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Who Started the War?

Posted on April 19, 2012 at 1:45 PM

Michael T. Griffith 2004 @All Rights Reserved

 

The standard textbook answer to this question is that the South obviously started the war because it “fired the first shot” by attacking Fort Sumter, which was located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Most textbooks don’t mention several facts that put the attack in proper perspective. For example, after the Fort Sumter incident, the Confederacy continued to express its desire for peaceful relations with the North. Not a single federal soldier was killed in the attack. The Confederates allowed the federal troops at the fort to return to the North in peace after they surrendered. South Carolina and then the Confederacy offered to pay compensation for the fort. Lincoln later admitted he deliberately provoked the attack so he could use it as justification for an invasion. The Confederates only attacked the fort after they learned that Lincoln had sent an armed naval convoy to resupply the federal garrison at the fort. The sending of the convoy violated the repeated promises of Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, that the fort would be evacuated. Seward continued to promise the Confederacy that the fort would be evacuated even after he knew that Lincoln had decided to send the convoy. Major John Anderson, the Union officer who commanded the federal garrison at the fort, opposed the sending of the convoy, because he felt it would violate the assurances that the fort would be evacuated, because he knew it would be viewed as a hostile act, and because he did not want war. Several weeks before the Fort Sumter incident, Lincoln virtually declared war on the South in his inaugural address, even though he knew the Confederacy wanted peaceful relations.

 

 

In his inaugural speech, given weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln threatened to invade the seceded states if they didn’t continue to pay federal “duties and imposts” (the tariff) and/or if they didn’t allow the federal government to occupy and maintain all federal installations within their borders. Imagine what the American colonists would have thought if the British had said to them, “We want peace. But, we’re going to invade you if you don’t keep paying our tariff and/or if you don’t allow us to occupy and maintain all British installations within your borders.” The colonists would have rightly regarded this as a virtual declaration of war. Of course, in effect, the British did say this to the colonies. This was the same position that Lincoln presented to the Confederate states weeks before the Fort Sumter attack. Furthermore, five months earlier, some Republicans in Congress publicly swore “by everything in the heavens above and the earth beneath” that they would convert the seceded states “into a wilderness” (James McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, New York: Ballantine Books, 1988, p. 251).

 

 

If Lincoln had desired peace, he knew all he had to do was evacuate Fort Sumter, as his own secretary of state had been promising would be done for weeks. When the Confederate authorities were told the fort was going to be evacuated, Confederate forces stopped building up the defenses around the harbor and celebrated. Across the harbor, Major Anderson was grateful the fort would be evacuated and that therefore North and South would separate peacefully (Cisco, Taking A Stand, pp. 105-106).

 

 

But, sadly, Lincoln didn’t pursue peace with the Confederacy. For a while it seemed as though he was prepared to evacuate Fort Sumter, in spite of his earlier statements to the contrary. Initially all but two of his cabinet members urged evacuation, as did his general-in-chief, General Winfield Scott. However, Radical Republicans and influential Northern business interests applied intense pressure on Lincoln and on his cabinet not to evacuate the fort. Radicals in the Senate threatened impeachment if the fort were evacuated (Catton and Catton, Two Roads to Sumter, p. 277). Once the low Confederate tariff was announced, powerful Northern business interests came out strongly opposed to peace with the Confederacy. As the pressure for aggression mounted, Lincoln decided to provoke an attack on the fort in order to use the attack as a pretext for invasion and to whip up a majority of the Northern public into a war frenzy against the South. Lincoln himself later admitted in two letters that he provoked the attack so he could use it as justification for waging war (Francis Butler Simkins, A History of the South, Third Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963, pp. 213, 215-216; J. G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1969, p. 174).

 

 

Some Northern leaders who wanted peace urged that Fort Sumter be evacuated. Among those leaders was General-In-Chief Winfield Scott and Senator Stephen Douglas, one of the most prominent Northern members of the U.S. Senate. Scott and Douglas both recognized that the continued federal occupation of Fort Sumter was a virtual declaration of war against the Confederacy. Any country on earth would strongly resent the unwanted occupation of an island in one of its major harbors.

 

 

Republicans protested loudly over the fact that several Southern states seized numerous federal installations before Lincoln assumed office and in a few cases before the state had voted to secede. Modern critics tend to make a mountain out of a molehill over this issue, as if those seizures alone justified a brutal invasion. Nearly all the seizures occurred after the state had already seceded, so in those cases the state arguably had every right to assume control of federal facilities within its borders. Most of the relatively few pre-secession seizures took place when there was no doubt the state was going to secede. In one case, local citizens seized a federal installation on their own initiative. When the governor learned of the seizure, he ordered the citizens to leave the facility. Not one of the seizures involved the loss of life. A number of the federal facilities that were seized were of little consequence and were manned only by small garrisons. Admittedly, the pre-secession seizures, though few in number, were unwise and arguably illegal. However, let’s keep in mind that these seizures posed no threat to the federal government, that they were bloodless, and that the Confederacy offered to pay compensation for all federal installations in the South. The seizures certainly didn’t provide any credible justification for a federal invasion, and they were hardly what one could call “aggression” in any meaningful sense of the word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Essays

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