Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
13 chapters | 127 lessons | 5 flashcard sets
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Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.
When South Carolina seceded from the United States in late December 1860, 87 soldiers in the U.S. Army stationed in Charleston were now trapped, in a sense, in a hostile country. Their commander, Major Robert Anderson, was himself a southern slave-owner but was still loyal to the Union. In the middle of the night, Anderson secretly moved his men from their indefensible position to the unfinished Fort Sumter, an island in the harbor. The South Carolina militia quickly seized their old garrison and claimed the arsenal located there as their own. On December 28, South Carolina demanded that all U.S. troops be evacuated from their territory, but President James Buchanan, in his last days in office, declared that he needed more time. Meanwhile, the South Carolina militia began to close in, capturing several federal positions and thousands of weapons. By early January, Major Anderson and his men were trapped inside Fort Sumter surrounded by 6,000 hostile militiamen.
On January 5, 1861, President Buchanan dispatched the merchant ship Star of the West to reinforce Fort Sumter with food and 250 troops. Though the ship was unarmed, the move was viewed as a federal violation of state sovereignty. After all, South Carolina had asked them to leave, not to resupply. Upon hearing the news of the resupply ship, Southern senators advised their states to secede and join forces with South Carolina. A few days later, when Star of the West neared Charleston Harbor, the South Carolina militia fired on the ship from shore, forcing it to return north without unloading. The U.S. troops inside had no choice but to tighten their belts and wait. Meanwhile, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas also approved secession.
In early February, representatives from most seceding states met to form the Confederate States of America (also called the Confederacy for the duration of the war). They chose Jefferson Davis as their president and selected a military commander. Soon, the militias of several Southern states (even some that had not yet seceded) began taking over federal military installations and weapons located within their borders. Many (but not all) southern soldiers deserted the U.S. Army and joined ranks with their state militias.
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln took his oath of office as president of the United States. In his inaugural address, he extended an olive branch to the seceding states, insisting that he did not want to abolish slavery anywhere it already existed. And, while he did not want war, he could not accept secession.
Lincoln had also inherited the problem of Fort Sumter. He didn't want to provoke the South by attacking, yet he didn't want to appear weak by capitulating. When Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent delegates to Washington to negotiate the transfer of the fort, Lincoln sent them away, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Confederate government. But, Major Anderson's troops were about to either starve or surrender. So, on April 6, 1861, Lincoln announced that he was going to send food to Fort Sumter - no men, no weapons. This put the ball in Davis's court.
The Confederacy considered their strategic advantages: the men inside were weak from hunger, and they had very limited ammunition. If South Carolina attacked before supplies arrived, they would surely win. But, if they waited, they might discover that Lincoln's resupply shipment included more than food. As soon as Lincoln dispatched the relief shipment, Davis ordered Major Anderson to surrender the fort; Anderson refused.
Two days later, jubilant civilians watched from their rooftops as Confederate forces opened fire, raining thousands of artillery shells on the fort. On the afternoon of the second day of bombardment, a former Senator secretly rowed out to Fort Sumter and asked Anderson what terms he would accept in exchange for evacuating the island. The fortress was in ruins and on fire, they were almost out of food and ammunition, but no one had been killed. Anderson decided it was time to leave; he asked only that the U.S. flag be offered a 100-gun salute out of respect. The two gentlemen agreed, and the Senator's tiny white handkerchief was raised over the fort. On April 14, 1861, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the garrison, but the 100-gun salute was cut short when a misfire killed two U.S. soldiers. Anderson took the fortress's tattered flag with him; the Confederate flag was raised. Fort Sumter had fallen to the Confederacy. The American Civil War had begun.
War was never actually declared in the so-called 'War Between the States.' Congress was out of session when Fort Sumter fell; and besides, the Confederacy was never recognized as a nation by any sovereign states. President Lincoln maintained that he was quelling a rebellion when he called for 75,000 troops from the remaining states to defend or retake all U.S. military posts in the South. The response was mixed. Ohio alone could have supplied the requested number of volunteers. But, four southern states - Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee - decided to secede rather than send soldiers to help Lincoln fight against their own land and people. The vote was a close one in Virginia since that state had compelling economic, geographic, social, historic and cultural ties to both the Union and the Confederacy. Delegates of Virginia's westernmost counties strongly disagreed with secession and stormed out of the convention vowing to restore the legitimate state government. By June, they had created the, so-called, 'Restored Government of Virginia,' which (in a sense) seceded from the Confederacy and was admitted into the Union as the state of West Virginia later in 1861.
Fearing that Maryland would secede and take Washington, D.C. with it, Lincoln dispatched federal troops to protect the capitol. When a mob of 20,000 secessionists in Baltimore attempted to derail a train full of those soldiers on April 19 (just five days after the surrender of Fort Sumter), Lincoln arrested the men and suspended the writ of habeas corpus, meaning they lost their Constitutional right to face a judge before being imprisoned. Maryland and three other slave states (Missouri, Delaware and Kentucky) - often called the 'Border States' - never left the United States of America (also called the Union for the duration of the war). In fact, there were no more secessions after Tennessee.
Also on April 19, President Lincoln commenced a naval blockade of southern ports, which ultimately extended from Virginia to Texas and was not effectively broken until the end of the Civil War. Incidentally, the Union tried several times to retake Fort Sumter but was not successful until the very end of the war.
In April 1861, everyone predicted a short conflict, and each side was absolutely convinced that they were in the right, and were going to win. But, history tells us a different story. The American Civil War dragged on for four years, killing one out of every 25 American men - more soldiers total than in all of our 20th century wars combined. Besides the loss of life, there were even more wounded and crippled men, families torn apart, farms and homes destroyed, fortunes lost and a way of life ended. Slavery was abolished. A president was assassinated. And, the United States of America was saved.
Let's review. A small number of U.S. soldiers were trapped in South Carolina after that state's secession. Rather than surrender Fort Sumter, President Buchanan sent a ship full of supplies and reinforcements. In response, the South Carolina militia fired on the ship, and six more states decided to secede in the face of what they felt was a blatant violation of state sovereignty. They formed the Confederate States of America and began seizing U.S. military property and weapons as their own. Soon after his inauguration, President Lincoln also tried to resupply Fort Sumter, this time with food only. Rather than wait for the ship to arrive, South Carolina decided to attack the fort while it was most vulnerable. On April 14, 1861, Fort Sumter fell to the Confederacy. President Lincoln asked for troops to defend the remaining military posts in the South and retake those that had already been captured, prompting four more Southern states to secede. Lincoln then sent soldiers to prevent Maryland from seceding, which would have threatened the capitol. On the same day, April 19, Lincoln also began a naval blockade of the Confederacy. The Civil War had begun.
After this lesson, you'll be able to explain what happened to Fort Sumter before the Civil War began and how that event ultimately affected the War.
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Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
13 chapters | 127 lessons | 5 flashcard sets