Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XIII: Second Secession


[Ed. Note: For another anniversary in 1961, look here. And for another anniversary in 1981, look here.]

On the 9th of April, 1861, a small flotilla stood to sea from New York harbor, bound for Fort Sumter. They should get there in two or three days, with several days to spare before Major Anderson's supplies run out. There was even a rumor that the reinforcements were bound for Fort Pickens in Florida. This would have been an admirable deception operation except ...

Except that President Lincoln had sent a message to Governor Pickens of South Carolina informing him of his intent to resupply Fort Sumter. I guess operational security had not been invented yet.

On the other hand, there was a good reason why Lincoln would have done this. In his inaugural address, he had sworn to hold all Federal properties and territories. He was publicly stating his legal right -- indeed, his legal duty -- to feed his men. And, he was thrusting a choice on the Secessionist Governor: Will it be peace, or will it be war? The choice is yours.

Also, this time Major Anderson would not be caught by surprise. This time, the Secretary of War sent Major Anderson a message to expect relief. This time, they would be ready and waiting. So, unfortunately, would General Beauregard.

Upon receiving Lincoln's message, Governor Pickens contacted General Beauregard. Their mutual decision was to kick that matter upstairs to the Confederate government. Jefferson Davis instructed General Beauregard to demand the immediate surrender of the fort, and if that was refused, to reduce the fort before reinforcements could arrive. Davis knew -- Davis had to have known -- that he was choosing war.

Meanwhile, Fox's flotilla arrived at their rendezvous point off of Charleston Harbor. Well, most of it, anyway. As it turned out, some orders had gotten mixed up, and one of the troop ships really did head out to Fort Pickens. Ah well, adopt, adapt, and evolve: Fox still had plenty of time to load some small boats to sneak some supplies into the fort. Except, that is, for the fact that heavy seas made the operation of transferring supplies from his ships to the smaller boats between difficult and impossible.

It is more or less at this point that Beauregard's ultimatum was delivered to Major Anderson. Major Anderson replied that, unless he received supplies by the fifteenth, he would have been starved out in any case. But he hedged: if he did get some resupply, he would contnue to resist. The Confederates would not accept this reply. They told Major Anderson that in one hour, they would open fire. This was at 3:20 AM, on the 12th of April. At 4:30 AM, the bombardment began.

Almost immediately, Fort Sumter's hidden flaw was revealed. The fort's walls were very thick, and built of strong brick. The Confederate artillery might take years to batter them down. But they were built to withstand naval artillery, firing on a flat trajectory; Fort Sumter was never intended to face high-angle plunging fire. Of all the guns bearing on Fort Sumter, the most deadly were the mortars and the heavy Columbiads. And the most dangerous ammunition they used weren't explosive shells, but heated shot.

While the exterior of the fort was brick, the interior buildings were all wood. When hit by heated shot, they tended to catch fire. And, as the day wore on, the fires got closer and closer to the powder magazine. The weather, the same weather that was hampering Fox's attempts to load his boats, bought Major Anderson some time; a rain shower late in the day on the 12th extinguished the fires burning within the fort. But this was, at best, a temporary reprieve. The beleagured Union garrison fought on for another day. At 2PM on the 13th, low on ammunition and with fires burning out of control, and with his men hungry and exhausted, Major Anderson was satisfied that they had defended their post with honor. They had fought a day and a half, and had endured over three thousand Confederate rounds without losing a man. And in the end, the specific terms offered to Anderson were that he evacuate the fort, not surrender. The distinction was an important one in Anderson's eyes. Fox's flotilla, originally intended to reinforce the garrison, instead facilitated its withdrawal.

Now, there could be no doubt that the seceded States were in open rebellion against the Federal Government. When he heard of the fall of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers from the still-loyal States to recapture lost Federal properties in the South.

Reaction was, as they say, mixed. Lincoln got his 75,000 volunteers, and then some. But the border states, who had been content to sit on the fence, now had to jump. Virginia was the first, passing an ordinance of secession on April 17th. Then, Arkansas and Tennessee followed suit, seceding on May 6th and May 7th, respectively. Which put North Carolina in a bit of a bind. North Carolina didn't particularly want to secede. But, with Tennessee's secession, they were surrounded by seceded States. If they declined to secede, they would probably be promptly invaded by the Confederacy. If they seceded, they'd eventually be invaded by the Union, but it would take the Union a while to get there. North Carolina seceded on May 20th.

Now, Confederate apologists will tell you that this second secession was about States' Rights, and this defense is actually marginally better than when used the first time around. Each of these four States elected not to secede in the first flush of passion. They only acted now, upon Lincoln promising military action against the Southern States. But this is essentially rubbish. The second secession would not be necessary without the first, and we've already established beyond any possible doubt that the first secession was entirely about slavery. That was their first, last, and only reason. With that, I think the point is made, and I shall not belabor it any longer.

The other three border States, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, stayed in the Union. Once Virginia tipped, Lincoln knew that he absolutely, positively must retain these three, by any means necessary. Maryland, obviously, since if Maryland seceded it'd be over. The District of Columbia, and the Government with it, would be surrounded. Kentucky and Missouri were important, because of the access to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that they granted. The reasons why this is so important will be discussed later. Lieutenant General Scott was old, and sick, and looking for a successor; but he had a plan.

The next few months would be a very confused time. But two things were clear. What had been one nation was now two. And there would be a war to determine whether or not that state of affairs would persist. Further, some were afraid that this war would be long, and bloody.

They would be right.

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