American Civil War: The War of Amateurs

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From Election to Secession
Fort Sumter
The Border States

From Election to Secession

On 6 November 1860, Abraham Lincoln won a clear majority in the Electoral College. Despite only gaining 39% of the popular vote, the US electoral system meant that Lincoln would have won even against a united opposition. In the northern states that give him his Electoral College majority, Lincoln won 54% of the vote.

The mere existence of the Republican Party had been taken as an insult in much of the south. Now the North had dared to elect a Republic president. All across the lower South moves towards secession began within weeks. On 20 December South Carolina seceded, to be followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana in January 1861 and Texas in February 1861.

In earlier crises the southern states had attempted to act together, and moves towards secession had failed. Now, the states acted individually and only then moved towards forming a Confederacy. On 4 February 1861 representatives of the seven seceded states met at Montgomery, Alabama to create their new nation.

The Confederate convention worked quickly. True to their claim to represent the true spirit of the founding fathers, the convention adopted a constitution that was very similar to the original. The main changes were the removal of any hint that the Union could not be dissolved, and the addition of clauses that protected slavery in the Confederacy.

They very quickly picked a provisional President. Jefferson Davis was elected unanimously on 9 February. He was a moderate secessionist, with a great deal of experience of government, including a spell as secretary of war. His military record was excellent. Finally, he appealed to the uncommitted upper South. The seven states that had already seceded represented only 10% of the White population of the United States. Without states like Tennessee and Virginia, the new Confederacy could not hope to survive.

While all this activity was going on at Montgomery, Washington was almost paralyzed. The reason for this is simple. Despite being elected in November, Lincoln was not inaugurated until 4 March 1861. In the intervening period, President Buchanan remained officially in charge, but was in reality a lame duck. His main concern appears to have been to avoid triggering anything too dramatic before Lincoln took over. Meanwhile, Lincoln had influence, but no power. Only after taking over on 4 March could he attempt to take control of the situation.

Fort Sumter

Lincoln came into office hoping that he could attempt a policy of quiet restraint. His hope was that by avoiding taking any provocative actions he could prove the extreme secessionist wrong and begin a process of peaceful reunion. However, those hopes only lasted until he reached his office on 5 March.

While most Federal property across the south had fallen quickly into Confederate hands, the Union still retained control of four off-shore forts, originally built to defend American ports against foreign enemies after the War of 1812. Now they were being held by Federal troops. Three were too remote to be truly controversial, but the fourth could hardly have been in a worse place for Lincoln’s hopes.

Fort Sumter was one of a group of fortifications built to protect Charleston, South Carolina. When the state seceded on 20 December, it was almost empty. The small Federal garrison of Charleston was based in Fort Moultrie, a much weaker position on the northern shore of the channel into Charleston. Fort Sumter had been built on a man-made island just under a mile out in the channel. It was a modern artillery fort, with walls ten feet thick and forty feet wide, designed to host 146 guns and a garrison of 650 soldiers. However, at the end of 1860 the garrison of Fort Moultrie stood at around 80 men, surrounded by a hostile population. Even the workmen shipped in to finish Fort Sumter were pro-Confederate (as was John B. Floyd, Buchanan’s secretary of war, who had suddenly decided to pay for the work).

The recently appointed commander of the Charleston garrison was Major Robert Anderson. He had been appointed in November in an attempt to calm the situation in Charleston. He was from Kentucky, a border state, and was known to have some sympathy with the South, but he had decided to stay loyal to the United States.

Having made that decision, he did his best to preserve his command. Aware that Fort Moultrie was vulnerable, on 26 December Anderson moved his men to Fort Sumter. This made him a hero across the North, and a villain across the South. President Buchanan came close to ordering him to return to Moultrie, but the overwhelming public support for Anderson in the north prevented this move.

The tension increased again in January 1861. As Southern members of his cabinet left Buchanan came under more pressure from Unionist Democrats to reinforce Sumter. In January he decided to send 200 men to strengthen Anderson’s position. Unfortunately, when the reinforcements reached Charleston on 9 January 1861, Anderson was just about the only person who didn’t know it was coming. When South Carolinian guns opened fire on the Star of the West, the merchant ship being used to carry the reinforcements, Anderson did not feel able to open fire himself. The reinforcements did not get through, but at least war had been averted, if only for a short period.

At the start of his first full day in office, Lincoln was presented with a report from Anderson stating that he would soon run out of supplies. Lincoln was faced with two equally unpleasant options. He could withdraw from Fort Sumpter. This might reassure the upper South, but it would destroy his position in the North, and effectively end his Presidency before it had begun. He could send a military expedition to fight its way into Charleston Harbour, but that would mean that he had started the war, would unite the south against him and probably split the north.

He eventually chose a third route. An expedition was indeed sent to Charleston, with supplies and reinforcements. However, its orders were more subtle. The fleet was to anchor outside the range of Charleston’s guns. Only the unarmed boats with supplies would enter the harbour. If they were not fired on, then the rest of the fleet would withdraw. If the Confederate guns did open fire, then the rest of the fleet would fight its way to Fort Sumter. That way, the South would have started the fighting.

The expedition was approved on 4 April. The Governor of South Carolina was informed of the expedition and its orders. The Confederacy had to decide if it was willing to fight. Avid secessionists urged action. Their worst nightmare was that continued inaction would allow southern Unionists to win the next set of elections and bring the south back into the Union. Worse, if Lincoln could peacefully re-supply Fort Sumter then key border states such as Virginia would be highly unlikely to join the Confederacy.

Accordingly, on 9 April Jefferson Davis ordered General Beauregard to capture Fort Sumter before the Federal fleet arrived. After abortive negotiations on 11 April, the guns of Charleston opened fire at 4:30 on the morning of 12 April.

That afternoon three ships from the relief fleet came into sight. A combination of rough seas and the non-arrival of what should have been the strongest ship in the fleet (sent to Fort Pickens, Florida at the last minute) meant that the navy was unable to help Anderson. The bombardment lasted for thirty three hours. Confederate guns fired over 4,000 rounds into the fort, which could only fire 1,000 in return. Remarkably, none of the garrison were killed during the bombardment. On 13 April, with rescue clearly not on its way and his ability to fight back rapidly diminishing, Anderson surrendered.

Tragically, the aftermath of surrender saw two deaths. Under the surrender terms, the garrison was allowed to fire a salute to the American flag. In the damaged condition of the fort, this triggered an explosion, killing one man instantly and fatally wounding another. Lincoln had escaped his dilemma. The South had started the fighting, and all across the north crowds demanded action.

The Border States

While the lower South seceded early, further north secession found less early support. At the start of March 1861, seven slave states had already left the Union, but eight remained. Before the fighting at Fort Sumter made it clear that the North would fight five border states had voted against secession (Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri). However, in four of these states support for the Union only lasted as long as the rest of the south was allowed to leave.

PopulationPopulation of the South in 1860

News of the fall of Fort Sumter brought crowds onto the streets North and South. In the upper South those crowds were demanding secession from the moment the news arrived (13 April in Richmond). Many southern Unionists were to blame Lincoln’s call for a militia to resist secession on 15 April for the collapse of the Unionist cause in the upper South, but by then it was already too late. As early as 18 April, Virginia militia units had captured the United States armoury at Harper’s Ferry. The day before that the same delegates who had voted 2-1 against secession at the start of the month voted 2-1 in favour.

During May three more states - Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee - also seceded. That left four border states undecided. In Delaware secession never gained any momentum, but in the remaining three – Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland – there was a serious danger of secession.

PopulationThe order of secession in 1861

Maryland had the most short term significance. Washington had been built on the northern banks of the Potomac River, in a position balanced between north and south. On the southern bank, Virginia had already left the Union, and Confederate troops were soon to be within sight of the Capitol. If Maryland seceded then Washington would be completely isolated. Washington itself was almost a Southern city, and the south of Maryland was pro-secession. Key to the loyalty of the state was Baltimore, with one third of the state’s population and a history of political violence.

An immediate crisis developed as troops rushed from the North to defend Washington. Stones had been thrown at a small group of volunteers heading through Baltimore on 18 April. On the following day the 6th Massachusetts Regiment had to fight its way through the city. For a week, Washington was virtually cut off, until on 25 April the 7th New York Regiment arrived after a circuitous journey. Soon the flood of Union troops into Washington made Maryland militarily safe, and soon Union opinion in the state began to prevail.

As was to happen in Kentucky, secession sentiment in Maryland was weakened as the most radical pro-Confederates headed south. When the state legislature met in May, it voted to condemn the war, but took no concrete action and refused to even consider secession. The state was soon raising regiments for the Union, and on 13 June elected six pro-Union congressmen. The crisis in Maryland had passed.

Loosing Kentucky would have been most destructive for the Union cause. Lincoln saw it as vital to the survival of the Union. If it had seceded then the Confederacy would have had a strong northern border, and controlled several key invasion routes later used by the Union. Both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had been born in Kentucky, and her population was evenly split. Around 40% of her fighting men went south to support the Confederate cause (later this was the cause of repeated disappointment amongst Confederate commanders, who expected their invasions of Kentucky to produce another rush of volunteers).

Lincoln put a great deal of effort into keeping Kentucky in the Union. His policy was to avoid doing anything that might push her into the rebellion. This included baring Union soldiers from the state. Kentucky had declared herself neutral as the crisis developed. As Lincoln hoped, the lack of provocation slowly tipped the balance of opinion in Kentucky. Finally, on 3 September, the Confederate commander in Tennessee, Leonidas Polk, occupied Columbus, Kentucky, because of its key position on the Mississippi. The Confederates were now the aggressors, and Kentucky officially moved into the Union camp.

Missouri probably came clossest to seceding, before descending into chaos for much of the war. The Governor and legislature were pro-secession, and called for the election of a convention which they hoped would declare for the South. Unfortunately for their plans, the electors returned a pro-Union convention. That did not stop Governor Jackson planning for secession.

The most important flash point in Missouri was the U.S. arsenal at St. Louis, where there were enough modern muskets to equip a large army (for this early stage in the war). Jackson called for help to seize the arsenal and received four cannons from the Confederacy. Momentum looked to be building behind the secessionist effort in Missouri.

The secessionists reckoned without the commander of the arsenal, Captain Nathaniel Lyon. He was determined to prevent the capture of his command. He organised a series of regiments from the pro-Union German American population of St Louis, and on 10 May seized the Confederate cannon. In the aftermath, 28 civilians were killed after a Federal officer was shot. Governor Jackson raised his own troops at the state capitol, but Lyon drove this force back into the south west corner of the state.

Lyon’s career came to an end on 10 August at the battle of Wilson’s Creek. Despite being a Confederate victory, in the aftermath of Wilson’s Creek official control of most of the state stayed with the Union. However, Missouri was soon to be plagued by guerrillas, including the infamous William Quantrill. The peace of Missouri took longer than four years to restore.  Nevertheless, Lyon’s actions had at least denied her to the Confederacy.

Next: The Eastern Front: Washington and Richmond

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Battle Cry of FreedomBattle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson, OUP, 1988, 944 pages. One of the best single volume accounts of the Civil War era, taking in the decade before the war before moving on to the conflict itself. McPherson covers the military events of the war well, while also including good sections on politics North and South. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 August 2000), article ,

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