The Beginning of the War Between the States
by Fannie Eoline Selph
The commissioners appointed by the Confederate government to negotiate a settlement of all matters of mutual interests and to establish friendly relations with the Federal Government, did not reach Washington in time to confer with the Buchanan administration, and so they waited until the incoming administration was organized and open for such business. They presented their credentials then to the Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, and explained the object of their mission. The President and Secretary refused an audience with the commissioners and appointed Mr. Justice John A. Campbell of the Supreme Court to act as intermediary.
Through Judge Campbell, the commissioners were given to understand that Secretary Seward was for peace and that Ft. Sumter would be evacuated in less than ten days. Relying on this assurance, the commissioners did not press an immediate answer to their letter.
The letter of the commissioners to Mr. Seward was written on the 12th of March. In the course of the unwarranted and embarrassing delay, Mr. Justice Nelson of New York visited the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and the Attorney General (Messrs. Seward, Chase, and Bates) to dissuade them from undertaking to put into execution any policy of coercion. That, "during the term of the Supreme Court, he had very carefully examined the laws of the United States to enable him to attain his conclusions and that from time to time he had consulted Chief Justice Taney upon the questions, and that his conclusions were: that without very serious violations of the Constitution and statutes, coercion could not be successfully effected by the executive department." Mr. Justice Campbell said "that he had made similar examinations with the same results."
General Scott, commander-in-chief of the Federal army, advised the President that "the fort could not be relieved and should be given up."
In the meantime, the matter was discussed in the Senate of the United States which continued in session several weeks after the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln.
Mr. Douglas of Illinois, who was not in sympathy with secession, but was devoted to the Union, made a very appealing and forceful address, on March 15th, and offered resolutions recommending the withdrawal of the garrisons from all forts within the limits of the States, except those at Key West and Dry Tortugas. In support of this resolution he said:
We certainly cannot justify the holding of forts there, much less the recapturing of those which have been taken, unless we intend to reduce those States themselves into subjection. I take it for granted, no man will deny the proposition that whoever permanently holds Charleston and South Carolina is entitled to Fort Sumter.... Whoever holds the States in whose limits those forts are placed, is entitled to the forts themselves, unless there is something peculiar in the location of the same particular fort that makes it important to the general defense of the whole country, its commerce and interests, as in the case of Forts Taylor and Jefferson at Key West and Dry Tortugas. But Fort Sumter and other forts, in Charleston harbor; Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River; Fort Morgan and other forts in Alabama, were intended to guard the entrance to a particular harbor for local defense.
Mr. Douglas continued: "We cannot deny that there is a Southern Confederacy de facto in existence with its capital at Montgomery, Alabama. We may regret it. I regret it most profoundly, but I cannot deny the truth of the fact, painful and mortifying as it is.... I proclaim boldly the policy of those with whom I act — 'We are for peace.'"
The most striking protest against holding Fort Sumter with coercive intentions, however, came from Major Anderson, who was in command of the garrison.
Later, the two distinguished gentlemen, Justice Nelson and Justice Campbell, visited the Secretary of War, Mr. Seward, and urged him to reply to the commissioners and assure them of the desire of the United States Government for a friendly adjustment. Mr. Seward objected to an immediate recognition of the commissioners on account of the sentiment in the North. "The evacuation of the fort," said he, "is all they can bear now." He agreed to evacuate the fort and gave Judge Campbell the authority to so inform President Davis, which he did.Mr. Crawford, one of the commissioners, was slow to consent to a delay in pressing the demand for recognition and only yielded when the written pledge of the Secretary, with the assurance of Judge Campbell of its genuineness, was given, that the fort would be evacuated in a few days. Hence, not only the Confederate Government but the commissioners were assured by the high authority of the Secretary of State, that Sumter would be evacuated in a few days.
Notwithstanding all these assurances, Fort Sumter continued to be occupied by the garrison commanded by Major Anderson with no evident material change since the unsuccessful attempt of the Star of the West to reinforce it during the Buchanan administration. But the navy yard of New York was a scene of unusual activity. A sqaudron of eight war vessels carrying 26 guns, 2,000 men, with military supplies and provisions were being hurriedly fitted out to send to reinforce Sumter with the view of holding it, and were put to sea early in April.
After being held for 28 days under delusive promises, the hostile preparations at New York became a matter of rumor, notwithstanding the secrecy thrown around them. The commissioners addressed a letter to Mr. Seward by Judge Campbell asking for information. To this the Secretary returned answer in writing: "Faith as to Sumter fully kept. Wait and see."
This was on April 7th; the next day, April 8th, the following official notification without date or signature was received by Governor Pickens of South Carolina, not through an accredited agent, but by a subordinate employee of the State department. It was carefully divested of every attribute that could make it binding should the author see fit to repudiate it.
Mr. Chew, the messenger from the State department, on delivering it, said that "it was from the President of the United States given to him on April 6" (which was the day before Mr. Seward's assurance of "faith fully kept"). It read, "I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only; and that if such an attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition, will be made, without further notice or in case of an attack upon the fort."
Thus disappeared the last vestige of the plighted faith and pacific pledges of the Federal Government.
The commissioners from the Confederate Government were never recognized and Judge Campbell was not given the notice to be delivered to them. The commissioners were kept in the dark the entire time, dependent on rumors and the press for information as to the real purposes of the Federal Government.
It is needless to say that Judge Campbell was deeply wounded at such treatment and he addressed two letters to Secretary Seward asking for an explanation that was due him, but no reply was ever made to either. Later he resigned from the Supreme bench.
It was here that Major Anderson had cause to be deeply wounded and he also addressed the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army, in which he mentioned having received a letter from the Secretary of War, which surprised him, following and contradicting as it did the assurances Mr. Crawford telegraphed he was "authorized" to make. "I trust," said he, "this matter will be put in a correct light at once, as a movement made now when the South has been erroneously informed that none such would be attempted, would produce disastrous results throughout our country."
Major Anderson further disapproved of the movements of the Washington Government as being inexpedient as well as disastrous and hoped it could be recalled.
The commissioners of course returned to their homes.
The usual course of navigation had been carefully computed by the Federal Government and the vessels were timed to reach Fort Sumter about the date selected for delivering the notification to Governor Pickens, so that Sumter would be in possession of the reinforcements. But a violent tempest on the sea delayed the squadron, which gave the Confederate Government time to act, Governor Pickens having notified them by telegram.
General G.T. Beauregard had a command of 6,000 volunteers and with batteries erected was ready to meet the situation. Having been ordered by the Confederate Government, General Beauregard demanded the evacuation of the fort. After considerable correspondence between the two, in which Major Anderson refused to evacuate (having been notified by his government to hold and defend it), General Beauregard opened the bombardment.
The engagement lasted 32 hours and though the firing was terrific at times, not a life was lost on either side. It is known in history as "the bloodless battle."
A strikingly brave incident occurred just then. Ex-Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, seeing the flames, went under fire of the cannon in an open boat and climbing through one of the embrasures, asked for Major Anderson and insisted on his giving up a hopeless defense, assuring him that General Beauregard would grant him liberal terms.
Upon this, Major Anderson offered to surrender. He sent his sword to General Beauregard but it was returned to him. He was allowed to retire with all the honors of war. He was allowed to carry off all private and military property. There was no surrender of prisoners or property, and he was allowed to fire a salute to the flag. General Beauregard was not conducting a warfare. He simply wanted the possession of the fort which was the lawful property of South Carolina and necessary to her protection and defense.
One of the guns burst in firing the salute to the flag, which killed one man and wounded another. This occurred the next day after the battle when they were leaving the fort and by their own gun.
In their version of the incident the Federal Government maintained that "the South fired the first gun," which Mr. Lincoln asserted, "was unnecessary as the garrison was defenseless and he was only sending food to the brave, hungry men there."
The Southern authorities maintained the position that "if the brave men in the fort were hungry, the Federal authorities had no one to blame but themselves. Those men had been kept there four weeks contrary to the judgment and advice of the Commander-in-Chief of the Federal army, General Scott, against the advice of his wisest statesmen, and against the judgment of the commander of the fort. Eight war vessels carrying 26 guns and 2,000 soldiers with a supply of munitions of war in sight of the fort with the challenge that "they would reinforce and provision Sumter peaceably if permitted or by force if necessary," was the real declaration of war and the cause which forced the 'South to fire the first gun'" (Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government).
The telegraphic announcement that "the flag had been fired on," and that Sumter had fallen, enabled the agitators to inflame the minds of the people of the Northern States. A cry was raised by them for a maintenance of the Union.
On the pleas that "the flag had been fired on," Mr. Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 troops. Congress was called to convene in a extra session on July 4th.
Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee did not secede until after the call for 75,000 troops by Lincoln to coerce the seven seceded States back into the Union. They were included in the call, but they all with no uncertain terms, refused to comply with what they termed a "diabolical violation of the Constitution and usurpation of power." The Constitution invested such power alone in Congress and beyond the jurisdiction of the executive. And again all the combined authority of all three branches of the Government did not have the power to attack a State.
These four States had decided to remain in the Union, hoping thereby that some influence could yet be brought to bear to avert war. This call, however, changed their purpose, seeing the inevitable ahead, and they, too, seceded — Virginia, April 17th; Arkansas, May 6th; North Carolina, May 20th, and Tennessee, June 8th.
This article was extracted from Fannie Eoline Selph, The South in American Life and History (Nashville, Tennessee: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1928). Click HERE to order this book.