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The events connected with the fall of Fort Sumter were so dramatic that that name is in memory linked with, and stands for, the opening of the war. The fort was not a large military structure. The number of men defending it was not great. But the events connected with it were great. It stood as the representative of great principles and facts. The firing on it marked an epoch in the same sense as Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon. It is vitally connected with events that precede and follow.
Wendell Phillips says that when Charles Sumner entered the senate, free speech could hardly be said to exist there. To him, as much as to any man, was due the breaking of the chain that fettered free speech. On all important subjects he spoke his mind eloquently and in words that were not ambiguous. In August, 1852, he made a speech–the more accurate phrase would be, he delivered an oration–under the title, "Freedom National, Slavery Sectional.” It may easily be guessed that this highly incensed the slave power and the fire-eaters never outgrew their hatred of the Massachusetts senator.
In May, 1856, he delivered an excoriating address upon “the Crime against Kansas.” This greatly angered the southern congressmen. After the senate had adjourned, Sumner was seated at his desk writing. Preston S. Brooks, of South Carolina, approached from the rear and with a heavy cane began to beat Sumner on the head. He was not only defenseless, but, though a powerful man in body, was to a certain extent held down by his desk, and it was only as he wrenched the desk from the floor that he was able to rise. The beating had been terrible and Sumner suffered from it, often with the most excruciating pains, until the day of his death. This ruffian attack was by a large portion of the North looked on as an exhibition of southern chivalry, so called, and not entirely without reason as the sequel showed. Congress censured Brooks by a divided vote. He resigned but was reelected by his constituents with great enthusiasm. Thus his act was by them adopted as representative of their spirit and temper. This was his "vindication.”
South Carolina was the first state to secede, and since Fort Sumter commanded Charleston Harbor, it instantly became the focus of national interest. The Secretary of War, Floyd, had so dispersed the little army of the United States that it was impossible to command the few hundred men necessary adequately to garrison the United States forts. As matters in and about Charleston grew threatening, Major Anderson, who was in command of the twin forts, Moultrie and Sumter, decided to abandon the former and do his utmost to defend the latter. The removal was successfully accomplished in the night, and when the fact was discovered it was greeted by the South Carolinians with a howl of baffled wrath. Buchanan had endeavored to send provisions. The steamer, Star of the West, had gone there for that purpose, but had been fired on by the South Carolinians and forced to abandon the attempt.
When Lincoln took the government at Washington, it may well be believed that he found matters in a condition decidedly chaotic. His task was many sided, a greater task than that of Washington as he had justly said. First, of the fifteen slave states seven had seceded. It was his purpose to hold the remaining eight, or as many of them as possible. Of this number, Delaware and Maryland could have been held by force. Kentucky and Missouri, though slave states, remained in the Union. The Union party in Tennessee, under the lead of Andrew Johnson, made a strong fight against secession, but failed to prevent the ordinance.
The next task of Lincoln was to unite the North as far as possible. The difficulty of doing this has already been set forth. On the other hand there was in the North a sentiment that had been overlooked. It was devotion to the flag. Benjamin F. Butler, though an ardent democrat, had cautioned his southern brethren that while they might count on a large pro-slavery vote in the North, war was a different matter. The moment you fire on the flag, he said, you unite the North; and if war comes, slavery goes.
Not the least task of the President was in dealing with foreign nations. The sympathies of these, especially England and France, were ardently with the South. They would eagerly grasp at the slightest excuse for acknowledging the Southern Confederacy as an independent nation. It was a delicate and difficult matter so to guide affairs that the desired excuse for this could not be found.
The tactics of the southerners were exceedingly exasperating. They kept "envoys” in Washington to treat with the government. Of course these were not officially received. Lincoln sent them a copy of his inaugural address as containing a sufficient answer to their questions. But they stayed on, trying to spy out the secrets of the government, trying to get some sort of a pledge of conciliation from the administration, or, what would equally serve the purpose, to exasperate the administration into some unguarded word or act. Their attempts were a flat failure.
Lincoln held steadily to the two promises of his inaugural. First, that he would hold the United States forts, and second, that he would not be the aggressor. “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. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government; while I have the most solemn one to ’preserve, protect, and defend’ it.”
To this plan he adhered. It there was to be war it must be begun by the enemies of the country, and the government would patiently bear outrages rather than do a thing which could be tortured into an appearance of ’invading the South’ or being an aggressor of any sort.
Meanwhile, Major Anderson was beleaguered in Fort Sumter. He had a handful of men, 76 combatants and 128 all told. He had insufficient ammunition and was nearly out of provisions. Lincoln at last concluded to “send bread to Sumter,"–surely not a hostile act. Owing to complications which he inherited from Buchanan’s administration he had given to Governor Pickens, of South Carolina, a promise that he would not attempt to relieve Sumter without first giving him notice. He now sent him notice that there would be an attempt to provision Sumter peaceably if possible, or otherwise by force.
All this while the southerners were busy perfecting their fortifications, which were now overwhelmingly better, both in number and in completeness of appointment, than the one fort held by the United States that rightfully controlled the entire harbor. General Beauregard was in command of the military forces. He sent to Major Anderson a summons to surrender. The latter replied that if he received from Washington no further direction, and if he was not succored by the 15th of the month, April, he would surrender on honorable terms. It is characteristic of the southern general that he intercepted Major Anderson’s mail before notifying him of hostilities. It is characteristic of Lincoln that he sent notice to Governor Pickens of the intended provision of the fort.
On Friday, April 12th, 1861, at 3:30 P. M., General Beauregard gave notice to Major Anderson that he would open fire on Fort Sumter in one hour. Promptly at the minute the first gun was fired and the war had begun. Batteries from various points poured shot and shell into Sumter until nightfall caused a respite.
The little garrison sat up half the night after the attack, as they had done the preceding night, and with their six needles, all they had, made cartridges out of old blankets, old clothing, and whatever else they could lay hands on. These one hundred and twenty-eight men made all the defense that could be made under the circumstances.
The next day the officer’s quarters were set on fire either by an exploding shell or by hot shot. The men fought the flames gallantly, but the wind was unfavorable. Then the water tanks were destroyed. As the flames approached the magazine, the powder had to be removed. As the flames approached the places where the powder was newly stored, it had to be thrown into the sea to prevent explosion. In the mean time the stars and stripes were floating gloriously. The flag pole had been struck seven times on Friday. It was struck three times the next day. The tenth shot did the work, the pole broke and the flag fell to the ground at one o’clock Saturday afternoon. An officer and some men seized the flag, rigged up a jury-mast on the parapet, and soon it was flying again.
But ammunition was gone, the fire was not extinguished, and there was no hope of relief. Negotiations were opened and terms of surrender were arranged by eight o’clock that evening. The next day, Sunday, April 14th, the garrison saluted the flag as it was lowered, and then marched out, prisoners of war. Sumter had fallen.
Beauregard was a military man, Lincoln was a statesman. The general got the fort, the President got nearly everything else. The war was on and it had been begun by the South. The administration had not invaded or threatened invasion, but the South had fired on the flag. Dearly they paid for this crime.
The effect of the fall of Sumter was amazing. In the South it was hailed with ecstatic delight, especially in Charleston. There was a popular demonstration at Montgomery, Ala., the provisional seat of the Confederate government. L. P. Walker, Confederate Secretary of War, made a speech and, among other things, said that “while no man could tell where the war would end, he would prophesy that the flag which now flaunts the breeze here, would float over the dome of the old Capitol at Washington before the end of May,” and that “it might eventually float over Fanueil Hall itself.” The Confederate government raised a loan of eight millions of dollars and Jefferson Davis issued letters of marque to all persons who might desire to aid the South and at the same time enrich themselves by depredations upon the commerce of the United States.
The effect upon the North was different. There was a perfect storm of indignation against the people who had presumed to fire on the flag. Butler’s prediction proved to be nearly correct. This did unite the North in defense of the flag. Butler was a conspicuous example of this effect. Though a Breckinridge democrat, he promptly offered his services for the defense of the country, and throughout the war he had the distinction of being hated by the South with a more cordial hatred than any other Union general.
It was recollected throughout the North that Lincoln had been conciliatory to a fault towards the South. Conciliation had failed because that was not what the South wanted. They wanted war and by them was war made. This put an end forever to all talk of concession and compromise. Douglas was one of the many whose voice called in trumpet tones to the defense of the flag.
At the date of the fall of Sumter, Lincoln had been in office less than six weeks. In addition to routine work, to attending to extraordinary calls in great numbers, he had accomplished certain very important things: He had the loyal devotion of a cabinet noted for its ability and diversity. He had the enthusiastic confidence of the doubtful minds of the North. He had made it impossible for the European monarchies to recognize the South as a nation. So far as our country was concerned, he might ask for anything, and he would get what he asked. These were no mean achievements. The far-seeing statesman had played for this and had won.
Beauregard got the fort, but Lincoln got the game. In his own words, "he took that trick.”