With an explosion that would echo through the next four years and a flash of light that would singe the soul of America, a 90 pound shell belched out from the mouth of 10 inch Seacoast Mortar into the early morning darkness. Its parabolic arch and burning fuse moving upward and over the waters of Charleston Harbor and then descending downward, exploding over Fort Sumter signaling the near-by forts to commence firing. This was April 12, 1861, 40 days into President Abraham Lincoln’s first administration.
Lincoln basically had to sneak into Washington to be inaugurated. This may have been a good indication how his first 100 days would go. Today we argue over the size of the crowds at recent presidential inaugurations. Lincoln won the election with less than 40 percent of the popular vote but had almost 60 percent of the electoral vote. Lincoln is the only president elected with less than 40 percent of the popular vote. He did not receive a single vote in the Deep South “cotton belt” States. Even as popular as President John Kennedy was, he won with less than 50 percent of the popular vote.
So on March 4, 1861, when Lincoln took to the steps of the Capitol seven Southern states had already left the union — the most of any president before or since — with four more to follow after the bombing of Fort Sumter. April was a rough month for Lincoln and the next four years would be rougher.
In the 1800’s politics went beyond Blue States and Red States. Lincoln may not have been the first president to hear some form of “not my president.” But he was the first and only president to face a real divided America.
The talk of states actually leaving the Union started with the Hartford Convention, New England states strongly opposed to the War of 1812. Later during the Nullification crisis, South Carolina threatened to leave the Union over tariff issues during Andrew Jackson’s administration.
As the North became more industrialized there was a need for a higher tariff to protect the growing commerce. The South remained agrarian based and disagreed with the tariff. John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina Democrat and Jackson’s former vice president, championed the idea floated by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions that states could nullify laws that they considered unconstitutional. This was before Marbury v Madison where Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court gets to rule on the constitutionality of laws not the states or the executive branch. The Nullification Crisis was settled with the Union intact. But after leaving office, Jackson was asked if he had any regrets to which he replied that he regretted not hanging Calhoun when he had the chance.
Dealing with divisive issues is part of American history. For Lincoln there was no repeal and replace. It was preserve the Union.
The Civil War put to rest the concept that states can nullify federal law or can withdraw from the United States. It also was the starting gun for the diverse economy that was to develop in the post war era as railroads linked the country. The diversity of the population continued to change as people from as far away as China and Scandinavia were following the Irish and Germans to America and filling in the land between the coasts. Soon people from Eastern and Southern Europe and from the Americas would pour into the country.
It may be ironic, and just possible, that America’s integrated diversity: economically and culturally, has softened out the rough differences of conservative or liberal; rural or urban; or whatever one’s religious beliefs might be, that keeps America as one despite attempts to separate and divide.
Nobody is quite sure who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. Confederate lore has it that Edmund Ruffin, a 66 year-old Virginia secessionist, yanked the lanyard that sent the first round down range after Roger Pryor, a Virginia Congressmen, refused saying, “I could not fire the first gun of the war.”
Some say that Capt. George S. James of the South Carolina Artillery gave the order to fire but did not physically set the fuse that ended up destroying the South and killing a half-a-million Americans.
Ruffin was such a die-hard secessionist that he could not envision living in a post Civil War world with Yankees. On June 18, 1865 Ruffin wrote: “I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule — to all political, social and business connection with the Yankee race.” He then committed suicide.
Pryor, on the other hand, became a Confederate brigadier general and moved to New York after the war where he practiced law and served as a judge on the New York State Supreme Court.
As for James, he became a Lieutenant Colonel and was killed at Fox Gap on September 14, 1862 during Lee’s invasion into Maryland.
The shots fired at Fort Sumter just happened to be unloosed in April. It is nothing against the month of April. All the “lost causes” leading up to the Civil War were cast well before Ruffin, Pryor or Johnson stood on the parapets at 4 am looking out to Fort Sumter and debating who should have the honors of getting the shooting war started. Not only did the war start in April it basically ended in April with both Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston surrendering the main Confederate Armies. Lee surrendered on April 9th and Lincoln was assassinated five days later.
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