The Cannons Roar: Fort Sumter and the Start of the Civil War―An Oral History
“The genius of Bruce Chadwick’s oral history of the road to Ft. Sumter is that it reveals the emotions, the uncertainties, the fears, the rumors, the excitement, the hopes, the pride, the courage, and the animosities of the men and women involved in . . . the Civil War.”
Historian Bruce Chadwick in The Cannons Roar presents the events leading up to the Confederate bombardment of Ft. Sumter through the eyes, ears, and emotions of some of the statesmen, military leaders, civilians, and newspaper editors on both sides of the then-emerging Civil War. It is an oral history interspersed with Chadwick’s contextual history, and it works.
After a six-page introduction in which Chadwick sets the scene of the Ft. Sumter drama, the oral history begins—most appropriately—with the words of President Abraham Lincoln directed to General Winfield Scott, the U.S. Army Commander, asking Scott how long Sumter’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, and his troops occupying the fort can hold it “without supplies or reinforcements,” whether Scott can resupply or reinforce Anderson in a timely manner, and what Scott would need in order to effectively resupply or reinforce the fort? Scott wrote to the president that he saw no alternative but “surrender.”
The Sumter crisis preceded Lincoln’s arrival at the White House. In those days, the winner of the presidential election in November did not take office until the following March. Until then, President James Buchanan would make such decisions—or as happened, make no such decisions.
Shortly after taking office, Lincoln convened his Cabinet to solicit their views. The majority view in the Cabinet was that Sumter could not be reinforced and any attempt to do so would result in “immediate hostilities,” according to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, and likely result in Virginia’s voting to secede from the Union.
Chadwick notes that many in the Cabinet and many newspaper editors believed that Lincoln was not up to the job. They looked to Secretary of State William Seward to lead the way—and Seward, who also thought he should guide the government’s policy, recommended evacuating the fort. So, too, did several military leaders.
Chadwick quotes William Russell of the London Times: “Seward was acting like he, and not Lincoln, had been elected President.” In fact, throughout the Sumter crisis, Seward conducted his own private negotiations with Confederate diplomats that erroneously led them to believe that the fort would be abandoned without a fight.
Lincoln, however, writes Chadwick, “mastered all of [the Cabinet members] in subtle ways.” The Cabinet and others underestimated Lincoln, but those who knew him best, like his former law partner Billy Herndon, remarked that Lincoln’s “ambition burns like a little engine that knows no rest.” Lincoln was determined to hold Ft. Sumter and, if unsuccessful, to do what was necessary to preserve the Union.
Chadwick includes Lincoln quote after Lincoln quote about the need to preserve the Union, to prevent the spread of slavery, but also to ensure that it would be the Confederacy whose leaders would choose peace or war but on Lincoln’s terms. In one speech at Independence Hall, Lincoln, anticipating the words of his First Inaugural Address, pledged to save the country and stated that “there is no need of bloodshed and war . . . [and] there will be no blood shed unless it be forced upon the Government.”
Ft. Sumter became a symbol for both sides. Its military value, Lincoln said, was “inconsiderable.” Confederate states during the latter part of Buchanan’s presidency had seized other forts without incident. But even Buchanan had pledged to keep Sumter, though he did nothing to reinforce or resupply it. In the end, it was Lincoln who made Ft. Sumter the casus belli of the Civil War.
Sumter was not the “Gibraltar” of the South that some thought. And it was targeted on three sides by Confederate batteries on nearby forts. Chadwick generously quotes from Major Anderson and Captain Abner Doubleday—both at Sumter—about the inadequacies of food, supplies, and the fort’s defenses.
Chadwick also includes the voices of many South Carolinians—politicians, newspaper editors, soldiers, and civilians who promoted the seizure of Sumter, but also some who dreaded the implications of an attack on the fort. Many in the South wanted to peaceably separate from the Union and protect their “peculiar institution” of slavery. Mary Chestnut, who lived in Charleston at the time and became a famous diarist of the war, dreaded the coming of war. She, too, is quoted often by Chadwick.
Negotiations to end the crisis peacefully continued right up to the fateful day—April 12, 1861—when Confederate guns opened fire on Sumter. Captain Doubleday described “the firing burst forth in one continuous roar . . . batteries hammering at us . . . made us feel as if the war had commenced in earnest.” Some of the fort’s walls crumbled. Fires broke out in many places inside the fort. There would be no reinforcements. Anderson surrendered the fort two days later. Lincoln responded by calling forth the Union’s states’militia—75,000. And Ohio Congressman John Sherman advised his brother William Tecumseh Sherman to get into the fight.
The genius of Bruce Chadwick’s oral history of the road to Ft. Sumter is that it reveals the emotions, the uncertainties, the fears, the rumors, the excitement, the hopes, the pride, the courage, and the animosities of the men and women involved in the drama that began the Civil War. What began at Sumter ended four years later and cost the lives of more than 700,000 soldiers.