Some of the American people had from the beginning held the opinion that any State could leave the Union at her pleasure. That belief was general in the South. The seceding States did not doubt that they had full legal right to take the step which they had taken, and they stated with perfect frankness what was their reason for exercising this right. They believed that slavery was endangered by their continuance in the Union. Strictly speaking, they fought in defence of their right to secede. But they had no other motive for seceding than that slavery should be preserved and extended. The war which ensued was therefore really a war in defence of slavery. But for the Southern love and the Northern antipathy to slavery, no war could have occurred. The men of the South attempted to break up the Union because they thought slavery would be safer if the Slave-owning States stood alone. The men of the North refused to allow the Union to be broken up. They did not go to war to put down slavery. They had no more right to put down slavery in the South than England has to put down slavery in Cuba. The Union which they loved was endangered, and they fought to defend the Union.
Mr. Lincoln was elected, according to usage, early in November, but did not take possession of his office till March. In the interval President Buchanan remained in power. This gentleman was Southern by birth, and, as it has always been believed, by sympathy. He laid no arrest upon the movements of the seceding States; nay, it has been alleged that he rather sought to remove obstacles from their path. During all these winter months the Southern leaders were suffered to push forward their preparations for the approaching conflict. The North still hoped for peace, and Congress busied itself with vain schemes of conciliation. Meetings were held all over the country, at which an anxious desire was expressed to remove causes of offence. The self-willed Southerners would listen to no compromise. They would go apart, peacefully if they might; in storm and bloodshed if they must.
1861 A.D. Early in February Mr. Lincoln left his home in Illinois on his way to Washington. His neighbours accompanied him to the railroad dep?t, where he spoke a few parting words to them. “I know not,” he said, “how soon I shall see you again. A duty devolves upon me, which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support; and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain.”
With these grave, devout words, he took his leave, and passed on to the fulfilment of his heavy task.
He assured the Southerners that their fears were unfounded. He had no lawful right to interfere with slavery in the States where it existed; he had no purpose and no inclination to interfere. He would, on the contrary, maintain them in the enjoyment of all the rights which the Constitution bestowed upon them. But he held that no State could quit the Union at pleasure. In view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union was unbroken. His policy would be framed upon that belief. He would continue to execute the laws within the seceding States, and would continue to possess Federal property there, with all the force at his command. That did not necessarily involve conflict or bloodshed. Government would not assail the discontented States, but would suffer no invasion of its constitutional rights. With the South, therefore, it lay to decide whether there was to be peace or war.
A week or two before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration Jefferson Davis had entered upon his career as President of the Southern Republic. Mr. Davis was an old politician. He had long advocated the right of an aggrieved State to leave the Union; and he had largely contributed, by speech and by intrigue, to hasten the crisis which had now arrived. He was an accomplished man, a graceful writer, a fluent and persuasive speaker. He was ambitious, resolute, and of ample experience in the management of affairs; but he had many disqualifications for high office. His obstinacy was blind and unreasoning. He had little knowledge of men, and could not distinguish “between an instrument and an obstacle.” His moral tone was low. He taught Mississippi, his native State, to repudiate her just debts. A great English statesman, who made his acquaintance some years before the war broke out, pronounced him one of the ablest and one of the most wicked men in America.
In his Inaugural Address Mr. Davis displayed a prudent reserve. Speaking for the world to hear – a world which, upon the whole, abhorred slavery – he did not name the grievances which rendered secession necessary. He maintained the right of a discontented State to secede. The Union had ceased to answer the ends for which it was established; and in the exercise of an undoubted right they had withdrawn from it. He hoped their late associates would not incur the fearful responsibility of disturbing them in their pursuit of a separate political career. If so, it only remained for them to appeal to arms, and invoke the blessing of Providence on a just cause.
Alexander H. Stephens was the Vice-President of the Confederacy. His health was bad, and the expression of his face indicated habitual suffering. He had nevertheless been a laborious student, and a patient, if not a very wise, thinker on the great questions of his time. In the early days of secession he delivered at Savannah a speech which quickly became famous, and which retains its interest still as the most candid explanation of the motives and the expectations of the South. The old Government, he said, was founded upon sand. It was founded upon the assumption of the equality of races. Its authors entertained the mistaken belief that African slavery was wrong in principle. “Our new Government,” said the Vice-President, “is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man – that slavery is his natural and normal condition.” Why the Creator had made him so could not be told. “It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them.” With this very clear statement by the Vice-President, we are freed from uncertainty as to the designs of the Southern leaders, and filled with thankfulness for the ruin which fell upon their wicked enterprise.
It is a very curious but perfectly authenticated fact, that notwithstanding the pains taken by Southern leaders to show that they seceded merely to preserve and maintain slavery, there were many intelligent men in England who steadfastly maintained that slavery had little or nothing to do with the origin of the Great War.
When his Inaugural Address was delivered, Mr. Lincoln was escorted by his predecessor in office back to the White House, where they parted – Buchanan to retire, not with honour, into a kindly oblivion; Lincoln to begin that great work which had devolved upon him. During all that month of March and on to the middle of April the world heard very little of the new President. He was seldom seen in Washington. It was rumoured that intense meditation upon the great problem had made him ill. It was asserted that he endured the pains of indecision. In the Senate attempts were made to draw forth from him a confession of his purposes – if indeed he had any purposes. But the grim silence was unbroken. The South persuaded herself that he was afraid – that the peace-loving, money-making North had no heart for fight. She was even able to believe, in her vain pride, that most of the Northern States would ultimately adopt her doctrines and join themselves to her Government. Even in the North there was a party which wished union with the seceding States, on their own principles. There was a general indisposition to believe in war. The South had so often threatened, and been so often soothed by fresh concessions, it was difficult to believe now that she meant anything more than to establish a position for advantageous negotiation. All over the world men waited in anxious suspense for the revelation of President Lincoln’s policy. Mercantile enterprise languished. Till the occupant of the White House chose to open his lips and say whether it was peace or war, the business of the world must be content to stand still.
Mr. Lincoln’s silence was not the result of irresolution. He had doubt as to what the South would do; he had no doubt as to what he himself would do. He would maintain the Union; – by friendly arrangement and concession, if that were possible; if not, by war fought out to the bitter end.
He nominated the members of his Cabinet – most prominent among whom was William H. Seward, his Secretary of State. Mr. Seward had been during all his public life a determined enemy to slavery. He was in full sympathy with the President as to the course which had to be pursued. His acute and vigorous intellect and great experience in public affairs fitted him for the high duties which he was called to discharge.
So soon as Mr. Lincoln entered upon his office the Southern Government sent ambassadors to him as to a foreign power. These gentlemen formally intimated that the six States had withdrawn from the Union, and now formed an independent nation. They desired to solve peaceably all the questions growing out of this separation, and they desired an interview with the President, that they might enter upon the business to which they had been appointed.
Mr. Seward replied to the communication of the Southern envoys. His letter was framed with much care, as its high importance demanded. It was calm and gentle in its tone, but most clear and decisive. He could not recognize the events which had recently occurred as a rightful and accomplished revolution, but rather as a series of unjustifiable aggressions. He could not recognize the new Government as a government at all. He could not recognize or hold official intercourse with its agents. The President could not receive them or admit them to any communication. Within the unimpassioned words of Mr. Seward there breathed the fixed, unalterable purpose of the Northern people, against which, as many persons even then felt, the impetuous South might indeed dash herself to pieces, but could by no possibility prevail. The baffled ambassadors went home, and the angry South quickened her preparations for war.
Within the bay of Charleston, and intended for the defence of that important city, stood Fort Sumpter, a work of considerable strength, and capable, if adequately garrisoned, of a prolonged defence. It was not so garrisoned, however, when the troubles began. It was held by Major Anderson with a force of seventy men, imperfectly provisioned. The Confederates wished to possess themselves of Fort Sumpter, and hoped at one time to effect their object peaceably. When that hope failed them, they cut off Major Anderson’s supply of provisions, and quietly began to encircle him with batteries. For some time they waited till hunger should compel the surrender of the fort. But word was brought to them that President Lincoln was sending ships with provisions. April 11, 1861 A.D. Fort Sumpter was promptly summoned to surrender. Major Anderson offered to go in three days, if not relieved. In reply he received intimation that in one hour the bombardment would open.
About daybreak on the 12th the stillness of Charleston bay was disturbed by the firing of a large mortar and the shriek of a shell as it rushed through the air. The shell burst over Fort Sumpter, and the war of the Great Rebellion was begun. The other batteries by which the doomed fortress was surrounded quickly followed, and in a few minutes fifty guns of the largest size flung shot and shell into the works. The guns were admirably served, and every shot told. The garrison had neither provisions nor an adequate supply of ammunition. They were seventy, and their assailants were seven thousand. All they could do was to offer such resistance as honour demanded. Hope of success there was none.
The garrison did not reply at first to the hostile fire. They quietly breakfasted in the security of the bomb-proof casemates. Having finished their repast, they opened a comparatively feeble and ineffective fire. All that day and next the Confederate batteries rained shell and red-hot shot into the fort. The wooden barracks caught fire, and the men were nearly suffocated by the smoke. Barrels of gunpowder had to be rolled through the flames into the sea. The last cartridge had been loaded into the guns; the last biscuit had been eaten; huge clefts yawned in the crumbling walls. Enough had been done for honour; to prolong the resistance was uselessly to endanger the lives of brave men. Major Anderson surrendered the ruined fortress, and the garrison marched out with the honours of war. Curiously enough, although heavy firing had continued during thirty-four hours, no man on either side was injured!
It was a natural mistake that South Carolina should deem the capture of Fort Sumpter a glorious victory. The bells of Charleston chimed triumphantly all the day; guns were fired; the citizens were in the streets expressing with many oaths the rapture which this great success inspired, and their confident hope of triumphs equally decisive in time to come; ministers gave thanks; ladies waved handkerchiefs; male patriots quaffed potent draughts to the welfare of the Confederacy. On that bright April Sunday all was enthusiasm and boundless excitement in the city of Charleston. Alas for the vanity of human hopes! There were days near at hand, and many of them too, when these rejoicing citizens should sit in hunger and sorrow and despair among the ruins of their city and the utter wreck of their fortunes and their trade.
By many of the Southern people war was eagerly desired. The Confederacy was already established for some months, and yet it included only six States. There were eight other Slave States, whose sympathies it was believed were with the seceders. These had been expected to join, but there proved to exist within them a loyalty to the Union sufficiently strong to delay their secession. Amid the excitements which war would enkindle, this loyalty, it was hoped, would disappear, and the hesitating States would be constrained to join their fortunes to those of their more resolute sisters. The fall of Fort Sumpter was more than a military triumph. It would more than double the strength of the Confederacy, and raise it at once to the rank of a great power. Everywhere in the South, therefore, there was a wild, exulting joy. And not without reason; for Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas now joined their sisters in secession.
In the North, the hope had been tenaciously clung to that the peace of the country was not to be disturbed. This dream was rudely broken by the siege of Fort Sumpter. The North awakened suddenly to the awful certainty that civil war was begun. There was a deep feeling of indignation at the traitors who were willing to ruin their country that slavery might be secure. There was a full appreciation of the danger, and an instant universal determination that, at whatever cost, the national life must be preserved. Personal sacrifice was unconsidered; individual interests were merged in the general good. Political difference, ordinarily so bitter, was for the time almost effaced. Nothing was of interest but the question how this audacious rebellion was to be suppressed and the American nation upheld in the great place which it claimed among men.
Two days after the fall of Fort Sumpter, Mr. Lincoln intimated, by proclamation, the dishonour done to the laws of the United States, and called out the militia to the extent of seventy-five thousand men. The Free States responded enthusiastically to the call. So prompt was their action, that on the very next day several companies arrived in Washington. Flushed by their easily-won victory, the Southerners talked boastfully of seizing the capital. In a very short space there were fifty thousand loyal men ready to prevent that, and the safety of Washington was secured.
The North pushed forward with boundless energy her warlike preparations. Rich men offered money with so much liberality that in a few days nearly five million sterling had been contributed. The school-teachers of Boston dedicated fixed proportions of their incomes to the support of the Government, while the war should last. All over the country the excited people gathered themselves into crowded meetings, and breathed forth in fervid resolutions their determination to spend fortune and life in defence of the Union. Volunteer companies were rapidly formed. In the cities ladies began to organize themselves for the relief of sick and wounded soldiers. It had been fabled that the North would not fight. With a fiery promptitude unknown before in modern history the people sprang to arms.
Even yet there was on both sides a belief that the war would be a short one. The South, despising an adversary unpractised in war, and vainly trusting that the European powers would interfere in order to secure their wonted supplies of cotton, expected that a few victories more would bring peace. The North still regarded secession as little more than a gigantic riot, which she proposed to extinguish within ninety days. The truth was strangely different from the prevailing belief of the day. A high-spirited people, six million in number, occupying a fertile territory nearly a million square miles in extent, had risen against the Government. The task undertaken by the North was to conquer this people, and by force of arms to bring them and their territory back to the Union. This was not likely to prove a work of easy accomplishment.
When the North addressed herself to her task, her own capital was still threatened by the rebels. Two or three miles down the Potomac, and full in view of Washington, lies the old-fashioned decaying Virginian town of Alexandria, where the unfortunate Braddock had landed his troops a century before. The Confederate flag floated over Alexandria. A rebel force was marching on Harper’s Ferry, forty miles from Washington; and as the Government works there could not be defended, they were burned. Preparations were being made to seize Arlington Heights, from which Washington could be easily shelled. At Manassas Junction, thirty miles away, a rebel army lay encamped. It seemed to many foreign observers that the North might lay aside all thought of attack, and be well pleased if she succeeded in the defence of what was still left to her.
But the Northern people, never doubting either their right or their strength, put their hand boldly to the work. The first thing to be done was to shut the rebels in so that no help could reach them from the world outside. They could grow food enough; but they were a people who could make little. They needed from Europe supplies of arms and ammunition, of clothing, of medicine. They needed money, which they could only get by sending away their cotton. To stop their intercourse with Europe was to inflict a blow which would itself prove almost fatal. Four days after the fall of Fort Sumpter, Mr. Lincoln announced the blockade of all the rebel ports. It was a little time after till he had ships enough to make the blockade effective. But in a few weeks this was done, and every rebel port was closed. The grasp thus established was never relaxed. So long as the war lasted, the South obtained foreign supplies only from vessels which carried on the desperate trade of blockade-running.
Virginia completed her secession on the 23rd April. Next morning Federal troops seized and fortified Alexandria and the Arlington Heights. In the western portions of Virginia the people were so little in favour of secession that they wished to establish themselves as a separate State, loyal to the Union. With no very serious trouble the rebel forces were driven out of this region, and Western Virginia was restored to the Union. Desperate attempts were made by the disloyal Governor of Missouri to carry his State out of the Union, against the wish of a majority of the people. It was found possible to defeat the efforts of the secessionists and retain Missouri. Throughout the war this State was grievously wasted by Southern raids, but she held fast her loyalty.