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The United States of America: A History
Book 4: Chapter I - The First Blow Struck


WHEN his Inaugural Address was delivered, Mr. Lincoln was escorted by his predecessor in office back to the White House, where they parted—Buchanan to retire, not with honour, into a kindly oblivion; Lincoln to begin that great work which had devolved upon him. During all that month of March and on to the middle of April the world heard very little of the new President. lie was seldom seen in Washington. it was rumoured that intense meditation upon the great problem had made him ill. It was asserted that he endured the pains of indecision. in the Senate attempts were made to draw forth from him a confession of his purposes—if indeed he had any purposes. But the grim silence was unbroken. The South persuaded herself that he was afraid—that the peace-loving, money-making North had no heart for fight. She was even able to believe, in her vain pride, that most of the Northern States would ultimately adopt her doctrines and join themselves to her Government. Even in the North there was a party which wished union with the seceding States, on their own principles. There was a general indisposition to believe in war. The South had so often threatened, and been so often soothed by fresh concessions, it was difficult to believe now that she meant anything more than to establish a position for advantageous negotiation. All over the world men waited in anxious suspense for the revelation of President Lincoln's policy. Mercantile enterprise languished. Till the occupant of the White House chose to open his lips and say whether it was peace or war, the business of the world must be content to stand still.

Mr. Lincoln's silence was not the result of irresolution. He had doubt as to what the South would do. He had no doubt as to what he himself would do. He would maintain the Union; by friendly arrangement and concession, if that were possible; if not, by war fought out to the bitter end.

He nominated the members of his Cabinet—most prominent among whom was William H. Seward, his Secretary of State. Mr. Seward had been during all his public life a determined enemy to slavery. Tie was in full sympathy with the President as to the course which had to be pursued. his acute and vigorous intellect and great experience in public affairs fitted him for the high duties which he was called to discharge.

So soon as Mr. Lincoln entered upon his office the Southern Government sent ambassadors to him as to a foreign power. These gentlemen formally intimated that the six States had withdrawn from the Union, and now formed an independent nation. They desired to solve peaceably all the questions growing out of this separation, and they desired an interview with the President, that they might enter upon the business to which they had been appointed.

Mr. Seward replied to the communication of the Southern envoys. his letter was framed with much care, as its high importance demanded. It was calm and gentle in its tone, but most clear and decisive. He could not recognize the events which had recently occurred as a rightful and accomplished revolution, but rather as a series of unjustifiable agressions. He could not recognize the new Government as a government at all, lie could not recognize or hold official intercourse with its agents. The President could not receive them or admit them to any communication. Within the unimpassioned words of Mr. Seward there breathed the fixed, unalterable purpose of the Northern people, against which, as many persons even then felt, the impetuous South might indeed dash herself to pieces, but could by no possibility prevail. The baffled ambassadors went home, and the angry South quickened her preparations for war.

Within the bay of Charleston, and intended fifl' the defence of that important city, stood Fort Sumpter, a work of considerable strength, and capable, if adequately garrisoned, of a prolonged defence. It was not so garrisoned, however, when the troubles began. It was held by Major Anderson with a force of seventy men, imperfectly provisioned. The Confederates wished to possess themselves of Fort Sumpter, and hoped at one time to effect their object peaceably. When that hope failed them, they cut off Maj or Anderson's supply of provisions, and quietly began to encircle him with batteries. For some time they waited till hunger should compel the surrender of the fort. But word was brought to them that President Lincoln was sending ships with provisions. Fort Sumpter was promptly summoned to surrender. Major Anderson offered to go in three (lays if not relieved. In reply he received intimation that in one hour the bombardment would open.

About daybreak on the 12th the stillness of Charleston bay was disturbed by the firing of a large mortar and the shriek of a shell as it rushed through the air. The shell burst over Fort Sumpter, and the war of the Great Rebellion was begun. The other batteries by which the doomed fortress was surrounded quickly followed, and in a few minutes fifty guns of the largest size flung shot and shell into the works. The guns were admirably served, and every shot told. The garrison had neither provisions nor an adequate supply of ammunition. They were seventy, and their assailants were seven thousand. All they could do was to offer such resistance as honour demanded. Hope of success there was none.

The garrison did not reply at first to the hostile fire. They quietly breakfasted in the security of the bomb-proof casemates. Having finished their repast, they opened a comparatively feeble and ineffective fire. All that day and next the Confederate batteries rained shell and red-hot shot into the fort. The wooden barracks caught fire and the men were nearly suffocated by the smoke. Barrels of gunpowder had to be rolled through the flames into the sea. The last cartridge had been loaded into the guns. The last biscuit had been eaten. Huge clefts yawned in the crumbling walls. Enough had been done for honour. To prolong the resistance was uselessly to endanger the lives of brave men. Major Anderson surrendered the ruined fortress, and marched out with the honours of war. Curiously enough, although heavy firing had continued during thirty-four hours, no man on either side was injured.

It was a natural mistake that South Carolina should deem the capture of Fort Sumpter a glorious victory. The bells of Charleston chimed triumphantly all the day; guns were fired; the citizens were in the streets expressing with many oaths the rapture which this great success inspired, and their confident hope of triumphs equally decisive in time to come; ministers gave thanks; ladies waved handkerchiefs; male patriots quaffed potent draughts to the welfare of the Confederacy. On that bright April Sunday all was enthusiasm and boundless excitement in the city of Charleston. Alas for the vanity of human hopes! There were days near at hand, and many of them too, when these rejoicing citizens should sit in hunger and sorrow and despair among the ruins of their city and the utter wreck of their fortunes and their trade.

By many of the Southern people war was eagerly desired. The Confederacy was already established for some months, and yet it included only six States. There were eight other Slave States, whose sympathies it was believed were with the seceders. These had been expected to join, but there proved to exist within them a loyalty to the Union sufficiently strong to delay their secession. Amid the excitements which war would enkindle, this loyalty, it was hoped, would disappear, and the hesitating States would be constrained to join their fortunes to those of their more resolute sisters. The fall of Fort Sumpter was more than a military triumph. It would more than double the strength of the Confederacy and raise it at once to the rank of a great power. Everywhere in the South, therefore, there was a wild, exulting joy. And not without reason. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas now joined their sisters in secession.

In the North, the hope had been tenaciously clung to that the peace of the country was not to be disturbed. This dream was rudely broken by the siege of Fort Sumpter. The North awakened suddenly to the awful certainty that civil war was begun. There was a (lee!) feeling of indignation at the traitors who were willing to ruin their country that slavery might be secure. There was a full appreciation of the danger. There was an instant universal determination that, at whatever cost, the national life must be preserved. Personal sacrifice was unconsidered. Individual interests were merged in the general good. Political difference, ordinarily so bitter, was for the time almost effaced. Nothing was of interest but the question how this audacious rebellion was to be suppressed and the American nation upheld in the great place which it claimed among men.

Two days after the fall of Fort Sumpter, Mr. Lincoln intimated, by proclamation, the dishonour done to the laws of the United States, and called out the militia to the extent of 75,000 men. The Free States responded enthusiastically to the call. So prompt was their action, that on the very next day several companies in Washington. Flushed by their easily-won victory, the Southerners talked boastfully of seizing the capital. In very short space there were 50,000 loyal men ready to prevent that, and the safety of Washington was secured.

The North pushed forward with boundless energy her warlike preparations. Rich men offered money with so much liberality that in a few days nearly five millions sterling had been contributed. The school-teachers of Boston dedicated fixed proportions of their incomes to the support of the Government, while the war should last. All over the country the excited people gathered themselves into crowded meetings, and breathed forth in fervid resolutions their determination to spend fortune and life in defence of the Union. Volunteer companies were rapidly formed. In the cities ladies began to organize themselves for the relief of sick and wounded soldiers. It had been fabled that the North would not fight. With a fiery promptitude unknown before in modern history the people sprang to arms.

Even yet there was on both sides a belief that the war would he a short one. The South, despising an adversary unpractised in war, and vainly trusting that the European powers would interfere in order to secure their wonted supplies of cotton, expected that a few victories more would bring Peace. The North still regarded secession as little more than a gigantic riot, which she proposed to extinguish within ninety days. The truth was strangely different from the prevailing belief of the day. A high-spirited people, six millions in number, occupying a fertile territory nearly a million square miles in extent, had risen against the Government. The task undertaken by the North was to conquer this people, and by force of arms to bring them and their territory back to the Union. This was not likely to prove a work of easy accomplishment.


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