Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier & Ives (1837–1885).
By 1861, the South was ready to fight. Some scholars argue that tensions had built up to such a point by this time that strife was inevitable, something Bruce Levine called “the inexorable logic of events.” They make a persuasive case that this was so. In the wake of the Compromise of 1850, political failings and economic and social strains became frequent and numerous. In 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas reopened the issue of slavery in western lands when he pushed for popular sovereignty in the Kansas–Nebraska territory to try and ensure that a rail line passed through there to his home state of Illinois. In attempting to please both Southerners and Northerners by allowing a popular mandate to settle the question of slavery in this volatile territory, he inflamed this hot spot. John Brown spread the fire in 1856, leading a band of anti-slavery advocates on a murderous expedition to avenge a Southern insult, the destruction of an anti-slavery press in the town of Lawrence, Kansas. Brown’s party killed and mutilated five people, but he escaped prosecution and reemerged in the east to direct the infamous raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown’s goal this time was to lead slaves in rebellion against their Southern masters; the federal armory at Harpers Ferry was to supply the weapons. His grand aim faltered and this time he was arrested by US authorities. His subsequent execution, however, only made him a martyr for the abolitionist cause, and therefore a hero in the North. To Southerners, he was a villain, an example of crusading Northerners unlawfully interfering in Southern affairs.
John Brown was more a victim of economic downturn than he was a proponent of abolitionism. The financial turbulence of the early 1850s claimed Brown as a casualty, bankrupted him once again, and gave him more reason to pursue the “holy” cause of abolitionism. The Dred Scott case soon placed the legal question of slavery in a moral context that outraged the North and lent credence to the actions of a man like John Brown. Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom once he reached free territory, lost his bid for emancipation before the Supreme Court in 1857, and in language that framed the black man’s subservience to whites in stark racial terms. Brown’s martyrdom was possible only given the obvious failure of the Scott case to use a legal avenue to address slavery, since right and wrong vanished from the equation. Only race mattered, a fact that Brown realized all too well. That a man like Brown could spread terror in one part of the United States, then spread revolution in another, and still symbolize the tensions between the North and South, can only attest to the myriad twists and turns of the moral debate about slavery. Perhaps the meaning of the immorality of slavery had been lost by this point, to Brown’s disgust. Dispensing with the immorality of waging war would be an easy step to take after that.
Of course, denying the “wrong” of slavery only called attention to the failure of political leadership in bringing this crisis to a suitable resolution before 1861. In fact, the opposite was the case—“blundering” politicians used the slavery issue to advance their careers and incite the push toward civil war. Douglas’ effort to secure a railroad through the Kansas–Nebraska territory only stresses a more glaring instance of this abuse than was Lincoln’s use of slavery to position himself as a national candidate for the presidency. In the famous debates between these two men as they vied for the Senate in 1858, Lincoln fixed morality at the center of the slave issue. It was wrong to be a slave owner, he said. Douglas pursued the tactic of focusing on stopping the spread of slavery and not its right to exist in a free nation. Douglas won this battle and kept his Senate seat. But Lincoln won the political war by asserting that slavery must come to an end some day. His clear opposition to the South won him much popular support in the North. Lincoln’s political triumph was complete when he emerged as the Republican candidate for president in 1860, and then won the election. However, in making plain the chasm between the two Northern approaches to slavery, ending it altogether or simply limiting its growth, Lincoln and Douglas had provided the South with a causus belli for preemption because the Northern endorsement of Lincoln as president clearly meant the Northern validation of the end of slavery. Therefore, Lincoln’s triumph was marred by the prospect of war since his election sparked secession.
Through a combination of human error and circumstance, the country sped to civil war in understandable if tragic terms. This evaluation is not complete, however. Preemption adds one more factor to the analysis. The South’s willingness to fight in 1861 revealed that the cultural neurosis of the North–South division had reached a boiling point, though more so in the South than in the North. Preemption released that tension in the South. The war would finally come and the tension would be resolved. Still, the South would be unique in clinging to a preemptive strategy without believing that a first strike would actually give them a sufficient military advantage to prevail in the war that followed. Instead, the larger context of preemption drew the South to attacking the federal position at Fort Sumter and starting the Civil War. Without taking a stand, Southern culture would face destruction at the hands of the North anyway. Even if the odds were too great to make success likely, most, though by no means all, Southerners deemed the fight worthwhile. Either way, the South faced destruction. Since it had no choice but to act, why not ensure an honorable fate and fight?
Many Southerners did express great confidence in their unique attributes that could enable them to win a struggle against the North. But the prospect of war still weighed heavily on their minds. One reason was the obvious reluctance to take the step to war and invite its terrible consequences: loss of life, destruction of property, etc. This fear was dismissed by a cavalier attitude that no matter what came, the fallout would be minimal. Very little blood would be spilled. Confidence in a limited clash allayed concerns arising from the second reason why the South hesitated to wage war against the North, the inability to predict the course of such a war with certainty and therefore to be sure of the consequences of war. The bloodshed might be great. Even a quick “victory” with limited loss of life might produce unwelcome change. The hazards of war clearly stared Southerners in the face since there was no telling what might come of a clash between North and South.
The South needed a reason to believe they could win this fight and preemption gave them this hope, though for surprising reasons. A sharp blow inflicted on Union forces would not redress the material imbalance between the two warring parties. The disparity was too great for a Southern attack to achieve this at the start of war. Rather, preemption was valued as a means to indicate Southern resolve. This came in two respects. First, an initial exchange of shots might stop a real shooting war from occurring. Northerners would shrink from the prospect of violence. Armed with this rationale of preemption, the South looked forward to waging war against the North and ending the tensions between the two regions with a show of military force that would defuse the possibility of a greater war.
Should this not occur and a longer, deadlier struggle result, the second benefit of acting preemptively came into play. With some bloodshed, there could be no going back. The South would have to fight. But what constituted the South, and the depths of its resolve, were still in doubt. Once South Carolina left the Union, six other states followed. This much had been expected and it was significant in getting things started. But seven states were not enough to realistically expect the South to fight a successful war against the North, and more states needed to join the Confederacy for the South to expect to win such a conflict. A preemptive strike overcame this problem since it added legitimacy to the Southern cause. Once some fighting erupted, other states would have to make the hard decision of whether to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. When important border states saw the North try to bully the South into submission with the threat of war, they would side with the Confederacy. More states made the Confederacy more powerful, and Union resolve would weaken when faced by such a formidable foe. With additional states in the Confederacy, a war might be averted altogether, and for the same reason as before: Southern resolve would discourage Yankee aggression. Should a fight occur, the South would be stronger and better able to defend itself if it consisted of more than seven states.
In using an act of preemption to avert a war, the South pushed the United States into civil war. Should war erupt, many Southerners expressed confidence in defeating Union arms. Others embraced a conflict in fatalistic terms: a war might end in defeat, but the current prospect of Northern domination was disgraceful and to fight redeemed Southern honor. The logic was at times painfully confused. A clash at Fort Sumter would both avert a war and produce a war that would rally additional states to the Southern banner. Ultimately, the South would take the plunge and risk war with the North because it deemed the Northern threat too great to ignore. The North would not let the South grow in size to free itself from commercial bondage at the hands of the North. When teamed with a political loss of power, the Southern way of life was in great jeopardy, as seen in the already significant inroads of Northern culture. Hemmed in in every way, the South had no choice but to act preemptively and defend itself.