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Confederate States' Bombarding Fort Sumter Provoked the American Civil War

Updated on February 26, 2014

The Confederate States of America could not attain its aims by peaceful means; fired the first shot that started the American Civil War

State’s rights in the United States of America

In the 1850s, some South states wanted to keep their slaves to work their plantations, especially that of cotton. The North states wanted slavery abolished, most of them were now hiring labor to work their farms. To keep their rights to keep slaves, the South threatened to secede from the Union. Antislavery was the platform of Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party when he campaigned for the presidency in late 1860s. When he won the presidential election, the South states seceded from the Union and organized the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis was elected provisional president of the Confederacy (Encyclopedia Britannica 2009).

[I have a similar Triond content which I thoroughly revised into this Hub.]

To join the Federal system

We will include in our discussion only constituent states as of 1860 as the American Civil War started in 1961.

In the USA, each state, say, Virginia has its own constitution, legislature, judiciary, and executive branch.

“In 1788 Virginia became the 10th state to ratify the Constitution” of the USA.

“The Commonwealth of Virginia's constitution, of 1776, was revised for the seventh time in 1971. In it the state retains the basic powers first delineated separately in the third constitution (1851), which enumerated the organization of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

“In 1861 Virginia seceded from the Union. Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy, and Virginia was the chief battleground throughout the war” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2009).

Virginia did “ratify the Constitution,” meaning it joined USA voluntarily.

Confederate States of America (South)

Where did Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, get the idea that the secessionist had a right to withdraw from the United States?

Davis married Sarah Knox in 1935. Unfortunately, his wife died of malaria three months after their wedding. In mourning, he turned to reading international law and literature. Fresh ideas in international law emerged from the French revolution.

Assuming that it was not the fruit of his mind, one of the sources of Jefferson’s idea could be the French revolution of 1799. One of the ideas of the National Convention was that peoples have the right to self-determination. King Louis XVI considered this idea very radical that he rejected it (Encyclopedia Britannica 2009).

Right to self-determination

The French revolution of 1799 was almost a civil war. King Louis XVI wanted to raise state revenues to augment the dwindling resources due partly to French participation in the American Revolution. He wanted a popular approval so he called the National Assembly consisting of clergy, nobles, and the commoners. Six hundred commoners, 300 clergymen, and 300 nobles materialized. One issue in the convention was the manner of voting. The commoners wanted a united assembly where voting was by headcount while the clergy and the nobles wanted voting based on estate. The commoners were clearly the winners in their proposal to which the clergy and nobles objected. The commoners broke the impasse by declaring that they were the true representatives of the people and proceeded to draft a constitution. Violent resistance ensued forcing King Louis XVI to flee from France but he was intercepted, brought back and tried for counterrevolution. Eventually he was guillotined.

The revolutionist now in charge of France came up with an idea that peoples have the right to self-determination.

Davis must have seen Article IV Section 3 of the U.S constitution that can serve the purpose of the Confederacy, to wit:

“Article IV. Section 3. New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” (Source: Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009)

Given that the legislature of each of the South states consented to seceding from the Union and to joining the Confederacy. However, the South did not go through the U.S. Congress. Did the South have a chance with the U.S. Congress? Only 11 states joined the South and 23 states stuck with the Union. The South had no chance. This could be the reason why the South went ahead without arguing its case in Congress.

If the South did not have a chance through the peaceful and legal means and still wanted to pursue its aim of keeping slaves, it was headed for diplomatic means or to force the issue. Did the South expect President Lincoln to allow the break up of the nation he was mandated to protect?

The constitution of Confederate States of America was almost a copy of the constitution of the United States of America, except for one very salient point. The Confederate state was sovereign over that of the whole Confederacy (Geise, R.D., editor. American History to 1877). That is why, when a state wanted its own army separate from that of the Confederacy under the command of President Davis or Gen. Robert Lee, it had one. Each state clamored for troops at the expense of other states and at the expense of the Confederate army.

A confederate state could dodge taxation. The North's financing consisted of 21 percent in taxes compared with 5 percent that of the South. In addition, the South's financing consisted of 60 percent in printing press paper money, compared with 13 percent that of the North. That is why the Confederacy was saddled with 9,000 percent inflation rate during the Civil War, compared with 117 percent that of the North.

Gen. William T. Sherman of the North showed the weakness of state's right that is more sovereign: he destroyed each South state's army one by one so easily in his "March to the Sea" that culminated in the surrender of Gen. Johnston's army standing guard for both the Carolinas. Those small armies contributed to the defeat of Gen. Lee in Northern Virgina, a Confederate state, because they sucked up troops instead of reinforcing Gen. Lee's army. Gen. Johnston could not reinforce Gen. Lee's army with troops and food because his army had been engaged to repulse the overwhelming attack launched by Gen. Sherman's army. Gen. Ulysses Grant of the Union erected a siege on Gen. Lee's army. In nine months under siege, when his soldiers lied prostrate on the ground and horses fell off, Gen. Lee surrendered his army to Gen. Grant without approval from Davis.

(I have another Hub "American Civil War: How Did The North Preempt Britain and France From Intervening For the South?")

[If state's rights were sovereign over that of the Federal Union, the Tennessee Valley Authority would be unconstitutional; provided further, that one of the states in the valley did not want to join TVA. Again, the nationwide vaccination with Salk vaccine against the polio could not have pushed through because it involved several states, and one state that did not want the vaccine could refuse to do so -- and could have become the source of polio contamination for other states. Even before the Salk vaccine could be proven effective, in anticipation of the success of Dr. Salk and his team at Pittsburgh University laboratory there was a congressional hearing to consider whether a nationwide vaccination is constitutional or not (Kluger, J. A Splendid Solution, Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. 2004)].

After his installation as provisional president of the Confederacy, on February 9,1861, Davis sent a diplomatic mission to confer with Lincoln. Davis was trying to take the peaceful means for secession but not as provided for by the constitution. However, Lincoln did not want to meet with the diplomatic mission. Meeting with it would be tantamount to recognition of the South.

United States of America (North)

Where did Abraham Lincoln, president of the USA, get the idea that the eleven states that organized the Confederacy did not have the right to secede from the USA?

There are constitutional provisions relating to admission to or withdrawal from the Union.

These provisions are copied from the US constitution.

“Article I. Section 8. The Congress shall have the Power

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

“Section 9. The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

“Article II. Section 1. The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows

“Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

This oath might be the provision closest to a categorical statement of the power of the president to “preserve” the Union, if Union were equated to “Constitution of the United States.”

Lincoln’s proclamation

"By the President of the United States:


"Whereas, The laws of the United States have been for some time past and now are opposed, and the execution thereof obstructed, in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the Marshals by law :

"Now, therefore, I, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, in virtue of the power in me vested by the Constitution and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the Militia of the several States of the Union, to the aggregate number of 75,000, in order to suppress said combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed. The details for this object will be immediately communicated to the State authorities through the War Department…." (HARPER'S WEEKLY. Saturday, April 27, 1861).

Power decided the issue

“When President Abraham Lincoln took office in March, he was faced with the Confederate demand for evacuation of the fort, which was threatened by other fortifications erected by South Carolina in the harbour area. Lincoln had either to attempt resupplying the fort, then in danger of being starved out, or to abandon it and accede to disunion. The president determined to prepare relief expeditions to both forts, but, before the arrival of supplies, Confederate authorities demanded Fort Sumter's immediate evacuation. When this was refused, the South's batteries opened fire at 4:30 AM on April 12....” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2009).

The forts referred to are Fort Sumter, South Carolina and Fort Pickens, Florida. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard of the South gave the command to bombard Fort Sumter on April 12,1861.

The following weeks, Lincoln called on the U.S. army to help the Marshals to enforce the law and suppress the combinations, meaning the South. He did not call it that or by any other name because it would be tantamount to recognition. He raised the U.S. troops up to 75,000.

When the South fired upon Fort Sumter it had decided to force the issue on its rights to withdraw from the United States of America and to keep slaves. Its overture failed. It resorted to armed force, thus the American Civil War that started on April 12, 1861 and ended on April 9,1865.


Submit a Comment

  • conradofontanilla profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Philippines

    Admiral Murrah,

    Any way, each side thought any action by the other on the fort was illegal. The issue was settled by force.

  • Admiral Murrah profile image

    Admiral Murrah 

    6 years ago from Texas

    The residents of the fort were there illegally. The United States Government did not own the fort. The soldiers residing in it took it over and were squatters in that location. The fort was built by South Carolina and the US never reimbursed them for it. Like a landlord dealing with illegal squatters, the South eventually had to call in the Sheriff and use force to make them leave.

    The garrison was also not starving. Food was provided for the soldiers everyday.

    You also did not mention how Lincoln attempted to illegally send more troops into the fort by means of the vessel Star of the West. The ship said it was only bringing in supplies, when in reality it was reinforcements. The Union under Lincoln's leadership intentionally provoked a situation by violating the spirit of the agreements made regarding Fort Sumter.

    You did a great deal of research. It would have helped had you used sources, such as reports or newspapers that told the events from a different perspective.

  • Marturion profile image


    6 years ago

    Overall, a very informative and well-thought out hub... But, I can't help but point out that, while slavery was a driving force behind the northern push, it had almost nothing to do with the southern secession. In fact, in the articles of secession delivered by Jefferson Davis, slavery is not mentioned, even once. Slavery became a driving point when Lincoln realized how vital the abolitionist support would be during the war. In fact, the biggest reason for secession was the taxes, margins, and quotas placed on southern agricultural products sold in the north. Southerners (largely the 95% non slave owners) were losing money on goods going north, and not allowed to sell to foreign markets.


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