Readers of the New York Herald picked up their papers on April 14, 1861, and learned that Fort Sumter had surrendered – the opening battle of the Civil War had ended with a Confederate victory. The war began when the first mortar was fired on Fort Sumter on April 12; the Herald’s front-page story on April 13 began with the simple sentence: “Civil war has at last begun.” Now, the next day, they read about the first Union defeat.
So grab your musket, your ammunition, your haversack, and your canteen because the War Between the States Sesquicentennial is almost here.
On April 12th, 2011 at 4:30 A.M. the War’s 150th anniversary will officially begin in Charleston South Carolina. But, before I go into the details of that day I believe a review of the events that led up to that first10-inch mortar shell fired from Fort Johnson by Confederate Captain George James is in order.
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in Washington, D.C. In his inauguration speech he made a statement that he would not use any force against the rebelling states except to “collect the imposts,” or taxes. This statement is more revealing of Lincoln’s true motives than any other statement that he made. He had once been asked how he could advocate coercion. His reply was “What is to become of my revenue in New York if there is a ten per cent tariff at Charleston?” This referred to the Confederacy’s ten per cent tariff on imported goods, which was much less than the U.S. tariff. Lincoln knew that the United States had lost its most important source of revenues in the seceded Southern States. This would mean that the U.S. would have to change their tariff rates in order to become competitive with the newly formed Confederate States of America or collapse economically. The factories of the North would also be faced with either buying Confederate cotton with the U.S. tariff applied or look to trade with a foreign country for their cotton, which would have been more expensive for them to do so. It can be argued that Lincoln’s and the United States’ reason for the War Between the States was economic prosperity for the Northern United States. The issue for the United States would not be slavery or Constitutional principles but would be clearly represented by dollars and cents. It would then be Lincoln’s task to create a situation that would make the South look as if they had openly attacked the United States. Lincoln had a plan.
Lincoln Attempts to Resupply Fort Sumter
The South is often viewed as the aggressor in bringing on the war. But there are many historical scholars that hold the opinion that the Confederates did all that they could in the vain attempt to avert war. During the early months of 1861 the seceded states of the South seized almost every U.S. Fort and Arsenal that resided in their territory without a single shot fired. In most cases the United States military authority at these locations turned them over without altercation. The only two exceptions were Fort Pickens in Florida and Fort Sumter in South Carolina. So the question is why were the garrisons of these forts not recalled?
An armistice had been entered into between South Carolina’s government and the United States government, December 6, 1860. A similar armistice had been entered into between Florida and the United States government, January 29, 1861. These armistices agreed that the forts, Sumter and Pickens, should neither be garrisoned nor provisioned so long as these armistices continued in force. Papers to this effect had been filed in the United States Army and Navy Departments. Abraham Lincoln knew about this armistice. Then on December 26 Major Robert Anderson, commander of the U.S. troops stationed at Charleston, South Carolina’s Fort Moultrie, took his men out of Fort Moultrie and into the island fort, Fort Sumter, under the cloak of darkness. This in itself was a provocation that could have brought on conflict. But cooler heads prevailed and the South awaited Major Anderson’s evacuation of Fort Sumter.
Before his inauguration, Lincoln had sent a confidential message to General Winfield Scott to be ready, when his inauguration, March 4, 1861, should take place, to hold or retake the forts. President Lincoln on March 12th, directed Montgomery Blair, one of his Cabinet members, to telegraph Captain G. V. Fox, formerly of the Navy, to come to Washington to arrange for reinforcing Fort Sumter. G. V. Fox, on March 15, was sent to Fort Sumter, and arranged with Major Anderson for reinforcement.
On March 29, Lincoln, without the endorsement of most of his Cabinet, ordered three ships with 300 men and provisions to be ready to go to Fort Sumter. All orders were marked private. A fourth expedition was secretly sent to Pensacola, Florida, under Lieutenant Porter, April 7th, on which date the three vessels were directed to go to Fort Sumter. On that same day President Lincoln directed William Seward, U.S. Secretary of State to address to the Confederate Peace Commissioners in Washington, and say “that they had no design to reinforce Fort Sumter.” In short there were four expeditions ordered to garrison and provision Forts Sumter and Pickens while the armistice was yet in force. South Carolina observed her agreement faithfully, to make no attack on Fort Sumter on account of promises made to evacuate the premises by the Federals, as well as its permission, continued into April, 1861, for Major Anderson to purchase fresh provisions in the markets of Charleston.
Not until sufficient time had elapsed to cover the estimated landings of the vessels were the Confederate Peace Commissioners informed of these facts regarding the North intent to reinforce the US troops. At length, on the 8th of April, South Carolina was officially informed that “an attempt would be made to supply Fort Sumter, peaceably if they could, forcibly if they must.” Eight armed vessels with soldiers aboard had been sent to sustain the notification, and moved so quickly on this expedition that only an unexpected storm at sea caused delay enough for the Confederate authorities to successfully meet the issue.
The Confederate States objected to this movement of the Federals, because the reinforcement was invasion by the use of physical force; because it asserted the claim of the United States to sovereignty over South Carolina, which was in dispute; and because the supply of the garrison in Fort Sumter with necessary rations was not the object nor the end of the expedition. The purpose was to secure Fort Sumter, to close the port with the warships, to reduce Charleston by bombardment if necessary, to land troops from transports, and thus crush “The Rebellion” where it was supposed to have begun by overthrowing South Carolina.
When the Confederate government was informed of the resupply efforts underway, permission was given to Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard to demand the surrender of Fort Sumter. Anderson was ordered to surrender the fort. He refused to do so until he could receive orders from the United States authorities. After General Beauregard had exchanged the usual formalities with Major Anderson he informed him that unless the fort was surrendered within a specified time it would be fired upon. At 4:30 on the morning of April 12th, the Confederates opened fire on the fort, fire which was soon returned. The bombardment which followed for thirty-three hours, matched by return fire from the Union troops, at last made the fort untenable, and Anderson on the 14th surrendered his stronghold to the Confederacy, and on the 15th evacuated the position with honors. The U.S. troops inside Fort Sumter came out, boarded ship and sailed out of Charleston Harbor. On their way out the Confederate troops along the shores removed their hats as the U.S. troops passed by on their way out to sea and home to the United States. The only casualty in the exchange of fire was a Confederate mule, although one U.S. soldier was killed in the retreat ceremony after the battle. A South Carolina flag bearing the palmetto tree was then raised over Fort Sumter. It would later be replaced by the First National Flag of the Confederacy, also known as the “Stars and Bars.”
This event would be Lincoln’s call to arms for the United States. He would state that the South had fired on the United States flag. This was an effort to obtain support from the general public within the United States, as previously, the general public of the North had felt that they should allow the South to leave the Union in peace. Most felt that it would be unlawful to try to coerce the Southern States to remain in the Union if it was against their will. Without his creating of the Fort Sumter incident there would have been very little, if any, support out of the North for an invasion of the South. Lincoln had successfully coerced the Confederate States into firing on Fort Sumter, giving the United States the role of innocence that he desired.
Here is a sampling of what two U.S. officials had to say about the incident and the events that led to it:
Gideon Welles, U.S. Secretary of the Navy
“There was not a man in the Cabinet that did not know that an attempt to reinforce Sumter would be the first blow of war. Of all the Cabinet, Blair only is in favor of reinforcing Sumter.”
William Seward, U.S. Secretary of State
“Even preparation to reinforce will precipitate war. I would instruct Anderson to return from Sumter.” Lincoln had sent a note to each member of the Cabinet, asking advice about holding Fort Sumter. Two may be said to have voted for it. Blair favored it; Chase was doubtful. He said, “I will oppose any attempt to reinforce Sumter, if it means war,” but the others voted decidedly against it. Lincoln did not call a Cabinet meeting, nor did he call upon Congress. He knew that neither would favor war.