-- And The War Came --

Wednesday April 10, 1861

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Commentary: The Confederacy's Decision

Davis's decision was made with the concurrence of his cabinet. Only secretary of state, Robert Toombs of Georgia, vocally dissented. Toombs is alleged to have exclaimed that an attack on Sumter would be "suicide, murder," and would stir a "hornet's nest" of hostility to the South. "It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal," Toombs pleaded. But the cabinet ordered the attack on Sumter.

Davis's order of April 10 was, in Richard N. Current's words, "a fateful decision" and represented a significant escalation of aggressiveness by the Confederate government. Previously, Davis had instructed that Sumter not be resupplied. Now, the Confederacy was demanding that Anderson withdraw or surrender before the relief expedition arrived. Why was this "fateful decision" made?

According to Davis, the Montgomery government was acting in self-defense. Lincoln's dispatch of a relief expedition constituted a "hostile" act, and the reduction of Fort Sumter was, therefore, "a measure of defense rendered absolutely and immediately necessary." The fort was the legitimate possession of the state of South Carolina, and the state as well as the Confederate government had shown "unexampled" forbearance in trying to negotiate an equitable settlement with the United States for the removal of its forces. The sending of an expedition to maintain the fort was, therefore, an act of "coercion" against South Carolina and the Confederacy. To permit the United States to further strengthen its position would have been "as unwise as it would be to hesitate to strike down the arm of the assailant, who levels a deadly weapon at one's breast, until he has actually fired."

Davis did not accept the distinction that Lincoln invoked between a peaceable provisioning and a forcible reinforcement. Even if one could take Lincoln at his word-- and Davis believed that Lincoln, like Buchanan, could not be trusted-- Davis considered a peaceable provisioning just as coercive and illegitimate as a full-scale military effort to land troops.

But Davis's justification of self-defence is unconvincing to scholars like Richard N. Current, who view the Confederate leadership as animated by more aggressive purposes than Davis acknowledged. According to Current, the Confederate government could have interpreted Lincoln's policy as merely maintaining the status quo. Davis could well have instructed Beauregard to permit supplies, but no reinforcements, to be landed. Sumter in Union hands, without reinforcements and without control of the surrounding batteries, posed no immediate threat to the South.

Alternatively, Davis might simply have continued his previous policy of preventing the provisioning of Sumter. His forces could have awaited and then resisted the Sumter expedition, perhaps even provoking Union forces to fire the first shot. Instead, he demanded an immediate withdrawal from the fort before the relief expedition arrived.

Current argues that throughout the period following secession, the Confederate states had been aggressively taking over federal property and forts. The Confederate government had resolved to obtain the remaining forts by negotiations or force, and Davis's April 10 order to Beauregard was consistent with this policy. Thus, even if Lincoln had abandoned Sumter, the contest would have come elsewhere, at Fort Pickens, for example, where Confederate troops were preparing for an attack.

Davis and his cabinet, in reality, calculated that there was more to be gained by a preemptive attack on Sumter than by another course. To be sure, there were advantages in withholding an attack. Such a policy would delay a military confrontation and give the Confederacy additional time to prepare for war. It would also avoid identifying the South with the onus of initiating war. Then, too, the Fox expedition might fail of its own accord, nullifying the need for resistance.

But there were more powerful inducements to initiate action. Self-restraint by the Confederacy risked demoralization and loss of honor, and zealots in South Carolina might seize the initiative and attack the fort, anyway. An aggressive course also promised to bring the upper South into the Confederacy, and a united South might compel the Union to refrain from fighting and to recognize southern independence. Regardless of the North's response, southern unity would bring diplomatic recognition and support from France and England. In the end, the benefits of immediate action, when combined with the perceived legitimacy of the Confederacy's cause, led to the fateful decision of April 10.

Confederate aggressiveness is also the theme of Grady McWhiney. McWhiney quotes a letter of April 6, 1861 from President Davis to his chief military authority in Pensacola, General Braxton Bragg, which indicates Davis's willingness to start the war. Davis ordered Bragg to take measures "directed to the capture of Fort Pickens," and declared that its capture and the defense of Pensacola Harbor "overbalanced" any advantage that might derive from waiting for federal forces to initiate military action. According to McWhiney, it was only Bragg's inability to guarantee a successful assault against Pickens that led Confederate officials in Montgomery to shift their attention to Fort Sumter.

Allan Nevins calls the South's decision to attack Sumter "an act of rash emotionalism." A feeling of southern nationalism made intolerable the occupation by the federal government of forts in key southern ports. Continued delay would appear more and more cowardly as radicals grew impatient with the standoff. Davis, then, rushed to battle over a fort that "offered neither impediment nor threat to the Confederacy."

In light of these analyses, it is interesting to speculate about what would have happened had President Davis held firm to his original policy of preventing the provisioning of Fort Sumter. Since the flagship of the Sumter expedition, the Powhatan, headed for Pensacola and never arrived at Charleston, it is uncertain whether the relief force would have tried, let alone succeeded, in reaching the fort. Had Beauregard's troops withheld their fire, the Sumter mission might have failed without a shot being fired, or at least without the Confederacy firing the first shot. The prestige of the Lincoln administration would have suffered a blow.

Bibliography: Nevins, War for the Union, 1:. 68-73; Current, "Confederates and the First Shot," pp. 357-69; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 149-51,205-6; Davis, Rise and Fall, 1: 291-92; McWhiney, "Confederacy's First Shot," pp. 10-14.

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