Sergeant James Chester could do nothing but walk out onto the parade ground and wait. The air was cool on this early spring evening as he stood and reflected on his current dilemma, surrounded by the massive three-story brick façade of an unfinished fort. Overhead, the stars twinkled and a waxing crescent moon hung low in the sky; Saturn and Jupiter were paired closely in the constellation Leo, suggesting to some an omen. A chilling breeze passed over the harbor every few minutes, adding to the grim anticipation. Chester, a youthful Scot, had emigrated to the United States and joined the army in 1854, just as tensions over the expansion of slavery threatened to tear the country apart. Now he was standing in the hotbed of secession and all was quiet as could be. "Except that the flag was hoisted, and a glimmer of light was visible at the guardhouse," he later wrote, "the fort looked so dark and silent as to seem deserted."
It was not. In less than two hours Chester would live through a fateful moment in American history. Along with Chester, 75 other Federal soldiers, 8 musicians, and 43 workmen anticipated the start of hostilities from local secessionists this evening in Charleston Harbor. The Federal soldiers' temporary home, Fort Sumter, was one of America's coastal forts built following the War of 1812. It was named for Thomas Sumter, a brigadier general of South Carolina militia and hero of the Revolutionary War. Although construction on the fort began in 1829, three years before Sumter's death, the fort remained unfinished in the spring of 1861. Fort Sumter was an imposing structure, placed nearly centrally in the harbor, and the powerhouse of the four forts built to protect the city.
Sumter's handsome brick walls, five feet thick, stood 50 feet above the water. The fort's five-sided plan used four sides that ranged from 170 to 190 feet long and a gorge wall containing officers' quarters that faced southwest. The fort's three stories were designed to hold two primary tiers of casements and a parapet that together would mount 135 guns and hold a garrison of 650. On the evening of April 11, 1861, the men inside the fort were dwarfed by the mammoth size of the structure and chagrined by the fact that only fifteen cannon were fixed in place and ready to fire. To make the garrison even less prepared to face a crisis, its supplies of food were dwindling. On this evening the soldiers had rations to last possibly five days.
Such an unlikely situation was supervised by Maj. Robert Anderson, age fifty-five and a veteran of the regular army. Anderson's Kentucky ancestry and the fact that he favored slavery and married a Georgia girl did not seem to bother his Yankee comrades. He was an expert artillerist and had served gallantly in the Black Hawk, Seminole, and Mexican wars, demonstrating unwavering loyalty toward the United States. Anderson's five principal subordinates would rise to varying degrees of fame and glory in the contest to come. Capt. John Gray Foster of New Hampshire was Anderson's chief engineer, a bearded, balding veteran who had been wounded at Molino del Rey in the Mexican War. Capt. Abner Doubleday, a New Yorker who is erroneously associated with the invention of baseball, was an artillerist from a distinguished family. Capt. Jefferson Columbus Davis was born in Indiana and became a trained artillerist. He would live to kill a fellow officer in cold blood and dodge paying any price for it. Asst. Surg. Samuel Wylie Crawford, the physician at Sumter, was a Pennsylvanian with an elegant mustache and lamb-chop whiskers. First Lt. Truman Seymour, one of the most junior commissioned officers at the fort, was a Vermont-born artillerist with Mexican War experience.
As the evening progressed, Anderson and his men knew that the sparks of war were about to fly and that they were to be the target. As early as the day after Christmas 1860 the storm clouds of war directly threatened Anderson and his companies of the 1st U.S. Artillery. Anderson had arrived at Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, the other principal fort guarding the harbor, in November. A fort stood on or near this position, 1,800 yards northeast of Sumter, since guarding against the British in 1776. The present structure, named for Maj. Gen. William Moultrie, who served gallantly during the Revolutionary War, was built in 1809. The other two Federal forts protecting Charleston Harbor were Fort Johnson on the northern tip of James Island, 2,300 yards west of Sumter, and Castle Pinckney on Shute's Folly Island, close to the city and 4,500 yards northwest of Sumter. (The city's wharves themselves lay 5,800 yards northwest of Sumter.) To Southerners, abandonment of these Federal installations seemed a natural implication of the times. The signing of South Carolina's ordinance of secession on December 20 carried with it such an ultimatum. On Christmas Eve, South Carolina Governor Francis Wilkinson Pickens, the grandson of a general in the Revolutionary War, issued a proclamation declaring the state separate, indepen-dent, and sovereign.
Six days after the ordinance was signed, Anderson moved his men from Moultrie to Sumter. "I looked anxiously with my glass on the boats and at a preconcerted signal, two heavy guns were fired," wrote the surgeon Crawford in his diary of the abandonment of Moultrie. "I fired the last one. We spiked the guns, and took down the flagstaff." The abandonment and partial destruction of the fort enraged Southerners. On December 27, Anderson raised the U.S. flag over Sumter. The same day secessionists seized Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney and began to work on refortifying them. On December 30 the U.S. Arsenal at Charleston was seized. The New Year witnessed a continued decline. On January 2, South Carolinians occupied Fort Johnson. Commissioners from the state had gone to Washington to meet U.S. officials but returned without a resolution. President James Buchanan did absolutely nothing. In the War Department, Secretary Joseph Holt replaced pro-Southern John Buchanan Floyd, who had ordered arsenals in the North to shift weapons into Southern arsenals. During the period November 1859 to February 1860, arsenals in Northern states witnessed a decrease of 115,000 muskets and rifles, while Southern arsenals had their supplies increased by 114,990 muskets and rifles. This shift occurred out of a total pool of 610,292 arms under Federal control. Supplies inside Sumter were scant. On January 5 the Star of the West, a merchant vessel, was ordered south from New York to restock the fort.
The pace of secession activity quickened. On January 6 the arsenal at Apalachicola, Florida, was occupied by locals. The following day Fort Marion at St. Augustine was seized by state troops. On the morning of January 9 the Star of the West approached Sumter, with 200 infantrymen under 34-year-old 1st Lt. Charles Robert Woods, along with several months' provisions. The ship's captain, John McGowan, steered toward the fort only to receive a sudden bombardment from a masked battery on the northern end of Morris Island, south of the fort, and from Moultrie. Though the ship was only lightly struck, McGowan withdrew his ship. The supply mission had failed. Soldiers on the parapets at Sumter asked Anderson to return fire; he declined but protested the action to Governor Pickens, who proclaimed the supply mission an act of war. Not only did Pickens refuse to let the soldiers replenish their foodstuffs, but in fact two days later demanded the surrender of the fort, which Anderson refused. The next day secessionists demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens in Pensacola Harbor, Florida, which was also refused. In February arsenals were overrun by secessionists at Little Rock and Napoleon, Arkansas, and in March the fledgling government of the Confederate States of America sent a commanding officer to supervise the activities at Charleston.
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the first brigadier general in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States, was one of the most colorful military men of the day. Short and slight, he bristled with energy and was expertly trained in a wide variety of subjects. Not only was he a superb engineer, but he had been trained in artillery under none other than Robert Anderson. Beauregard was so liked within the War Department that he had been appointed superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in January 1861, an assignment he was relieved of a few days later when his Southern sympathies became starkly clear. With his widespread experience and general popularity -- with nearly everyone except the new Confederate President Jefferson Davis -- Beauregard was destined to become the first great Southern hero of the conflict.
In Washington, the new president, Abraham Lincoln, ordered another relief expedition, this one departing on April 4. By no means did all Northerners feel at ease with Lincoln's action. "In a great crisis like this, there is no policy so fatal as that of having no policy at all," editorialized the New York Times on April 3. Lincoln notified Governor Pickens of the impending arrival of the ships. After debate, the infant Confederate government ordered Beauregard to stop any such supply mission, even if it meant firing on the fort. Beauregard received the news on April 10. By this time the tension among Charlestonians, among Anderson and his men in the fort, and among patriotic Southerners and Northerners had reached a fever pitch. During the first week of April a large crowd gathered at Charleston's waterfront battery. Anderson and his little garrison sat inside the fort and waited. Surrounding them, scattered about the city and the various forts and batteries in the harbor, were more than 6,000 secessionists itching for a fight. Not all Charlestonians agreed with the action. James Louis Petigru, the prominent attorney and statesman, said that South Carolina was too small to be a nation and too large to be an insane asylum. But the majority felt wronged by the North and saw no other way to react to Lincoln and the rest of the Yankees than to fight a war. Roger Atkinson Pryor, the young lawyer, editor, politician, and Virginian, gave a rousing speech in Charleston on April 10. "I thank you especially that you have annihilated this accursed Union, reeking with corruption and insolent with excess of tyranny," he said. "Thank God! It is blasted with the lightning wrath of an outraged and indignant people."
The next day Asst. Surg. Crawford described the dreary condition of the garrison's rations. He recorded the diet as "rice but no bread...broken pieces of crackers...today we came down to pork and a little rice." The engineer Foster added, "[the rice was] filled with pieces of glass from the window-panes shattered by the concussion of guns fired in practice." Crawford described how at 4 P.M. on this day a boat bearing a flag of truce approached the fort, carrying three staff officers. The three men walked up Sumter's esplanade, through its sally port, and asked to see Maj. Anderson. They were Col. James Chesnut, Jr., Capt. Stephen Dill Lee, and Lt. Col. Alexander Robert Chisholm. Chesnut was a Princeton-educated lawyer and former U.S. senator who had three days before been appointed an aide-de-camp to Gen. Beauregard. Lee was a young but skilled artillerist whose influence would rise and fall during the war. Chisholm was a South Carolinian who had been educated in New York and now assisted in building the fortifications on Morris Island. The three emissaries met with Anderson in the fort's guard room, where they presented a message from the Confederate commander. "I am ordered by the Government of the Confederate States to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter," wrote Beauregard. "The flag which you have upheld so long and with so much fortitude, under the most trying circumstances, may be saluted by you on taking it down."
Anderson would not budge. Instead he drew up a formal reply. "I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication demanding the evacuation of this fort," he wrote, "and to say, in reply thereto, that it is a demand with which that I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligations to my Government, prevent my compliance." Informally, Anderson told his potential enemies that he was running low on supplies and that he would probably be starved out in a few days if the Southern guns didn't "batter us to pieces." After three hours in the fort, Chesnut, Lee, and Chisholm removed thir white flag of truce and took the boat back out into the harbor with the reply.
Men inside the fort rolled out powder kegs, worked on the guns, and watched the various positions of Confederate guns facing them. The men received orders not to expose themselves on the parapets. Night fell over the fort with the stars overhead and the gleam of lights on the horizon in Charleston. Inside the fort, Anderson had no oil for lamps, and so the three-story brick fortress stood in near total darkness. On the morning of April 12 the fort's officers were awakened by another boat bearing a white flag. This time four emissaries came; Chesnut, Lee, Chisholm, and Roger A. Pryor. It was about 1:30 A.M. when these aides brought another letter suggesting that if Anderson agreed to evacuate the fort at a stated time without firing on Confederate forces, the transfer of the fort could be accomplished bloodlessly. Anderson stated that he would abandon Sumter by noon on April 15 but only if his command and flag would not be fired on and unless otherwise instructed by the Lincoln government. By 3:20 A.M. Chesnut and Lee concluded that the terms were not acceptable and that the fort would be fired on beginning in one hour. "By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States," wrote Chesnut and Lee, "we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time." If they never again met in this world, God grant that they may meet in the next, Anderson told the Confederates. The emissaries then withdrew. Sleep within the fort was out of the question. "We arose and dressed," wrote Crawford, "and before our arrangements were completed, the firing began."
It was almost exactly 4:30 A.M. on April 12 when the fighting began. "A flash as of distant lightning in the direction of Mount Pleasant, followed by the dull roar of a mortar, told us that the bombardment had begun," James Chester wrote. The mortars at Fort Johnson had the first crack at the Yankees, lobbing shells over and about the fort. Firing also commenced at Fort Moultrie, which was sending cannonballs and shells; from the floating battery near Sullivans Island, which opened up with rifled artillery; from Cummings's Point and elsewhere. In a few minutes' time, the sudden flashes and reports of a surprising number of projectiles, along with the acrid, sulfurous smell of gunpowder and the sight of wafting smoke, cascaded over the fort. After several hours, particularly after daylight, most of the batteries gained an effective range and started throwing some shells and balls into the fort with frightening accuracy. Bricks were smashed, and splinters of wood, brick dust, and mortar chunks cascaded into the air. The soldiers scattered and took cover. "A ball from Cummings's Point lodged in the magazine wall," wrote Doubleday of the first moments of the war, "and by the sound seemed to bury itself in the masonry about a foot from my head, in very unpleasant proximity to my right ear." Suddenly, Fort Sumter had turned into an untenable wreck. What began the day as one of the most magnificent fortifications in North America was disintegrating into a pile of rubble.
The great honor of firing the first shot of the war, coveted by officers at Fort Johnson, was offered the fiery secessionist Roger Pryor, who had retreated to that point by 4 A.M. Oddly, however, he turned down the offer, later saying, "I could not fire the first gun of the war." The first shot, a 10-inch mortar shell sent as a signal round to activate the other batteries, was fired by the fort's commander, Capt. George S. James. At Cummings's Point, the aged Virginian Edmund Ruffin, who would leave one of the war's great diaries behind, participated in revolution with glee by firing a 64-pounder Columbiad shell toward the fort. He had been asked to fire the first shot from this position by Capt. George B. Cuthbert. In a variety of locations, some Southerners stoked hot-shot furnaces to heat their iron balls into fire starters, hoping to ignite Sumter's wooden barracks.
The fire from Southern guns increased in accuracy and frequency after daybreak, when a breeze carried the fumes and sounds of war more effectively into the city. Observers watched the spectacle of smoke and projectiles with amazement as the night turned into day. The youthful Confederacy had struck its first blow. "I do not pretend to go to sleep," confided Charlestonian Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of Beauregard's aide. "How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms -- at four -- the orders are -- he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael's bells chime out, and I begin to hope. At half past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees -- prostrate -- I prayed as I never prayed before."
The forty-three Confederate guns had been placed well by Beauregard and his subordinates, situated as follows: four mortars and one cannon at Fort Johnson; six cannon and six mortars on Cummings's Point; and on Sullivans Island, eleven guns at Fort Moultrie, six mortars, four guns on the floating battery, four guns on an enfilade battery, and a Dahlgren gun on the tip of the island. With such a small amount of ammunition available, Anderson had no reason to react quickly. After breakfasting on a small amount of farina, some of the Federals mounted a response using several cannon, but only a few guns were brought to bear. Doubleday fired the first Yankee cannon of the war. Crawford reported knocking out a gun in the floating battery. But the volume of shells being fired at Sumter was magnificent. It had already ignited a small fire in the wooden-frame quarters and knocked away a chimney. Doubleday took charge of the guns aimed at Cummings's Point, Davis the pieces directed toward Fort Johnson, and Crawford the cannon aimed at Sullivans Island.
During the afternoon the Confederate bombardment of Sumter continued without pause, raining shot and shell into and over the fort. Because of the activity overhead, Anderson ordered that only the guns in casements be used, eliminating the heavier pieces atop the parapet, and allowing the Federals to respond only with solid shot. Crawford reported in the afternoon that the few guns of Sumter were mostly trained on Fort Moultrie. Some of Sumter's soldiers were wounded slightly by flying debris; most were unscathed, but the fort's walls were becoming pocked with hits and cracks, and brick dust was accumulating on the parade. Pvt. John Carmody tested the Rebels at Fort Moultrie by sneaking up to the parapet and firing the heavier guns in quick succession at the fort; this only prompted the Confederates into returning a heavy fire onto Sumter. With the approach of nightfall the firing from Confederate batteries lessened. Amazingly, there had been no deaths on either side.
On the evening of April 12 rain fell on Charleston. Anderson ordered his firing suspended. On the Confederate side an occasional mortar shell was sent toward Sumter throughout the night. The Federal soldiers finally had the chance to sleep, "well but hungry." Meanwhile, five Federal ships approached, stocked with provisions and offering the opportunity for escape if necessary. Lincoln's special agent Gustavus Vasa Fox attempted to coordinate the movements of the Harriet Lane, the Pawnee, the Baltic, the Powhatan, and the Pocahontas. Fox was a former naval lieutenant and woolen-goods merchant, a Massachusetts native who would several months hence become the assistant secretary of the navy. The movements coordinated by Fox were impeded by heavy seas and a dense fog that formed before dawn. On the morning of April 13 the storm subsided, but the storm of man would continue.
Anderson's firing was slowed considerably in order to conserve ammunition. The Confederate fire was hot, however, in both senses of the word. By 8 A.M. hot shot fired from Rebel guns started a fire in the officers' quarters, and despite the improvised firefighting efforts, the blaze was slowly spreading. Anderson and his officers worried about the possibility of flames or sparks reaching the magazine, which would be catastrophic. A slightly comic act of moving barrels of powder out of the magazine ensued, the Yankees looking for a safer place to store them.
The shot and shell rained in as heavily as ever, and the fire was now spreading quickly. Sparks, cinders, and burning pieces of debris spiraled upward only to rain down on the spreading fire, which eventually ignited several shells and kegs of powder, causing a few large explosions. Desperate, Anderson had much of the powder thrown into the harbor. It seemed that the whole fort was becoming an inferno; the Federal ships were nowhere in sight, and the sally port and heavy entrance gates had been wrecked by shellfire. The flagstaff had been splintered repeatedly. And then came one more Confederate messenger, who sneaked up to the fort's side in a small skiff. It would be the next odd turn in a surrealistic day.
Col. Louis Trezevant Wigfall was a South Carolina native who had just joined P. G. T. Beauregard's staff as an aide-de-camp. Slightly heavy, black-haired, with intense eyes, Wigfall was a politician who had dabbled in military service but spent most of his energy as a Texas legislator and U.S. senator. Now he came to Anderson on a mission. At 1:30 P.M. the flagstaff in Sumter had fallen, and on Morris Island, James Simons, a brigadier general of South Carolina militia, determined to find out if this act meant surrender. Before he could get an official party off in a nearby rowboat, however, Wigfall demanded that Pvt. Gourdin Young of the Palmetto Guard row him out to the fort. In a bizarre scene, Wigfall and Young moved north amid the hail of shot and shell and, once he reached the esplanade, Wigfall tied a white kerchief to his sword, got out of the boat, and approached the sally port.
Wigfall found Jefferson C. Davis and exclaimed that Beauregard suggested that surrender was inevitable. He then went atop the parapet and waved the white flag in the direction of Moultrie, but the firing continued. Anderson then approached, and said he would capitulate by leaving now rather than on April 15 as he had suggested, if the garrison could take its arms and property, salute its flag, and be transported northward. This was acceptable, said Wigfall. However, astonishingly, Wigfall had no authority from Beauregard or anyone else to accept such terms. He did so on his own volition.
The South Carolina politician returned to Morris Island in the skiff, which flew a white flag, and firing died down from all points. Now, to confuse the issue further, the authorized emissaries of Beauregard approached the fort: Pryor, Lee, and the politician William Porcher Miles. On reaching the fort, they inquired about Anderson's needs, and all discussed the situation of the fire, which was dying down. They asked Anderson about surrender terms, and he replied that terms had already been agreed on with Wigfall. The three Confederates were dumbfounded, and explained that he had no such authority and that he hadn't even seen Beauregard for two days. Confused, the men stood inside the crumbled and burning fort and discussed the surrender again, this time Anderson becoming upset about the misunderstanding. "Very well, gentlemen, you may return to your batteries," he snapped at the Yankee artillerists. But Pryor, Lee, and Miles convinced him to continue a cease-fire until they could talk again with Beauregard, who accepted all the terms except for allowing the Yankees to salute their flag. After further negotiating, the parties agreed to evacuate and transfer themselves and their supplies on the next morning, Sunday the 14th. The Yankees marched out of the fort "with colors flying and drums beating," Anderson explained. After thirty-four hours of bombardment, the first engagement of the war was over, and the Confederates had won. The battle had been bloodless. Ironically, however, the departure ceremony killed two. One of the cannon fired by Anderson's command produced a spark that was blown into a stand of gunpowder. The resulting explosion killed Pvt. Daniel Hough, who had his right arm blown off, and mortally wounded Pvt. Edward Galloway. They were the first to die in America's greatest conflict.
The bombardment of Sumter would begin an unparalleled ordeal for the American people, 1,512 days of darkness that would leave more than 620,000 Northerners and Southerners dead. By inflicting war wounds -- physical and psychological -- it affected the lives of countless others. It touched every family in the country, many with grave results. It would destroy an old way of life and at the same time remake the young nation into a modern democracy that could emerge as a world leader. The war would bring seemingly endless inventions that accelerated industrial technology. It would revise military tactics and strategy. Because both sides had similar backgrounds, education, religion, and language -- and therefore acted on a level playing field more so than in other wars -- the strategic and tactical record of the Civil War would be studied meticulously by distinguished European militarists for decades afterward. As wars always do, it would offer the opportunity for greatness to many individuals whose lives would otherwise have been quite ordinary, and it would provide power and glory to many people with less than sterling character. As it unified the nation, so did it abolish the original error of the Constitution, the implied legality of slavery, although more than another century would pass before equal rights for black Americans became a real issue. But no one could have foreseen these outcomes in the days of the Civil War. In the spring of 1861, with Sumter in Confederate hands, all that was clear was that bitter war lay ahead.
Many soldiers initially saw the war as a sweeping adventure, and indeed for most, who were after all quite young men, it eclipsed the remainder of their lives. "A little spice of danger is an excellent thing," wrote Union officer James A. Connolly; "it drives away the blues and gives to the soldier's life that dash of romance which makes pictures on the memory never fade." "You have long before this been made happy by hearing that Fort Sumter has been taken," wrote Lt. Alexander C. Haskell of the 17th South Carolina Infantry, "not only without the loss of any of your sons, but not even one of Carolina's. A glorious day it was, and marked so deeply by the protecting hand of divine Providence that it calls to mind the miraculous victories of the chosen people...Fort Sumter is a terrible wreck." Civilians, too, were boastful and excited over the new adventure about to unfold. "I've often longed to see a war," wrote Louisa May Alcott in Concord, Massachusetts, "and now I have my wish." Yet at the war's outset, virtually no one could see the grim horror or the magnitude of the death and waste to come. For all Americans, whether they knew it or not, it was the start of their longest night.
The crisis that led to the Sumter bombardment had been smoldering for years. And the causes of the war were many, despite the vigorous advancement of old and recent books to promote some over others. For years the North and South had been evolving in different directions. The Southern agrarian economy based in large part on plantation farming supported by slave labor presented a stark contrast to the emerging industrialization and accelerating flow of immigrant free labor into the North. The two sections were in fact like sister countries bound by an economic alliance. The 1850s proved a pivotal decade for the rapidly growing nation. The population increased by 35 percent. The land's wealth in resources began to be tapped in force, including brisk trading in wood, coal, copper, and gold. Production of food skyrocketed, and 30,000 miles of railroads crossed the landscape. Rapid growth and prosperity brought decisions, as well, when Kansas and Nebraska approached statehood and the potential legality of slavery in the new states (and territories) became a hot political issue.
The spread of slavery promoted a riotous disagreement that had its roots in the ambiguous references in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. (Those who now deny that slavery was the paramount issue in the minds of Southerners need only read the papers of the Confederacy's earliest leaders -- Jefferson Davis, Alexander H. Stephens, Robert M. T. Hunter, and Howell Cobb included -- to educate themselves.) In Charleston, Mary Chesnut worried over the issue in her diary on March 18. "I wonder if it be a sin to think slavery a curse to any land," she wrote. "[Senator Charles] Sumner said not one word of this hated institution which is not true. Men & women are punished when their masters & mistresses are brutes & not when they do wrong...God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system & wrong & iniquity."
The flashpoints over the slavery issue extended back decades but boiled over most violently into the territories of Kansas and Nebraska in the 1850s. With the admission of new territories and states, Congress would be faced with deciding the legal status of slavery in them and therefore the balance sheet of slavery versus freedom as factors in governmental representation. The standoff was diametrical: With its agrarian-based economy featuring scattered plantation farming employing blacks as slaves and cotton as the stellar crop, Southern states required the spread of slavery as a legal institution to promote their interests. With its increasing emphasis on industry, growing cities, and cheap immigrant labor, the North's interests had nothing to do with slavery, and indeed many Northerners, chiefly New Englanders, had held out a philosophical hatred of "the peculiar institution" since the earliest days of the Republic.
The contradictions of Southern slaveholders, which many early statesmen felt would solve themselves through the decreasing profitability of slave labor, persisted. Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, felt that slavery would die out given enough time and that a political war on the issue in his time was not worth the consequences. "As it is," wrote Jefferson, "we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." Yet just as the economic realities that might have led to the decline of slavery unfolded in Jefferson's lifetime, Eli Whitney, in Massachusetts, invented a device that would inject new life into slavery. Whitney's cotton gin was patented in 1794 and initiated an explosive advance in the efficiency of separating cotton from its seed. By 1800, cotton production in the American South had increased by a factor of twenty-two in just six years -- to 35 million pounds annually -- and slave labor, now vastly more profitable, gained new life.
The balance between free and slave states sparked fury in 1820, resulting in the Missouri Compromise. When Missouri faced statehood, the balance was equal at eleven slave and eleven free states. Admissions had alternated between slave and free states up to that time; Missouri was admitted as a slave state with the proviso that slavery would be confined within the Louisiana Purchase territory south of latitude 36°308. Thirty years later another landmark legislative act occurred in the Compromise of 1850, which contained a mixed bag of legislation that allowed California to enter the Union as a free state in exchange for concessions granted to slaveholders. Four years later the most critical moment of the political war between slavery and freedom came with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This work, written by Illinois legislator Stephen A. Douglas, virtually ruined the chances for peaceful compromise between the sections. The act concerned the organization of Utah and New Mexico territories and initially upheld the limits of the Compromise of 1850, but pressure from Southern legislators led Douglas to include a nullification of the 36°308 limit set in 1820. The new law took effect on May 30, 1854, and allowed future states admittance into the Union with constitutions that could provide for slavery and preserved the principle of state rights over Federal restrictions. It destroyed the tenuous balance of power that had existed previously and set up a violent border war consisting of guerrillalike skirmishes between Free-Soilers and proslavery men in the western territories.
The situation in Kansas became more violent each day, with factions of proslavery interests and abolitionists battering each other, giving rise to the name "Bleeding Kansas." Arson, mob violence, murder, and terrorism became headlines in papers across the nation in the mid-1850s. In May 1856 a vicious attack occurred at Lawrence, and just two days later a band of abolitionists led by the fanatical raider John Brown massacred five proslavery men at Pottawatomie. Franklin Pierce's administration in Washington failed to deal with the situation and so did the administration of James Buchanan, which took office in March 1857. The violence spilled into the halls of the Capitol itself -- in fact, legislators were routinely bringing side weapons into the House and Senate, and when Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he was caned and severely injured by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
The year 1858 brought the issue of slavery forcefully into the national conscience with the senatorial debates between Douglas and one Abraham Lincoln, a Springfield, Illinois, attorney with little national reputation save his single congressional term in the 1840s, who attacked popular sovereignty and slaveholding interests. Lincoln was tall and gaunt, at 6 feet 4, a Kentucky-born, self-educated man who was now 49 years old and impressed those who met him either for his perceptive logic and endless storytelling or for his ungainly, rough appearance. To a packed house in the state capitol in Springfield on June 16, 1858, Lincoln told his fellow politicians, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other." Lincoln lost the Senate race but gained national prominence for his views. He would now be a player in the party politics of the infant Republican party, which had unsuccessfully promoted the military explorer John Charles Frémont as a presidential candidate in 1856.
The political winds of collision seemed to be thick. Most alarming for many slaveholders, however, was the bungled attack by John Brown's "army" of 21 antislavery zealots, armed with muskets and pikes, on the U.S. Arsenal and Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. Connecticut-born Brown spent much of his life in Ohio before moving to Kansas and now, at age 59, lived for a time in the Booth Kennedy Farmhouse at Dargan, Maryland, while plotting his insurrection. Brown felt that his band, which included five black Americans, would capture arms, distribute them to local slaves, and incite a regional rebellion that would liberate tens of thousands and effectively end the Peculiar Institution for good. He had been ordered to do so by God, he claimed, and his long white hair and flowing beard gave him a biblical appearance. Carried out on October 16, 1859, the raid utterly failed. Holed up in the arsenal's engine house, the group was surrounded by a mixture of U.S. infantry, marines, and local militia led by Bvt. Col. Robert Edward Lee, who had been hastily assigned to put down the insurgency. Lee, a Virginian by birth, offered a stark contrast to the rough westerners who would take over the government in Washington fifteen months hence. Aged 52, Lee had been born into an aristocratic family. His father, "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, had been Gen. Washington's cavalry commander and governor of the commonwealth before falling from grace.
Lee, aided by Lt. James Ewell Brown Stuart, surrounded the engine house and captured 10 of Brown's raiders, including Brown himself. Seven of the party were killed during the fiasco. The event sent shock waves through the South, and after a brief trial Brown was hanged in Charles Town on December 2. Before his death he handed a note to the executioner that read, "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood."
Brown would prove providential in death. A year later the tensions between North and South were palpable and the deep Southern states -- particularly South Carolina -- were on the verge of secession. For the South the last straw came with the 1860 presidential election. Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate who had spoken out for the rights of all men and cautioned against the spread of slavery, was elected in the November contest. Lincoln faced a monumental task in keeping the factions of the nation together and feared this was not possible. Through the end of 1860 and the first two months of 1861, he sat in an office in the state capitol in Springfield and politicked, communicating with as many people as he could about the impending crisis.
On Thursday, December 20, 1860, the American nation began to come unglued. On this day in the "hotbed of rebellion" -- Charleston, South Carolina -- state legislators passed an ordinance of secession, breaking South Carolina's ties with the United States of America. "We, the people of the State of South Carolina," the ordinance concluded, "in Convention assembled, do declare and ordain...that the ordinance adopted by the U.S. in Convention, on the 23d day of May, in the year of our Lord 1788...is hereby dissolved." Other states followed after the New Year. On January 9, Mississippi seceded. A day later Florida left the Union. The next day Alabama went. On January 19, Georgia exited the country. A week later Louisiana seceded. On February 1, Texas, always independent at heart, broke its ties with the United States. It was becoming pandemic in the South.
"All the indications are that this treasonable inflammation -- secessionitis -- keeps on making steady progress week by week," wrote the New York City diarist George Templeton Strong on January 31. Robert E. Lee wrote his son on January 23: "Secession is nothing but revolution...Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. If the Union is dissolved, the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people. Save in her defense, I will draw my sword no more." The nation had lost seven states but gained one when, on January 29, Kansas was admitted to the Union. On February 28, Colorado Territory was organized; March 2 saw the organization of Nevada and Dakota territories.
The actions in Florida in January were especially precipitous. A situation was transpiring that mirrored the difficulties faced by Anderson and his men at Charleston. On the 10th, the day of Florida's secession, 1st Lt. Adam Jacoby Slemmer of the 1st U.S. Artillery, moved his small garrison of 81 men from Barrancas Barracks at Pensacola to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island. He did so after spiking the guns at Barrancas and exploding the munitions at nearby Fort McRee. Slemmer set his men to work on transforming the fort, located out in Pensacola Harbor much as Sumter stands in Charleston Harbor, into defensible shape. Two days later local secessionists took over Barrancas, Fort McRee, and the Pensacola Navy Yard and demanded the surrender of Pickens. Slemmer refused. Unlike his comrades in South Carolina, Slemmer would be successfully reinforced. Some 500 men landed at Fort Pickens on April 12 as the guns opened on Sumter, and on April 18, Col. Harvey Brown arrived and established the Federal Department of Florida at Pickens. Pickens would remain in Union hands, and the importance of the other fortifications and the Navy Yard to the Confederates would be held in check.
Most Americans believed that military conflict was inevitable. All across the nation, and particularly in the South where the martial tradition was emphasized, little units of militia and local defense troops had been organizing, equipping, and drilling. The concept of localism dominated the lives of most Americans in the mid nineteenth century in a way that is hard to appreciate now. Most young Americans (and many older ones) had never traveled outside of their own counties, let alone their own states. They were indeed part of an American nation, but many cared little for what was happening in distant Washington or other locations -- the universe existed in a relatively compact region around one's local town. And nowhere would the concept of relativity be more striking than with the secession crisis: Southerners readied themselves to protect their homeland against the onslaught of "foreign invaders"; Northerners would (to the surprise of many Southerners) prepare to fight to preserve the ideals of the Federal Union; Abraham Lincoln would attempt to keep the Union together against the rebellious factions; and a few Northerners -- by no means the majority as of early 1861 -- would fight for the freedom of black Americans. In a peculiarly American way, nearly all who fought on both sides saw themselves as fighting for liberty. For Southerners, the liberty to do as they pleased, unrestrained by Washington's laws. For Northerners, the liberty to carry on with the American democratic ideal of self-government under majority rule, a trailblazing and tenuous experiment at the time that had nothing but failure written all over it.
And yet the crisis that was taking shape was not actually a civil war, a war between two factions of the same government. Nor was it an insurrection to usurp the central government as defined in the famous General Orders No. 100 that would be developed by military jurist Francis Lieber in early 1863. Lieber, a South Carolinian who remained loyal to the Union, codified the Federal rules of the war, and they would be used as a defining document of the U.S. Army until the era of World War I. Lieber's lengthy definition of the conflict outlined it as a rebellion or attempted secession, an act of military aggression against the government by a group of civilians in some of the component states. The rhetoric on both sides ranged from cautionary to vitriolic. "People who are anxious to bring on war don't know what they are bargaining for," wrote Thomas J. Jackson, an eccentric professor at the Virginia Military Institute, to his nephew on January 26. "They don't see all the horrors that must accompany such an event." In Washington, Secretary of the Treasury John A. Dix wrote W. Hemphill Jones, a trea-sury official in New Orleans, on January 29. "If anyone attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot." Such contempt for the secession movement was powerful stuff: on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson spoke plainly: "For myself, I care not whether treason be committed North or South," he said, "he that is guilty of treason is entitled to a traitor's fate!"
Those states in rebellion wasted no time organizing their cause. In February civilian representatives gathered at Montgomery, Alabama, to consult with each other about their common direction and the goals of the Southern states. On February 18 they organized a Provisional Confederacy and appointed Provisional governmental officers. "All Montgomery had flocked to Capitol Hill in holiday attire," wrote Thomas Cooper DeLeon, a Southern journalist, of the festive day. "Bells rang and cannon boomed, and the throng -- including all members of the government -- stood bareheaded as the fair Virginian [Letitia Tyler, granddaughter of John Tyler] threw that flag to the breeze...A shout went up from every throat that told they meant to honor and strive for it; if need be, to die for it." The self-proclaimed Southern government had chosen as its Provisional president, to serve a single six-year term, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.
Born in 1808 in Kentucky, Jefferson Finis Davis (the middle name came because he was the last of ten siblings) grew up to be a stylish and highly educated militarist and politician. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was graduated twenty-third in his class of thirty-two (in 1828), and spent several years in army duty before resigning to become a Mississippi planter. In 1835, Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of the future president Zachary Taylor, but his wife died just three months later from malaria. Ten years later he married again, this time to Varina Howell of Natchez, with whom he would live the rest of his life. Elected to the House of Representatives, Davis resigned his seat to participate in the Mexican War as colonel of the 1st Mississippi Rifles; Davis served gallantly at Buena Vista, where he was wounded in the foot. After the war he began a career as a senator from Mississippi before resigning to make an unsuccessful bid for his home state's governorship. In 1853, Franklin Pierce appointed Davis secretary of war, a position in which he continued to learn a great deal about the U.S. military and about strategy and tactics. He was reelected senator from Mississippi in 1857 and served in that capacity to the brink of war in early 1861.
Davis was a lean man with a cool stare that strangely affected those who faced him because his left eye was partially blind. He had wanted a military commission as a field general of the Confederacy, and probably if that had been the case the South's cause would have been improved considerably. Outwardly stiff, and inflexible on his principles, Davis would not be an easy politician to deal with for the majority of his colleagues. For now, however, all appeared celebratory in the glorious South. "The man and the hour have met," said William L. Yancey of Davis as he introduced the new president to a crowd two days before the inauguration. On the 18th, Davis was inaugurated and delivered his address, a stern and sometimes threatening oration. He spoke of the "wickedness of our aggressors" and stated that if the integrity of the Southern territory be assailed, the Confederacy must "appeal to arms and invoke the blessings of Providence on a just cause." At length, Davis continued: "The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the States, and which has been affirmed and reaffirmed in the bills of rights of the states subsequently admitted into the Union of 1789, undeniably recognizes in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign states here represented proceeded to form this Confederacy; and it is by the abuse of language that their act has been denominated revolution."
Davis's vice president was an emaciated Georgia politician named Alexander Hamilton Stephens whose lukewarm involvement with the formation of the Confederate States would lead to out-and-out dissension against Davis. Stephens, who celebrated his 49th birthday by taking the oath as vice president, originally argued against secession and went to Montgomery only after it was clear that his beloved Georgia would not stay in the Union. He came into the series of meetings in Montgomery as a constitutional specialist and without aspirations for office. When the vice presidency was offered him, he accepted only because compromise between Southern states competing for influence in the new national government was necessary. "Little Aleck," who stood 5 feet 7 and never weighed more than 100 pounds, was not only chronically ill with a variety of ailments but also stooped in form and suffered grievous bouts of melancholia. In short, according to one biographer, he "looked like a freak." Moreover, his lukewarm support of Confederate nationalism would mean trouble for Davis as the weeks passed, with an almost nonexistent role for Stephens in much of the war legislation. In the spring of 1861, however, Stephens laid out his philosophical notion of the Confederacy. "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from abolition]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests," he said, "upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition."
The rest of Davis's inaugural cabinet, formed over several days following his inauguration, comprised a crew of varying abilities. Robert Augustus Toombs of Georgia was a former attorney and member of the U.S. House and Senate. South Carolinian Christopher Gustavus Memminger became secretary of the treasury. Leroy Pope Walker of Alabama became the first Confederate secretary of war. Stephen Russell Mallory of Florida was an intelligent choice for secretary of the navy.
Sometimes called "the brains of the Confederacy," the most intellectually gifted of the cabinet was undoubtedly Judah Philip Benjamin, a brilliant lawyer who had been born in 1811 in the Virgin Islands, of English-Jewish parents. His oddities were off-putting, however: he spoke with a lisp, had a sort-of constant smile on his face, chewed on cigars, and had deep black eyes that weren't set quite right. Benjamin's role as attorney general -- and later in other positions -- would prove an influential force in the new government. Finally, John Henninger Reagan of Texas served as Davis's postmaster general. As the Confederate cabinet assembled and began to organize itself, one prominent Texan issued grave forebodings on the future. "Let me tell you what is coming," said Sam Houston. "...Your fathers and husbands, your sons and brothers, will be herded together like sheep and cattle at the point of the bayonet...You may, after the sacrifice of countless millions of trea-sure and hundreds of thousands of precious lives, as a bare possibility, win Southern independence...but I doubt it."
Yet the fever of Southern independence, what amounted to a fundamentally conservative revolution, was taking off like a rocket. Southerners reveled in their new nation, and in many locales songs celebrating the Confederacy sprang up. None was more beloved than the strain of a minstrel tune, "Dixie's Land," concocted by Ohioan Daniel Decatur Emmet in 1859 and first played in Mechanics' Hall on Broadway in April 1859. Sung with mock black dialect, the song went: "I wish I was in de land ob cotton/Old times dar am not forgotten/Look away, look away/Look away, Dixie Land/In Dixie land, I'll take my stan'/To lib an' die in Dixie/Away, away, away down south in Dixie!" The tune captured supreme ranking among Southern war songs before the war even began by virtue of being played at Davis's inauguration.
Davis had departed from his Brierfield Plantation in Mississippi for his appointment with destiny in Montgomery on February 11. On that same day, Abraham Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois, bound for Washington. His inauguration was slated for March 4 on the eastern portico of the Capitol. On the way to Washington, Lincoln spoke in Independence Hall in Philadelphia on February 22. "I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the Declaration of Independence," said the gaunt Kentuckian, "...that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence...I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it." Lincoln then slipped through Baltimore with its Southern sympathizers, avoiding assassination, and on into Washington, whose citizens entered into a remarkable state of anxiety and heightened security.
Lincoln's inauguration day in the city of Washington was a beautiful springtime display for the throngs of bodies surrounding the Capitol. Some 25,000 people had come to the nation's capital to see what would happen on this most uncertain of presidential days. Early in the day the weather was cool but pleasant; later in the day the atmosphere turned "bleak and chilly." Few thought they knew what the new chief executive would say about the tenuous situation the country faced. The nation might be divided without a contest, after all. It was only the day before that Bvt. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott had written a note to the New York politician William H. Seward, declaring that one of the options available to Lincoln was simply, "Say to the seceded States, Wayward Sisters, depart in peace!" But Lincoln entertained no such notion. He believed firmly in the motto of the United States, e pluribus unum -- one out of many -- reflecting to associates that it embodied all that was America. As he rode from the Executive Mansion to the Capitol beside James Buchanan, he moved along with a military guard that stretched throughout the town, boarding and blocking entrance areas, watching windows along the route of travel, and with sharpshooters strategically posted on buildings about town.
"It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination," said Lincoln when he arose to deliver his First Inaugural Address. After a review of the problems faced by the standoff of North versus South, he spoke to the secessionists: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors." Finally, he concluded with a magic set of phrases. "We are not enemies, but friends," said Lincoln. "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." "When the address closed and the cheering subsided," wrote the future Union officer Wilder Dwight, "[Chief Justice Roger B.] Taney rose, and, almost as tall as Lincoln, he administered the oath, Lincoln repeating it; and as the words 'preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution' came ringing out, he bent and kissed the book; and for one, I breathed freer and gladder than for months. The man looked a man, and acted a man and a President." Wrote George Templeton Strong of Lincoln's speech: "I think there's a clank of metal in it."
The ceremony was concluded but the standoff far from averted. "The cry to-day is war," wrote the diarist Mary Chesnut on March 6. In much of the North, fear and some measure of shame ruled the day. "The bird of our country is a debilitated chicken," wrote Strong on March 11, "disguised in eagle feathers. We have never been a nation; we are only an aggregate of communities, ready to fall apart at the first serious shock and without a centre of vigorous national life to keep us together."
Lincoln had won the presidency by a combination of factors that elevated the Republican party to prominence (in part because of the fracturing of the Democratic party) and elevated him by circumstance within the party. But many Northerners lacked faith in such a character as Lincoln to pull off the monumental tasks that lay before him. "It is the strangest thing," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne of Lincoln, "...that he, out of so many millions...should have found the way open for him to fling his lank personality into the chair of state." Now Lincoln's cabinet would attempt, as had Davis's, to cover the political spectrum. Lincoln's vice president was Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, at age 51 a veteran of the U.S. House and Senate and the governorship of his home state. Of far more significance in the administration would be Secretary of State William Henry Seward, a sharp New Yorker whose own presidential aspirations were snuffed by Lincoln's success and who for some weeks actively conspired to promote a belief in Lincoln's supposed lack of abilities.
The other cabinet members ran the gamut of experience and competency. The exceedingly ambitious and quite religious Salmon Portland Chase of Ohio (a New Hampshire native) was made secretary of the trea-sury. His somewhat heavy frame, balding crown, and glistening eyes did little to promote social success; his aspirations to sit in the presidential chair frequently brought him into conflict with Lincoln. Even less helpful to the administration was Simon Cameron, chosen as secretary of war. This beady-eyed political boss of Pennsylvania had almost no background in military affairs. More suited to his task was Gideon Welles of Connecticut, secretary of the navy. His imposing presence, white hair and flowing white beard, coupled with his naval pursuits, gave him the sobriquet "Father Neptune."
The secretary of the interior would be Caleb Blood Smith of Indiana, an attorney, newspaperman, and politician. Montgomery Blair of Maryland, scion of a distinguished family that included two famous Frank Blairs, would serve as postmaster general. Finally, Edward Bates of Missouri, another presidential aspirant, would serve as attorney general, which was not legally a cabinet-level position during the war but was important nonetheless.
The Lincoln government was now established, and Davis's upstart Confederate government had Fort Sumter, the first prize of the war, impressively in its hands. Three days after the fall of Sumter, the young Confederacy received a substantial boost when Virginia signed its ordinance of secession. The large, powerful, and strategically placed state was an independent entity, not yet part of the Confederacy. The ex-president and Virginian John Tyler wrote his wife the following day. "Well, my dearest one, Virginia has severed her connection with the Northern hive of abolitionists...The contest into which we enter is one full of peril, but there is a spirit abroad in Virginia which cannot be crushed until the life of the last man is trampled out...The die is thus cast, and her future in the hands of the god of battle."
On April 15, in the wake of Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. Replies were not always cooperative. "Missouri can and will put one hundred thousand men in the field [for the Confederacy]," wrote the prosecession governor of Missouri, Claiborne F. Jackson, to Jefferson Davis. The governors of Kentucky and Tennessee had similarly hostile sentiments for the Lincoln government. North Carolina troops seized Forts Caswell and Johnston. All-out war was now a reality, and men everywhere began to prepare to go off to the fight, their wives and sweethearts tearfully sending them to an adventure of completely unknown proportion. As the bombardment of Sumter raged, Thomas J. Jackson told his VMI students, "[The time for war] will come and that soon, and when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard."
The first Federal troops to respond to Lincoln's call reached Washington on April 18, five companies of Pennsylvania volunteers. On this same day, Confederate success reached Virginia at Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The site of the famous U.S. Arsenal and Armory, where Brown had launched his unsuccessful raid, was threatened by Virginia troops concentrating as close as four miles away at Halltown. At Charles Town, Confederate Capt. John Daniel Imboden moved his battery of six guns toward Harpers Ferry. At nearby Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, the town had already become a "beehive of military activity," with various companies of militia passing through the town all day. The armory was commanded by 1st Lt. Roger Jones, who had a scant 42 men and who desperately needed reinforcements. Virginia militia commanded by William Henry Harman and Kenton Harper, brigadier and major generals in the militia, respectively, approached the town on the night of the 18th. Jones set a portion of the arsenal ablaze at 10 P.M. to destroy 15,000 crated muskets while a demolition team set bundles of combustible material on fire in the armory's main buildings. Jones then set his men on a march out of town. Jones's fleeing Federal soldiers crossed the Potomac bridge, encountering an angry mob of secessionists, who backed off after the Yankees posed in battle line. The retreating Yankees left the burning arsenal in the hands of the approaching Rebels and could hear several loud explosions as they fled toward Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Much of the arsenal and the armory was destroyed, but a significant amount of matériel, including 4,000 muskets and machinery such as milling machines and lathes, was saved. Again, it was a victory for the South.
On April 19, Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of Southern ports. The Federal navy received a new and startling mission, and, although the blockade would take time to be effective, it would become a major part of the war strategy. However, this day brought more trouble for the North. The largely pro-Southern city of Baltimore lay between Washington and Pennsylvania -- hardly Rebel territory. When a full regiment of Federal troops, the 6th Massachusetts Volunteers, passed through Baltimore on this day, a riot between the soldiers and prosecession civilians broke out, producing some of the first casualties of the war. The 6th Massachusetts was changing trains in Baltimore to head for Washington. A crowd around the station grew throughout the morning, many bearing Confederate flags. Four companies of the 6th Massachusetts detrained and had to push their way through the crowd, which began jeering the soldiers and throwing rocks. Shots rang out from soldiers and civilians alike.
"A scene of bloody confusion followed," wrote journalist Frederic Emory, who witnessed the riot. "As the troops retreated, firing, the rioters rushed upon them only to be repulsed by the line of bayonets." At least 4 soldiers and 9 civilians were killed and many were injured. It was another embarrassment for the Lincoln administration, particularly since Maryland's loyalty was much in question. The state teetered on the brink of Confederate support, and a particular song, written by James Ryder Randall, boosted secessionist thinking. Many Southern soldiers would sing "Maryland, My Maryland," to the tune of "O Tannenbaum," while marching in the months to come. "The despot's heel is on thy shore/Maryland!/His torch is at thy temple door/Maryland!/Avenge the patriotic gore/That flecked the streets of Baltimore/And be the battle queen of yore/Maryland! My Maryland!" The poem was first published in the New Orleans Delta on April 26 and then worked into the song. Some saw the Baltimore riots as a great tiding, however. "It's a notable coincidence that the first blood in this great struggle is drawn by Massachusetts men on the anniversary of Lexington," George Templeton Strong confided to his diary. "This is a continuation of the war that Lexington opened -- a war of democracy against oligarchy. God defend the Right, and confound all traitors." The rioting continued for several days and temporarily isolated Washington.
Frustrated with the isolation and a demand from a Baltimore committee for peace at any price, Lincoln responded. "Our men are not moles, and can't dig under the earth...Keep your rowdies in Baltimore, and there will be no bloodshed. Go home and tell your people that if they will not attack us, we will not attack them; but if they do attack us, we will return it, and that severely."
The following day, April 20, brought yet another disappointing result for the Union. The Gosport Navy Yard near Norfolk, Virginia, was in an endangered position, and the yard's commandant, Capt. Charles Stewart McCauley, decided to abandon it. In the evening McCauley ordered his sailors to burn and evacuate the yard, and they also set fire to five ships. Additionally, four vessels were burned to the water line and then sunk, including the USS Merrimack, which would later come back in a different form to haunt its old navy. The old frigate USS United States was simply abandoned. The Navy Department was furious with McCauley; the yard's loss set back the Federal navy and coastal strategy for months to come. As at Harpers Ferry, Virginians captured the position and salvaged much of what remained, including an important dry dock, thousands of guns, a naval construction plant, and some of the ships themselves.
With each passing day's news, soldiers and would-be soldiers were grappling with loyalty. Inevitably, many people saw friends and acquaintances move to the other side. Robert E. Lee wrote his sister, Anne Marshall, from Arlington House on April 20: "With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home." On the same day, he sent a letter of resignation to Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott: "Save in defence of my native State, I never again desire to draw my sword." The former army officer and clerk in his father's Galena, Illinois, retail store, Ulysses S. Grant, wrote his father on April 21. "There are but two parties now, Traitors & Patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter, and I trust, the stronger party." Still other soldiers worried that perhaps they wouldn't even see a fight. "We thought the rebellion would be over before our chance would come," recalled Michael Fitch, a soldier in the 6th Wisconsin Infantry.
Events in the West closed the dramatic month of April 1861. On April 23 state troops in Arkansas seized Fort Smith, gaining an important base. On the same day, near San Antonio, a company of troops of the 8th U.S. Infantry under command of 2d Lt. Edwin W. H. Read was captured by state militia. This came two months after Bvt. Maj. Gen. David E. Twiggs surrendered his troops, forts, and barracks in and around San Antonio. Twiggs had been dismissed for treason on March 1 and afterward became a Confederate major general. More U.S. forces surrendered in Texas on April 25, this time at Saluria, where Maj. Caleb C. Sibley, commanding the 3d U.S. Infantry, gave up his command to Confederates under Col. Earl Van Dorn.
At month's end both sides, in fatigued disbelief, struggled to anticipate what lay ahead. For Jefferson Davis the answer seemed clear. "The creature has been exalted above its creators; the principals have been made subordinate to the agent appointed by themselves...Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people."
In the North, many remained perplexed about the motives of the Southerners and their new nation. "Undoubtedly, thousands of warmhearted, sympathetic, and impulsive persons have joined the Rebels, not from any zeal for the cause," Nathaniel Hawthorne proclaimed, "but because, between two conflicting loyalties, they chose that which necessarily lay nearest the heart."
Copyright © 2001 by David J. Eicher
A Military History of the Civil War
The Longest Night
A Military History of the Civil War
Drawing on hundreds of sources and excerpts from correspondence by those who fought the war, The Longest Night conveys a real sense of life -- and death -- on the battlefield. In addition, Eicher analyzes each side's evolving strategy; examines the tactics of Lee, Grant, Johnston, and Sherman; and discusses significant topics such as prisons, railroads, shipbuilding, clandestine operations, and the role of African-Americans in the war. This is an indispensable chronicle of the war that James M. McPherson, in the Foreword, calls "the most dramatic, violent, and fateful experience in American history."
- Simon & Schuster |
- 992 pages |
- ISBN 9780684849454 |
- September 2002