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16.1: The Road to War

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    Although seven states left the Union in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of 1860, secession did not necessarily mean war between the South and the North. Between the election and the inauguration, people in the South and the North openly questioned how to respond to the formation of the Confederate States of America. Some people favored preserving the Union at any cost, while others seemed more inclined to let the Union fall apart. Ultimately, secession did lead to the Civil War, but only after people in the South and North resolved to fight for their cause. That moment only came after Confederate forces fired on Union forces at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

    From Secession to War

    After South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas voted to secede, members of the newly formed Confederate government worked to present a moderate image in order to develop good will among reluctant southerners in other states, secure the future of the new nation, and avoid a costly war. At heart, the secessionists wanted to protect the rights of the states and of the citizens, which they believed Republican rule of the national government would undermine. Moderation seemed the best means to achieve those ends. Meanwhile, northerners divided over whether to work toward a compromise to preserve the Union. Most Republicans and Democrats in the North saw secession as illegal, but they did not agree on the proper response. Business leaders seemed to prefer compromise, even if it meant accepting slavery in the territories. Antislavery Democrats, who joined the Republican Party in the 1850s, looked to fight to preserve the Union, not compromise with the South. Diehard abolitionists also wanted to avoid compromise because they thought secession would quicken the move toward emancipation. As the debates raged, southerners and northerners waited to see the impact the forming of the Confederacy would have on Abraham Lincoln’s policy toward the seceding states.

    Confederacy Takes Shape

    On February 4, 1861, delegates from the seceded states convened the Montgomery, Alabama Convention to draft a provisional and a permanent constitution for the Confederate States of America. The atmosphere was euphoric as those gathered were there to promote the “Southern cause” of securing the rights of the South in the Union. Although radicals controlled the secession process at the state level, moderates quickly took control of the efforts to set up a government. Within days, delegates drafted and approved the provisional Constitution using the United States Constitution as a model.

    The delegates made only a few minor changes to what became the permanent Constitution, adopted on March 11, 1861. Both versions put the focus on the sovereignty not of the people but of the states and included language protecting slave property. The Confederate Constitution also limited the president to one six-year term, provided for the line item veto for appropriations, prohibited the use of a tariff for revenue, prohibited federal funding of internal improvements, gave the states the right to impeach federal officials working solely in their state, and banned the international slave trade. To most Confederates, the U.S. Constitution was a sound document that the Republicans had corrupted. According to historian Vernon Burton, in mirroring the U.S. Constitution, the delegates hoped “to articulate specific areas of difference so resolution could proceed.” The delegates also selected a provisional president and vice president, and they agreed the delegates to the convention would serve as the provisional legislature until elections could be held.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Inauguration of Jefferson Davis | On February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the provisional President of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama. Author: James Massalon Source: Library of Congress

    In choosing their provisional chief executives, the delegates voted unanimously for Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and Alexander Stephens of Georgia as vice president. Davis appeared to be the ideal choice. He supported southern rights, but was no radical. He had military experience should the North attack the South in an attempt to preserve the Union. He also seemed distinguished and looked presidential. The delegates selected Stephens because he brought balance to the Confederate government. As a one-time Whig and a late-comer to the secessionist cause, he helped project an image of moderation. On February 11, 1861, Stephens took the oath of office; then on February 18, 1861, Davis did so as well, his inauguration being delayed due to his having to travel to Montgomery. In his inaugural address, the new president tried to downplay the revolutionary nature of secession and suggested that the South took action only to preserve the status quo. He also said that “With a Constitution differing only from that of our fathers in so far as it is explanatory of their well-known intent…it is not unreasonable to expect that States from which we have recently parted may seek to unite their fortunes to ours under the Government which we have instituted.”

    Lincoln Takes Over

    In the months leading up to his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln received numerous pleas to issue a public statement on the future of slavery in the states so as to stem the tide of secession; however, he remained publicly silent. The president-elect, in fact, found the requests somewhat annoying. Lincoln thought he clearly stated his position during the campaign: he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed. Nothing about that had changed since he won, and he did not want to commit himself to a course of action before taking office. Moreover, he believed southern papers would misrepresent his position, thereby negating the effect of any statement.

    Numerous correspondents also asked Lincoln to support a compromise with the slave states that might bring the seceded states back into the Union. Lincoln did not oppose compromise per se, but he remained unwilling to change his position on slavery in the territories. When Republican legislators queried Lincoln about the Crittenden Compromise, a proposal to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, he told them not to support the measure. Responding to Congressman Nathan T. Hale, Lincoln said, “We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten…if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government.”

    While Lincoln did not want to surrender to the slave states’ demands, he also recognized the importance of stemming the secessionist tide. So in the transition period, he focused on finding the appropriate advisers and drafting his inaugural address. Lincoln believed his Cabinet appointments and the tone of his first public speech as president would speak volumes about his policy toward the South. With respect to his Cabinet, the president-elect asked his four main political rivals to serve in his administration: William H. Seward at the State Department, Simon Cameron at the War Department, Salmon P. Chase at the Treasury Department, and Edward Bates as Attorney General. Some represented the conservative side and some the radical side of the Republican Party. He then filled the remaining positions with Republicans from different regions, most notably Montgomery Blair from the southern state of Maryland, a Border State, as the Postmaster General. Lincoln’s choices underscored his belief in the importance of standing firm on the issue of slavery, while also entertaining a compromise to preserve the Union.

    The president-elect began working on his inaugural address in January and continued to do so even while he travelled to Washington. Lincoln’s trip took twelve days because he wanted to meet the people and build good will for his presidency. The tour unfortunately did little to help him. James McPherson suggests that Lincoln so wanted to avoid saying anything controversial that his statements underscored his reputation “as a commonplace prairie lawyer.” Moreover, when Lincoln learned of a possible threat to his life in Baltimore, he agreed to rearrange his schedule to pass through the city in the middle of the night. Newspaper editorials subsequently criticized Lincoln for sneaking into Washington. Therefore, the text of his inaugural address became even more important. In his early drafts, Lincoln offered both a sword and an olive branch to the seceded states. The sword centered on reclaiming federal property confiscated by the southern states; the olive branch focused on emphasizing the noninterference with slavery where it already existed. William H. Seward and Orville Browning, Lincoln’s friend from Illinois, thought he needed to tone down the sword, so Lincoln conceded to their points.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln | On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the President of the United States of America in Washington, D.C. Source: USCapitol Photostream (Flickr)

    On March 4, 1861, a somber Washington gathered to witness Abraham Lincoln take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address. The new president tried to calm southern fears and to mobilize unionists to support his government. Lincoln started by noting he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed. Then he indicated he planned to administer the law on all federal property, but that he would not use violence unless forced to do so. More significantly, he repudiated secession, emphasized the permanent nature of the Union, and affirmed the importance of majority rule. Finally, he made a plea for reconciliation, noting “We are not enemies, but friends…Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

    Firing on Fort Sumter

    Lincoln believed his address would allow some time for reconciliation, but Davis and other Confederate leaders did not agree since he disavowed secession. On March 6, 1861, the Confederate Congress gave Davis the power to call up 100,000 troops to defend the South, suggesting war might be a real possibility. To make matters worse, Lincoln faced an immediate problem regarding Union forts in Confederate territory. While the seceding states confiscated most federal property, four forts remained in Union hands, Forts Taylor and Jefferson in the Florida Keys, Fort Pickens near Pensacola, and Fort Sumter in Charleston. If the Union wanted to retain the forts, then Lincoln would need to arrange to supply them. Doing so would follow the policy on federal property that the new president laid out in his inaugural address. However, only after he took office did Lincoln find out that Fort Sumter would soon run out of supplies and any attempt to resupply the fort would likely lead to a Confederate attack.

    After South Carolina seceded, Major Robert Anderson moved his forces from Fort Moultrie on the mainland to the unfinished Fort Sumter on a manmade granite island in the harbor. Anderson also requested reinforcements and supplies from the out-going Buchanan administration. At the same time, South Carolina’s leaders approached the president requesting the transfer of Fort Sumter to their control. James Buchanan refused the request and decided to send Anderson reinforcements in January. To minimize the threat to South Carolina, the supplies and soldiers traveled on an unarmed merchant ship, the Star of the West. As the ship approached the harbor, the South Carolina militia opened fire, causing the ship quickly to turn around. Since neither side wanted war at that point, an implied agreement set in. So long as Buchanan did not send supplies, South Carolina would not fire on the fort. When Jefferson Davis took office, he sent another mission to Washington to negotiate for the transfer of the fort, and he dispatched General P.G.T. Beauregard to Charleston to command the South Carolina militia.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Beauregard and Anderson | General P.G.T. Beauregard (left), was the Confederate commander at Charleston who fired on Fort Sumter, and started the Civil War, and Major Robert Anderson (right), served as the Union commander of Fort Sumter. Authors: Matthew Brady, Unknown Sources: National Archives, Library of Congress

    When Lincoln found out about the situation at Fort Sumter, he had several options. One, he could scrape together enough warships to use force to enter the harbor and supply the fort, but that risked losing the Upper South. Two, he could cave in to South Carolina’s demands and abandon the fort, but that meant accepting the South’s independence. Three, he could try to find a solution that would avoid the downsides of the other options. Unsure of what to do, Lincoln polled his Cabinet. His advisers, except Montgomery Blair, seemed against starting a war over Fort Sumter. In fact, unbeknownst to the president, William H. Seward sent word to the Confederate commissioners in Washington that Anderson would evacuate the fort.

    Initially, Lincoln was leaning in that direction, but two factors changed his mind. For one thing, Northern public opinion seemed decidedly against pulling U.S. troops out of Charleston. Moreover, on March 28, 1861, Winfield Scott, the U.S. General-in-Chief, recommended pulling out troops from both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens to prevent the remaining slave states from seceding. Scott’s suggestion outraged the Cabinet because the proposal amounted to unconditional surrender to the South. With the support of his advisers, the president arranged to resupply Fort Sumter in the least aggressive way possible. On April 6, 1861, Lincoln sent a message to Francis W. Pickens, South Carolina’s governor, indicating the United States would send unarmed ships to supply Fort Sumter with provisions. In warning Pickens of his intentions, Lincoln put the decision for war in Davis’s hands. Lincoln had said on numerous occasions that he would defend the Union should the Confederacy attack; thus, should Davis tell Beauregard to fire on the supply ships, the war would begin.

    For Jefferson Davis, the presence of any Union troops at Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens called into question the sovereignty of the Confederacy. Missionaries from the Davis administration meeting with leaders in the Upper South heard repeatedly that secessionists would not gain enough support to leave the Union without proof that the Confederacy would defend its move toward independence. Therefore, Davis instructed Beauregard to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter, “and if this is refused, proceed in such a manner as you may determine to reduce it.” On April 11, 1861, Beauregard made the request, and Anderson subsequently refused. However, he also noted he only had a few more days of supplies, hoping that Beauregard would hold off action until that point. Beauregard, knowing Davis wanted to oust Anderson before the Union ships arrived, gave the order for the militia to open fire on April 12. Within two hours, the federal troops had returned fire but did not put up much of a defense. After enduring a 33-hour bombardment, Major Anderson surrendered to General Beauregard. The formal transfer of the fort took place on the afternoon of April 14, which caused wild celebration in Charleston. The war had begun, and the first victory belonged to the South.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Bombardment of Fort Sumter | On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces began to fire on Union forces stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston’s Harbor. The attack marked the beginning of the Civil War. Author: Unknown Source: US National Park Service

    Choosing Sides: The Dilemma of the Slave States

    The day after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln called on the states to recruit 75,000 men for ninety days of service to put down the South’s rebellion. The response in most states was so overwhelming that the War Department hardly knew what to do with all the recruits. The firing on Fort Sumter convinced most northerners in the Republican and the Democratic Parties that the time had come to defend the Union. The abolitionist’s warnings about the difference between a free society and a slave society no longer seemed so far-fetched. However, Lincoln never mentioned slavery when he addressed the need to suppress the rebellion; he focused solely on the need to preserve the Union. The president feared talk of slavery would divide the northerners at this crucial stage and drive the remaining slave states out of the Union.

    Meanwhile, the northern call for troops convinced many southerners that, contrary to his public statements, Lincoln planned to fight a war to undermine their way of life. Throughout the Confederate States, leaders began to organize troops. More importantly, the war reinvigorated the ongoing secessionist debates in the southern states that remained in the Union. The Confederacy needed the industrial resources and personnel of those states to have a better chance to win the war. As James McPherson points out, these states “contained most of the South’s resources for waging war; more than half its [white] population…three-quarters of its industrial capacity, half its horses and mules, [and] three-fifths of its livestock and food crops.” At the same time, the Union hoped to retain these states in order to isolate the rebellion. Ultimately, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded from the Union, whereas Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained in the Union.

    Meanwhile, the northern call for troops convinced many southerners that, contrary to his public statements, Lincoln planned to fight a war to undermine their way of life. Throughout the Confederate States, leaders began to organize troops. More importantly, the war reinvigorated the ongoing secessionist debates in the southern states that remained in the Union. The Confederacy needed the industrial resources and personnel of those states to have a better chance to win the war. As James McPherson points out, these states “contained most of the South’s resources for waging war; more than half its [white] population…three-quarters of its industrial capacity, half its horses and mules, [and] three-fifths of its livestock and food crops.” At the same time, the Union hoped to retain these states in order to isolate the rebellion. Ultimately, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded from the Union, whereas Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained in the Union.

    Delegates to Virginia’s secession convention voted to leave the Union on April 17, 1861. Of all the states that seceded after Fort Sumter, Virginia brought the most valuable resources to the Confederate war effort. The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond was the only plant in the South capable of manufacturing heavy artillery. Virginia’s heritage, especially as the home to three presidents, also brought greater prestige to the Confederacy. And most importantly, Virginia’s secession brought the South Robert E. Lee. Although fiercely loyal to the United States, Lee would not take up arms against the place of his birth. His dilemma represented that of many southerners. While they had doubts about leaving the Union, their primary reason to join the Confederacy was defense of home. After Virginia seceded, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee quickly followed suit.

    While the majority of voters in the Upper South embraced secession, pro-Union sentiment remained high in the mountainous regions of western Virginia, western North Carolina, northern Arkansas, and eastern Tennessee. For the residents of western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, fighting for slavery was too much to ask. During the war, both regions mounted an effort for separate statehood; the Virginian’s effort succeeded, whereas the Tennessean’s effort failed. Western Virginians reasoned if a state could legally secede from the national government, then a county could legally secede from a state government. They convened a meeting to vote on creating a new state. Voters eventually approved an “ordinance of dismemberment,” and West Virginia joined the Union in January 1863. When people in Tennessee went to the polls to vote on the state’s declaration of independence, 70 percent of the residents in eastern counties voted against the measure. However, unionists in eastern Tennessee could not mount an effective challenge to secessionist control. The state government quickly moved to declare martial law in the region and imprison the opponents of secession. Still, over 30,000 people in Tennessee fled the state in order to fight in the Union Army.

    For the remaining southern states, the so-called Border States, the debate over secession was far more divisive. Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware realized that they would become the battleground of the war if they seceded, and so they hoped to adopt a neutral position in the struggle between the slave and free states. However, in reality, neutrality was not an option because of the natural and industrial resources located in these states. According to James McPherson, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri “would have added 45 percent to the…military manpower of the Confederacy, 80 percent to its manufacturing capacity, and nearly 40 percent to its supply of horses and mules.” Therefore, both the Lincoln and Davis administrations sought to attract their loyalty. Delaware, given its small slave population, seemed more like a free state than a slave state. Before the war began, the state legislature expressed their disdain for secession and did not discuss the matter again. In the remaining Border States, devotion to the Union wavered throughout the war.

    In Maryland, a riot broke out in Baltimore in April 1861 over the issue of secession after Union troops from Massachusetts attempted to pass through the city. The city’s mayor and board of police, who tilted toward the South, determined it would be unwise for additional northern troops to enter the city. So, with the governor’s tacit approval, they destroyed the railroad bridges surrounding the city and cut the telegraph wires running to Washington. In the days after the riot, it appeared that the secessionists might triumph, but when additional Union troops arrived, the city settled down. Lincoln then took additional steps to stabilize the situation, which included having troops arrest southern-sympathizing members of the state legislature and suspending habeas corpus, meaning the government would not try the prisoners for their supposed crimes. When Maryland’s legislature finally met in November to consider secession, it criticized Lincoln for his actions but did not call for secession. Approximately 66 percent of white men in Maryland fought for the Union during the Civil War.

    The battle over secession in Missouri was far more violent than Maryland. After Fort Sumter, Governor Claiborne Jackson, the former leader of proslavery fighters in Kansas, took measures to push the state toward the Confederacy. He refused to fulfill Lincoln’s request for troops and sent the militia to take control of a federal arsenal near Kansas City. At the same time, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, the commander of the federal arsenal in St. Louis, very much wanted to keep Missouri in the Union. Knowing the governor wanted to seize the arsenal, Lyons prepared to attack before the secessionists could make their move. Violence broke out in St. Louis in May 1861, which sparked a guerilla war between pro-North and pro-South elements; in spite of the fighting, Union forces controlled the state for the rest of the war. Jackson resigned his position and proceeded to set up a pro-South government in exile. Shortly thereafter, Jefferson Davis accepted Missouri as the twelfth Confederate state. Nevertheless, nearly 75 percent of the white men in Missouri fought for the North in the Civil War.

    The people of Kentucky divided more evenly between the South and the North than in the other Border States because they had cultural and economic ties to both regions. Kentucky was also important symbolically because it was the birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. In May 1861, the legislature adopted a position of neutrality. Then, Governor Beriah Maffogin ignored both Lincoln and Davis’s calls for troops. Since the governor privately tilted to the South, he let Confederate recruiting agents into the state. Lincoln opted to allow a neutral stance until unionist sentiments grew and even resisted tying the war to the issue of slavery so as not to upset the people of Kentucky. After Southern troops moved into Kentucky in September 1861, the legislature declared its loyalty to the Union and vowed to expel the Confederate invaders. Lincoln’s patience paid off in the end. Governor Maffogin resigned his seat and convened a secession convention, which voted to split from the Union. Davis acknowledged Kentucky as the thirteenth Confederate state, but the pro-Southern government never effectively controlled the state.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The Confederacy | Eleven states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy also claimed Kentucky and Missouri, but they never exercised control over those states during the war. Author: Wikipedia User “Nicholas F” Source: Wikimedia Commons


    When the states of the Lower South began to secede from the Union in late 1860 after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president, it remained unclear whether their action would lead to a war between the South and the North. In his inaugural address, Lincoln denied the right of states to secede from the Union, but he also put the burden of war on the seceded states when he indicated the Union would only fight if the Confederacy attacked. Unfortunately, the need to resupply federal troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston made the possibility of that attack more likely. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter before the United States could send supplies, and the Civil War began. Days later, Lincoln called for troops to put down the rebellion. In the following months, the states of the Upper South had to decide where their loyalties lay. Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee seceded from the Union; Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky did not.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln emphasized

    1. the moral wrongness of slavery.
    2. the permanent nature of the Union.
    3. the loyalty of southerners during the Mexican War.
    4. economic development.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The Civil War began when

    1. Union forces at Fort Sumter fired on nearby Confederate positions.
    2. Confederate forces at Fort Sumter fired on nearby Union positions.
    3. Union forces fired on Confederate troops stationed in Fort Sumter.
    4. Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    All of the following were slave states that remained in the Union except

    1. Tennessee.
    2. Maryland.
    3. Delaware.
    4. Missouri.


    This page titled 16.1: The Road to War is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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