Capt. Abner Doubleday—a New York abolitionist, and the man who was long credited, incorrectly, with inventing baseball—would express frustration at Anderson’s “inaction.” “I have no doubt he thought he was rendering a real service to the country,” Doubleday later wrote. “He knew the first shot fired by us would light the flames of a civil war that would convulse the world, and tried to put off the evil day as long as possible. Yet a better analysis of the situation might have taught him that the contest had already commenced and could no longer be avoided.” But Anderson was a good choice for the role that befell him. “He was both a seasoned soldier and a diplomat,” says Hatcher. “He would do just about anything he could to avoid war. He showed tremendous restraint.”