Looking for Lincoln…Through Southern Conservative Eyes –  – Why and How the War of Northern Aggression Began

Commentary by Frank Conner

Editor’s Note: PBS will broadcast a new documentary entitled Looking for Lincoln beginning on Feb. 11, 2009.

Part 1. The Election of 1860 and its Aftermath

The winter of 1860-61 was full of nasty surprises for everyone. Neither the North nor the South had wanted a war, so the Republicans had forsworn their popular presidential-candidates, Salmon Chase and William Seward, as being too warlike; and instead they had chosen Abraham Lincoln, an unknown, because he appeared to promote peace. Similarly, when the Southern Democrats broke from the national party, they split into three groups with three presidential candidates; but all three of them were solid Unionists.

The 1860 election results jolted everyone. Although the Republican party was only six years old, and was purely a Northern party, containing the Conscience Whigs and the Free-Soilers, and was not even on the ballots in a number of Southern states, still it won the presidency and both houses of Congress with big margins. And had the Democratic party not split up in 1860, the Republicans would still have won! The Republicans now rubbed their hands in glee: they were planning to use the federal government to tax the South dry (via big import-tariffs, etc.) to speed up the industrialization of the U.S.—-which would not benefit the South at all.

The Southern leaders were in shock. The elections of 1860 had demonstrated beyond question that the population shift to the North during the first half of the 19th century had been so great that the South could no longer defend its own interests in Congress, and would never regain that capability. This was the situation that the Founding Fathers had tried so hard to prevent when planning the U.S. Constitution. They had attempted to balance the power between the North and the South in the federal government into the far-distant future, because they knew that the North and the South despised each other; and if one side became dominant in government, it would grind the other side into the dust; and then the other side would promptly secede from the union and form its own country.

That is what happened now. Although both sides used “slavery” as their rallying cry, the split was about economics. (Slavery had been written into the Constitution, and the South knew full well that it would take a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, and that as long as the South remained in the Union, the North could not possibly get enough votes to enact such an amendment; But the North could and would now use the federal government to break the South economically if the South remained in the Union.)

The first U.S. government charter, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, adopted in 1781, had specifically prohibited the secession of any state after it had joined the Union—unless all states seceded at the same time to junk that charter. But in 1789, the U.S. had junked the Articles and adopted the U.S. Constitution, which pointedly did not prohibit the secession of any unhappy states. So the Southern states now had the perfect right to secede if they wished to do so.

South Carolina seceded on 20 December 1860, followed by six more states in the Deep South; Texas was the last of them to go, on 1 February 1861. On 18 February 1861, President Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the first president of the Confederate States of America. Lincoln’s inauguration was scheduled for 4 March 1861.

Part 2. Lincoln’s Dilemma

The secession of the first seven Southern states came as a great shock to the North. The South had been threatening to secede ever since the Tariff of Abominations of 1828, but the North thought that those threats were just so much hot air, because the advantages of remaining in the Union were so great that the North had really believed that the South would hold still for being squeezed dry economically and turned into the agricultural colonies of the North.

The secession of the Southern states hit the Northern capitalists heavy blows in their pocketbooks, in two ways. First, the capitalists had expected to squeeze the Southerners with big import-tariffs, to finance the rapid industrialization of the U.S. Second, many of the Northern capitalists had been earning fortunes by factoring the Southern cotton crops; by transporting the cotton in their coasters and green-water ships; and by buying cotton cheaply to process in their New England textile-mills. Now the British stood ready to take over all those chores at competitive prices.

The Northern capitalists decided that this situation was all Lincoln’s fault. Until he was elected, everything had gone fine; but now—following the election—seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, and nobody knew how many more might follow. If Lincoln wanted the continuing support of the capitalists, he would have to bring those Southern states back into the Union, now!

This was a very serious problem for Lincoln, because the Northern capitalists were his sole support-base. He was a Whig, not a Republican. His goal was to implement Henry Clay’s “American System,” to convert the U.S. from a federation of states into a nation-state with an all-powerful central government, which would tax the citizenry (but primarily the Southerners) heavily to speed up the industrialization of the U.S. Chase and Seward—both abolitionists—were the Republicans’ real heroes; if the capitalists now deserted Lincoln, Chase and/or Seward—who both had respectable support-bases of their own—would slice him up like chopped liver the first time he made a wrong move. So he would now have to conquer the South in war and drag it back into the Union to appease the Northern capitalists.

Part 3. Lincoln Starts His War

Immediately after the election, Lincoln had sensed what was coming. When Congress sought a compromise position to bring the nation back together, Lincoln told a negotiator, "Have none of it. The tug has to come, and better now than later."

On 12 December 1860 (eight days prior to the secession of South Carolina), President-elect Lincoln sent a secret message to the commanding general of the U.S. Army, saying, “Please present my respects to the general, and tell him, confidentially, I shall be obliged to him to be as well prepared as he can to either hold or retake the (Southern) forts, as the case may require, at and after the inauguration.”

During his inaugural address, Lincoln stated his clear intention to go to war with the Confederate States of America, to drag it back into the U.S. at bayonet-point. And he stated then that the war would not be about slavery.

The Confederate States of America sent negotiators to Washington to work out a peace treaty with the U.S. They offered to buy the forts that has belonged to the U.S., but were now located in a foreign country. Lincoln stiffed them.

Lincoln had to start his war with the C.S.A. while making it seem that they had started the war against him. His best bet lay in Charleston. There, Major Robert C. Anderson commanded a force of 80+ cannoneers plus bandsmen and civilian contractors in an unfinished fort named Fort Sumter on an artificial island in Charleston Harbor. Following the election, President Buchanan had sent reinforcements of 250 soldiers to Fort Sumter aboard the a passenger vessel named the Star of the West, but Confederate cannons had driven her away. The U.S. government had taken no follow-up action.

Meanwhile, newly-elected Governor Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina had sensed that Fort Sumter could easily be made into the casus belli of a war of the North against the South. He learned that Major Anderson had written to a prominent friend in Charleston saying that he had enough food in the fort to last until May, but it would be nice to have fresh beef again. Pickens had South Carolina’s Secretary of War Robert N. Gourdin open negotiations with Maj Anderson. By 2 February, the negotiations had been completed, and the Charleston market began supplying Maj Anderson with all the meat and vegetables that he wished to buy. (Historian John S. Tilley documents all of this in Chapter 9 of his book, Lincoln Takes Command, with letters, telegrams, and field orders drawn directly from entries scattered from pages 2 through 291 of Ser. 1 Vol.1 of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published in Washington, D.C. from 1890 through 1901.)

Major Anderson subsequently wrote to a friend in Washington, “I do hope that no attempt will be made by our friends to throw supplies in; their doing so should do more harm than good.”

On 12 March 1861, Lincoln’s postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, brought his brother-in-law, Gustavus V. Fox, a retired naval officer, to Lincoln with a plan to reinforce Fort Sumter in such a way that the South would be forced to fire the first shots, thus giving Lincoln his excuse to wage war against the C.S.A. Lincoln successfully pressured his cabinet to go along with that, and on 29 March, Lincoln wrote secret orders to Secretary of War Cameron as follows:

“I desire that an expedition, to move by sea, be got ready to sail as early as the 6th of Aril next (1861), the whole according to memorandum attached, and that you co-operate with the Secretary of the Navy for that object.

“(Enclosure No. 1.) Navy Department. Preliminary orders.—Steamers Pocahantas at Norfolk, Pawnee at Washington, Harriet Lane at New York (Treasury Department), to be under sailing orders for sea, with stores, &c, for one month. Three hundred men to be kept ready for departure from on board the receiving ships at New York.

“(Enclosure No. 2.) War Department. Preliminary—Two hundred men to be ready to leave Governor’s Island in New York. Supplies for twelve months for one hundred men to be put into portable shape, ready for instant shipping. A large steamer and three tugs conditionally engaged.”

The Pocahantas and the Pawnee were U.S. Navy warships; the Harriet Lane was an armed Coast Guard cutter. The “large steamer” was the passenger ship Baltic. The three tugboats were to assist the other ships to navigate the sandbar at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. This was to be an expedition to reinforce massively the little Union force at Fort Sumter; the assumption was that the Confederate forces would fire first upon the approaching unarmed tugboats, whereupon Lincoln would be fully justified in waging his war of aggression against the South.

Congress—-many of whose members favored evacuating Fort Sumter, because it was now in a foreign country—got wind of Lincoln’s planning. The Senate called in Gen Winfield Scott (commander in chief of the U.S. Army ) for testimony regarding the practicality of resupplying Fort Sumter. He disapproved. The Senate passed a resolution requiring President Lincoln to submit to it the written reports of Maj. Anderson in Fort Sumter (as was the right of Congress under the Constitution). Lincoln stiffed the Congress. The point here is that nobody but Lincoln (and some capitalists) wanted a war.

Southern sympathizers in Washington and New York realized that some action was to be undertaken at Fort Sumter. They alerted the C.S.A. Lincoln had ordered his naval force to arrive at Charleston Harbor on 11 or 12 April. He sent an Army captain to deliver an ultimatum to Governor Pickens on 8 April saying that he would resupply (actually reinforce) Fort Sumter peacefully or by force. This was an act of war, in anybody’s book. The C.S.A. government took it as such. It ordered all outgoing mail from Fort Sumter to be opened and read—which revealed Lincoln’s plot. It then ordered Fort Sumter to surrender. When Maj. Anderson refused, the C.S.A. opened fire on the fort at 4:30 AM on 12 April, before the Union Navy arrived.

Gen. Beauregard’s cannons gradually reduced the fort, which was persuaded to surrender on 7:00 PM the following day, without loss of life. The Pawnee arrived during the firing, and Gustavus Fox (who was in charge of the expedition, ordered the captain to join the fight; but her captain refused to do so without explicit written-orders telling him to begin a war against the C.S.A. Following the surrender of the fort, the Union soldiers were permitted to board the Navy vessel and return to the U.S.

The Northern newspapers had a field day with the Fort Sumter bombardment: innocent U.S. soldiers attacked without cause by the dastardly rebels, when the U.S. Navy was simply trying the deliver bread to feed those starving men. (Most mainstream historians today still peddle those very same lies.)

Lest there be any question about Lincoln’s true intentions, Lincoln later wrote to Gustavus Fox, ending his letter by saying, “You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail, and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result” (emphasis added). Lincoln also told Orville Browning, an old political ally from Illinois, “The plan succeeded. They attacked Sumter—it fell, and thus did more service than it otherwise could.”

Now Lincoln had his excuse for a war, but that didn’t necessarily mean that he would get one. The Northern newspapers could con the public, but the Congress knew what was going on, and was not likely to declare war on Lincoln’s say-so at this point. So although only Congress could declare war, Lincoln found an obscure 1795 law that permitted him to deal directly with an insurrection on a temporary basis. Consequently, Lincoln labeled the lawfully-chartered C.S.A. an “insurrection” against the U.S.; and on his own, he called up armies to invade and conquer the South. He called upon the remaining states to provide him with 75,000 men initially. At that point, four more Southern states seceded—to avoid having to fight against their own countrymen—and joined the C.S.A.

By the time Lincoln convened a special session of Congress on 4 July, he had already sent his armies to invade the South; the bloodletting was well underway; and at that point, Congress could only rubberstamp his war.

Without Lincoln–—who initially was politically vulnerable—–in the presidency, it is doubtful that we would have had a war. Basically, he got 623,000 men killed and many hundreds of thousands more wounded so that he could get elected to a second term. Some may call Lincoln a great hero for his actions; based upon his actions, I call him a megalomaniacal sociopath, who rendered into a sick joke America’s proudest boast: that it governs only with the consent of the governed. Lincoln converted the U.S. into just another hypocritical empire that rules its less-favored subjects at bayonet-point.

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