Abraham Lincoln

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 Fort Sumter.

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 ever seen."

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.

 

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