Why the South Fired on Sumter
In Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where our farm is located, the citizens have declared the month of April to be “Confederate History and Heritage Month.” Not that the County Board of Supervisors acceded to our request for a formal proclamation, mind you. To the contrary. For the second year in a row they snubbed our petition. Well, we went ahead and issued the proclamation anyway, taking out a full page color ad in one of our local papers. After all, if Virginians can celebrate Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, why shouldn’t they be able to honor the men and women, black and white, who struggled to protect their hearths and homes from the heel of the invader?
Those who disagree with the proclamation insist that the war was all about slavery, which of course it wasn’t. Oftentimes they also ask this question: If the South was right, why did it fire the first shot?
Because this Saturday, April 12, will mark the one hundred and forty second anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, a signal event in American history, it might be well to rehearse the facts. (Of course, this is not to deny that the Star of the West incident in Charleston Harbor on January 9, 1861, also involved gunfire.)
Prior to the war, the South considered secession a peaceful solution to the tensions between it and the North. No armed invasion of the South was expected, nor was it called for. Indeed, the Southern leadership had been vigorously pursuing a peaceful course of action. Many in the North agreed that war was unnecessary. Even the publisher of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, proclaimed “Wayward Sisters, Depart in Peace!”
In December, when the results of the presidential election were known, South Carolina called for a state convention and, on December 20, voted unanimously to exercise its constitutional right to sever its ties with the United States. By February of 1861, seven states had seceded and had formed the Confederate States of America, selecting Jefferson Davis as the provisional president. All the while the South continued to advocate compromise and peaceful coexistence, and only limited military preparations were made.
When the Confederacy sent a commission to Washington to secure peace with the United States and to negotiate the removal of Federal troops from Fort Sumter, President Lincoln refused to recognize them. President Davis was mystified as to why Lincoln was stubbornly holding on to two military bases in the Confederacy when he had willingly abandoned scores of others. Lincoln’s own cabinet advised him to evacuate Fort Sumter, as did the General of the Army, Winfield Scott.
Meanwhile, Governor Pickens of South Carolina had been supplying food to the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter. During March, Lincoln sent an agent named Ward Lamon to visit the governor. Lamon declared that he had been sent to arrange the removal of the troops from the fort. The Federal soldiers themselves expected that they would soon be sent home. Then, on April 8, the Lincoln administration suddenly announced to Governor Pickens that a force of 285 guns and 2,444 men had already sailed for Fort Sumter. It was not only the Southerners who were taken by surprise. Sumter’s commander, Major Anderson, wrote to Washington: “I ought to have been informed that this expedition was to come. Colonel Lamon’s remarks convinced me that the idea…would not be carried out. We shall strive to do our duty, though I frankly say that my heart is not in the war which I see is thus to be commenced. That God will still avert it, and cause us to resort to pacific measures to maintain our rights, is my ardent prayer.”
In Montgomery, President Davis and his cabinet were faced with a difficult choice. If they demanded the surrender of the fort and took it by force, then history would record that the South had fired the first shot in a horrific conflict. But if the Union forces were allowed to reinforce the fort, countless lives would be lost in an extensive battle. Davis chose the less sanguinary route and ordered General Beauregard to capture the fort as soon as possible. When Major Anderson replied that he would not surrender, the General began to shell the fortress. On April 13, the Federals surrendered with no loss of life due to enemy fire.
So it is true that the South fired first at Sumter. But the more important question is: Who is at fault in starting a war—the side that actually fires the first shot or the side that puts the other in a position of having to fire the first shot for defense? If you were to detect an armed burglar in your house, would you be at fault for firing the first shot, or should you wait for the intruder to fire first? Keep in mind that most Southerners opposed war. As Thomas DiLorenzo notes, “Most Southerners were also attached to the Union as long as it wasn’t destructive of their liberties, and this does not mean the ‘liberty’ to own slaves. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas originally voted to remain in the Union after the Gulf states had seceded. It was only after Lincoln (unconstitutionally) launched an invasion of their sister states that they reconvened their political conventions and voted to secede.”
President Davis, on April 7, 1861, said with amazing prescience, “With the Lincoln administration rests the responsibility of precipitating a collision and the fearful evils of a cruel war.” Many Northerners agreed. Benjamin J. Williams, a Massachusetts writer, said, “The South was invaded and a war of subjugation, destined to be the most gigantic which the world has ever seen, was begun by the Federal government against the seceding States, in complete and amazing disregard of the foundation principle of its own existence, as affirmed in the Declaration of Independence, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
April 10, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.