I must apologize, I have tried several times but Yahoo will not allow a complete answer. If you have a wish for more information please email me email@example.com and I’ll send you the complete answer I intended which is still far short of a complete answer.
Forms of this question appear quite often in Yahoo/Answers and answering ‘correctly is always a challenge because a correct answer is much larger than we have room to address herein. So challenge is what to leave in and what to edit out. This is more difficult than one might anticipate since the ‘accepted’ history has become tainted with the revisions of the winning side.
Certainly South Carolina’s secession and the ensuing events within Charleston Harbor play significant roles in the initiation of the American War of the 1860s (hereafter for clarity I’ll use the common but incorrect identification ‘The Civil War.’) However, it is important to realize that these specific events were not the cause of the war nor was the firing on Fort Sumter the first shots of that war. .
In the events leading to instigation of hostilities of the Civil War, much is made of President Lincoln’s activities pro and con and that is only right since his actions were a significant factor in the initiation of hostilities. However, a case could be made that when Lincoln took office events were well on their way to war due to inaction (as well as incorrect action) of President Buchanan.
Here I suggest that it would be to your advantage to seek information detailing the history of President Buchanan. So too would it be profitable to review his cabinet members as well as their opinions and the changes of cabinet members. I also suggest that it would be wise to look into events seemingly divorced from leading to this war such as the Mormon Uprising in Utah ; there was also financial distress in the federal government which by 1857 had a treasury so lacking that for a time their own officers couldn’t be paid. And of course in March 1857 Chief Justice Taney delivered the decision for Dred Scott v. Sanford with concurrence by associate justices Wayne Nelson, Grier, Daniel, Campbell and Catron. Then there was the new stress with England which arose in 1859 over possession of the Island of San Juan near the Island of Vancouver in the Northern Pacific. Other things drew the interest of the federal government with such as the discovery of large lodes of coal throughout the nation, gold discovered at Pike’s Peak. Silver discovered at the Comstock Lode, minerals discovered throughout the Rocky mountains, and in 1859 oil was struck in Titusville Pennsylvania.
The coming presidential election didn’t help President Buchanan. The Parties promoted the following propositions:
The Northern Democrats wanted the people of each territory to decide the question of slavery in that territory.
The Southern Democrats declared that it was the right and duty of Congress to protect slavery in the territories.
The Republicans asserted that it was the right and duty of congress to forbid slavery in the territories.
The National Constitutional Party pledged to support the Constitution, the union, and the enforcement of the laws.
The election had the following results:
Candidate States Popular Vote Electoral Vote
Lincoln 17 1,866,352 180
Breckinridge 11 845,703 72
Bell 3 589,581 39
Douglas 2 1,375,157 12
And we think that elections in the 21st Century have been contentious!
But with Lincoln clearly the winner the die was cast. The State Convention of South Carolina met in Charleston 17 December 1860 and on the 20th they unanimously adopted secession. Now before President Lincoln was sworn in:
South Carolina appointed ministers to proceed to Washington DC and treat with the president for United States property within the borders of South Carolina. The ministers were refused recognition by President Buchanan. At the same time South Carolina invited other States to join them.
While the North responded to President Buchanan’s proclamation recommending 4 July 1861 as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, South Carolina began to prepare for the eventuality of war because as the first to secede it was most likely that hostilities would begin there. The natural step was to strengthen the defenses of Charleston Harbor which had Castle Pinckney, Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie and Fort Johnson with Fort Sumter the strongest.
Here I make the suggestion that looking at a map of the time for Charleston Harbor would help you to understand what ensued. (Although you may have to go to a University to reference a copy, I suggest that “The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War” published by the Government Printing Office 1891 – 1895. My copy is too large to scan for sending. (If you get a copy I suggest page 303 - plate 131 – Map 1) Here you will easily determine that fort Sumter is barely 2 miles from open sea but only about ¾ miles from Battery Greg on the Southern Cummings Point and, only about a mile from the Northern Sullivan’s Island with Battery Bea and Fort Moultrie. There were other batteries but these were the closest. While all of this plus Fort Sumter were great protection for the Harbor, it made Fort Sumter totally indefensible from the other batteries and Forts. Unfolding events make these facts not only important but make highly suspect actions taken by President Lincoln.
Fort Sumter had been occupied in October of 1860 by Union Colonel Gardner who attempted to increase the supply of ammunition. Secretary of War Floyd promptly removed him due to these actions. Major Robert Anderson succeeded Gardner. Major Anderson’s intent was to strengthen his defenses and he wrote to Adjutant General Cooper in Washington urging such steps. As with others in Washington Cooper was a secessionist and he made sure no such actions were taken. Anderson noted in a letter to Washington shortly after the South Carolina ordinance of secession, that a steamer was stationed near Fort Sumter, with the obvious purpose keeping out all government re-enforcement of the Fort Sumter and that it also seemed obvious this steamer would be involved in sizing Fort Sumter in the event that the union didn’t hand it over to South Carolina.
Being a military man Anderson knew that it would be impossible for his command to defend the four forts and decided to focus on Fort Sumter. Knowing that the people of Charleston were watching him, a show was made to move into Fort Johnson with the Women and Children (the garrison’s families) being taken to Fort Johnson. During the night of 26 December 1860 the garrison moved to Fort Sumter as others of the command spiked the guns, burned the carriages and cut down the flag staff of the other forts. Anderson sent a letter to Adjutant General Cooper informing of this action, but this letter was preceded by a telegram from the people of Charleston to the Union War office.
It should not be surprising that tempers ran high with the people of Charleston. The authorities declared that Major Anderson’s act was a virtual declaration of war, with hundreds of young men demanding to attack Fort Sumter. Although such an act was not allowed, Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney were occupied by forces of South Carolina with the custom-house and post office also sized, and the militia took possession of the government arsenal. The union revenue cutter “William Aiken” was surrendered by its commanding officer. As a tone of the times, when Major Anderson asked of the new commander of Fort Moultrie by what authority did he occupied it, the reply was, “By the authority of the sovereign State of South Carolina, and by the command of her government.”
This act of Major Anderson and the response of South Carolina began to solidify pressure in the North for President Buchanan to act. This is when he made the strong unionist Edwin Stanton the Attorney General. The unarmed steamer “Star of the West” was sent to Charleston with supplies for Major Anderson. Buchanan’s Secretary of the Interior Thompson was so offended by this act that he resigned going back to Mississippi to work in support of secession. On 9 January 1861 the “Star of the West” approached Fort Sumter and a battery on Morris Island fired on her and she replied by running up the Stars and Stripes. The battery continued to fire with Fort Moultrie joining in and, two steam tugs and an armed schooner moved out to intercept. The “Star of the West” put about and returned to New York. It is my understanding that this date and action is the official beginning of the hostilities of the Civil War.
Interestingly Major Anderson was not aware of the coming of the supply steamer. He demanded from South Carolina Governor Pickens the meaning of the firing on the flag (of the Star of the West) further declaring that if not disavowed that he (Major Anderson) would accept the firing as an act of war and he would respond by not allowing vessels to pass within range of his guns. The governor responded by stating that this was an act of the State of Carolina.
These events spurred other Southern States to move forward to secession, meeting on 4 February 1861 which converted itself into a “Congress” and by 9 February 1861 all members taking the oath of allegiance and then electing President Davis and Vice President Stephens.
It is also interesting to note (in the context of the Forts of Charleston) that when Louisiana seceded 26 January 1861 the U.S. Mint at New Orleans was sized and more than $1,300,000 in double eagles and silver half dollars were struck until the bullion was depleted in May of 1861 and the U.S. dies were destroyed. There were other U.S. forts in the South (such as in Florida) which were also sized.
With all of these events the firing on Fort Sumter
Student (40 years) of the Constitution and the revolution as well as the American War of the 1860s.