LINCOLN WINS REBEL DEBATE
Weeks before the firing on Fort
Sumter, Abe Lincoln saw that war was inevitable. He did
not wish it, but he was girded for it. It would be a
calamity for the nation, but it must be. After all that
had passed since the time of his inauguration March 4,
1861, there seemed no other way to preserve and protect
the Union. Secession had frozen in place; a new
Confederate government had sprung into being in
Montgomery; and at Charleston, the guns were aimed at
Major Robert Anderson's Fort Sumter. The fireeaters were
dancing in impatience.
Lincoln had only to say the word,
to touch fire to fuse, and it would begin: War!
But Lincoln was wiser than that.
And in the South, it took a fireeater to see "Old Abe's"
strategy and to warn against falling into his trap.
The fireeater was Georgia's former
U.S. Senator Robert Toombs, who only weeks before had
risen in the august Senate chamber at Washington to
castigate the Republicans as "black" and "perfidious,"
to denounce the newly elected Lincoln "an enemy of the
human race and deserves the execration of all mankind."
The same Georgian dared the North to make the
Southerners stay in. Like a schoolboy thumbing his nose
at a potential adversary, he cried: "Come and do it!"
Georgia, he declared, was on the warpath. "We are as
ready to fight now as we will ever be! Treason? Bah!"
Those hot words marked his swan
song as a senator, for minutes later, in January 1861,
Toombs was gone, resigned to join his state in secession
(but not before visiting the U.S. Treasury to collect
the remainder of his Federal salary and mileage
compensation funds for his return home).
Oddly, it was the same Toombs who
just a few weeks later, as the newly installed
Confederate secretary of state, stood alone to beg
Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet to forbear rather than
allow guns to open fire in Charleston Harbor. This
surprising but astute reaction from Toombs took place
April 9 (an auspicious date for any Civil War
calendar!). Word had just been received of President
Lincoln's message to Governor F. W. Pickens of South
Carolina that he, Lincoln, felt constrained to supply
the isolated garrison at Fort Sumter. It was a courteous
message with serious implications. Come what may.
It was indeed a gauntlet. Lincoln
knew the South must actÉor back down. And if it be war,
Lincoln needed the South to strike the first blow in
order to have a unified Union behind him. If only war
could resolve the crisis, it must be war initiated by
the other party--who, indeed, had already fired upon a
supply ship once in December 1860 and who had already
cut off and trapped the garrison of men on the island of
It was Toombs, then, who saw what
Lincoln was about. All the Rebel Cabinet was ready to
back Jefferson Davis, the new Confederate president, in
giving the order to allow force against Fort Sumter--all
but Toombs, who came to the meeting late on April 9, but
not too late to warn that "firing on Fort Sumter would
inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has
He stalked about the room, then
suddenly faced Davis. If the South attacked, he
declared, "it is suicide, it is murder, and it will lose
us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a
hornet's nest which extends from the mountains to the
ocean; and legions, now quiet, will swarm out to sting
us to death." And an epitaph that also was true: "It is
unnecessary, it puts us in the wrong. It is fatal."
Despite the Georgian's entreaty for
caution, Lincoln "won" the debate in the Confederate
Cabinet meeting, for the word that went out by a
messenger boy to a telegraph office across the street
suited Lincoln's sad purpose very well. Pierre G. T.
Beauregard's forces at Charleston were authorized to
proceed with the seizure of Fort Sumter. The firing
began three days later.