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….

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.


  • A third federal installation that wasn’t surrendered was Ft Monroe, Virginia.
    Thank you for an excellent piece. Always learn something new.

  • Karen L. Stokes says:

    The governments of South Carolina and the Confederacy allowed the federal troops to occupy Fort Sumter in peace for several months, from late December 1860 to mid-April 1861, all the while attempting to negotiate a peaceful settlement about the fort and establish friendly relations with the U.S. No one was starving at Ft. Sumter; for most of the period of occupation the garrison was allowed to purchase supplies from the Charleston markets on a daily basis. Klinck, Wickenburg & Co. were their grocers. After the bombardment began, one frustrated gun crew in the fort decided to fire on a group of civilian spectators on the beach of Sullivan’s Island twice. Both cannon balls hit the beach near the spectators and then bounced up into the Moultrie House, a hotel. A Confederate soldier inside the hotel, John C. Haskell, observed a forty-two pounder crash through the walls.

    • Valerie Protopapas says:

      No one was in Sumter at the time you mention. All federal troops were at Fort Moultrie, a land locked tariff collection point. Major Anderson left Moultrie on Christmas Eve after cutting down the flag pole (to prevent the CSA flag from being raised!), spiking Moultrie’s guns and taking that facility munitions. The whole command then rowed over to Sumter where civilian workmen repairing the fort were driven from that facility with bayonets and forced to return to Charleston. Officer Abner Doubleday wrote a complete account of these actions after taking part in them. So the first blow of the war was struck not by the CSA or South Carolina, but by Major Anderson at the orders of his superiors though Buchanan was still the president at the time of this action.

      • Karen L. Stokes says:

        Major Anderson moved his garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter about a week after South Carolina seceded. This was late December 1860. His garrison occupied Fort Sumter from late December 1860 to mid-April 1861. The bombardment began on April 12, 1861, and the federal garrison left Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861.

      • RONALD BERNARD FOX says:

        Why was moving from Moultrie to Sumpter an act of war? Both places were owned by the federal government. Anderson had a right to be in either. It’s true that the Confederacy claimed jurisdiction over federal territory within the jurisdiction of the seceding states, but that’s a property dispute, not an act of war.

  • Billy P says:

    Lincoln destroyed the old union and design…and left us with a corrupt, bloated, central government empire wannabe, run by the central banks and globalists.

  • Ross Massey says:

    Fort Monroe, Virginia held by the imperialist forces throughout and Fort Jefferson in the Florida keys too.

  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    My only complaint with Dr. Wilson’s excellent piece is his contention that Pearl Harbor was a “surprise attack” by an “enemy” of this country. Pearl Harbor was a deliberate false flag. Our military had already broken the Japanese code and we had arranged by attacks against the Japanese throughout the Pacific to force the attack that FDR needed to get the US into the war against Hitler. The Germans sure weren’t going to attack us, so there had to be another “enemy” and Japan fit the bill to a tee. A lot of old ships (no carriers!) were sent to Pearl Harbor even after the naval experts warned that it was a death trap open to assault without warning. Meanwhile, there had been warnings, but far too many things had been done by OUR country to prevent anyone from preventing the desired attack necessary to put us into the war. Actually, Pearl Harbor wasn’t all that much different from Fort Sumter.


    Clyde Wilson very successfully accuses the North of hypocrisy and deception. Lincoln used Machiavellian tactics of manipulation to rally the US into attacking the Confederacy and during the war, sanctioned numerous war crimes by any definition. The Confederacy, on the other hand, conducted their initial dealings with the North according to the up-to-then accepted practices of chivalry and honor and gallant treatment of defeated opponents.

    Unfortunately, while the Confederacy conducted an 18th century campaign, the North conducted a 20th century campaign.

    Jefferson Davis lost the war as soon as he attacked Fort Sumter. The North had a tremendous advantage in manufacturing, manpower, naval power, transportation, foreign relations and financial resources. Once the conflict began, it was Lincoln’s to lose, and Lincoln was a superb strategist. ‘By that, I mean that if Lincoln used all the resources and tactics available to him, and the Confederacy used all its resources and tactics, the North would, and did, win the war.

    I imagine as the head of the union, not the kindly Lincoln of legend, but Lenin or Stalin. Would anyone bother to argue that the countries falling under the control of the USSR had, after all, acted lawfully and decently? No one would expect the course of events to be affected by that when dealing with Lenin or Stalin.

    It was the job of Jefferson Davis to avoid war. He failed. Clyde Wilson very correctly pointed out the encroaching domination of the South by the North insofar as every free state entering the Union decreased the power of the South to prevent disadvantageous legislation. But, lest we blame everything on Lincoln, recall the Morrill Tariff, one of the most punitive tariffs up to that point, had been voted through the Senate only because the Southern senators resigned, and was signed into law not by Lincoln but by Buchanan. Robert Toombs warned Davis to his face that he would destroy the Confederacy if he carried out the planned attack on Fort Sumpter. The major in charge of the fort, Major Anderson, knew an attack on the fort would result in general war between the North and the South. If Anderson knew it, what excuse was there for Davis?

  • scott thompson says:

    sumter certainly wasnt a threat to any union state…the nearest one was about 140 miles away from the fort itself.

  • Fred says:

    I like the article with the exception of the paragraph where the south conducted a ‘defensive’ war. I dont call Antietam and Gettysburg ‘defensive’. That, was a flat out lie. But the rest of the piece, certainly food for thought. The last sentence of the article was actually the most interesting. I thought for a long time there hadnt be a justification for any war since the Civil War but now come to find out that EVERY war since Britain stopped attacking the US was caused by a warmongering, blood thirsty President under control of the Deep State Military Industrial complex.

  • tonyC says:

    Love the discussion more than the article itself. Quite enlightening and thought provoking.

  • William Wilson says:

    “For the true author of the subjugation of a people is not so much the immediate agent, as the power which permits it, having the means to prevent it.”
    Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War

    Horace Greeley, Editor of the NY Tribune said that the Confederacy had no choice but to fire the fire first.
    Quite a statement from a powerful Republican and staunch Lincoln man.

    Great article, Dr. Wilson. It is correct all down the line.

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