Within a matter of weeks of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency beginning, the gravest crisis of perhaps any president confronted him and the nation: civil war.
The crisis had its roots in the weeks preceding Lincoln’s arrival in Washington. On February 28, 1861, Major Robert Anderson sent a dispatch to the outgoing secretary of war discouraging the reinforcement of Fort Sumter, a fort situated in the placid harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, as it would require 20,000 well-trained soldiers to safely evacuate the fort.[i] From the fort, Major Anderson estimated that the soldiers had supplies to last them four to six weeks at the most.[ii] Lincoln immediately consulted the commanding general, Winfield Scott, who informed him that evacuation was “almost inevitable.”[iii]
Throughout the country, some argued that the North should acquiesce to southerners’ demands to abandon the forts, but more had a “rising anger and frustration” with the situation and insisted on protecting federal property.[iv] George Templeton Strong wrote: “The bird of our country is a debilitated chicken, disguised in eagle feathers. . . . We are a weak, divided, disgraced people, unable to maintain our national existence.”[v] While Lincoln considered abandoning Fort Sumter, he initially decided against it and sought more information to more fully analyze the unfolding scenario.[vi]
Incoming Secretary of State William Seward did not intend to blindly follow Lincoln’s lead. He spoke to Confederate representatives, including Justice John Campbell of the Supreme Court who had still not resigned his seat on the high court, about the unfolding situation in the Charleston harbor.[vii] Seward, without authorization, represented to Campbell on March 15 that the federal government would order the evacuation of Fort Sumter within a matter of days.[viii] Seward, sure that Lincoln would agree to abandon the fort, allowed Campbell and the other Confederate commissioners to take his representation as an “authoritative pledge.”[ix]
Lincoln did not rush his decision: on March 29, Lincoln met with his cabinet and polled the men as to whether a supply expedition should sail for Fort Sumter.[x] The cabinet, save Seward, agreed with Lincoln that the government should send provisions to Major Anderson and the soldiers, and accordingly, Lincoln issued orders for the resupply to occur by April 6.[xi] Seward, panicked by this development given his representation to Campbell of imminent evacuation, proposed to Lincoln that the administration (1) reinforce Fort Pickens, a nearby fort under less pressure, and abandon Fort Sumter suspiciously arguing that it would “change the whole sectional issue from one of slavery to one of union or disunion,” (2) “demand explanations” from Spain and France as to their recent annexations in the Caribbean and Mexico, declaring war if each country did not provide an adequate explanation, and (3) delegate to Seward himself the responsibility of determining which policy should be adopted.[xii] Lincoln soundly rejected Seward’s proposal, insisting that the President must bear the responsibility of such policy decisions.[xiii]
Much of the northern media was not impressed with the nascent administration’s handling of the unfurling crisis. The New York Times, known as a Republican-leaning newspaper, published an article critical of the Lincoln administration for its lack of “clear and distinct policy in regard to secession,” stating if the absence of policy continued, “the Union will not only be severed, but the country will be disgraced.”[xiv] Meanwhile, the article stated, the newly-minted Confederacy was conducting itself with a “degree of vigor, intelligence, and success” far above the Lincoln administration.[xv] Northern pressure was piling on the shoulders of the administration for decisive, reasoned leadership.
With Seward’s suggestions in mind, but likely not at the forefront, Lincoln ordered supply boats to provision Fort Sumter, but if the Confederate batteries fired on them, the boats were to force their way into the fort with not only supplies but also reinforcements.[xvi] However, if the Confederate batteries did not fire, the boats were to provide only supplies, not reinforcements, to Fort Sumter.[xvii] Regardless, the federal government would inform the South Carolinian government that the boats were incoming and were only there to “feed the hungry,” as their existing supplies would not last longer than mid-April.[xviii] Before Lincoln had sent a notice to that effect, he received news from another fort, Fort Pickens, that the naval commander that was to supply that fort did not receive direct orders to do so and that the fort’s fate was in jeopardy.[xix] Given this exigency, Lincoln fired off a message to Governor Francis Pickens of South Carolina:
“I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the fort.”[xx]
While Lincoln likely did not intend for this to be an open provocation, Confederates interpreted it as an ultimatum.[xxi] He had positioned the Confederate government to either fire the first shots of a war or back down on their threats; the former being more anticipated than the latter. It is unclear whether Lincoln knew the likely effect of this message to be an outbreak of hostilities and the start of a war, but the fact that Lincoln seldom acted without calculating the weight of his action suggests he was aware of the probable result.
In Montgomery, Alabama, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet reviewed Lincoln’s message on April 9 and, feeling deceived and betrayed after Seward’s representation, mulled over their options.[xxii] One member of the cabinet, Robert Toombs, said to Davis, “The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen, and I do not feel competent to advise you.”[xxiii] He continued:
“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.”[xxiv]
Davis ignored Toombs’ foreboding prediction. Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard received orders to not only attack Fort Sumter but to do so before the supply boats arrived so as to prevent having to simultaneously target the supply boats and the fort.[xxv] Beauregard inquired whether Anderson would voluntarily evacuate the fort, and when Anderson refused, Beauregard began preparing his attack. Although Anderson was a Kentuckian and could have been expected to sympathize with the South, he hoped to avert violence in the days and hours leading up to the outbreak of hostilities.
The morning of April 12, 1861 “dawned crimson on the water.”[xxvi] At 4:30 A.M., Edmund Ruffin, a 67-year-old ardent secessionist honored to “inaugurate” the war, pulled a lanyard and fired the first shot.[xxvii] Forty-seven Confederate howitzers and mortars began raining down shells on the fortress, beginning a 33-hour, 5,000-round bombardment.[xxviii] The citizens of Charleston gathered on rooftops cheering the shots falling on the fort, filling the sky with smoke and shaking the fort with each explosion.[xxix] With fire blanketing the fort and Union ammunition low, Anderson surrendered the fort to Beauregard “with colors flying and drums beating, bringing away company and private property, and saluting my flag with fifty guns,” as Anderson recounted.[xxx] While the bombardment miraculously did not result in any fatalities, what would later be known as the Civil War had begun.
If the Confederate government hoped to prevail in a civil war with the Union, they had lengthened their own odds of success. By assuming the role of aggressor and preemptively attacking the isolated fortress occupied by hungry soldiers, the Confederacy had undertaken a course of action sure to unite the Northern states into action. Regardless, Davis and the Confederate government had chosen to make its stand and attempt to secure its independence from the federal government. As much as efforts had been made to avoid war being the method of resolving the differences between North and South, the events at Fort Sumter indicated that only more violence and bloodshed would come. For the Confederates having just won their first victory, there was an ominous lack of jubilation. The men, as they neared each other during the evacuation of the fort, perhaps recognized the long, bloody fight ahead: the Confederates lined up, removed their hats, and stood in silence, watching their former compatriots float past them.
[i] David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 570 citing David C. Mearns (ed.), The Lincoln Papers (2 vols.; Garden City, NY 1948), II, 450-51.
[ii] See David C. Mearns (ed.), The Lincoln Papers (2 vols.; Garden City, NY 1948), II, 453-54, 477.
[iii] See id. at 464-65, 477-78.
[iv] See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 571.
[v] Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas (eds.), The Diary of George Templeton Strong (4 vols.; New York, 1952), III, 103, 106.
[vi] See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 572.
[vii] See id. at 573.
[viii] See id.
[ix] Id.; see also Ludwell H. Johnson, “Fort Sumter and Confederate Diplomacy,” JSH, XXVI (1960), 455-61.
[x] See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 574.
[xi] See id. citing Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols.; New Brunswick, NJ 1953), IV, 301-02.
[xii] David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 577.
[xiii] See id.
[xiv] See id. citing Howard Cecil Perkins (ed.), Northern Editorials on Secession (2 vols.; New York, 1942), II, 660-64.
[xv] Howard Cecil Perkins (ed.), Northern Editorials on Secession (2 vols.; New York, 1942), II, 660-64.
[xvi] See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 579.
[xviii] See id. citing Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols.; New Brunswick, NJ 1953), IV, 321-22.
[xix] See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 579.
[xx] Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols.; New Brunswick, NJ 1953), IV, 323-24.
[xxi] See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 580.
[xxii] See id. at 581.
[xxiii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 47.
[xxv] David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 582.
[xxvi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 49.
[xxvii] See id.
[xxviii] See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 582-83.
[xxix] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 49.
[xxx] See The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 vols.; Washington, 1880-1901), series I, vol. I, 305-06, 309.