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AHHS — Chapter 18

Chapter 18 – The Response to Secession by President Lincoln and the Republican Governors of the Northern States: Their Fort Sumter “First Shot” Strategy to Launch the Subjugation of Democrat Border States and Proceed with the Invasion, by Howard Ray White of N. C., S. I. S. H. 


In seeking to understand a military conflict, nothing is more important than figuring out how it got started.  We present evidence in this chapter that provides that understanding.  Howard Ray White takes the history forward to the Fort Sumter incident and President Lincoln’s demand for state militia to enforce Federal subjugation and conquest.

The History

During November, December and January, President-elect Abraham Lincoln declined to publicly reveal his intentions for dealing with state secession, remaining in Springfield, Illinois, at his home and law office, limiting his communications to Republican governors and political leaders.  Meanwhile, wife Mary, of the politically influential Todd family of Lexington, Kentucky, traveled to New York to shop for new clothes.  But 7 states had seceded by the time the Lincolns hosted a good-bye reception at their home, with 700 attending.  Yet no public word.  Mary burned records and letters in the back alley, to wipe the slate clean one would suppose, and Abe said “good-bye” to law partner Billy Herndon.  Remember, the Lincoln-Herndon law office was the biggest outfit in which Abe had ever worked.  Next job: Commander in Chief over the War Between the States.

Plans were complete to parade Lincoln in a slow-moving special train routed through Republican states – a 12-day trip covering 1,904 miles over tracks of 18 railroad companies, ending in Washington.  This author calls the trip the “Republican Railroad Rally,” for the intent was to “rally” the people of the Republican states to support Lincoln’s tough stand against seceded states.

The railroad rally left Springfield on February 11, routed to Indianapolis; to Cincinnati; to Columbus; to Pittsburgh; to Cleveland; to Buffalo; to Albany, to New York; to Philadelphia; to Harrisburg, to (wait and see).  Republican flagmen stood along the track every half-mile, inferring that danger was lurking about.  At every significant town it stopped so Lincoln could be seen and speak to the crowd from the last car.  Also, he got off and addressed state legislatures in Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Never speaking of the Confederate States or President Davis, Lincoln deceptively referred to misguided citizens who had mistakenly supported a conspiracy by rebellious politicians that intended violent injury to the northern States.  Despite Lincoln’s vagueness, it was apparent that he firmly opposed permitting the seceded States to live in peace.  There was never a hint of a willingness to negotiate, to even speak to a Confederate emissary, to recognize his existence.

February 18 was an exciting day in Montgomery, Alabama, for Jefferson Davis was sworn in as provisional President of the Confederate States of America, complete with a celebratory brass band playing a new tune, “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land.”  President Davis advised the crowd:

“Our present political position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations.  It illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of all those to whom we would sell, and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of these commodities. . . . As a necessity, not a choice, we have resorted to the remedy of separation, and henceforth our energies must be directed to the conduct of our own affairs, and the perpetuity of the Confederacy, which we have formed. . . .”  But if the Republican governors and the Lincoln Administration should make war, “The suffering of millions will bear testimony to the folly and wickedness of our aggressors.”

“Reverently let us invoke the God of our fathers to guide and protect us in our efforts to perpetuate the principles which by His blessing they were able to vindicate, establish, and transmit to their posterity.  With the continuation of His favor ever gratefully acknowledged, we may hopefully look forward to success, to peace, and to prosperity.”

President Davis went to work the following day – dispatching Major Caleb Huse to Europe to purchase available inventory of ships and arms and contract for future production – instructing Raphael Semmes, just resigned from the U. S. Navy, to travel north to buy guns, hire mechanics, and purchase available, serviceable ships – appointing to the office of Chief of Ordinance, General Josias Gorgas, a Pennsylvanian married to the Alabama Governor’s daughter – directing Col. George Rains to set up a Georgia gunpowder factory – yet President Davis only sought peace.  The next day he wrote wife Varina: “I was inaugurated on Monday, having reached here on Saturday night.  The audience was large and brilliant.  Upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers; but beyond them I saw troubles and thorns innumerable.”

Two days later the Republican Railroad Rally secretly concluded in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Next destination: Washington.  Since Marylanders would not be cheering this new Republican president, Allan Pinkerton, of the famous Chicago detective agency, threw a large overcoat across Lincoln’s shoulders, concealing his long arms, topped his head with a low felt hat and spirited him aboard a special night train.  In disguise Abe arrived in Washington in the morning.  Mary and the others followed according to the published schedule.

On February 25, Jeff Davis appointed three men to travel to Washington City and attempt to negotiate friendly relations with the Lincoln Administration: Martin Crawford of Georgia; A. B. Roman of Louisiana, and John Forsyth of Alabama.  Seeking friendly relations, the Confederate House and Senate also approved a law establishing “free navigation of the Mississippi River without any duty or hindrance except light-money, pilotage, and other like customary charges.”

At noon, on March 4, President James Buchanan, Democrat, and Republican Abraham Lincoln rode side-by-side down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, while sharpshooters looked on from rooftops, soldiers secured intersections and artillery stood at the ready, giving the impression of a military exercise, not a government ceremony.  Chief Justice Roger Taney, 84 and frail, administered the oath of office.  Then Lincoln stepped forward to deliver his inaugural address.  In part he said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists.  I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”  But he warned, “The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the [Federal] Government, and to collect the [Federal taxes]; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion – no using of force against or among the people anywhere. . . . In your hands, my dis-satisfied countrymen and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.  The [Federal] Government will not assail you.  You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.”  That is what he said, but he meant, “I shall maneuver events to incite you to fire the coveted ‘first shot’.”  We now tell the story of President Lincoln’s “First Shot Strategy.”

Lincoln’s Cabinet was soon in place: William Seward of New York, State; Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, War; Gideon Welles of Connecticut, Navy; Salmon Chase of Ohio, Treasury; Caleb Smith of Indiana, Interior; Edward Bates of Missouri, Attorney General; and Montgomery Blair of Maryland, Postmaster General, the latter two being new-found Republicans from Democrat states.  On his eleventh day in office Lincoln consulted his Cabinet about sending the Navy into Charleston harbor, where a small garrison of U. S. troops was occupying Fort Sumter.  That was where Lincoln wanted to elicit the coveted “first shot.”  His Postmaster General had an idea: his wife’s brother-in-law, a former Navy man, already had a proposal to do just that.  But the rest of the Cabinet opposed the Navy plan and Army Chief Winfield Scott favored giving up the fort.  On the other hand, recognition of the existence of the Confederate Government or chatting with Confederate commissioners was strongly opposed.

Republican leaders had no passion for freeing slaves, but they were passionate about ensuring high taxes on imports, scheduled to soon triple on average.  The March 18 issue of the Boston Transcript advised, “It is apparent that the people of the principal seceding states are now for commercial independence.”  The Confederacy would be a free-trade area, tempting many Northern smugglers to evade high U.S. tariffs.

Lacking support from his Cabinet or Army Chief, President Lincoln dispatched three spies to Charleston to snoop around, for he had scant personal knowledge of the Southern states.  To Charleston he sent the previously mentioned brother-in-law, Gustavus Fox, plus Stephen Hurlbut and Ward Lamon.  All three reported back, giving Lincoln greater confidence that navy ships would draw the coveted “first shot.”  He called another Cabinet meeting on March 29, seeking approval of his navy mission to Charleston.  Three approved, but the Army Chief and four opposed.  Lincoln proceeded anyway, authorizing Gustavus Fox to direct the outfitting at New York of a fleet of warships and transports to steam south, some to enter Charleston harbor, the remainder to proceed on and re-inforce Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida.  The Fort Sumter fleet consisted of the warships, Powhatan, Pawnee, Pocahontas and Harriet Lane; steam-tugs Uncle Ben, Yankee and Freeborn, and merchant ship Baltic.  A mission of this size was no secret; Confederate leaders soon knew the fleet was coming to Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens.

Confederate Commissioners Roman, Crawford and Forsyth, never gaining an audience, wrote Lincoln a final letter: “Your refusal to entertain these overtures for a peaceful solution, the active naval and military preparations . . . can only be received by the world as a declaration of war . . .”

Now, about the small garrison of Federal troops occupying Fort Sumter?  Why didn’t they agree to come ashore as demanded by Confederates?  Because they remained loyal to former President Buchanan’s orders to stay put, which Lincoln endorsed.  Time was running out.  Confederates preferred firing on the fort to firing on incoming navy ships.  That they did.  As the navy ships gathered offshore cannon bombardment of Fort Sumter began.  Federals returned fire.  It was quite an artillery show, but no one on either side was hurt.   Federal ships remained offshore, their commanders seeing the coveted “first shot” achieved.  The garrison then agreed to come ashore and leave for Washington by railroad.  Lincoln did not draw blood, but he incited fire.  Oh, I almost forgot – the garrison got permission to fire cannon in salute to their flag prior to coming ashore.  Fifty firings were planned.  But on the 49th the barrel exploded killing a soldier.  The body went to Washington for display.  In a way Lincoln did draw blood.

The very next day President Lincoln, acting as Commander-in-chief, issued an Executive Order directing his 15,000 Federal troops and 75,000 state militiamen to subjugate the Democrat states and conquer the states he alleged to be controlled by “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings” – an allegation drawn from President George Washington’s “1795 Act for Calling forth the Militia,” which he had felt necessary to stop backwoodsmen from selling untaxed whiskey.  If Lincoln had recognized secession, he could have sought to conquer a foreign nation.  Instead, he was violating his Constitution.  But he had the guns and the Supreme Court had none.

Federals were prepared when Virginia quickly seceded, burning the large armory at Harper’s Ferry and the ships and shipyard at Norfolk.  Democrat governors lambasted Lincoln and refused to send militia.  The Know-Nothing governor of Maryland refused as well.  First blood was drawn on the streets of Baltimore as Massschusetts militiamen crossed town while changing trains.  Dead were 9 Baltimore protestors and 4 militiamen.  Lincoln’s response: a Federal blockade of the 3,600-mile Confederate coast.  He blockaded his own people, lawyers would argue.  All this by April 19, 1861.


President Lincoln refused to recognize secession or negotiate peaceful accommodation, instead personally leading his Republican Party to war.

Class Discussion

Historians admire Lincoln’s cleverness in rallying Republican militia to go to war, but can we admire his refusal to negotiate?  Hint: 400,000 dead Federal troops!

Recommended Reading

  • Understanding Abe Lincoln’s First Shot Strategy (Inciting Confederates to Fire First at Fort Sumter), by Howard Ray White, pub. 2014.
  • Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald, pub. 1995.