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Democratic President James Buchanan remained in office nearly two and a half months after the secession of South Carolina. Eight slave states remained in the Union, all of them disinclined to join their Lower South brethren. Buchanan refused to accept the legitimacy of secession, but also said he would do nothing to force the wayward states back into the Union. He watched helplessly as the Confederate states seized federal installations and property, prompting a furious barrage of criticism from Republicans. Many of Buchanan's critics overlooked the fact that Unionists in the Upper South typically made it clear that they would remain loyal only as long as the incoming Lincoln administration guaranteed the safety of slavery in states where it already existed and, more ominously, employed no coercion against the seceded states.
The question of coercion came to focus on Fort Sumter, a federal stronghold in Charleston harbor. In his inaugural address of 4 March 1861, Lincoln sought to place responsibility for the start of hostilities on Jefferson Davis and the Confederates. Lincoln announced his intention to 'hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will
Confederates occupied Fort Sumter immediately after Robert Anderson's small garrison surrendered. In this engraving based on a photograph, the 'stars and bars' float atop a makeshift flagpole attached to a derrick used for hoisting cannons to the fort's upper tier Fort Sumter remained a defiant symbol of Confederate nationhood until the very last days of the conflict. (Author's collection)
be no invasion - no using of force against, or among the people anywhere.' Turning directly to the question of responsibility for any aggressive moves, Lincoln added: '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 yourselves being the aggressors.' This statement left deliberately murky what Lincoln meant by 'occupy and possess' - most federal holdings in the Confederate states had long since been lost. Lincoln mainly sought to gain time in the hope that Unionist sentiment would assert itself across the South and reverse the secessionist tide.
But time ran out. President Buchanan had previously refused to abandon Fort Sumter and sent a ship with reinforcements for the small garrison commanded by Major Robert Anderson. Southern batteries had fired on that vessel on 9 January 1861, prompting both sides to bluster and posture before drawing up short of open hostilities. Since that incident, Sumter had become a tremendously important symbol. Northerners saw it as the last significant installation in the Confederacy still in national hands, and Republicans adamantly refused to give it up. Confederates just as adamantly insisted that it stood on South Carolina soil and must be transferred to their control.
Major Anderson informed Lincoln in early March that the garrison's supplies would soon be exhausted. Convinced that the North would not tolerate loss of the fort, the President decided to send an unarmed ship with provisions. A full-scale effort to supply and reinforce the fort, Lincoln believed, would cast the North as the aggressor and almost certainly send the Upper South out of the Union. If Confederates fired on the unarmed ship, the North would appear as the injured party. Lincoln informed the governor of South Carolina that provisions were on the way and that the United States would not fire unless fired upon by southern batteries around Charleston harbor.
Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cabinet faced a serious dilemma. They also hoped to avoid the label of aggressor. Yet public opinion in the Confederacy overwhelmingly favored seizing Fort Sumter. Davis decided to request surrender of the fort before the relief vessel arrived. Anderson refused to capitulate, however, and shortly after 4.30 am on 12 April southern guns opened fire. Anderson and his men surrendered 36 hours later. They left the fort with colors flying and to the accompaniment of a 50-gun salute, climbed aboard ships and sailed for the North. The next day, Lincoln issued a proclamation that declared a state of insurrection and called out 75,000 militia from the northern states.
War fever swept across the North and South. In four states of the Upper South, all of which had previously decided against secession, Lincoln's call for militia galvanized sentiment. Virginia left the Union on 17 April, Arkansas on 6 May, North Carolina on 20 May, and Tennessee on 8 June. The Confederacy soon moved its capital from Montgomery to Richmond, Virginia, and the loss to the Union of these four states virtually assured a long and difficult war. Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina ranked first, second and third in white population among the Confederate states. They also possessed more than half of the new nation's manufacturing capacity, produced half its crops, contained nearly half its horses and mules and, most tellingly, would provide nearly 40 percent of the Confederacy's soldiers.
Eleven of the 15 slave states had reacted decisively to the seismic events that had rocked the nation between the election of 1860 and Lincoln's call for volunteers. In withdrawing from the Union, white southerners set the stage for a war that would test the strength of the American republic and destroy for ever the social structure they had hoped to preserve.
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