Provided below is Chapter Three of my twelve-chapter book: Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies. Each chapter is devoted to a controversial Civil War topic that may well have been more consequential than generally supposed. The actual book is abundantly footnoted, but the footnotes have been excluded from this sample version.
Preempting the Civil War
The fateful chain reaction of cotton state secessions that preceded the Civil War might have been aborted in January 1861. Preemption may have been accomplished in a manner comparable to the way President Andrew Jackson avoided a similar rebellion against federal authority twenty-eight years earlier during the South Carolina tariff nullification crisis.
Along with most Southerners, South Carolina had long opposed protective tariffs. Although the Constitution authorized tariffs for revenue, as an exporting region the South felt that tariffs designed chiefly to protect domestic manufacturers were unconstitutional because they favored one section of the country over another. Tariffs became increasingly protective from 1816 through 1828. In January 1833, South Carolina “nullified” the most recent tariffs, prohibiting federal officials from collecting duties within its borders starting February 1, 1833. A successful nullification precedent raised the specter of regional secession because Southern congressmen voted 64–4 against the 1828 tariff. Despite habitual sympathy for states’ rights, President Jackson sought congressional authority to compel tariff compliance militarily. Through a combination of a show of force and support for a compromise tariff, Jackson brought the Palmetto State back into line, forestalling additional movement by the other states toward nullification or secession.
A comparatively obscure incident in early January 1861 might have provided a similar opportunity to halt the Civil War before it started. Contrary to popular belief, the first shots of the Civil War were not those forcing the federal garrison at Fort Sumter to surrender on April 13, 1861. While conscientious Civil War students realize that Charleston, South Carolina, witnessed cannon fire three months earlier, many may not appreciate that the January 9, 1861, episode was potentially far more consequential than generally supposed.
Six weeks after Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina became the first state to secede, on December 20, 1860. Federal troops were routinely stationed in the state, including seventy-five artillerymen commanded by Major Robert Anderson at Fort Moultrie, which was at the mouth of Charleston harbor. Moultrie faced the water from the harbor’s north shore and wasn’t designed to withstand attack from the landward side. President James Buchanan, who would remain in office until March 4, 1861, took steps to protect the federal soldiers in Charleston even before South Carolina seceded.
On December 11, he notified Anderson to avoid aggression but to defend the forts “to the last extremity” if attacked. He further authorized Anderson to concentrate his troops at Fort Sumter if the major discovered tangible evidence of hostile intent from South Carolina. He was also prepared to send reinforcements to Anderson “at the first sign of danger.” For this purpose, the secretary of war had stationed the USS Brooklyn, a powerful war steamer, “in Hampton Roads, to take on board three hundred disciplined troops, with provisions and munitions of war, from . . . [nearby] Fortress Monroe [Virginia.]”
Accordingly, the day after Christmas 1860, Moultrie’s troops quietly disabled their artillery and secretly boarded boats for unoccupied Fort Sumter. Although still under construction, Sumter was more defensible. It was on an island near the harbor’s center on the edge of the main shipping channel. Sumter’s artillery was also far more powerful than anything available to South Carolina’s military forces.
Once Anderson concentrated his force at Sumter, South Carolina occupied the remaining harbor fortifications, which were nearly vacant. Despite pleas from his few remaining Southern cabinet members, Buchanan refused to order Anderson to evacuate Sumter and Charleston altogether. “This I cannot do,” he said. “This I will not do. Such an idea was never thought of by me in any possible contingency.” He concluded that if he were to do so, “I could travel home to [my Pennsylvania estate of] Wheatland by the light of my own burning effigies.” On New Year’s Day 1861, Buchanan concluded, “It is all over now, and reinforcements must be sent.”
It is important to appreciate that in early January 1861, South Carolina’s military capability was wholly inadequate for action against Fort Sumter, or most any armed vessel that might enter the harbor. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander of the US Army, would later tell President Lincoln, “It would have been easy to reinforce this fort [Sumter] down until about February 12.” Author Maury Klein summarizes a report, from the South Carolina militia also issued on New Year’s Day, to the state’s governor, Francis Pickens:
In blunt language [General James] Simons observed that Sumter commanded the line of communications for every other fort. Moultrie was “wholly untenable,” lacking a single man who had ever loaded a siege gun or handled a heavy-caliber cannon. The same was true of Fort Johnson, whose force could be routed by a few shells from Sumter. The Morris Island battery was manned by cadets from The Citadel and a rifle corps, none of whom had artillery experience. No fort was equipped to repel incoming vessels. (Italics added.)
Nor was South Carolina’s military inadequacy merely the opinion of her own experts. Major Anderson and others of the Sumter garrison came to the same conclusion. On New Year’s Eve, Anderson wrote to Washington, “the Government may send us additional troops at its leisure. . . . [W]e are safe. . . . [W]e can command the harbor as long as our Government wishes to keep it.” In describing the situation on January 9, Captain James Chester, who was an artilleryman inside Sumter, wrote, “at that time Sumter was master of the situation.” He added that should even an unarmed relief vessel have passed the cadet battery on Morris Island, “it would have been comparatively safe.”
Although Anderson was not eager for reinforcements after his troops were concentrated in Fort Sumter, such was not the case earlier. For example, Fort Moultrie was designed for a garrison of three hundred men, while he had but seventy-five on hand. Since Moultrie was vulnerable to attack from its landward side, his messages to Washington stressed a need for more troops unless his existing command were removed “to Fort Sumter, which so perfectly commands the harbor and [Fort Moultrie.]”
As noted, the USS Brooklyn was on standby at Hampton Roads as a vessel for a relief expedition to provide Anderson with provisions and two hundred additional soldiers. On New Year’s Eve, Buchanan told General Scott to prepare the expedition for departure. Although the ship would be ready to leave by January 3, after reflection, Scott suggested that a merchant steamer replace the Brooklyn for at least two reasons. First, the Brooklyn’s hull drew sixteen feet of water, which was close to the limit of Charleston’s shipping channels. Moreover, the offshore sand bar created by silt draining from the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, which meet at the tip of Charleston’s peninsula to form the harbor, could be even shallower than the channels. Second, a faster steamer might more readily slip into the harbor before the Carolinians could resist.
Scott may have had a third reason for declining to use the Brooklyn. The soldiers slated to board the ship were part of the garrison at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. A few days earlier, Scott told soon-to-resign Secretary of War John Floyd (a Virginian) that the general could not spare that many troops from the garrison. Apparently he was concerned that if two hundred or so were removed, prosecession Virginians might opportunistically seize the undermanned fort. Two months earlier, Scott had written to Floyd:
[I]t is my solemn conviction there is some danger of an early act of rashness preliminary to secession; [specifically,] the seizure of some or all of the following posts: Forts Jackson and St. Philip . . . below New Orleans, both without garrison; . . . Forts Pickens and McRae [at] Pensacola [Florida]; . . . Forts Moultrie and Sumter, Charleston Harbor, the former with insufficient garrison and the latter without any; and Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads, without sufficient garrison. . . . [A]ll should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take them . . . ridiculous.
Buchanan was doubtful about the change to an unarmed merchant ship. The Brooklyn was a powerful warship with over twenty cannons capable of shooting nine- and ten-inch-diameter projectiles. South Carolina had nothing approaching the firepower of either Sumter or the Brooklyn. Nonetheless, “with great reluctance” Buchanan deferred to Scott’s judgment as the military expert. Scott was the highest-ranking officer in the US Army and was a revered figure largely because he had sealed victory in the Mexican War a dozen years earlier by occupying Mexico City.
As a result of Scott’s change, a paddle-wheel steamer named Star of the West was chartered in New York and loaded with 250 soldiers from nearby Governors Island. Also aboard was an experienced Charleston pilot to navigate the ship safely into the destination harbor. The Star left New York on January 5 and would arrive off Charleston harbor on the night of January 8. Anderson’s New Year’s Eve message, implying that he could hold Sumter indefinitely, did not arrive in Washington until the Star had already departed. Two days after the Star left New York, Buchanan learned that the Carolinians were constructing an artillery battery at the entrance to Charleston harbor’s main channel. Therefore, he instructed that the Brooklyn also be sent from Hampton Roads to intercept the Star. If the Brooklyn arrived on time it was to instruct the merchant ship to return to New York, but if there were any trouble it was to aid the Star.
Scott’s messages informing Sumter of reinforcements were intercepted and arrived too late. However, Governor Pickens learned of the plans and decided to resist. Artillery batteries were hastily set up along the northern and southern shores of the harbor mouth. The ship channel would require the Star of the West to first run the batteries on the south side (Morris Island), turn west, and run those on the north shore where Fort Moultrie was now occupied by Carolinians.
A signal boat was put on patrol duty. South Carolina’s military unpreparedness was evidenced by the choice of Citadel cadets to man the Morris Island batteries. Then, as now, The Citadel was a military college, much like the Virginia Military Institute. Shortly after dawn, the signal boat launched flares. The cadet commander on Morris Island scanned the channel and saw the Star of the West moving cautiously up the channel, sounding for the bottom as it came. He instructed that a cannon be aimed to place a shot across its bow and ordered sixteen-year-old George Haynesworth to fire. The cannonball skipped over the water but, because it didn’t have enough propulsion, failed to even make it as far as the front of the ship.
Captain John McGowan of the Star was hopeful that Sumter would retaliate against the rebellious fire. To encourage such intervention, his unarmed ship was flying an oversized US flag. But the fort remained silent, even as the cadets repeatedly imperiled the ship with more shots. Eventually it was hit three times, but still Sumter made no reply. After the three hits, McGowan realized he must soon turn west and face dangers from Fort Moultrie as well. Instead, he put the Star in tight turn and returned to New York.
Following the cadets’ first shot, drummers inside Sumter beat the long roll calling troops to battle stations. Cannons were loaded and the muzzles pushed through their firing apertures. Although the Star of the West was under fire from points within range of Sumter’s guns, Anderson hesitated. He had no orders telling him what to do. Scott’s undelivered instructions would have told him that if the Star was taken under fire, Sumter “may use its guns to silence such fire.” Since those orders never got through, the major was acutely mindful that retaliating fire could trigger a fratricidal war between the states. Such responsibility caused Anderson to hesitate, and the Star retreated before he took further action.
Meanwhile, Mississippi joined South Carolina in secession before sundown, followed by Florida the next day and Alabama the day after that. A week later Georgia seceded, followed the next week by Louisiana. On the first day of the next month, Texas left the Union. Three days later the seven states formed a confederacy. Thereafter, secession momentum stalled.
After two additional months of stalemate, the now-inaugurated Lincoln decided to send a second relief expedition to Sumter to restock provisions and add soldiers to the garrison. Confederate President Davis, and most of his cabinet, concluded that Sumter must not be permitted to resupply. He authorized the bombardment that started on April 12 and led to the fort’s surrender the following day. In response, Lincoln called for an army of seventy-five thousand volunteers to invade the rebellious states and put down “combinations too powerful to be suppressed” by ordinary means.
Governors were notified of their respective state quotas. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas refused the call and joined the Confederacy within a couple of months. Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland also declined, but did not leave the Union. The federal commander in Saint Louis chased the Missouri governor and his militia to the southwest corner of the state. Kentucky resolved to remain neutral, until Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk unilaterally fortified a Mississippi River town inside the state, thereby tipping the sentiment scales northward on September 3, 1861. Various machinations stifled Southern sympathies in Maryland.
It is interesting to ponder what would have happened if the warship Brooklyn had been sent as originally planned instead of the merchant steamer Star of the West.
Since the Brooklyn was under orders to deliver supplies and soldiers to Sumter, it almost certainly would have returned fire to the Carolina batteries. It had the strength to fight past them and relieve Fort Sumter. Furthermore, the Brooklyn’s gunfire would more likely have prompted Sumter to retaliate as well. The meager Carolina batteries available in early January had no chance against such combined firepower. As noted, the Star of the West only abandoned its mission when it started coming within range of the batteries at Fort Moultrie while it was simultaneously moving beyond the range of those on Morris Island. Yet Moultrie was the more vulnerable of the two Carolina batteries and could have been silenced by Fort Sumter.
Afterward, the Brooklyn could have sailed three miles upstream to the Charleston wharves, eliminating whatever resistance it might meet along the way. Once there, it could demand the city’s surrender under its frowning guns. That’s how it happened a year later when federal warships—including the Brooklyn—fought past two forts guarding New Orleans, the Confederacy’s biggest city.
Assuming the Brooklyn had left Norfolk when it was ready on January 3, the ship would have arrived in Charleston by January 6, which was three days before any other state was prepared to secede. If the Brooklyn and Sumter had promptly forced Charleston to accept federal authority, the rebellion may never have spread enough to take root. It could have been quickly crushed, as President Jackson had done about thirty years earlier.
Historians might condemn Buchanan for failing to follow Jackson’s precedent to act forcefully and promptly to suppress South Carolina’s rebellion. However, upon analysis, it is clear that he was sensitively aware of Jackson’s example but believed he lacked the necessary tools to implement it. Specifically, Jackson did not use force against the Palmetto State on his own authority. He required congressional permission and promptly got it. He asked for a force bill in mid-January 1833, which Congress passed about six weeks later as a component of a compromise bill that would reduce the tariff. (In the terminology of the times, a force bill was a congressional bill authorizing the president to use military force to settle a dispute, which was the subject of the bill.) As Buchanan later wrote,
“Congress refused to revive [such authority] throughout the entire session of 1860–1861 and to confer upon [me] the same powers . . . conferred upon President Jackson. . . . [W]hilst witnessing the secession of one after another of the cotton states . . . it was the imperative duty of Congress to furnish the President . . . the means of repelling force by force . . . to preserve the Union. They nevertheless refused to perform this duty.”
Although reliance upon the Brooklyn instead of the Star of the West for the early January 1861 relief of Fort Sumter seems appealing in retrospect, the scenario is not without complications.
First, due to the depth of the Brooklyn’s hull, it would have been required to maneuver ponderously once inside Charleston harbor. Also, as noted, the offshore sandbar might have been an even more significant obstacle. However, there was a third option, aside from the Brooklyn or a merchant steamer: the mission might have used a smaller warship. One example was the USS Pawnee, which was stationed near Washington, DC, during the first three months of 1861. Earlier it had been on a three-month cruise to Mexico, but it had returned to Philadelphia on December 12, 1860. In short, it was available.
The Pawnee was a modern steam-and-sail-powered vessel that was only a little over a year old in January 1861. It was equipped with ten cannons, including eight with nine-inch-diameter projectiles and two smaller ones. By comparison, the Brooklyn had twenty nine-inch guns. However, since the Pawnee’s hull drew only ten feet of water, it could have more easily crossed the sandbar and would have been significantly more maneuverable once inside Charleston harbor. If it were not large enough to accommodate 250 soldiers, it could have escorted a merchant steamer carrying them. In any event, the Pawnee would have provided the Union forces significantly more firepower than the Carolinians had available, particularly when Sumter’s armament is included. Thus, instead of the Brooklyn proceeding to the Charleston wharves to demand the city’s surrender, it could have been the Pawnee.
There is a second complication that might have resulted from using a warship instead of the Star of the West to relieve Sumter in early January 1861. While a show of force might have preemptively blocked other cotton states from seceding, it can be conversely argued that such action might have further provoked them. A number of leaders, North and South, reasoned that if the disaffected states of the Deep South were not coerced back into the Union, they would eventually return on their own, particularly once it was evident they would remain an isolated small minority unless other slave states joined them. For example, when Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the gulf South after Lincoln’s call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, they doubled the white population and material resources of the Confederacy. They also nearly doubled the Confederacy’s land area east of the Mississippi River.
For purposes of preserving the Union, it would probably have been wiser to have selected a warship, as opposed to a merchant steamer, for the January 1861 Fort Sumter relief expedition. Since the Carolinians had nothing to match the combined firepower of Sumter and such a vessel, it is likely the warship could have forced the surrender of Charleston before any other states seceded, especially if it arrived on January 6. Although it is debatable whether the use of such force would have aborted—or encouraged—further state secessions, the use of the Star of the West obviously failed to prevent the Civil War.
Even in the Deep South there was considerable Union sympathy in early January 1861, which may have been fortified by decisive action against South Carolina while the state was the only one to have seceded. Decisions to leave the Union were made in the remaining gulf states in elections and conventions held from December 1860 to early February 1861. Two types of delegates were elected to such conventions. First were those favoring immediate secession, labeled “immediatists” by historian William Cooper. The second group consisted of those believing the Lincoln administration should be given a chance to demonstrate its true intentions through action before additional states should resort to secession. Cooper identifies the second group as “cooperationists.”
Initially, immediatists had significant winning margins in only Texas and Florida, but even in the latter, cooperationists probably won 40 percent of the vote. In the other four gulf states, immediatist margins were narrower. Even in Mississippi, where slaves represented about half the population, only 40 percent of the vote went to immediatists, while 30 percent voted for cooperationists, and the remaining 30 percent were for candidates who did not clarify their positions. In Georgia, immediatists won 51 to 49 percent, while their victory in Louisiana was only slightly better at 52 to 48 percent. Alabama gave immediatists a 57 to 43 percent majority.
Although the comparative strength of the cooperationists vanished by the time secession convention delegates voted, those votes came after the easy repulse of the Star of the West gave the impression that the Union lacked the resolve to block secession. Mississippi was the first example. Despite the fact that immediatists captured only about 40 percent of the vote in December, three-fourths of the delegates voted against all efforts of cooperationists to slow secession. The final vote on January 9 was 85 percent in favor of secession. Although cooperationists maintained their strength in Alabama’s final convention secession vote of 61 to 39 percent, in the other gulf states “the cooperationist minority became part of the majority [because] state loyalty conquered.” One Alabamian wrote, “every feeling of patriotism” and “every sense of good judgment” compelled that “I must share my state’s destiny.”
Although many present readers of American history are captivated by the Civil War era, its casualties and destruction were horrifying, and the war might better have been avoided. At least six hundred twenty thousand soldiers died in the Civil War, compared to four hundred five thousand American deaths in World War II, the second-largest total of war dead in US history. About 2 percent of the country’s population was killed in the Civil War, which would equal more than six million deaths if applied to today’s population. More than 4 percent of white Southerners were killed, which would be more than twelve million deaths if applied to the present US population.
Until each side came to regard the offenses of the other as unforgivable, nearly everyone moved reluctantly toward war. Although a minority of agenda-driven agitators confidently predicted any consequent war would quickly result in victory for their side, most statesmen correctly harbored darker suspicions. Many outside the Republican Party attempted unsuccessfully to reach a compromise over the five-month period from Lincoln’s election to the bombardment of Fort Sumter. While both Lincoln and Davis acknowledged the possibility of war in their respective presidential inaugural addresses, each proclaimed a desire for peace. Lincoln famously spoke to Southerners directly:
“The Government will not assail you. . . . 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 . . . by the better angels of our nature.”
Two weeks earlier, Davis had simply said, “our true policy is peace.”
It was all to no avail.
Too often, wars evolve along unpredictable paths driven by underlying and barely restrained forces propelled toward entropy. Throughout history, humanity sporadically relearns this lesson. For example, in November 1944, the US secretary of war appointed a committee to prepare an analysis of strategic bombing during World War II. In commenting on the future, the report on the European theater stated, “The great lesson to be learned . . . is that the best way to win a war is to prevent it.” The quote has sometimes been abbreviated and misattributed to Nobel Peace Prize winner General George Marshall: “The best way to win a war is to prevent it.”
The problem with alternate histories, such as the substitution of a warship for the Star of the West, is that the hypothetical change of a single variable renders as speculative all subsequent actions and reactions. Consider if John Wilkes Booth’s pistol miraculously failed to fire. While it might seem probable that Lincoln would live, there could be no assurance that Booth would have been unable to kill him another way.
Conversely, the value of alternate historical scenarios is that they force us to appraise past events in the context of the applicable times and circumstances without prior knowledge of the results. For example, if it was known that the Soviet Union would eventually collapse as a consequence of flaws inherent in its economic system, it would seem illogical to support a corrupted puppet régime in South Vietnam at the cost of nearly sixty thousand American lives. But in the 1960s, our leaders concluded the fall of South Vietnam would initiate a chain reaction of additional communist takeovers. Those who can remember the politics of the 1960s cannot deny the prevalence of the domino theory.
As Cuban refugee and Yale historian Carlos Eire writes, “Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.” As our nation marches past the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, many historians are increasingly prone to ignore the context of those times. Consideration of alternate scenarios can help correct this defect. The best Civil War history is written by those able to imagine they were present at the time without knowing the outcome. In short, hindsight handicaps history.
If you enjoyed the story above, consider buying one of my three Civil War books:
and an illustrated and annotated version of the memoirs of Confederate Private Sam Watkins, Co. Aytch.