Confederate President Jefferson Davis made the fateful decision to attack the isolated Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The decision was based on perceived duplicity by the Lincoln administration in first pledging to evacuate the troops and then failing to honor that pledge by instead announcing its intention to resupply them. If the Confederacy was to be the independent nation it claimed to be, it could not tolerate a foreign country maintaining a foreign military force on its soil.
Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate forces at Charleston, informed Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker that word had come from Washington that Fort Sumter would be resupplied, and if resisted, reinforced. Walker responded on the 10th: “If you have no doubt as to the authorized character of the agent who communicated to you the intention of the Washington government to resupply Fort Sumter by force, you will at once demand its evacuation, and, if this is refused, proceed in such manner as you may determine to reduce it. Answer.”
Beauregard replied: “The demand will be made to-morrow at 12 o’clock.” Walker wrote back: “Unless there are special reasons connected with your own condition, it is considered proper that you should make the demand at an earlier hour.” Beauregard: “The reasons are special for 12 o’clock.” Beauregard also forwarded a resolution that had been passed by the South Carolina Secession Convention placing all state militia under Beauregard’s command.
The Federal relief mission headed by Captain Gustavus V. Fox ran into complications. The three tug boats that were to convey the supplies to Fort Sumter had to turn back due to mechanical issues. The three warships that were to accompany the tugs each arrived off Charleston at different times. The fourth warship—the U.S.S. Powhatan—was on its way to Fort Pickens in Florida despite President Abraham Lincoln’s order to turn back.
While many northerners supported the administration’s course of action, others remained skeptical. An editorial in the New York Herald warned that Lincoln was plunging the country into an unnecessary war: “Our only hope now against civil war of an indefinite duration seems to lie in the overthrow of the demoralizing, disorganizing and destructive sectional Party, of which ‘honest Abe Lincoln’ is the pliant instrument.”
Meanwhile, Confederates ramped up their military buildup in Charleston Harbor in anticipation of Fox’s approaching fleet. They anchored a floating battery near Sullivan’s Island and garrisoned the positions facing Fort Sumter. Both the fleet and the fort would be targeted in case of conflict. Former Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall, participating in the Charleston buildup, reported: “No one now doubts that Lincoln intends war. The delay on his part is only to complete his preparations. All here is ready on our side. Our delay therefore is to his advantage, and our disadvantage …”
The Charleston Courier declared: “Let the strife begin–we have no fear of this issue.” The people of Charleston were confident that the Federals would be driven off. Mass celebrations took place in Charleston on the night of the 10th, with former Congressman Roger Pryor of Virginia addressing the crowd from his hotel balcony:
“I thank you especially that you have at last annihilated this accursed Union, reeking with corruption and insolent with excess of tyranny. Not only is it gone, but gone forever. As such as tomorrow’s sun will rise upon us, just so sure will old Virginia be a member of the Southern Confederacy; and I will tell your governor what will put her in the Southern Confederacy in less than an hour by a Shrewsbury clock: Strike a blow! The very moment that blood is shed, old Virginia will make common cause with her sisters of the South.”
The three Confederate envoys that had been tasked with negotiating peace with the Federal government (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) left Washington on the 11th, their mission a failure due to perceived deception by the Lincoln administration. They felt particularly misled by Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had pledged on March 15 that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. Unbeknownst to the envoys, that pledge had not been authorized by Lincoln. Before leaving they sent a message to Beauregard: “The Tribune of to-day declares the main object of the expedition to be the relief of Sumter, and that a force will be landed which will overcome all opposition.”
In Charleston, three men were selected to deliver Beauregard’s surrender demand: Colonel James Chesnut, former U.S. senator and current aide to Beauregard; Captain Stephen D. Lee, who had resigned from the U.S. Army; and Lieutenant Colonel A.R. Chisolm, aide to South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens. At 3 p.m., they rowed out to Fort Sumter in a boat bearing a white flag and handed Beauregard’s message to Major Robert Anderson, commanding the Federal garrison in the fort:
“The Government of the Confederate States has hitherto forborne from any hostile demonstrations against Fort Sumter, in the hope that the Government of the United States, with a view to the amicable adjustment of all questions between the two Governments, and to avert the calamities of war, would voluntarily evacuate it… But the Confederate States can no longer delay assuming actual possession of a fortification commanding the entrance to one of their harbors, and necessary to its defense and security. I am ordered by the Government of the Confederate States to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter… All proper facilities will be afforded for the removal of yourself and command, together with company arms and property, and all private property, to any post in the United States which you may select. The flag which you have upheld so long and with so much fortitude, under the most trying circumstances, may be saluted by you on taking it down.”
Anderson was allowed to consult with his officers before issuing a formal reply. Supplies were dwindling, and Lincoln had permitted Anderson to surrender if he saw fit. But Anderson’s sense of honor and duty compelled him to wait for the relief fleet to arrive. After an hour, Anderson handed the men a message: “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication demanding the evacuation of this fort; and to say in reply thereto that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor and of my obligations to my Government prevents my compliance.” Anderson thanked Beauregard, his former student at West Point, for “the fair, manly, and courteous terms proposed.”
Anderson asked if there would be a warning before the Confederates began firing on Sumter, and Chesnut said probably so. As the men returned to their boat, Anderson told them, “I will await the first shot, and if you do not batter us to pieces we will be starved out in a few days.”
The messengers told Beauregard what Anderson had said. Beauregard passed it on to Walker, who responded: “Do not desire needlessly to bombard Fort Sumter. If Anderson will state the time at which, as indicated by him, he will evacuate, and agree that in the mean time he will not use his guns against us unless ours should be employed against Fort Sumter, you are authorized thus to avoid the effusion of blood. If this or its equivalent be refused, reduce the fort as your judgment decides to be most practicable.”
At 11 p.m., the Confederate officials rowed back out to Fort Sumter to see if Anderson would give them a specific time at which he would evacuate. They arrived near midnight on the 12th.
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