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Authors: Steven Woodworth

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In a demoralized Washington, D.C., guarded by large numbers of U.S. Army troops deployed by aged General in Chief Winfield Scott to prevent any attempt at disrupting the inauguration, Lincoln took office March 4, committed to preserving the Union intact. Standing in front of the capitol with its unfinished dome, Lincoln read an inaugural address couched in conciliatory terms. He was duty bound to preserve the Union, Lincoln explained, but he would not be the aggressor. He would not attack the southern states or their institution of slavery unless they attacked first. He would enforce all of the laws, even the Fugitive Slave Act, but otherwise he would respect the rights of the states within the Union. He would maintain current garrisons like Fort Sumter, but they would attempt neither to collect the tariff nor to take any other action against the secessionists. In conclusion, Lincoln showed some of the eloquence that has led scholars to consider him the most adept user of the English language of any American statesman:

hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in
, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail
. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.
have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”
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.

White southerners were for the most part as unmoved by Lincoln’s eloquence as they were by his restraint. His statement that secession was not a constitutional right, guaranteed to the states and to be accepted without question by the federal government, they characterized as a virtual declaration of war.


On taking over the presidency, Lincoln found the nation’s situation even worse than he had imagined. The army was small and scattered, most of it defending the western frontier against Indians. The navy was also small and scattered, most of it patrolling against the Atlantic slave trade. The aged commanding general had little encouragement to offer. Winfield Scott had been one of the greatest military minds of his time but his time was most emphatically passed by 1861. Once a majestic sight in full dress uniform, the six-foot-four-inch Scott had grown so old, fat, and gouty that he could not mount a horse but had to be hoisted onto its back by something like a small crane. Scott told Lincoln that getting an expedition through to Fort Sumter would require more men than the army had and counseled giving up the fort. Most of the president’s cabinet agreed, including the forceful and cunning Secretary of State Seward, who thought that he should have been president instead of Lincoln. Worst of all, reports from Fort Sumter indicated that the garrison was running out of food. If not resupplied within a few weeks, Anderson and his men would have no choice but surrender or starvation, and surrender of the fort would be read in the South and in the rest of the world as the government’s acceptance of southern secession.

A desperate Lincoln seized on a plan presented by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox. What army leadership thought impossible, the navy proposed to do: get a relief expedition through to Fort Sumter. Though most of the fleet was unavailable, one reasonably powerful unit was on hand in the side-wheel steamer USS
, mounting sixteen guns, eleven of them heavy. It would form the nucleus of a task force whose mission would be resupplying Sumter. If the Rebels offered no resistance,
and the other warships would wait outside the harbor while a supply ship carried in the needed rations. If the Rebels opened fire, then
and the smaller warships, such as ten-gun steam sloop of war USS
, would, in theory at least, shoot their way into the harbor and see to the insertion not only of rations but of additional troops as well. A Union agent would alert Anderson of the expedition’s approach so that the fort’s garrison could cooperate with its own heavy guns. At the same time, a letter from Lincoln went to South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens (pointedly not to Jefferson Davis, whose office as president of the self-styled Confederate States Lincoln did not recognize), blandly informing him that an expedition would be resupplying Fort Sumter and that no shot would be fired or any troops, guns, or ammunition inserted unless the attempt was resisted.

Meanwhile, Seward was playing a deep game of his own. Convinced that the southern states could somehow be convinced to give up the idea of secession if only they were placated about Fort Sumter, he had entered into an indirect, unofficial, and completely unauthorized negotiation with several Confederate commissioners whom Davis had sent to Washington for that purpose. Seward hinted broadly to the Confederate agents that Fort Sumter would be abandoned, a decision he had no authority to make. When he learned of Lincoln’s authorization of Fox’s plan to resupply the fort, Seward drew up an order that he cunningly got Lincoln to sign without knowing what it was, diverting
to other duty. When Lincoln discovered the move and ordered Seward to revoke the order, Seward did so over his own signature. The ship’s commander obeyed the order signed by the president rather than that signed by the secretary of state, and before Lincoln could discover this second subterfuge,
was beyond recall and unavailable for the expedition.

Lincoln could see little choice but to go ahead with the expedition anyway. It lacked the firepower now to shoot its way into the harbor, but the attempt to insert the unarmed supply ship was the last chance for preserving peace and Union by maintaining the status quo in Charleston harbor. Lincoln knew that, given the aggressiveness of the southern leadership, the chance for peace was slim, but he had to try. There was little else for him to do other than accept the dismemberment of the United States, and that he would not do.

On receiving Lincoln’s notification of the planned relief expedition, Governor Pickens had immediately forwarded it to Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, the Confederate capital. Davis was determined to have Fort Sumter as a symbol of Confederate sovereignty. He hoped to get it peaceably but was quite willing to do so by force if necessary. On learning that the relief expedition was on the way, he ordered the commander of the Confederate forces ringing Charleston harbor, Louisianan Pierre G. T. Beauregard, to demand the fort’s immediate surrender and, if that were refused, to blast it into submission.

Beauregard was a veteran of the prewar U.S. Army who, like many southern officers, had resigned his commission when his state seceded and taken a commission in the new Confederate army. An 1838 graduate of West Point, where Robert Anderson had been his artillery instructor, Beauregard was a skillful military engineer who had supervised the arrangement of dozens of batteries of Confederate guns trained on Fort Sumter.

In response to Davis’s order, Beauregard, on the afternoon of April 11, 1861, sent a trio of staff officers in a small boat with a flag of truce to demand Anderson’s surrender. The leader of the Confederate delegation was Colonel James Chesnut, until a few months earlier a U.S. senator from South Carolina. To Chesnut’s summons to surrender, Anderson replied that his orders would not allow him to give up the fort at that time but that if the Confederates waited long enough, lack of provisions would force him to do so. Chesnut and his cohorts piled back into their boat and took this message back to Beauregard, who in turn telegraphed it to Montgomery.

Davis had his secretary of war reply that if Anderson would specify a time when he would evacuate the fort, Beauregard could hold off on the attack. Back into the boat went Chesnut and the other two staff officers for the long pull across the harbor. By the time they reached the fort, it was well after midnight on the morning of April 12. When Anderson met with them and heard their demand for a date to evacuate the fort, he gave April 15, if resupply did not reach him first. Everyone knew that the Union relief expedition was scheduled to arrive before then, so Chesnut took the responsibility, though very much in keeping with the wishes of Beauregard and Davis, of refusing Anderson’s terms and informing him that Confederate guns would open fire on the fort in one hour.

Once again plying their boat across the harbor, the three Confederate officers proceeded to the nearest Confederate battery, located on James Island, and gave the order to fire. Among the Confederate soldiers there was Virginia Fire-Eater Edmund Ruffin, still sporting his long, white hair. Having had himself temporarily inducted into the Virginia Military Institute so that he could have the pleasure of watching John Brown hang seventeen months before, Ruffin had now temporarily joined a South Carolina unit and was thus on hand for the first shot of the war. Indeed, according to some stories he actually fired the first shot, though this is generally discounted. It was 4:30 a.m., on Friday, April 12, when the guns on James Island roared into action, and the rest of the Confederate guns around the harbor quickly joined them in opening fire.

Low on ammunition, Anderson held his fire for the first several hours, then had his men reply sparingly. Outside the harbor, Fox and his relief expedition stood by helplessly, unable to force their way to the fort. By the afternoon of April 13, with ammunition almost gone and flames out of control inside the fort, threatening its powder magazine, Anderson surrendered. He and his seventy-six men had done all that could have been expected of them and by putting up a stout fight had demonstrated that the United States was not willingly acquiescing in the surrender of its fort. Amazingly, the thirty-four-hour-long bombardment had killed no one. Beauregard, always an admirer of the chivalrous niceties of war as it had been practiced in an earlier age, allowed Anderson to fire a fifty-gun salute to his flag in a formal surrender ceremony the following day before leaving the fort to board Fox’s ship and head north. Ironically, a gunner firing the salute accidentally ignited a pile of cartridges, and two U.S. soldiers died in the blast.


News of Fort Sumter shocked the nation, and both North and South reacted strongly. As Lincoln would later explain the situation, “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would
war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would
war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”

On April 15, the day following the surrender ceremony in Charleston, Lincoln, following the Constitution as well as Washington’s example in the Whiskey Rebellion, issued a proclamation: “Whereas the laws of the United States have been and are opposed in several States by combinations too powerful to be suppressed in the ordinary way,” the president requested the states to provide seventy-five thousand militia for federal service. Proslavery governors in Upper South states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky indignantly refused, but the response across the North was more than enthusiastic. The flag had been fired on, and the North rose up in a surprisingly unified reaction. Stephen Douglas pledged his support to Lincoln in suppressing treason. Patriotic rallies took place in scores of towns, and men flocked to enlist. Recruiting quotas were exceeded almost overnight, and several state governors begged Lincoln to accept additional regiments and in some cases kept those regiments on hand as state troops until the federal government, in due time, was more than happy to receive them. The first seventy-five thousand militia were limited by constitutional restraints to a maximum term of ninety days’ service.

Reaction in the slave states that had not previously declared themselves out of the Union was quite different and proved the truth of Pryor’s advice that the South Carolinians “strike a blow.” Once it became clear that they would have to fight either for a slave republic or for a republic in which slavery might be limited, Upper South residents, especially those who held political power, had no doubts as to which side they would take. On April 17 the Virginia state convention voted for secession. Theoretically the vote was subject to ratification in a state referendum to be held the following month, but by that time Virginia’s secessionist governor had already all but incorporated the state into the Confederacy. Within a few weeks, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas had followed suit.

The part of the Upper South known as the border states—Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—was divided internally. Kentucky and Missouri had secessionist governors with moderately Unionist legislatures. In Maryland, those relationships were reversed. Baltimore and the eastern counties of Maryland, with the highest slave population, were the hotbed of secessionism in that state. When on April 19 the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, the first of the northern regiments responding to Lincoln’s call, passed through Baltimore on its way to Washington, trouble broke out. Rail connections through Baltimore were discontinuous, and troops traveling to Washington from the North had to detrain at one station and march through the streets of Baltimore to another station where they could entrain for the national capital. As the Massachusetts men did so, an angry secessionist mob attacked them, throwing stones and firing pistols. The soldiers shot back, and when the fray had ended, four soldiers and twelve civilians were dead.

The mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland demanded that Lincoln allow no further Union troops to pass through the city and inflame the citizens and, when Lincoln refused, had the railroad bridge burned so that none could. Secessionist Marylanders cut the telegraph wires leading north from Washington. This made for some very tense days in the capital, cut off as it was from communication with the North or from the arrival of any additional troops. Benjamin F. Butler, general of the Massachusetts militia (and peacetime lawyer and politician), found a way around Baltimore, commandeering a steamer and using it to carry his troops down Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, Maryland, whence a railroad led to Washington. Maryland secessionists had damaged both engines and tracks, but Butler’s troops, among whom were men who had worked in the shop that made the locomotive, repaired both and got the line running. Other Union troops followed in a steady stream along the same route until, on May 13, Butler and his troops took control of Baltimore.

BOOK: This Great Struggle
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