Beginnings of the Civil War: 1858–1861

Secession and the Attack on Fort Sumter

Rationale for Secession

Following Lincoln's election in 1860, 11 Southern states quickly seceded from the Union.

Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States on November 6, 1860. On December 20, 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded from the Union. In January 1861 five more states followed: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. Texas seceded in early February. At a convention in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 8, the seven states adopted a Constitution, forming the Confederate States of America and naming senator Jefferson Davis its president. These states clearly felt their livelihood, which relied heavily on the institution of slavery, was threatened by Lincoln's election.

Once Lincoln was inaugurated as president in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1861, tensions between the Union and the Confederate States of America escalated quickly. A month after his inauguration, Lincoln sent supplies to the Union's Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Although Lincoln promised not to interfere with the institution of slavery in the South, his primary goal was to keep the Union intact. On April 12 the Confederacy bombed Fort Sumter. Following this event, the states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Only five slave states, called the border states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia (formed from Virginia)—remained part of the Union.

Southern leaders of the Confederacy used states' rights and the doctrine of nullification as the legal justifications for the secession, or withdrawal from the Union. The issue of states' rights and how to interpret the 10th Amendment was a debate that had existed since the Constitution was written in the late-18th century. In the early 19th century the rulings of the Supreme Court affirmed the supremacy of the federal government over the states. In the following decades, the states' rights issue was advocated mostly by Southern states. In 1828 and 1832 John C. Calhoun of South Carolina argued against federal tariff laws by using states' rights as the basis for his doctrine of nullification. Calhoun argued individual states had the ultimate authority regarding laws and could void or nullify federal laws. A compromise settled the tariff disagreements, but states' rights and nullification remained contentious issues. In 1861 slavery was an established way of life in the South and it sought to prevent any attempts by the federal government to abolish slavery. In its defense of secession, the Southern states applied Calhoun's argument to the slavery issue. They had freely joined the Union and they could freely secede from it.

Secession of the Southern States, 1860-61

Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union following Lincoln's election in 1860.

Formation of the Confederate States of America

In 1861 Southern states formed the nation known as the Confederate States of America.

The seven states that first seceded from the Union—South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—convened in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861. They established a provisional government and in 1862 replaced it with a permanent government with its capital in Richmond, Virginia. The Confederate Constitution structured its government similar to that established by the U.S. Constitution and included three branches of government. Senator Jefferson Davis was elected president of the Confederacy and Alexander H. Stephens was elected vice president. They each were to serve six-year terms, with the president not allowed to run for reelection. After April 15, 1861, four more states joined the Confederacy: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Confederate States of America consisted of 11 proslavery Southern states. The Union was made up of 25 states, five of which were border states that allowed slavery. The total population of the Confederacy was approximately nine million, which included 5.5 million whites and 3.5 million African American slaves. In contrast, the Union's population was 22 million. In addition, the Confederacy had only 9,000 miles of railroad track for transporting goods and military supplies, while the Union had 22,000 miles of track thanks to the North's much greater focus on industry.

The Confederacy acquired all the symbols of a working nation, such as stamps and a flag. The original flag had seven stars but was then increased to 13 to represent the four states that joined after April 15 and two states (Missouri and Kentucky) that did not secede but sent representatives to the Confederacy's Congress. Because war was imminent, raising and equipping an army was necessary. In 1861 the Southern Congress first voted for raising the army by a system of direct volunteering. But in 1862 a draft was imposed. It is estimated the Confederate army had 750,000 soldiers, whereas the Union had roughly double this number. To raise money to pay for the army, the Confederacy first printed money, which caused inflation, and then it issued bonds, or debt securities issued to control inflation. Tariff revenues declined markedly because of the Union's blockade of Confederate ports, and a general tax bill was passed in 1863.

Before war broke out, the Southern states believed the importance and power of the South's cotton industry in the European economy would force foreign nations to recognize the South as an independent nation. But this diplomatic recognition never materialized. The South's commissioners and envoys were unable to gain diplomatic recognition from Great Britain, France, or any European country. European countries chose not to get involved in America's Civil War.
Jefferson Davis's inauguration took place in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 18, 1861.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-01584

Battle of Fort Sumter

The Confederacy's attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 marked the beginning of the Civil War.

Fort Sumter was a Union fort built on a man-made island located at the entrance to the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. In early 1861 the newly formed Confederate States of America claimed all forts and arsenals within the Confederacy's territory. In April only two forts remained under the federal government's control—Fort Pickens in Florida and Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Fort Sumter had no strategic value to the Union. The fort was unfinished and its 60 guns pointed out to sea. However, Fort Sumter did have significant value as a symbol of the Union in Southern territory.

Just days after Lincoln's inauguration in March 1861, the Confederacy demanded the Union evacuate Fort Sumter. South Carolina had built fortifications in the area of the harbor that posed a threat to the fort. Lincoln had the difficult task of choosing whether to send supplies to the fort or not to send supplies and abandon it to the Confederacy. If he abandoned the fort, Lincoln would be symbolically revealing the Union's weakness. Instead, he decided to send supplies and sent word to the Confederate States of America of his decision. But before the supplies arrived, the Confederacy demanded the immediate surrender and evacuation of Fort Sumter. The Union refused, and the Confederate army began firing on Fort Sumter in the early morning of April 12. The commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson, returned fire, but, greatly outnumbered, surrendered on April 13. The next day, marching and waving the American flag, federal troops evacuated Fort Sumter. An explosion occurred during the evacuation, causing the death of one Union soldier and wounding another. This first battle between the Confederacy and the Union marked the beginning of a civil war that would last four years. All the tensions and discord from sectional divisions in the previous decade had finally reached a climax.

The Battle of Fort Sumter was significant. It was the first battle between North and South, but more importantly, it united the North and solidified even further the Confederacy's determination to protect their way of life. At the time many believed if the Confederacy succeeded, other parts of the country would secede from the Union. The Battle of Fort Sumter marked the beginning of a war that was, ultimately, about whether the republic of the United States could survive internal strife.
The Confederacy's bombardment of the Union's Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, marked the beginning of the Civil War.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19520