Civil War (detail of painting 'First Battle of Bull Run' by Kurz & Allison)

The Civil War Begins

The nation’s bloodiest and most divisive war began at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. After South Carolina seceded from the Union, the Confederacy demanded that the United States evacuate its fort in Charleston Harbor. Lincoln refused, provoking a Confederate attack. Surrounded and vulnerable, Union forces surrendered the fort after two days of bombardment. The outbreak of war forced wavering states to choose between the Confederacy and the Union, and four more—Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee—now seceded.

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis: Contrasting Leaders

Abraham Lincoln came into office with little preparation for leading his country in war. He began his presidency with a limited mandate, having won only 40 percent of the popular vote, and no Southern states. Reacting to his victory, seven states seceded before he assumed office.

Lincoln was a highly skilled lawyer and politician, but had little military experience. He assembled a strong cabinet and committed himself to preserving the Union, by force if necessary. At his inauguration, he proclaimed to the South, “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I . . . have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’”

Jefferson Davis had extensive military experience before he assumed the presidency of the new Confederate States of America. A graduate of West Point, he had fought Indians for several years along the frontier and later served with distinction in the Mexican War. He had experience in Congress as both a representative and senator, and had been secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce.

When he was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy, Davis expressed his hope that separation from the Union would come peacefully. But he warned, “If this be denied to us . . . it will but remain for us, with firm resolve, to appeal to arms.”

Fort Sumter under attack, 1861
Abraham Lincoln
Jefferson Davis
Bacon’s Military Map of the United States

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