Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“Forced” to Fire the First Shot

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 12, 2011

One hundred fifty years ago, Captain George Sholter James of the South Carolina Artillery passed word to his subordinate, Lieutenant Henry Farley, to open fire on Fort Sumter, a half-mile away to the east, with a ten-inch mortar positioned at Fort Johnson. The concussion of that first shell would reverberate for the next four years.

I’m not very good about remembering or observing anniversaries. (My wife will confirm this.) And I probably wouldn’t write anything at all about the bombardment of Fort Sumter, but for a piece that appeared Monday in the Washington Post‘s Civil War sesquicentennial blog, A House Divided. The blog itself is a group blog, which publishes short pieces by a variety of historians, written in response to specific questions. For Monday’s installment, the question was, “by attempting to resupply Ft. Sumter, did President Lincoln purposely provoke the war?” The selected respondents this time were Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park; Craig Symonds, Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy, Mike Musick, former Subject Area Expert for the U.S. Civil War with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; Brag Bowling, director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute and past Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Sons of Confederate Veterans and past President of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable; John Marszalek, Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University; and Lonnie Bunch, Founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Each of the authors has a slightly different take on the question, though most conclude that Lincoln’s efforts to resupply Sumter were explicitly not intended to provoke a shooting war. Bowling disagrees in an essay that is filled with common talking points about the Sumter crisis and Lincoln’s supposed Machiavellian plotting to “force” the Confederate artillerymen into firing the first shot. Bowling’s essay is a trimmed-down version of one he’d written a couple of weeks ago for  the Georgia Heritage Council website.

Bowling uses Lincoln’s March 4, 1861 inaugural address as a jumping-off point, choosing his quote from that document very selectively. He writes that Lincoln “boldly stated that he would use federal power only to ‘hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and collect duties and imports [sic., imposts],'” giving the phrase an ominous and threatening tone. In fact, what Lincoln said was far more conciliatory, and crafted to be as non-threatening as possible:

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used 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 be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States in any interior locality shall be so great and universal as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people for that object. While the strict legal right may exist in the Government to enforce the exercise of these offices, the attempt to do so would be so irritating and so nearly impracticable withal that I deem it better to forego for the time the uses of such offices.

Bowling describes Lincoln’s address as a “saber rattling speech.” Very few who’ve read it would agree. Though Lincoln insists throughout that the Union must remain intact, indivisible, he tries again and again to, in modern parlance, “dial it back.” He calls on citizens to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject,” reminding them that “nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.” He reminds them that the Union was older than the Constitution itself, or the country, tracings its origin to the Articles of Association of 1774. He reminds them that the Constitution, through its provision for amendment, makes possible peaceful redress of its provisions deemed onerous by a sufficient number of the people. He reminds them, too, that on the questions that so vexed the Southern states ‘ secession conventions, on their claimed rights regarding slavery, particularly its expansion and protection in the territories, the Constitution remains silent. He cautions his audience that, even after the secession of the Southern states, war might still be averted and a peaceful resolution found:

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 being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

He ends, of course, with the famous lines, “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Most odd of all to me is that Bowling overlooks Lincoln’s plain and explicit statement that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” It’s a tremendously important line in the inaugural address, because it again underscores Lincoln’s intention not to interfere with the status quo ante regarding slavery in those states where it is already established. It’s odd that Bowling ignores this particular line, too, because it’s routinely tossed out by the SCV and its ideological allies as “proof” that the Lincoln Administration did not originally set out in 1861 to destroy the institution of slavery, as “politically correct” historians supposedly insist. I’ve never yet met a serious historian or secondary level history teacher who believed and taught that, but it’s taken as an article of faith in some quarters that they do.

Bowling’s piece ignores all these passages, in favor of a short quote that seems directly to threaten the use of force against the South. And he misquotes that, writing “imports” for “imposts.”

He notes that Lincoln refused to meet with “a group of Southern commissioners [that] went to Washington to negotiate a peaceful settlement of all questions arising from secession, to pay for federal property and to arrange for the removal of the garrison in Charleston Harbor.” In short, he faults Lincoln for not completely capitulating to the secessionists, and for standing firm on the one principle Lincoln saw as inviolable, that he would not submit to the breakup of the Union. He faults Lincoln for not breaking the pledge he’d made in his inaugural address and a dozen other speeches between his election and taking office four months later; he faults Lincoln for not keeping his word. Bowling characterizes this sequence of events, which played out over a period of weeks, covered by virtually every newspaper in the country, as “the cleverest but most deceitful con game in American history.”

Bowling ominously notes that “Lincoln sent a flotilla of fighting ships to Ft. Sumter complete with food, ammunition and troops.” Lincoln had, in fact, informed South Carolina’s Governor Pickens of the effort well in advance, assuring him that “an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice, [except] in case of an attack on the fort.” What Bowling describes as a “flotilla of fighting ships” included only two wooden warships, the second class screw sloops Pawnee and Pocahontas (right), along with the sidewheel U.S. Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane, a force that would have stood little chance in a direct fight against the shore batteries at Charleston. (Anyone who believes this small force of wooden ships posed a serious naval threat to Charleston would do well to reacquaint himself with the troubles the U.S. Navy had there two years later, this time using ironclads.) There was also a chartered civilian steamer, Baltic, and three small steam tugs. The expedition did indeed include ammunition and men — 200 of the latter, barely enough to fully man the fort, and in no way sufficient to force a landing on shore — but Lincoln had ordered the expedition’s commander, Gustavus Fox, to land only supplies at the fort unless his ships were fired upon by the batteries that ringed the harbor, now all occupied by Southern artillerymen. The newly-established Confederate government, though, determined to force the issue before the supply ship arrived. And thus, Captain James received his orders to open fire on Fort Sumter in the predawn darkness, 150 years ago today.

Bowling repeats a standard trope that the crafty Lincoln “forced” or “tricked” General Beauregard’s batteries into firing the first shot of the war. “Lincoln realized,” Bowling says,

that if South Carolina and the Confederacy allowed reprovision, it would make a mockery of their sovereignty. If the Confederacy fired on the ships bringing provisions, he would have maneuvered them into firing the first shots of the war, thus rallying the North into a wartime footing and national feeling of patriotism to restore the Union. A perfectly executed ruse. Checkmate.

I’ve never understood this argument, because frankly, it’s insulting to Jefferson Davis, Governor Pickens, General Beauregard, James Chesnut, Louis Wigfall and all the other military and civilian leaders who were controlling events in Charleston. It admits no freedom of will to these men; it implies they were helpless, shrinking violets who allowed themselves to be carried along with the current of events beyond their understanding or control, easily and utterly manipulated by scheming politico in Washington. It is certainly true that, when faced with an expedition to re-provision the fort, Confederate forces had to make a decision on whether to try to interfere with that or not. But that was a position they had willingly, deliberately, put themselves into, and if in the wee hours of April 12 they had a difficult decision to make, it was a predicament of their own making. The expedition to resupply Sumter posed a direct threat to nothing but Confederate pride, but that was simply too much to abide. Craig Symonds, writing in response to the same question, sums it up neatly: “It was Confederate President Jefferson Davis who decided to open fire on the fort before the re-supply vessels could arrive. He did so mainly because he feared looking weak more than he feared civil war. It was a disastrous decision.”

Bowling’s essay is disappointing but predictable in its refusal to acknowledge any mistakes on the part of the Confederacy, or (more important) any responsibility for the conflict that followed. Beauregard was “literally” forced to fire the first shot of the war. These same rationalizing contortions have also led to claims that Major Anderson’s abandonment of Fort Moultrie to the secessionist militia and evacuation to Sumter had been a hostile act, when in fact Anderson was explicitly trying to avoid bloodshed while still hewing to his obligations as a U.S. Army officer. It’s a rationalization that ignores the firing on the unarmed steamer Star of the West the preceding January (above), which had been sent on a previous resupply mission. It’s a rationalization that ignores the seizure of Federal armories and military installations across the South and in the territories. It’s a rationalization that ignores the ouster of duly-elected public officials who refused to pledge their allegiance to the Confederacy. The responsibility for all of it, Bowling argues, lies at Lincoln’s feet and nowhere else.

It’s a shame, because Brag Bowling’s been given a great opportunity at A House Divided to blog alongside some of the leading present-day historians of the period, inducing Joan Waugh, Waite Rawls, Harold Holzer, Gary Gallagher, Chandra Manning and Ira Berlin. It’s heady and intimidating company, to be sure, but with it comes a responsibility to offer more than tired tropes and selectively-edited quotes. I’d have hoped for better.


Images: Guns at Fort Johnson, 1865, with Fort Sumter in the distance, via Library of Congress. U.S.S. Pocahontas image via Star of the West image via

21 Responses

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  1. Sorn Jessen said, on April 12, 2011 at 6:12 am

    It’s a shame, because Brag Bowling’s been given a great opportunity at A House Divided to blog alongside some of the leading present-day historians of the period, inducing Joan Waugh, Waite Rawls, Harold Holzer, Gary Gallagher, Chandra Manning and Ira Berlin. It’s heady and intimidating company, to be sure, but with it comes a responsibility to offer more than tired tropes and selectively-edited quotes.

    It’s the vaudville before the shakespeare……….

    • Andy Hall said, on April 12, 2011 at 7:10 am

      Thanks, and congrats on wrapping up the thesis!

      • Sorn Jessen said, on April 12, 2011 at 11:24 pm

        Thanks, for the congratulations and all. In some ways it was a lot of fun, other’s not so much. I owe TNC and you guys over there a big debt for helping to form part of the conceptual framework concerning it all.

  2. Will said, on April 12, 2011 at 7:42 am

    Awesome piece, Andy!

    As I believe they say on the internets, Mr. Bowling got told.

  3. BorderRuffian said, on April 12, 2011 at 7:49 am

    “It’s a rationalization that ignores the firing on the unarmed steamer Star of the West the preceding January (above), which had been sent on a previous resupply mission.”

    You forgot about the 200 artillerists hidden in the hold of the ship for the reinforcement of Fort Sumter.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 12, 2011 at 8:13 am

      I’m not sure how “hidden” they were, given that (like every other aspect of the Sumter crisis) their presence was widely noted or rumored in the press at the time. Had they been landed, they (like the troops present in April) would have only filled out the complement of Sumter and made it more difficult to take that post — they posed no offensive threat to South Carolina.

    • Craig Swain said, on April 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm

      Infantrymen. Indeed untrained recruits. Let’s get the facts straight.

  4. Jeffry Burden said, on April 12, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Mr. Bowling has had an uncommon ability to embarrass himself with his half-baked public pronouncements, for some time now. It’s nice to know some things never change.

    • Bob Huddleston said, on April 12, 2011 at 9:44 pm

      Bowling outdid himself, when, attempting to slam AL, he actually compared him to Churchill:

      Denouncing the statue as an insult to the Confederacy, Virginia’s SCV commander Bragdon Bowling stated to the crowd that, “They have no concept of history and how it might be the wrong place to put the statue. As a Southerner, I’m offended. You wouldn’t put a statue of Winston Churchill in downtown Berlin, would you? What’s next, a statue of Sherman in Atlanta?”– Camp Talk, Blue Gray Magazine, Summer 2003, p. 32

      • Andy Hall said, on April 12, 2011 at 10:00 pm

        I remember reading that. Not the best-thought-through analogy. The whole SCV response to the Lincoln statue at Tredegar was a slow-motion comedy-of-errors from start to finish, ending with the Jeff Davis statue at Beauvoir.

    • Robert Moore said, on April 19, 2011 at 2:22 am

      You got that right…

  5. Craig Swain said, on April 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    “the second class screw sloops Pawnee and Pocahontas”

    As I noted back in January with regard to the USS Brooklyn, the Navy had only two ships in commission that could actually cross the Charleston bar – at the channel mind you – unaided. The US Navy at the time was equipped to fight a commerce protection war ( the War of 1812) on the high seas, not littoral actions as needed at Charleston. Arguably the Navy was still not able to conduct wide-scale littoral operations until mid-1863.

    There are a number of tactical points that Bowling is just flat wrong about, or failed to consider. The details of the weapon placements, the hydrography, and topography are paramount to understanding the “what” behind the Fort Sumter story. Many things played into the chain of events, including those “physical” considerations.

    I’m glad you took up the response here. I’d thought about, if I had time later this week, to work through the details and post something. Might still do that.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 12, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      Thanks for this. I’d be happy to hear your further thoughts, as well.

  6. Rob in CT said, on April 13, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Good stuff as usual.

    They fired off cannon yesterday here in Hartford to commemorate the attack on Sumter. Bloody loud, even from a ways and through the windows of the office building…

    • Andy Hall said, on April 13, 2011 at 2:47 pm

      I wonder if they shot off one in Hartford at the time — the Sumter Crisis was followed across the country.

  7. Marc Ferguson said, on April 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Hi Andy,
    Your historical accuracy and reasoning has been called out on one of the notorious, “Southron sympathetic” discussion groups:

    “Quoting the Dead Confederate, below, I see that what we have here is evidence that the essayist is desperate in his denial of the obvious–his argument only works if troops aren’t troops, warships aren’t warships, and Lincoln didn’t send any of them.  The notion that these troops and warships don’t count because there’s less of them is illogical and anti-rational and anti-reality. It’s on par with the “little bit pregnant” argument’.Furthermore, for Lincoln to have sent more of either would betray his ruse. He has to make it look like he’s only doing what he says he’s doing which is just enough to make the South the aggressor; not to be seen to be the aggressor by sending the entire US Navy& army (such as it was) South.

    And, no it wasn’t “well in advance”.

    And, “without further notice” negates the rest of what Lincoln says.”

    Stop making so much sense, you scalawag!


    • Andy Hall said, on April 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm

      Thanks for the link. I’m not sure why 200 troops were considered such a threat; that would take, what, like ten True Southrons to lick ’em before breakfast? 😉

      More seriously, if you start with the notion that Lincoln was a Machiavellian chessmaster who wanted a war regardless as a first principle, you can always figure out some sort of rationalization to fit that. If he say he wants a war, that’s proof he wants a war. If he says he doesn’t want a war, that’s proof that he secretly does.

      To be clear, I think Lincoln was willing to risk a war to preserve the Union, but that’s a very different thing than trying to force one. To simply capitulate and hand over Sumter — and every other Federal military installation and property across the South — would be to betray everything he stood for regarding the inviolability of the Union, and a complete abrogation of his responsibility as president. It’s astonishing to me that those preferring the “Southern” perspective cannot recognize that, that Lincoln’s position was every bit as bound up in principle and duty, as he saw it, as they believe theirs to have been. It’s not sufficient to simply say that, from the “Southern” perspective, he was wrong; it seems to be necessary to show that he was actually evil.

      Bowling comes close enough to being correct in one place, when he says that “Lincoln totally had misjudged the Southern capacity to fight.” But that applies at least as much to Davis et al., if not more-so, than to the Union. Further, while I believe that Lincoln fully recognized the possibility that his actions at Sumter would prompt a shooting engagement, I don’t believe the new Confederacy ever really thought the Lincoln administration would stand its ground and fight.

      • Robert Moore said, on April 19, 2011 at 2:47 am

        To be sure, yes, the seems to be an opinion among Northerners back then that put into question the interests/willingness of Southerners to fight… see D.H. Strother regarding the “eteffe” (or however that’s spelled). Yet, I think Lincoln put too much hope, initially, in Southern Unionism, but that whole line of thought moves well beyond the scope of your post.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 14, 2011 at 3:53 pm

      I should also point out that that quote is much more fun if you read it out loud (“Ah see that whut we have hee-yah. . . .”) in a Boss Hogg voice.

      • Marc Ferguson said, on April 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm

        I especially like, “He has to make it look like he’s only doing what he says he’s doing which is just enough to make the South the aggressor.” What better proof that this was a ruse to trick those poor, foolish, trigger-happy Southerners than that Lincoln, sneaky fellow that he was, only did what he said he would do?!

        I’m practicing the voice now, and I’m sure my family will enjoy the quote when I give it, as Boss Hogg, at the dinner table.

  8. David N. said, on February 25, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Hello! You’ve mentioned in your article that many neo-Confederates routinely cite Lincoln’s words during his inaugural speech on not interfering with slavery in the States where it existed (which were in fact a direct quotation of a previous 1858 speech during his debates against Stephen Douglas) as proof that he didn’t care about slavery.

    However these people constantly overlook an important line from the same speech: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute”.
    Yes you read it correctly ‘the ONLY substantial dispute’. This simply shows that before the beginning of the war Lincoln not only described slavery as the cause behind the secession but also his dedication to prevent its spread into the Territories, which would have lead to its “ultimate extinction” (remember the ‘House Divided’).

    So in fact Lincoln’s administration did “care” about slavery but not the way we think it did.

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