People of South Carolina were Eager, Even Jubilant, to Start an All-Out War

This Confederate albumen photograph of Fort Sumter, taken two days after Union Major Robert Anderson surrendered, sold for $1,875 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Fort Sumter, S.C. – site of the first battle of the Civil War – was located on an artificial island inside the entrance to Charleston Harbor. A pentagon with block walls 300 feet long, 40 feet high and up to 12 feet thick was still under construction in late 1860.

On Dec. 26, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie, at the edge of the harbor entrance, to Fort Sumter to reduce their exposure to an attack. Just days earlier, South Carolina had declared their state an independent republic and they resented the “foreign” U.S. flag. They considered Anderson’s transfer of troops an act of aggression.

They considered it another hostile act when the lame-duck James Buchanan administration sent an unarmed merchant ship with reinforcements in January 1861. As the ship approached Charleston Harbor, shore batteries opened fire and forced it to turn back.

Apparently, few recognized how eager (perhaps more than just eager) the people of South Carolina were to start an all-out war against what they considered the oppression of the North. Some even prayed for it to start.

On Feb. 15, 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress in Montgomery secretly resolved that “immediate steps should be taken to obtain possession of both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens … either by negotiation or force.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis then dispatched three commissioners to Washington to try diplomatic negotiations. However, he also ordered P.G.T. Beauregard (full name Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard) to take command of the harbor and start formal preparations for the use of force.

Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard

General Beauregard (one of only eight full generals in the Confederacy … ever) proceeded to extend and enlarge the batteries, targeting the fort. His preparations nearly complete, he advised President Davis on March 27 that expulsion of the Union troops “ought now to be decided in a few days.” Davis replied that Anderson should not be allowed to buy provisions in Charleston.

Want to start a war? Surround a fort with canons … cut off any reinforcements … and restrict its provisions. Then get a match and prepare to light the fuse.

On April 10, Beauregard was ordered to demand an evacuation of Fort Sumter, and if refused, to “reduce it.”

On April 12, 1861, 50 Confederate guns and mortars launched more than 4,000 rounds on an ill-equipped Fort Sumter. They surrendered after 34 hours. Two days later, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the “insurrection.” The president was not willing to start a war over the slavery issue, but the taking of federal property was leading to disunion, something the president was not going to allow, even if it meant all-out war.

The U.S. flag would not be raised over Fort Sumter again until April 14, 1865, exactly four years after the surrender. Who would have guessed? Obviously, few if any of the people who were so jubilant when the war started and so utterly demoralized when it ended.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Newspapers Have Been Rushing to ‘Break News’ for 150 Years

A Nov. 21, 1863, edition of the New York Tribune, which reprinted President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, sold for $632.50 at a June 2005 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Today’s occasionally frenetic journalism began during the Civil War, for two basic reasons.

The first was the telegraph, since this was the first instant-news war in history, and the issue was much like we have with today’s internet. Reports could be filed almost immediately and it resulted in a mad rush to be first with “breaking news.”

The other was steam, used for steam-powered locomotives and the relatively new steam-powered printing presses. Reporters could hop on a train and return to their offices quickly if a telegraph office wasn’t handy. Either way, the demand for timely and accurate news from the front lines transformed American journalism. It was a culture of “Telegraph all the news you can get, and when there is no news, send the rumors.”

They did a lot of that, and the competition was ferocious. New York had 18 daily newspapers, with four or five focused on the war – including the New York Tribune (Horace Greeley), The New York Herald (James Gordon Bennett), and The New York Times (Henry J. Raymond). Of the three, Greeley was the acknowledged celebrity and well-known for his erratic views as opposed to straight news.

He would later challenge President Grant’s reelection in 1872 by splitting the Republican Party, which resulted in the Democrats cancelling their convention and throwing their support to Greeley. So it was Republican Grant against Liberal Republican Greeley … and no Democrats. Grant won easily and Greeley died before the Electoral College could vote (Greeley actually received three posthumous electoral votes).

Bennett may have been the first great genius in American journalism. He had migrated from Scotland after being trained as a Catholic priest, had the finest education, and was devoted to a balanced approach to the news. However, even he occasionally fell victim to rushing to print too fast.

An interesting feature of the “war newspapers” was that each copy was handed around and read by dozens of people. Another is that the armies – both sides – did not report casualties. There were no official lists of those killed, captured or wounded. This was done by individual reporters, who compiled lists and published them. This enhanced reader interest immensely when a reporter was covering specific units where loved ones were involved.

As a group, Civil War correspondents were a motley group of ruffians who called themselves the “Bohemian Brigade.” There was lots of criticism, particularly of The New York Herald, for sending out these hard-drinking characters into the field. Even so, simply substitute today’s gossipy and irresponsible websites for the Civil War telegraph and it becomes perfectly clear how little reporting the news has changed in 150 years.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Insidious Practice of Slavery Violated Every Principle that Men of Goodwill Supported

thomas-hart-benton-slave-master-with-slaves-study-for-the-american-historical-epic
This crayon with pencil and ink on paper by American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), titled Slave Master with Slaves (Study for The American Historical Epic), circa 1926, realized $35,000 at a December 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Slavery was the great exception to the rule of liberty proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and established in the U.S. Constitution. The first African slaves (about 40 in all) were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Va., in 1619 to aid in the production of lucrative crops like tobacco.

By the time of America’s founding, the number had grown to 500,000, mostly in the five southernmost states. Slavery was never widespread in the North, but many profited indirectly by the practice. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states had abolished slavery, but the “peculiar institution” remained absolutely vital to the South.

Even as the U.S. Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, domestic trade flourished, and the slave population more than tripled over the next 50 years. By 1860, it was up to 4 million, primarily in cotton-production areas of the South.

One naive hope had been that slavery would slowly die as a simple matter of business economics. In 1776, Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) argued that the plantation system was uneconomic since slave labor cost more to maintain than laborers paid a competitive wage. But, in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, making slave-based production lower in cost. The insatiable demand for cotton from Europe was irresistible to the southern agrarian-based economy.

Overlooked in all of this was a brilliant insight by Smith. He noted that slavery ended in the Middle Ages in Europe only after the state and church became separate and strongly independent. His insight was that it is nearly impossible to end slavery in free, democratic forms of government, primarily because many of the legislators would also be slave owners and unlikely to act in ways that were not in their best interest.

Similar arguments later appear in the works of French philosopher Auguste Comte, known for his ideas regarding the “separation of the spiritual and the temporal.”

That was exactly the situation in the United States since many of the founders – most notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – owned slaves and the South had always been dominated by self-interest. The obvious implication is that war was not only probable, but inevitable and unavoidable.

So the inexorable forces of profit versus human rights continued to accelerate, with only pauses, as the deeply conflicted country tried to find compromises (e.g. 1820) that simply delayed the inevitability of war. Kick-the-can strategies never achieve anything except temporary lulls.

Quite predictably, ours required a bloody civil war to (finally) reconcile the Constitution and an insidious practice of slavery that violated every principle that men of goodwill supported.

Both Smith and Comte tried to warn us, but their theories did not include any useful solutions, except perhaps to implement a kingdom … the very thing we were fleeing.

Even after 620,000 lives were lost in the Civil War, a number that exceeds all our other conflicts combined … and with the passage of 150 years … we are still struggling with race and inequality as our legislators try to find compromises.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].