There were many contributing factors to the outbreak of the Civil War. These factors ranged from the election of Lincoln as president, in which Lincoln stated in his inauguration speech in March of 1861 that he would pursue his free soil policy, and the Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling of the Supreme Court, in which the republican ideology of free soil in western territories was determined unconstitutional, to the Compromise of 1850 and the political incitement of northern abolitionism. I have chosen a cause to the war that occurred at the beginning of southern succession, which originated due to the various collective factors previously mentioned. The Union attempt, accelerated after Lincoln’s entry to office, to maintain control of military forts in seceded southern states was the cause of the actual Civil War conflict. Lincoln promised in his 1861 inaugural speech “to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government” .
As the first wave of southern states seceded, there were still Union troops stationed at the military forts in those states. South Carolina, the first state to defect from the Union, was followed by Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, while Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Arkansas still remained loosely attached to the Union. By the time Lincoln entered into office, the problem for the Union in pursuing this policy was that “the new Confederacy had seized Federal property including most of the forts and arsenals in the territory of the Confederacy” . Months into 1861, only Fort Sumter in Charleston and Fort Pickens in Pensacola had not been seized from Union control. The Union supply ship, the Star of the West, while trying to deliver supplies to Fort Sumter had been fired on and turned back in January 1861.
Major Robert Anderson sent correspondence to the outgoing administration detailing the Confederate threats to vacate Fort Sumter, and stating requirements for supplies and reinforcements if there was any chance of Union troops maintaining control of the fort . The incident of the Star of the West being turned back from Sumter had occurred while Buchanan was still in office. When Lincoln entered office and attempted to resupply the Union troops at Fort Sumter, the Confederacy began shelling the fort and overtook possession of Sumter before northern reinforcements and supplies could make any difference in the outcome.
In response to the Confederacy attack on Sumter, Lincoln issued a proclamation on April 15, 1861 calling for “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 result of this mobilization pushed the fence-riding slave states of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas to the confederacy and began the Civil War.
Until the shelling of Fort Sumter by the Confederacy, there was still possibility of some kind of political or diplomatic reconciliation without actual all-out war. While the contributing economic and political dividing issues between the north and south were enough to bring the young United States to division, I view the hardline position of the Union in proclaiming government establishments in the territories of seceded southern states, most importantly federal and military facilities, as the main cause of the war. After all, President Buchanan had even “denied the legal right of states to secede, but held that the Federal Government legally could not prevent them” . Had another avenue of approach been taken, there may not have been a Civil War. Of course, in such a scenario where no physical warfare ever occurred, we might possibly find two neighboring nation-states today or a single United States quite different on social, economic and political levels from the United States we live in today.
1. Roland Marchand. 2010. “Lincoln and the Outbreak of War, 1861.” University of California, Davis: The History Project. Accessed January 30, 2014. http://historyproject.ucdavis.edu/lessons/view_lesson.php?id=13
2. Roland Marchand. 2010. “Lincoln and the Outbreak of War, 1861.” University of California, Davis: The History Project. Accessed January 30, 2014. http://historyproject.ucdavis.edu/lessons/view_lesson.php?id=13
3. Robert Anderson. 1861. General Correspondence between Robert Anderson and Samuel Cooper dated February 28, 1861. The Library of Congress. Accessed January 30, 2014. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mal&fileName=mal1/075/0752800/malpage.db&recNum=0
4. Abraham Lincoln. 1861. "Proclamation 80 - Calling Forth the Militia and Convening an Extra Session of Congress," April 15, 1861. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=70077
5. The White House. 2014. “Biography of James Buchanan”. The White House Website. Accessed on January 30, 2014. . http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/jamesbuchanan