HARD CHOICES

 

n the day after his inauguration, March 5, 1861, President Lincoln read a report from Major Robert Anderson. Major Anderson, pictured to the left, was the Commander of Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island which guarded the northern approach to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. His grandfather had commanded the same fort during the Revolutioary War. Feeling pressure from the Confederates, Major Anderson on December 26, 1860 moved his troops to a more defensible position that was being built on an artificial island made of refuse granite in the harbor itself. The new fort to be called Fort Sumter was still under construction at the time though almost finished. The walls of the fort facing the entrance to Charleston Harbor were sixty feet high and eight to twelve feet thick with brick and concrete. There was a more flat side toward the city of Charleston which stood behind it some three miles.

 

Anderson's report stated he was in need of resupply and that the Confederates were building batteries surrounding him. In January, 1861, President Buchanan sent the chartered merchant ship, Star of the West, commanded by John McGowan, with supplies and troops to reinforce Fort Sumter. The ship was turned back by the shore battery on Morris Island, which guarded the southern approach to Charleston Harbor. The battery was thereafter known as the Star of the West Battery.

 

 

General Winfield Scott, the Commander in Chief of the U. S. Army, advised Lincoln against resupplying Fort Sumter. He said it would soon fall and should be evacuated immediately.

Lincoln had a different view, of which Scott should have been aware. Prior to his inauguration. Lincoln had publically stated his desire to hold all federal property. In the original draft of his inaugural speech he wrote:

"All the power at my disposal will be used to reclaim the public property and places which have fallen; to hold, occupy, and possess these, and all other property and places belonging to the government.."

Lincoln directed General Scott to attempt to maintain "all the places within the military department of the United States."

President Lincoln also sent a message to Sam Houston indicating upwards of 50,000 Union troops would be sent to insure Houston retained the Governorship of Texas and that federal property in Texas would remain in the hands of federal troops.

On March 14, Lincoln presented a plan for his Cabinet to consider with regard to reinforcing Fort Sumter. A naval flotilla was to be sent that included heavily armed gunships. These ships were to pound the shore batteries together with fire from Fort Sumter during the day. The shore batteries would hopefully be somewhat reduced in their effectiveness. Under the cover of darkness, tugs would make the run between the battieries on Sullivan's Island and Morris Island to Fort Sumter with men and supplies. The U. S. ships and Fort Sumter would cover the tugs with a withering fire if the tugs were detected. The tugs were necessary because of a low draft in the harbor and the fact the channel would probably be blocked.

One of the ships mentioned as being a part of the proposed flotilla was the revenue cutter Harriet Lane . The Harriet Lane was the first of what we now call Coast Guard cutters. The Harriet Lane is the only U. S. warship ever named for a woman, that woman was of Irish descent. She was the niece of bachelor President Buchanan. During his administration, Harriet Lane often acted as the official White House hostess. The ship named for her would eventually play a part in Texas history.

The two Harriet Lanes in a flattering portait by George Sottung

Harriet Lane Gravestone

After much discussion about whether to send the relief expedition or not, the cabinet voted to not support the plan. Lincoln agreed with their reasoning. The cabinet did not want the North perceived as having fired the first shot and thus starting the war. Lincoln decided to gather more information. He dispatched emissaries to Fort Sumter and to Charleston to find the mood and status of those in the fort and in the city. The Confederates allowed the men to make their visits as the announced reasons for the trip were to look into the logistics of evacuating the fort without any violence.

Lincoln learned that Fort Sumter could hold a while longer and that it was difficult for land batteries to see, let alone fire and hit ships in the harbor at night or bad weather. From Charleston he learned that any attempt even to provision the garrison on Fort Sumter would be met with guns firing.

In a Cabinet meeting on the March 29, 1861, Lincoln decide to combine the previous plan with some new advice. He would publicly announce that he was provisioning the fort to halt starvation and deprivation and that if such a humane effort were met with resistance he would respond with force. The first ship sent into Charleston Harbor would carry only provisions for Anderson's men, but a powerful flotilla would be behind it if the batteries opened fire. The Cabinet approved the plan. Lincoln, in view of Scott's continued position of wanting to evacuate the fort, personally wrote orders to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, A Scot, who supported the new plan and to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles who also voted for the effort. He gave orders for the Pawnee and the Harriet Lane as well as another gunship, the Pocohantas, to be ready for sea with a months provisions, 100 seamen to man the ships and 300 troops with a years provisions to be placed aboard them. The target date to sail was April 6.

Lincoln's read on the people and Confederates surrounding Fort Sumter was correct. On April 2, the schooner R. H. Shannon, sailing from Boston to Savannah, with no knowledge of current events, put into Charleston Harbor because of heavy fog. A warning shot was fired by one of the shore batteries and the ship ran up the Stars and Stripes. That was a traditional signal to say she was okay. Immediately all the shore batteries opened up and the Shannon took down the flag and the firing stopped.

On April 4, 1861, Lincoln read a report from Major Anderson saying that the continued burden of defending the laborers who were there to construct the fort were reducing the period he could hold out. Lincoln advised him of the expedition that should reach him about the 11th. If his flag was still flying, the ships would provision him and; if resisted, would reinforce him. Lincoln's message went on to say if Anderson could not keep his men from danger and undue hardships he was authorized to capitulate if necessary.

Fort Sumter was the cause of much debate in the Confederate government as well. In the midst of a Confederate Cabinet meeting on April 10, President Davis received and read a letter from Texas Confederate Senator Louis Wigfall. Senator Wigfall's mother was the former Eliza Thompson. An old friend, Wigfall wrote from Charleston. He noted that war was imminent and that Lincoln was going to force the issue at Fort Sumter. He advised to take the fort now rather than wait and have to fight a fleet and the fort. Later in the day President Davis advised the commander in Charleston, General P. T. Beauregard, to demand the immediate evacuation of Fort Sumter and if this was denied "proceed, in such manner as you may determine, to reduce it."

< Texas Confederate Senator, soon to be General, Louis T. Wigfall

In a United States of America Cabinet meeting on April 12, Secretary Cameron read a letter from Sam Houston. Houston declined the offer of the United States to use U. S. troops in saving the state from secessionists and asked federal troops be removed from Texas. U.S. troops made arrangements to leave Texas. Some did not wait for transportation and marched to Union territory. They were the lucky ones, because events soon over took amenities.

Later that day, April 12, 1861, General Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter. A few ships of the naval expedition to relieve Fort Sumter were in view of the fort's plight. They were awaiting the arrival of additional elements of the expedition. Among those watching events unfolding in front of them were the men aboard the Harriet Lane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As reported by a Civil War correspondent - ". . . an incident occurred, which I have never seen recorded, but which seems to me worthy of note. A vessel suddenly appeared through the mist from behind the Bar, a passenger steamer, which was made out to be the Nashville. She had no colors set, and as she approached the fleet she refused to show them. The Captain of the Union ship ordered one of the guns manned, and as she came still nearer turned to the gunner. 'Stop her!' he said, and a shot went skipping across her bows. Immediately the United States ensign went to her gaff end, and she was allowed to proceed. The Harriet Lane had fired the first shotted gun from the Union side."

On the 13th, Anderson surrendered saying he would evacuate on the 14th. The Confederate officer who accepted the surrender was Louis T. Wigfall. The die was cast.

The Confederate Flag flies over Fort Sumter

When news of the fall of Fort Sumter reached Texas, all U.S. Army troops remaining in Texas, not taking the oath of allegiance to the Confederate States of America, were taken as P.O.W.s and incarcerated.

 

The Confederate States, who were they, who weren't they and were some divided? What about the territories, did some of them lean to the confederacy? The shortest most succinct explanation I have seen is found at the Wikipedia Encyclopedia. Use this link to get the background on the CSA >

In mid April, several companies from Galveston, including an Irish company, were aboard the General Rusk. The Irish company was the Wigfall Guards commanded by Captain McGrath. The company was named for Texas Confederate Senator Louis Wigfall.

On the foggy night of April 17, the General Rusk, still captained by Leon Smith, pulled up along side the Union ship, Star of the West, the side-wheeled schooner - rigged merchant that President Buchanan had sent in an attempt to relieve Fort Sumter. The Star of the West was now off the Texas port city of Indianola to pick up seven companies of Union troops trying to make their way out of Texas.

The Rebels boarded the ship and asked the Captain to surrender. "To what flag am I asked to surrender?" demanded the Captain. Ensign Duggan of the Wigfall Guards showed the Captain the Lone Star flag of Texas and asked him in his Irish brogue, "Did ye iver see the Texas flag on an Irish jackstaff before?"

Virginan Robert E. Lee was in Texas when all this was happening. He was still an officer in the United States Army. Only months earlier, December, 1860, he held the position of Commander of all Union troops in Texas. Lee let it be known he did not think Twiggs upheld his sworn duty by letting go so easily of United States property in his charge. For several hours Lee talked matters over with an old friend, and Celt, Edmund J. Davis. Davis was the U.S. Circuit Judge in Brownsville. The two men met in Austin. Davis talked at length with Lee about preserving the Union.

< Robert E. Lee in San Antonio, 1860.

In 1860, the North had 81% of the factories, 75% of the produced wealth, 67% of the farms, and 61% of the population of the then United States of America. The odds of being able to sustain a war against such numbers was staggering. Both men agreed the South could not win a war. Nevertheless Lee, and many like him, became caught in a wave of emotion that swept the South. Lee went to Washington D. C. and resigned his commission in the United States Army. He then traveled to his home and family in Virginia. The Lee family had lived in Virginia for close to 100 years. Robert E. Lee decided to protect his family, and Virginia, from whatever was coming. Therefore, he joined the Army of the Confederates States of America, or more accurately the Army of Virginia Volunteers. Lee was given command of all Virginia forces.

Judge Davis joined the Union Army. He was given the rank of Colonel in the U. S. Calvary.

Many families in Texas faced the same difficult decision. There were Texans and Texas Celts who served on both sides of the war. An example is the Brackenridge family of San Antonio. Mrs Brackenridge was the former Isabella McCulloch, of Scottish ancestry. Two of her sons served the Confederacy and one the Union. The two who served the South were Robert J. and John Thomas Brackenridge. The one son who served the North was George Washington Brackenridge. He served in the United States Treasury Service.

Northern families were also split. Abraham Lincoln had four brothers-in-law in the Confederate service. At one time his wife, the former Mary Todd, was the subject of a U. S. Senate committee considering treason charges. One of the North's noblest supporters was Laura Jackson, sister of Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

John C. McKean, of Caldwell County, openly opposed secession before and throughout the war. He drew a six gun when some attempted to forcibly have him take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. He was tried in a court for his views. His neighbor, J. B. McMahan, a Confederate, defended McKean's right to his opinion as did another, James Carr. McKean was sent to jail but was released in 1862.