National Guard — March 2011
Change Language:
Southern Discomfort
Bob Haskell

The Civil War officially started 150 years ago next month. But militias in the secessionist states began attacking federal facilities well before they hit Fort Sumter

IMAGINE A GOVERNOR today ordering the National Guard to take over a federal military installation, by force if necessary, in his or her state.

Chins would drop, phone lines between Washington and a certain state capitol would get very busy, military lawyers would have a field day, and somebody would likely be going to jail.

But across the South 150 years ago, governors were just that brazen, using their militias to seize federal property as the nation–divided in two by geography, politics and ways of life–slid inexorably toward war.

And in many cases, they took those actions before their states had formally seceded. Such was the contentious and rebellious nature of the times, according to National Guard and other historians.

One Guard historian said the governors were "acting in an unprecedented manner." Another put it more succinctly, calling it "treason."

Charleston, S.C., will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12. That was the date in 1861 when Confederate militiamen began bombarding Fort Sumter, which controlled the entrance to Charleston Harbor, igniting the deadliest conflict in American history.

The attack began with a signal shot from a 10-inch mortar that arced high over the fort at 4:30 a.m. It's believed to have been fired by a South Carolina lieutenant named Henry S. Farley.

The approximately 40 Confederate guns surrounding the island fort opened up afterwards. They blasted Fort Sumter for the next 34 hours with an estimated 4,000 rounds from such locations as Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson and Cumming's Point before Maj. Robert Anderson, the Fort Sumter commander, raised the white flag over his hopeless situation.

But while Fort Sumter is where the conflict officially began, the manmade island fortress was not where the Civil War started anymore than Sept. 11, 2001, was the first time that Americans were attacked by terrorists.

It was, simply put, the point of no return.

A lot happened to get to that point, and various militia forces that now fall under the umbrella of the National Guard had a significant piece of the action.

First, they had to get organized on something resembling a war footing. Three events fueled that effort: John Brown's ill-fated raid at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859; the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860; and the shift of U.S. troops from Fort Moultrie, S.C., to Fort Sumter the following month.

Militia organizations nationwide had prospered after the United States won the Mexican War of 1846-48. They and newly created regiments of volunteers made up 75 percent of the 116,000-man U.S. force, according to Guard historian Michael Doubler.

Many of those outfits, however, preferred parades to the Manual of Arms. That changed after Brown seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, intending to arm local slaves and incite a revolt that would draw additional slaves and eventually cripple the slave states' economies.

PIVOTAL ELECTION

Tactically, Brown's raid was a disaster. It failed miserably. No slaves were armed. And Brown was captured, found guilty of treason in Virginia and hanged Dec. 2, 1859.

Strategically, however, it raised tensions between the North and South to new heights. The idea that anyone would arm slaves for a revolt made Southern blood boil and gave Northern anti-slavery extremists cause to celebrate.

"After Harpers Ferry, both sides anticipated war, and new militia companies sprang up all over the country that focused on preparedness rather than pageantry," Doubler wrote in I Am The Guard, his 2001 history of the Army Guard.

"The militia system was a joke in the South," said historian Ed Bearss during Ken Burns' celebrated Civil War series on PBS in 1990. "It begins to take form after the trial and execution of John Brown."

Others have observed that those militia units were well established by 1861, becoming the foundation of the Confederate Army. Some were pressed into service even before their states left the Union.

That began to happen after a former U.S. representative from Illinois was elected the 16th president Nov. 6, 1860.

Lincoln's triumph brought to a head years of patchedover disagreements between the two major regions of the country. Slavery was the central issue, but the industrial North and the plantation-based South also feuded over other matters, including trade policy and state's rights.

The biggest battle at the time, however, was whether slavery would be legal in new states entering the Union. The issue was largely about power: A few more "free" states would tip the balance in the federal government to the North.

Lincoln, who won without his name on the ballot in 10 Southern states, said he wouldn't interfere with slavery where it already existed, but he was opposed to its expansion into new territories.

Southern states saw his victory as their defeat and wasted little time breaking ties with the Union. South Carolina seceded first, on Dec. 20. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana followed in January 1861. And Texas cut its ties Feb. 1.

The 1971 almanac The Civil War Day by Day highlights the states' actions just before secession.

In November, authorities in Charleston, S.C., arrested a federal officer for trying to transfer supplies from the Charleston Arsenal to Fort Moultrie. The South Carolina legislature voted to raise 10,000 volunteers to defend the state. And the Georgia legislature approved $1 million for arms, a figure five times what Congress was providing in militia appropriations annually for the entire country.

South Carolina's actions also dominated December. The legislature voted to create 10 regiments on the 17th, the day the state severed ties with the Union. State troops then occupied the federal installations Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney on the 27th immediately after Anderson moved the federal garrison to Sumter.

The U.S. Revenue cutter William Aiken surrendered to South Carolina militiamen the same day, and Alabama and Georgia offered troops to the Palmetto State. South Carolina forces then seized the arsenal in Charleston on Dec. 30.

Things escalated quickly in the first month of 1861. Georgia state troops took over Fort Pulaski near the mouth of the Savannah River 16 days before that state seceded. Alabama militiamen seized the U.S. Arsenal at Mount Vernon, Ala., Jan. 4 and forts Morgan and Gaines at the entrance to Mobile Bay on the 5th, six days before secession.

Florida took over a federal arsenal in Apalachicola and Fort Marion at St. Augustine on Jan. 6 and 7 before it seceded on the 10th. Louisiana joined the fray when its militia seized the U.S. Arsenal and Barracks at Baton Rouge and forts Jackson and St. Philip below New Orleans on Jan. 10; took possession of a U.S. Marine Hospital on the 11th; and seized Fort Pike on the 14th before seceding on Jan. 26.

LITTLE OPPOSITION

"The militias in the South were busy under the direction of the governors in preparing for conflict," Doubler wrote. "I believe the governors were trying to seize every advantage possible in terms of key terrain, supplies, and especially ordnance. They were acting in an unprecedented manner."

"The Southerners' first loyalty was to their states, not the union," says Guard historian Len Kondratiuk. "We don't think the way they thought back then."

They took over federal facilities with little or no federal opposition and reaction. Historians say this was a function of the times and some unique circumstances.

First of all, the installations were not heavily defended. "Federal arsenals were everywhere," Kondratiuk says. "The Regular Army, with just over 16,300 soldiers, was scattered all over the country, and only a handful of soldiers and civilians manned these places."

The attacks also occurred while the nation's attention was focused on the more dramatic acts of secession; what Lincoln, who wouldn't be inaugurated until March 4, 1861, was saying about the disintegrating Union; and on the deteriorating situation in Charleston Harbor.

President James Buchanan did protest, but he took no military action out of fear that it might incite still more states to secede. Although he acknowledged there was no constitutional authority for a state to secede, he could find no constitutional authority to prevent it.

At least one historian today believes the Southern states, quite literally, jumped the gun.

"The governors had the right to call up the militia. But they did not have the right to use it against federal forces or installations," Kondratiuk says. "Those were treasonous acts as defined by Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution."

A NEW ARMY

Nowhere was the militia more active than in Charleston, S.C., after Fort Sumter became a burr under the Southern saddle beginning Dec. 26. 1860. And it's a good example of how a state militia evolved into the Confederate Army.

Events accelerated after Anderson shifted his 85-man force from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter the day after Christmas 1860. The move enraged Southern leaders who claimed it violated a promise by Buchanan to make no changes to the U.S. military position. But Anderson insisted he had the right to move his command to the more secure position.

"Not a lot was happening until Anderson moved from Moultrie to Sumter," says Patrick McCawley of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. "Beginning on Dec. 27, South Carolina took over Moultrie and Castle Pinckney after Anderson left. There was a steady buildup after that and the construction of new batteries."

"When South Carolina decided to [surround] the small garrison at Fort Sumter, it was regiments of her Organized Militia, or National Guard, that immediately moved into position," retired Maj. Gen. Jim Dan Hill wrote in The National Guardsman in April 1961, the start of the Civil War centennial. "Regiments from other Southern states were alerted to reinforce those of South Carolina."

South Carolina was acting as an independent entity and provided all of the manpower, historians claim. Gov. Francis Pickens, for example, was in charge when cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, now called The Citadel, fired on and prevented the unarmed relief vessel Star of the West from reaching Fort Sumter on Jan. 9, 1861.

But it was a different ball game April 12 when as many as 6,000 South Carolina soldiers were said to be manning at least 70 guns around Charleston Harbor and when Lieutenant Farley fired the signal to start the main attack.

South Carolina was no longer acting alone. It was one of the first seven states in the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis was president. The Confederacy had assumed control of military affairs in Charleston on March 1, and Davis had appointed Louisiana-born Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard commander of the harbor's defenses.

Therefore, it was a Confederate battery, not a South Carolina battery, that fired on the U.S. schooner Rhoda H. Shannon, after it accidentally ventured into the harbor April 3.

And the attack on Fort Sumter nine days later became the Confederate States' first major act of war.

Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted at magazine@ngaus.org.
VIEW ALL ARTICLES
Message
SEND