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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: WHOSE WAR ?

Monday, November 17, 2008


by Bob Hurst

We have all become familiar with the concept of "spin" through the overexposure of expert (?) "talking heads" on the 24-hour television news channels and the use of these same people on the older television networks. Spin takes place when a proponent of one viewpoint (be it political, environmental, historical, or whatever) is asked for commentary relating to a certain topic and "spins" that commentary in such a way as to give credence (hopefully) to his or her own point of view while tearing down the viewpoint of anyone who has an opposite perspective.

I singled out television in the opening paragraph but, of course, spin is applicable to any type of information distribution system be it radio, newspapers, magazines, the internet, books (including textbooks) or whatever. I began this month's column with a brief discussion of "spin" because I want to discuss an issue that has been subject to "spin" (and not analysis, except by a few) for almost 150 years.

The topic I will elaborate upon is who started the great struggle of 1861-1865 between the states of the North and the states of the South.

There has been so much spin regarding that struggle that there are even different names by which the epic event is known. The official name of the war, by act of Congress, is "The War Between the States". The generally accepted nomenclature for referencing the conflict is "The Civil War", but this is an inaccurate description since a civil war occurs when two or more factions are fighting for control of a single government and the South was not fighting to control the North but merely to be independent from any governmental association with it. That is why those Southerners (and I include myself among them) who have not drunk the national kool-aid prefer to refer to the conflict as "The War for Southern Independence".

It would take an entire book (or two, or dozens) to detail the background of events over many years which set the stage for the War. Many textbooks (and many commentaries) simplify the process by declaring that the South "started" the War (apparently without provocation) by firing on the Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and the American flag that was flying at the fort. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly!

By the time of the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12,1861, seven states had already seceded from the Union. It was the desire of these states - South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas - to leave the Union in peace. It was also the consensus of most Northerners and Northern newspapers that secession was a constitutional right. An editorial in one newspaper, The Bangor DAILY UNION, on November 12, 1860, seemed to sum up this belief well when it stated: "Union depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each state... A state coerced to remain in the Union is a 'subject province' and can never be a co-equal member of the American Union".

A Supreme Court justice, Samuel Nelson, even advised the U.S. Secretary of State that it would be a violation of the Constitution if the president used coercion against any state.

So why, then, did the Southern troops stationed in Charleston fire upon Fort Sumter when public opinion in both the North and the South seemed to be on the side of the Southern Confederacy?

It all goes back to the purpose of Fort Sumter and that was the collection of tariffs from ships entering the harbor at Charleston. You see, the Great War of 1861-65 was fought, like all wars, for economic reasons. Abraham Lincoln had been asked shortly after his inauguration why the Southern states should not be allowed to leave the Union in peace. His response was a question: "Let them go? Let them go? Then where would I get my revenues?" (paraphrased) Lincoln knew that approximately 75% of federal revenues were collected at Southern ports in the form of tariffs and Charleston was a major collection point.

In early December of 1860, President James Buchanan had signed an agreement with South Carolina congressmen that forts Moultrie and Sumter would not be reinforced nor would they take aggressive action against Charleston. In return, the forts would not be attacked by South Carolina forces.

Shortly after South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, Major Robert Anderson moved his troops that were stationed at Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in an action that disturbed and puzzled the officials in Charleston.

Previous to this, in early December of 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln had instructed General Winfield Scott, head of all Federal forces, to prepare a plan to hold or retake the forts after Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861 despite the agreement signed by President Buchanan.

Unbeknownst to Pres. Buchanan, Gen. Scott sent a ship on January 7, 1861 with supplies and 200 concealed troops to reinforce Fort Sumter. This ship, the "Star of the West", was turned back by fire from South Carolina artillery batteries but it proved a major embarrassment to Pres. Buchanan who wished to avoid war.

In early February, a very aggressive attack plan was presented to again reinforce Fort Sumter. Pres. Buchanan would not agree to this plan and his Cabinet agreed that such a plan would constitute an act of war and would be interpreted as such by the South.

On February 25, President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy sent a three-man Peace Commission to Washington to discuss many issues including the transition of Fort Sumter from Union to Confederate control.

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861 as President of the United States. He refused to talk with the members of the Peace Commission who were still trying to make headway in Washington. Lincoln also announced that tariffs would continue to be collected at Fort Sumter regardless of the secession of South Carolina. He also made it clear that, unlike previous presidents, he regarded secession to be illegal and was willing to use military force to prevent secession. (Note: This is the same Lincoln who would later suspend habeas corpus and have thousands of Northern civilians, including newspaper publishers and even state legislators, arrested and imprisoned. Certainly an interesting reading of the U.S. Constitution.)

The Confederate Peace Commission had been meeting with several justices of the Supreme Court and Secretary of State Seward who had continually assurred them that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. Despite this, on March 9 Lincoln proposed that Fort Sumter be reinforced. His Cabinet overwhelmingly opposed this action because it was believed that this would lead to war.

Interestingly, on March 3 Jefferson Davis had appointed General Pierre G.T. Beauregard as commander of Confederate forces in Charleston. In one of those interesting anomalies that occurred throughout the War, Gen. Beauregard and Major Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter, were good friends. Anderson had been an instructor of Beauregard when the latter was a student at West Point.

Lincoln continued to attempt to persuade his Cabinet to approve reinforcing Fort Sumter. He failed again at a Cabinet meeting on March 15 but finally was able to convince the Cabinet to approve his plan on March 29 although the Cabinet members knew it would lead to war. On April 6 Lincoln gave the order to reinforce Fort Sumter.

Lincoln then started distributing stories to supportive Northern newspapers that the Federal troops at Fort Sumter were near starvation and in desperate need of provisions. This was an outright lie that was refuted by the communications and records of Major Anderson himself. Additionally, the merchants in Charleston were daily selling foodstuffs to the garrison at Fort Sumter.

Nonetheless, Lincoln's ploy worked and there was outrage in the North over the "starving" of troops at Fort Sumter. He knew he would need Northen public opinion behind him to engage in a war with the South. Lincoln then ordered a force of three warships to Charleston to reinforce Sumter with an estimated date of arrival of April 15.

This action left President Jefferson Davis in a quandary. Through reports he was aware of all this activity by Lincoln. What he wanted to avoid was being goaded into a situation where the South fired the first shot which was exactly what Lincoln wanted. Legally the aggressor in such an action is not necessarily the side firing the first shot but the side causing the first shot to be necessary. Regardless, it would be a public opinion boost for Lincoln's war plan if the South appeared to be the aggressor.

Meanwhile, Gen. Beauregard was aware that a Union fleet of warships was approaching Charleston. On April 9 he sent emissaries to Fort Sumter to demand surrender and evacuation of the facility. His friend, Major Anderson, indicated that he was honor bound to resist.

At 4:30 A.M. on April 12, after sending word to the fort earlier that firing was about to begin, the bombardment began. I use the term "bombardment" but it was more like firing a shot across the bow. During the entire period of shelling the fort, some 30-odd hours, there was not one single Union casualty. In fact, the only casualty occurred when, after the surrender of the fort, the Union forces were firing a salute as they lowered their flag and an ember fell into some gunpowder causing an explosion which resulted in one death and five injuries.

As a ship carrying Union soldiers left the harbor to rendezvous with the force that had arrived, Confederate soldiers lined the beaches of Sullivan's Island and other areas around the harbor and removed their caps in a salute to the departing forces, many of whom they had come to know.

Despite the goodwill between the combatants, Lincoln now had what he wanted and the news of Confederate firing on the American flag was quickly distributed to Northern newspapers with the resulting fervor for punishing the South that was expected.

President Jefferson Davis later explained the situation: "The order for the sending of the fleet was a declaration of war. The responsibility is on their shoulders, not on ours." Despite the truthfulness of this logic, the fact that the North won the War meant that they got to write the history of the conflict.

Mr. Lincoln got the war he wanted and schoolchildren are taught that the war started because Fort Sumter was fired upon without provocation by Southern forces. How sad.


Bob Hurst is the Commander of the Col.David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and is 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV. You can contact him at or 850-878-7010.


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