UPDATE: The comments section is closed. The arguments were circular.
I am always fascinated by terms, statements and quotes that are thrown around to justify the historical arguments of the public arena. When these elements of “proof” emerge, they are usually unaccompanied by context, explanation, analysis or justification. In the comments section of this blog and in other places, some apologists used “proof” in their interpretations of Fort Sumter. These arguments center around which side actually started the Civil War, and whether or not the “food for hungry men” explanation provided by Lincoln is an erroneous claim. I am sure there are other angles and arguments made with the same type of historical interpretation but these two subjects are dominating my recent encounters. I feel it is something worth exploring a little more in-depth.
I intended on writing a post, in fact I actually promised a post to one commentator, on the subject of who started the war. Certain arguments contend that the Union’s policy, initiated by Lincoln and Anderson (troops moving from Moultrie to Sumter, resupply, promises not kept, etc.), provoked the South. At this juncture, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens are usually cited for their beliefs that the South acted in defense. Recently I came across this post on Tulane University’s website. The post is a terrific analysis of both the Union and the Rebel Government’s political maneuvering during the Ft. Sumter crisis. It also contains a great historiography on the subject. The only thing I might add, or at least expand upon, is the “War Hawkesque” culture of the South. Given that War Hawks of the War of 1812 came predominantly from the South, and then led Southern rhetoric in the antebellum, there might be “cultural baggage” worth exploring? That is probably a post for another time. Given that the “who started the war” question is objectively addressed by someone else, I will concentrate more on the arguments against Lincoln’s claim of “food for hungry men.”
Many teachers discuss the situation during the Ft. Sumter crisis as one of political maneuvering. Neither side necessarily wanted to start the war. Yet, the South acted aggressively in securing federal forts and installations across the South. Fort Pulaski is one of my favorite examples of this, reminiscent of the seizure of Ticonderoga. In Charleston, S.C. the narrative usually is told in this manner. (I am paraphrasing of course based on the different ways I have seen high school and college professors teach this subject. I understand it is a generalization, but I think it is one we can agree on.) Ft. Sumter and Ft. Pickens proved to be the last remaining forts occupied by the Federal government in the South. Because the federal government owned these installations, and because relinquishing them added validity to secession, the federal government would not hand the forts over. The South on the other hand, now faced the political imposition of having Union soldiers occupying forts in the South. Thus the push and pull politics of both sides that did not necessarily want to be the ones that fired first. At Sumter, Anderson and his men occupied Ft. Moultrie. The Union Gov’t. ordered Anderson to hold the harbor, as was his domain of protection. Anderson moved his forces from Moultrie to Sumter (also under his command) because he felt Moultrie had inferior defenses to ground attacks. There in the walls of Ft. Sumter, Anderson remained throughout the rest of the Buchanon Presidency and into Lincoln’s first months in office. Anderson began to run low on supplies facing a decision to abandon the fort or commence firing. Both sides knew this. Lincoln politically maneuvered the situation to relive the “starvation of soldiers” without firing first. He sent, “food for hungry men.” Jefferson Davis in response, knowing that the Federal troops would maintain occupation with fresh supplies, ordered Gen. Beauregard to attack the fort (please forgive that oversimplification.) It is the claim of “food for hungry men” that some scrutinize today. These critics of Lincoln state that the men received food from Charleston, therefore they were not starving. This is, as they say, justification for believing Lincoln provoked the South into firing because there was no need to “resupply” the fort.
This apologist argument stems from a statement given by John B. Baldwin of Virginia in February 10, 1866. Baldwin, recanted a conversation he had with Lincoln to Senator Jabob M. Howard of Michigan in front of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. Baldwin noted that in the conversation that took place on April 4, 1861, Lincoln brought up the issue of starvation at Fr. Sumter and Baldwin replied to that dilemma:
He [Lincoln] said something or other about feeding the troops at Sumter. I told him that would not do. Said I, “You know perfectly well that the people of Charleston have been feeding them already. That is not what they are at. They are asserting a right. They will feed the troops, and fight them while they are feeding them. They are after the assertion of a right.”
Apologists argue that Baldwin’s statement indicates that Charleston fed the garrison at Ft. Sumter. Therefore, Lincoln’s sending of “food for hungry men” is nothing more than political tap dance to send reserves, reinforcements, essentially all things evil to provoke the South and cause the Civil War. But there are some problems with Baldwin’s testimony. For starters, those posting this quote from the book Conversations With Lincoln,
The best source evidence of conditions within the fort comes not from a statesman from Virginia not present at the fort, but from the actual men in and around Ft. Sumter. In this instance, the correspondence between Gen. Beauregard and Maj. Anderson prove the most revealing.
FORT SUMTER, S.C.,
GENERAL: 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, prevent my compliance. Thanking you for the fair, manly, and courteous terms proposed, and for the high compliment paid me,
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Major, First Artillery, Commanding.
HEADQUARTERS PROVISIONAL ARMY, C.S.A.,
MAJOR: In consequence of the verbal observation made by you to my aides, Messrs. Chestnut and Lee, in relation to the condition of your supplies, and that you would in a few days be starved out if our guns did not batter you to pieces, or words to that effect, and desiring no useless effusion of blood, I communicated both the verbal observations and your written answer to my communications to my Government.
If you will state the time at which you will evacuate Fort Sumter, and agree that in the mean time you will not use your guns against us unless ours shall be employed against Fort Sumter, we will abstain from opening fire upon you. Colonel Chestnut and Captain Lee are authorized by me to enter such an agreement with you. You are, therefore, requested to communicate to them an open answer
I remain, major, very respectfully, your obedient servant
G. T. BEAUREGARD
April 12, 1861
FORT SUMTER, S.C.,
GENERAL: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt by Colonel Chestnut of your second communication of the 11th instant, and to state in reply that, cordially uniting with you in the desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood, I will, if provided with the proper and necessary means of transportation, evacuate Fort Sumter by noon on the 15th instant, and that I will not in the mean time open my fires upon your forces unless compelled to do so by some hostile act against this fort or the flag of my Government by the forces under your command, or by some portion of them, or by the perpetration of some act showing a hostile intention on your part against this fort or the flag it bears, should I not receive prior to that time controlling instructions from my Government or additional supplies.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant
Major, First Artillery, Commanding.
Both men acknowledged the condition of food at Ft. Sumter. Beauregard notes mentions of conditions in writing, and also recognizes Anderson’s verbal inclinations. These two men agree, supplies are running low at Fort Sumter. So what of Baldwin’s statement? According to the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, food supply constantly represented an issue at the fort. The first reports of Anderson’s men being low on food, prompted Pickens, the governor of South Carolina, to send Anderson food and allow women and children to be transported to New York. However, by March, those provisions ended. Beauregard discontinued the supply of Ft. Sumter. Supplies ran low, as dictated in the last letter above. Anderson, without receiving orders from Washington, promised to leave the fort on the 15th of April. This was not soon enough for the Confederate government, with Lincoln’s supplies on the way, Jefferson Davis gave the go ahead for the attack.
Perhaps Baldwins account referred to these earlier circumstances mentioned in the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War. He might have known that citizens of Charleston gave food to the garrison in the past, so he felt that it was not an issue. Maybe Baldwin stretched the truth a little, or he simply did not know that the Charleston later cut the Garrison off. In any case, Baldwin’s account about food at Ft. Sumter is unreliable and based on hearsay. The soldiers, both Union and Confederate, definitely knew it was an issue. According to the correspondence, the issue proved so grave that Maj. Anderson intended to give up the fort on the 15th. I’d argue “food for hungry men,” is justified.