The inauguration speech of Abraham Lincoln, most especially this final paragraph outlined his hope, prayer, and desire for the Union, and all Americans.
"I am loath to close. 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."
He didn't have to wait long to find out that "the better angels" would not rule the day. "The mystic chords" would soon be overwhelmed by the sound of cannon fire on a federal fort. Americans were soon able to see that this going to a horrifying war, pitting friends, neighbors, and families against each other.
Just as people have accused President Franklin Roosevelt of provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor to draw America into W.W.II, some historians have accused Lincoln of pushing the Confederacy into attacking Ft. Sumter to start the Civil War.
The inaugural address promised that the federal government would not start a war and that no attempt would be made to retake federal forts already held by Confederate forces. Lincoln also declared that he would "hold and possess" those installations still under federal control that were in states that had formed the Confederacy. This was well within the president's authority, beyond that Lincoln made no threats.
The day after the inauguration, everything changed, an alarming message from Major Robert Anderson, who commanded the U.S. troops holding Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor, arrived to the White House. He reported that there was less than a six-week supply of food in the fort.
Ft. Sumter, named for Revolutionary War hero Thomas Sumter, from South Carolina, sat near the center of the entrance of the entrance to Charleston Harbor. It was an unfinished, five sided brick structure that seemed to rise directly from the water. It was designed to serve 650 men, it was now occupied by 125 men, some 40 of whom were workmen completing the building. It was surrounded by smaller forts that the South Carolina militia, commanded by Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, already held.
Beauregard was one of President Jefferson Davis's first military appointments. He had been made a brigadier general in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States on March 1st. He was second in his West Point class, where he studied artillery under the same Robert Anderson who now commanded Fort Sumter.
When South Carolina seceded on December 20th, 1860, Fort Sumter and the other two United States military installations in Charleston Harbor, Ft. Moultrie and Castle Pinckney, became symbols of "foreign" authority. Major Anderson abandoned Moultrie and Castle Pinckney. President Buchanan believed that both the secession and "coercion" of states were unconstitutional and wanted only to finish his term in peace. When South Carolina seized Ft. Moultrie and Castle Pinckney, along with the customhouse, post office, treasury, and an arsenal, Buchanan did nothing. When South Carolina fired on "The Star of the West," an unarmed steamer coming into the harbor with supplies for the fort, he did nothing. He had also agreed to not reinforce Ft. Pickens, on the coast of Pensacola, Florida, in exchange for an agreement for the Confederates to not attack it. However, Buchanan refused to pull the troops from Ft. Sumter. "If I withdraw Anderson from Sumter, I can travel home to Wheatland by the light of my own burning effigies," said Buchanan, speaking of his home in Pennsylvania.
Anderson's letter about his evaporating supply of food gave Lincoln his first crisis of his new presidency. Few presidents have ever faced a problem of similar importance on the first day after taking office. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott advised Lincoln that relief of the fort was impossible; Secretary of State William Seward thought evacuating the fort was a good way to cool things off. Seward, the ambitious ex-governor of New York, and recent primary candidate against Lincoln, resented Lincoln's election and saw himself as Lincoln's intellectual and experienced superior. He considered himself to be a "prime minister," a puppet master who would eventually pull the strings on this rube from Illinois. Seward believed that the Unionists in the Confederacy would come to their senses and revoke the secession. That is what led him to meet with the Confederate emissaries against Lincoln's specific instructions and secretly promised that Lincoln would abandon the fort.
Lincoln who was searching for a middle ground that would uphold federal authority but not provoke a war, quickly demonstrated his independence of the overreaching Seward. On March 29th he decided to resupply but not to reinforce the fort, and he let South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens know the supplies were coming.
After Lincoln refused to meet with the delegates of the Confederate states, the die was cast. Jefferson Davis ordered Beauregard to demand Sumter's surrender, "and if this is refused, proceed to reduce it." As the federal forces hurried to complete the fort's defenses, Beauregard delivered the Confederate ultimatum to Major Anderson. Anderson's reply: "Gentlemen, I will await the first shot and if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be starved out in a few days." When he was told to specify the time of his evacuation, Anderson replied that he would leave by noon on April 15th barring other instructions or additional supplies from his government. When he learned that his answer was unacceptable, Anderson shook the hand of Beauregard's emissary, Colonel James Chesnut, and said, "If we never meet in this world again, I hope that we may meet in the next."
Anderson, who was a proslavery Kentuckian, but a Union loyalist. He and Beauregard were both wounded in the Mexican War. Now Beauregard had his former teacher surrounded by cannons, perhaps eager to show that he had been taught well.
It was 4:30 in the morning on April 12th, 1861, when a single mortar was fired by Captain George James. It was the signal for forty-three Confederate Cannons around Ft. Sumter to start firing. They showered over four-thousand shells down on the fort and it's occupants. The bloodiest war in American history had begun. All of Charleston crowded around the harbor to watch, "We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot." Mary Boykin Chesnut wife of Beauregard's aide wrote in her diary.
Inside the fort, Captain Abner Doubleday, Anderson's second in command, fired the first federal shot in reply. It bounced harmlessly of the iron wall of a nearby Confederate fortress. Although the federal relief vessels were beginning to arrive, they were not prepared for the crisis, and ships rode their anchors out of range. On the second day of the bombardment, the fort began to burn. Lacking supplies and enough troops for a chance of mounting a defense, Anderson ordered the fort's flag lowered and a bed sheet raised in its place. Ft.Sumter was surrendered without any loss of men on April 13th.
On April 15th, after the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln proclaimed a state of insurrection rather than a state of war. He issued a call for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three months to crush the rebellion.
For many years some historians, mostly those who had sympathies for the Confederate cause, argued that Lincoln had provoked the Confederates into firing the first shots in order to get world opinion on the side of the Union. However, this theory ignores a great many facts. First, South Carolina had already fired the first shots against a federal ship and, and by taking the other federal forts and arsenals, had already begun the war. Jefferson Davis was ready to fire on Sumter before hearing of the relief expedition, as soon as Lincoln refused to meet with Vice-President Stephens and the the other Confederate delegates. Davis had also written to General Braxton Bragg at Pensacola, ordering him to take Fort Pickens. Bragg was not ready, otherwise the war might have begun off the coast of Florida.
Lincoln, hoping to keep the slave states still in the Union from joining the Confederacy, was reluctant to take offensive action. He expected these southern states, Virginia, in particular, would remain loyal if the Union was attacked. However, rather than bringing back the undecided states, Fort Sumter and Lincoln's proclamation calling for volunteers started secession proceedings in four more states, Virgina, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee soon joined the Confederacy along with those already there, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, now eleven strong.