Four forts and other earthwork fortifications guarded the harbour of Charleston, South Carolina. Built after the War of 1812 and still unfinished in 1861, Fort Sumter guarded the mouth of the harbour. The five sided structure was made of brick and built on an island in the middle of the harbour mouth. East of Fort Sumter, across the bay on Sullivan's Island, lay Fort Moultrie. The original Fort Moultrie was made of palmetto logs and was the source of South Carolina's "Palmetto State" motto, but that had long been replaced by a brick fortress. Fort Johnson was west of Sumter, on James Island. It was more a barracks than a fort, though it did have an artillery fieldwork installation. Castle Pinckney was built on a shoal near the marshy island of Shutes Folly, not far from Charleston, proper. Castle Pinckney, was a wide, round brick fortress that looked more like a medieval castle tower than a 19th century fort, hence its name (it was named after the Revolutionary War hero Cotesworth Pinckney). An incomplete earthwork battery was built on Morris Island.
After South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, militia forces moved to take over the Charleston fortifications. U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson commanded the garrison at Fort Moultrie — two companies of the 1st U.S. Artillery regiment, 85 men in total. He decided that Fort Moultrie was indefensible, and secretly moved his garrison to the better protected Fort Sumter on December 26. On December 27 the sergeant commanding the Castle Pinckney garrison surrendered the fort to the South Carolina militia and joined Anderson at Fort Sumter. Castle Pinckney was the first federal installation seized by a state government during the crisis. South Carolina quickly took over Castle Pinckney, Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, and the Morris Island battery.
In early January the Buchanan administration sent the civilian ship Star of the West to resupply the Fort Sumter garrison. On board the ship were 250 troops to reinforce the fort. The mission was a secret, but the South Carolina militia had been warned. The story was published in newspapers and confirmed by southern sympathizers still in the northern government, Jacob Thompson of Mississippi (Buchanan's Secretary of the Interior) and Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas. On January 9, 1861 cadets from Military College of South Carolina — known as The Citadel — fired on the Star of the West from the Morris Island battery. The ship was forced to retire without dropping off its provisions. The incident provoked an angry response from the North.
Further South, in Florida, lay several forts guarding the mouth of Pensacola's harbour from an approach by way of the Gulf of Mexico. The brick fort was built off shore, on Santa Rosa Island. Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer was in charge of the garrison at Fort Barrancas. He determined that Fort Barrancas and nearby Fort McRee were too vulnerable from a landward force. This analysis was reinforced around midnight of January 8, when the garrison repelled a group of men trying to take the fort. (Some historians consider these the first shots fired in the Civil War.) Slemmer destroyed 20,000 pounds of gunpowder at Fort McRee, spiked the guns at Fort Barrancas, and pulled his men into the dilapidated Fort Pickens, which hadn't been occupied since the Mexican American War.
Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens were now effectively under siege.
Mississippi passed its own ordinance of secession on January 9, the same day as the Star of the West incident. Mississippi was followed by Florida on January 10, Alabama on January 11, Georgia on January 19, Louisiana on January 26, and Texas on February 1. As each state seceded they seized strategic federal government assets.
Although none of the other ordinances achieved a unanimous vote like South Carolina, the average vote in favour of secession was 80%. Only Texas submitted the ordinance for ratification by the voters of the state, but it is fair to say the state conventions reflected the opinion of voters in those jurisdictions.
Most secessionists assumed that the seceded states would form some sort of united front. Some advocated uniting in order to present an ultimatum to the Union: enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, protect slavery in the territories as defined by the Missouri Compromise, and maintain slavery in Washington, D.C., and then the seceded states would rejoin the Union. Since it was unlikely the Republicans would agree to this — and Southerners wouldn't trust the Republicans anyway — there was little chance of this proposal succeeding. Other secessionists tried to convince the South to stay in the Union until Lincoln did something "overt" against slavery or the South. These men, too, were swept aside by the wave of secession.
Once again, the North underestimated the popularity of secession. In Alabama 39% of the delegates to the secession convention voted against secession. In Georgia 30% of the delegates voted against secession. The North assumed that a "silent majority" of unionists existed in the South, that they were just overshadowed by the the louder secessionists. However this misconstrued the motives of those voting against secession, as many of these men simply opposed unilateral secession. The majority of "opponents to secession" were in favour of a cooperative Southern union, either to give the North an ultimatum, wait for an "overt act", or to secede all at once as a single block.
Southerners did not believe secession would result in a bloody conflict. A popular phrase at the time suggested that all the blood spilled in the conflict would fit "in a thimble". This was a case of the South underestimating the North's determination to preserve the Union. The first signs of this determination came from out-going president James Buchanan. Buchanan would do little in his last few months in office, but he would give a speech to Congress on December 3, 1860 strongly denying the right of a state to secede.
The North feared that Southern secession would lead to the complete break up of the Union. Northern newspapers took up this theme. Some Northerners suggested partitioning the country into three or four regions, and the West forming its own republic. Influential leaders in New York City suggested turning it into an independent "free town" so that its businessmen could continue to deal with the South. Southern secession could eventually, and quickly, end in the destruction of the United States of America, confirming what many in Europe suspected, that a republic "for the people" and "by the people" could not survive.
Late in the legislative session, Republican Congressman Thomas Corwin of Ohio proposed a constitutional amendment which would prohibit Congress from amending the Constitution in a way that would allow the Federal government to "abolish or interfere" with any state's "domestic institutions". In other words, the amendment would have prevented the passing of a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. This amendment had a clause that said the amendment itself could not be amended. If passed, it would create an "entrenched clause" within the U.S. Constitution, making it the only part of the Constitution that could never be altered. Not even the Bill of Rights had this level of protection.
Corwin's legislation, later called the Corwin Amendment, was essentially identical to a Senate proposal introduced by William Seward. It came up for vote in the House of Representatives on February 28, 1861. By this point the members representing the seven seceded states had left the House, leaving the Republicans with a clear majority. In order for a constitutional amendment to pass to the states for ratification, it has to pass by a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. The amendment narrowly squeaked through the House by a vote of 133–65 (132 votes were needed). It passed the Senate on March 2 in an even closer vote: 24–12 (where 24 votes were needed).
The point at which the Corwin Amendment could make a difference had probably passed. The seceded states had by that point banded together under a government of their own, known as the Confederate States of America.
The Morrill Tariff was named after Representative Justin Morill of Vermont, the tariff's sponsor. He wrote the tariff with input from Pennsylvania economist Henry C. Carey. The tariff replaced some of the tariffs in the 1857 Tariff Act, and specifically protected the steel industry, which resided almost entirely in the North. The tariff's rates were even higher than the Tariff of 1828 that triggered the Nullification Crisis.
The Morrill Tariff Act passed the House on May 10, 1860 in a vote split largely along regional lines. All but 15 Northern representatives voted for the tariff. One Southern and six representatives from border states also voted for it. It was introduced in the Senate, but Senator Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter of Virginia used parliamentary tactics to stall it until after the election. It was brought up for a vote on February 14, 1861. With the senators from the seceded states gone, the tariff passed the vote. President Buchanan signed it into law as one of his last official acts.
The Morrill Tariff was despised by the South, but it did not loom large in the minds of secessionists. Influential Southern politician Alexander Stephens mentioned the tariff in his Cornerstone speech, which gave Georgia's reasons for leaving the Union. However, the "cornerstone" he talked about was slavery. He personally voted against secession in the secession convention, and downplayed the role of the tariff to the convention. In the South, the tariff served as proof that they were right about what would happen if they stayed in the Union.
The seven seceded states sent delegates to the Convention of Seceding States. The convention met on February 4 in Montgomery, Alabama. The first order of business was to elect Howell Cobb of Georgia as the Convention President. By February 8 the convention had adopted a provisional constitution forming the Confederate States of America.
The Confederate Constitution borrowed heavily from the United States Constitution, but the permanent constitution — adopted a month later — differed from the U.S. Constitution in several significant ways. It enshrined the institute of slavery, though it did make it illegal to import slaves from abroad (a measure designed to mollify Great Britain). The president was restricted to a single six-year term. The president received a line-item veto on appropriations. The constitution permitted a national tariff for revenue but not for the protection of domestic industries. The Confederate government could not allocate funds for internal improvements. Confederate officials serving within a state could be impeached either by the state's legislature or the Confederate Congress. Cabinet officers could be granted a non-voting seat in Congress, though this was never acted upon. Finally, only two-thirds of the states were needed to amend the constitution (the U.S. Constitution required three-quarters).
On February 9 the convention selected the Confederacy's provisional president. Alexander Stephens, Howell Cobb, and Robert Toombs, all from Georgia, actively sought the presidency, but it was a reluctant Jefferson Davis of Mississippi who was chosen. Davis preferred to be Secretary of War, but Virginia's pro-secession senators, James Mason and Robert Hunter, favoured Davis, so Davis was chosen. Alexander Stephens was chosen as the provisional Vice President. Davis was inaugurated on February 18. (Davis was officially elected president of the Confederacy on November 6, 1861 and inaugurated on February 22, 1862, more than a year after his inauguration as provisional president.)
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3 in either 1807 or 1808; there was some dispute as to the actual year by the members of his family, though Davis took the year as 1808. Like Abraham Lincoln, he was born on a farm in Kentucky. After that, the resemblance ends. Jeff Davis was the youngest of 10 children born to Samuel Emory Davis and Jane Davis. His father and uncles served in the Continental Army during the Revolution. Three of his older brothers served in the War of 1812, two under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. His family moved to St. Mary Parish in Louisiana in 1811 and Wilkinson County, Mississippi in 1813. He began his education in a log cabin school near his home in 1813, but two years later he attended a Catholic school — though he was a Protestant — near Springfield, Kentucky. He attended Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi and Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky before entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1824.
Davis' West Point career was somewhat spotty. He and five others were caught visiting Benny Havens, a local public house, and charged with leaving the post without permission and for drinking "intoxicating spirits". He put on an admirable defense, but the Court Martial didn't buy it. He was sentenced to dismissal, but the court recommended the remission of the sentence due to his previous good record. This didn't stop Davis from visiting the tavern. One time he threw himself down a hill to avoid being seen at Benny Havens by officers, and earned a one month stay in the hospital for his trouble. Another time he was the ringleader of a drunken party that saw several cadets dismissed. In spite of the trouble, Davis graduated in 1828, 23rd out of a class of 33, with the brevet rank of 2nd Lieutenant. One class ahead of Davis was Leonidas Polk, who would become the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana and a Civil War lieutenant general. One class behind Davis were two men who would later achieve the highest rank, of full general, in the Confederacy: Joe Johnston and Robert E. Lee.
Davis' first assignment was with the First Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin. His commander was Colonel Zachary Taylor, who would later become the 12th president of the United States. In 1829 he supervised the cutting of timbers on the banks of the Red Cedar River for logs to enlarge the fort. Davis was later assigned to Fort Winnebago, but while supervising the construction of a sawmill and on the Yellow River he contracted pneumonia and had to return to Fort Crawford. His first actual military experience came during the Black Hawk War in 1832. He took part in the capture of Blackhawk himself and escorted him to Jefferson Barracks. Davis' kindness apparently left a favourable impression on Blackhawk. In 1833 Davis transferred to the newly formed First Dragoons, receiving the rank of 1st Lieutenant and acting as first adjutant of the regiment.
Jeff Davis had fallen in love with Zachary Taylor's daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Her father did not approve of Davis, so Davis resigned his commission. He married Sarah on June 17, 1835 at the home of his aunt in Louisville, Kentucky. The marriage was short lived. They both contracted malaria three months later. Sarah died in the home of Davis' sister in Louisiana. After he recuperated, Davis sailed to Havana, Cuba then to New York City. In 1836 he retired to the Brierfield Plantation in western Mississippi. While an advocate of slavery, Davis was apparently a fair and benevolent slave owner by the standards of the time. For the next few years he ran his cotton plantation and studied political science.
His first foray into politics was an unsuccessful bid for the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1843. The next year he travelled Mississippi campaigning for James Polk for president and George Dallas for vice president in the 1844 election. Davis ran again for the U.S. House of Representatives that same year and won, taking office in 1845 for a two-year term. He married the socially prominent Varina Howell on February 26, 1845.
In what would become a pattern for the rest of his political life, Davis did not serve a complete term in the House. The Mexican-American War began in 1846. He resigned from the House in June and raised the Mississippi Rifles regiment, becoming their Colonel. He distinguished himself in combat, participating in the Siege of Monterrey and the Battle of Buena Vista, where he was wounded. Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer, supposedly said of Davis service, "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I." James Polk offered Davis the rank of brigadier general and the command of a brigade of militia, but Davis turned him down, stating that the states, and not the federal government, had the right to assign militia officers.
Mississippi recognized Davis as a war hero by giving him the U.S. Senate seat that was vacant upon the death of Senator Jesse Speight. He took the seat on December 5, 1847 and was elected by the Mississippi legislature to serve the remainder of the term in January, 1848. When the term expired in 1850 he was once again elected senator. He served less than a year. He resigned in September 1851 to campaign for Mississippi governor because of his opposition to the Compromise of 1850. He lost to Henry Stuart Foote by 999 votes. Davis once more found himself out of politics. He was involved in a states rights convention in Jackson, Mississippi in 1852 and campaigned for presidential candidate Franklin Pierce and his running mate, William King, later that year. After Pierce won, Pierce made Davis his Secretary of War.
Pierce served a single term, losing the Democratic party nomination in the 1856 election to James Buchanan. Jefferson Davis ran for the U.S. senate seat for Mississippi in 1856 and won. He spent the summer of 1858 in Portland, Maine. On July 4, 1858 he delivered an anti-secessionist speech on a ship near Boston. He gave a similar speech on October 11 at Faneuil Hall in Boston. On February 2, 1860 he submitted six resolutions to the senate as a compromise against secession. One of the resolutions called for the preservation of slavery within the South.
In meetings with the Mississippi delegates he argued against secession, but he backed down when the majority of delegates opposed him. Mississippi passed an ordinance of secession on January 9, 1861. Jefferson Davis announced the secession of Mississippi on the senate floor on January 12. He gave a farewell address and resigned from the senate. On January 16 he was given the rank of major general of Mississippi volunteers and made commander of all Mississippi troops. His name came up as a compromise candidate for the president of the Confederacy. Davis, who did not travel to the Montgomery convention, was chosen to be the first — and as it would turn out, the only — president of the Confederate States of America. He reluctantly accepted. He left Brierfield on February 11, 1861 on a train tour that would eventually take him to Montgomery, the Confederacy's capitol, on February 16.
The same day Jefferson Davis left Mississippi for Montgomery, Abraham Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois to the cheers of well wishers. He had packed his trunk himself, bound it with a piece of string, and labelled it simply, "A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C." The first day out, he was accompanied by his oldest son Robert. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their other two sons would join him the following day. The train would take a circuitous route to Washington covering 1,905 miles. It first headed for Indianapolis, Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio. Throngs greeted him wherever he went, and politicians of all stripes wanted to meet the next president of the United States. As an example, Lincoln and his family were treated to a lavish ball at the Governor's mansion in Columbus, Ohio.
The train travelled through Cleveland, into Pennsylvania and on into New York state, taking Lincoln to Albany, New York City, New Jersey, and back into Pennsylvania. On February 18, the day Jefferson Davis was inaugurated, Major General David E. Twiggs voluntarily surrendered his entire command — about 20% of the U.S. army, which guarded the border with Mexico — to the secessionist government in Texas. As a response, Lincoln declared in a speech that he would preserve the Union. (Twiggs would defect to the Confederacy the next day. He was dismissed from the U.S. Army for treason. He would be given a major general commission in the Confederate army and command of the Department of Louisiana. His age — he was seventy-one years old — caused him to resign on October 11, 1861. He would die of die of pneumonia in Augusta, Georgia on July 15, 1862.)
The famous detective Allan Pinkerton was guarding the president-elect. Pinkerton's agents uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln at the stop in Baltimore, a city with strong secessionist leanings. After Lincoln gave a speech to the Pennsylvania legislature in Harrisburg, he and his advisors met to discuss the threat. Pinkerton recommended that Lincoln travel straight from Harrisburg to Washington. Lincoln hesitated. He didn't want to appear cowardly, even if the threat was real. He had been carefully cultivating an image of strength and confidence. Sneaking into Washington would diminish, or even destroy, that image. Eventually Lincoln took Pinkerton's advice. That night he left his hotel in Harrisburg, exchanging his stovepipe hat for a less conspicuous felt hat and with a long coat thrown over his shoulders to conceal his height. He boarded a special train headed for Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, he boarded a train for Baltimore with only Pinkerton and a bodyguard accompanying him. They stayed in a sleeper car Pinkerton had reserved for an "invalid passenger". Once in Baltimore he switched to Camden train station across town unobserved, and then got on the train for Washington. The train quietly rolled into Washington early the next morning. The press had a field day with his surreptitious arrival, going so far as to suggest Lincoln had donned a Scottish bonnet, a kilt, and a military cloak as a disguise. Even some of his supporters openly criticized Lincoln and Pinkerton. It would later turn out that there was a plan afoot to murder Lincoln, but Lincoln always thought sneaking into Washington was the worst decision of his presidency.
Although the appointments had to be confirmed by the Senate after his inauguration, Lincoln had begun to form his cabinet less than a month after the election. William Henry Seward was made Secretary of State. Salmon Portland Chase was appointed Secretary of the Treasury. Seward almost gave up the position when Chase was brought in, but Lincoln convinced the two to work with each other. Edward Bates was tapped to be the Attorney General, thus Lincoln shocked his opponents by asking all three rivals for the presidential nomination to join his team, all of whom thought they were better suited for the presidency. Simon Cameron had also been a nominee for the Republican Party presidential ticket, but he threw his support behind Lincoln at the National Convention. He was made Secretary of War. Caleb Blood Smith had worked hard to secure the presidential nomination for Lincoln, for which he was given the position of Secretary of the Interior. Montgomery Blair, the man who represented Dred Scott before the Supreme Court, was appointed Postmaster-General. Gideon Welles of Connecticut, a strong supporter of Lincoln, was made Secretary of the Navy. Lincoln had also asked Stephen Douglas to join his cabinet, but Douglas declined citing poor health.
Before his inauguration, Lincoln showed his inaugural address to his friend Francis Blair, Sr., a Maryland unionist. Blair liked it, thinking it echoed the sentiment of Andrew Jackson when he stared down South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis. William Seward, however, thought it was too provocative, too war like. He thought if Lincoln gave the speech as written he would drive Maryland and Virginia to secede. In particular, Seward was worried about the closing paragraph. Although earlier in the speech Lincoln promised that there was no need for violence or bloodshed, he finished with, "In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine is the momentous issue of civil war... With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of 'Shall it be peace, or a sword?'" Dozens of changes were made to the speech. Lincoln incorporated most of Seward's wording. He did not like the phrasing of the closing remarks, but he absorbed Seward's sentiment in words of his own.
Lincoln's inauguration was March 4. His inaugural address ignored the Republican Party platform, instead focusing on unity. He stated his belief that the Union was perpetual, that it predated even the Constitution, and being perpetual it could not be broken up without mutual consent. He did imply that the Fugitive Slave Act would be enforced, as it fell within the realm of the service/labour clause of the Constitution (Article IV, Sec 2). As to the question of invading the South, he said, "The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere." This was a theme Lincoln had been expounding during his train trip to Washington. To further aid the cause of unity, he came out in favour of the Corwin Amendment. "[H]olding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable." He closed his address with the now famous conciliatory words:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The full version of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address can be found on the Avalon Project web site of the Yale Law School at http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/presiden/inaug/lincoln1.htm.
Not surprisingly, even though "the better angels of our nature" replaced "peace or a sword", Southern newspapers declared Lincoln's speech to be provocative. It did nothing to reverse secession, though for the moment the border states remained in the Union.
In spite of passing Congress and receiving the blessing of Abraham Lincoln, the Corwin Amendment was not passed. The amendment was ratified by the Ohio General Assembly on May 13, 1861. The Maryland General Assembly ratified it on January 10, 1862. Other states considered it for ratification, but there it was either rejected or died in committee. Since it was not ratified by three-quarters of the states, it was never made into a constitutional amendment.
Lincoln first heard the full extent of Fort Sumter's predicament from a report by Maj. Anderson on March 5. Anderson warned that there were only enough supplies for six weeks, and only if the men went on half rations. After that, the fort would have no choice but to surrender to the Confederate militia. Anderson also warned that it would take 20,000 men to hold the fort. This number shocked Lincoln. The entire U.S. Army, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, only numbered, 16,000 men. It seemed unlikely that Fort Sumter could hold out, yet Lincoln could not simply pull the garrison. It would be disastrous, politically, to just hand over federal assets to the the Confederates.
The president did not make any hasty decisions. Beside the work required by a president, Lincoln was inundated from morning to evening with personal visitors. Many of these were supporters who had been promised concessions or work in response to helping Lincoln gain the presidency. He did not even mention Fort Sumter to his cabinet during their meeting of March 6. (Technically his cabinet was not official, for none of the men yet been approved by the Senate.) It was not until March 9 that the cabinet met to primarily discuss the Sumter situation.
Perhaps Lincoln had been thinking about a letter he received before his inauguration from Orville H. Browning, an old friend of his. Browning said in the letter, "In any conflict... between the government and the seceding States, it is very important that the traitors shall be the aggressors, and that they be kept constantly and palpably in the wrong. The first attempt... to furnish supplies or reinforcements to Sumter will induce aggression by South Carolina, and then the government will stand justified, before the entire country, in repelling that aggression, and retaking the forts." Lincoln did not seek out a conflict. For one thing, the border states, including Virginia, were still within the Union. He could not afford to just give up the forts — Sumter, or Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida — without trying to provision them, either.
The location of Fort Pickens and the nature of the bay at Pensacola — let alone the fact that it was in the Florida panhandle and not on the Atlantic coast — meant that the Confederates could not put as large a force against Fort Pickens. The "problem child" was Fort Sumter, but Fort Pickens also needed to be supplied. Buchanan had ordered a ship, the Brooklyn, with supplies and an extra 200 men to land at Fort Pickens. The captain of the ship was warned by the Confederates that he would be fired upon if he tried to land. Not wanting to start a war, the captain made an informal truce with the Confederates. They would not fire and he would not land the men. On March 11, Lincoln ordered the men to be landed at Fort Pickens. It would be weeks before he learned that his order had not been carried out.
The head of the army was General Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican War who had served in the army since the War of 1812. Scott suggested that it would take a naval force of 5,000 men along with the 20,000 soldiers to provision and reinforce Fort Sumter. Captain Gustavus Vasa Fox had another idea. He knew the Charleston fortifications. He had a plan for provisioning Sumter from the sea, ferrying supplies and men to the fort by way of New York City tug boats. Fox had approached the Buchanan administration with his plan, but it was ignored. Lincoln took it seriously.
In a March 15 meeting, the cabinet was split over the supplying of Fort Sumter. Seward, Welles, Cameron, and Smith — the Secretaries of State, the Navy, War, and the Interior, respectively — all recommended that Sumter should not be supplied. Chase was worried, but thought it should be reinforced. Blair was firmly of the opinion that the fort had to be reinforced in order to send a message of strength to the South. Lincoln did not make a decision. Instead, he sent Fox to Charleston with a message for Anderson about a potential pull out, but in actuality Fox was to determine the feasibility of supplying Sumter. Lincoln also sent Stephen A. Hurlbut, a friend from Illinois who had been born in Charleston, to gauge the mood of the people there.
When Fox returned, he was more convinced then ever that the Union could reinforce Sumter. Bad news greeted Lincoln on March 27 in the form of a report from Stephen Hurlbut. Hurlbut said that it was too late for a surrender of Sumter to affect the opinions of the people of South Carolina. In fact, the South Carolinians would fire on any ships that tried to land at Fort Sumter, even if they knew for a fact that the ship only carried supplies and had no reinforcements.
On March 28 the president learned from Winfield Scott that Scott's home state of Virginia was on the verge of secession. The only thing that might avert Virginia joining the Confederacy would be the surrender of Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens.
Lincoln did not sleep that night. He knew that he could start a war with his decision. The next day the cabinet meeting began at noon, though before the meeting Lincoln asked Fox for a list of available ships, suggesting that he had already reached a decision. Cameron was absent. Seward remained convinced that Sumter should be surrendered, but he recommended holding onto Fort Pickens "at all cost". Seward argued that they could hand over the provocative Fort Sumter while still maintaining the federal presence at the more distant Fort Pickens. Welles had changed his mind, and Chase had solidified his stance; both thought Sumter should be reinforced. Blair went so far as to say he'd resign if Lincoln followed Scott's advice and surrendered Sumter and Pickens.
Seward had a good reason to disagree with the others. He firmly believed that if they evacuated Sumter he could negotiate an end to the crisis with the Confederates. He had been in touch with a group of commissioners sent to Washington by the Confederacy. Lincoln had refused to deal with the commissioners directly, so Seward had to deal with by way of Justice John Campbell, an Alabamian who remained on the Supreme Court. Seward was of the belief that he controlled the cabinet and the president. He was also under the mistaken belief, from the comments made by the commissioners, that surrendering Fort Sumter would pave the way to a peaceful resolution to the crisis, even though this flew in the face of what Hurlbut and Scott had said. Seward had given his personal promise that Fort Sumter would be evacuated within five days, a date which had already passed by the time of the March 29 cabinet meeting.
The president gave the cabinet his decision: Fort Sumter would be reinforced. He ordered Welles, Cameron and Gustavus Fox to put together an expedition, which would sail out of New York on April 6. The decision stunned Seward, who thought after the March 15 cabinet meeting that Lincoln would do as Seward desired. Seward tried to get Lincoln to reverse himself over the next week, but Lincoln would not be dissuaded from his course. Seward went so far as to suggest that France, Britain, the British forces in Canada, and other foreign governments explain their meddling with the United States, and if they could not do so adequately then Lincoln should declare war on them. Perhaps a war with another nation would bring the country together. Lincoln simply dismissed this preposterous idea.
Seward worked on a new tactic. He had Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, an army engineer in charge of the work being done on the Capitol dome, to work up a plan for reinforcing Fort Pickens. Seward believed that if he could reinforce Pickens before Fox's expedition arrived at Sumter, Lincoln would follow Seward's plan. Meigs gave Lincoln the report on April 1, and Lincoln approved it. In Lincoln's mind, the Fort Pickens expedition was in conjunction, not to the exclusion, of the Fort Sumter expedition. Unfortunately, Seward convinced Lincoln of a need for secrecy. Meigs' expedition would be largely an army one. Due to interservice rivalry, and — as Seward put it — a fear of disloyalty running through the navy, the Meigs expedition would be conducted without the knowledge of the Department of the Navy. The Powhatan was ordered prepared under the command of Lieutenant David Dixon Porter as a part of the Fort Pickens expedition. Welles and Fox needed the Powhatan for the expedition to Fort Sumter. In the early, confusing days of his presidency, Lincoln was in the habit of signing papers from Seward without reading them. The president inadvertently assigned the ship to both expeditions.
Lincoln sent word to Maj. Anderson on April 4 that a relief force was on its way. Anderson was ordered to hold out. On April 5, Commander Samuel Mercer — commander of the Powhatan — received orders with regard to Fort Sumter. If the boats from the supply ships could land at Fort Sumter, Mercer was to return the Powhatan to New York. If the boats were interfered with, he was to use the Powhatan "to open the way". He was to be off the coast of Charleston by the 11th of April.
On April 6, Lincoln found a way to make the mission to Fort Sumter "peaceful". He wrote a letter to Cameron, instructing him to pass the letter on to the governor of South Carolina. The letter warned of the expedition to Fort Sumter. Lincoln did not want the South Carolinians to misconstrue the nature of the mission. Unfortunately, this meant that South Carolina would soon know about the ships heading to Fort Sumter and would have time to react.
The Powhatan was in the Brooklyn Naval Yard on April 5. Earlier in the day Welles ordered the Naval Yard to hold the Powhatan in order to prepare it for the Sumter expedition. Meigs and Porter telegraphed Seward, saying that Welles' order to hold the ship was adversely affecting their preparations for the Pickens expedition. Seward decided that he now had to explain his mission to Welles. He met Welles at 11 p.m. at the Willard Hotel and told him about the Powhatan's secret mission to Fort Pickens under Porter's command. Welles said this was impossible, as the Powhatan was "the flagship" of the Sumter expedition, under Mercer. They went to see the president around midnight. The contradictory orders soon became apparent. Welles was surprised to see Lincoln accept full responsibility for the mistake. Lincoln had Seward telegraph orders to hand the Powhatan over to the Sumter expedition.
The next day, on the 6th, Captain Mercer received his orders to set sail for Fort Sumter. Before the Powhatan could leave, Meigs and Porter boarded her with signed orders from the president. The three men discussed the orders and all three decided that Lincoln's signed order was the "imperative". Mercer handed command over to Porter, and Porter took her out, headed for Fort Pickens. The ship set sail at 2:45 p.m. At 3:00 p.m., Captain Andrew Foote, the commander of the naval yard, finally received Seward's telegram handing the Powhatan back over to the Sumter expedition. The telegram was simply signed, "Seward".
The Powhatan was met by a fast steamer with the telegram from Seward. However, Porter saw that it was signed by Seward and not Lincoln. He refused to honour the orders, insisting that a cabinet member could not override orders from the president. He pointed out that if the Atlantic, the ship carrying the troops for the Fort Pickens expedition, departed on time and Porter failed to carry out his orders, the entire expedition was in jeopardy. Without orders from Lincoln to the contrary, he would continue with his original orders from Lincoln. The Powhatan continued to sail for Florida.
The same day the Powhatan set sail Lincoln received two pieces of disturbing news. He had ordered the relief force at Fort Pickens to land. The orders had come through Winfield Scott. The captain of the ship felt he could not land the troops, and provoke a war, without orders from the Secretary of the Navy. Only now did Lincoln learn that the original garrison was still in place without reinforcements. The second piece of bad news was from Major Anderson. The Sumter garrison had only a few days provisions remaining. Anderson also thought any attempt to reinforce Sumter would precipitate a conflict. A schooner, the Shannon, was running ice from Boston to Savannah when it mistakenly entered Charleston harbour. It was fired on. The schooner thought they wanted to see his flag, so he ran up the Stars and Stripes, only to be fired on again and hit. The ship went back out to sea, but it was obvious that any ship entering the harbour was in danger.
On April 7 Lincoln sent naval Lieutenant John L. Worden to Pensacola. Worden carried fresh orders, from Lincoln, for Captain Henry A. Adams. Adams was to reinforce Fort Pickens, immediately.
Having been forewarned of the relief force, the Confederate government ordered Brigadier General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, in command of Confederate forces in Charleston, to open fire on Fort Sumter before the Powhatan and her sister ships could reinforce the fort. Since South Carolina's secession, the Confederate forces in Charleston harbour had been increased to more than 8,800 men, grossly outnumbering Major Anderson's small force.
Beauregard had been warned by the Confederate government to be on the lookout for a relief force for Fort Sumter as early as April 2, when Seward's assurances had not panned out. He received Lincoln's warning of a provisioning expedition on the 8th and informed the Confederate government. The next day Beauregard was told to stop Anderson's mail. He was to isolate the fort. This was also the day the Sumter expedition finally pulled out of New York harbour.
Northern newspapers started writing about the Sumter relief expedition on April 10. It is possible that the information had been leaked by the Lincoln administration to drum up support. Also on the 10th, Jefferson Davis ordered Beauregard to "demand at once" the evacuation of Fort Sumter. Davis assumed that the supply ships would reinforce Sumter by force. This was the fleet's original intention, but without the Powhatan the fleet did not have a reasonable chance of running past the forts. Beauregard replied that he would order the evacuation at noon the next day.
Beauregard sent three aides to Fort Sumter at 2:00 p.m. on the 11th. He told Anderson that he must evacuate the fort. Beauregard's message is repeated below:
Sir: The government of the Confederate States has hitherto foreborne from any hostile demonstrations against Fort Sumter, in hope that the government of the United States, with a view to the amicable adjustment of all questions between the two governments, and to avert the calamities of war, would voluntarily evacuate it.
There was reason at one time to believe that such would be the course pursued by the government of the United States, and under that impression my government has refrained from making any demand for the surrender of the fort. But the Confederate States can no longer delay assuming actual possession of a fortification commanding the entrance of one of their harbors and necessary to its defense and security.
I am ordered by the government of the Confederate States to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter. My aides, Colonel Chestnut and Captain Lee, are authorized to make such demand of you. All proper facilities will be afforded for the removal of yourself and command, together with company arms and property, and all private property, to any post in the United States which you may select. The flag which you have upheld so long and with so much fortitude, under the most trying circumstances, may be saluted by you on taking it down. Colonel Chestnut and Captain Lee will, for a reasonable time, await your answer.
Anderson answered with a brief message that said he could not leave the fort:
General: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication demanding the evacuation of this fort, and to say, in reply thereto, that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligations to my government, prevent my compliance. Thanking you for the fair, manly and courteous terms proposed, and for the high compliment paid me.
Anderson also, verbally and unofficially, stated that they would be starved out in a few days. Beauregard telegraphed Anderson's reply to Montgomery. They replied by giving Beauregard authority to "reduce the fort". Beauregard sent four more aides to Fort Sumter at 1:00 a.m. on April 12 asking Anderson to fix a time and date for his evacuation and for a promise not to fire on the Confederates in the intervening time. Anderson replied that he would evacuate by noon on the 15th, provided he did not receive orders or supplies. He also promised not to fire unless fired upon. The aides considered Anderson's reply before telling him, at 3:20 a.m., that Confederate forces would fire on Fort Sumter within an hour. They departed the fort at 3:30 a.m. for Fort Johnson.
At 4:30 a.m., a signal mortar at Fort Johnson fired a shot over Fort Sumter, indicating the start of the bombardment. Virginia secessionist Edward Ruffin — who had gone to South Carolina in the hopes of provoking a war, and thus drive Virginia to the Confederacy — reported that he was given the honour of firing this first shot. Some historians dispute his claim as there is no corroborating evidence. It's likely that his shot was one of the first, if not the first. The Charleston harbour batteries began firing.
About two hours later, Major Anderson gave his second in command Captain Abner Doubleday, the man who some have erroneously credited with inventing baseball, the order to fire back. Doubleday fired the Union's first shot of the war.
Most of Fox's fleet finally arrived at the rendezvous point ten miles from the harbour that morning. The Baltic, the Harriet Lane and the Pawnee, were present, but still missing were the Pocahontas and the Powhatan. Even without the Powhatan and the tug boats, Fox ordered the ships to head for the fort. As he got to the harbour he saw that the fort was already under attack. He ordered his ships to leave the harbour. They agreed to wait until the next morning for the Powhatan, unaware that the ship would not arrive.
The assault continued for thirty-four hours. Portions of the fort caught fire and crumbled. Only 10 of the fort's 60 guns faced the Charleston batteries, so Anderson was unable to reply effectively. The damage in the fort was devastating. At 1:00 p.m. the flagstaff fell. Beauregard took this to mean that the fort had surrendered. He ceased fire and sent aides to the fort. The flagstaff was soon raised again, but quickly the colours were replaced with a white flag. Fox considered making a run to the fort, but the firing ceased and the surrender flag was raised before any ship could move. At 2:00 p.m. the Pocahontas arrived, too late to affect the outcome. Surrender negotiations were completed at 8:00 p.m. with the Pocahontas involved in the evacuation of the garrison.
Though there were a few minor injuries, there were no deaths or major wounds resulting from the bombardment. At noon on April 14, Major Anderson ordered a 100 gun salute as the colours were lowered. On the 50th firing the gun exploded. One man was killed, and five others were wounded. One of the wounded men would die in a Charleston hospital four days later. These were the first casualties of the American Civil War.
Anderson took the folded flag under his arm and boarded the Pocahontas with his men. As they left the fort, the Confederates in the shore batteries stood at attention with their hats removed. The Union men were transferred to the Baltic, which set sail for New York. They would arrive to a hero's welcome on April 18. Out of deference to the Union garrison, Beauregard waited until the garrison had pulled out before occupying the fort.
On April 8 the Confederate commission to Washington was formally told that the United States government refused to recognize them. The commission relayed the information to the Confederate government in Montgomery. The Confederate government responded by ordering Brigadier General Braxton Bragg, in charge of Confederate forces at Pensacola, to prevent Fort Pickens' reinforcement "at all hazards".
Lieutenant Worden arrived in Pensacola on the morning of April 11. He informed Braxton Bragg of his presence. Bragg allowed Worden to communicate with Captain Adams onboard the Sabine, provided that Worden did not violate the truce that was in effect by trying to reinforce the fort. Worden headed to Captain Adams with his orders without making any promises to Bragg.
Worden met Adams at noon on the 12th and gave the captain his orders. The timing was opportune for Worden, for Bragg received an order that day to intercept Worden and prevent him from reaching Adams. Bragg's order had arrived too late.
Late that night, Adams sent army Captain Vogdes and his troops, along with a contingent of marines, to Fort Pickens by small boat. The reinforcement went unchallenged. Alarm guns sounded from the fort, informing Bragg that the fort had been reinforced. Later that day (April 13) Bragg relayed the news to the Confederate government. "Re-enforcements thrown into Fort Pickens last night by small boats from the outside. The movement could not even be seen from our side..."
Meigs and the Atlantic arrived at Fort Pickens on the evening of April 16, reinforcing the fort for a second time. The ship had been delayed by bad weather and the securing of federal positions in Key West. They offloaded their troops, bringing the total number of men to 1,100 and supplying the fort with six months of provisions. The Powhatan showed up early on the morning of the 17th. She was delayed by bad weather and boiler problems.
David Dixon Porter disguised the Powhatan to look like a British steamer, flying British colours. He intended to run the gauntlet into Pensacola harbour. Colonel Harvey Brown, commander of Meig's reinforcements, recognized the Powhatan as it sailed for the harbour and sent Meigs to stop it. Now that the fort had been reinforced, the last thing Meigs needed was for Porter to antagonize the Confederates and start a battle. They sent up signals for the Powhatan to stop, but Porter ignored them. Meigs was forced to slip a boat in front of the harbour to stop Porter. Meigs later wrote, "I stopped this gallant officer, bent on a desperate deed of self-sacrifice and devotion to his country."
Fort Pickens would remain in Union hands throughout the war.
Lincoln met with his cabinet on April 14, after he received the news of Sumter's surrender. He asked for 75,000 men for the "the militia of the several States of the Union." The cabinet agreed. Lincoln made the proclamation the next day. Lincoln could only call for troops on an emergency basis, which restricted their call up to only 90 days, after which they had to be disbanded unless Congress approved them for a longer period. There was a loophole in the law: if Congress wasn't in session the 90 day period would not begin until after the session began. Lincoln had the opening of the session delayed until July 4, giving him five and half months before the troops would be disbanded.
Patriotism exploded in the North with the firing on Fort Sumter. Northern politicians framed the attack on Fort Sumter as an armed insurrection by a rebellious minority. If left unchecked the South would forever separate from the United States, with the possible partitioning of the Northern states. Thus in the North the rebellion became a conflict for the preservation of the Union itself.
Many expected that an armed conflict would push the border states, particularly Virginia, to declare themselves on the side of the Confederacy. On April 17 Virginia held a secessionist convention. The initial vote was 88–55 for secession. A second vote was 103–46 in favour of Virginia joining the Confederacy.
In Montgomery on April 17, Jefferson Davis invited applications for letters of marque and reprisal. These would permit privateers to hunt United States merchant ships. In response, on the 19th of April Lincoln declared privateering would be treated as piracy. He also declared a blockade on Southern ports from South Carolina to Texas. The Supreme Court later considered this proclamation to be the legal start of the American Civil War.
It should be noted that Lincoln made a mistake ordering a "blockade" of the ports. In international naval law, a nation could only blockade the port of another nation. The proper declaration for a country wishing to restrict access to its own ports would have been for Lincoln to close the Southern ports. Some considered this action to be a de facto recognition of the Confederacy as a separate country.
Three more states would join the Confederacy before the end of May. Arkansas seceded on May 6, Tennessee on May 7, and North Carolina on May 20. The final two states to make up the Confederacy, Missouri and Kentucky, would secede from the Union on October 31 and November 20, 1861, respectively.
The American Civil War would last more than four years and result in the death of over 600,000 Americans, more than all other American-involved wars — from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq — combined.
On September 22, 1862 Lincoln announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. All slaves in the Southern states not occupied by the Union or part of the Union on January 1, 1863 would be declared free. If Southerners wanted to retain their slaves they had to rejoin the Union before the end of 1862. After that date, any Confederate territory captured by the North would result in the freedom of any slaves in that territory. The proclamation did not free the slaves in Northern territory or in Southern territory already captured by the Union. Lincoln was giving the Confederacy an ultimatum. If they wanted to return to the pre-war status quo with regard to slavery, they had to cease hostilities by January 1, 1863.
This sounded like another compromise, like the ones he considered before his inauguration, but in fact Lincoln didn't expect the Confederacy to quit fighting. Instead, he made the war something other than a war to preserve the Union; he had made the end of slavery a Union goal for the war. The proclamation was primarily geared to prevent Britain and France from entering the war on the Confederate side. Both of those nations opposed slavery, but both desired the resources — particularly cotton — offered by the Confederacy. Britain was considering intervening on behalf of the Confederacy in 1862, and very well might have intervened had the Confederacy succeeded in invading the north that year. The Union "victory" at Antietam delayed Britain's decision. The Emancipation Proclamation made it impossible for Britain to support the Confederacy without also supporting a slave state, as it became clear that a Union victory would end slavery. Thus, it was almost two years into the war before abolition of slavery became a war aim of the Union.
It is clear that if it had not been for slavery, the war would never have been fought. After the Dred Scott decision it looked like Lincoln was right with his "house divided" speech; the country would become all one thing or all the other, it would become a slave nation or a free nation. Nothing short of a constitutional amendment could have reversed the Supreme Court's decision. Attempts before the war to codify a compromise solution failed. The seceded states formed their own constitution legalizing slavery. With his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln guaranteed that the country could not return to a "house divided". Either the country would split apart, or the resulting nation would be well down the road to freeing the slaves.
Lincoln did not live to see the end result of his policies. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 (the shooting was on the 14th; Lincoln actually died the next day). The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery, was ratified on December 6, 1865. It was proclaimed on December 18, 1865, completing a process that should have been dealt with when the Constitution was originally written. Offenses against the amendment were still being prosecuted in 1947, and discrimination based on race, colour, sex, religion, or national origin was not outlawed in the United States until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it was the American Civil War that resolved the issue and set the country on the course toward equality and the "all men are created equal" promise of the Constitution.
This essay takes the position that the central cause of the American Civil War was slavery. This is the majority view of mainstream historians, but it is not the only view.
For a discussion of these other views, see the Columbia American History Online web site "point-counterpoint" page on the cause of the American Civil War. This site is run by Columbia University. The address of the page is http://caho-test.cc.columbia.edu/pcp/14002.html.