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Abraham Lincoln, photographed by Mathew Brady on February 27, 1860, the day before he delivered his Cooper Union speech. Lincoln was later to state that, "Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President."

1861: The Coming of War

When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as the sixteenth - and, some speculated, the last - president of the United States on March 4, 1861, he knew that his inaugural address would be the most important such speech in American history. On his words would hang the issues of union or disunion, peace or war. His goal was to prevent the eight slave states that had not yet seceded from doing so, while cooling passions in the seven states that had seceded, hoping that in time their old loyalty to the Union would reassert itself. He pledged in his address not to "interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists." Referring, however, to Fort Sumter and three other minor forts in the seceded states, he pledged to "hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government" - without defining exactly what he meant or how he would do it. In his eloquent peroration, Lincoln appealed to Southerners as Americans who had shared with other Americans four score and five years of national history. "We are not enemies, but friends," he said.

Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln hoped to buy time with his inaugural address -time to demonstrate his peaceful intentions and to enable Southern Unionists (whose numbers he overestimated) to regain the upper hand. But the day after his inauguration, Lincoln learned that time was running out. A dispatch from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the U.S. army garrison holding Fort Sumter, informed him that his supplies would soon be exhausted: the fort must be resupplied or evacuated. The majority of Lincoln's cabinet advised him to evacuate the garrison to avoid provoking a shooting war. But Lincoln feared that withdrawal would give the Confederacy a moral victory, confer legitimacy on its government and probably lead to diplomatic recognition by foreign powers. Having pledged in his address to "hold, occupy, and possess" national property, could Lincoln afford to abandon that policy during his first month in office? If he did, he would go down in history as the president who consented to the dissolution of the United States.

Lincoln finally arrived at a solution that would place the onus of starting a war - if there was to be a war - on the other side. He decided to send an unarmed ship with supplies to Sumter, and to hold troops and warships outside the har bor with authorization to go into action only if the Confederates used force to stop the supplies. He would also notify Confederate officials in advance of his intention. This shifted the decision for war or peace to Jefferson Davis. In effect, Lincoln flipped a coin and said to Davis: "Heads I win; tails you lose." If Confederate troops fired on the supply ships, the South would stand convicted of starting a war by attacking "a mission of humanity" bringing "food for the hungry men." If Davis allowed the supplies in, the American flag would continue to fly over Fort Sumter. The Confederacy would lose face at home and abroad, and Southern Unionists would take heart.

Davis did not hesitate: he considered Fort Sumter to be Confederate property. By ordering Confederate artillery to open fire against the fort on April 12, before the supply ship arrived, he started the biggest war in American history. The attack triggered an outburst of war fever in the North. "The town is in a wild state of excitement," wrote a Philadelphia diarist. "The American flag is to be seen everywhere. Men are enlisting as fast as possible." Because the tiny United States army - most of whose 16,000 soldiers were stationed at remote frontier posts - was inadequate to quell the "insurrection," Lincoln called on the states to supply 75,000 militia. The free states filled their quotas immediately: more than twice as many men volunteered than Lincoln had called for. Recognising that the 90 days' service - to which the militia were limited by law - would be too short a period, Lincoln on May 3 issued a call for three-year volunteers. Before the war was over, more than two million men would serve in the Union army and navy.

The eight slave states still in the Union rejected Lincoln's call for troops. Four of them - Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina - seceded and joined the Confederacy. Forced by the outbreak of war to choose between the two sides, most residents of those four states chose the Confederacy. As a former Unionist in North Carolina remarked: "The division must be made on the line of slavery. The South must go with the South." When news of Sumter's surrender reached Richmond, a huge crowd poured into the state capitol square and ran up the Confederate flag. "I never in all my life witnessed such excitement," wrote a participant. The Times of London's correspondent described crowds in North Carolina with "flushed faces, wild eyes, screaming mouths, hurrahing for 'Jeff Davis' and 'the Southern Confederacy.'" No one in those cheering crowds could know that before the war ended at least 260,000 of the 850,000 soldiers who fought for the Confederacy would lose their lives, together with 360,000 Union soldiers, and that the slave South they fought to defend would be utterly destroyed.


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