Today in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln decided to send ships to resupply Fort Sumter after being repeatedly warned by South Carolina that such a gesture would be interpreted as an act of war. Confederate forces under the command of General PGT Beauregard then began a bombardment of the fort, quickly producing surrender.
Although shots had been fired at the merchant ship “Star of the West” by cadets from The Citadel a few months prior, those fired at Sumter have long been considered the first in the war.
Before he took the presidency, Lincoln began polling his cabinet regarding what to do about Fort Sumter. Though Lincoln believed that abandoning or selling the fort would encourage the southern states and act as an implicit recognition of the Confederate States of America, he was the outlier. At the time, Secretary of State William Seward began negotiations with Confederate negotiators via clandestine channels, hoping to prevent war. Before April, only Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s postmaster general, believed that resupplying the fort was a wise course of action. The Confederate government had offered to purchase the federal forts peaceably, and wished to begin diplomatic discourse with the United States. According to many accounts, war could have been averted and immeasurable blood and treasure could have been saved by evacuating or selling the fort.
Prior to the event, war was hardly foregone conclusion. Winfield Scott, the top ranking official in the army, had urged Lincoln to let the union’s “wayward sisters” depart in peace. Lincoln’s predecessor, President James Buchanan, similarly alleged that secession was impermissible, but denied any constitutional authority to prevent it from transpiring. During this timeframe, Congress proposed a constitutional amendment – the Corwin Amendment – with the explicit support of Lincoln, that would have codified the permanence of slavery into the United States Constitution and prevented Congress from disposing of the institution forever. Various other attempts to bring the southern states back into the union, including the Crittenden Compromise, were pursued.
Secretary of State William Seward attempted to engage in clandestine negotiation to sell the fort despite Lincoln’s position. Realizing that resupplying the fort would be an inflammatory deed, he thought Lincoln’s adamant grip on Sumter was unwise. Much hardship would be avoided, Seward thought, if the fort could be transferred to the state peacefully. He gave assurances to Confederate diplomats throughout March that the fort would be abandoned, much like other federal forts that existed within the Confederate states. These pledges, of course, never came to fruition.
In the end, Lincoln directed the supply ships to the fort, and sent warning to South Carolina’s governor, Francis Pickens. The governor responded with an explicit ultimatum that any attempt to resupply the fort was a violation of the law of nations, and would be treated as an act of war. Positioned in the middle of Charleston Harbor, the government would not allow such a trespass on its own dominion. Following through with this warning, the fort was fired upon from various artillery batteries surrounding the harbor. Shots lasting 34 hours forced the occupants to surrender Fort Sumter to South Carolina, though there were zero casualties.
In a May 1 letter to a friend, Lincoln admitted that Fort Sumter served as a vehicle to start a war with the southern states: “You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail.” Two months later, Lincoln reiterated his satisfaction to another friend, which was captured in his journal: “The plan succeeded. They attacked Sumter – it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could.”
Among southerners and northern opponents of the president, Lincoln’s decision was widely interpreted as a hostile action against a sovereign state and as a violation of the law of nations. On the other hand, the event also triggered a coalition of support for the president – including the president’s former political opponent Stephen Douglas – who portrayed southerners as the true aggressors in the episode. Either way, Lincoln’s self-admitted attempt to provoke war served as the catalyst for the bloodiest conflict in North American history.
In the aftermath of the event, Lincoln unilaterally called for a 75,000-man army to be raised, with the sole purpose of invading the South, while Congress was not in session. Perceived as a provocative and unprecedented gesture of aggression, four additional states – Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina – seceded from the union. Prior to the call to raise an army, these states had decided to remain within the union because they did not think Lincoln would endeavor to do what the Deep South states had warned. Tennessee, for its part, even rejected secession over allegations that the Lincoln administration would interfere with slavery via a statewide referendum in February of the same year. Similarly, Virginia called for an initial convention that culminated with a refusal to secede over the issue of slavery.
Arkansas’ declaration of secession conveyed that its departure hinged upon Lincoln’s declaration that “war should be waged against such States until they should be compelled to submit to their rule,” an action of “inhuman design” deemed “disgraceful and ruinous to the State of Arkansas.” According to Governor of Tennessee Isham Harris, the general government had embodied, “in all the elements of power, of a purely sectional party, whose bond of union is uncompromising hostility to the rights and institutions of the fifteen Southern States, have produced a crisis in the affairs of the country, unparalleled in the history of the past.”
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