The Belligerents Face off at Fort Sumter

The showdown at Fort Sumter in April 1861 was a drama decades in the making, beginning with a constitutional convention that chose to deal with slavery in terms of abstracts and vague allusions instead of coming to grips with the issue, and continuing through nearly four generations of increasing sectional strife and resentments. The soldiers that faced each other across the waters of Charleston’s harbor were not only mere pawns in this great struggle, but heirs to years of accumulated grudges, utterly convinced of the righteousness of their own cause and the malevolence of their adversaries. The thirteen years since the end of the Mexican War, however, had been witness to the greatest sectional animosity, and it was this period of American history that set the stage for the events of April 1861.

The United States had enjoyed unparalleled commercial and territorial growth during the first sixty years of its existence, and “the American victory over Mexico and the acquisition of the Southwest had sealed the triumph of national expansion.”[1] The victory over Mexico and its attendant expansion of American territory, while a blessing for the nation on the surface, proved catastrophic in the long term, as it “triggered the release of forces of sectional dissension.”[2] The acquisition of so much territory south of the Missouri Compromise line, the failure of the Polk administration to secure an equivalent amount north of the line in Oregon territory, and the defeat of the Wilmot Proviso in the Senate all combined to convince Northerners that Southern interests were ascendant and slaveholding policies would continue to dominate the political discourse.[3] For their part, Southerners became convinced by John Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry that a Northern abolitionist conspiracy was afoot to impose forcibly its will on Southern institutions and culture.[4]

Into this seething mass of mutual distrust and animosity was added the election of a “Black Republican” to the presidency. Despite Lincoln’s many “pledges to respect the Constitution and its clear restrictions upon federal interference with slavery in the states,”[5] Southern states seceded one by one rather than be subjects of an (in their view) abolitionist administration. Lincoln’s desire to demonstrate resolve, restrained as it may have been, further convinced Southerners of his sinister intentions. Emotion long ago had replaced reason on both sides in this sectional divide, and the fuse that sent the first cannonball hurtling toward Fort Sumter had been smoldering for decades.

[1] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976), 16.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 767-8.

[4] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 26-7; Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 27,

[5] McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War, 50.

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