Friday, April 22, 2011

The Folly of Fort Sumter

From Temple's "The Civil War In East Tennessee":

With this avowed purpose on the part of Mr. Lincoln, which he carefully pursued, it may afford a curious theme for speculation as to what would have been the fate of the Southern Confederacy if Sumter had not been assaulted, or if some similar act of open war had not been resorted to. Would it have gone on exercising the powers of government over the states which had seceded until its authority had become securely cemented and established? Would Virginia, Tennesseeand North Carolina have joined the seceded states? Sooner or later this is most probable. Would the people of the North have acquiesced in this dismemberment of the government? Yes, at that time, in preference to civil war. In this very contingency such men as Greeley, Seward, Thurlow Weed and Crittenden, and thousands of others, if they did not all say, as Mr. Greeley did, let the cotton states "go in peace," they did all insist in spirit that there should be no coercion to restrain them from going. Previous to this time, Expresident Pierce had written to Jefferson Davis, assuring him that if there was to be fighting "it will not be along Mason's and Dixon's line merely. It will be within our own borders, in our own streets, between the two classes of citizens to whom I have referred." "The Albany Argus," a Democratic paper said: "The first gun fired in the way of forcing a seceding state back into the Union would probably prove the knell of its final dismemberment."

So high was the tide of public opinion running, at the time of the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, against the party that had elevated him to power, especially against the Abolition part of it, that it is almost certain that any attempt at coercion against the people of the seceding states, would have been followed in the North by mobs, riots and civil war. Mr. Lincoln saw and knew the hazardous condition of affairs around him. He knew that a blow prematurely struck at secession was more likely to produce a revolution in the North than to end the existing one. In addition to his earnest desire to avoid the shedding of blood, there was necessary on his part the most cautious statesmanship. A single false step would prove fatal to the Union. He must so act as to put the South clearly in the wrong before the world in the event of a conflict of arms. There must be no divided North. He delayed, apparently hesitated, and seemingly negotiated with the enemy. He refused to reenforce Sumter, and only attempted to send provisions to the starving garrison. No troops were mustered for the national defense, not one; no force was used; no threats were made. Never did Mr. Lincoln exhibit a more masterly wisdom, or pro founder sagacity than in this crisis. By his discretion, secession came to a standstill. The North was petrified with fear. A majority had turned with rage against the triumphant party. In the South there was danger, as Mr. Gilchrist said, that some of the states would return to the old Union.

And now came the stupendous folly of firing on Sumter. That single act, in "one hour by Shrewsbury's clock" united the divided North. Without that, or some equally foolish deed, the North could never have been brought to the point of resisting the South, and secession would have triumphed. But when the nation's honor was assailed, and the national flag brought low, sympathy was in a moment turned to wrath, and men everywhere rushed to arms. That first shot, as it went sounding round the world, announcing the commencement of the conflict, was also sounding the death knell of the Southern Confederacy, But for that shot, it might be in existence to-day as a government. But it accomplished its purpose in the direction intended. By it, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina were induced, most unwisely but most naturally, to rush to the help, not of the aggrieved party, but of the aggressor. But it did more than this—something not anticipated. It lost to the South, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, East Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri. And still more; by this needless act, the North was brought together in one hour as one man in the determination to avenge the nation's insult, and to lift up and restore the fallen and dishonored flag. Thus Mr. Davis by that shot did what no other power on earth could have done—united the divided North.

The Southern people were sadly mistaken. They expected a divided North. Such would have been the case if the leaders had waited in patience for the fruit to ripen. There can scarcely exist a doubt that a large majority of the Northern people would have voted, in the spring of 1861, to let the seceding states go in preference to the alternative of Civil War. So shocking, so dreadful was the idea of such a war that men were ready to give up everything rather than have such an affliction. But when the nation's honor was insulted, the feeling of brotherhood was turned into rage, that of peace into determined relentless war.

To the last the South was mistaken. They believed the Northern people would not fight. They expected easy victories. Washington, as they boasted, would soon be their capitol. One enthusiastic orator—a senator in the Confederate congress—boasted that they would soon quaff wine from golden goblets in the palaces of New York. Another gentlemen boasted that he would call the roll of his slaves at the foot of Bunker Hill Monument. The boast was universal, and perhaps the belief also, that one Southern man could whip five Yankees. An Alabama gentleman reached the climax when he declared in a public speech that they could whip the North with pop-guns made out of elder stalks.1

It really appears as if Providence intended that the Southern people should be the instruments of the destruction of their own favorite institution. At a period when there was, for the first time in twenty years, peace between the two sections, they broke that peace by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and thus turned loose the angry winds of sectionalism. This in the end, through successive steps, led to secession. And when war came, the conviction gradually grew on the minds of men that that was the opportunity offered by Heaven for destroying slavery. It had caused one war, said they ; it should not cause another. Let it perish—by the war. And thus the folly of men was made to do the will of God.

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