Fort Sumter Pt 1: The First Flash of Gunpowder and Shell

fort-sumter-higher-res

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Here is another part one of another two-part installment of my Civil War text. The story follows the implosion of the Democratic Party, the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the secession crisis. It describes who the attack came about and the reactions of people in all parts of the country, as well as the Army to those fateful shots. I hope that you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The remaining forts under Federal control in the South were a thorn in the side and a constant reminder to Jefferson Davis of the power of the federal government. As such he attempted to negotiate to obtain the forts, and when that offer was rejected out of hand by both Buchanan and Lincoln he began military preparations to seize them if negotiations failed. His task was complicated in Charleston where the Federal commander, Major Robert Anderson unexpectedly withdrew his entire garrison from the mainland to Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The move was prompted by President Buchanan’s dithering on the status of the fort and garrison. Anderson was a Southerner who had decided to remain loyal to the Union, his second in command was Captain Abner Doubleday, a strongly committed abolitionist.

Under the cover of darkness the Union officers withdrew their men from old and weak Fort Moultrie in Charleston to Fort Sumter gaining him instant adulation in the North and condemnation in the South. Buchanan wanted to abandon the fort but “when it appeared that Northern public opinion was solidly behind Anderson, Buchanan changed his mind and attempted to persuade the South Carolinians to accept Anderson’s occupation of Fort Sumter as a legitimate exercise of federal authority.” [1] Jefferson Davis, who had not yet resigned from the Senate awaiting Mississippi’s declaration of secession complained that he “pleaded with Buchanan to give up Sumter and avert impending calamity. Once again the old imbecile refused, after his fashion, which is to say that he muttered to himself, nodded and tilted his head as if in agreement, begged leave to say a prayer, and then did nothing at all. Plainly the reins of state were in feeble hands. Had this lame-duck President withdrawn the troops from Sumter, he might have turned away the threatening of civil war.” [2]But Davis was blind to the political realities in the North that secession and seizure of other Federal installations had brought about. A prominent Northern Democrat wrote that “Anderson’s course of action is universally approved and that if he is recalled or if Sumter is surrendered… Northern sentiment will be unanimous in favor of hanging Buchanan….I am not joking – Never have I known the entire people more unanimous on any question. We are ruined if Anderson is disgraced or Sumter given up.” [3] Congressman Dan Sickles who had been such a friend of the South for so many years, even backing peaceful secession, spoke out against the Southern seizure of federal installations, said that the secessionists had committed “a fatal error” and said “it will never do, sir, for them to protest against coercion, and, at the same moment seize all the arms and arsenals and forts and navy yards, and ships that may, through our forbearance, fall within their power. This is not peaceful secession. These acts, whensoever or whomsoever done, are overt acts of war.” [4]

major anderson

Buchanan made a belated attempt to reinforce and resupply the fort and on January 9th 1861, an unarmed civilian ship, the Star of the West entered Charleston harbor. But the operation was bungled, secrecy was broken and the South Carolinians knew the ship was coming, even as Anderson did not get the message about the relief expedition and permission to fire if the Star of the West was fired upon. As a result when Confederate gunners opened fire on the steamer, Anderson, who had instructions to defend himself and not for an instance such as this, did nothing to intervene. “If he opened fire, the United States and South Carolina would be at war…. Major Anderson hesitated, plainly uncertain, an immense weight of responsibility resting on him….” [5] As a result the Star of the West retreated, leaving the garrison unreinforced. But the secessionists “had overplayed their hand. The South Carolina gunners who fired on the Star of the West had, in effect, invited the Federal government to start the war then and there if it wanted a war….” [6] The firing on the Star of the West further inflamed Northerners. Dan Sickles thundered in the House chambers “the authorities of South Carolina, through their military forces, opened fire upon that defenseless ship, and compelled her to retire and abandon the peaceful and legitimate mission in which she was engaged. Now, sir, that was an act of war, unqualified war.” [7]

The debate continued as Buchanan eased out of office and the new Confederate government of Jefferson Davis took ownership of the situation in Charleston. Buchanan did not want to do anything overt to tip the balance in undecided slave states toward secession and Davis did not want South Carolina to act alone and risk a premature attack on the fort. But as both sides waited the balance of power in Charleston shifted, “as local troops day by day strengthened the ring of batteries confronting Sumter’s garrison.” [8] In incoming Lincoln administration debated what to do with some of the incoming cabinet members counseling withdraw and others resistance to Confederate demands. Lincoln gave serious thought to abandoning the fort but could not bring himself to authorize the action. He understood that if he ordered evacuation, “the credibility of his presidency and the Republican administration would be in pieces before either had scarcely begun.” [9]

Instead the new President sought more information and sent three men “down to Charleston to observe the situation and report on what they saw. The first two, both southern-born, were Illinois law associates, both reported reconciliation impossible…. The third, a high-ranking naval observer who secured and interview with Anderson at the fort, returned to declare a relief expedition was feasible.” [10] He also continued to meet with his cabinet members to decide on the appropriate policy to meet the challenge to federal authority in Charleston. “He met with Francis Blair, who, like his son, Monty, believed passionately that the surrender of Sumter “was virtually a surrender of the Union unless under irresistible force – that compounding with treason was treason to the Govt.” [11] On March 29th Lincoln again met with his cabinet and having weighed all of the options, decided to resupply the fort. His decision was to “not send guns or bullets to Sumter, only food and medicine. He would resupply, but not rearm, it. And he would announce the plan in advance so the South could not regard the effort as an act of hostility by an enemy.” [12] If the attempt succeeded “federal authority in South Carolina had been preserved, and Charleston could do little short of war to change it; if it failed, the failure would be due to Charleston’s decision to open fire, and the onus of beginning a civil war would lie on their hands.” [13]

Even as the Confederate moved even more troops and guns into position around the Sumter, more and more people of influence were growing impatient with the delays in gaining Fort Sumter and feared that if something was not done that in some places there might be a call to return to the Union. Jefferson Davis was under great pressure to act, a newspaper in Mobile Alabama editorialized that “If something is not done pretty soon…the whole country will be so disgusted with the sham of independence that the first chance the people get at a popular election the y will turn the whole movement topsy-turvy.” [14] Likewise, “Southern ardor was chafing at the bit anyway, and failure to meet the challenge threatened to undermine the government and weaken Southern resolve.” [15]

P.G.T._Beauregard

General P.T.G. Beauregard C.S.A.

Knowing from Southern sympathizers still in Washington that a relief expedition was coming, General P.T.G. Beauregard “had already cut off Major Anderson’s purchases in the Charleston market the day before Governor Pickens received Lincoln’s message about the intention to provision Sumter.” [16] Pickens forwarded the message to Davis in Montgomery and Davis was forced to either back down on their threats or fire the first shot of the war, and even worse from a messaging standpoint, “that first shot would be for the immediate purpose of keeping food from hungry men.” [17]

Davis was extremely angry when he went into conference with his cabinet on April 9th upon getting the news of the relief expedition. The debate in the cabinet “ran long and heated. Davis favored proceeding with the bombardment. Charleston’s batteries were ready, and the South Carolinians were more than anxious,” [18] and the majority of the cabinet, with the exception of Robert Toombs concurred. He wrote:

“I summoned the Cabinet and told them that negotiation was now at an end, and that it was time to bombard the fort. Yes, I said, we would now be firing the first shot, but that was not our fault. It was Lincoln who intended war. He and that lying Seward had drawn the sword, and we were responding to them. We were defending our honor.

Toombs, my Secretary of State disagreed. “Sir,” he said to me, “firing at the fort is suicide. It’s unnecessary, it puts us in the wrong, it’s fatal.”

“Sir,” I said, “you are wrong.”

On April tenth, I ordered General Beauregard to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter, and if refused, to reduce it with his guns.” [19]

Beauregard delivered the ultimatum to Anderson, who rejected it noting that “his sense of honor and obligations to his government prevented him his complying; but in conversation with Beauregard’s aides he remarked that in any event, the garrison would be starved out in a few days.” [20] But the fear of the Confederates that the relief force might actually arrive and succeed in its mission prompted them to open fire on the fort at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of the 12th. The relief force was scattered by a gale and could not resupply Anderson. The bombardment lasted thirty-three hours, and while Anderson’s troops resisted but could not man all of their guns and were short on ammunition and powder. With the fort heavily damaged by over 4,000 hits and interior of the fort on fire, a fire that was threatening the powder magazines, Anderson gave the order to surrender. Beauregard allowed the assembled U.S. Navy ships to evacuate the garrison and as a parting gesture the Confederate General allowed Anderson’s troops to fire a last salute to Old Glory. They hauled down the smoke stained and torn Star Spangled Banner and marched to the ship taking them off the island with their drums beating the tune “Yankee Doodle.” Lincoln realized the importance of what had happened all too well. He noted, “They attacked Sumter. It fell and thus did more service than it otherwise would.” [21]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.136

[2] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.367

[3] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.265-266

[4] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.211

[5] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury pp.180-181

[6] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.184

[7] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel pp.211-212

[8] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.544

[9] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.137

[10] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume One p.46

[11] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 335

[12] Holzer, Harold Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America Newmarket Press for itbooks an imprint of Harper Collins, New York 2012 p.80

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.137

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.272

[15] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.278

[16] Weigley, Russell F. A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History 1861-1865 Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 2000 pp.20-21

[17] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume One p.47

[18] Ibid. Davis Jefferson Davis p.323

[19] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury pp.416-417

[20] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.21

[21] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.202

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