Wherever the Road Leads

How Abraham Lincoln Engineered the Start of the Civil War

And Killed 618,000 Americans

This is a long post but it is history, not my general rant-du-jour. It is taken from the Shelby Foote massive, three-part undertaking that was the foundation for Ken Burns’ and PBS’ “The Civil War”.

I have ranted before about having to carry around a caricature of Abraham Lincoln on my Illinois back and front license plate. Many consider Lincoln a hero. I do not share that sentiment.


But first, another After Effects project. Trying to learn After Effects is making me old fast, but I enjoy it.




In his Inaugural Address, newly-elected President Lincoln said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

Yet, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was the final straw for many southerners. In all 11 states seceded from the Union. Four of these (Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee) did not secede until after the Battle of Fort Sumter that occurred on April 12, 1861. Four additional states were Border Slave States that did not secede from the Union: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. In addition, the area that would become West Virginia was formed on October 24, 1861 when the western portion of Virginia chose to break away from the rest of the state instead of seceding.

Order of Secession During the American Civil War:

South Carolina:    December 20, 1860
Mississippi:    January 9, 1861
Florida:    January 10, 1861
Alabama:    January 11, 1861
Georgia:    January 19, 1861
Louisiana:    January 26, 1861
Texas:    February 1, 1861
Virginia:    April 17, 1861
Arkansas:    May 6, 1861
North Carolina:    May 20, 1861
Tennessee:    June 8, 1861

Lincoln had lost half of his country and there were rumblings of secession by various northern states as without the rod of a strong protective tariff, eastern manufacturers would lose their southern markets to the cheaper, largely superior products of England, and this was feared by the workers as well as the owners. The people of the Northwest remained staunchly pro-Union, faced as they were with loss of access to the lower Mississippi, that outlet to the Gulf which they had had for less than fifty years.

Lincoln made up his mind that he must first unite the North before he could move to divide and conquer the South. He needed an act of aggression by the South, and he exerted just enough pressure to provoke such an action, without exerting enough to justify it.

What he had in mind was Fort Sumter, out in Charleston harbor, one of the four Federal forts still flying the Union flag in Confederate territory. The garrison at Fort Sumter had originally occupied the more vulnerable Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, but the night after Christmas, six days after South Carolina seceded, Major Robert Anderson removed his eighty-two men to the stronger fortress three miles out in the harbor. South Carolina protested to Washington, demanding as one nation to another that the troops return to Moultrie. Instead, an unarmed merchant steamer, the Star of the West, was sent with men and supplies to reinforce the fort; but when the Charleston gunners took her under fire, union jack and all, she turned back. That was that. Though they ringed the harbor with guns trained on Sumter and no longer allowed the garrison to buy food at local markets, the Carolinians fired no shot against the fort itself, nor did the Confederate authorities when they took over in March.

Lincoln received dispatches from Anderson announcing that he had not food enough to last six weeks, which meant that Lincoln had something less than that period of time in which to make up his mind whether to send supplies to the fort or let it go.

Well-meaning Secretary of State William H. Seward, leader of the Republican Party and a man of wide experience in public life, saw the new President as well-meaning but incompetent in such matters, a prairie lawyer fumbling toward disaster, had assured the Confederacy that Fort Sumter would not be resupplied, but he was wrong.

On April 6 Lincoln signed an order dispatching the naval expedition to Fort Sumter.

Lincoln had maneuvered them into the position of having either to back down on their threats or else to fire the first shot of the war. What was worse, in the eyes of the world, that first shot would be fired for the immediate purpose of keeping food from hungry men.

Confederate authorities at Montgomery Alabama, their capital, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis assembled his cabinet and laid the message before them. Their reactions were varied. Robert Toombs, the fire-eater, was disturbed and said so: “The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen, and I do not feel competent to advise you.” He paced the room, head lowered, hands clasped beneath his coattails. “Mr President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and you will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornets’ nest which extends from mountains to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”

Davis reasoned otherwise, and made his decision accordingly. It was not he who had forced the issue, but Lincoln, and this the world would see and know, along with the deception which had been practiced. Through his Secretary of War he sent the following message to General P. G. T. Beauregard, commanding the defenses at Charleston harbor:

“If you have no doubt as to the authorized character of the agent who communicated to you the intention of the Washington government to supply Fort Sumter by force, you will at once demand its evacuation, and, if this is refused, proceed in such manner as you may determine to reduce it.”

Beauregard sent two men out to Sumter in a rowboat flying a flag of truce. They tendered Major Anderson a note demanding evacuation and stipulating the terms of surrender: “All proper facilities will be afforded for the removal of yourself and command, together with company arms and property, and all private property, to any post in the United States which you may select. The flag which you have upheld so long and with so much fortitude, under the most trying circumstances, may be saluted by you on taking it down.”

Anderson received it sorrowfully. He was a Kentuckian married to a Georgian, and though he had been the military hero of the North since his exploit in the harbor the night after Christmas, he was torn between his love for the Union and his native state. If Kentucky seceded he would go to Europe, he said, desiring “to become a spectator of the contest, and not an actor.” Approaching fifty-six, formerly Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point, he had made the army his life; so that what he did he did from a sense of duty. The Confederates knew his thoughts, for they had intercepted his reply to Lincoln’s dispatch informing him that Sumter would be relieved. “We shall strive to do our duty,” he had written, “though I frankly say that my heart is not in the war, which I see is to be thus commenced.” Therefore he read Beauregard’s note sorrowfully, and sorrowfully replied that it was “a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligations to my government, prevent my compliance.” Having written this, however, he remarked as he handed the note to the two aides, “Gentlemen, if you do not batter us to pieces, we shall be starved out in a few days.”

Beauregard, hearing this last, telegraphed it immediately to Montgomery. Though he knew that it was only a question of time until the navy relief expedition would arrive to add the weight of its guns to those of the fort, and in spite of the danger that hot-headed South Carolina gunners might take matters in their own hands, Davis was glad to defer the opening shot. The Secretary of War wired back instructions for Beauregard to get Anderson to state a definite time for the surrender. Otherwise, he repeated, “reduce the fort.”

It was now past midnight, the morning of April 12; there could be no delay, for advance units of the relief expedition had been sighted off the bar. This time four men went out in the white-flagged boat, empowered by Beauregard to make the decision without further conferences, according to Anderson’s answer. He heard their demand and replied that he would evacuate the fort “by noon of the 15th instant” unless he received “controlling instructions from my government, or additional supplies.” This last of course, with the relief fleet standing just outside the harbor—though Anderson did not know it had arrived—made the guarantee short-lived at best and therefore unacceptable to the aides, who announced that Beauregard would open fire “in one hour from this time.” It was then 3.20 a.m. Anderson, about to test his former gunnery student in a manner neither had foreseen in the West Point classroom, shook the hands of the four men and told them in parting: “If we do not meet again in this world, I hope we may meet in the better one.” Without returning to Beauregard’s headquarters, they proceeded at once to Cummings Point and gave the order to fire.

One of the four was Roger Pryor, the Virginian who had spoken from a Charleston balcony just two days ago. “Strike a blow!” he had urged the Carolinians. Now when he was offered the honor of firing the first shot, he shook his head, his long hair swaying. “I could not fire the first gun of the war,” he said, his voice as husky with emotion as Anderson’s had been, back on the wharf at the fort. Another Virginian could and would—white-haired Edmund Ruffin, a farm-paper editor and old-line secessionist, sixty-seven years of age. At 4.30 he pulled a lanyard; the first shot of the war drew a red parabola against the sky and burst with a glare, outlining the dark pentagon of Fort Sumter.

Friday dawned crimson on the water as the siege got under way. Beauregard’s forty-seven howitzers and mortars began a bombardment which the citizens of Charleston, together with people who had come from miles around by train and buggy, on horseback and afoot to see the show, watched from rooftops as from grandstand seats at a fireworks display, cheering as the gunnery grew less ragged and more accurate, until at last almost every shot was jarring the fort itself. Anderson had forty guns, but in the casemates which gave his cannoneers protection from the plunging shells of the encircling batteries he could man only flat-trajectory weapons firing nonexplosive shot. Beauregard’s gunners got off more than 4000 rounds. As they struck the terreplein and rooted into the turf of the parade, their explosions shook the fort as if by earthquakes. Heated shot started fires, endangering the magazine. Presently the casemates were so filled with smoke that the cannoneers hugged the ground, breathing through wet handkerchiefs. Soon they were down to six guns. The issue was never in doubt; Anderson’s was no more than a token resistance. Yet he continued firing, if for no other purpose than to prove that the defenders were still there. The flag was shot from its staff; a sergeant nailed it up again. Once, after a lull—which at first was thought to be preparatory to surrender—when the Union gunners resumed firing, the Confederates rose from behind their parapets and cheered them. Thus it continued, all through Friday and Friday night and into Saturday. The weary defenders were down to pork and water. Then at last, the conditions of honor satisfied, Anderson agreed to yield under the terms offered two days ago.

So far there had been no casualties on either side. The casualties came later, during the arrangement of the particulars of surrender and finally during the ceremony itself. The first was Roger Pryor, who apparently had recovered from his reluctance and was sent to the fort as one of Beauregard’s emissaries. Sitting at a table in the unused hospital while the formal terms were being put to paper, he developed a thirst and poured himself a drink from a bottle which he found at his right hand. When he had tossed it off he read the label, and discovered that it was iodine of potassium. The Federal surgeon took him outside, very pale, his long hair hanging sideways, and laid him on the grass to apply the stomach pump that saved his life.

A second mishap, this time in the Unionist ranks and far more serious, occurred at 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon. While Anderson, in accordance with the capitulation terms, was firing a fifty-gun salute to his flag, an ember fell into some powder. One man was killed in the explosion and five were injured. Private Daniel Hough thus became the first fatality of the war, before a man had fallen in combat. The scorched and shot-torn flag was lowered and given to Anderson, who packed it among his effects—intending, he said, to have it wrapped about him as a winding sheet on his burying day—then marched his men, with flying colors and throbbing drums, to the wharf where they boarded a steamer from the relief expedition which had observed rather than shared their fight, but which at least could perform the service of taking them home once it was over.

As the weary artillerymen passed silently out of the harbor, Confederate soldiers lining the beaches removed their caps in salute. There was no cheering.


Lincoln soon had cause to believe he had judged correctly. Sumter did indeed unite and electrify the North. The war which was to take the lives of over 618,000 of his countrymen, was underway.

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