Lincoln, Fort Sumter and the Strategy to Initiate War
The following is a presentation given regarding the involvement of President Abraham Lincoln with the firing on Fort Sumter, such action being an excuse by the Federal Government to wage war upon those states which had seceded from the Union. It would be difficult to edit the article to remove references to its being a presentation without making considerable changes at least to its structure if not its facts and allegations.
Lincoln, Fort Sumter and the Strategy to Initiate War
I come before you tonight to say a very few words about a man who is certainly well known to you all – the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. I say a very few words because to cover the subject in any depth at all would require far more time than I have. Indeed, the difficulty in addressing the subject at all is made even greater by the wealth of material already known about Lincoln that is, in fact, untrue. Unraveling the Lincoln myth of necessity increases many times over the amount of correct information that must be told. I therefore had two choices: present a wealth of what you might call factoids about the man with little or no corroborating information or cover one seminal point at length and in greater detail. I choose to do the latter.
The question then became, what point should I cover that will make a difference in your own view of history? Or more important still, what incident involving Lincoln will make a difference in our understanding of history itself rather than simply the history of Abraham Lincoln? Does it matter that Lincoln was not the deeply spiritual man we have been led to believe but totally irreligious and even blasphemous in his opinions and utterances? Does it matter that he was not the Great Emancipator? Is the fact that Lincoln’s humor was not folksy but bawdy and profane of importance? Is it pertinent that he wasn’t a political babe in the woods, but an established hack in Illinois politics which was as corrupt then as it is now? Frankly, no, it does not. Oh, these points may make a difference in the myth of St. Abraham the Pure, but they do not affect the more important aspects of what Lincoln actually did as opposed to what people have been led to believe he did.
To my mind, the most important point of history that needs to be addressed in any expose of Lincoln is the myth that the South fired the first shot of the War, thus bringing upon itself all the calamities that followed. Of course, we are talking about the attack on Fort Sumter. Every schoolchild – and therefore, virtually every adult – knows that the South fired on the United States flag without provocation or with very little provocation – but nothing could be further from the truth.
It would take an entire library of books to detail the background of the decades long series of events which led to the War of Secession. Many textbooks and commentaries falsely simplify the process by declaring that the South started the War - apparently without provocation - by firing on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly! By the time of the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861, seven states had already seceded from the Union. It was the desire of these states - South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas - to leave the Union in peace. It was also the consensus of most Northerners and Northern newspapers that secession was a constitutional right even if it might not be the best course of action. An editorial in one newspaper, The Bangor, Maine DAILY UNION, on November 12th, 1860, summed up this belief when it stated: “Union depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each state... A state coerced to remain in the Union is a 'subject province' and can never be a co-equal member of the American Union”.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson advised the U.S. Secretary of State that it would be a violation of the Constitution if the President used coercion against any state in an attempt to force it to remain in, or return to, the Union. So why, then, did the Southern troops stationed in Charleston fire upon Fort Sumter when public opinion in both the North and South seemed to be on the side of the secessionists? Well, to start, it all goes back to the purpose of Fort Sumter. Sumter was not a military fort; it protected nothing. Rather, its purpose was the collection of tariffs from ships entering the harbor at Charleston. You see, the Great War of 1861-65 was fought, like all wars, for money. Abraham Lincoln had been asked shortly after his inauguration why the Southern states should not be allowed to leave the Union in peace. His response was a sarcastic question which can be paraphrased in these words: Let them go? Let them go??! Then where, sir, would I get my revenues? Lincoln knew that approximately 75% of federal revenues were collected at Southern ports in the form of tariffs and Charleston was a major collection point through Fort Sumter.
In early December of 1860, President James Buchanan had signed an agreement with South Carolina’s Congressional representatives that forts Moultrie and Sumter would not be reinforced nor would they take aggressive action against Charleston. In return, the forts would not be attacked by South Carolina’s forces. Shortly after South Carolina seceded on December 20th, 1860, Major Robert Anderson moved the troops stationed at Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in an action that disturbed and puzzled the officials in Charleston. Previous to this, in early December of 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln had instructed General Winfield Scott, head of all Federal forces, to prepare a plan to hold or retake the forts after Lincoln's inauguration on March 4th, 1861 despite the agreement signed by President Buchanan. Unbeknownst to Buchanan, General Scott sent a ship on January 7th, 1861 with supplies and 200 concealed troops to reinforce Sumter. This ship, the "Star of the West", was turned back by fire from South Carolina artillery batteries but it proved a major embarrassment to Buchanan who wished to avoid war as was his constitutional duty.
In early February, a very aggressive attack plan was presented to again reinforce Fort Sumter but Buchanan would not agree and his Cabinet declared that such a plan would constitute an act of war and would be interpreted as such by the South. On February 25th, President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy sent a three-man Peace Commission to Washington to discuss many issues including the transition of Fort Sumter from Union to Confederate hands. Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4th, 1861 as President of the United States and refused to talk with the members of the Peace Commission who were still trying to make headway in Washington. Lincoln also announced that tariffs would continue to be collected at Fort Sumter for the coffers of the Union regardless of the secession of South Carolina from the Union. Indeed, Lincoln even joked that any state could leave the Union so long as it continued to send tariff revenues to Washington. However, Lincoln also made it clear that, unlike previous presidents, he regarded secession to be constitutionally illegal and that he was willing to use military force to prevent or overcome any state that attempted to employ it. Thus, military coercion – the waging of war by the central government against the people and states of the South which had been rejected by the People, the Nation and the Federal Government prior to Lincoln’s inauguration – became the stated intention of that same United States Government under its 16th President.
It is important to note that though Lincoln cited the Constitution as the basis for his determination of the illegality of secession and his permitted response to it, he would later in the war, on his own initiative and without following the constitutional provisions regarding the involvement of Congress and the High Court, suspend habeas corpus, wage war on the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, assembly and the press, use the military to coerce elections in the North and have thousands of Northern civilians, including newspaper editors, publishers and journalists as well as state legislators, arrested and imprisoned for long periods without trial or even without charges being brought against them. There can be no question that Lincoln used the United States Constitution as a means by which to cloak his tyrannical reign with legitimacy!
To return to the developing situation at the time: anxious, if possible to effect an amicable reconciliation between the States, the Confederate States Commissioners, addressed a note, on the 12th of March, to William H. Seward, Secretary of State, in the new Cabinet, setting forth the character and object of their mission. Mr. Seward replied to this verbally and informally, through Mr. Justice John A. Campbell, of the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Campbell was a citizen of Alabama, in full sympathy with the Southern cause. He was therefore selected by Seward as a plausible intermediary. In this way the Commissioners were given to understand that Seward was in favor of peace and that Fort Sumter, about which the Commissioners felt the greatest concern, would be evacuated in less than ten days.
This proved, however, to be a farce and a deception practiced upon the Commissioners by Seward and the Lincoln Government at Washington. They were kept in the dark as regarded the intention of the Federal Government in relation to the status quo of Fort Sumter. And it was not until a provisioning and reinforcing fleet dispatched from the ports of New York and Norfolk early in April, had actually hove in sight of Fort Sumter, that they were placed in possession of the facts of the intention of the Federal Government in regard to that facility. For on March 9th, Lincoln proposed that Fort Sumter be reinforced though his Cabinet overwhelmingly opposed this action because it was believed that to do so would lead to war. Lincoln continued to attempt to persuade his Cabinet to approve reinforcing Sumter but failed again at a Cabinet meeting on March 15th . Finally, on March 29th he was able to convince the Cabinet to approve his plan although the members knew it would lead to war. On April 6th Lincoln gave the order to reinforce Fort Sumter and, for all intents and purposes, the War of Secession began.
The Confederate Peace Commissioners came in possession of these facts through a notice given on the 8th of April to Gov. Pickens of South Carolina, that a fleet was then on its way to provision and reinforce Sumter. The fort was at this time commanded by Major Robert Anderson, of the U. S. Army, with a force of less than a hundred including the men Anderson had moved from Fort Moultrie, and it was also incorrectly reported that the garrison was very short of provisions. Interestingly, on March 3rd Jefferson Davis had appointed General Pierre G. T. Beauregard as commander of Confederate forces in Charleston. In one of those odd anomalies that occurred throughout the War, Beauregard and Major Anderson were good friends. Anderson had been an instructor of Beauregard when the latter was a student at West Point. Beauregard was in command of about six thousand volunteer troops at the time, collected for the purpose of defending Charleston. Gov. Pickens informed him of the notice he had received and this was telegraphed by Beauregard to the authorities at Montgomery.
The Secretary of War replied to Beauregard: “If you have no doubt of the authenticity of the notice of the Government at Washington to supply Fort Sumter by force, demand its evacuation; and if this should be refused, proceed to reduce it.” On the 11th of April the demand for Sumter’s evacuation was made by Beauregard and Major Anderson, in writing, stated that the demand would not be complied with. This was sent by Beauregard to the Secretary of War at Montgomery, who returned the following response: “Do not needlessly desire to bombard Fort Sumter. If Maj. Anderson will state a reasonable specified time at which he will evacuate, and agree that, in the meantime, he will not use his guns against us, unless ours should be employed against Fort Sumter, you are authorized thus to avoid the effusion of blood. If this or its equivalent be refused, reduce the fort, as your judgment decides most practicable.”
In a strategy later used by the propagandists of such notaries as Stalin and Hitler, Lincoln then began leaking stories to supportive Northern newspapers that the Federal troops at Fort Sumter were near starvation and in desperate need of provisions. This, of course, was an outright lie and is refuted by the communications and records of Major Anderson himself. Additionally, the records reveal that the merchants in Charleston were daily selling foodstuffs to the garrison at Fort Sumter. Nonetheless, Lincoln's ploy worked and there was outrage in the North over the mistreatment by South Carolina of the troops at Fort Sumter. The President knew he would need Northern public opinion behind him to engage in a war with the South but that the prevailing opinion of the time had shown to be just the opposite. So, in point of fact, Lincoln needed a cause celeb, a perceived “criminal act” committed by the South against the Union to outrage the public and change the prevailing opinion. Therefore, he ordered a force of three warships to Charleston to reinforce Sumter with an estimated date of arrival of April 15th. This action left President Jefferson Davis in a quandary. Through reports from his own people he was aware of all this activity by Lincoln and he wanted to avoid being goaded into a position where the South fired the first shot which, of course, was exactly what Lincoln wanted.
Now this is very important to understand! Legally the aggressor in this kind of circumstance is not necessarily the side firing the first shot but the side causing the first shot to be fired. In other words, from the point of view of legality, the South having been forced into a military response was not the aggressor but, sadly, the perception in the North would be just the opposite and would therefore provide the public opinion boost necessary for Lincoln's war plan. I ask you to remember two later incidents whose public outcry precipitated the nation into a war that was not at all popular at the time: Remember the Maine! and Remember Pearl Harbor! We have come to know over time that both of these attacks against the American flag were not as simple and straightforward as was believed by the public at the time. Well, neither was the attack on Fort Sumter! Rather, it was a deep, convoluted and extremely premeditated effort to do just what was done, force the South to fire what were apparently the first shots of the war.
By this time, the Union fleet was approaching Charleston and some of Beauregard’s batteries and forces were between it and Fort Sumter. Should it arrive while Anderson still held the fort, Beauregard knew he would be exposed to attack from the rear as well as from the front. He therefore gave Major Anderson notice that he would at an early specified hour compel him to withdraw from the fort if he did not otherwise willingly evacuate his position. Major Anderson, indicated that he was honor bound to resist. At 4:30 A.M. on April 12th, Beauregard again sent word to Anderson that the Confederate forces had no choice but to begin firing on the fort due to the efforts of the United States Government to reinforce it. Accordingly, the shore batteries opened fire on the morning of the 12th of April which fire was returned by the guns of Fort Sumter. The fleet came near, but in the absence of official orders from the Government, took no part in the conflict. The bombardment lasted 32 hours at which time Major Anderson then agreed to capitulate. During the entire period of shelling, some 30-odd hours, there was not one single Union casualty since Beauregard had forewarned the garrison of the actions that would be taken and the soldiers were able to take refuge out of harm’s way – hardly a war-like action on the part of Beauregard and the Confederates. In fact, the only casualty occurred when, after the surrender of the fort, the Union forces were firing a salute as they lowered their flag and an ember fell into some gunpowder causing an explosion which resulted in one death and five injuries. As a ship carrying Union soldiers left the harbor to rendezvous with the force that had arrived contrary to all prior arrangements between the United States government and the State of South Carolina, Confederate soldiers lined the beaches of Sullivan's Island and other areas around the harbor and removed their caps in a salute to the departing forces, many of whom they had come to know and respect.
Despite the goodwill between the combatants however, Lincoln now had what he wanted and the news of the Confederates firing on the American flag was quickly distributed to Northern newspapers which resulted in the anticipated fervor for severely punishing the bloody and prideful South for firing on Old Glory. The fall of Fort Sumter aroused the Northern people to the highest pitch, and enabled the party now in power, to draw large accessions from Democratic, and American parties There is little doubt that Lincoln and the Republicans wanted war. They had done all in their power to avoid compromise, the compromise favored by the vast majority of the very people who had elected Lincoln to the presidency. Lincoln had maneuvered the Confederate leaders into firing the first shot knowing that this act would inflame the passions of the North, and allow him to open hostilities against states that sought only a peaceful departure from their old compact. Historians J. G. Randall and David Herbert Donald, in their book The Civil War and Reconstruction, pondered: “Did Lincoln anticipate that sending this expedition to provision Fort Sumter would precipitate a civil war? Even at the time there were those who claimed that Lincoln well knew the consequences of his action and deliberately tricked the Confederacy into firing the first shot. There is indeed some evidence to support this view.” This evidence comes from several sources, mostly from the mouth or pen of Lincoln himself. In May of 1861, he wrote to Captain Gustavus Fox, the commander of the relief expedition to Sumter, “You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail, and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.” On July 3rd of that same year, Lincoln confided to Orville H. Browning, a close personal friend, about the plan to supply and reinforce Sumter, “The plan succeeded. They attacked Sumter – it fell, and thus did more service than it otherwise could.” Southern historian Charles W. Ramsdell believed that “Lincoln, having decided that there was no other way than war for the salvation of his administration, his party and the Union, maneuvered the Confederates into firing the first shot in order that they, rather than he, should take the blame of beginning bloodshed.”
In the months between the secession of the cotton states and the firing on Fort Sumter, Republicans received a large measure of the blame for instigating the crisis that was at hand. The party suffered a loss of popularity even within its own rank and file, leading J. W. Kane of Pittsburgh to write to Stephen Douglas: “ The Republican party would not have a majority in any state of the Union if the election were to come off tomorrow. “Lincoln’s stealth in forcing the South into firing the first shot changed all that. He was a master of public relations and knew that constitutional abstractions carried little weight in the minds of the common people. All that the masses cared about was who fired the first shot.” In talking about the actions of the Republicans during the time between Lincoln’s election and the firing on Fort Sumter, one noted historian summed it up in this way: “But if they must choose between saving the party, at the cost of civil war, and saving the Union through sacrificing the party, they placed party first.”
President Jefferson Davis later stated: “The order for the sending of the fleet was a declaration of war. The responsibility is on their shoulders, not on ours.” Unfortunately, despite the truth of this comment by Davis, the fact is that the North won the war Lincoln desired and intentionally initiated, a war which led to the deaths not only of countless hundreds of thousands of human beings on both sides, but of the Constitution and the Republic as well. However, it also meant that, as usual, the winner got to write the history of the conflict. As a result, Mr. Lincoln got his war and schoolchildren are taught that the South started it by firing upon Fort Sumter without provocation. How sad for us as a nation to be wedded to such lies. The time has long passed for us to amend the record and let the light of truth reveal the falsehood of the myth of Honest and Noble Abraham Lincoln.
SWR's Lady Val