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THE CONFEDERATES AND THE FIRST SHOT Richard N, Current Jefferson Davis made a fateful decision on April 10, 1861. After consulting with his cabinet in Montgomery, he directed his War Secretary , L. P. Walker, to order General P. G. T. Beauregard, in command ofthe Confederate forces at Charleston, to demand the surrender of Fort Sumter and, if the demand should be rejected, to reduce the fort. The next day Major Robert Anderson at Sumter received and rejected the demand. He remarked, however, that if the Confederates did not "batter the fort to pieces" before then, he and his men would be "starved out in a few days." Beauregard telegraphed Walker, and Walker conferred with Davis. Then Walker wired back authorizing Beauregard to "avoid the effusion of blood" if Anderson would state a time for his withdrawal and would agree meanwhile not to fire unless fired upon. Beauregard sent James Chesnut, Roger A. Pryor and two aides by boat to present this offer to Anderson. It was abeady after midnight on the morning of April 12. Anderson promised to hold his fire and to evacuate in three days—unless he should receive "controlling instructions" or "additional suppbes." Chesnut and Pryor informed him that his reply was unsatisfactory and that the Confederate batteries would begin bombarding in an hour. Instead of taking such responsibility upon themselves, these hotheaded underlings might have referred Anderson's reply to Beauregard, and he in turn to Walker and Davis. Upon this might-have-been of history a fair amount of thought and ink has been wasted. Davis might have accepted Anderson's conditions, but he himself never gave any indication that he would have done so; quite was the contrary. He afterward wrote that "the 'controlling instructions' were abeady issued" and "the 'additional suppbes' were momentarily expected"; so there was "obviously no other course to be pursued" than the course the ConfedDb . Cuhbent is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, coauthor with the late James G. Randall of Lincoln the President: Last FuD Measure, and editor of a new edition of John B. Hoods Advance and Retreat, 357 358RICHARD N. CURRENT erates pursued that morning.1 The basic decision was Davis', and to the last he stuck by it. Why he did so, considering the risks and dangers he thus brought uponhisbeloved South, is a question thathas never been fuUy answered and perhaps can never be. His own justification—that "the reduction of Fort Sumter was a measure of defense rendered absolutely and immediately necessary"—is unconvincing. Sumter offered no immediate threat to the physical safety of Charleston or of South Carolina—or of the other six states that then comprised the Confederacy. Designed as a protection against seaborne invasion, the fort exposed its weak side to the Confederates on land. StiU under construction, itwas thinly manned and poorly gunned. As a possible danger to the Confederates, it was more than offset by the shore batteries constructed around it and aimed at it. Once the firing had in fact begun, these batteries practicaUy demolished its walls. With his smoothbores firing round shot, Anderson could not hurt the Confederates; they were beyond his effective range.2 Long before the Sumter guns were thus put to the test, Davis himself had acknowledged their inabiUty to harm the Charlestonians. In January , writing to Governor Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina, he counseled that Sumter be left alone. "The Uttle garrison in its present position," he explained, "presses on nothing but a point of pride."3 The Uttle garrisonin itsAprilposition pressed stillless on anything but pride, for by April the Confederate batteries had been vastly strengthened. Yet on April 12, there was no immediate overriding military peril that compeUed the Confederates to open fire. The approach of a smaU fleet, under Captain Gustavus Vasa Fox, created no such peril. President Lincoln had made clear, in the notice he sent by personal messenger to Governor Pickens, that the expedition was only bringingsupplies to the hungry garrison and would attemptno more unless that much were to be resisted. These suppbes, if landed without opposition, would not have changed the balance, or imbalance, of the forces facing one another in Charleston...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 357-369
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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