The first shot of the Civil War is said to have been fired by a newspaper editor. In the early-morning dark of April 12, 1861, Edmund Ruffin, a self-declared hater of the "Yankee race," volunteered for the symbolic task; the round he fired, wrote historian Shelby Foote, "drew a red parabola against the sky and burst with a glare, outlining the dark pentagon of Fort Sumter." Four thousand more rounds were needed to induce the Fort's surrender; 620,000 Americans would die in the war that was there begun.
Hence the first lesson of Fort Sumter: War is too important to be left to the journalists.
But that isn't the only lesson, and Fort Sumter is worth remembering for reasons other than today's sesquicentennial. The crisis over the Charleston harbor fort had been brewing since South Carolina's secession the previous December, which included the demand that federal forces leave the state. It came closer to a head with Abraham Lincoln's pledge, in his first inaugural on March 4, 1861, to "hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government." Fort Sumter was one of four federal forts in what by then was Confederate territory.
The next day, Lincoln received a report from Maj. Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter's commander, that he had only six weeks of provisions left. Lincoln then asked his top general, Winfield Scott, what it would take to hold the fort. Scott answered that 25,000 soldiers would be required, and that it would take six to eight months to organize a relief flotilla. At the time, the entire U.S. army numbered 16,000 men.
That advice led straight to the conclusion that the garrison would have to be abandoned. But Lincoln was loath to agree, not least because he believed that the fort's surrender would be "utterly ruinous . . . that, at home, it would discourage the friends of the Union, embolden its adversaries, and go far to insure to the latter, a recognition abroad." So he looked for, and got, a second military opinion from former Navy Lt. Gustavus Vasa Fox, who had an ingenious (and ultimately untested) plan to relieve the fort by sea.
Hence the second lesson: The views of senior military officials are not dispositive. Presidents have a responsibility to scout around for options. And the question of the "objective" military situation always has to be weighed against broader political and psychological goals.
Yet Lincoln also faced vexing political and psychological questions. Just as his first inaugural had promised to hold fast to federal property, he had promised, too, that the first shot would not come from him. "The government will not assail you," he had told his "dissatisfied fellow countrymen" in the South. "You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors."
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Illustration of the Bombardment of Fort Sumter
As most of Lincoln's cabinet saw it, the resupply of the fort was bound to be viewed by Southerners as an act of aggression. Secretary of State William Seward, who thought of himself as the brains behind the throne, fretted that an expedition would "provoke combat, and probably initiate a war." He was particularly keen to shore up Unionist sentiment in slave states that hadn't yet seceded, particularly Virginia.
Seward's advice to Lincoln was to change the subject. He wanted to abandon Fort Sumter but save face by relieving Fort Pickens in Florida. He wanted to let the seven seceding states go without a fight so they could stew in their own juices. He wanted to pick quarrels with foreign powers to turn American energies toward a common cause.
Lincoln would have none of this. "Stand firm," he advised one congressman. "The tug has to come and better now, than any time hereafter." Hence the third lesson: Crises cannot be solved by deflecting the issue, or by postponing the reckoning, or by compromising on core principles. And conciliation has its limits.
Lincoln thus embarked on an attempt to relieve Fort Sumter. By then, most of his cabinet had come around to supporting the effort, demonstrating a fourth lesson: Determined leadership tends to beget devoted followership. But the expedition quickly devolved into a comedy of military errors, with Lincoln inadvertently signing contradictory orders as to just which fort, Sumter or Pickens, the Navy's most powerful ship should be sent to relieve.
The blame for the mix-up might fairly have been laid on Seward. Yet Lincoln, according to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, "took upon himself the whole blame—said it was carelessness, heedlessness on his part—he ought to have been more attentive." Hence lessons five and six: In war, execution is critical. But what is absolutely paramount is that the president assume ultimate responsibility for the failures of his administration.
Throughout the crisis, Lincoln remained determined to preserve the moral high ground in the contest for public opinion. Ruffin's shot gave him that. Maj. Anderson surrendered after a 34-hour bombardment. Lincoln called for 75,000 army volunteers and immediately got 92,000. Which offers a final lesson: Small and temporary reversals in battle can lay the foundations for eventual and lasting triumph in war.
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