Much has been written as to what actually triggered the conflict of the War Between the States. Depending on the historian, you will find differing views on why North and South seemed destined to lock horns in battle. Abraham Lincoln is often accused of intentionally starting the war, all the while saying he was opposed to such a dangerous gambit. I believe the record is clear on this: Lincoln truly despised the horrific policy of slavery, but was more interested in preserving the Union. The Union, by definition, was the United States as it then existed, both north and south. Lincoln also knew history. Revolutions, insurrections, and civil wars more often than not destroyed the nation, rather than preserved it.
Instead, Lincoln planned to allow the southern states to retain the practice of slavery, but would not allow slave owners and slave traders to take slavery and slaves into the new territories out west, i.e., beyond Texas and Kansas. There was nothing further west than these two states. Oklahoma, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and all areas west were still part of the western territories. Slave owners wanted to move into these areas to operate outside the control of the U.S. Government. The first significant battles of the war took place in New Mexico territory at Valverde, February 20-21, 1862, between Union troops intent on halting the progression of slave owners traveling westward under the protection of Confederate forces. Even though the battle was technically a win for the Confederates, the territory was given over to Union forces several months later, ending, for all intents and purposes, any further significant attempts to move slaves into the Western Territories.
What is important to note here is that Lincoln was not even inaugurated our next president until two weeks later on March 4, 1862. From the 1830’s there were many in the United States predicting war over the slavery issue. It was inevitable, or so it seemed. Earlier in the century, political parliamentarian William Wilberforce singlehandedly dismantled the practice of slavery before the English Parliament, thus ending slavery throughout the British Empire. Could the same happen in the Halls of Congress?
During the days leading up to Lincoln’s inauguration, there was a great deal of war talk, secession, and chest thumping. One notable fire-eater was Georgia’s former U.S. Senator Robert Toombs. He stood on the floor of the Senate and spoke against Lincoln and the new Republican Party, challenging them to bring the fight to the southerners. “Come and do it!” he cried. He declared Georgia to be on the warpath. “We are as ready to fight now as we will ever be. Treason? Bah!” (Best Little Stories of the Civil War, by C. Brian Kelly, Cumberland House, Nashville, pp 35-36).
Toombs and his state would secede from the Union moments later. In his new role as the Confederate Secretary of State, he begged Confederate President Jefferson Davis not to open fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Lincoln, as the newly seated president, had just informed the governor of South Carolina that he felt it necessary to provide support by supplies and ammunition to the men assigned to the isolated fort. The underlying message was clear: If you attack this fort, you will bring on the war.
The entire new cabinet of men appointed by Davis agreed with their leader that attacking Fort Sumter was the correct course of action. All agreed, that is, except Robert Toombs. “Firing on Fort Sumter,” he said, “would inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has ever seen.” As Toombs stalked about the cabinet chambers, he suddenly stopped, faced President Davis and said if the South attacked, “it is suicide, it is murder, and it will lose us every friend we have in the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountains to the ocean; and legions, now quiet, will swarm out to sting us to death.” In his final attempt to forestall the inevitable, he said, “It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”
Three days later, Southern forces under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard, fired on Fort Sumter. It was indeed a fatal mistake for the Confederacy.
Happy 235th Birthday, America! We have survived the worst of civil wars. We will yet survive these uncertain times as well.