The Civil War’s fabled “first shots” weren’t, exactly.
History dates the conflict’s inception from those on April 12, 1861 against Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina, but the designation is somewhat arbitrary.
Nine days before, Confederates had fired on the Federal schooner Rhoda H. Shannon as she sought to aid a federal garrison in the same harbor. And the previous January 9, Southerners had fired on another Federal ship, Star of the West, on a similar re-supply and reinforcement mission.
Then there was October 1859, when radical abolitionist John Brown and eighteen followers–five black and thirteen white–had fired, and been fired at, in briefly taking over the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Federal troops under Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the local firehouse in which Brown’s little “army” holed up. They killed ten of the insurgents, and Brown and others soon hanged.
And before that in “bleeding Kansas,” beginning in the mid-1850s, pro- and anti-slavery antagonists, many of the former from Missouri, some of the latter from Massachusetts, fought their own mini-war.
But there is a reason why April 12, 1861 gets the nod. At Fort Sumter during that second week of April, push finally progressed to shove.
President Abraham Lincoln had told a White House visitor he would “suffer death” before consenting to “any concession or compromise which looks like buying the privilege” of exercising a presidency his minority Republican party had won by fair election in a four-way race. He agreed that Americans, as in 1776, had the right of revolution, but he stipulated that the right was moral, not legal. And for that right to be justifiable it itself had to be moral; otherwise it was just an exercise of brute force. An increasing and increasingly vocal minority of Americans questioned whether extending slavery, the aim behind secession, was moral.
Lincoln also saw himself as duty-bound to re-supply Fort Sumter; he was defending a presidential power to prevent secession first asserted by Andrew Jackson–if not, in fact, by George Washington.
North America’s other new president in 1861, Jefferson Davis, felt equally duty-bound to prevent Sumter’s reinforcement. If he did not, the garrison might hold out for months and belie his new Confederate States of America’s claim that states were inviolably sovereign within their own borders.
Neither side, though, relished the idea of starting the shooting this time. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a wealthy Louisiana slaveholder’s son who had recently vaulted from the rank of U. S. captain and West Point superintendent to the Confederacy’s first brigadier general, commanded at Charleston. The Confederate government ordered him to demand an evacuation of Sumter before arrival of another relief expedition that was reported well on its way. If refused, Beauregard was to reduce the fort by bombardment.
On April 11, Beauregard sent a three-man delegation into the fort to make the evacuation demand. Federal Major Robert Anderson conferred with his subordinates for an hour, then replied in the negative. Walking to the gate with the Confederate party, he asked if Beauregard would open fire with no other warning. The trio said probably not. Anderson, whether from nervousness or some other reason, volunteered: “Gentlemen, if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be starved out in a few days.” In other words, the Confederates did not have to fire; hunger would soon do their work.
Beauregard wired the news to the Davis government in Montgomery, Alabama. The government quickly authorized him not to open fire. But then, perhaps hoping not to be seen as fearing a fight, Secretary of War Leroy Walker ordered Beauregard to demand that Anderson specify when he would evacuate and assure the Confederates he would not fire unless fired upon. Near midnight, under a crescent moon, Beauregard sent his trio back to Sumter, and Anderson agreed to evacuate on April 15–unless he received reinforcements or different instructions from Washington.
That was too equivocal. The Confederate emissaries had received Beauregard’s permission to determine on the spot whether the reply was positive or negative, and they did. As soon as Anderson gave them a written reply at 3 a.m. on April 12, they headed back to Fort Johnson on the southwest bank of the mainland and ordered its garrison to fire. At 4:30 a.m., in a drizzling rain, Fort Johnson’s first shot exploded over Fort Sumter. Batteries on Sullivan’s Island to the southeast and Morris Island to the northeast joined in.
The fire and drizzle kept up all day. The Confederates fired four thousand times, setting the fort ablaze and battering its walls but killing none of Anderson’s men. Sumter’s guns fired a thousand times, but their range was too short to damage the Confederates.
April 13 was sunny, and so seemed Confederate hopes. They finally shot down the fort’s flag, and late that afternoon, after much wrangling over terms, Anderson surrendered. On the 14th, he and his garrison evacuated the fort. In departing, he began the firing of a 100-gun salute to the flag. The 50th gun burst and killed a Union soldier, the only death in the battle.
That death was a fateful first. Over the next four years, some 620,000–360,000 Federal and at least 260,000 Confederate–would follow.
(For further information see The Civil War Almanac, Bison Books, 1882; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster, 1995; P. G. T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray by T. Harry Williams, LSU Press, 1955; Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press, 1988; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, Harper-Collins, 1991; and Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, edited by Patricia L. Faust, Harper & Row, 1986.)
A century–to the month–after the Fort Sumter crisis exploded into full-on civil war, America was drawing inexorably to the threshold of another. The latter, less formally declared but just as harrowing and significant, would try to tie up loose ends the first left hanging: the many basic rights denied African Americans nominally freed from bondage by the first one. These omissions belied America’s claim to be home of the free.
The same way that the Civil War followed the election of Abraham Lincoln in late 1860, a Supreme Court decision a hundred years later precipitated the second conflict. Boynton vs. Virginia required all public transportation facilities–including dining and waiting rooms–to be open to all travelers. This outraged white citizens in the states of the old Confederacy. There “Whites-Only” signs overhung water fountains and restroom doors. The Confederate battle flag had flown in profusion since 1954, when another Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, mandated racial integration of public schools.
A small nonviolent civil rights group, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), decided to make the federal government enforce the new law. Most of the government was apathetic or antagonistic toward the change. As in Lincoln’s day, there was a new president, John F. Kennedy, and this one, unlike Lincoln, owed his election in part to Southern Democrats. And J. Edgar Hoover, long-serving director of the FBI, had ties to racist Southern law enforcement.
Early in 1961, CORE began soliciting the most courageous–and most scrupulously nonviolent–leaders of a 1960 campaign of restaurant “sit-ins” challenging segregated lunch counters in the upper South. CORE invited these young people to participate in two bus-borne, integrated “freedom rides” from the upper to the lower South to demand the rights specified by Boynton vs. Virginia. The ride was planned to begin on May 4 in northern Virginia, site of many of the Civil War’s most famed battles. It was to end in New Orleans on May 17.
That it would be dangerous, perhaps even fatal to some, was obvious. The harsh, fear-based penalties for African American assertiveness that were common under slavery–and honed in the post-Civil War era into ritualistic whippings, hangings, and immolation–remained all too contemporary. CORE’s idea was Gandhian: to evoke violence, respond with nonviolence, and goad hitherto uninterested media into reporting the dark underbelly of the South’s proud inequality.
Not surprisingly, only a handful of the most dedicated responded to CORE’s discriminating solicitation for riders. They numbered thirteen, seven African Americans and six whites, the latter including three women. They would be in two groups in two chartered buses, a Greyhound and a Trailways. Their vocations ranged from professor and retired naval officer to folk singer and ministerial student, aged from sixty to twenty-one. The twenty-one-year-old ministerial student was the son of an impoverished family of Alabama cotton-pickers, whom he had shamed and angered by getting jailed for “sitting in” at lunch counters in Nashville. He, John Lewis, arrived in Washington wide-eyed.
“I could see the U. S. Capitol just up the street,” the future Georgia congressman later recalled. “The top of the Washington Monument rose high in the distance…This was the seat of the nation’s government, the place where laws were made, the center of all that this country stood for. That, combined with the purpose for which I had come, made the moment overwhelming…”
While CORE planned its May incursion into Dixie, a couple of other things were developing, for good and otherwise. A division of the government that was sympathetic toward oppressed African Americans was the Justice Department, but it faced an almost impossible job in 1961. Its most public task was to bring lawsuits for rights violations in the face of such outrageous legal precedents as the Screws case of 1944. A Georgia sheriff named Claude Screws had beaten an African American prisoner to death. The crime was so horrific that an all-white jury convicted Screws–only to have the U.S. Supreme Court reverse the decision on the ludicrous ground that the sheriff intended only to murder the prisoner, not deprive him of his civil rights.
In April 1961, new Justice Department lawyer John Doar, a Republican Princeton graduate hailing from a small town in Wisconsin, took a colleague along to poke around interior Mississippi incognito. They were seeking strong voting-rights cases to bring to court. The two arrived in work clothes and scuffed boots to avoid alerting local racists, their police collaborators, and fellow federal colleagues in the FBI who might tip off the police. Needing witnesses who would not wilt in court, Doar quickly found that the most promising were poor farmers. Teachers and the few other members of Mississippi’s black middle class had far too much to lose.
At least one other important thing was happening, too, in April 1961. As John Lewis and other members of the little band of bus passengers arrived in Washington in late April, virulently racist Southern brotherhoods–grandsons and great-grandsons of antebellum Dixie–continued girding for another federal invasion that they had seemed to both dread and long for since Brown vs. Board of Education.
In their vanguard strode the Ku Klux Klan.
(For more information, see Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster, 1988; The Children by David Halberstam, Random House, 1998; Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by U. S. Rep. John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster, 1998; and We Shall Overcome by Fred Powledge, Scribner’s, 1993.)