One hundred and fifty years ago today, cadets from the Citadel fired on U.S. Army soldiers at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, and began the American Civil War. Ironically, the first battle of the epic struggle that would take over 600,000 American lives over the next four years had no fatalities. Today, re-enactors will stage that event again, and one can only hope that they do so with a sense of commemoration rather than celebration.
While most Americans know that events at Fort Sumter began the war, few really understand what happened and why. This is no accident. Apologists for the Confederate cause have worked long and hard to cleanse the national memory of any accurate recollection of why that event began the hostilities. But on this day, of all days, it is worth remembering who fired the shots, and why they did.
While neo-Confederates to this day speak without irony of the "War of Northern Aggression," the facts of that day prove the lie inherent in that utterly false label.
Lincoln was from the start determined that he would not begin hostilities. In his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1861, he made that abundantly clear: "The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors." He was determined that if there were to be civil war, he would not fire the first shot.
The problem was this: secession had a concrete, practical side. With a much smaller federal presence in those days, often the most common federal property in a state was the post office, which easily passed into state hands. More problematic were military bases occupied by American soldiers, of which Fort Sumter was the most prominent. South Carolina demanded it be turned over to the state. First President Buchanan, and then Lincoln, refused.
A month after Lincoln became president, the Stars and Stripes still flew over the fort, taunting the Confederates on the shore. Lincoln made clear that he would not give it up and announced that he was sending a ship with food to provision the fort. If nothing were done, the standoff could go on indefinitely.
That was Lincoln's "aggression." He refused to turn over the fort and sent food to the American soldiers stationed there.
The Confederates started the war because they feared that without an attack to take the fort, the Confederacy would flounder. It had been two months since any state seceded. Important slave states like North Carolina, Tennessee, and most significantly, Virginia, remained in the Union.
The longer Lincoln presided over the country without lifting a finger to interfere with the functioning of slavery, the more absurd the secessionist caricature of him would appear. An Alabama newspaper appealed to Jefferson Davis to take the fort by force: "Sir, unless you sprinkle blood in the face of the people of Alabama, they will be back in the Union in less than ten days!"
The Confederate decision to initiate hostilities was meant to avoid that outcome. Faced with the prospect of peaceful reconstruction of the Union, Davis decided on war. The combat had the desired result: four more states joined the Confederacy, including Virginia.
Like secession itself, the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter was self-defeating. Lincoln had publicly committed himself to take no offensive military action against the Confederacy. Without Confederate aggression at Fort Sumter, Lincoln would have been hard pressed to take any meaningful action to enforce federal authority over the Confederate states. The Confederate leadership resolved that issue for him.
The title of this post is taken from Lincoln's second inaugural (and also serves as the title of one of the classic works of history on the beginning of the Civil War by the great historian Kenneth Stampp). "Both parties deprecated war," Lincoln said in the spirit of charity that permeates the address. He did not, however, fail to note the difference between the two sides: "but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
The final phrase reflects Lincoln's fatalism, but not before he made clear what all Americans should remember on this day: there is an important distinction between those who make war and those who accept it.