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The battle for Fort Sumter (April 12-13, 1861)


The bombardment of Fort Sumter, in Charleston Bay (South Carolina), was the first battle of the Civil War (1861-1865). On April 12, 1861, the Confederates attacked the northerners who were trying to supply the fort.

Difficult beginnings

On March 4, 1861, AbrahamLincoln took the oath on the Capitol Square, the building that houses the Senate and House of Representatives, and assumed office as the sixteenth President of the United States of America. The first mission of his new government was one of the most urgent: after the manifest failure of the various attempts at peaceful resolution, he had to find a way to defuse the crisis which had led to the secession of the seven states of the Old South, and to prevent the country does not plunge into civil war.

Before even taking office, Lincoln was considered the most hated president-elect in American history. Such was the hostility towards him in slave states that death threats had been made against him. Lincoln had planned to travel from Illinois, his home state, to Washington on a two-week train trip, during which he planned to visit no less than 70 cities and reassure the crowds of his intentions. To ensure his safety in the face of growing threats to his person, he had appointed a private detective from Chicago, Allan Pinkerton.

The latter, a native of Scotland, had founded a detective agency with innovative methods, whose reputation quickly grew to a national scale. Having solved several cases of train attacks in previous years, Pinkerton was regarded as an expert in railway safety. The journey went smoothly to Baltimore, located in the slave state of Maryland, which had a high proportion of secessionists. Pinkerton quickly convinced himself that a conspiracy was hatched against Lincoln, and made him cross the city at night with complete secrecy, contrary to what had been announced.

This probably imaginary plot - no one was ever charged with anything - seriously damaged Lincoln's reputation, accused of cowardice by the entire American press, including the Republican newspapers, and the president-elect remained mortified until the end of the day. end of his days. However, this affair made at least one happy: Pinkerton, who won the confidence of the president. He found himself appointed head of federal secret service, who under his leadership would be very active during the war years, but of generally poor effectiveness - Pinkerton and his agents having an annoying tendency to exaggerate the reports on the enemy forces and to let themselves be "poisoned" by their counterparts southerners.

This was not the only disputed member of the Lincoln administration. The latter must have chosen his ministers both on the basis of the struggles for influence within the Republican Party and their actual skills. Thus, his four main opponents in the Republican primary of 1860 were all four appointed ministers. William Seward became Secretary of State (that is, Minister of Foreign Affairs), Salmon Chase Secretary of the Treasury, Edward Bates was appointed Attorney General (Minister of Justice), and Simon Cameron inherited the Secretary of War.

If Seward and Chase did wonders in their management, respectively, of the diplomacy and finances of the Union (which went through the conflict without ever devaluing the dollar), the same was not the case for Cameron, with limited skills, and which was mainly considered to be notoriously corrupt. Entered the government to satisfy the most moderate fringe of the party, that of the old Whigs, he left it in January 1862, replaced by Edwin Stanton. The latter, a talented organizer, was a tireless workaholic, but also a much more radical Republican. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, proved to be of the same level of effectiveness as Stanton.

The Confederation is getting organized

The South, too, had a government, active on February 25. However, its task was greatly complicated by internal dissensions, especially between the Confederate government and the various states. In addition, the particularly rigid personality of President Jefferson Davis did not help matters and created personal enmities, which in turn fueled a ministerial instability already patent. The Confederation thus knew, in four years, three Secretaries of State, three Secretaries to the Treasury, four Attorneys General and five Secretaries to War.

The most skilful of them to stay in place was Judah Benjamin, who was in charge, successively, of Justice, of War, and of Foreign Affairs. It was in this capacity that he did the longest work, where he excelled in the art of procuring abroad what the Confederation lacked on its soil (starting with weapons), but failed to get her recognized officially by the great European powers, the United Kingdom and France in the lead.


The father of the Confederate constitution, Christopher Memminger, inherited the Treasury Secretariat. He stayed there for three years, and was confronted with the worst difficulties: deprived of most of his national wealth (cotton exports) and of his income (customs duties on the goods that cotton money allowed to import ), the South had to resort to all possible expedients to finance its war effort, the main one being printing money. This resulted in a inflation galloping: in four years, the Confederate dollar lost 98% of its value.

Given Jefferson Davis' continued interference in military affairs, the post of Secretary of War was not as important in the South as it was in the North. In fact, the man who remained at the head of this ministry the longest, James Seddon, did not make a particular impression. The head of the arms and ammunition department of the Confederate Army, Josiah Gorgas, was ultimately the most effective organizer of the southern war effort. Despite the almost total absence of industry in the South, it established foundries, factories and munitions factories, so much so that thanks to its action the Confederate army lacked practically everything except weapons to fight.

Perhaps the champion of stability in Confederate government was Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, who held the post from its inception until the end of the war. Davis being largely ignorant of naval affairs, Mallory, unlike his counterparts in the Secretary of War, had free rein to apply realistic and modern administration to the Confederate navy. Given the limited resources allocated to it, Mallory endeavored to compensate for his numerical inferiority by technical innovations : mines (then called "torpedoes"), battleships, and even submarines. This strategy ultimately failed, but it still gave the Northerners a cold sweat, and helped to radically transform the face of naval warfare for the next century.

The Gordian Knot of Fort Sumter

In March 1861, the question of the forts that remained under federal control in Confederate territory, in particular Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, posed a practically insoluble political dilemma for both camps. The defense of the national territory being one of the sovereign prerogatives of a state, the question of Fort Sumter generated an acute sovereignty problem, since the Confederation could not tolerate the presence of troops considered as foreign on its soil, without losing the credibility of its clearly expressed aspirations for independence.

The Federal garrison therefore had to leave Fort Sumter, but it was obvious that they were not going to leave on their own. The Confederate government could storm it or bomb it to force it to surrender, but this was a hazardous prospect - not militarily, as the fort's garrison was tiny, but politically. . Effectivelytaking the first shot would make the South look like the aggressor, which risked uniting the North behind the federal government, and deterring other slave states from seceding into Confederation.

The other solution was to do the blockade of the fort until its food reserves were completely exhausted, which would undoubtedly force the troops occupying it to surrender. It was certainly less popular with secessionist public opinion, but it had the great advantage of forcing the North to act first - and thus come off as the aggressor in the conflict. Already put in place by the South Carolina militia, the blockade of the fort was effective, as evidenced by the failed attempt by the steamer Star of the West to supply its garrison in January 1861.

However, this effectiveness owed above all to the passivity of the Buchanan administration and to the complicity enjoyed by the secessionist cause. Now that Lincoln and his cabinet were in place, they certainly weren't going to hang around, knowing the time was on their side. To cope with the relief operation that the Feds were very likely to attempt in the coming weeks, the Southerners concentrated in Charleston the bulk of their young army, as well as the heavy guns that the occupation of the other Federal forts had secured.

In Washington, the Lincoln cabinet was also struggling to square the circle. The case of Star of the West had shown that a small-scale operation was not viable, and that it would be necessary a whole fleet to enter Charleston harbor with some chance of success. On the other hand, firing the first shots of the war posed the risk of losing the slavery states that had yet to secede, not to mention the repercussions on northern public opinion itself.


At the beginning of April, it appeared that Fort Sumter had only a few days of food. Lincoln and his ministers then decided to act, and did so with as much political skill as possible. Thus, the operation would not be secret, but announced to the Southerners themselves. On April 6, Lincoln informed Francis Pickens, Governor of South Carolina, that the Northern Fleet would disembark only supplies, not reinforcements, but only if the Southerners did not attempt to oppose them by force.

This time it was up to the Confederate government to react, and quickly. All members of the Davis cabinet agreed on the use of force except Secretary of State Robert Toombs, who warned the President of the long-term consequences of such a move: " You will only strike a nest of hornets ... Whole legions, now calm, will swarm and sting us to death. But the snub that a supply of Fort Sumter would have represented, and therefore the indefinite maintenance of the Federal garrison there, outweighed all other considerations and on April 9 Davis ordered the Confederate troops in Charleston to address to Fort Sumter an ultimatum demanding his surrender, and in case of refusal, to bombard it ...

The looming clash in Charleston was only the culmination of a crisis lasting nearly four months. There was a big difference of perception between the leaders, the public opinion, and the press, who had attended it on a national scale, "macro-historical", and those who were at the very heart of the event, the garrison of Fort Sumter and the otherthe event that was to start the Civil War. This "micro-historical" vision is not devoid of all interest for the historian.

An unfinished fort

Outside of Texas, where about a quarter of the Federal Army was stationed to secure the border with unstable Mexico (before leaving it on the orders of General Twiggs, who passed into the Confederate camp), the future Confederate states were virtually devoid of of any concentration of federal troops. Charleston was a notable exception, all things considered.The economic and cultural heart of South Carolinawas indeed a major port on the Atlantic Ocean, and the main point of departure for the export of cotton harvested in this state.

The Americans had sought to fortify Charleston as early as the War of Independence, but this did not prevent the British from seizing it. Once peace returned, the city would become one of the major support points of the system ofcoastal fortifications from the country. Two forts, named Moultrie and Johnson, were established at the northern and southern entrances to the harbor, respectively, while the harbor proper was protected by a third, Pinckney Castle.

However, the War of 1812 and the bombardment of Baltimore by the British Navy in September 1814 demonstrated that in the face of technical progress and the increased range of naval artillery, this arrangement was insufficient to effectively protect the ports to be defended. In Charleston, it was therefore decided to builda new fortcloser to the entrance to the harbor, on an artificial island created from a sandbank. Named Sumter in honor of a War of Independence hero, General Thomas Sumter, construction began in 1827.

Ambitious on the technical level, Fort Sumter also represented a heavy financial investment that the limited budgets then allocated to the Secretary of the War only allowed to pay very slowly, so that the work dragged on and thatin 1860, the fort was still unfinished. This pentagon of brick and ashlar, about sixty meters long and eighteen high, was theoretically designed to accommodate a garrison of 650 men serving 135 guns. However, by December 1860 it was unoccupied and less than half of the artillery pieces were in place.

Compared to other federal facilities in the South, which were sometimes only guarded by a simple janitor, Charleston was fairly well staffed with federal troops - relatively. Two companies of the 1er artillery regiment, E and H, respectively commanded by Captains Abner Doubleday and Truman Seymour; in all, 6 officers and 68 non-commissioned officers and soldiers, the two units being severely understaffed. An engineer detachment, under Captain John Foster, was also present, along with two other officers and several hundred civilian contract workers. However, most of them were secessionists and only 43 will choose to help the garrison. Finally, we should add the 8 men of the ... fanfare of 1er artillery regiment, for a total of 128 men.

This force was initially commanded by Colonel John Gardner. However, in the weeks following Lincoln's election, the Buchanan administration’s Secretary of War, secessionist John Floyd, attempted to infiltrate military installations in the South. By placing Southern officers at their head, he thus hoped to facilitate the takeover by the secessionists. He thus entrusted the command of the Charleston garrison to a soldier from Kentucky,Major Robert Anderson, who arrived on November 21, 1860. Unfortunately for Floyd, Anderson would prove to be unswervingly loyal to the Union.

The tension is growing

When South Carolina seceded on December 20, Anderson and his motley troop occupied Fort Moultrie. It was run down and poorly maintained. Floyd had given the order to put it in a state of defense, always with the ulterior motive that the secessionist troops could then seize without a strike a fort rehabilitated for free. Anderson quickly agreed, however, thatFort Moultrie was indefensible : according to Doubleday, " the sand had accumulated against the walls, so that cows could have climbed them ", And the houses built around it offered possible assailants firing points overlooking the fort.

Anderson therefore prepared his evacuation in the utmost secrecy, not letting his officers know until the very last moment. On December 26, Federal soldiers nested the cannons at Fort Moultrie, then boarded the few boats that the engineer detachment was using to move their teams of workers, andmanaged to rally Fort Sumter unopposed, having taken the Charleston militia by surprise. Thus positioned, they were immune to any hostile hand.

This movement angered the Carolinians, who unsuccessfully demanded that Anderson and his men return to Fort Moultrie. Failing that, militiamen and volunteers were mobilized to organize the blockade of Fort Sumter, a blockade whose effectiveness and determination were quickly demonstrated by the incident ofStar of the WestJanuary 8, 1861. The food problem would therefore arise sooner or later: the defenders had a few months in advance,but the stocks would not allow to hold out beyond the month of April.

More worrying was the issue of ammunition in the event of an enemy attack. Captain Seymour and his men had attempted to retrieve it from the dockyard in Charleston Harbor, but a crowd of secessionist sympathizers threw the plan down and the soldiers had to turn back to avoid a riot. Additional canisters - pre-dosed powder charges - were made with spare blankets and uniforms, but these reserves would probably not maintain a sustained fire for more than a few hours.

The Federals also did their best toput the unfinished fort in a state of defense. The report drafted in October 1861 by Captain Foster, once repatriated to the North, carefully records this work. Along with Doubleday's account, this is the main first-hand source on the Fort Sumter crisis. Their cross-examination is rich in lessons, in particular on the obvious rivalry between artillery and engineers: while Foster (who did not formally depend on the command of Anderson, but answered directly to the Secretary of the War) applies to demonstrate the effectiveness of his work, Artillery Captain Doubleday believes that Foster "misjudged the overall situation As to the severity of the crisis.

By early April, the fort's defenders had 53 heavy cannons and 700 gargoyles at their disposal, but the small number of servants would not allow them to use more than ten guns at a time. For their part, the Carolinians had been reinforced by elements from all over the Confederation. President Davis had entrusted the command of these troops to a Cajun (a Louisiana of French-speaking descent), Pierre Beauregard. Ironically, Beauregard had served for 23 years in the Federal Army, including several years under Robert Anderson, so the two had become friends. The Confederate General had under his orders, in all,about 6,000 men and about fifty heavy cannons and mortars.

On April 6, the ships of the relief expedition to supply Fort Sumter set sail from northern ports. Four days later, the fort's management distributed their last rations of bread to the soldiers. There was then onlythree days of rice, after which the garrison would have to be content with bacon and water, the only edibles still present in the fort, but which would not hold out much longer.

Map of Charleston harbor in 1861. Document captioned by the author, from a map published in the northern newspaper Harper's Weeklyof April 27, 1861.

On the afternoon of April 11, 1861, three Southern officers showed up with a white flag at the entrance to Fort Sumter. Led by Colonel Chesnut, whose wife Mary would become famous after the publication of his war diary, the delegation brought Major Anderson the ultimatum by which, in accordance with the orders of the Confederate government, General Beauregard demanded the surrender of the strong.The final countdown before the outbreak of the Civil War had just started.

The war begins

After a brief and formal consultation with his officers, Anderson replied in the negative. In return, Beauregard ordered his artillerymen toprepare to open fireagainst Fort Sumter, preparations which occupied the following hours. Around 1 a.m. on April 12, the three Confederate officers, this time accompanied by a civilian, returned one last time to ask Anderson if he wished to surrender and if so, what his conditions were. According to Captain Foster, the Major simply replied that he "would wait for the first cannon to fire, and if it wasn't smashed to pieces, would be starving in a few days anyway ».

Following this second refusal, the Southern delegates left the fort for good at 3.20 am, indicating to the defenders that their batteries would open fire within an hour. At 4.30 a.m., the mortar battery installed near Fort Johnson fired a shell whose fuze had been deliberately set for too short a distance: exploding above the fort, the projectile served as asignalto the dozen other batteries assigned to the operation, which soon unleashed themselves.

As she later wrote in her diary very vividly, Mary Chesnut was awakened by the sound of gunfire and fell to her knees in prayer before rushing out into the street to witness the bombing. Many of his fellow citizens imitated him. The lights spouting from the guns, the sound of explosions and gunshots, the illuminated trajectories of projectiles, gave the inhabitants of Charleston a singular sound and light which they witnessed from the quays of the harbor. The latter, located about four kilometers from Fort Sumter, offered a breathtaking view of thewarrior show that was playing there.
Confederate fire actually followed a rigorously designed firing plan by Beauregard. The latter was also afraid of running out of ammunition - he estimated that his reserves of powder only allowed for 48 hours of bombardment. Thus, the Confederate guns took turns firing counterclockwise, two minutes apart. As Beauregard will notice in his various reports to the Confederate War Secretariat, this fire plan will be executed witha lot of discipline by his artillerymen.

The credit offirst cannon shot is the subject of lasting controversy. While it is certain that the signal was given by Lieutenant Henry Farley's 10 inch coastal mortar, the same is not true of the first shot actually aimed at Fort Sumter. It is generally attributed, without being certain about it, to a radical secessionist activist from Virginia, Edmund Ruffin, who had made the trip on purpose to witness the outbreak of hostilities.

In the bowels of Fort Sumter

Anderson, for his part, delayed opening fire with his own cannons as much as possible, mainly to save ammunition. It was only after eating a frugal breakfast that his men won their coins and began to fight back, around 7 a.m. Their shot was largelyineffective: According to Foster, its effect was limited to temporarily damaging an enemy cannon, injuring a servant, and hitting the flag at Fort Moultrie three times.

Confederate fire was not much better during the first hours of the bombardment, the full force of the cannons doing little to damage the masonry of Fort Sumter. On the other hand, thevertical shot southern mortars proved to be much more precise, notably triggering three fires that the northern garrison managed to control - especially because enemy projectiles had burst the water tanks installed in the attic, flooding the buildings. The mortar shells, whose curved trajectory passed over the walls of the fortress, struck vulnerable parts of the fort, in particular the barracks intended to house the soldiers.

For this reason, the cannons installed in barbette, that is to say at the top of the walls, quickly became untenable. Major Anderson, anxious to spare an already scarce workforce by limiting human losses, agreed to send a team of artillerymen; but the intensity of the bombardment causing it to work in haste, it made an error which put two cannons out of action and led the northern commander to recall his men. The abandonment of the barbettedeprived Fort Sumter of its best weapons, because the guns installed below, in casemates, were certainly safe behind the thick walls of the fort, but had only a limited range, being obliged to fire, so to speak, at water level.

Meanwhile, the relief expedition was approaching Charleston, and by early afternoon both attackers and fort defenders spotted three ships entering the harbor. Unfortunately for the garrison at Fort Sumter, the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly andbad weather prevented the Union flotilla from attempting to approach the fort. At the same time, the reserve of ammunition available to gunners was already shrinking sharply. Anderson was forced to limit the number of cannons employed to six, further reducing the already limited effectiveness of his response.

After dark, heavy downpours swept over Charleston harbor, providing respite for the defenders of Fort Sumter by reducing the risk of fire. The Confederates reduced the rate of their bombardment to four rounds per hour, while the Union guns fell almost completely. The southern infantry, meanwhile, stoically suffered the effects of the rain while they waited for alandingenemy that would never come. According to Beauregard, these soldiers kept busy watching the bombardment of the fort, very "sportingly" cheering on the defenders whenever their guns sounded while lambasting the fleet crews for their inability to intervene.

Conclusion in Charleston

The bombardment resumed at dawn on April 13, this time withmore intensity : Confronted with the presence of the federal fleet, Beauregard wanted to put an end to it, even if the weather was playing in his favor. The violence of the Confederate fire - now almost systematically led to red bullets - was not long in making its effects felt. A civilian engineer was wounded in the courtyard of the fort, and four gunners were slightly hit by a blow that hit the doorway of their casemate.

However, it was on the material level that the situation became worrying. With their roofs slightly higher than the perimeter walls, the cantonments were particularly exposed and at around 9 a.m., a southern projectile set fire to the officers' quarters. To fight this newfire, it would have been necessary to go up in barbette, something impossible under enemy fire. Aided by a strong wind, the fire quickly spread to the other barracks, despite the efforts of the garrison to prevent its spread to the lower floors. After three hours, all the accommodations were on fire.

The fire had dire consequences for the defenders' stock of ammunition. As they progressed, the flames came dangerously close to the fort's main powder magazine, forcing the defenders to shut the door and seal it with sandbags. A few dozen barrels of powder had been removed before, but most had to be thrown into the sea when fire threatened the room where they had been moved. By noon, the rate of northern fire had reduced toone shot every ten minutes, while one of the bus reserves was in turn damaged by the fire and exploded.

Shards and embers, spread by wind and blast, were turning Fort Sumter into hell. At around 1 p.m., the flag pole, already hit several times, was knocked down. Believing in surrender, the Confederates immediately suspended their bombardment, only to resume it a few minutes later when the Union flag was again hoisted on a makeshift pole. Despite this ultimate bravado, it was clear to the attackers, given the thick smoke that was emitted and the slow pace of his retaliation, thatthe situation at Fort Sumter was now desperate.

Le général Beauregard détacha donc un autre de ses aides de camp, l’ancien sénateur du Texas Louis Wigfall, et lui ordonna d’aller renouveler sa demande de reddition. Une fois transporté à Sumter en barque, Wigfall assura à Anderson que la capitulation du fort serait acceptée quelles que soient les conditions qu’il demanderait. Le major nordiste accepta donc, aux conditions déjà proposées par Beauregard dans son ultimatum du 11 avril : évacuation du fort par sa garnison avec armes et bagages, autorisation de tirer un salut au drapeau de cent coups de canon avant de quitter le fort et transport vers un port nordiste. Peu après 14 heures, le drapeau blanc de fortune que Wigfall avait amené avec lui fut hissé. La bataille du fort Sumter était terminée.

En dépit de sa violence (plus de 3.000 projectiles avaient été tirés), cet engagement aux accents surréalistes n’avait fait qu’une poignée de blessés légers. L’ironie voulut que ce fût seulement après la fin du combat que la guerre de sécession fit ses premiers morts. Le salut au drapeau demandé par Anderson fut exécuté l’après-midi même, dans des conditions précaires – de fait, le fort était toujours plus ou moins en feu et les divers incendies ne seraient complètement maîtrisés que plusieurs jours après. Des brandons portés par le vent provoquèrent l’explosion prématurée d’une gargousse pendant qu’on rechargeait le canon. La détonation se propagea aux charges entreposées à proximité, tuant un artilleur nordiste et en blessant cinq autres, dont un mortellement.

Le premier tué de la guerre de Sécession, le soldat Daniel Hough, fut enterré le lendemain par les Confédérés dans la cour du fort, avec les honneurs militaires. Ses camarades, pendant ce temps, furent transférés du navire où ils avaient passé la nuit vers un autre qui les ramena à New York. Ils y furent accueillis en héros, le 17 avril. Des années plus tard, Doubleday se rappellerait encore : « Quand nous achetions quoi que ce fût, les marchands refusaient généralement d’être payés. » Au Nord comme au Sud,la guerre civile avait débuté dans la liesse.

Avec le bombardement et la capitulation du fort Sumter, la crise de la Sécession prenait fin – la guerre de Sécession, elle, commençait. Les circonstances de ce premier combat ne laissaient guère présager les atrocités de la guerre à venir : une reddition avec les honneurs de la guerre, digne de la « guerre réglée » des siècles passés ; des combats n’ayant fait que quelques blessés, menés par des officiers soucieux de limiter les pertes humaines ; et si deux morts il y eut, ce fut juste par… accident. Si les conséquences à long terme étaient encore bien floues pour les contemporains, les résultats immédiats de l’engagement étaient faciles à anticiper.

Réaction en chaîne

L’acte de guerre que représentait le bombardement du fort Sumter ne laissait guère le choix au président Lincoln. L’armée fédérale avait été attaquée, la riposte ne pouvait donc qu’être militaire. Comme ses prérogatives en matière de défense l’y autorisaient, il décréta la formation, le 15 avril, d’une armée de volontaires pour réduire la rébellion. Ces forces devaient être fournies par les États de l’Union, suivant des quotas déterminés. En tout, elles devaient être composées de 75.000 hommes répartis en 94 régiments. Ce service armé était limité à 90 jours, durée naïvement jugée suffisante pour mener le conflit à son terme.

La participation de chaque État avait été calculée afin de solliciter aussi peu que possible les huit États esclavagistes qui n’avaient pas quitté l’Union, dans l’espoir de ne pas les pousser dans le camp sudiste. Cette stratégie échoua : hormis le minuscule Delaware, qui n’avait qu’un seul régiment à fournir et ne comptait que quelques centaines de propriétaires d’esclaves, tous les autres refusèrent violemment de prendre les armes contre leurs concitoyens.

La Virginie fut la première à montrer l’exemple. Dès le 17 avril, elle vota la sécession. Son gouverneur John Letcher avait beaucoup œuvré pour dissuader les États du Haut Sud de faire sécession, mais il estimait illégal le recours à la force contre les États Confédérés et se trouvait bien décidé à faire respecter la souveraineté de son État. Il mobilisa la milice virginienne et lui fit occuper les arsenaux fédéraux de Harper’s Ferry et Norfolk. En signe de reconnaissance pour ce geste, le gouvernement confédéré décida, le 6 mai, de s’installer à Richmond, capitale de la Virginie, à 160 kilomètres seulement de Washington.

La réaction virginienne poussa les autres États esclavagistes à faire de même. L’Arkansas fit sécession le 6 mai, et la Caroline du Nord le 20. Le Tennessee était divisé, l’est de l’État, montagneux et pratiquement dépourvu d’esclaves, étant fortement attaché à l’Union. Son gouverneur Isham Harris contourna le problème en signant une alliance militaire avec la Confédération, avant qu’un référendum populaire ne tranche en faveur de la sécession, qui devint effective le 8 juin.

Le dilemme des États-frontière

La situation fut plus confuse dans les autres États. Celle du Maryland était particulièrement cruciale : l’État, de par sa position géographique, isolait la capitale fédérale Washington du reste du territoire nordiste. La sécession y était très populaire, en particulier à Baltimore, la plus grande ville de l’État. Le gouverneur Thomas Hicks s’efforça dans un premier temps d’en préserver la neutralité, mais ses demandes répétées pour empêcher les troupes fédérales de transiter par son territoire poussèrent le gouvernement nordiste à faire occuper militairement le Maryland, courant mai. L’instauration de la loi martiale empêcha la législature de l’État de voter la sécession.

Sous l’égide de son gouverneur Beriah Magoffin, le Kentucky opta pour une stricte neutralityet mobilisa sa milice pour la faire respecter. Profondément sudiste, Magoffin répondit à l’appel de Lincoln du 15 avril « Je n’enverrai ni un homme, ni un dollar pour contribuer à l’infâme dessein de soumettre mes frères du Sud ". La neutralité du Kentucky fut assez rapidement violée, d’abord par l’établissement d’un camp d’entraînement nordiste aux premiers jours de l’été, puis par l’occupation de la ville de Columbus par les Sudistes le 4 septembre. Ce dernier élément poussa la législature de l’État à se ranger dans le camp de l’Union, ce que Magoffin ne put empêcher.

Le Missouri, enfin, connut une situation similaire, avec un gouverneur favorable à la sécession (Claiborne Jackson) et une législature qui y était plutôt hostile. Néanmoins, la population y était très divisée sur la question, et la proximité, tant dans le temps que dans l’espace, des troubles du « Kansas sanglant » (la controverse, teintée de violence, qui avait entouré le statut de l’esclavage dans le futur État du Kansas) y avait exacerbé les tensions.
Celles-ci débouchèrent sur une véritable guerre civile à l’intérieur même de l’État après qu’un imbroglio autour de l’arsenal fédéral de St-Louis eût amené les troupes fédérales à arrêter des miliciens missouriens. L’émeute qui s’ensuivit poussa le gouverneur Jackson à se rapprocher de la Confédération, et les forces nordistes à envahir l’État. Chassé manu militari de la capitale, Jefferson City, Jackson appela les troupes sudistes à l’aide, tandis que les unionistes du Missouri le rangèrent formellement dans le camp nordiste.

Ces deux derniers États rejoignirent pourtant la Confédération, par le biais de législatures « croupion », constituées de délégués sécessionnistes en exil. Le Missouri fit ainsi « sécession » le 31 octobre 1861 et le Kentucky le 20 novembre. Aucunes de ces législatures dissidentes n’exerça jamais de contrôle significatif sur le territoire de leurs États, et bien que la Confédération les considérât officiellement comme ses membres (d’où le fait que le drapeau sudiste comptain fine 13 étoiles), leurs sécessions respectives ne furent jamais tenues pour valides – les délégués sécessionnistes étant initialement minoritaires dans les deux cas.

Funeste enthousiasme

Si la réaction des États esclavagistes, avec la sécession de quatre d’entre eux et l’attitude ambiguë de trois autres, donna quelques nuits de cauchemars à Lincoln, celle des États libres dut fortement le soulager. L’agression sudiste contre le fort Sumter avait ressoudé derrière lui ce qui restait de l’Union, et le président et son cabinet furent habiles à exploiter cette situation inespérée.

Le major (et bientôt brigadier-général) Anderson et ses officiers furent largement mis à contribution dans des meetings destinés à exciter l’ardeur patriotique des foules et à susciter le volontariat chez les hommes en âge de porter les armes. De telles réunions servirent aussi à lever des fonds, en vendant aux enchères le drapeau, passablement déchiquetés par les obus sudistes, du fort Sumter. Il était bien sûr entendu que l’acheteur, en bon patriote, se devait de redonner aussitôt son bien à peine acquis au gouvernement, afin que la précieuse relique puisse être revendue dans une autre ville.

Le recrutement des volontaires dépassa toutes les espérances. Il y avait tout simplement trop d’engagés. La Pennsylvanie, qui devait fournir initialement 16 régiments, vit rapidement son quota ramené à 14 par Cameron, mais en envoya pratiquement le double. Le gouverneur de l’Ohio, William Dennison, qui devait fournir 13 régiments, annonça rapidement que compte tenu du nombre de volontaires, il ne saurait en armer moins de 20. Même le plus petit État de l’Union, le Rhode Island, recruta quatre régiments au lieu d’un seul.

L’enthousiasme pour la « suppression de la rébellion » ne se limita pas à cela. Non sollicité de par son statut particulier, le District de Columbia (le minuscule territoire, administré directement par le gouvernement fédéral, qui abrite Washington) recruta six régiments de volontaires. Quant au Kansas, récemment intégré à l’Union et encore largement sous-peuplé, il parvint néanmoins à mettre sur pied un petit régiment de 650 hommes. Enfin, en dépit de la neutralité de leur État, plus de 10.000 Missouriens constituèrent des unités de volontaires de leur propre chef.

Tant et si bien qu’en tout, malgré la sécession ou la neutralité de sept États, ce premier effort de recrutement nordiste porta les effectifs de l’armée des volontaires à près de 92.000 hommes. C’était théoriquement assez pour combattre les armées rebelles : les Confédérés avaient mis sur pied une force comptant théoriquement 100.000 hommes, mais beaucoup étaient dispersés à travers tout le territoire sudiste. Toutefois, c’étaient là des chiffres impressionnants sur le papier. Dans les faits, il faudrait plusieurs semaines pour en faire un semblant d’armées organisées, d’une valeur militaire encore douteuse.
Au final, les deux camps bénéficièrent à court terme de la bataille du fort Sumter. Le Nord, scandalisé par l’attaque sudiste, avait fait corps derrière un gouvernement qui, jusque-là, était loin de faire l’unanimité, même si cet enthousiasme n’allait pas tarder à s’émousser. La Confédération, pour sa part, y avait gagné quatre États et reculé ses frontières de plusieurs centaines de kilomètres vers le nord, une profondeur stratégique qui retarderait d’autant l’invasion nordiste.

Toutefois, à long terme, ce fut bien le Sud qui fut perdant, et l’avertissement lancé par Robert Toombs à Jefferson Davis au moment de prendre la décision d’attaquer le fort Sumter allait s’avérer pétri de clairvoyance. Au printemps 1861, l’issue du conflit était cependant loin d’être évidente. La lutte pour les États-frontière, qui allait occuper l’essentiel des mois à venir, serait à ce titre décisive.

La situation en juin 1861. Marron : États ayant fait sécession avant le début de la guerre. Rouge : États ayant fait sécession après l'appel aux volontaires du 15 avril 1861. Jaune : États "neutres", ayant refusé d'envoyer des troupes au gouvernement fédéral mais sans faire sécession. Bleu : États restés fidèles à l'Union.


Video: The Civil War: Pre-War to Fort Sumter (May 2021).