It would be an understatement to say that the Civil War caused unfortunate bloodshed and left a heritage of grief and bitterness in its path. This war is perhaps the most tragic of all time. Its epic feats and uncanny combats merit it as not only an unforgettable event in history, but a war that took over 600,000 lives. It was the only war fought on American soil by Americans, and for that reason the Civil War has always of interest. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the Civil War still remains a fascinating event in American history.
Few leaders have faced decisions as difficult as those confronting Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis in April of 1861. At stake was the allegiance of the northern tier of slave states, wavering between the Union and their sister slave states. Beyond that, Lincoln had to find some way to get all the states back into the Union, and Davis to prevent it. All this now focused on Fort Sumter. With so much depending on this Fort and the events surrounding the outbreak of the Civil War, it is imperative to assess the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln’s decision to hold Fort Sumter, and Jefferson Davis’s decision to take it.
Located on an island inside the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, and garrisoned by less then 100 U.S. soldiers, Fort Sumter was to both North and South a symbol of national authority in the states claiming to have seceded (McPherson 264). The 40 foot brick walls that were eight to twelve feet thick were designed to be able to stop anything from leaving or entering the harbor (McPherson 264). On December 20, 1861, after decades of sectional conflict, the people of South Carolina responded to the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, by voting unanimously in convention to secede from the Union. Within six weeks five other states- Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana-followed South Carolina’s example. Early in February 1861 they met in Montgomery, Alabama, adopted a constitution, set up a provisional government-the Confederate States of America-and elected Jefferson Davis as their president. By March 2, when Texas officially joined the Confederacy, the new government had seized nearly all of the Federal forts and navy yards in these Seven States (Davis 159). Fort Sumter was one of the few that remained in Federal hands.
At his inaugural, Lincoln promised not to initiate hostilities against the South but nevertheless to “hold occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government”(McPherson 268). One of the possessions he was talking about was the military post of Fort Sumter. Secretary of State William Seward was foremost in urging that the fort be abandoned in order to appease the south and keep the issue from being seen as one of slavery versus abolitionism. Against all such urgings, Lincoln remained firm on his decisions.
Davis was equally distressed. He was faced with the problem of whether to await the hoped for Northern evacuation of the fort or to order a Southern attack. It was an unpleasant dilemma. To allow a military force of Northern troops to remain in a fort in the harbor of one of its chief cities would appear to indicate the confederacy was neither independent nor in earnest about becoming so. Ultimately, Davis did not want to appear weak in any sense. On the other hand, to attack the fort would be to take upon the South the burden of firing the first shot and initiating a civil war, make the south appear the aggressor, rather than the victim of aggression, as Davis and most other Southerns believed it to be. Meanwhile, the south clamored for Davis to take some sort of action. In addition, Davis surly knew that the border states would never join the Confederacy unless they proved their power to free themselves. An Alabama newspaper even suggested that:
The spirit and even the partiotism of the people is oozing out under the do-nothing policy. If something is not done pretty soonthe whole country will become so disgusted with the sham of the southern independence that the first chance the people get at a popular election they will turn the whole movement topsyturvy (Fort Sumter Confederate Military History).
Davis’s hope in all of this was Lincoln’s dilemma: the fort was quickly running out of food. Unless supplies could be gotten to it soon, its commander, Major Robert Anderson, would have to evacuate. Davis waited to see if this would spare him the necessity of choosing one unpleasant alternative or the other.However, Lincoln was determined to do something about it. Ever since Lincoln learned on March 5 that Anderson’s troops at Sumter had supplies that would last no longer than mid-April, time became an increasingly weighty consideration for the President (Fort Sumter Confederate Military History). It would take time to organize and dispatch a relief expedition, whether small-scale or massive. It would take time to reach Sumter from northern ports. Meanwhile, Confederate forces at both Sumter and Pickens were strengthening their batteries and tightening the noose around these Union positions. Every day made reinforcement more difficult, particularly at Fort Sumter.
Despite pressure to act quickly, Lincoln took advantage of the time that remained to him. During the following ten days, Lincoln gathered information and explored ways of holding the Union’s forts. By March 29, he was ready to decide on a course of action (Davis 184). By April 4 Lincoln believed that a relief expedition was possible and ordered merchant steamers, protected by ships of war, to carry “subsistence and other supplies” to Anderson (Davis 197). He also notified Governor Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina that an attempt would be made to re-supply the fort. After debate and some disagreement, the Confederate cabinet telegraphed Beauregard on April 10 to fire on Fort Sumter if absolutely necessary to prevent reinforcement. By reinforcing the fort, Lincoln had checkmated his Confederate counterpart, who would now have to acquiesce in the permanent presence of a federal garrison in Charleston harbor or else take the responsibility of firing the first shot and firing it to keep food from hungry men. Lincoln probably hoped Davis would not choose war, but he was willing to risk the result if he did.
The confederacy’s own secretary of state, Robert Toombs, pleaded with Davis not to attack (Hutchinson Encyclopedia). Repeated demands were made upon Major Anderson, and upon the President, for the relinquishment of Fort Sumter. All demands were refused. Finally, Major Anderson was summoned to evacuate the fort, for the last time. The Hutchnison Encyclopedia explains that, accordingly, on April 11th, General Beauregard sent him the following communication:
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.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. T. BEAUREGARD,
At 3:20 a.m., April 12, the South informed Anderson that their batteries would open fire in one hour. At ten minutes past the allotted hour, Capt. George S. James ordered the firing of a signal shell. Within moments Edmund Ruffin of Virginia fired off a gun from Cummings Point. By daybreak batteries at Forts Johnson, Moultrie, and Cummings Point were assailing Sumter. For thirty-four hours they assaulted Sumter with an unceasing bombardment, before its brave defenders agreed to give it up, and not then until the condition of the fort made it impossible to continue the defense. Port Moultrie alone fired nearly 2,490 shots and shells. General S. W. Crawford describes the condition of Sumter when Anderson agreed to its surrender:
“It was a scene of ruin and destruction. The quarters and
barracks were in ruins. The main gates and the planking of the
windows on the gorge were gone; the magazines closed and
surrounded by smoldering flames and burning ashes; the
provisions exhausted; much of the engineering work destroyed;
and with only four barrels of powder available.
Major Anderson withheld his fire until 7 o’clock. Though some 60 guns stood ready for action, most never got into the fight. Nine or ten guns returned fire, but by noon only six remained in action. At no time during the battle did the guns of Fort Sumter greatly damage Confederate positions. And, sheltered in Sumter’s brick caverns, only five Federal soldiers suffered injuries. The battle continued through that that night and that evening Major Anderson gave up the hopeless contest and reluctantly accepted the inevitable. Ironically, no one on either side had been killed during the engagement.
On Sunday, April 14, Major Anderson and his garrison marched out of the fort and boarded ship for transport to New York. They had defended Sumter for 34 hours. Civil war, so long dreaded, had begun.
The Confederate firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s response in calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion did have the effect of galvanizing the South. Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and crucial Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy shortly afterwards. Yet it also rallied the loyal states in a way that probably nothing else could have done. The flag had been dishonored and war had been initiated by Southern aggression. A patriotic enthusiasm feeling swept the North.
Ultimately, Lincoln’s course must appear wiser. In the end, Lincoln reluctantly sent the Sumter expedition only after learning that the reinforcement of Fort Pickens had not taken place. Since Pickens could not provide a symbol of the Union’s permanency, the abandonment of Sumter was now unacceptable. Even in these circumstances, Lincoln took the most peaceable course possible. He adopted a plan to re-supply rather than reinforce the fort, and informed South Carolina officials of his intention. Although fighting broke out as a result of his decision, Lincoln did not deliberately choose war. Instead, he opted for a course whose consequences were unknown, and which offered at least a possibility of avoiding war.
Davis, by initiating the conflict had given the North a strength and unity without which it probably could not have won the war that followed. Yet in fairness it must be noted that for the Confederate president there were no easy alternatives. Each leader acted on their own knowledge and did what they thought wisest.
The attack on Fort Sumter is not, nor probably ever will be known for its heroic sacrifices or significant accomplishments. It is Sumter’s association with the Civil War, one of the great shaping events of the American experience, which gives it a symbolic dimension far outweighing its military significance. The attack on Sumter was the first notable clash of arms between the newly formed Confederacy and the Union. The battle marked a transition from the period of uncertain peace that accompanied the initial secession of seven Southern states from the Union to the four years of bloodshed and devastation of the Civil War. The sacrifices made in this war are a testimony that will forever be enjoyed by Americans. . The memorable and momentous attack upon Fort Sumter will endure forever for its inspirational deposition.
Davis, William C.First Blood. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1983.
Fort Sumter Confederate Military History. 2 Feb. 2000 .
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.
Hutchnison Encyclopedia. 1999. 18 February 2000
United States History. New York: Bowie, 1997.