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Start of the Civil War - secession and Fort Sumter

KC‑5.2.II.D (KC)
PCE (Theme)
Unit 5: Learning Objective H
From Lincoln's election to the formation of the Confederacy and Fort Sumter.

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] So Kim, we've been talking about the run up to the Civil War. We talked about the Compromise of 1850, which angered a lot of anti-slavery and abolitionist folks in the North. As we get to the election of 1860, you have Abraham Lincoln getting elected. And a lot of folks view that as a bit of the final catalyst for the Civil War. What's happening? And is that accurate? - [Voiceover] So, Lincoln is elected as a Republican Party president. This is the first Republican Party president, ever. And the real basis of the Republican Party is an anti-slavery platform. They really don't want slavery to extend into the Western territories that have been acquired through the Mexican War. So, they have been making both an economic, and to some extent, moral argument against slavery. So, when Lincoln becomes president, the states of the South, particularly the Deep South, or this Cotton Belt area, whose entire economic system relies on slavery, they think that they are under attack. That Lincoln is going to be coming for slavery as soon as he gets a chance, as president. - [Voiceover] And we're talking about these states down here. This is Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. - [Voiceover] Right; so these are the real cotton states, where slavery is highly entrenched. There, more than 50% of the population is enslaved working on cotton plantations. And it's making the elite people, elite whites in the South, very wealthy. Cotton is just the backbone of their economy. - [Voiceover] So what do they do? Lincoln gets elected. This is November of 1860? - [Voiceover] That's right. - [Voiceover] So what do they do about it? They're afraid. - [Voiceover] They're afraid that Lincoln is going to do something about slavery. So, over the course of this winter period, this is in a period before we moved the inauguration up to January, so it used to be that presidents would be elected in November and not take office until March. - [Voiceover] Yeah, we have here, this Lincoln gets elected in November, but then he doesn't get inaugurated until March, over here. - [Voiceover] So there's this long, lame duck period where everyone knows that a new political party is going to be in power, a new president is in power, but he's not in office yet. - [Voiceover] And so you have James Buchanan sitting around; he's still the president, but. - [Voiceover] But, yeah, his days are numbered, and his power is pretty limited. So, over the course of what they call this Secession Winter, the seven states of the Deep South get together and they secede from the Union, one after another. And this includes South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. They secede from the Union, and they form what they call The Confederate States of America, which is, basically, almost exactly the same as The United States of America. Their constitution is based very closely on the US Constitution. But it guarantees the existence of slavery. It explicitly says that slavery is allowed and protected forever. And they elect Jefferson Davis as their president. - [Voiceover] So when they seceded, for them it was clearly about slavery. - [Voiceover] Right; everything is about slavery. They are concerned that Lincoln is going to interfere with slavery. They are afraid that because slavery is being outlawed many other places in the world, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, that, one way or another, slavery's days are numbered. And if they're going to protect their livelihood as slave owners and as cotton planters, they're going to have to form their own nation to make sure that it's protected. - [Voiceover] And James Buchanan is officially president when all of this has happened. You have seven states of the United States, I guess they're not so united anymore, leaving. Is he just powerless to do anything? - [Voiceover] Well, he tries a few things. He was a very ineffective president to begin with. It's hard to be an effective president when Congress is so divided over issues. One thing that Congress actually does before Lincoln is in office, and before these states officially secede, is they try what's called the Crittenden Plan, proposed by John Crittenden of Kentucky, saying we will officially protect slavery in the Constitution. We will say that you can't outlaw slavery in the South, and we'll even extend this Missouri Compromise line, which was sort of the official line between North and South, between free states and slave states, all the way to the Pacific. So, just so you know, Southern states, we'll make sure that we won't get rid of slavery. - [Voiceover] So this Crittenden Compromise, this was kind of a last ditch effort. Everyone's started to see the writing on the wall. These seven states, especially, were very loose-in-the-socket. - [Voiceover] And this was a last ditch effort to keep them in the Union, perhaps. - [Voiceover] Yeah, and I don't want to say it's too little too late, but for the South, they have seen the writing on the wall. They have seen that this is going to be their only opportunity to secede. - [Voiceover] Lincoln got elected, and his whole party is based on being anti-slavery. - [Voiceover] Right. So, they want to get out while the getting is good. So that they can make sure that slavery remains in their states. - [Voiceover] All right, so during this lame duck period, the seven states, these Deep South states, they secede. Then Lincoln gets inaugurated. He is now president. And we're not really in the Civil War yet. - [Voiceover] No, in fact, Lincoln's inaugural address is very conciliatory. We think of Lincoln as being a really great orator. And he certainly was, but his first inaugural address, if you read it, is very much a plea to the South, saying hey, really, I'm not planning on outlawing slavery. So, the anti-slavery platform that Lincoln ascribes to is specifically about not extending slavery to the West. So he's saying I'm not in favor of getting rid of slavery where it is, so there's no reason for you all to secede. Come back, everything will be situation normal. - [Voiceover] And they don't. - [Voiceover] No, as I said, they've already seen that this is their opportunity to make sure that slavery continues, by creating their own nation. So, in the South, there are a bunch of arsenals and forts that belong to the United States; and most of these are taken over by the Confederacy when it becomes its own nation. - [Voiceover] This is a picture of one right here. This is Sumter. - [Voiceover] Right; so Fort Sumter is right in Charleston Harbor. And this is a Union fort, or a United States fort, that's holding out, basically. They're running out of supplies, they have tried to have supplies brought in to them before, which have been repelled. - [Voiceover] They're holding out. They're well in Confederate territory, but they're still controlled by United States soldiers. - [Voiceover] Right; so, they do not want to surrender this fort. Lincoln lets the Confederates, the Rebels, know that he wants to resupply this fort. The Confederates instead fire on Fort Sumter. They start lobbing artillery at it. Over the course of a day, they force the Union forces in Fort Sumter to surrender. - [Voiceover] I guess this was the real matchstick for the war. But this wasn't the first tension. - [Voiceover] No; obviously this had been going on for some time. - [Voiceover] Even in Buchanan's lame duck period, there's probably a little bit of tension. - [Voiceover] Yeah, if you want to be expansive, you could say that this tension is almost built into the Constitution when they don't-- - [Voiceover] (laughs) - [Voiceover] (laughs) secede. - [Voiceover] You got that right. But especially, even post-secession of these first seven states, there are already some tensions, especially if they're taking over these forts. Former United States soldiers are now thinking about cutting off supplies to current United States soldiers. And then Fort Sumter, it sounds like this was definitely the straw that breaks the camel's back, so to speak. - [Voiceover] Yeah, this is the tinder box. And I think it's maybe intended to be a tinder box on both sides. Because Lincoln wants to be sure that if there's going to be a war, the North isn't going to fire the first shot. They want to make sure that this is the South's decision. It can be blamed on them if it needs to be. - [Voiceover] This is a pattern you see throughout history, is that no one at least wants to, officially, be the person to fire the first shot. They often look for a good reason to fire the first shot because they want to get into war, but everyone wants to have the moral high ground. - [Voiceover] Right; and in the South, they are looking to make sure that this is kind of a morale building moment. When they fire on Fort Sumter, they're firing on a federal fort, right? - [Voiceover] Mm-hmm. - [Voiceover] In any circumstances, that's going to bring on war. And they're hoping that if they can kind of get this fire started, then these four other slaveholding states, or actually eight other slaveholding states, in the South are going to join the effort. And that's pretty much exactly what happens. So, after they fire on Fort Sumter, the fort is surrendered to the Confederacy. Lincoln says, okay, you want to start a war, we got a war. He calls for 75,000 troops, volunteers to put down the insurrection. He calls them for a 90-day service period, which tells you how long they thought this was gonna last. After Lincoln has asked for this army, four more slaveholding states in the South secede. And that's Virginia, the most important of these, it's gonna be the real battleground of the Civil War. - [Voiceover] Today, we'd consider that West Virginia and Virginia, but that was Virginia back then. - [Voiceover] Right; Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina also join the Confederate States of America. And the war is on. - [Voiceover] Fascinating.