Many prevailing assumptions about the War to Prevent Southern Independence are questionable summary judgments more akin to propaganda than careful understanding.
This is certainly true of the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. It is assumed that “firing on the flag” was a justification for all patriots to rush to the defense of America and inaugurate a war of invasion and conquest against the Southern states. It is sometimes compared to Pearl Harbor by over-zealous nationalists. But Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack by a foreign enemy. The Fort Sumter issue was a Constitutional question among Americans.
The bombardment was preceded by a gentlemanly warning, there were no casualties, and the garrison were not made prisoner but were allowed to march out with honour and go home.
There was a certain amount of patriotic rallying in the North around the federal government, as Lincoln had anticipated. Recruitment was helped by considerable unemployment caused by the interruption of trade. But such enthusiasm was not shared by many Northerners and was soon diminished by the realities of war, especially as the war seemed in the beginning to be a losing enterprise.
As the war went on, Lincoln maintained his forces by conscription, recruitment of one-fourth of his army with hundreds of thousands of immigrants, lavish bounties equal to three years of a working man’s pay, exemptions for the affluent, and encouragement for soldiers to loot the property of Southern civilians.
Almost all the federal judges, district attorneys, postmasters, and collectors of customs in the seceded states had already resigned and taken office under the Confederacy when Lincoln took office. Every federal military installation had been bloodlessly surrendered to the seceded States except two on islands in the harbors of Charleston and Pensacola. U.S. Army officers, including Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter, did not want to be the cause of starting civil bloodshed, and many sympathized with the South.
Lincoln did not inaugurate war to save the Union or the Constitution. His actions damaged both. As he said, his intention was to save the government. He inaugurated war to serve the interests of his party, as many Northerners, including Stephen A. Douglas, pointed out at the time. He had criiticised slavery but also had indicated his acceptance for the proposed 13th Amendment which would have guaranteed non-interference with slavery in the Southern states in perpetuity.
All he insisted on was the banning of slavery from the territories, which would guarantee permanent Northern control of the federal machine, and the collection of the tariff—the source of “his revenue”— for subsidy of Northern economic interests and patronage to reward his party activists.
Many historians have detailed how Lincoln used trickery over Fort Sumter. Obviously, Fort Sumter was for him a chance for him to begin suppression of secession. His Cabinet and commanding general Scott had advised that the fort could not be saved and should be evacuated. He knew that the fort and its garrison could not be saved but he had found a lever to inaugurate war. He deliberately chose war before the firing on Sumter.
The Confederacy had sent commissioners to Washington to negotiate all issues and with an offer to pay for all federal property. They were not officially received but Lincoln’s slimy Secretary of State William H. Seward privately led them to believe up to the last moment that Sumter would be evacuated. When Lincoln announced a relief expedition (disguised as a mission to feed starving soldiers) they and the Confederate government were surprised and felt they were victims of deceitful bad faith.
The situation was no doubt intensified by the fact that in those times there were many men in both North and South who entertained ambition for military glory. A lot of enthusiastic volunteer State military organisation had been going on, and many people on both sides believed they would have an easy victory in a short-term conflict.
South Carolina was American. Southerners understood that Fort Sumter had been built with Southern tax money to protect Charleston harbor from foreign attack. Why should it instead be used as a base to exercise Republican party domination and collect taxes from Americans?
Lincoln had been elected with less than 40% of the vote at the head of the first all-Northern party to control the government. Perhaps a real statesman who wanted to avoid civil bloodshed would have seen this as an opportunity for negotiations that might lead to a compromise settlement. This would be the stance of a statesman who loved his country and shared the hopes of most of his people to avoid war.
Instead he took his stand on lies—that the Union was older than the States, and that the open, debated, and voted actions of the Confederate States were merely a rabble of lawbreakers that he had the right to order to disperse in 20 days, and to resort to force if they refused. That is, the people and governments of seven States were criminals resisting his power.
He knew perfectly well that a naval expedition could not relieve Sumter. Its announcement could only precipitate what he hoped would be of beneficial effect of war support for himself and his party.
The Georgia humourist Bill Arp wrote in an open letter to Lincoln that the 20 days was too short and he needed more time to disperse—there was too much going on. He also pointed to Lincoln’s assertion that federal property must be preserved “at all hazards” and complained that he could not find any “Hazards” on the map.
Lincoln asserted that his government was above the Union and the Constitution, that his minority could act as a national government, a position with which vast numbers of Americans did not agree. The position repudiated traditional compromise and rested not on the Constitution but on emotional nationalism and aggressive Northern economic interests. The position was additionally compromised in that the President inaugurated war without a declaration by Congress and unconstitutionally suspended the right of habeas corpus.
Why did Lincoln choose war over negotiation? The question certainly raises doubt about his supposedly great statesmanship. Lincoln was an entirely political man. For him government was a matter of organising, maneuvering, publicity, material interests, and gratifying ambitions. Did he not realise that his call for troops would immediately more than double the population and resources of the Confederacy and throw the border states into bloody play? Did he think that patronage would mollify the upper South? Did he think that Southerners acted in a world of cynical political maneuvering as he did? That some carrot and stick would dissolve the Confederacy? Did he know so little about his fellow Americans? Did he not realise that Southerners thought in terms of principles and liberty rather than getting political appointments? That Southern leaders said what they meant and meant what they said and were not of his political posturing world?
We can only explain Lincoln’s role by assuming either that he wanted war or he was spectacularly incompetent to deal with a grave and unprecedented situation. Many Northerners believed the latter.
Lincoln, in fact, was a very limited man. He had less national and executive experience than any previous President. He knew how to sway a jury with plausible arguments. He could spout homely wisdom and anecdotes. He was adept at using pseudo-Biblical language to justify his actions. Compare his mind with the experience, achievements, knowledge of war, and broad literacy and historical knowledge of Jefferson Davis.
Nationalists celebrate Lincoln’s shrewdness and determination to “save the Union.” Clearly, he had in the beginning no program for emancipation. His actions could not “save the Union.” They could only destroy the Union and substitute an omnipotent federal government. In his earlier statements and speeches Lincoln frequently used the term “Union” and not the term “nation.” After 1863 it is always “nation” and “Union” has disappeared from his discourse.
In his earlier messages and proclamations he used the term “National Constitution,” an unusual description for a Constitution “for the United States.” He also referred repeatedly to protecting a “National Government,” although nobody had designs against it.
The Constitution says: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or adhering to their enemies.” By this Lincoln was egregiously guilty of levying war against the states and Jefferson Davis innocent of any charge of treason. But Lincoln’s loose thinking has led everyone to assume that treason is resistance to what he called “the National Government.”
Lincoln and his war can find no cover in “just war” theory. He expressed to intimates amused satisfaction at having tricked the other side into firing the first shot so that he could use troops against his chosen enemies. War was not for him “a last resort” but a deliberate choice. Even so, Fort Sumter was like a border incident, a subject for negotiation, not a justification of an all-out war of invasion and conquest. The Southern States were acting on the defensive—protecting their people, property, and traditional self-government from invading forces.
The Northern motive was basically to secure dominion and the tribute of economic advantage—not a just intention according to just war philosophy. The South’s war was entirely defensive, carried out within the bounds of “just war.” The U.S. government violated every requirement for just war.
A just war should have a reasonable expectation of success. It proved to be successful only after an unprecedented holocaust of death and destruction. The means used to accomplish the goals of a just war should be proportional to the ends sought. Was the regime of atrocities against civilians created wherever Northern armies went a proportional response to a people defending themselves—destruction and theft of private property, taking of hostages, blockade, sieges and bombardment of cities?
The last ditch defense of the criminal war against the South was the supreme morality of freeing the slaves. But this became a war goal only well after the launch of hostilities. It was a cynically expedient measure and without any genuine benevolent concern for the wellbeing of African Americans. It was proclaimed without any consideration of its consequences and actually resulted in the death of an estimated one million of them and a disruption that damaged their lives for decades. See Kirkpatrick Sale, Emancipation Hell and Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom.
Lincoln’s war over Fort Sumter was, alas. just the first in a series of initiatives by Presidents who wanted war: the Maine, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin, Iraqi nuclear weapons….