Civil War-Related Questions

So, I assume we have some buffs around here.

  1. Why was the election of Lincoln such a game changer that S.C. and other states felt the need to secede? The slavery issue had been going back and forth for decades. Did Lincoln’s election signal either a permanent shift against the South/slavery, or perhaps was it seen as leading to actual significant national policy change, or what?

  2. Why did the South fire on Fort Sumter? Given the state of things at that point, having the South fire the first shots seems like a terrible move. Sumter fell pretty quickly. Had the South stalled, would Sumter have really been that much more defensible given further reinforcements and the like [EDIT Note - Per Dave’s post below, it was only supplies, not reinforcements, immediately at question] ? Was it even that strategically important? It seems fairly obvious, from my 2013 vantage point, that for the South to achieve her political goals, she needed to succeed in the court of public opinion - in the South, the border states, the North, Europe, etc. It seems that a first strike against Sumter achieved a minute tactical gain at the cost of a substantial strategic penalty. And yet, in a modest amount of reading I’ve done recently on the subject, I haven’t seen this brought up.

I imagine you’re going to get a lot of responses from people more knowledgeable than I, but this is a topic that interests me so I’ll at least throw my two cents in. Regarding the first question, I don’t know that Lincoln’s election was a game changer so much as a tipping point. You can go back to the Missouri Compromise that divided the country into allowing vs. outlawing slavery, and was recognized as potentially lethal to the Union even at that time. New states just added stress to this compromise, especially the Louisiana Purchase, with pro- and anti-slavery factions jockeying for a shift in the balance in their favor. Lincoln had been giving speeches against slavery from early in his career and his election indicated the way the winds were blowing. Yeah, I know, I really oversimplified there.

My understanding was that the first shots fired in the battle of Fort Sumter were by the South against a resupply effort by the North to the fort. Wikipedia seems to bear this out, but I haven’t checked against more reputable historical record.

  1. Lincoln was the first Republican elected president and the Republican’s had a specific platform point about ending slavery. So it was a new political world. Now Lincoln had promised not to do anything dramatic, but the South was nevertheless afraid of what he might do. In a lot of ways, it should probably be viewed as a “last straw” that tipped people in the South who had been thinking about secession into actively calling for secession.

  2. Pogue has it right - the move to resupply the fort was what lead to the South firing on the fort. Sumter controlled the port of Charleston, and like all federal facilities in states that had seceeded, the state wanted it turned over to them. Many of those properties were handed over with no resistance or after a short holdout, but the leadership at Sumter felt obligated to hold out as long as possible. There were negotiations going on between Washington and South Carolina over Sumter but Lincoln ultimately decided to follow his hardline advisors and try and resupply the fort for an indefinate siege. The South considered that an act of war, essentially, and thus felt they could use force at that point.

Yeah, I’ve seen the stuff about resupply of Sumter. And I also saw how the South considered it an act of war.


The Union wasn’t shooting at the South. The South started shooting (a bombardment, actually).

It seems like this may have been quite important to the many people around the nation and the world who were at least somewhat ambivalent about the merits of the South vs. the Union.

I don’t know about Fort Sumter, but regarding Lincoln, the line I’ve heard was that it has to do with the electoral college results as well. Lincoln won the presidency without carrying a single southern state. The south had been seeing political power shift northward for some time, so regardless even of Lincoln’s specific stance on slavery, it was indicative that they no longer could control the political process. Other issues like tariffs and trade regulations that affected the south’s economic well-being was no longer in their control.

Well, flip that around and look at it from the other side. You’re in charge of the defense of Charleston, and you’ve got a Union fort sitting in your harbor. Every day it’s there is an affront, not to mention the constant physical danger it presents to the citizens. And here come Union ships to give the fort supplies it needs to hold out who knows how much longer. Would you just let this happen under your nose when you have the power to stop it? I don’t think they were necessarily concerned with how their actions might be perceived around the world, or even in the north, when letting this happen would probably be regarded poorly, if not cowardly, by the Confederacy.

And historians like Shelby Foote agree with you. Lincoln’s decision to resupply Sumter was a crafty one. He couldn’t simply abandon it since the North would have been infuriated by such a move, but he also didn’t want to fire the first shot. By resupplying, he provoked the Confederate hotheads into attacking, which did indeed cost them some potential support, both at home and abroad.

[This post address Pogue’s post…]

Well that’s sort of the point.

Taking Sumter at that point, by bombardment, may have been a local tactical help, and perhaps made dyed in the wool Southerners happy, but it’s my contention that it was a lousy strategic move, that significantly hurt the South’s long term chances. I certainly may be wrong, and it’s speculative anyways about events and opinions from so long ago, but I guess I’m surprised to not see this point made in some of the places I’ve been reading.

FWIW, the notion that you want to have the OTHER guy shoot first when a war is imminent does not appear to be novel. It appears from what I’ve read that there was great concern with framing Lexington and Concord in a way favorable to the colonists even though the underlying facts were muddy.

It’s hard for me to say if it hurt the south’s long term strategy, I’m certainly no expert in those matters. I’m just saying that I can see where they’re coming from. Whoever was in charge that had decided to go ahead and let the north resupply the fort probably would have been sacked, I imagine. And I’m not sure that I agree with Dave or Mr. Foote that this was a clever northern entry into the war since it never seemed to be a goal of Lincoln’s to go to war in the first place. But I am no great military mind.

Lincoln would have prefered a peaceful resolution to the crisis, certainly. However, not being an idiot, he realized that such an outcome was growing less likely by the day and had reached a really, really low level by the time of the Sumter resupply decision. Knowing war was close to inevitable, he determined (correctly) that it would be far better for the South to initiate hostilities.

All I’d like to add is that really, the thread should stop right here and be frozen in amber, because if that happens we’ll have a sample of one of the rarest things in existence- a short, polite civil war topic on the internet that delivers a correct answer to a complex question. It’s like finding a unicorn with laser eyes!

No, someone has to start the “it wasn’t about slavery” tangent or it doesn’t even qualify as a true internet civil war discussion. Those are the rules, Mark.

Because this topic fascinates me, I pulled a couple references out of my library to clarify my memories of the Sumter decision. Foote’s The Civil War magnum opus has some good passages on the early days of the Lincoln presidency. At one point, Lincoln offered to pull out of Sumter if the Virginia convention that was deciding the question of that critical state’s secession would adjourn after dismissing the idea. As he said at the time, “a state for a fort is no bad bargain.” Nothing came of such maneuvering, however, and as the months wore on, war moved from possible to inevitable. As it did, the opinions of Lincoln and his cabinet hardened.

The most useful source for the latter stages of the standoff was Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. Mc Pherson. Here are some quotes. In the first, Lincoln is discussing his reasons for not surrendering Sumter:

Clearly, even at this early stage, Lincoln’s fears of British or French recognition of the Confederacy were dominant in his decision making. Nonetheless, the crafty President wanted to spin Sumter to his advantage. As the author says:

Unwilling to let provisions arrive, the Confederates attacked when Lincoln sent advance notice of his “mission of humanity” to the South, placing the onus of aggression firmly on them.

Ahh, so it wasn’t even reinforcements, but food. Interesting. Furthers my opinion that Sumter was likely a blunder by the South, even if war would have come later anyways.

As many have noted, Lincoln was the culmination of a long political conflict - it wasn’t Lincoln in and of himself, but he was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Fort Sumter was basically a strategic and political mistake, especially since the South knew just as well as the north that whoever fired the first actual shots would be handing the other side a political victory. Lincoln gets a casus belli (he would have preferred a bloodless return and compromise, but as others noted, it was becoming increasingly doubtful that was going to happen), and makes it more difficult for foreign nations to come to the aid of the South, and the South looks like the instigator of violence to the wavering border states. With more time (and thus higher up the political chain), I don’t think it’s a decision that would have gone through. Effectively, the South blinked first. Now, whether in the long run it really meant anything, I couldn’t say. But it’s something I think cooler heads knew better than to do.

  1. The Republican Party shook the foundations of the United States. It was the first explicitly regional party with any great appeal and it had tragic consequences for the country. Politicians had understood for more than forty years the dangerous of sectionalism, one of the primary goals of the Democratic Party was to defang that threat. The party was explicitly designed to appeal to Americans north and south of the Mason Dixon Line - binding together potential foes. Unfortunately the collapse of their opponents, the Whigs, created a political vacuum and gave the Republicans the space to emerge. The Republicans were radicals, men like Seward had spent their careers railing against the South, and Southern values (such as they saw them). The party was built on a free-soil, free labor, platform that denied the the moral and political legitimacy of the South. For every vote they lost in the South the Republicans gained two in the Free States and they turned that into a winning coalition. Lincoln dialed back the rhetoric as the campaign progressed but the damage was done - Southerners feared the Republicans, and held them to their pre-election rhetoric. They believed the Republicans were a manifestation of Yankee nationalism, and they believed they were hell bent on strangling Southern sovereignty. In part it was a question of slavery, but it was also a question of self determination, and southern values. They worried that the North would simply stamp them out via the ballot box. That was not irrational either, the South may have covered half the country but it was far less populace.

  2. Do you remember that furor over John McCain’s black love child?

Yeah… South Carolina.

It hasn’t changed at all. It’s the most conservative and the most radical state in the Union. For a sleepy town Charleston has an anything goes political culture and in the 1860s they were hell bent on starting a war. Opening fire on Sumter was a political disaster but the fire eaters simply didn’t give a damn.

Addendum: Lincoln didn’t want a war, and he certainly didn’t want the responsibility for starting one. The Confederate attack on Sumter gave him the moral high ground though and an excuse to call for volunteers. It wasn’t a complete victory however. His call for volunteers implied bloodshed, and a fight to suppress the rebellion. This was enough to push Virginia into the Confederacy. Without Sumter, Virginia would not have entered the war.