April 12, 1861: And The War Came
Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One hundred and fifty years ago, at 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, the Civil War began with the commencement of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. This was the end of months of attempted negotiation regarding the removal of Federal troops from Fort Sumter. The bombardment was fierce, but casualty free. The 85 men under Major Robert Anderson defended the fort until April 13, 1861 at 1:00 PM when he agreed to surrender due to his men being hungry and exhausted, fires raging uncontrolled throughout the Fort and the military situation being completely hopeless. The surrender ceremonies were held the next day, with two Union soldiers being killed when a pile of cartridges exploded during the 100 gun salute to the Stars and Stripes that Major Anderson had insisted upon. Anderson and his men sailed to the North with Anderson carrying the Fort Sumter flag with him. Four years later to the day, Major General Robert Anderson raised the same flag over Union controlled Fort Sumter.
The firing on Fort Sumter sent both the North and the South into a war frenzy, leading to the secession of Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina. The battle lines were now drawn for the Civil War, a war which would kill some 620,000 Union and Confederate troops, and wound, often maimed for life, approximately an equal number.
How had it come to this? Why did the conflict over slavery end in war?
1. Talked out-For over forty years the North and the South had argued about slavery. I think there was zero appetite on both sides to continue a discussion that was obviously going nowhere.
2. Failure of compromise-In 1820 and 1850 grand compromises had been reached to resolve the slavery issue. They failed. People on both sides had reached the conclusion by the election of 1860 that no satisfactory compromise on the question of slavery was possible.
3. Hardening attitudes on slavery-At the time of the Revolution most of the Founding Fathers agreed that slavery was an evil and that ultimately it would die out as an institution. Technological advances, including the cotton gin and steam transport, breathed new life into the institution of slavery, and morality followed economics with most white Southerners viewing slavery as a positive good. The North on the other hand, home of an ever-growing abolitionist movement, became more convinced over time that slavery was an evil, the Republican platform of 1856 referring to it as a “relic of barbarism”.
4. Secession as fait accompli-Americans have usually shown a genius for compromise. In the secession crisis of 1860-61 this talent for compromise was short-circuited. Once secession was a fact rather than a threat, compromise was no longer possible on the key issue of preservation of the Union.
5. Expectations of a swift and bloodless war-Both sides had convinced themselves that the other side would not, or could not, fight. (Two exceptions to this viewpoint were Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis who both feared the war would be long and arduous.) This viewpoint is well illustrated in this scene from Gone With the Wind:
The war they actually got is shown in this selection of other scenes from Gone With the Wind:
6. Leaders unwilling to compromise-Ironically both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln prior to the war were regarded as moderates. Lincoln was not an abolitionist who wanted to compel the South to abolish slavery yesterday, and Davis, although he believed in the legality of secession, opposed it in practice, as he did when he spoke against secession prior to Mississippi leaving the Union. However, in the war they would not compromise on the issue of the preservation of the Union or independence for the Confederacy.
7. Enemies not Countrymen-For more than a generation the North and the South had gotten used to thinking of the other section as an adversary. A huge amount of animosity and ill-will had built up on both sides, and it was a small leap from viewing each other as political adversaries to enemies to fight against.
8. James Buchanan-One of the worst of American presidents, he was in office at precisely the wrong time for the nation. His weakness and vacillation helped convince the South that the North would not fight, and allowed secession to build up a head of steam that turned a political crisis into a sanguinary war.
9. John Brown-His raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 helped drive many moderate white southerners into the secessionist camp by convincing them that there were more than a few Northerners quite willing to incite a race war in the South.
10. A House Divided Cannot Stand-A nation has to agree on fundamental principles if it is to endure. America had been founded in the name of liberty. From the beginning the institution of negro slavery had made a mockery of American pretensions to love liberty. From the Revolution forward, the conflict over slavery had gradually worn away the love of the Union that had been one of the legacies of the American Revolution. By the time of the Civil War, the few Revolutionary soldiers left were men nearing a hundred and new generations had arisen to whom the Union was not something to cherish, but something to fight over.
All of the foregoing reasons played a role in bringing about the war, but I tend to agree with Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address as to perhaps the ultimate cause of the war:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”