April 12, 1861, the date Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard ordered his batteries to fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, has long been recognized as the start of the American Civil War.
However, wars do not always begin with a shot – hostile action can take different forms, for example, the occupation of territory or a demand for surrender.
Such actions preceded the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
In late December 1860, Confederate forces occupied federal fortifications around Charleston after the small United States Army garrison abandoned them and moved to the confines of Sumter.
On January 9, 1861, a federal ship attempting to deliver supplies to the fort was fired upon by Confederate batteries.
On April 10, 1861, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet approved a demand for the fort’s surrender. General Beauregard delivered the ultimatum to the fort’s commander Major Robert Anderson on April 11:
“Sir: the Government of the Confederate States has hitherto foreborne from any hostile demonstration against Fort Sumter, in he hope that the Government of the United States, with a view to the amicable adjustment of all questions between the two Governments, and to avert the calamities of war, would voluntarily evacuate it.
“There was reason at one time to believe that such would be the course pursued by the Government of the United States, and under that impression my Government has refrained from making any demand for the surrender of the fort. But the Confederate States can no longer delay assuming actual possession of a fortification commanding the entrance of one of their harbors, and necessary to its defense and security.
“I am ordered by the Government of the Confederate States to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter. My aides, Colonel Chesnut and Captain Lee, are authorized to make such demand of you. All proper facilities will be afforded for the removal of yourself and command, together with company arms and property, and all private property, to any post in the United States which you may select. The flag which you have upheld so long and with so much fortitude, under the most trying circumstances, may be saluted by you on taking it down.”‘
“General, “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication demanding the evacuation of this fort, and to say, in reply thereto, that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligations to my Government, prevent my compliance. Thanking you for the fair, manly and courteous terms proposed, and for the high compliment paid me, I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant, Robert Anderson, Major, First Artillery, Commanding.”
Major Anderson was Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point, which may partly account for the chivalrous nature of the demand.
Nevertheless, the cordiality of the demand belies the hostile tone.
Does anyone doubt a state of war would have existed between the U S and Japan had the Japanese seized a United States installation without firing a shot rather than launching the violent attack on Pearl Harbor?
The Confederacy clearly committed acts prior to the overt hostilities that fit the definition.
However, debating the start date of America’s most violent conflict one-hundred and fifty years later is like splitting hairs. I only mention it because the months leading up to hostilities represented the weakest period in our country’s history. War was not a term to be used loosely by politicians and citizens at the time when the future of the Republic was at stake.
The nation could have disintegrated without a shot being fired. In a perverse way, Jefferson Davis did all of us a favor. His decision to attack Fort Sumter set the nation on a course to become the most powerful on earth.