Special Report

Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins

Nearly a century of discord between North and South finally exploded in April 1861 with the bombardment of Fort Sumter

After Union troops refused to evacuate Fort Sumter, today a National Monument, Confederates opened fire. (Vincent Musi)
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Anderson’s distant commander in chief was the lame-duck president, Democrat James Buchanan, who passively maintained that while he believed secession to be illegal, there was nothing he could do about it. A Northerner with Southern sympathies, Buchanan had spent his long career accommodating the South, even to the point of allowing South Carolina to seize all the other federal properties in the state. For months, as the crisis deepened, Buchanan had vacillated. Finally, in January, he dispatched a paddle wheel steamer, Star of the West, carrying a cargo of provisions and 200 reinforcements for the Sumter garrison. But when Confederate batteries fired on her at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, the ship’s skipper turned the ship around and fled north, leaving Anderson’s men to their fate. This ignominious expedition represented Buchanan’s only attempt to assert federal power in the waters off Charleston.

Some were convinced the Union was finished. The British vice-consul in Charleston, H. Pinckney Walker, saw the government’s failure to resupply Fort Sumter as proof of its impotence. He predicted the North would splinter into two or three more republics, putting an end to the United States forever. The Confederacy, he wrote, formed what he called “a very nice little plantation” that could look forward to “a career of prosperity such as the world has not before known.” Popular sentiment in Charleston was reflected in the ardently secessionist Charleston Mercury, which scoffed that federal power was “a wretched humbug—a scarecrow—a dirty bundle of red rags and old clothes” and Yankee soldiers just “poor hirelings” who would never fight. The paper dismissed Lincoln as a “vain, ignorant, low fellow.”

While Buchanan dithered, six more states seceded: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. On February 4, the Confederate States of America declared its independence in Montgomery, Alabama, and named Mexican War hero, former Secretary of War and senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis, its president. “The radicals felt they were making a revolution, like Tom Paine and Samuel Adams,” says Emory Thomas. Although Davis had long argued for the right of secession, when it finally came he was one of few Confederate leaders who recognized that it would probably mean a long and bloody war. Southern senators and congressmen resigned and headed south.

Secessionists occupied federal forts, arsenals and customhouses from Charleston to Galveston, while in Texas, David Twiggs, commander of federal forces there, surrendered his troops to the state militia and joined the Confederate Army. Soon the only significant Southern posts that remained in federal hands were Fort Sumter and Florida’s Fort Pickens, at the entrance to Pensacola Harbor. “The tide of secession was overpowering,” says Thomas. “It was like the moment after Pearl Harbor—people were ready to go to war.” Buchanan now wanted nothing more than to dump the whole mess in Lincoln’s lap and retire to the quietude of his estate in Pennsylvania. But Lincoln would not take office until March 4. (Not until 1933 was Inauguration Day moved up to January 20.)

The new president who slipped quietly into Washington on February 23, forced to keep a low profile because of credible death threats, was convinced that war could still be avoided. “Lincoln had been a compromiser his whole life,” says Orville Vernon Burton. “He was naturally flexible: as a lawyer, he had always invited people to settle out of court. He was willing to live with slavery where it already was. But when it came to the honor of the United States, there was a point beyond which he wouldn’t go.”

Once in office, Lincoln entered into a high-stakes strategic gamble that was all but invisible to the isolated garrison at Fort Sumter. It was in the Confederacy’s interest to provoke a confrontation that made Lincoln appear the aggressor. Lincoln and his advisers believed, however, that secessionist sentiment, red-hot in the Deep South, was only lukewarm in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, and weaker yet in the four slaveholding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. Conservatives, including Secretary of State William H. Seward, urged the president to appease the Deep South and evacuate the fort, in hopes of keeping the remaining slave states in the Union. But Lincoln knew that if he did so, he would lose the confidence of both the Republican Party and most of the North.

“He had such faith in the idea of Union that he hoped that [moderates] in the Upper South would never let their states secede,” says Harold Holzer. “He was also one of the great brinksmen of all time.” Although Lincoln was committed to retaking federal forts occupied by the rebels and to defending those still in government hands, he indicated to a delegation from Richmond that if they kept Virginia in the Union, he would consider relinquishing Sumter to South Carolina. At the same time, he reasoned that the longer the standoff over Fort Sumter continued, the weaker the secessionists—and the stronger the federal government—would look.

Lincoln initially “believed that if he didn’t allow the South to provoke him, war could be avoided,” says Burton. “He also thought they wouldn’t really fire on Fort Sumter.” Because negotiating directly with Jefferson Davis would have implied recognition of the Confederacy, Lincoln communicated only with South Carolina’s secessionist—but nonetheless duly elected—governor, Francis Pickens. Lincoln made clear that he intended to dispatch vessels carrying supplies and reinforcements to Fort Sumter: if the rebels fired on them, he warned, he was prepared to land troops to enforce the federal government’s authority.

Rumors flew in every direction: a federal army was set to invade Texas...the British and French would intervene...Northern businessmen would come out en masse against war. In Charleston, the mood fluctuated between overwrought excitement and dread. By the end of March, after three cold, damp months camped on the sand dunes and snake-infested islands around Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter’s attackers were growing feverishly impatient. “It requires all the wisdom of their superiors to keep them cool,” wrote Caroline Gilman, a transplanted Northerner who had embraced the secessionist cause.

For a month after his inauguration, Lincoln weighed the political cost of relieving Fort Sumter. On April 4, he came to a decision. He ordered a small flotilla of vessels, led by Navy Capt. Gustavus Vasa Fox, to sail from New York, carrying supplies and 200 reinforcements to the fort. He refrained from sending a full-scale fleet of warships. Lincoln may have concluded that war was inevitable, and it would serve the federal government’s interest to cause the rebels to fire the first shot.

The South Carolinians had made clear that any attempt to reinforce Sumter would mean war. “Now the issue of battle is to be forced upon us,” declared the Charleston Mercury. “We will meet the invader, and the God of Battles must decide the issue between the hostile hirelings of Abolition hate and Northern tyranny.”

“How can one settle down to anything? One’s heart is in one’s mouth all the time,” Mary Chesnut wrote in her diary. “The air is red-hot with rumors.” To break the tension on occasion, Chesnut crept to her room and wept. Her friend Charlotte Wigfall warned, “The slave-owners must expect a servile insurrection.”


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