The Final Crisis: Fort Sumter

[Hay] had come to think of Lincoln as a beleaguered fortress, with cannons firing at him from every direction; a fortress waiting to be relieved by…. But Hay did not know by what. No one knew what was in Lincoln’s mind.

GORE VIDAL, Lincoln: A Novel1

In his inaugural address, President Lincoln claimed that the secession of the Lower South constituted the ‘essence’ of anarchy. The anarchical elements of southern separatism have been one of the main themes of this book. In setting out to answer the two questions posed at the beginning – why did the Lower South secede in 1860–61, and why was that act followed so quickly by civil war? – we must now turn our attention to tracing in detail the passage of events that resulted in the firing of shots by southerners on fortifications sheltering northerners. It should be made clear at the outset that this event does not stand like a lighthouse, with the tranquillity of peace on one side and the surging fury of the tides of war on the other (which is the impression given in some accounts), but full square in the middle of the secession crisis. The order to open fire given at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861 is only the culmination of a stream of violent acts that had begun in the mid-1850s and was to escalate gradually until the onset of punitive war by the autumn of 1862. In this perspective, the main significance of this final crisis is to signal the onset of organized violence. The anarchical condition affected small matters as well as great; indeed, it was a breakdown over the minor, if significant, legacy of secession, namely, the status of a handful of federal forts, that precipitated the Civil War, rather than the momentous act of seceding from the Union. Thus, the act of secession itself did not lead inevitably to war. Secessionist acts do not intrinsically carry the seeds of civil war (although there are few secessions carried out peaceably: the withdrawal of Belgium from the kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830 is perhaps one, but that settlement was guaranteed by two great powers, Britain and Prussia, in the Treaty of London in 1839). The real cause of organized violence was the way that secession had been carried out. The seceded states were unconsolidated, uncoordinated and ill prepared for independence materially and psychologically. The same was true of the northern states and the Federal government. The South was weak and belligerent simultaneously – a fatal combination. The strength and capacity of the Confederate armies in 1862–63 is one indication of the kind of power that the South could have brought to bear in 1861 if her attempt to gain independence had been agreed, thought out, and carefully prepared for. The Confederacy might have been successful in deterring war. Be it remembered that relative strengths, and opinions about comparative military power currently prevailing, are a powerful factor in the calculations that statesmen make before deciding for war.2

To recapitulate: the eruption of the American Civil War in April 1861 is just the culmination of a stream of violent acts arising from unstable political conditions, verging on anarchy, that went back well before 1858, though it had been particularly strong since that date. But the precipitate rush to full-scale hostilities needs to be explainéd. As the decision on both sides represents a balancing of competing forces and an estimate of relative strengths, such a correlation needs to be assessed strategically, using methods of strategic analysis, not of politics. Earlier historians have attempted to reduce the manoeuvres of the early months of 1861, as they should be, to a ‘strategy’, for example, Kenneth M. Stampp’s ‘strategy of defence’. Certainly the last fifty years have demonstrated beyond any doubt that methods of strategic analysis can increase our understanding of a political problem in peacetime. Even when the participants in a given crisis or confrontation themselves do not think in terms of strategic language, they may act in ways which are consistent with it. This chapter will be the second in which the structure and relationship of events will be analysed by employing a ‘model’. But before proceeding further with an investigation of this kind, the political context of the last crisis must be established.

The political context

The most intractable aspect of the whole crisis was that both sides were concerned first and foremost with principles rather than with the more mundane but amenable lesser issues of day-to-day political intercourse. The South, or a part of it, sought its ‘independence’. The North sought to maintain the ‘integrity of the Union’. It would have been difficult enough to have reached any kind of ‘deal’ to accommodate these elevated sentiments, even if their proponents had been of a mind to seek and accept one, which they were not. Because of this an asymmetry of political relations developed between the two sides which contributed to the misunderstandings and errors that occurred. The South acted and behaved like an independent country; northerners continued to treat its emissaries as fellow citizens with a shared culture and values – even when they were engaged in ‘secret’ diplomacy over the future of the Union. They often acted at cross-purposes because of this difference. Matters were also confused because of the chaos on the southern side. In the first stage of the developing crisis over the forts, the government of South Carolina was the ‘sovereign’ power negotiating with the United States; after 12 February it was the Confederacy. Opinion was inflamed on the southern side, because the pro-southern tenor of Buchanan’s administration led them to believe that he would continue to acquiesce, if not sympathize, with their aspirations. When it became clear that he did not, the southern reaction, like a jilted lover, was bitter, and Buchanan was accused of despicable double-dealing.3

Here were two sides, both of whom claimed to be acting defensively. The South sought, as all legitimate states should, to protect its territorial integrity and security; the North attempted to protect the Constitution from the depredations of a handful of mischief-making insurgents who had stampeded their states into defying the verdict of a presidential election; it also sought to defend its property, and prevent any addition to Confederate military power, however small. Yet this attitude, which was so important to both sides in sustaining the somewhat mythical (and over-strained) time-honoured tradition that Americans behave only defensively, never aggressively, was in one very profound sense irrelevant. If principles were at the forefront of everybody’s mind, then the symbolism pervading the confrontation could easily be extended to the forts in question. This was what happened to Fort Sumter, which became a symbol for both sides. It also became a symbol that both sides were pursuing their objectives defensively. Yet two defensive attitudes may produce an offensive act in the same way that two negative poles make a positive.4

What were they arguing about and why did these properties assume a symbolic significance? The four properties offering the most blatant provocation were those found in the environs of Charleston, South Carolina. They included Fort Sumter (still unfinished but dominating Charleston harbour because of its location on a tiny island in the harbour entrance) and Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson and Castle Pinckney, all nestling in the basket of secessionist vipers. Less exposed was Fort Pickens, near Pensacola, Florida. Pickens was less vulnerable, mainly because it lay outside any harbour, while Castle Pinckney, Fort Johnson and Fort Moultrie not only were weak and undermanned fortifications (Castle Pinckney boasting a garrison of one quartermaster sergeant) but also could easily be isolated from relieving naval forces. Even Sumter could not easily be succoured because any vessels coming to its rescue could easily be fired on from shore batteries (see maps).5 These forts were held by virtue of a contract or sometimes a conditional cession from the parent state. There were obviously ways of securing legal redress for the loss of such installations if the Federal government was prepared to recognize southern independence. But this was begging the question. Not only did Charlestonians believe that the forts should and must belong to the Palmetto state but they served as a bellwether of Union intentions towards the secessionist movements – not as yet consolidated, of course, into a unified rival republic.6

The major change in the political climate in which Buchanan (and later Lincoln) had to operate, was the tremendous and sudden shift in northern public opinion concerning the range of measures available to deal with the South. In January 1860 northern public opinion, in so far as it can be measured, seemed to smile on the Crittenden Compromise. In New York City alone 63,000 people signed a petition supporting the passage of the Compromise. A further petition included another 14,000 female signatures. St Louis addressed to the president a list of names 100 pages long shrouded in an American flag. Business in the north eastern states quivered at the thought of losing $150 million in southern debts let alone double that sum lost in lucrative business with the South. Wall Street feared the onset of ‘creeping economic paralysis’. ‘To the very last’, complained George W.Julian, ‘the old medicine of compromise and conciliation seemed to be the sovereign hope of the people of the free states’; this is not very surprising, since the great majority of peaceful citizens, if given a choice, tend to prefer the continuation of the arts and prosperity of peace to the danger, uncertainty and discomfort of war.7 There were, however, only three alternative solutions to the northern dilemma: first, to acquiesce in secession; secondly, to attempt to use force; or thirdly, what Kenneth Stampp calls the ‘escapist formula’ of masterly inactivity advocated (and pursued) by Seward and Bates.8 Over a period of two months, northern public opinion shifted significantly from supporting the first and third positions, to believing that the Federal government needed to ‘stand up’ to the secessionists, so that by July it supported preventive war. (Admittedly, we cannot test public opinion rigorously in this period, but collections of constitutents’ letters support this contention.) This was a shift in opinion comparable in its suddenness and intensity to that experienced in Great Britain between the German occupation of Prague in March 1939 and the following September, when opinion resisted further concessions at the expense of Poland.9

Most of Buchanan’s admirers were based in the South and he was unwilling to upset them. As proof of his good intentions he accepted the demands of his South Carolinian Assistant Secretary of State, William H. Trescot. He did not send reinforcements to the Charleston forts, as requested by Lieutenant General Winfield Scott in a controversial document called his ‘Views’, which was later published. And he relieved of command of Fort Sumter, Colonel John Gardner, who was too energetic and masterful in the pursuit of his duties for southern tastes; he also instructed that the forty muskets, acquired by Gardner to strengthen his garrison, be returned to the Charleston arsenal from whence Gardner had spirited them. It is symptomatic of the muddle and anarchy prevailing at this date, with central authority crumbling under an Administration that represented the only national party political institution remaining, the Democrats, that Buchanan seemed to be negotiating with members of his own administration over the future of the Charleston forts rather than with the central authority of another power. It says much for the arthritic state of the Federal government’s response to this crisis that the officer who replaced Gardner, Major Robert Anderson, a 56-year-old Kentuckian, who because of his pro-slavery views was considered more ‘acceptable’, was referred to by his septuagenarian commanding general, Scott, as ‘young Anderson’.10

Yet by 8 January 1861 in his State of the Union Address, Buchanan had made clear his view that ‘the right and the duty to use military force defensively against those who resist federal officers in the execution of their legal functions, and against those who assail the property of the federal government, is clear and undeniable’. Buchanan, with that iron determination and steadfast stubborness, which he had inherited from his Scottish forebears, and which he had expended in many a wrong-headed cause, at last directed his undoubted talents in defence of a worthy one. It was thanks to him that these last outposts of federal authority were held against the Confederate tide and left as bridgeheads for a relieving counter-attack. Buchanan received no thanks for this during his lifetime. The overall effect of his contribution was nonetheless negative. He held the line, and rather than solve the problem itself, he bequeathed it intact to his successor. The situation can hardly be described as the maintenance of the status quo. (In view of what had occurred between November 1860 and March 1861.) But he could have made it worse; he could have left Lincoln in a weaker position vis-à-vis the South by tolerating a force majeure, which would have left Fort Pickens an isolated and exposed outpost of federal authority. Washington’s prestige, would probably never have recovered from the loss of the Charleston forts. At all events, Buchanan struggled obstinately, though unheroically, not to make Lincoln’s intractable difficulties even worse than they already were.11

It is against this chaotic background, of an embryonic polity struggling to assert a right to independence yet lacking a cohesive central form, and a timorous Federal government in Washington feeling its way cautiously, with some of its members representing the rebels more vociferously than the rebels themselves, that we need to understand certain key terms used as the final crisis unfolded. These are often placed in apposition but ultimately, because of misunderstandings, they were placed in opposition. What was the difference between ‘enforcing the laws’ and ‘coercing a sovereign state’? Here we return to the semantic argument of who was the aggressor? This, needless to say, depended on whether ‘peaceable secession’ was a feasible proposition; or whether, even if the act of secession could be carried out peaceably, the Federal government would simply sit back passively and make no effort to impede or resist it? It cannot be reiterated too firmly, especially when considering a society whose political life was dominated by the legal process and governed by lawyers, that this issue rested on policy and not judicial rights, and in the last resort, politicians acted on both sides in accordance with this view. There were two alternative explanations of the prevailing formulae, which acted as a cloak, or pretext, for the pursuit of policy.

1The ‘enforcement of the laws’ meant the collection of the duties and imposts, and the administration of all the other commercial and judicial regulations pertaining to the federal government, including the holding of all federal property. The end of the crisis would see the North, supported by public opinion, demanding compliance with a proper and untrammelled enforcement of federal law.

2The ‘coercion of a sovereign state’ was the subjugation and invasion of a state which had chosen the right of self-determination (as a later generation would put it), or the threat thereof which amounted to intimidation of the most brutal kind. It also involved the forcing of states to send their representatives to Congress and enjoy the privileges of a political system against their will, and which they wished to leave.

Now clearly these standpoints were not unrelated, in the sense that they were different sides of the same American coin. Yet they provide evidence of an unbridgeable gulf between the two interpretations North and South, which no amount of adjudication by benches of judges, or refinement by politicians in their speeches, could bridge. One or other had to prevail and this could be achieved only by force. But to the North secessionists were the aggressors because, not only did they flout the judgement delivered by the electors in 1860, but also they sought to change the structure of the existing political relationships, and do this in a blustering and bellicose manner. The status quo was threatened, and the North needed only to uphold the symbols of the Union’s power to keep this status quo intact. The onus of drastically altering this could be placed on the South. This had long been recognized, and the argument itself was familiar, though the means of carrying it out were not. For example, Stephen Douglas outlined with admirable clarity in 1858 the strategic dilemma facing the Lincoln Administration in March 1861. Should it come to secession, Douglas argued,

Our true policy is to put the disunionists in their real light before the country. We must put them in such a position that when the break comes, as come it must, they will be in the position of insurgents; instead of letting them create a situation, as they wish to do, in which we must revolt. We will let them be the rebels. Then the army and the power of the nation will be against them.12

The only difficulty with this strategy was, did the South mean what it said? There can be no doubt that if Lincoln chose to adopt this course (and we have no way of knowing whether Lincoln knew of Douglas’s views or whether he made them clear to Lincoln in discussion) it was very risky. One error, one slip, and the Federal government would be branded as a reckless and callous aggressor. Yet if it is borne in mind that the Federal government was faced only by a rebellious fragment of the slave states, calling their bluff did not seem a bad bet, though it would have to be done cautiously. The Federal government could be seen to be well within its rights in attempting to collect the revenues owed to it, or to reinforce, or at least re-supply, its forts, so long as the Federal government still existed and it continued to enjoy the loyalty of a majority of the citizens of the United States. That is to say, even a president as supine and compliant in the face of southern demands as James Buchanan was not prepared to admit that the Federal government had ceased to exist or lost its prerogatives. Thus ‘peaceable secession’ was an illusion of the cruellest kind, for it led southerners to paint a mental picture of chalk, which would soon be washed away once their ambitious plans met with a firm douche.

Nonetheless, it should be made clear that the ‘coercion’ that secessionist sympathizers referred to – one of those words which was repeated so often by southerners that it became a mantra – was different in kind from the visions they summoned up of a large army advancing remorselessly, stamping out their liberties and prosperity; for such an army did not exist (unless one counts John Brown’s pathetic foray, which was designed to create a slave army, but this would hardly have been of a Napoleonic order). And under such conditions, a spirited effort at resistance in southern eyes, could be viewed by the North as an act of flagrant aggression; an act of aggression, moreover, of such wantonness that it would provoke the creation of that huge army that would stamp on southern hopes. Often the dividing line between ‘peace’ and ‘war’ is an artificial one, as these conditions are so closely related. In the same way that a lack of proportion and prudence had characterized southern actions in those months before secession, so they characterized southern behaviour on leaving the Union, and the result was war. The South, as usual, was its own worst enemy.13

The problem of interpretation

Certain common features have characterized the large literature on the outbreak of the American Civil War, even if (and largely because) historians from the two sections have approached the question of who was responsible from opposite directions. Historians have tended to assume that the reactions of leading figures in the Sumter crisis took the form of a game of chess on a grand scale. Their accounts have been written in a manner which identifies each side in the confrontation with one individual – the political leader. It is his motives, aspirations and calculations that count.14 Such considerations, of course, are not inconsequential. But it is the underlying theme of this chapter that an undue focus on motives in evaluating the Sumter crisis is misleading; it underrates the importance of how decisions are carried out, and the effect of these decisions on the overall environment in which action is taken – which might be quite unexpected and unprepared for. Taking decisions and having them carried out is not a game of chess. The assumption that action in a great crisis can be controlled as in a game neglects the enormous physical and moral obstacles to fulfilling the will of a leader and gaining acceptance of his executive instructions. A later chief executive, President Harry S. Truman, realized this and predicted that the victorious Republican candidate in the 1952 presidential election, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military man used to giving orders, would experience considerable frustration. ‘He’ll sit here, and he’ll say “Do this! Do that!” And nothing will happen.’15

The approach adopted in this chapter reflects Truman’s shrewd remarks. It argues that mishaps, miscalculations and misfortunes characterized the manoeuvres that prefaced the Civil War in 1861 just as much as they dominated the conduct of military operations that followed the first shots at Fort Sumter. ‘Few indeed are the occasions’, wrote Sir Harold Nicolson, ‘on which any statesmen sees his objective clearly before him and marches towards it with undeviating stride; numerous indeed are the occasions when a decision … which at the time seems wholly unimportant, leads almost fortuitously to another decision which is no less incidental, until, little link by link, the chain of circumstance is forged’.16 And in reaching these decisions emotion was just as important as calm reasoning, illusion and wishful thinking as persuasive as realistic deliberation, and error and doubt just as potent as resolution and determination. In a hazardous crisis statesmen may seek to exert maximum control over events and their baleful consequences; but their capacity to do this depends on the relative state of technology – and communications technology especially.17 Once we stop treating the Sumter crisis like a criminal trial which seeks either to condemn or to exculpate various actors in the drama, then we may be able to analyse it without reference to polemical (and often sectional) controversies. This requires, more than anything else, a reappraisal of the evidence on which traditional interpretations rest.

The Sumter crisis has usually been viewed, and quite rightly, as the culmination of the general political crisis of the 1850s. Once the first shots rang out at Fort Sumter ‘the war’ began and so ended the political crisis. This view is represented in David Potter’s survey, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (1976). His final chapter is entitled, ‘Fort Sumter: End and Beginning’. Strategy begins, according to this view, when politics comes to an end. Such an approach ignores the fundamental continuities which run through the crisis and characterize both the last days of peace and the first days of war. These events cannot be treated convincingly when they are studied in artificial compartments.18 The crisis at Fort Sumter cannot be understood adequately unless it is viewed strategically. The actions of both the Buchanan and Lincoln Administrations must be analysed in relation to the decision-making machinery available to nineteenth-century presidents. The crisis was from the first a military clash and it is only by making full use of strategic analysis that we can make sense of it within the broad political and social context which has been emphasized by earlier historians. In the nineteenth century presidents lacked the executive means to assert the enormous latent resources of the United States in peacetime. The executive branch was small; the presidency gradually lost influence and prestige after 1840. During the 1850s the initiative for policy-making came either from independent-minded cabinet members, like Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, or from Congress.19 By James Buchanan’s presidency both the will and the means for organizing an energetic policy to oppose secession was lacking. Throughout, Buchanan argued that only Congress had the right and authority to settle the matter of seeking a peaceful settlement or sanctioning the use of force in the defence of federal installations.20 Contemporaries were inclined to believe that Buchanan only lacked the will. Thus when Lincoln’s friend, Orville Hickman Browning, lamented ‘how easily by promptness, energy and honesty of action, this government could have been maintained. The men who had the power and means to maintain it, and failed to use them, deserve death’, we should be aware that no executive machinery existed to implement the energetic measures that he demanded.21

By the time that Lincoln as president-elect arrived in Washington DC on 22 February 1861, he had already received papers from General Scott including his ‘Views’ written in the previous October, and he had studied Jackson’s Proclamation of 1832. Lincoln had declared at Philadelphia while en route that ‘there will be no bloodshed unless it be forced upon the Government, and then it will be compelled to act in self-defense. [Applause]’. But by then all of the crucial decisions had already been taken. During the early months of 1861 the southern states had occupied all federal installations within their frontiers save for the three forts, Sumter, Moultrie and Pickens. The commander at Sumter and Moultrie, Major Anderson, was denied clear and incontrovertible instructions from the Secretary of War, the timorous and deceitful Confederate sympathizer, John B. Floyd. On 9 December 1860 Anderson discussed with the visiting Assistant Adjutant General, Captain Don Carlos Buell, the possibility of moving his tiny garrison of seventy-three men (plus over two hundred obstreperous workmen) from the exposed and indefensible Moultrie to Sumter.22 Buell agreed that Moultrie could not be held but urged caution as Floyd was anxious to avoid ‘any measures which might add to the present excited state of the public mind, or which would throw any doubt on the confidence … that South Carolina will not attempt, by violence, to obtain possession of the public works or interfere with their occupancy’.23

Anderson had also discussed his dilemma with a South Carolinian officer, Benjamin Huger, his former West Point classmate, who now commanded the Charleston arsenal. He, too, urged Anderson to shift his garrison to Sumter.24 Huger justified his behaviour later by an argument that would be repeated many times during the crisis. ‘My counsel and influence would be given by all honourable means to gain time and not to commit any act tending to a civil war, which none of us may see the end of.’25 But each attempt to gain time ended by increasing the time pressures on the garrison and those seeking to extricate them, closing off space in which to manoeuvre. On 26 December Anderson moved his garrison after dark from Moultrie to Sumter under the noses of the South Carolinians. Anderson’s decision, more than any other, shaped the pattern of the subsequent crisis. ‘Cut off from all intercourse with my Government’, he explained, ‘I have been compelled to act according to the dictates of my own judgement’. The only instructions he received from Floyd were contradictory. Anderson was ordered ‘to hold possession of the forts in the harbor of Charleston and, if attacked, to defend yourself to the last extremity’. But he was not expected ‘to make a vain and useless sacrifice of your own life and the lives of the men under your command, upon a mere point of honor’. Anderson was assured: ‘This is far from the President’s intentions. You are to exercise a sound military discretion on this subject’. Even after Lincoln’s inauguration Anderson was neglected by his political masters. He wrote many missives detailing Confederate activities but was unaware of the administration’s policy until the very end, and then he disapproved of it.26

A delegation of commissioners from South Carolina visiting Washington to seek a resolution of the crisis (and which Buchanan had agreed to see as ‘private gentlemen’) was enraged by Anderson’s move. They believed that he had violated an informal truce which had prevailed at Fort Pickens and was extended to Sumter. The existence of this ‘truce’ had not discouraged a demand made on 20 December by the Governor of South Carolina, William Pickens, for the surrender of Fort Sumter. The Confederates had agreed not to carry out any hostile acts so long as the status quo was maintained. Buchanan tried to placate them and for several days dithered over whether to order Anderson to return to Moultrie. Yet in January under pressure from the increasingly hawkish members of his cabinet, especially the new Secretary of War, Joseph Holt, and the new Attorney General, Edwin M. Stanton, Buchanan agreed to dispatch the Star of the West, a merchant vessel, to revictual Sumter. The South Carolinians fired on her and she withdrew at the first sign of hostility.27 But the results of this ill-fated expedition were profound. By taking the risk of sailing into Charleston harbour, and then not pushing on to Sumter while the Confederate works were weaker than they would be four months later, the Star of the West incident committed the dual sin of provoking the Confederates while not attaining the aim of re-supplying Sumter. Furthermore, it increased the pressure of time on the Lincoln Administration which took office on 4 March 1861. As Lincoln was soon to discover, Anderson could not possibly hope to hold out beyond the middle of April 1861. Thus the stalemate was cemented.28

The prime concern of the Buchanan Administration was to leave office without provoking war. Buchanan believed that, although secession was illegal, the Federal government had no power to resist it. He was prepared to excuse political disruption in the South as ‘revolution’, which was somehow condonable; secession was not, because Buchanan could not agree that the slave states could pass ordinances ‘by virtue of an inherent constitutional right’. Secession would also be a temporary rupture. If the Administration showed itself conciliatory, and slavery was not endangered, the erring southern sisters would return to the Union in time to elect another Democratic president in 1864. Consequently, no attempt was made to extend the instructions formerly issued by Floyd. Holt merely affirmed that Buchanan believed that the truce would continue: ‘there will be no immediate attack on Fort Sumter; and the hope is indulged that wise and patriotic counsel may prevail and prevent it altogether’. Buchanan had placed especial faith in the deliberations of the Peace Congress in Washington; and ‘the presence of that body here’, Anderson was assured, ‘adds another to the powerful motives already existing for the adoption of every measure, except in necessary defence, for avoiding a collision with the forces that surround you’. And indeed, throughout these months the besiegers (now commanded by Anderson’s West Point pupil, General P. G. T. Beauregard) were at pains to avoid a casus belli.29 This reflected the increasing hold the new Confederate government at Montgomery was exerting over the crisis, which was determined not to allow the South Carolinians to plunge the South impulsively and needlessly into war. Thus the stalemate and tedium continued to wear on until the inauguration of President Lincoln.30

In his earliest statements on the issue Lincoln had declared his determination to ‘hold or retake the forts, as the case may require, at and after the inauguration’. This deceptively simple statement (which concealed a number of insurmountable difficulties) guided Lincoln’s policy throughout the crisis. He adhered to a determination to enforce federal law. But, despite his more belligerent tone, Lincoln moved as cautiously as Buchanan. Nonetheless he held to the basic policy announced in the inaugural address of wishing to ‘hold, occupy and possess’ the forts but refraining from invading any state. But the most important decisions which decided the fate of the garrison had already been taken, and all of these had led to a reduction in Lincoln’s freedom of manoeuvre.31

Lincoln and his cabinet met four times to discuss the crisis, 9, 14 (two sessions in morning and afternoon), 28 and 29 March. After 14 and 29 March meetings the president required the cabinet to put their views in writing (and during the last meeting they actually set them down ‘in cabinet’). The cabinet was divided into two groups, former Democrats led by the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, and former Whigs led by the Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Lincoln was resolved to carry both these factions with him, whichever policy was decided on. At the second meeting and in the subsequent memoranda produced on 15 March, only one member, Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster-General (and not, as was expected, Chase) was unconditionally in favour of succouring the garrison. Over the course of the next fortnight opinion gradually hardened. On 29 March Lincoln eventually decided on a limited provisioning of Fort Sumter of which the Governor of South Carolina would be informed as the ships set out. A detailed consideration of how Lincoln reached this decision will be presented shortly. Already suspicious of these moves because of the promises given privately by Seward, that the Sumter garrison would be withdrawn, the Confederate government decided that the fort would have to be eventually taken. This decision was taken rather lightly considering the momentous consequences; but most figures involved in the crisis were convinced that if civil war did break out, then it would be short.

But if we view the Sumter crisis very much as the product of muddle, confusion and error just as much as of forethought and consideration, this should not be surprising. The methodology adopted to discuss it, therefore, should reflect such an overall perspective. It is important to relate each of the multifarious aspects of the crisis to a general interpretation. It was quite evident that throughout the crisis the Confederacy conducted itself like an independent state dealing with another foreign power (as the state of South Carolina had behaved before joining the other slave states in the Confederacy). Therefore, whatever the reality of the South’s pretensions and its claims to separate nationhood (not only politically but also socially and culturally), for the purposes of this discussion the two sections are treated as distinct polities, even though the attempt to create a southern republic introduced anarchy to North America. In seeking to analyse the methods used by the Buchanan and Lincoln Administrations, a ‘model’ will be deployed to explain them, and one that owes little to the methods of political history. Therefore, in discussing crisis-management the ‘model’ will rest on three interrelated strategic elements: space, time and direction. This ‘model’, adapted from military theory, seeks to adumbrate those conditions that shaped decision-making. According to Clausewitz, the object of strategy is ‘the employment of the available means for the predetermined end’.32 The elements of the ‘model’ may be fitted into this framework. Space is the overall geographic framework in which a decision-maker operates, time is the factor which determines the pace of his decisions, and direction the manner in which they are carried out. This kind of analysis is equally applicable to the confrontations of peace as to those of wartime. These three elements will be related to the political issues and institutions which governed the crisis. In his treatise, On War, Clausewitz observed that

The political object – the original motive for the war – will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires. The political object cannot, however, in itself provide the standard of measurement…. We can therefore take the political object as a standard only if we think of the influence it can exert upon the forces it is meant to move. The nature of these forces therefore calls for study.

In his famous formulation, so frequently quoted but so imperfectly understood, Clausewitz declared ‘that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means’. But he also reminds us shrewdly that, ‘Man and his affairs, however, are always something short of perfect and will never quite achieve the absolute best’. This insight led him to expound the importance in any kind of conflict of ‘friction’, of which Lincoln’s secretaries became acutely aware as they lived through the Sumter crisis. Those ‘Countless minor incidents – the kind you can never really foresee – [which] combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal’.33

In this analysis of the outbreak of a civil war, in which the two parties were divided by very clear geographical boundaries and formed distinct physical units (unlike in many earlier civil wars, such as the French Wars of Religion or the English Civil War), it was therefore possible for the rebel section to behave towards the Federal government as if it was an independent power. Consequently, the focus in this analysis will be just as much on the results of actions taken as on the intentions prompting them. This emphasis follows from an application of Clausewitz’s concept of friction to the Sumter crisis. Just as the revolt of Great Britain’s North American colonies in 1775–83 was greatly aided by the exploitation by the rebels of the enormous distance separating them from the government in London, so in 1861 did it appear likely that a rebellion against the authority of the Federal government in Washington DC would be greatly aided by the immensity of the distances that needed to be traversed if the rebels were to be coerced (especially while the Confederate government sat at Montgomery, Alabama). Moreover, it would take a government wholly unprepared for war a long time to mobilize sufficient strength to bring the rebels to heel. ‘The outbreak of war’, writes Evan Luard, ‘depends not only on the motives of states but on their actions: on the specific decisions their governments reach at a certain moment to achieve their ends through war’. If we accept that the way decisions are reached is just as important as the underlying motives, then it is important to assess the kinds of decisions that were taken during the Sumter crisis. The influence of space and time will be considered first, before turning to an examination of the direction exerted by the president, not only over the general development of the crisis, but also the influence he enjoyed over the cabinet, the Congress, and the mechanisms of the executive branch itself.34


The impact of the sheer size of the North American continent frequently exercised the imagination of early American political publicists. Thomas Jefferson was of the opinion that republics could not continue to expand indefinitely, and if they grew too large they would split asunder. During the early 1840s a school of expansionist writers held that technological innovations, especially the telegraph, would enable the United States to overcome the problems of communication and dominate the North American continent. Clearly, coordinating action and relating it to policy when such great distances were involved presented a major problem for the Federal government during the secession crisis. But this was not the only problem. An independent Confederacy would dominate strategic points in the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard that were detrimental to the interests of the United States. As the Attorney General, Edward Bates, argued, ‘the port of Charleston is, comparatively a small thing … the real struggle will be at the mouth of the Mississippi, for it is not politically possible for any foreign power, to hold the mouth of that river, against the people of the middle and upper valley’. The immense importance to American security and prosperity of this enormous basin was to figure prominently in Lincoln’s calculations. It included forty-two tributaries, a total of 12,498 navigable miles. Mid-westerners, including Lincoln, did not wish to see this river system divided. Yet it had already fallen into rebel hands. The enormous size of this theatre of war meant that the North could not conquer the South very easily; indeed to many it seemed a hopeless task. The crisis at Fort Sumter, therefore, was the strategic symptom of a general geopolitical problem, and one which crippled the ability of the Federal government to react quickly. It would become clearer later in the crisis that if Sumter was given up, then the Confederacy would demand the surrender of Pickens and thus effectively exercise sovereignty over the Gulf of Mexico. The United States would lose all control over this region.35

This problem was further complicated by Lincoln’s anxiety that another eight states might secede from the Union, should the United States government act to coerce their seceded sisters at Fort Sumter. These states included Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland. Should the last two leave the Union, then Washington DC would be surrounded by the territory of a hostile power. ‘Without some … benign measure, the remaining slave holding states will, probably, join the Montgomery confederacy in less than sixty days,’ cautioned General Scott, ‘when this city being included in a foreign country would require a permanent Garrison of at least 35,000 troops to protect the Government within it.’ Jefferson Davis was quite confident in predicting that ‘It is scarcely to be doubted that for political reasons the US govt. will avoid making an attack so long as the hope of retaining the border states remains’.36 This view was confirmed in the last days of the Buchanan Administration, when the Secretary of the Interior, Jacob Thompson was sent by the government of Mississippi to discuss secession with North Carolina. This mission was approved by President Buchanan. However, Thompson’s view, as reported to cabinet, namely, that North Carolina would not secede unless some flagrant act of ‘coercion’ was committed, provoked a barrage of criticism. The northerners argued that the proper relationship between the Federal government and the states was not based on force; the threat of force came from the South. The President could not fail to notice a shift in northern opinion, a shift his successor could not ignore.

On 18 March Lincoln requested from Bates his opinion whether the president was constitutionally justified in collecting duties on board ship, offshore if normal procedures were disrupted. ‘This would include the question of lawful power to prevent the landing of dutiable goods, unless the duties were paid’. Here, and in Lincoln’s further letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, seeking views on whether ships ‘could be effectively used to prevent such importations’ was an effort to enforce the writ of the Federal government on recalcitrant states. The opinions of both Chase and Bates were later to serve as the legal basis for the blockade of the Confederacy which was organized very swiftly in April. Lincoln saw such methods as a more indirect way of applying pressure on the southern states. This policy was favoured by Seward (and other former Whigs) who preferred to ‘defer military action on land until a case should arise when we would hold the defence’. Seward justified his position by a superficially persuasive case.

I would not initiate a war to regain a useless and unnecessary position on the soil of the seceding States. I would not provoke war in any case now. I would resort to force to protect the collection of the revenue, because this is a necessary as well as legitimate Union object.37

He preferred to rely on naval power to enforce this action, but such a method required time, and this Lincoln did not have.38

But the sheer practical difficulties of mounting an expedition to relieve Sumter bore down heavily on the president and his advisers. ‘The influence of distance,’ Roger Beaumont has observed, ‘time lag and filtering through the levels within a communication system are factors that lie outside of presidential control.’ The problem of moving even a small force a great distance would tax Federal resources. ‘A projected attack, in large force’, wrote General Scott justifying his own caution and pessimism as the crisis deepened, ‘would draw to this Harbor [Charleston] all the available resources, in men and material, of the contiguous States’. The rebels could move larger forces by land than the Federal government could by sea (even allowing for poor southern road and rail communications). ‘Charleston harbour would be a Sevastopol in such a conflict and unlimited means would probably be required to ensure success before which time the garrison of Fort Sumter would be starved out’. And, if this was not bad enough, how could it be possible, as Seward asked repeatedly, to prepare an expedition to sail to Charleston harbour secretly? ‘In this active and enlightened country,’ the Secretary of State warned, ‘in this season of excitement with a daily press, daily mails and incessantly operating telegraph, the design to reinforce and supply the garrison must become known to the opposite party at Charleston as soon, at least as preparation for it should begin.’ Far from acting as a means of binding the Union, the telegraph served as an efficient way of aiding its enemies. The telegraph could not be used to communicate with ships at sea, but could be used to communicate news of their movement to land-based forces. Consequently, the president would lose all control over any expedition once it had put out to sea, while those who sought to impede its progress would make ready to resist it. Clearly, in spatial terms the odds favoured the Confederate government; they held the initiative. This was not an equation that favoured the Lincoln Administration as it pondered an insoluble dilemma and March turned to April and time seemed to be running out.39


In his first inaugural address President Lincoln declared that nothing could be lost ‘by taking time’40. All Unionist participants in the crisis attempted to take their time but in vain. Before 4 March President Buchanan played for time by not deigning to reach a decision on any matter unless his hand was forced. The result of his indecisive and halting policy was that secession advanced without hindrance. Not only was the Administration on the defensive and forced to react to the secessionists’ moves but also it was rendered almost defenceless. Thus the logic of making further concessions appeared inexorable. Time was marching with secession.

Lincoln had hoped that time would be his ally; instead it became his greatest enemy. ‘He had counted on the soothing aid of time; time, on the contrary,’ Nicolay and Hay recalled, ‘was in this emergency working in the interests of the rebellion’.41 Gaining time had two distinct advantages. First, it permitted, or so it was claimed, the emergence of wiser, more prudent counsel in the slave states. Secondly, by encouraging the growth of Unionist sentiment the Federal government could be seen to be doing something, no matter how innocuous. This belief – which was central to Seward’s policy and guided the military advice tendered by General Scott – was also shared by Edward Bates who felt that the South was full of Unionists who would make their influence felt if given time. ‘A reaction has already begun, and, if encouraged by wise, moderate, and firm measures. … I persuade myself that the nation will be restored to its integrity, without the effusion of blood’. Seward’s policy, therefore, enjoyed a wide measure of support among the president’s intimate advisers. But it, too, demanded time, and this was in short supply.42

Events would soon confirm that such calculations were based merely on self-delusion, even wishful thinking. For, as Montgomery Blair, the most vociferous champion of resupplying Fort Sumter declared, secession had already gained a momentum which it would be difficult to check. ‘Every hour of acquiescence in this condition of things’, he warned, ‘and especially every new conquest made by the rebels strengthens their hands at home and their claim to recognition as an independent people abroad’. Blair also raised another issue – the moral factor. Blair was quite right to argue that earlier failures of decision had encouraged rebellion. The Federal government therefore had to make a moral stand and Sumter was its symbol. Contempt for the Buchanan Administration was not the only factor promoting secessionist feeling. Blair warned that the secessionists assumed ‘that the northern men are deficient in the courage necessary to maintain the Government’. It was this confidence that encouraged secessionists to make increasingly ambitious claims. Blair felt that conciliatory moves were hopeless because demagogues had insinuated that the object of the Republican Party was to abolish slavery and introduce racial equality. Thus any policy which lacked firmness, in his view, ‘so far from tending to prevent collision [will] ensure it unless all the other forts are evacuated and all attempts are given up to maintain the authority of the United States’. Conciliation could not work when it was treated by one party with contempt.43

This kind of argument undermined the advice being proffered by Bates and Seward, especially Seward. They both believed that Sumter symbolized no great national interest. Its possession would not allow the Federal government to collect the revenue or enforce rights of commercial navigation. In Bates’s opinion, Lincoln could ‘in humanity and patriotism safely waive the point of pride, in the consciousness that we have the power, and lack nothing but the will to hold Fort Sumter’. This point touched on a particularly sensitive nerve analysed very perceptively by Blair. Increasingly Lincoln felt pressure from his constituents and Congress, especially Republicans of a radical persuasion, that Sumter must be held to demonstrate the resolve of the Administration. Lincoln’s postbag was full of letters from constituents and old friends calling for resolution. Yet Seward remained convinced that ‘even in South Carolina, devotion to the Union is a profound and permanent national sentiment’ which if sustained by conciliation would ultimately triumph and rally citizens to reverse the ordinance of secession. Thus if the Disunionists were denied an excuse to begin a civil war, their claims and anxieties would be rendered superfluous. Seward’s policy was to hold Sumter ‘so long as it can be done without involving some danger or evil greater than the advantage of continued possession’. But time was not on the side of such a waiting game, and abandonment of Sumter without a struggle would have detonated a political explosion almost as dangerous to the Lincoln Administration as an attempt to re-supply it.44

Lincoln sensed this strongly during the last-minute negotiations with Virginia unionists held in Washington during the first two weeks of April. At his first meeting on 4 April with a member of the Virginia Convention, John B. Baldwin, Lincoln flew a kite concerning the possible withdrawal of the Sumter garrison out of ‘military necessity’ to see what he could get in return. His most significant remark was that it was almost too late. Baldwin hectored him on the need to give up both Sumter and Pickens and give in to all southern demands. The price was too high – it guaranteed maximum concessions on the one side and the minimum on the other: ‘you Virginia people are good Unionists, but it is always with an if Lincoln observed later. Four days later he met with John Minor Botts, a former Whig. Lincoln repeated the details of the discussion with Baldwin concerning the possibility of evacuating Sumter in return for the adjourning of the Virginia convention, and stressed its inconsequential conclusion. When Botts urged that he repeat the offer, Lincoln replied, ‘It is too late now’. Virginia Unionism was too flimsy an edifice on which to construct any durable compromise. Too much hope and resolution had been invested in Sumter to give it up, even for the sake of a fading hope that Virginia – a state of immense strategic importance – might remain neutral in the confrontation off Charleston harbour. Lincoln would not allow the Sumter garrison to be starved into submission.45

It was in complicating the vexing problem of re-supply that the failure of the Star of the West’s mission in January 1861 was so significant. It would have been comparatively easy to reinforce Sumter in January. General Scott estimated that ‘The difficulty of reinforcing has now been increased 10 or 15 fold’. It increased the pressure of time and the necessity of taking a decision. Then, on 4 April the president received a letter from Anderson telling him that unless the labourers (who were working on the defences and were unluckily trapped when Anderson occupied Sumter) were released he would run out of provisions within four to six days. It was later claimed that this missive came as a shock to the Administration. But the president had already received a letter from Anderson on 4 March indicating that his supplies were low, which he hastened to pass on to Joseph Holt, who was standing in for the indisposed Cameron as Secretary of War, and was a valuable strand of continuity with the previous administration. When Lincoln enquired on 9 March how long the Sumter garrison could hold out, Scott replied categorically that he had sufficient flour and rice for twenty-six days and salt pork for forty-eight days. In other words, Lincoln was already aware that Anderson could not hold out beyond mid-April. It was for this reason that Lincoln eventually turned for advice to Gustavus Fox, an intrepid former naval officer (and Montgomery Blair’s brother-in-law); he urged on the president a plan to relieve the fort. On 21 March Fox was dispatched to Sumter to get fresh intelligence. After discussion with Anderson, Fox came to the conclusion, broadly agreeing with Scott, that Sumter could hold out only until 15 April. Thus Anderson’s letter could not have come as a shock to the president, even though in a later message (actually drafted by Lincoln but sent out under Simon Cameron’s signature), the new Secretary of War reported that his letter ‘occasions some anxiety to the President’.46


It is possible to suggest, therefore, that Anderson’s letter was used by Lincoln as a bombshell in an attempt to galvanize activity, and persuade the doubters that Sumter must be held. But in so doing, he brought to a head all the muddles, contradictions and sheer chaos inherent in the development of this crisis – especially in the improvised decision-making machinery with which he attempted to direct it. That is to say, Lincoln’s efforts to resolve the crisis were hampered at every turn by the means at his disposal. Anderson’s courageous and single-minded conduct throughout had transformed him into a public hero. His former commanding officer, John A. Dix, briefly Secretary of the Treasury in the Buchanan administration, having reported, after leaving Lincoln’s inaugural, on the widespread demoralization in Washington and commented that ‘the country turns with a relief… to the noble example of fidelity and courage presented by you and your gallant associates’. Anderson’s plight therefore served to heighten determination in the North that he should not be left to his fate and served to fix attention on his beleaguered garrison. The incident which inflamed most feeling against treason among federal office-holders was the earlier surrender by General David E. Twiggs on 16 February of the United States arsenal and barracks at San Antonio, Texas (followed by all other military posts under his command two days later and his defection to the Confederacy). Dix considered ‘The cowardice and treachery of General Twiggs is more disheartening than all that has transpired since this disgraceful career of disloyalty to the government commenced’. His act cast doubt on the loyalty of all serving officers, especially, if like Anderson, they were southern born (he was from Kentucky and his wife from Georgia). Anderson always believed that if his garrison needed help, ‘it would be sent promptly, and in full force’. But he had always hoped that the crisis would be resolved peacefully. Either a settlement of outstanding issues would somehow be negotiated, or, most attractive prospect of all, his garrison would be evacuated honourably. In this suspicious climate, doubts about Anderson’s loyalty surfaced in the newspapers, which reported rumours of his secessionist sympathies.47

This distrustful atmosphere was a product of the last days of the Buchanan Administration, and it is necessary to go back in time to review once more its closing months. The Sumter crisis splintered the Buchanan Administration and it threatened to do the same to Lincoln’s cabinet. Indeed it was a feature of the Civil War that the president’s domination of his cabinet depended crucially on the progress made to suppress the Confederacy. The upsurge of Confederate support in 1861 threatened to engulf Lincoln as it had his predecessor. Buchanan was a wily politician, and an able diplomatist; but he was so attuned to dissimulation that he often failed to recognize when it was realistic or prudent to stop, and act rather than talk. His cabinet had included a number of Confederate sympathizers, Floyd, Howell Cobb (Georgia) and Jacob Thompson (Mississippi), none of whom was above dispatching privileged information to the South. These fissures were revealed starkly in the crisis arising from South Carolina’s occupation of all federal installations (except the Charleston forts) in December 1860 and General Scott’s call in his ‘Views’ that all southern forts should be reinforced. Scott later claimed in correspondence with Lincoln that he had been bullish at this stage. He argued that President Buchanan should either allow ‘succour be sent by means of ships of war fighting their way to the fort, or 2. That the Major [Anderson] should ameliorate his condition by the muzzles of his guns – that is, enforcing supplies by bombardment’. There can be little doubt that Scott exaggerated his earlier preference for the use of force in December 1860, once he was weighed down with gloom in March 1861. On 28 December 1860 Buchanan met with the South Carolina Commissioners, who urged him to send Anderson back to Moultrie. That night the cabinet discussed the alternatives open to them. Buchanan sat like old Mr Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma, huddled in a dressing gown by the fire.48 When Thompson called for an evacuation, the cabinet almost erupted into fisticuffs. Stanton shouted: ‘no administration… can afford to lose a million of money and a fort in the same week’.49

In an attempt to keep the peace Buchanan drafted a reply to the South Carolina Commissioners, which the southerners thought too hostile to South Carolina, and Stanton and his ally, Jeremiah Black, the new Secretary of State, too conciliatory. With Buchanan’s agreement they drafted a further reply. Stanton and Black restated the view that the Charleston forts belonged to the government and that its authority should not be trifled with. They threatened coercion of South Carolina. They also required of Buchanan a denial that he had at any time given an informal pledge to evacuate the forts. Otherwise his presidential oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ the constitution and faithfully oversee the laws, which was continually being reiterated by Lincoln, was meaningless. But whatever Buchanan’s private sympathies, he was too canny to succumb to southern pressure unconditionally, and consistently for the rest of his term he sought to find ways of revictualling the fort. It was at this point that Buchanan had sanctioned the Star of the West expedition. Thompson telegraphed to warn the Governor of South Carolina, Pickens, of the relief attempt. A squadron of four small steamers from the Coastal Survey, and a company of marines aboard the sloop, Brooklyn, were held offshore with instructions not to move unless Sumter was attacked. But the firing on the Star of the West broke Buchanan’s nerve, and further preparations were stymied by half-measures and inconsistency. Attempts at accommodation were also counter-productive, especially the informal agreement to maintain the status quo – what Scott derided as ‘something like a truce established between the President and a number of principal seceders’. Actually, the agreement at Sumter was reached between Anderson and Governor Pickens of South Carolina. At Fort Pickens, the agreement was reached between Buchanan and a group of southern senators sympathetic to secession. This established an important link between the two forts that could not be broken easily. Though Pickens was much the more defensible of the two posts, Anderson was nonetheless assured that if he needed reinforcements ‘a prompt and vigorous effort will be made to forward them’.50

Buchanan’s efforts at appeasing the South had the unexpected result that his cabinet was increasingly dominated by Unionists. His attitudes bent accordingly. In his special message to Congress on 8 January, he signalled his determination ‘to collect the public revenues and protect the public property’; though he recommended that the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30’ should be extended to the Pacific. This proposal was, of course, in line with the Crittenden Compromise which Buchanan despaired of ever being passed by Congress. Buchanan had also placed great faith in the Washington Peace Conference. Anderson was accordingly informed that ‘The Secretary [of War, Holt] entertains the hope that nothing will occur now of a hostile character’. Indulging these hopes had the disadvantage of not forcing Holt (or the president) to face the uncongenial task of working out detailed instructions for Anderson’s guidance.51

Although there were differences in style and direction under Lincoln, it is striking how many features of the Buchanan Administration carry over during Lincoln’s first months in office. Notwithstanding differences in personality, a number of these unhappy features reflect basic structural cavities in the executive branch. These had identical results in both administrations despite major contrasts in attitude. In his first major public address in 1832 Lincoln had declared that ‘Reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence’. As a Washington outsider, Lincoln absorbed advice silently in his ruminative, calculating manner. He did not commit himself to paper. Lincoln was as secretive as Buchanan and no less wily. But unlike Buchanan he had not had the benefit of executive experience before taking the presidential oath. Lincoln always remained calm and level-headed. He had a very clear sense of his political priorities. Yet we know little of his innermost calculations, as he did not live to write his memoirs. He is the embodiment of Roger Beaumont’s dictum that ‘We know much of what the presidents have said and done but far less of what they thought’. But although his handling of the crisis was a great advance on Buchanan’s equivocation, the effect on the crisis was the same. By taking time to consider his position, Lincoln used up room in which to manoeuvre. He was forced back on the stark alternatives of either reinforcing Sumter or abandoning it.52

This led to another problem that Buchanan had already encountered. Because of the ramifications of the actions that were being taken, the slightest tactical error, or accident, could have the most momentous consequences. Hence so many of the entanglements of the crisis were the results of the caprice of fate, like the failure of the captain of the Star of the West to push on to the fort, or the fact that the draught of the Brooklyn was too low to pass over the bar at Charleston. But it was because the military alternatives open to the Lincoln Administration were now so restricted that the Sumter problem could not be resolved. Yet these military possibilities continued to be studied. The longer the crisis continued the more hazardous it became to employ force. And the capital invested in Sumter’s symbolic significance continued to multiply in value. Lincoln was faced with a Catherine wheel of vicious circles.53

Because he gave the impression of dallying, contempt for Buchanan was soon transferred to Lincoln. This was not very surprising after his furtive entry into Washington, which was hardly a public relations triumph, and the attitudes that currently prevailed towards him; he seemed to be a figure out of the same mould as his predecessors. He was the available man at the Chicago convention in 1860, as Buchanan had been in 1856. He was eager to please, affable and considerate, and written off as a compliant nonentity like Franklin Pierce. Much of this criticism reflected a frustrated desire for reassurance, a not uncommon wish in a democracy during a crisis. ‘Any distinct line of policy,’ wrote Carl Schurz, ‘be it war or a recognition of the southern Confederacy would be better than this uncertain state of things’. Francis P. Blair, frustrated with the perplexing ambiguities surrounding the crisis, asked for a statement to reassure southern states against invasion, reconcile the Border states and also appeal to the North: ‘I think there never was an occasion when a logical appeal by the President to the people like that of General Jackson in the crisis of 1832, could be of more use’. He actually lost his temper at the seemingly languid Lincoln and hastened to apologize via his son, Montgomery.

I may have said things that were impertinent and I am sorry I ventured on the errand. … I said that the surrender of Fort Sumter “was virtually a surrender of the Union”. … If I said anything which has left a bad impression on the President you must contrive some apology.

Old Frank need not have worried. His forthright, if ill-tempered, diatribe chimed with Lincoln’s own instincts (and the president was not one to hold a grudge) as he moved towards ordering his thoughts on how the crisis could be resolved.54

But the example of the Nullification Crisis of 1832–3355 was of little help to Lincoln because too much time had already been wasted for him to act quickly and decisively. As Scott reminded him, Jackson had issued a proclamation denying the validity of the Ordinance of Nullification immediately. He relied on an Act of 3 March 1807 ‘authorising the employment of land and naval forces’; he rushed reinforcements to Moultrie and dispatched the Natchez to Charleston. Scott himself arrived the day after the issue of the Ordinance to overawe its citizens. But the major difference between the crises of 1832 and 1861 was that in the former South Carolina had been isolated. In the latter she enjoyed the support of six other states, and any attempt at coercion could see at least a further six states rally to her cause – and perhaps many more (even in the North).56

How could Lincoln assert federal authority? What force was available, and how could he direct it? Lincoln was commander in chief of the armed forces but he had no military staff to advise him. Lincoln seems to have consciously pulled all the reins of power into his own hands, so that he alone could tightly control the way decisions were made. But the machinery of government became clogged. Lincoln had only the services of his two secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, to help; he lacked the counsel of a general staff. On taking office Lincoln attempted to rationalize the relationship between the president, the Secretary of War and the general in chief. But this did not help him over much. The Secretary of War designate, Cameron, was indisposed for most of the crisis. Lincoln also faced a major difficulty with the rank of general in chief of the army.

The general in chief actually commanded nothing. He did not preside over an organized general staff. His position was not acknowledged in either the Constitution or in law. The relationship between the general in chief and the Secretary of War was vague, and if the secretary was determined to assert his prerogatives, as Jefferson Davis had been during the Pierce Administration, then the general in chief lacked a role. He neither commanded an army in the field nor directed a general staff. The heads of the bureaux, the quartermaster general, the chief engineer, the adjutant general, and so forth, reported to the Secretary of War, and not to the general in chief. Indeed in 1854 Scott had taken himself off to New York in a huff, and nobody appears to have missed him. He returned to Washington only after the secession of South Carolina in December 1860. Lincoln then instructed Scott to provide him with daily reports on strategic matters. He relied heavily on Scott’s experience and advice.57 But Scott was elderly and ill, and did not try to conceal his maladies. He could not be regarded as an energetic source of dependable military advice. The other senior generals were almost as old as Scott.58

The military power that Lincoln could assert was equally arthritic. The regular army of 16,215 men was scattered along the 79 posts of the frontier. Of the 1,033 graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point, 275 (or 26.6 per cent of those engaged in the Civil War) had so far resigned their commissions and gone with their states. Of the 93 officials in the War Department, 30 had resigned. Scott had stated his requirement for coercing the South: a force of 5,000 additional regular troops and 20,000 volunteers which he estimated would take eight months to raise. The President cannot call, direct for volunteer companies, or battalions’, Scott reminded him, ‘but Governors of States frequently substitute volunteers to make up the quota called for, in lieu of regular militia drafts’. Mobilization was in the hands of the state governors. Lincoln was to ignore some of these restrictions later when flexing his elastic authority under the war powers, but such latitude was possible only once a de facto state of war existed after the firing on Fort Sumter. In March and April 1861 Lincoln found that the enormous power frequently alluded to by his critics lacked a coherent institutional base. He was powerless to reduce the great local superiority the South enjoyed in Charleston harbour. And such a ‘correlation of forces’ would be a crucial calculation in choosing when and if shots were to be fired.59

Lincoln was, furthermore, worn down throughout the crisis by the immense burden of distributing the patronage. The range of offices requiring allocation was enormous, from the Librarian of Congress to the coiner of mint at San Francisco. Lincoln was attacked for spending so much time on place. But as the first Republican president, this was a paramount duty he could not shirk. James K. Polk was an example of a war president who was later plagued by a failure to exploit patronage opportunities fully. The magnitude of the crisis and the feebleness of the federal machinery available to the president in his attempt to solve it, forced him to select his priorities and the patronage was high on his list. Without doubt the cohesion and strength of the Republican Party was more important than the misguided prejudices of public opinion. Yet Lincoln paid a price for spending so much time on a relatively thankless task: it made possible the temporary ascendancy of William H. Seward.60

Seward’s interference, combined with executive institutional weakness, accounts for much confusion during the last days of the crisis. But it is as well to recall that the pattern of a divided cabinet with one senior member pursuing his own line unknown to other members had been foreshadowed during Buchanan’s last months. Then, Stanton (a Democrat) had actually crossed party lines to keep Senator Charles Sumner and Seward himself informed of traitorous conduct in the Buchanan Administration. Such was the impact of the secession crisis that it threatened to overturn established executive institutions. Since November 1860 Seward had cherished the illusion of his singular importance to the Administration. Seward was headstrong, locquacious, crafty, quick-witted and subtle. He was supremely confident in his own ability to settle the crisis in sixty days, if only he was given the power to do it. Lincoln’s preoccupation with the patronage, a widespread feeling (certainly shared by Seward) that Lincoln was a mediocrity, plus Seward’s zeal and certainty that he would be ‘Premier’, left an unmistakable impression that he was the real power standing behind the president’s desk – as he had been, albeit briefly, before Zachary Taylor’s sudden death in 1850. Thus Scott, an old Whig ally, wrote, on welcoming Seward to the State Department, that Lincoln was ‘an honored successor of the great Washington – with you as Chief of his Cabinet’. It was widely believed that Seward had drafted Lincoln’s inaugural address. This speculation was endlessly, and inaccurately, reiterated.

Seward had made some progress in dominating the Administration by April 1861. Lincoln was a lazy and disorganized administrator. And considering the intolerable burdens he was carrying, it would surely be less than human for a man so beset with woe not to turn for support to a man more experienced in the ways of Washington than he was, and one so willing and able to offer advice and take on additional duties. Seward suggested that the cabinet meet in an informal manner regardless of whether all members were present or whether an agenda had been circulated. Lincoln agreed. Seward interfered in the affairs of other departments, and his advice was solicited on a range of patronage appointments (especially in the state of New York) affecting other cabinet members. Secretary Chase refused to acquiesce in this interference. An acrimonious exchange resulted which involved Lincoln himself. The president soon began to formalize cabinet meetings, which checked Seward’s meddling. The president was also very careful to ensure that his cabinet members put their views on the Sumter crisis in writing. The disruption that had destroyed Buchanan’s cabinet was only just avoided, though Lincoln had yet to resist one further attempt at disturbing established cabinet procedures.61

The consequences of this unhappy though temporary ascendancy were that not only did Seward meet with first the South Carolina Commissioners and then (after 3 March) deal with Confederate emissaries and make promises about the evacuation of Sumter that he was in no position to keep, but also that his views on evacuation were disseminated down the military chain of command via Scott. Anderson was misled into thinking that the garrison would be evacuated. Welles recalled after the cabinet meeting on 15 March at which (apart from Blair) all the cabinet were opposed to succouring Sumter, that Lincoln ‘appeared to acquiesce in what seemed to be a military necessity, but was not disposed to yield until the last moment, and when there was no hope of accomplishing the work if attempted’. But over the course of the next two weeks Lincoln’s disinclination to give way before professional military advice was transformed into a steely resolve not to abandon the fort. There are two items of evidence which indicate how he reached this decision. The first was a long report written by Stephen Hurlbut after his return from a fact-finding mission to Charleston with Lincoln’s friend, Ward H. Lamon. He effectively demolished Seward’s assumption that Union sentiment would ultimately prevail, even in the Deep South.

Separate Nationality [Hurlbut wrote] is a fixed fact – that there is a unanimity of sentiment which is to my mind astonishing – that there is no attachment to the Union – that almost every one of these men who in 1832 held military commissions under secret orders from General Jackson … are now as ready to take arms if necessary for the southern Confederacy.

… The Sentiment of National Patriotism always feeble in [South] Carolina, has been extinguished and overridden by the acknowledged doctrine of the paramount allegiance of the State.

He warned that the South was a de facto nation-state exercising its prerogatives and privileges. He was sure that any vessel carrying provisions for Sumter would be stopped by force if necessary. If Sumter was abandoned, Hurlbut counselled, ‘Undoubtedly this will be followed by a demand for Pickens and the keys of the Gulf. No policy, he concluded, however framed or restricted, could guarantee avoiding an armed collision. ‘At all hazards and under all circumstances … any Fortress accessible by the Sea, over which we still have dominion should be held, if war comes, let it come’.62

The second item of evidence is Lincoln’s reaction on 29 March, to a memorandum circulated by Scott advocating withdrawal from both Sumter and Pickens. This infuriated him. Furnished with Anderson’s letter of 4 April, he was galvanized into action. At last by 28 March the majority of the patronage appointments had been made and he could turn his full attention to the Sumter crisis. That day the Senate passed a resolution reminding the president sternly that he must enforce federal law. Republican Party pressure to make a stand at Sumter was also felt. The cabinet met to consider its position. It regarded the coming of war gravely but not fearfully, so long as the South opened fire first on United States forces. Lincoln now more secure than he had been two weeks earlier, ordered the preparation of two expeditions, one to re-supply Sumter, the other to reinforce Pickens. But it was one thing for the president to reassert control at this level, quite another for him to direct its execution. He had already ordered weeks before, both orally and in writing, that the warship Brooklyn be sent to Pickens on 5 March (repeated on 11 March), but these orders had not been carried out (mainly because the naval commander, fearful that he would provoke civil war, refused to obey an order signed by General Scott rather than the Secretary of the Navy). The two expeditions ordered on 4 April met a similar fate. Seward regarded the Pickens expedition very much as his own. Enlisting the aid of Captain M. C. Meigs, he organized an expedition without the knowledge of the Secretary of the Navy, Welles, who had in the mean time prepared orders for the Powhatan, one of the strongest ships in the US Navy, to set out for Sumter. But because Lincoln had signed orders without looking at them, and with no military or naval staff to lighten his burden, this ship was assigned to both expeditions. Lincoln was simply trying to do too much and the result was foolish errors which reflected little credit on the efficiency of American decision-making machinery in a crisis of such a magnitude, with which it was pathetically ill-prepared to cope.63

But despite this muddle, the entire episode illustrated Lincoln’s working methods. When Welles came to the White House to protest against Seward’s interference, Lincoln revealed a beguiling lack of self-confidence, beguiling because it is such a refreshing contrast when compared with the bombastic and pompous striking of attitudes so characteristic of American politicians of this period. He asked: ‘What have I done wrong?’ The president could perhaps have asserted himself more strongly in these opening weeks, though Americans then (as they still do) attached far too much importance to the impression created in the first three months of a president taking office. If a leader is taking stock, as Lincoln was, then it was better to act cautiously. Nicolay and Hay wrote that Lincoln’s ‘life-long habit was to listen patiently to counsel from all quarters … [and] followed the practice of holding his convictions open to the latest moment, and of not irrevocably committing himself to specific acts till the instant of their execution’. Lincoln showed supreme skill in following a contradictory course (or keeping a dual option open to the last minute) and then switching decisively to adopt the right course at the most opportune moment. The Sumter crisis saw him do just this, though perhaps more hesitantly than later. He had manoeuvred himself into a position (in spite so many handicaps) that by 12 April he gained, whatever action resulted. If the southern forces in Charleston harbour allowed the victualling expedition to pass, Lincoln would have seized the initiative from the secessionists who had enjoyed it since December 1860; if they resisted and fired on federal ships, then by declaring war on the Federal government they would have given up the moral high ground and given themselves the guise of aggressors. It was typical of the distractions under which Lincoln laboured that as the Sumter expedition left New York harbour he was forced to turn his attention to the appointment of matron to a Maryland hospital.64

The muddle over the Powhatan also occurred within a few days of an offer the president had received from Seward to take the weight off his shoulders – which he found no difficulty in declining. On 1 April he had received Seward’s ‘Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration’, in which Seward offered, in view of the president’s supposed failure to evolve a coherent policy, to shoulder the burden of executive duties. ‘It is not in my especial province. But I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility’. This document is not a sustained memorandum but a series of somewhat disjointed and discursive assertions. Seward claimed that the issue during the secession crisis must be changed from slavery to Union or Disunion, from a party question ‘to one of Patriotism or Union’; evacuating Sumter would be a way ‘of changing the issue’. One way of securing a revival of Union feeling, Seward suggested, was by provoking a war with Spain and France. It is likely that Seward calculated that an attack on Cuba would tempt the South to intervene to prevent the abolition of slavery there. If so a northern attack would increase southern hatred of the North and provoke war with the Confederacy in Cuba, not lead to an upsurge of Unionism. By reasserting his authority (either by letter or in a quiet conversation with Seward is still not clear, probably the latter), Lincoln managed to keep his cabinet together. It was therefore able to stand united behind his own cautious policy. But the most charitable interpretation that could be placed on Seward’s effrontery in producing his ‘Thoughts’ was that he had sipped too much brandy during its composition. For the alternative suggestions are that he was either drunk with delusion or he had lost touch with political reality. It was traditional for American presidents in the first half of the nineteenth century to concentrate on domestic affairs – foreign affairs were a low priority. Yet Seward’s agenda for solving the greatest domestic crisis in American history required the president to reverse his priorities to an unprecedented degree and concentrate on foreign affairs, with Seward’s ineffable advice to guide him. The presumption of Seward’s ‘Thoughts’ might have been excusable if they were right, but though some of this document’s elements did indeed come to pass, doing what Seward suggested when he suggested it would have been reckless folly.65 But the true significance of this incident transcends personal ambition. The dispatch of Seward’s Thoughts’ was a measure of the extent to which the Sumter crisis threatened to subvert the workings of American political institutions.66


These three factors, space, time, and direction, dominated the resolution of the crisis. As the climax neared so did the muddle surrounding its resolution become more acute. Indeed, some explanation for Seward losing his head in a characteristically rash gambit and offering to take control of the Administration may be found in his dealings throughout March with Confederate emissaries (chosen and dispatched to Washington within two days of Davis’s inauguration and superseding the earlier South Carolina delegations). On 15 March Seward assured the Confederate delegation that Sumter would be given up within five days. He did not meet them himself but made his unauthorized promises through two southern intermediaries, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, Samuel Nelson and John A. Campbell. Seward claimed that Lincoln’s inaugural did not convey adequately the true flexibility of the Administration’s attitude. The Commissioners informed the Confederate government that ‘We are sure that within five days Sumter will be evacuated. We are sure that no steps will be taken to change the military status’. This pledge (without the time limit) was repeated on 22 March and placed in writing by Campbell.67 The Confederate Commissioners, Crawford, Forsyth and Roman, had accepted at face value the informal assurances of a cabinet member who had no authority to make them. But this evidence was confirmed by the congressional rumours that Senator Wigfall continued to report to Davis until he resigned his seat after the secession of Texas.68

This behaviour casts little credit on the diplomatic skill of the Confederate government. They found indirect dealings with Seward congenial because his policy suited their own preconceptions and determination to secure Confederate independence. In view of later Confederate claims that Seward had misled them, it is salutary to note that they quite cynically exploited Seward’s delusions about a resurgence of southern Unionism for their own ends. They, too, sought time. As Forsyth mentioned earlier, ‘We are playing a game in which time is our best advocate, and if our Government could afford the time I feel confident of winning. … Our policy is to encourage the peace element in the fight, and at least blow up the Cabinet on the question. The outside pressure in favour of peace grows stronger every hour’. There was no doubt, either, that the Commissioners thought in terms of progressing step by step, achieving one object at a time (vindicating Montgomery Blair’s warning against piecemeal appeasement). Thus when Seward observed that ‘the evacuation of Sumter is as much as the administration can bear’, they were of the opinion that this was the first of several concessions that would culminate in recognition of Confederate independence.

The optimism of the Confederate Commissioners was also supported by other outspoken and unauthorized remarks, such as those of Lincoln’s empty-headed friend, Ward H. Lamon, who had visited Charleston with Hurlbut, and had remarked on leaving that he would return in a few days to escort Anderson’s garrison home. Such statements were believed because the Confederacy wanted to believe them, not because they represented authoritative Administration opinion. Governor Pickens telegraphed the Confederate Commissioners inquiring why Lamon had not returned on 30 March to attend to this obligation. The telegram was passed via Campbell to Seward. He again reiterated that Sumter would be evacuated, but said that he could not reply to the telegram until 1 April – the day he confidently expected the president to delegate to him the authority he had assumed so rashly on his behalf. Seward had told his wife that he expected to have to seize power, and was forced to do so at a time when he was losing his grip over both the Administration’s policy and the reaction of the secessionists to its formulation. When Campbell called on 1 April for the expected reply to Pickens’s telegram, Seward shifted ground. He now merely confirmed that ‘the President may desire to supply Fort Sumter, but will not undertake to do so without giving notice to Governor Pickens’. This was evidently in accordance with Lincoln’s rebuff. So almost two weeks before the relief expedition actually set out the Confederates were given notice, via Seward, of the method by which Lincoln would try and resolve (perhaps prolong) the crisis.

Yet the Confederates now refused to believe a source whose blandishments they had earlier accepted with alacrity. ‘This is not the course of good will’, wrote the Confederate president, ‘and does not tend to preserve the peace’. Of course, the Confederate government had been assured by Campbell that the undertakings of 15 and 22 March were still valid. It is here that space – the great distance between Washington and Montgomery – became important again. The paucity of the information placed before the Confederate cabinet and its lack of a professional, skilled diplomatic corps redounded on the quality of the decisions taken. While before 1 April reports emphasize federal inactivity, after that date they become more suspicious and querulous, and greatly exaggerate the scale of renewed federal activity. The Confederate Secretary of War, Walker, wrote to Beauregard that ‘The Government has at no time placed any reliance on assurances by the Government at Washington in respect to the evacuation of Fort Sumter’ – this was untrue, but not inaccurate in its import, for the Confederate government had received no such assurances. It was a cardinal error committed by the Confederacy to accept assurances that were not made by the US government, but by a member of it whom they presumed was its leader. Never was there a better example of rumour and press tittle-tattle by constant repetition creating their own reality, and never has that habit proved so disastrous.69

The Confederacy now feared ‘coercion’. This was another term endlessly repeated. But what did it mean? It was a synonym for invasion of the southern states by the Federal government, which Lincoln had promised would not be levied on them in his first inaugural address: ‘The government will not assail you, unless you first assail it’. To the Confederate cabinet the hapless garrison at Fort Sumter was an instrument of blatant coercion and Lincoln’s obstinacy in refusing to give it up a naked act of aggression. This position rather lacked a sense of proportion. This may be confirmed by recalling that it made sense only within the context of the South’s long-term political insecurity; the language used was the same as that of the Missouri Crisis of 1820. Lucius Q. Washington reported that the Administration had 2,600 troops poised to strike, ‘and nearly every available ship in the Navy had been ordered to prepare for service’. Actually, the Federal government had an entire force of eight companies garrisoning Washington and seven at Fort Monroe. These were needed to defend the city which remained virtually defenceless for another month. The expedition ordered by Lincoln to revictual Sumter consisted of the Pawnee, Pocahontas and the Harriet Lane (300 sailors and 200 soldiers) but minus the Powhatan. Without the fire-power of the latter, had matters come to the proof, it is unlikely that the expedition could have fought its way through to the fort even at night. By comparison, South Carolina could muster 7,000 men in the port of Charleston. Yet Lucius Washington’s imagination soared. Sumter was to be relieved ‘by means of a combined movement by sea and by land, taking Beauregard’s batteries in rear with infantry and field artillery etc while their ships press up the bay’. Such fantasy would be typical of what passed for strategic thinking in the South over the next few months.70

This attitude of mind seemed to indicate that a decision was about to be made. Napoleon once advised that in war (or when contemplating war) ‘A general should never paint pictures [of a given situation]; his intelligence should be as clear as the lens of a telescope’. During the final stage of the crisis, southern leaders, fretting over the possible loss of Charleston, seemed to lose all sense of perspective. They never seemed to ask for what end were they launching a fratricidal war? Opening fire on Sumter was justified on the grounds that the fort might assist the Union fleet by opening fire on their batteries – in the totality of the crisis, a very minor consideration. But their bombardment would alter the status quo very dramatically. It ignored the great local superiority Confederate forces enjoyed in Charleston harbour. It ignored the importance they had attached to maintaining the status quo earlier and the pressure this placed on the Federal government to react to their moves. Anderson had not opened fire to aid the Star of the West, and four months later his position had deteriorated markedly. The Confederate government seemed determined to view the Sumter expedition as a mortal threat. News of the sailing of the expedition had been sent to Montgomery despite great secrecy, by the US Minister to Portugal designate, a native of South Carolina, James E. Harvey. What is striking when their deliberations are examined, as Allan Nevins, the greatest historian of the subject, observes, is an absence of the agonizing prevailing in Washington. The decision, in his opinion, ‘was an act of rash emotionalism’. Just as the South fell victim to its own propaganda after the presidential election of November 1860, indulging its worst fantasies about ‘Black Republicans’, ‘racial amalgamation’ and the abolition of slavery, so in April 1861 it was swept off its feet by swirling rhetoric about ‘coercion’ and lashed out indiscriminately at its enemies. The South precipitated a conflict for which it was unprepared and which sealed its doom. In terms of direction, the Confederacy reached decisions more quickly than the Lincoln Administration, but they were imprudent, ill-considered and entirely predictable in a narrow sense.71

Indeed, impatience to resolve the matter as quickly as possible seems to have been the key factor in the southern decision to open fire. It was determined to seize Sumter at the earliest moment because the Confederate government calculated that it could use force with impunity. Interception of Anderson’s mail revealed the increasingly vulnerable plight of Sumter. An attempt to seize Fort Pickens, by comparison, was a much riskier proposition. The Confederate commander there, General Braxton Bragg, advised President Davis that the only way to break in to Pickens would be by ‘an escalade of ladders. My troops are eager and will risk anything to avoid a long investment on this sand beach. Ignorant in a great degree of the danger they would go at it with a will, and with ordinary good luck would carry the point. Our greatest deficiency’, he concluded, ‘is the want of means to reach the Island properly and secretly’. This did not sound very encouraging to Davis and he turned his attention back to Sumter.72

A great deal of relief had been felt in February when the Confederate government had taken over responsibility for negotiating for Sumter. Many felt that a more prudent and responsible body had taken over from the bombastic and rash South Carolinians. Governor Pickens urged that they demand the surrender of the fort while Buchanan was still president in January, thus presenting Lincoln with a fait accompli. Pickens was inclined to the boastfulness characteristic of South Carolinians. William Howard Russell recorded in his diary that Pickens began one of his speeches with the modest claim that he was ‘“Born insensible to fear”’, yet Russell ‘was amused by a little middy who described with much unction the Governor’s alarm on his visit to Fort Pickens, when he was told that there were a number of live shells and a quantity of powder still in the place’.73 But in fact there was little difference in the style of negotiations adopted by the Confederate government, which was marked by an unthinking belligerence.

The Confederate government and its emissaries pursued a consistent object and were determined to delude members of the Lincoln Administration so long as it suited them. They shared the common error that the president would be of little account in the Administration by comparison with his lieutenant, Seward, and simultaneously typecast him as a Black Republican devil intent on evil doings. His confidants urged Davis to ‘make up your account for war‘. A commissioner from South Carolina, Isaac Hayne, predicted that ‘if the attack on Sumter is delayed a week, our harbour may be in the possession of a fleet’. As the weeks wore on the Confederate president, despite his inability to assess authoritatively the extent of preparations for war, was inclined to the view that Union activities were not peaceful in intent. ‘This is not the course of good will and does not tend to preserve the peace’, he said of reports that Lincoln intended to revictual Sumter. There was one personal factor of an undefinable but omnipresent quality. Davis’s sense of his ‘honour’ and that of the new Confederacy demanded that the issue be resolved. Not to act was to admit defeat and humiliation.

On 8 and 9 April the Confederate cabinet met to discuss what to do. They knew of Lincoln’s plan to revictual the fort and believed that Anderson was preparing to resist a bombardment; but they had also intercepted a letter from Anderson indicating his desire to evacuate and detailing his parlous state. Davis wanted to bombard the fort, and other cabinet members supported him. Only Robert Toombs, the Confederate Secretary of State (who disliked Davis) dissented. He considered such an act ‘suicide’. ‘It is unnecessary, it puts us in the wrong, it is fatal’. It does not seem to have occurred to the Confederate cabinet that if they declined to fire on Sumter and stopped the relieving force, yet failed to attack it, they could compel the Union squadron to open fire should it persist in forcing its way through to Sumter. Under these circumstances, the Confederacy could justly claim that it was acting defensively. But calm consideration did not prevail. An excitable Wigfall telegraphed from Washington, ‘Lincoln intends war. … Let us take Fort Sumter’.

At the last minute a solution to the crisis seemed to recommend itself. On 8 April Beauregard ordered Sumter’s mails cut off. He informed Anderson that the Confederate government had not asked for the surrender of the fort previously because they believed that it would be evacuated. Now that an expedition to provision Sumter had set sail ‘the Confederate States can no longer delay assuming actual possession of a fortification commanding the entrance of one of their harbours and necessary for its defence and security’. He concluded laconically, ‘I am ordered by the Government of the Confederate States to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter’. Anderson indicated that the garrison would be starved out anyhow but in further discussion he would not agree to an unconditional evacuation. Davis’s patience was hardly endless. He had already indications of strong support from North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. Persuading them to leave the Union was not an unimportant consideration in taking his decision. For example, secessionist sympathizers had penetrated pro-Confederate mobs and the militia in Richmond and stirred up a ‘clamour’. ‘They have been trimming and blindfolding in Washington,’ Davis claimed. ‘We have been patient and forbearing here’. He deduced therefore that ‘Nothing was left for us but to forestall their schemings by a bold act’. On 12 April 1861 under the watchful eyes of an enormous Charleston crowd, the bombardment began. ‘The shells were bursting,’ Mrs Chesnut remembered. ‘In the dark I heard a man say “waste of ammunition”’. The bombardment lasted for 34 hours, and no US soldiers were actually killed during its course, though one was killed during an accident at the general salute after the surrender on the 13 April. Davis briefly hoped this happy outcome – ‘There has been no blood spilled more precious than that of a mule’, he claimed – would persuade Lincoln that the bombardment was not an act of war but an assertion of legitimate rights.74

But it is important to note, given the considerable quantity of special pleading advanced on behalf of the South by many distinguished (often southern) historians, that the casus belli was an unprovoked attack on the fort itself, and not, as during the Star of the West incident, an attempt to repulse the forces seeking to relieve the beleaguered garrison. In considering why war came when it did, we must return to Clausewitz’s ‘political object’ and its relationship to the decision-making machinery. Earlier writing has tended to focus on motives. The main emphasis in this analysis has been on the way decisions were arrived at, or their results, rather than on what prompted them. A good deal of this earlier writing has arisen from the paucity of evidence at our disposal as to the calculations underlying Lincoln’s moves. Under such circumstances ‘conspiracy theories’ tend to spring up. The most scholarly was advanced by the southern historian, Charles W. Ramsdell. He argued that Lincoln ‘manoeuvred’ the South into firing the first shot with the ‘bait’ of the revictualling expedition.75 A sustained analysis of the primitive decision-making machinery employed during the crisis demonstrates that no attempt to organize and control such an elaborate plan was even remotely possible. Lincoln’s objective was far simpler – to enforce federal authority, without appearing provocative, and in accordance with his constitutional duties, while avoiding any recognition of the independence of the rebellious states. As the pursuit of these aims required him to adopt an increasingly stern and uncompromising tone, Lincoln never once trespassed beyond the limits set by northern public opinion which was itself in a state of flux if not outright muddle. The employment of military force at any stage in a given crisis is an expression of power, an ability to enforce a fiat. This power might be channelled, or restricted, by the environment in which statesmen and soldiers operate. In this chapter, three factors of a strategic ‘model’ have been advanced as a means of understanding how this environment acted to advance, or retard, the aspirations and activity of harassed men taking decisions, the ramifications of which they barely discerned. In any case, Davis ordered shots to be fired on the fort, and not the expedition that Lincoln dispatched, and this important distinction reveals the weakness of Ramsdell’s special pleading.

By April 1861 Lincoln recognized the importance of defending the status quo. As his confidence grew, especially in deciding what was valuable and what was misleading military advice, he determined that the status quo must not be allowed to change (as had happened so many times during the Buchanan Administration) in the secessionists’ favour. He sent two emissaries to warn Governor Pickens that the expedition to Fort Sumter would land only food, not weapons and ammunition. This gesture was later ridiculed by Jefferson Davis. But it was typical of the Confederate government’s determination to accept only what it wanted to hear, that it welcomed the informal blandishments of a member of the cabinet, Seward, when it suited them, and yet rejected the warnings of the president’s messenger. This was the only direct contact between the chief executive and the rebels throughout the entire crisis; yet they had earlier generalized about his attitude towards Sumter with all the confidence of architects who constructed their castles on clouds. The Confederate government was equally determined to uphold southern independence. The two sides often acted at cross-purposes. To the Lincoln Administration, merely upholding federal law and installations was continuing its legitimate, peaceful business; to secessionists, obstinately set on securing their independence, this attitude was tantamount to a declaration of war. In these combustible circumstances, the only question remaining was: which side would resort to force first?76

It is in this context that the immense political significance of firing the first shot – in securing the moral high ground and galvanizing northern opinion to strike at southern ‘aggressors’ -should be understood. Lincoln was operating in a political culture which accepted stoically, as Richard N. Current has written elsewhere, that ‘the decision for peace or war is up to the other side; we ourselves have no choice’. Hurlbut had warned the President that vessels sent to reprovision Fort Sumter ‘would be stopped and refused admittance’.77 But Lincoln could not have possibly known that the other side would fire on the fort rather than on the relieving squadron. It was a remote possibility, though not a certainty. As Gideon Welles summed up the consensus which the cabinet had now reached under Lincoln’s patient prodding:

armed resistance to a peaceable attempt to secure provisions to one of our forts will justify the government in using all the power at its command to reinforce the garrison and furnish the necessary supplies … and the time has arrived, when it is the duty of the government to assert and maintain its authority.78

Lincoln was attempting to reverse the pressure of time on his Administration and ensure that whatever shape the crisis might assume he would keep his cabinet united. Previously the time factor had worked in favour of the Confederacy, and Buchanan’s cabinet had splintered under the pressure of events. Throughout the crisis the Confederacy had retained the initiative, and Lincoln had merely reacted to their moves. Should the Confederacy lash out and be provoked into firing the first shot then, in the event of war, the president had placed himself in an advantageous position. But if they stood aside and allowed a peaceful revictualling then the pressures of time could be exerted on them, and not the Federal government, and Lincoln would have seized the initiative. He had placed himself in a position to gain whatever action resulted. It is as an illustration of this remarkable gift (and not some sordid, nebulous conspiracy) that a terse entry in Browning’s diary should be read:

He himself conceived the idea, and proposed sending supplies, without an attempt to reinforce giving notice of the fact to Gov. Pickens of South Carolina. The plan succeeded. They attacked Sumter – it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could.79

Lincoln had begun to overcome the enormous ‘friction’ inherent in handling this crisis; yet the dividend on his skill was not a happy one – the outbreak of civil war. But did Lincoln, or Davis, ‘decide’ for war in the manner conveyed in so many books? The answer is an emphatic no. Lincoln was determined to conduct the crisis in as conciliatory a manner as possible consistent with his constitutional position; he would not compromise this; nobody should presume to encroach on his presidential prerogatives, as Seward discovered. But if the South would not respect these, then he was prepared to fight to safeguard the constitution and the integrity of the Union. But he did not positively decide for war. He and the members of his cabinet were prepared to fight one – the distinction is subtle but important. His attitude was best summed up in Hurlbut’s observation ‘if war comes let it come’. As for Davis, he thought an energetic exercise in belligerence would frighten the North and allow him to assert Confederate rights and territorial integrity without loss of life. He calculated wrongly, even though the bombardment of Fort Sumter led to a significant accretion of Confederate power, the secession of the Upper South. Yet even at this late stage, Davis confided to his wife that he had not given up hope that some kind of compromise or reconciliation could be reached with the North. ‘Separation is not yet of necessity final’; some way might yet be found to accommodate southern rights in a looser federation. If that hope was sincere, then the actions of the Confederate government belied it and cleared the way for an unrestrained use of force. But neither leader expected, nor wanted, the outbreak of a general war.

Northern outrage followed the firing of the first shots at Sumter. The South chose the one method, as Toombs feared, that would antagonize the other section. From January onwards the northern state governors had made their influence felt. On 12 January 1861 Ohio had passed a resolution demanding that the federal government refuse to permit secession and pledged the resources of the state to the defence of the Constitution. Six days later Maine passed similar resolutions; on 21–24 January Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania did likewise, and Michigan on 2 February. Thus Lincoln could call upon northern resources to put down secessionists in arms against the legitimate government. But would the states of the Upper South and on the ‘Border’ between the sections show a comparable unconditional loyalty? This would test to the uttermost the unionism of Virginia and North Carolina On 15 April Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteer militia for three months to suppress the rebellion. In William Brock’s view, he used ‘words reminiscent of a county sheriff summoning a posse to deal with outlaws’. This is exactly right: for Lincoln expected the war to be a short police action, and he used similar powers to those employed by Andrew Jackson in raising a posse comitatus.80 Lincoln stressed his determination ‘to suppress said combinations [of rebels] and to cause the laws to be duly executed’. In pursuing his object, he promised that ‘the utmost care will be observed … to avoid any devastation; any destruction of, or disturbance of peaceful citizens in any part of the country’. The total number of volunteers asked for by Lincoln is often ridiculed in the context of the great war on which he now unknowingly embarked. Neither side were aware of the kind of war they were unleashing on their fellow citizens. But in the context of a police action, and by comparison with the small numbers of troops raised by the United States in her earlier wars, Lincoln was asking for a very large force.81 He had made it abundantly clear on 13 April to the Virginian convention that T shall, to the very extent of my ability, repel force by force’ and that if necessary ‘I shall hold myself at liberty to re-possess if I can, like places [to Sumter] which had been seized before the Government was devolved upon me’. The request for volunteers was dispatched to all state governors. Would they all comply?82

Southern secession: the second phase

From Lincoln’s point of view, the least desirable result of the firing on Fort Sumter was the secession of four states of the Upper South, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Arkansas, and their adamant refusal to participate in the ‘coercion’ of their sister states of the Deep South. The first two were of inestimable importance to the Confederacy because with their population and industrial capacity they made a southern republic a more viable proposition. There was also a further, perhaps more desirable, result. The passage of secessionist ordinances in these states revealed precisely where allegiances lay. In retrospect, it is now abundantly clear that even if a way could have been found to solve the impasse at Sumter, it would have been resolved only on terms that would have created a section within a nation-state. The Federal government would have been continually obliged to defer and pander to it; and these four states would have continued to look for advice and succour from, and certainly sympathized with, the Confederacy in its rivalry with the Union. In other words, the Sumter issue would not have gone away; it would have been transferred to another spot in another state, and after each concession the Federal government would have been in a weaker and weaker position. There was also the problem of federal installations in these four states. Doubtless before too long, the Confederacy would have made special demands on these, for example, that they be demilitarized. What the attitude of the four state governors would have been to such demands is possible to reconstruct. Their speeches before Sumter were consistently pro-Confederate (though this by no means reflected majority opinion in their states), and it is safe to predict that they would have favoured the Confederacy with their support, and actively worked for such a demilitarization. The shots fired at Sumter, and Lincoln’s proclamation, settled these issues once and for all and both sides knew where they stood. The real problem for the Lincoln Administration lay in the possibility that secession would extend into a third phase involving Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. If this was allowed to succeed, then the Federal government itself could no longer be maintained in Washington DC.

The Virginia convention had assembled on 13 February 1861. The delegates feared that Lincoln would persist in holding the forts; gradually a latent pro-secessionist outlook came to dominate its proceedings. Only a concession on the crucial issue of Sumter would have bought their loyalty and that would not have been unconditional. It was a price that Lincoln (or Buchanan) were not prepared to pay. The ‘moderates’, or conditional unionists, favoured secession once the reaction of the Federal government to the firing of the first shots had been gauged. William B. Preston placed the ordinance before the convention meeting in camera on 16 April. The votes were 88 in favour and 55 opposed; an attempt to put the vote to the people or call a convention of Border states was voted down. Secessionist sentiment was less striking in the Whig counties, and more vibrant in those with the heaviest slave population; though it is perhaps an interesting contrast that individually, the very wealthiest slaveowners, with most to lose from upheaval or war, were far more cautious about the supposed joys of secession. The ordinance was placed before the voters for ratification on 23 May, although the decision of this vote was pre-empted by the moves to raise an army and join the Confederacy. It was passed by 125,950 to 20,373. By this vote, Virginia volunteered herself for the front line in any civil war.83

That sentiment was a factor not to be discounted in the secession crisis may be seen by reference to the experience of Arkansas and North Carolina. In both these states the more ardently expressed view of southern states rights had never enjoyed much of a hearing. In Arkansas a proposal was passed, after the initial defeat of the secessionist cause in the convention called in February, that in August an election would be held in which the electors would choose between cooperation or secession; the convention then adjourned until these results were known, although it could be recalled in event of a crisis. Lincoln’s proclamation was judged such an event: ‘the members of the Arkansas convention meant to be on the side of their brothers of the South’, concludes Ralph Wooster. Arkansas’s ordinance of secession was a gesture of solidarity with other slave states and a steadfast refusal to assist in action whose aim was to crush the government of any sister state whose basic aims and aspirations were compatible with its own. In North Carolina Lincoln’s request for troops was considered an insult to the honour of the state. Opinion had been moving towards the secessionist position for some weeks. The Sumter incident provided a convenient scapegoat for closing the inconsistent gap between the unionist victory at the polls in the February election for the secession convention, and an increasing sympathy for the Deep South and a wish to see its territorial integrity remain inviolate. ‘In North Carolina the Union sentiment was largely in the ascendant and gaining strength until Lincoln prostrated us’, wrote Jonathan Worth somewhat optimistically. A coalition of former secessionists and former unionists gave this movement the added respectability of a non-partisan flavour. The original secession ordinance was framed in terms of North Carolina’s right to leave the Union as the result of a ‘revolutionary’ act. This was withdrawn eventually, but is ominously indicative of the lurking danger that secessionist fervour in North Carolina was miles wide but less than half an inch thick.84

Secession might have been motivated by economic self-interest or legalistic sentiment but ultimately, like all revolutionary movements, it rested on the efficacy of force (or at the very least the threat of force). The case of Tennessee is instructive in this regard. The whole process was guided, not by a special convention, but by the state legislature; the state governor also played a more prominent role than in other slave states. Tennessee had not voiced radical views on the states’ rights or slavery questions, even when the southern convention was held at Nashville in 1850. The Tennessee legislature went into special session on 7 January 1861; its composition resembled the basic pattern of secessionist conventions in the South, with an average age of about 43, with lawyers and farmers predominating. A unionist coalition gained victory over the secessionists in February, but became more persuaded of the secessionist cause, as first the Washington Peace Conference terminated fruitlessly, and then Sumter demanded of them an unconditional obedience to the demands of the Federal government. Despite opposition from East Tennessee the secession ordinance, was passed eventually on 7 May by 14 to 6 in the state senate, and 45 to 16 in the state house. Public opinion sanctioned this 104,913 to 47,238; in the east of the state 32,923 (as against 14,780 for) were opposed to withdrawal from the Union. Governor Isham Harris had resolutely set his mind against complying with Lincoln’s request for troops.85

Governor Harris had developed a rather sly strategy of placing Tennessee in an isolated but exposed position; although the state had not seceded in February, relations with the Federal government were rather tense. Eventually Harris hoped that the voters would see that the security of Tennessee required her to join the Confederacy. Between April and July 1861 a state army of more than 100,000 men was organized. If this independent ‘state’ was menaced by ‘coercion’ then Harris could advocate all-out adherence to the Confederate constitution. This process was not complete until at least July 1861, as the Confederate government was very slow in assuming responsibility for the defence of Tennessee. This left the state not only exposed but also prone to an ill-coordinated, brash and reckless policy. Thus in September 1861 Tennessee violated the neutrality of Kentucky quite gratuitously, even though no defences of any substance existed on her northern border.

From April to August 1861 Harris’s attitude to the treatment of persistent unionists in eastern Tennessee was tolerant, mainly because he felt he needed their votes to secure re-election. After this had been achieved in August (even though he had lost the east by 12,000 votes) he decided upon a new ‘decided and energetic’ policy, which included the arrest and even execution of loyalist ‘Tory’ leaders and their sympathizers. In October and November 1861, the unionists rose in revolt. Harris’s inconsistent policy, first toleration then suppression, had probably provoked the rebellion. It was typical of the rash belligerence, and a lack of coherent policy stamped on the region by the Confederate government, that the state of Tennessee had extended its military commitments outside its borders, without any reference to some higher plan or thinking. Inside the state, Harris had provoked an uprising by a group who were militarily powerless but who refused to accept the political action taken in their name. Perhaps it was entirely predictable in this intense, ‘localized’ political culture, secessionists could not tolerate the thought that their actions were less popular than they assumed they were; when they were flouted they did not hesitate to use force brutally.86

Concluding reflections

Amid this great dramatic crisis we must now confront the unavoidable question, why did the South secede? The answer to this question must take into account the inconvenient fact that the secession ‘movement’ was very disparate; the ‘impulse’ towards secession had three different motives. In the first instance, there was a strong measure of defiance against a political system that had allowed a candidate who was a perceived threat to southern institutions and liberties to walk through the door of the White House. Since 1848 the South had grown used to presidents who appeared sympathetic to her plight and counter-balanced the critics of the South, the most voluble of whom could be found in the Senate chamber. Thus to protect those liberties and institutions, whose unifying characteristic was a reliance on chattel slavery, seven states claimed they had the power to leave the Union if their interests so demanded it. Most had exercised this right and achieved their aim in the incredibly short period of some three weeks at the beginning of 1861. Eugene Genovese has suggested, as a development of this case, that ‘the South’ left the Union to further a policy of slavery expansion, which would augment not only the wealth and power of a republic based on slavery but of individual slaveowners who felt hemmed in and frustrated in an ungrateful Union. There is, surely, a good deal of truth in this assertion. If the South had secured her independence there can be little doubt that she would have attempted to extend southern influence over the entire Caribbean basin, for the Confederacy would have been first and foremost a Caribbean power. The whole American experiment had been based on expansion of one kind or another, and the South had been in its van. There seems to be no reason to exclude the Confederacy from this pattern simply because it had become independent. On the contrary, under the stimulus of competition with the confederacy’s northern neighbour, this ‘scramble’ for outposts and new territories would have become more frantic.

But does this argument apply equally to the Upper South, whose slave population was declining though rather patchily (there were some increases in the non-plantation areas). This seems much less likely. Thus one may conclude that Genovese’s thesis is much more applicable to the Deep South than to the states of the Upper South or the Border states (who had yet to secede). It is only necessary to reiterate here that historians, when they refer to the South, tend to refer exclusively to those attitudes or policies, whose most vociferous spokesmen came from the Deep South. There are many ‘Souths’, but the Deep South has the loudest shout and the most menacing grimace.

Secondly, the secessionists claimed to be acting defensively – in every sense. They sought to defend their unique way of life and institutions, and they defended these steadfastly against the ‘coercion’ of their enemies in the North. Once violent action was decided on, this in effect forced the states of the Upper South to decide where their loyalties – and their self-interest – lay. Some Virginians were impressed by arguments that the Old Dominion (whose main exports were still tobacco, wheat and livestock) had much more to gain by obtaining admission to southern markets than she possibly could by selling those same products in the North.87 A similar argument had been used to stir up secessionist activity in other states reliant on the Mississippi River for their commerce, such as Indiana and Illinois, and sympathy for the Confederacy in New York City, although not in New York State.88 The slavery argument clearly has no relevance here. Yet the enormous growth of the American economy throughout the nineteenth century had been dependent on building new types of government, admittedly in the various territories, as the frontier was penetrated and economic bounty was seized and exploited. The sense of excitement at the kind of challenge offered by southern secession, with the prospect of new markets and new opportunities and settlements, should not be discounted. And there was a good deal of boasting accompanying it, claiming that once the yoke of the Federal government was thrown off, Charleston would become a second New York.

But one looks in vain among the innumerable editorials and speeches made during the short period (of only four months) of the secession crisis, for many statements adumbrating a coherent policy of slavery expansion. However much political action may be governed by an underlying economic or social motive (and obviously these are not irrelevant in the slavery case), such action is rarely expressed in anything other than political language. Here was a section of the United States that had felt itself abused and undervalued for at least twenty years (something like one-quarter of United States history). Secession was a political answer, or reaction, to this abuse, real or imagined. Independence was its aim and it drew on the appeal of the southern contribution (and example) during the American Revolution. The theory of states rights had just as long, and just as respectable a history as the theory of the Union (indeed its theory was more fully developed). In April 1861 the occasion and the date fused in an opportunity, the benefits of which beckoned some but appalled others.

Thirdly, Americans prided themselves on their pragmatism. If one expedient fails, another is tried in its place, until progress is made. There is a danger of treating the whole secession process too rationally and earnestly. It was essentially a highly provincial and perhaps insubstantial ‘movement’ led by excitable men who espoused a highly emotional appeal. They stirred up a cause which enjoyed an abundance of enthusiasm but rather less loyalty. Success generates its own momentum in American politics, as elsewhere, and professional politicians always seek to be on the winning side; often they get their calculations wrong. The excitement and drama of secession had, for a while, an irresistible appeal. The whole of American history had witnessed the glamorization and idealization of revolutionary mores within a conservative setting; the South had developed her own version of those mores, and sought to protect them by revolutionary means – that is, military action. Southerners saw that they had the opportunity to gain their independence; they felt they had the power, they thought they had the resolution; they were not far wrong.

But these points tend to ignore the question which lies at the heart of the problem of secession. Why did so many secessionists accept the risk of war so casually in pursuing their policy in April 1861? This is the real question that needs a convincing answer, not endless quibbling over value judgements as to whether their cause was rational or irrational, expansionist or defensive, or motivated by economic aggrandizement. The whole policy of the Confederate government, and the individual states that jostled in anarchic disorder, depended on force, or the threat of force. The decision to fire on Fort Sumter was taken so lightly because of an overconfident belief in the efficacy of force. Southern leaders believed they could intimidate the North into accepting a fait accompli. Bluster and belligerence, it was unthinkingly assumed, would secure their independence because northerners lacked the resolve, which southerners enjoyed in abundance, to hold on to what they wanted. They could be cowed into submission. On such fragile and flimsy bases are the decisions which launch great wars often founded.

Secession itself was a rather negative act. The South left a coherent grouping and did so rapidly and decisively, but not completely. Something had still to be created to replace the Union. Genovese and other scholars who emphasize the logic which underlay secession overlook the possibility that the act of leaving a political unit does not automatically lead to its replacement by a coherent structure. The conditions prevailing after secession were anarchic; there is no more dangerous condition in the affairs between nation-states than the combination of unguided belligerence and inertia. Drafting a constitution, no matter how delicate the legal refinements, does not make a nation. A sensible policy might have been a start in the right direction, but even before this could be worked out, the infant southern polity brought a war upon itself.89

The act of founding a new nation-state brings to the very fore the question of the creation of armed forces because nation-states are differentiated from one another by their capacity to organize and use force: to maintain peace and order at home and secure liberty from attack from abroad. The creation of the Confederacy launched a massive programme of army-building, the largest that North America had yet seen. All commentators visiting parts of the southern states commented on it. In the pursuit of southern rights – which in the case of the Upper South involved a desire to be on the Confederate side in the fight to resist the potential danger of a dismantling of the southern system of race relations – force was used in a rash, thoughtless and self-defeating manner. Secession could not be made peacefully even if the North acquiesced in it, which she did not; secession was based on force, not legal right, and was justified by the use of force. Secessionist forces were consolidated and extended by the act of striking at Fort Sumter. Yet the movement to create a slaveowning republic in the southern states contained a fatal contradiction. The one force that could overwhelm slavery and the rationale for the Confederacy was war, and it was war that southerners relished and brought upon themselves.

1. Gore Vidal, Lincoln: A Novel (London: Grafton, 1985, 1990), p. 46.

2. Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 3rd edn (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 67, 264, 293.

3. Elbert B. Smith, The Presidency of James Buchanan (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1975), pp. 182–3, 186.

4. Ken Booth and Moorhead Wright (eds) American Thinking about Peace and War (Brighton: Harvester, 1978).

5. The fullest account is still W. A. Swanberg, First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter (New York: Scribner’s, 1957) who (p. 134) suggests that ‘As it stood, Sumter could easily have been taken by a few hundred men with scaling ladders’.

6. Smith, Buchanan, pp. 168, 170. Smith’s book is a useful corrective to Swanberg’s severe strictures on the weakness exhibited by the Buchanan Administration. See Swanberg, First Blood, pp. 72, 92.

7. George W. Julian, Political Recollections, 1840 to 1872 (Chicago: McClurg, 1884), pp. 186–7.

8. Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860–61 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1950), pp. 49, 124, 131–2.

9. See P. M. H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (London: Longman, 1986), pp. 264–6.

10. Swanberg, First Blood, p. 84; Smith, Buchanan, pp. 154, 169.

11. Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 75–82; Smith, Buchanan, p. 164.

12. Quoted in Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (New York: Scribner’s, 1950), I, pp. 261–2.

13. Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 31–44.

14. The controversy over the responsibility for firing the first shot was related to a similar controversy after 1941 as to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s responsibility for ‘exposing’ the US Pacific Fleet to Japanese attack. See Richard N. Current, Lincoln and the First Shot (New York: Lippincott, 1963) and Current, Secretary Stimson: A Study in Statecraft, 2nd edn (New York, 1970). The most critical book on Lincoln’s policy is John S. Tilley, Lincoln Takes Command (Chapel Hill, NC, 1941: 2nd rev. edn, Bill Coates, 1991).

15. Quoted in Marcus Cunliffe, American Presidents and the Presidency, 2nd edn (London: Fontana, 1972), p. 272.

16. Harold Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna (London: Constable, 1946), pp. 17–18.

17. Under rather similar circumstances over a century later during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, President John F. Kennedy attempted to centralize decision-making as much as possible. See Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1969), pp. 62–3, 105–6.

18. David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861, completed and ed. by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper, 1976), pp. 555–83; Stampp, And The War Came, pp. 190–2, 284–5.

19. M.J. Heale, The Making of American Politics, 1750–1850 (London: Longman 1977), pp. 108–12, 115; John M. Belohlavek, ‘Let the Eagle Soar!’: The Foreign Policy of Andrew Jackson (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press 1985), pp. 32, 39–40.

20. Smith, Buchanan, p. 161, 189.

21. Orville Hickman Browning to Abraham Lincoln, 26 Mar. 1861, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress, Washington DC (hereafter Lincoln Papers).

22. William E. Baringer, A House Dividing: Lincoln as President Elect (Springfield, IL: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1945), p. 291; Memorandum of Verbal Instructions to Major Anderson, 1st Artillery, Commanding at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, 11 Dec. 1860, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), series 1, I, p. 89.

23. Smith, Buchanan, pp. 171–2.

24. Jeffrey Rhoades, Scapegoat General (Hamden, CT: Archon 1985), pp. 18, 22, 25.

25. Swanberg, First Blood, pp. 32–3, 41–3, 46.

26. Anderson to General Scott, 1 Apr. 1861, Anderson Papers, General Correspondence, 11, Library of Congress; John B. Floyd to Anderson, 21 Dec. 1860, Official Records, I, p. 103; Swanberg, First Blood, pp. 5, 49–51; David Potter, Lincoln and his Party in the Secession Crisis (New Haven, CT: 1942, 1962; New York: AMS Press, 1979 reprint), pp. 268–72.

27. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (New York: Scribner’s, 1950), II, pp. 366–74; Roy F. Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1948), pp. 428–35.

28. Smith, Buchanan, pp. 178–9.

29. Holt to Anderson, 23 Feb. 1861, Anderson Papers; T. Harry Williams, P. G. T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1955, 1989), pp. 8, 54–7.

30. Smith, Buchanan, p. 150.

31. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1953), IV, pp. 262–71; see also John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York: Century, 1890), III, pp. 250, 256–7; Lincoln resisted pressure from Seward to remove this statement from the address, see Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, p. 456.

32. For the theoretical underpinning for this chapter, see Brian Holden Reid, ‘The Crisis at Fort Sumter in 1861 Reconsidered’, History 77 (Feb. 1992), p. 10.

33. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton UP, 1976), I, i, pp. 7, 78; I, i, pp. 11, 81; I, i, pp. 24, 87; I, vii, p. 119; see Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, III, p. 96, on organizing relief expenditures: ‘It is the almost universal fate of such enterprises to encounter unforeseen difficulties and vexatious delays’.

34. Evan Luard, War in International Society (London: I. B. Tauris, 1986), pp. 18–20.

35. Thomas R. Hietala, Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985), pp. 196–7; Edward Bates, Memorandum on the Desirability of Reinforcing Fort Sumter, 15 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers.

36. Scott to Seward, 3 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers; Grady McWhiney, ‘The Confederacy’s First Shot’, in John T. Hubbell (ed.) Battles Lost and Won (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1975).

37. Lincoln to Bates, 18 Mar. 1861; Lincoln to Chase, 18. Mar. 1861; Seward to Lincoln, 15. Mar. 1861, The President submits to me the following question etc. (a memo of 28 pages), Lincoln Papers. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union (New York: Scribner’s, 1959), I, p. 46, sees these letters as evidence that Lincoln ‘leaned’ towards Seward’s views. Evidence on this point can never be conclusive because of the absence of material in Lincoln’s hand; nonetheless, it is safer to conclude that the letters were more consistent with his inaugural address and its determination to enforce federal law and dues. Potter also argues (Lincoln and his Party, p. 358) that ‘The supposed necessity of evacuating Sumter was the formative factor of all administration policy during March’. But this is too sweeping and ignores the missions of Hurlbut and Gustavus Fox as important contributions to the development of the president’s thinking.

38. Smith, Buchanan, p. 176.

39. General Scott, Memorandum Concerning the Reinforcing of Fort Sumter, 28 Feb. 1861; Seward to Lincoln, 15. Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers; Smith, Buchanan, pp. 170–1; Roger A. Beaumont, ‘Epilogue’, in Joseph G. Dawson III (ed.) Commanders in Chief: Presidential Leadership in Modern Wars (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), p. 168.

40. Lincoln, Collected Works, IV, p. 270.

41. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, III, pp. 38, 75, 378.

42. Scott to Seward, 3 Mar. 1861; Bates to Lincoln, 15 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers. For a defence of Seward, see Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), pp. 92, 124, 134, 214, 246–7, 254–8, 295–6, 356–9.

43. Montgomery Blair to Lincoln, 15 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers; on the general question of northern resolve, see Michael C. C. Adams, Our Masters the Rebels (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978), pp. 56–60, 68–70.

44. Bates to Lincoln, 15 Mar. 1861; Seward to Lincoln, 15 Mar. 1861 Lincoln Papers; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 56, 78; Glyndon G. Van Deusen, Seward (New York: Oxford UP) pp. 276–85; see also Potter, Lincoln and his Party, pp. 144, 211–13, 227–31, 272, 286–7, 318; and Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford UP, 1973), p. 849.

45. Bates acted as an intermediary here. See Bates to Lincoln, 5 Apr. 1861, Lincoln Papers. Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 94–6, 111–13; Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 510–12; Nevins, War for the Union, I, pp. 46–7, 52–3; Potter, Lincoln and his Party, pp. 354–8, is less dismissive of these attempts but relies heavily on a reading of John Hay, Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, ed. Tyler Dennett (New York: 1939; Da Capo; 1988), p. 30 (entry for 22 Oct. 1861). But it is significant that Lincoln here dismissed the Virginians as ‘pseudo-Unionists’. He evidently placed little faith on their long term loyalty, and rightly so. See also Crofts, Reluctant Confederates, pp. 301–6.

46. Lincoln to Scott, 9 Mar. 1861; Winfield Scott, Fort Sumter, 11 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers; Cameron to Anderson, 4 Apr. 1861, Anderson Papers; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 57, 71–2, 100–1; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 461–2.

47. Dix to Anderson, 4 Mar. 1861, Anderson Papers; Twiggs’s Report, 19 Feb. 1861, is in Official Records, I, pp. 503–4; Swanberg, First Blood, p. 159; clipping of New York Herald, 22 Mar. 1861, Anderson Papers.

48. This account broadly agrees with that of Elbert Smith (Buchanan, p. 144) that the fifteenth president was not the enfeebled and hysterical puppet of his cabinet as portrayed in Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln and Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, ch. XXI. I have hesitated using again the analogy with Mr Woodhouse as in ‘Sumter Reconsidered’, p. 18, until I noticed in Tony Tanner’s commentary on the novel that he actually considered Mr Woodhouse, for all his infirmities and whining, a dominating character – as Buchanan certainly was. So I have left it in the text.

49. Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman, Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1962), pp. 93–4, 96–9, 100–5; Winfield Scott. Remarks of Lt-Gen. Scott on the within (Holt to Lincoln, 5 Mar. 1861), Lincoln Papers. Stanton’s reference to losing a million dollars concerned the criminal carelessness of John B. Floyd in managing finances which was made public at the same time as the crisis took this grave turn. See Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, pp. 423–7; on Thompson, see Thayer to Davis, 6 Jan. 1861, in Martin Crawford (ed.) ‘Politicians in Crisis: The Washington Letters of William S. Thayer, December 1860-March 1861’, Civil War History XXVII (Sept. 1981), p. 236.

50. Remarks of Lt-Gen. Scott on the within, Lincoln Papers; Smith, Buchanan, pp. 177–86.

51. Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, pp. 423–9, 447–50; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 365–72, 376–80. Holt to Anderson, 22 Feb. 1861, Anderson Papers, urged him to ‘act with that forebearance which has distinguished you, heretofore, in permitting the South Carolinians to strengthen Fort Moultrie and erect new batteries for the defence of the harbor’.

52. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, III, 256–7, 318; Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago UP, 1979), p. 270; Beaumont, ‘Epilogue’, p. 171.

53. J. G. Randall, ‘Lincoln’s Sumter Dilemma’, in Randall, Lincoln the Liberal Statesman (London: Eyre … Spottiswoode, 1947), p. 98; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, p. 57.

54. Schurz to Lincoln, 5 Apr. 1861; F. P. Blair to M. Blair, 12. Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers; Nevins, War for the Union, I, pp. 47–8; Fehrenbacher (Impending Crisis, p. 558) stresses that, whatever his public face, Lincoln was determined not to show ‘weakness’ and be ‘scared into anything’.

55. See above, pp. 62–3.

56. Winfield Scott, Southern Forts, 30 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers; Lacy K. Ford, Origins of Southern Radicalism (New York: Oxford UP, 1988), pp. 141, 145.

57. Baringer, A House Dividing, pp. 47–8; Smith, Buchanan, pp. 167–8; Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, pp. 380–1, are highly critical of Scott and suggest that his reputation never recovered from the appearance of his ‘Views’, but the evidence suggests that Lincoln relied heavily on him.

58. Russell F. Weigley, Quartermaster General of the Union Army: A Biography of M. C. Meigs (New York: Columbia UP, 1959), pp. 215–17; on Lincoln’s failure to appoint any officers to his staff, see The Diary of Edward Bates, ed. Howard K. Beale (vol. IV of the Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1930; Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1933), p. 220 (entry for 31 Dec. 1861).

59. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford UP, 1988), p. 313; Winfield Scott, Fort Sumter, 11 Mar. 1861; Winfield Scott’s Daily Report no. 5, 5 Apr. 1861, Lincoln Papers; Allan G. Bogue, The Congressmen’s Civil War (Cambridge UP, 1989), p. 45.

60. Nevins, War for the Union, I, pp. 32–5; Hietala, Manifest Design, pp. 222–4; David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered 3rd edn (New York: Vintage, 1989), pp. 72, 76.

61. The Diary of Gideon Welles, ed. Howard K. Beale (New York: Norton, 1960), I, pp. 6–9; see Chase to Lincoln, 28 Mar. 1861, and Seward to Lincoln, 28 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers, over the marshalship of the northern district of New York.

62. Nevins, War for the Union, I, pp. 42–3, correctly describes Scott as Seward’s ‘echo’. Hurlbut to Lincoln, 27 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers; Nevins, War for the Union, I, pp. 53–4. Note Hurlbut’s confidence that a re-provisioning expedition would be stopped.

63. J. G. Randall, Lincoln the President: From Springfield to Gettysburg (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1947), I, pp. 337–42; Weighley, Meigs, pp. 142–9, 153; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 103–7. Seward’s acquiescence in the face of Lincoln’s anger on 29 March demonstrates how hollow his pretensions to being ‘Premier’ were.

64. Welles, Diary, p. 17; Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, III, pp. 256–7, 318, 440.

65. Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration, 1 Apr. 1865, Lincoln Papers; Van Deusen, Seward, pp. 280–5; Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953), pp. 164–5; Peter J. Parish, The American Civil War (London: Eyre Methuen, 1975), p. 77; for a defence, see Crofts, Reluctant Confederates, pp. 298–300.

66. A convincing reconstruction of what form a possible meeting might have taken can be found in Gore Vidal, Lincoln: A Novel (London: Grafton, 1985), pp. 152–7.

67. Ludwell H.Johnson, ‘Fort Sumter and Confederate Diplomacy’, Journal of Southern History (1960), pp. 452–3, 457, 459–61.

68. William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and his Hour (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 320–1.

69. Ibid., pp. 464–5, 467; Nevins, War for the Union, I, pp. 50–1.

70. Stampp, And the War Came, p. 31; Johnson, ‘Sumter and Confederate Diplomacy’, p. 473; Nevins, War for the Union, I, pp. 58, 67.

71. Quoted in J. F. C. Fuller, The Conduct of War, 1789–1961 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 45; Swanberg, First Blood, pp. 146–9; Nevins, War for the Union, I, p. 73; material quoted in Johnson, ‘Sumter and Confederate Diplomacy’, p. 477, supports this argument but the thrust of his article is essentially a defence of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.

72. Grady McWhiney, ‘The Confederacy’s First Shot’, in Hubbell, Battles Lost and Won, pp. 80–2.

73. William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, ed. Eugene H. Berwanger (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988), p. 94 (entry for 19 Apr. 1861).

74. Beauregard to Anderson, 11 Apr. 1861, Anderson Papers, Library of Congress; Davis, Jefferson Davis, pp. 320–25; C. Vann Woodward (ed.) Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale UP), pp. 45–6 (entries for 7, 12 Apr. 1861); Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), p. 320.

75. Charles W. Ramsdell, ‘Lincoln and Fort Sumter’, Journal of Southern History III (1973), pp. 259–88; for the southern bias of interpretations of this period, see Thomas J. Pressly, Americans Interpret their Civil War (Princeton UP, 1954), pp. 239–53.

76. Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (London: Longmans Green, 1881), I, 237; Johnson, ‘Sumter and Confederate Diplomacy’, pp. 474–6.

77. Current, Stimson, p. xvi; Hurlbut to Lincoln, 27 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers.

78. Welles to Lincoln, 29 Mar. 1861, Lincoln Papers.

79. Orville Hickman Browning, Diary, eds Theodore C. Pease and James G. Randall (Springfield, IL: Illinois State Historical Library, 1925), pp. 475–6 (entry for 3 Jul. 1861).

80. See above, p. 60.

81. William R. Brock, Conflict and Transformation: The United States, 1844–1877 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp. 202–4.

82. By the President of the United States, A Proclamation, 15 Apr. 1861; The President’s Reply to the Preamble and Resolution of the Virginia Convention, 13 Apr. 1861, Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress; see also Brian Holden Reid, ‘First Blood to the South: Bull Run, 1861’, History Today 42 (Mar. 1992), p. 21, and Dwight L. Dumond, The Secession Movement, 1860–1861 (New York: Macmillan, 1931), pp. 230, 253–62.

83. Ralph A. Wooster, The Secession Conventions of the South (Princeton UP, 1962), pp. 142–8, 151–4.

84. Ibid., pp. 155, 164–72, 194, 199–203; Crofts, Reluctant Confederates, pp. 330–3.

85. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates pp. 173–5, 176, 184, 188–9. For the use of ‘vigilance committees’ against unionist sympathizers in North Carolina and Mississippi, see Charles C. Bolton, Poor Whites of the Antebellum South (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994), pp. 146, 166–7, 172–5.

86. Thomas L. Connelly, Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861–1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1967, 1986), pp. 26–7, 40–3.

87. Henry T. Shanks, The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847–1861 (New York: AMS Press, 1934, 1971), p. 167.

88. See e.g. Kenneth M. Stampp, Indiana Politics during the Civil War (Indiana UP, 1949, 1978), pp. 12–13, 78, 113.

89. Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Norton, 1983), pp. 256–7.

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