155 years ago today – April 12, 1861 – the first shot of the Civil War rang out in Fort Sumter, South Carolina. “The Civil War has now begun in earnest,” Harper’s Weekly would later tell its readers.
This was not a war started in haste. The founding fathers had managed to set aside the issue of slavery in order to create unity between the thirteen colonies. The thought was that it would eventually die a slow death; by 1800 importation of slaves had nearly ceased & the slave population was around 694,000. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, it allowed Southern farmers to process more cotton; with slave labor, it also allowed them to also make bigger profits. By 1860 there were 3.95 million slaves in the United States, which was 12% of the total population; in the South, slaves accounted for 43% of their population.
When the Battle of Fort Sumter occurred, only seven southern states had seceded from the Union. Later Virginia (including West Virginia, though in 1863 they were admitted as a new state to the Union), Tennessee, Arkansas & North Carolina would also secede and join the Confederate States of America. Three states would maintain neutrality – Maryland, Kentucky & Missouri – though thousands of people served either the northern or southern cause.
While the subject of slavery fueled the flames for war, in the end it came down to State’s rights vs. National government. Ever since the United States was formed, there had been differences in opinion over what type of control national government should have. Initially there was great focus on State and Local governments, with the national government role evolving and expanding with each election. Most disagreements were on things such as tariffs and sectionalism (looking at the nation as sections, with most of the power being held in the North at the time of the war). Slavery played a large role as it was tied into the Southern economy, but it was not the sole reason for secession.
Secession was something many states throughout the United States had explored at various times through its history. Other places around the world had separated from an initial government; a break did not necessarily have to mean war. The Southern states thought that they had every right to break away & form their own union; to them, it was no different than when the 13 colonies sought to break their ties to England. It was the position of the Northern leaders that the South did not have this right. Based on these two very different stances, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and C.S.A. Provisional President Jefferson Davis did what was in the best interest of their countries for the people they represented.
It’s important to keep in mind that in 1861, the country was quite vast, but travel was limited for most people. There was not a large sense of U.S. patriotism or even a strong connection. When people spoke of home, it was often in reference to their state. It is why people like Robert E. Lee would leave the U.S military and his “country” to fight for his home state of Virginia – which will soon become a part of the Confederate States of America.
When the first shot rang out at Fort Sumter, many understood that this meant the start of something. Very few predicted it would be the start of a four year war, with 1,100,000 casualties, 620,000 of them being killed from battle wounds or from illness. Even those in the most powerful of positions, such as U.S. President Lincoln, thought this would be the beginning of a “90 day war,” to be mostly fought by volunteers in an effort to put an end to a small “rebellion.” A few people, one of them being future U.S. General William T. Sherman, understood that this was more than a rebellion, and would write to his brother, U.S. Senator John Sherman (Ohio): “I still think it is to be a long war – very long – much longer than any Politician thinks.”
U.S. General Robert Anderson and his men manage to survive the first day of Confederate attacks, led by C.S.A. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who years before had been a student of Anderson’s at West Point. The bombardment of the fort will continue throughout the night.
Though Virginians had moved very quickly back in May to secure Harpers Ferry, today forces retreat and head south. But before doing so, they confiscate what they can from the armory and burn the buildings to the ground.
Positioned at the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Virginia is the USS Mount Vernon, an old civilian steamer that has been converted for use in the U.S. Navy. Captain Oliver S. Glisson sends a letter to the commander of the North Atlantic Squadron in which he writes about slaves looking to escape to protection behind Union lines.
“I have to report, that this morning at daylight we observed a boat adrift near Stingray Light House and soon after discovered a man in the Light House. We manned a boat, armed her, and sent her with an officer to pick up the boat, and to ascertain who was in the Light House.
At 8h30m the boat returned bringing with her six Negroes who had deserted from the shore during the night and taken shelter in the Light House casting their boat adrift to avoid detection.
I have rationed these Negroes on board of this Vessel, until I receive orders from you as to their disposal.
They appear to be much frightened and state that the people on shore are about arming the Negroes with the intention of placing them in the front of Battle. Their taking this course has caused much excitement amongst the Negro population, who are deserting in every direction. Two other boats made their escape last night in the hope of being picked up by some Vessel passing in the Bay.”