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South Carolina and Fort Sumter: 1860-1861

The news of Lincoln's election has immediate repercussions in the south. Within days a state convention is summoned in South Carolina to confront what is seen as a crisis in the fortunes of the slave-owning cotton states. On December 20 the convention assembles. It unanimously passes a resolution to dissolve 'the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states, under the name of the United States of America'.

Before the election the governor of South Carolina has sounded out his colleagues in other southern states. He has received words of support for independent action. Now, within six weeks, South Carolina is followed out of the union by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

The seceding states meet in February 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama, and set about appointing a provisional president (Jefferson Davis), establishing the necessary government departments, mustering an army and navy, and writing a constitution for what is to be called the Confederate States of America.

The constitution is very much like that of the United States, except that it places greater emphasis on the sovereignty of invidual states; and it guarantees government protection for the institution of slavery in any new territories.

These developments happen to occur during the hiatus which is a feature of American political life whenever there is a new president. The election is in November but the president elect does not take office until the early months of the new year.

By the time Lincoln enters office, several peace-keeping initiatives by congress have failed. And there is already a likely flashpoint for war in Fort Sumter. This is a military post in Charleston harbour. It is garrisoned by federal troops, but South Carolina now lays claim to it. In his inaugural address Lincoln warns that he will hold on to government property, but he tells the southern states: 'You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.'

With the nation poised on the brink of possible war every step has to be delicate, because there is a double-tier belt of uncommitted states between north and south. In the lower tier North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas border the states which have already seceded. Above them Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri border the free states in the north. If it comes to war, the frontier will run somewhere through this belt.

Eager to avoid alienating these states, Lincoln proceeds cautiously. With the garrison in Fort Sumter on the verge of being starved into submission, he sends word to the governor of South Carolina. He will be sending relief to the fort, but only food - no men, arms or ammunition.

The Confederate authorities disregard this conciliatory message, fearing that prevarication can only harm their cause. They send a demand to the commander of the fort that he evacuate it immediately. He refuses. On 12 April 1861 Confederate guns from the shore open fire on the island fort, which is protected mainly against attack from the sea. The commander surrenders on the following day and Confederate troops move in.

This is clearly an act either of insurrection or war. Lincoln responds by calling for 75,000 volunteers to sign up for three months of service. He expects the governors of the states to muster these men - a demand which has the effect of conclusively drawing the frontier between the warring sides.

Wherever states' rights have been an important theme in local politics (going back to Jefferson's opposition to the Federalists), Lincoln's demand is rejected. It has the effect of driving those areas into the Confederate camp.

Four states declare themselves for the Confederacy: the southern trio of North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, and above them Virginia. However the western regions of Virginia vote against seceding and subsequently join the union as West Virginia (the thirty-fifth state, in 1863). The four slave states to the north (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri) remain loyal to the union, though only after a period of turmoil in Missouri. The federal capital, Washington, is poised on the frontier between Maryland and Virginia.

Civil War: 1861

Both north and south are ill prepared for a war which few want but which has come to seem inevitable. On paper the advantages all seem to be on the side of the north. Twenty-three northern states, with 22 million free citizens, confront eleven states in which the total population of 12 million includes 4 million slaves - a group whom their owners would not willingly risk arming for military service, but whose labour will nevertheless contribute to the war effort.

In addition to this already uneven balance, the north is the rich industrial area, more capable of manufacturing the necessities of war. Moreover it is the rump of an existing nation, whereas the south is a newcomer on the world stage seeking recognition.

But the Confederate states have certain advantages too. Many senior officers in the federal army are southern aristocrats who now, often with grave misgivings (as in the case of the brilliant general Robert E. Lee), resign their commissions to fight for their home states.

The Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, has himself been a distinguished soldier. He knows personally many of his likely commanders. By contrast Lincoln is a lawyer from distant Illinois, virtually a stranger in Washington, with no personal knowledge of military affairs or of northern generals. It is impossible to overestimate the task facing such a man who finds himself, within weeks of arriving in the White House, playing the role of commander-in-chief in a major war.

The final advantage for the Confederate states is that they will win if they are not defeated. Survival will equal independence. There is every chance that the north will grow weary of trying to dominate the vast region of their combined states. Jefferson Davis's natural strategy is defensive. Lincoln requires a more aggressive policy.

Both sides probably expect the conflict to be short. Lincoln enlists the volunteers in April 1861 for just three months' duty (though this is likely to be good politics as much as optimism). When Jefferson Davis at the same period places an order for English rifles, he sends for only 10,000. But this war will turn out to be a long and brutal one, making great demands on both men and munitions.

Campaigns of 1861

Virginia is the most powerful of the Confederate states and its state capital, Richmond, is capital of the Confederacy from May 1861. The capture of Richmond, and the squeezing of Virginia, becomes a central part of northern or Union strategy. Economic pressure is also to be applied by a blockade of all southern ports, proclaimed by Lincoln on April 19 (a week after the attack on Fort Sumter).

The first full-scale engagement of the war is a clear Confederate victory. A Union army, moving south towards Richmond, is defeated on July 21 near Bull Run Creek. The battle is known as First Bull Run in the north and as Manassas (the nearest town) in the south.

This is the occasion on which the Confederate general Thomas Jackson wins his nickname 'Stonewall' from his resolute holding of his position. Jackson's mere presence at First Bull Run provides early evidence that this is a different kind of war. Indeed it is often described as the first modern war. His brigade arrives after being rushed to the battlefield in trains from the Shenandoah valley.

New forms of transport (the railway), of communication (the telegraph) and of warship (the ironclad and even the submarine) introduce in the American Civil War techniques of warfare which will not be much altered until the arrival of aeroplane and tank. And thanks to Mathew Brady, it is also the first war of which a full photographic record survives (see Brady's men).

Campaigns of 1862: in the west

While attempting to isolate Virginia, it is important also for Union forces to gain control of the great river system to the west of the Confederate states. There is a successful campaign to this end during 1862.

It begins when a Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, and naval officer, Andrew Foote, combine forces to seize two river forts recently built by the Confederates to defend Tennessee. Fort Henry and Fort Donelson are both taken during February, with a loss to the Confederate cause of 12,000 men, mainly as prisoners.

This success is rapidly followed by a surprise raid at the mouth of the Mississippi. On April 18 Flag Officer David Farragut boldly navigates a small fleet of Union warships through a bombardment from shore batteries downstream of New Orleans. By April 25 he is anchored close to the city itself. Union marines go ashore and occupy New Orleans on May 1.

This leaves the Confederates in control only of the middle section of the Mississippi. This region has been the scene on April 6-7 of one of the most fiercely fought battles of the war, at Shiloh, where Grant secures with difficulty a Union victory but wins no significant strategic advantage. That must await his success at Vicksburg in the following year.

Campaigns of 1862: in the east

The Union strategy against Richmond in this second year of the war is to approach the Confederate capital from the sea. A large army, under the command of George B. McLellan, is to be shipped through Chesapeake Bay and is to land near Yorktown. The intention is then to march up the peninsula between the York and James rivers towards Richmond.

Before the army even begins embarkation, there is a scare that its landing may be prevented by a terrifying new naval vessel. The Merrimack, a Confederate ship resembling a floating metal hut, appears at the mouth of the James river and sinks some federal vessels. But the very next day, the balance is redressed by another equally ungainly metal boat, the Monitor (see Monitor and Merrimack).

With the threat of the Confederate ironclad removed, McClellan successfully lands 100,000 men, takes Yorktown on May 2, and moves on up the peninsula. By late June he is within a few miles of Richmond. But during a week's fighting he is confronted by a Confederate army of 85,000 men under General Lee.

The Seven Days Battle (June 26 to July 2) brings heavy casualties to both sides. It ends in stalemate, but the event is sufficient to persuade McClellan to withdraw. Thus the great Peninsular Campaign ends in failure. So does a second major Union attempt in this same summer to advance against Richmond.

A Union army crosses the Potomac in July to march south towards Richmond, repeating the invasion tactic of the previous year. As on that occasion, the adventure ends in disaster at Bull Run Creek. The second battle of Bull Run or Manassas (August 29-30) is a joint victory for Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Under Lee's command they drive the Union forces back across the Potomac.

Virginia is now virtually clear of Union intruders. This autumn the Confederates take the offensive, pressing north into Kentucky and Maryland. But they fail to make progress, and Lee is forced back into Virginia after a reversal at Antietam (September 17). This Union success prompts Lincoln to take a different kind of initiative.

Emancipation Proclamation: 1862-1863

President Lincoln has undertaken the Civil War intending only to preserve the Union. His purpose, and that of the Republican party, has never been to end slavery in the southern states. But two costly and inconclusive years of war begin to alter his opinion.

There are several reasons. The abolitionist lobby in the north is passionate and vocal. Increasing resentment at the southern states, begetters of this painful conflict, lessens any inclination to protect their supposed rights as slave-owners. And a new moral dimension added to the Union war aims is likely to bring its own diplomatic and political benefits.

Liberal opinion in Britain, where the government often seems inclined to support the south, will be impressed by an anti-slavery crusade. And flagging domestic acceptance of the war will be refreshed by an injection of idealism, particularly in the cause with which Americans identify most powerfully - that of liberty.

Lincoln decides, in the summer of 1862, to make the emancipation of the slaves a central plank of his policy. But this summer, bringing successive defeats in Virginia of Union armies, seems not the right moment. It is important that such an important announcement shall not seem to be made in desperation.

The president is given his opportunity when the engagement at Antietam, in September 1862, can be presented as a Union success on the battlefield. Five days later he issues a preliminary proclamation. It states that if the Confederate states have not laid down their arms by the end of the year, he will declare their slaves to be free.

Naturally the states fail to respond, so on 1 January 1863 Lincoln issues his Emancipation Proclamation. It declares that all people held in slavery in the rebel states are now free; it urges them to refrain from violence; and it announces that freed slaves will be welcome to serve in the US army and navy.

Most of this is as yet only of symbolic relevance. No slaves are formally freed anywhere, since the proclamation does not apply to slave states fighting on the Union side (where Lincoln cannot as yet afford to offend their owners). Nevertheless many southern slaves take the opportunity to flee to the north. By the end of the war about 180,000 African-Americans have joined the armed forces, greatly boosting Union military strength.

And the symbolic effect is enormous. The struggle now has a high moral purpose. The attitude of the slaves is transformed, whether in Union or Confederate states, by the knowledge that a Union victory will be followed by freedom.

Campaigns of 1863

By the end of the Independence Day celebrations on 4 July 1863 the north has news of victories on two fronts. They can later be seen as the major turning point in the four-year war.

One, in the west, ends a long struggle over the Mississippi. In spite of all his efforts during 1862, Ulysses S. Grant has not been able to dislodge Confederate forces from the middle section of the great river. Their main stronghold is at Vicksburg. During the winter and spring of 1862-3 he has made many different attempts (including the use of ironclads on the river) to attack Vicksburg, but always without success. However by May 1863 Grant is at last in a position to besiege the city.

Six weeks later, on July 4, by which time the town is short of ammunition and almost out of food, the Confederate commander surrenders with his garrison of 30,000 men. The entire Mississippi is now in Union hands. With his instinct for a solemn but telling phrase, Lincoln declares: 'The Father of Waters flows once more unvexed to the sea.'

The three previous days have seen another more unexpected victory. It arises out of what is virtually a chance encounter.

In June Robert E. Lee moves north into Pennsylvania with an army of about 75,000 men. He has several motives for carrying the campaign once again into the north. He hopes to build on growing popular hostility to the war, which has been fanned by Lincoln's introduction of conscription. Lee is also eager to move the scene of hostilities away from war-ravaged Virginia. And he intends to gather at Union expense some much needed supplies of food and clothing for his men.

On June 30 a brigade of Confederate soldiers is approaching the small town of Gettysburg, where they have heard there is a supply of boots. A squadron of Union troopers unexpectedly comes across them. The result, over the next three days, is the battle of Gettysburg.

By July 2 the Union forces have taken up a strong defensive position on Cemetery Hill south of the town. The Confederates fling themselves against this hillside, with massive losses and to no avail. The final encounter, on July 3, is the famous Pickett's Charge, in which 15,000 Confederate infantrymen from General George Pickett's division march, as if on parade, across 1400 yards of open fields towards the Union artillery and muskets. Only 5000 survive this reckless endeavour (a statistic which makes the Charge of the Light Brigade seem trivial), and the total casualties for both sides exceed 50,000.

General Lee and his army are allowed to limp back across the Potomac. They are not conclusively defeated, but the tide has turned.

Four months later, in November, President Lincoln comes to Gettysburg to dedicate a national cemetery for those who fell in this most bloody of all the Civil War encounters (the estimated figures for dead and wounded are 23,000 Union soldiers and 28,000 Confederates).

The audience first must suffer a two-hour high-flown oration by a distinguished clergyman and statesman, Edward Everett. Lincoln then speaks for two minutes and produces, in what becomes famous as the Gettysburg Address, a ringing statement of the ideals for which he believes this war is being fought: 'that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth'.

Not everyone in the north shares the president's idealism. In particular there is much resentment over his Union Enrollment Act, passed in March 1863. This drafts into the army all able-bodied males between the ages of twenty and forty-five, but it allows exemption on payment of $300.

This is the clause which causes outrage among the poorer classes, prompting riots in many places. The most violent protest is by Irish immigrants in New York, where disturbances last for four days in July 1863 and cause more than 100 deaths.

Grant and Sherman: 1864-1865

The campaigns of 1863 at last bring President Lincoln the generals he needs for victory. While Lee has been from the start the leading Confederate general, and remains so to the end, those in command of the Union forces have changed with bewildering speed. Each in turn disappoints Lincoln, usually by failing to press a military advantage after a victory. The commander at Gettysburg, George G. Meade, seems to fall into precisely this category.

By contrast Lincoln is impressed by the tenacity with which Grant has conducted the long campaign against Vicksburg. In March 1864 Grant is appointed general in chief of all the Union forces.

Grant's closest colleague in the Vicksburg campaign has been William T. Sherman. Grant now secures Sherman's appointment as commander of the army of the Mississippi in the west, while himself overseeing the operations of the Potomac army in the east.

In the hands of these two generals a consistent Union strategy is ruthlessly carried out over the next twelve months, regardless of cost, until victory is achieved. The policy is for Grant and the Potomac army to press through Virginia once again towards the Confederate capital of Richmond. Meanwhile Sherman is to cripple the south by marching southeast through Georgia, the state in which most of the south's grain is grown.

Grant's advance across the Potomac in 1864 succeeds largely because he is willing to accept more casualties than his predecessors. Pressing south in early May, he loses (dead or wounded) a third of his army of 100,000 men in a series of engagements against Lee, whose forces are only about 60,000. But by mid-June Grant has progressed far enough to threaten Petersburg.

This town, only a few miles south of Richmond, controls the main railway link to the Confederate capital. From midsummer, through the winter of 1864-5, Grant pins down Lee at Petersburg while Sherman creates havoc further south.

The march to the sea: 1864

With about the same number of troops as Grant's Potomac army (100,000 men), Sherman marches into Georgia from Chattanooga in May 1864. Against constant skirmishing from a smaller Confederate force, he makes slow but steady progress until July. He then wins three battles in quick succession. As a result, in early September, the Confederates abandon Atlanta, the capital of Georgia and a crucial railway junction.

It is the first southern city of importance to fall into Union hands, and the news is well timed to help Lincoln win a second term in the presidential election in November (an outcome which seemed much in doubt a few months earlier, with his Democratic opponent campaigning on a peace platform).

At Atlanta Sherman is already dangerously far from his sources of supply in the west. He decides to abandon caution and to bring terror to the south. In mid-November, with 60,000 men, he sets off on his famous 'march to the sea'. Living off the land, and then ensuring that no one else can do so, Sherman's army leaves a trail of destruction some fifty miles wide. Railways are smashed, bridges are blown up, the great houses of the plantations are burnt; and slaves are liberated.

300 miles of this violent progress brings Sherman to the coast. On December 21 he captures Savannah. Then he turns north to cut a similar swathe through South Carolina. By April 14 he is in Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina.

The Appomattox Court House: 1865

In pressing north through the Carolinas, Sherman's intention is to join up with Grant's army in Virginia. But by April 1865 this is no longer necessary.

Grant and Lee have faced each other through the winter in front of Petersburg in what is almost trench warfare, but Grant steadily extends his lines to threaten the vital railway connections. On April 1 the railway is captured. On April 2 the Confederate government flees from Richmond and Lee begins a retreat to the west. His army is starving. Grant's men, in pursuit, find muskets abandoned by the roadside. Lee, recognizing that any further resistance is futile, offers to surrender.

The two generals meet on April 9 at the Appomattox Court House, situated at a country crossroads. It is one of the few civilized moments of the Civil War. Lee hands over his sword and Grant offers conciliatory terms, as he knows Lincoln would wish.

The Confederate soldiers, on laying down their arms, are to be given an issue of rations before dispersing. They are to be allowed to keep their horses, to enable them to plough the fields when they reach home. No one, from Lee to the humblest soldier, is to be penalized as long as today's parole terms are observed.

Five days earlier, on April 4, Lincoln has paid a visit to Richmond, the fallen Confederate capital and target for so long of Union military campaigns. He is surrounded in the streets by a jubilant crowd of African-Americans, and is accompanied on his departure by a troop of black cavalry.

Everything looks ready for the start of the difficult process of peace and reconciliation, or in the phrase of the time 'reconstruction'. The surrender of the other Confederate army is a foregone conclusion after Sherman's occupation of Raleigh on April 13. On April 14 the opposing general, Joseph E. Johnston, asks for an armistice. But an event elsewhere, on this same day, shatters the prospects for a constructive peace.

Ford's Theatre: 1865

In the first relaxing days of peace President Lincoln and his wife decide to spend an evening at Ford's Theatre in Washington. On Good Friday, April 14, they go to a performance of a popular comedy, Our American Cousin. During the third act a Shakespearian actor, John Wilkes Booth, member of a Confederate conspiracy, succeeds in making his way to the president's box.

The intruder shoots Lincoln in the head and then jumps down on to the stage. Playing his role to the hilt, he shouts to the audience 'Sic semper tyrannis ("thus always to tyrants"), the south is revenged' before escaping into the night.

At almost the same moment a fellow-conspirator breaks into the house where the secretary of state, William H. Seward, is ill in bed being tended by his daughter. He wounds Seward severely but fails to kill him.

Lincoln lives on for a few hours, unconscious in a small house near the theatre, until he dies in the morning of April 15. How much America may have lost through his violent end remains one of the most absorbing speculations of history. The two splintered halves of the United States have been rejoined by war. The urgent question now is how to reunite them also in peace. Perhaps Lincoln might have been capable of doing so. His successors in Washington prove inadequate for a daunting task.

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