Bret Stephens: Lessons of Fort Sumter

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Stephens writes the Journal's "Global View" column on foreign affairs.]

The first shot of the Civil War is said to have been fired by a newspaper editor. In the early-morning dark of April 12, 1861, Edmund Ruffin, a self-declared hater of the "Yankee race," volunteered for the symbolic task; the round he fired, wrote historian Shelby Foote, "drew a red parabola against the sky and burst with a glare, outlining the dark pentagon of Fort Sumter." Four thousand more rounds were needed to induce the Fort's surrender; 620,000 Americans would die in the war that was there begun.

Hence the first lesson of Fort Sumter: War is too important to be left to the journalists.

But that isn't the only lesson, and Fort Sumter is worth remembering for reasons other than today's sesquicentennial. The crisis over the Charleston harbor fort had been brewing since South Carolina's secession the previous December, which included the demand that federal forces leave the state. It came closer to a head with Abraham Lincoln's pledge, in his first inaugural on March 4, 1861, to "hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government." Fort Sumter was one of four federal forts in what by then was Confederate territory.

The next day, Lincoln received a report from Maj. Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter's commander, that he had only six weeks of provisions left. Lincoln then asked his top general, Winfield Scott, what it would take to hold the fort. Scott answered that 25,000 soldiers would be required, and that it would take six to eight months to organize a relief flotilla. At the time, the entire U.S. army numbered 16,000 men.

That advice led straight to the conclusion that the garrison would have to be abandoned. But Lincoln was loath to agree, not least because he believed that the fort's surrender would be "utterly ruinous . . . that, at home, it would discourage the friends of the Union, embolden its adversaries, and go far to insure to the latter, a recognition abroad." So he looked for, and got, a second military opinion from former Navy Lt. Gustavus Vasa Fox, who had an ingenious (and ultimately untested) plan to relieve the fort by sea...

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