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Causes of the War - Who started the war?

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Why was there war?

First, let's establish that the USA did, in fact, start the war. 

Ownership and control of federal properties within the sovereign territory of the seceding states immediately placed the two governments on a collision course. Forts near Charleston, SC (Sumter and others) and Pensacola, FL (Pickens and others) were held by federal troops against state authority and Confederate authority after each state declared independence and were immediately a point of contention.  Had the U.S. government shown some good faith toward eventually surrendering the forts now outside the United States---with just compensation due, of course----the states in question would undoubtedly have given reasonable concessions for the orderly evacuations and reasonable payments.

It's clear from the record that Lincoln never had any intention of allowing the Southern states to peacefully secede.  In his 1861 Inaugural address, Lincoln said, "The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts ; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere..."

The question of WHY Lincoln would not allow peaceful secession will be covered in the next section.

If Lincoln could not peacefully persuade the Confederate states to return to the Union voluntarily, then he intended to use force, at a minimum to hold federal property and to collect duties and imposts .  It's also clear that the Confederate States declared independence precisely to avoid paying U.S. duties they deemed unfair and about which there had been constant conflict for the past thirty-five years.  The Tariff Acts of 1824, 1828, and 1832 were the subject of heated debates and almost brought war in 1833.  More on this later.

So even though Lincoln seems to suggest in the quote above that he would not mount an invasion or use force, his lawyerly caveats clearly state he will.  Lincoln knew that it was highly unlikely that the South would reverse course by March of 1861 and revoke their declaration of independence.  He therefore knew they would not voluntarily pay any U.S. duties or imposts and would not allow a U.S. military presence on their sovereign territory.

Furthermore, it's clear from the record that Lincoln wanted to avoid appearing to be aggressor for political and public relations purposes, both within the U.S. and abroad.  Lincoln knew that it was highly likely, almost certain in fact, that South Carolina and the Confederate government would not allow Fort Sumter to be resupplied or reinforced.  Indeed, sending the Sumter resupply mission of warships and troops was for the purpose of inducing the South to fire the first shot as an excuse to start the war. For a detailed analysis and timeline of events, see the Tulane site on  Fort Sumter .

The "first shot" was actually fired in January 1860, when General Winfield Scott convinced President Buchanan that he must send troops and supplies to Sumter.  The "Star of the West" was loaded with ammunition, food and 200 men (kept below decks) and sent to secretly resupply Sumter.  Shore batteries fired on The Star of the West and she fled back to New York harbor without delivering supplies.  No military reaction followed the firing on a U.S. flag ship.  Buchanan was determined to avoid bloodshed in his administration.  U.S. Major Robert Anderson had already seized Fort Sumter in defiance of President Buchanan's orders--an act of war--because he knew he could not defend Fort Moultrie in Charleston.  Buchanan ordered Anderson to make no move that could be construed as aggressive.  South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens, in retaliation (another act of war), seized the other federal forts in Charleston.

The day after Lincoln's inauguration, he received a letter from the commander at Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, that supplies were limited and that he could hold the fort for only about six weeks.  Lincoln consulted General Winfield Scott and other Army officers who concurred that the fort must be evacuated because there was no practical way to successfully reinforce Sumter.  Lincoln had been resolved to abandon Sumter after consultation with his Cabinet.  However, various U.S. Naval officers presented a plan to reinforce Sumter and expressed confidence it could be accomplished.

All during the month of March, the pressure escalated as Governor Pickens demanded immediate evacuation and surrender of Fort Sumter. Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed General Beauregard in command of the forces surrounding Charleston and ordered him to deny U.S. troops the courtesy of coming into Charleston to purchase food and supplies.  Pressure escalated despite the fact that U.S. Secretary of State Seward had given South Carolina authorities the impression that evacuation was imminent.  Davis ordered General Beauregard to resist the resupply or reinforcement of Sumter "at any hazard."

Lincoln and his administration refused to meet with Confederate commissioners sent to Washington to negotiate a peaceful evacuation of Sumter.  U.S. Secretary of State Seward, with the permission of Lincoln, advised Governor Pickens that a convoy of U.S. warships had been dispatched to "provision" Sumter, not to reinforce it, but that any resistance to the provisioning would be met with force.

Faced with the knowledge that U.S. warships were inbound with the intent to resupply the fort, Confederate batteries bombarded Sumter into submission before the ships could arrive.

The U.S. Navy officer who convinced Lincoln that he could resupply and reinforce Fort Sumter was Captain Gustavus V. Fox.  The following excerpt is from a letter from Abraham Lincoln dated May 1, 1861, to Captain Fox which shows that Lincoln's intent was to hold the fort if possible AND, in any case, induce the South to fire the first shot .   The letter is three paragraphs, the first two expressing confidence in Captain Fox's abilities and efforts to accomplish the Sumter mission.  The last paragraph is as follows:

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 failed ; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.  Very truly your friend,
A. Lincoln

So the question of Why did the USA start the war? boils down to...Why didn't the USA allow the Confederate States to leave in peace?  What was the thinking of President Lincoln and the other Unionists?

The answer is discussed in the next section.

Why was there war?

....under construction

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