“Forced” to Fire the First Shot
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 OfftheMall.com. Star of the West image via SonoftheSouth.net.