With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Excerpt: The March to Battle at Fort Sumter

The scene of Jefferson Davis's inauguration as the provisional President of the Confederate States of America, Montgomery, Alabama, February 18, 1861

The march of North and South to a clash at Fort Sumter began with the departure of Senator Jefferson Davis from the government of the United States in the winter of 1860.

Jefferson Davis: I am sure there is not one of you, despite whatever sharp differences there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people whom I represent.

Leaving the US Senate was an emotional experience for him.

Jefferson Davis: I see now around me some with whom I served long. There have been points of collision but whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here. I carry with me no hostile remembrance. . . . I go hence unencumbered by the memory of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury received.. . . [I] bid you a final adieu.

The Senators in the chamber, and all the spectators, roared with enthusiasm; the applause was deafening. Davis, sensing what the future held, sat down heavily in his chair, put his head in his hands, and wept.The man who soon would lead a new country looked very sick that day. Davis had just recovered from yet another debilitating herpes attack and was barely able to stand to deliver his farewell speech.

Murat Halstead, journalist: Why, that is the face of a corpse, the form of a skeleton. Look at the haggard, sunken, weary eye—the thin, white wrinkled lips clasped close upon the teeth in anguish. That is the mouth of a brave but impatient sufferer. See the ghastly white, hollowed, bitterly puck-ered cheek, the high, sharp cheekbone, the pale brow, full of fine wrinkles, the grisly hair, prematurely gray; and see the thin, bloodless, bony nervous hands? He deposits his documents upon his desk and sinks into his chair, as if incapable of rising.

Visiting British journalist William Russell, who interviewed Davis right after he was inaugurated, did not think much of him.

William Russell: [His face] was thin and marked on cheek and brow with many wrinkles . . . [his left eye is nearly blind] the other is dark, piercing and intelligent. He did not impress me as favorably as I had expected.

In fact, President Davis suffered from herpes simplex, which closed over one of his eyes and debilitated him when he was under stress, particularly throughout the Fort Sumter crisis.

Jefferson Davis: I am suffering under a painful illness which has closely confined me for more than seven weeks and leaves me quite unable to read or write.

Many others who met him for the first time in Montgomery, Alabama, had vastly higher opinions of him. The new Confederate president was always glad to meet people; he told them all what they wanted to hear. He said to one group:

Jefferson Davis: Our people are a gallant, impetuous, determined people. What they resolve to do, that they most assuredly persevere in doing.

He told others that if the North wanted a fight, he was ready to give it to them. But he, himself, was not sure of the extent of his power.

Jefferson Davis: To me, personally, all violence is abhorrent. As President of the Confederate states, my authority is, in many respects, more circumscribed than would be my authority as Governor of Mississippi.

Davis had his problems. When Varina Davis first met her future husband, she wrote to her mother:

Varina Davis: He impresses me, a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me. He is the kind of person I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward. I do not think I shall ever like him as I do his brother Joe. It was this sincerity of opinion which sometimes gave him the manner to which his opponents saw as domineering.

The new Confederate president also had a short, violent temper. He exploded at slight provocations. He was a perfectionist and wanted everybody to do what he thought was best, even if they did not agree with him. He never understood that someone with another opinion simply saw things a different way; people who did not agree with him were just wrong. He expected more and better work from everybody, regardless of circumstance or illness. Davis wanted everybody to be punctual and would stand outside the door to their office in the morning and tell them if they were a single minute late.

One of his biggest faults was that he would humiliate someone and then not understand why they felt humiliated. His wife helped him all she could, and put up with his imperfections. She always believed, though, that he did not have the personal skills to be a leader of any kind, much less the head of a new country.

In February 1861, Davis received a telegram from Robert Toombs, a tall, blustery Senator from Georgia, informing him of his election as President of the Confederacy. He read it to his wife.

Varina Davis: He spoke of it as a man might speak of a sentence of death.

She advised him not to take the job. Yet Varina Davis was a good first lady and performed well for someone thrust into the job. She had been an admired hostess back in Washington and would be again in the Confederacy. She was intelligent, gracious, friendly, and possessed a good sense of humor.

New Friend: She is as witty as she is wise.

Davis always defended the South’s new Constitution.

Jefferson Davis: It was a model of wise, temperate and liberal statesmanship. Intelligent criticism, from hostile as well as friendly sources, has been compelled to admit its excellence and has sustained the judgment of popular northern journals.

No, it did not. Northern journals were outraged by the secessionists and lambasted them in editorials—calling them scoundrels, at best. 

Editor,Detroit Daily Advertiser: Every horse thief, murderer, gambler, robber and other rogue of high and low degree, fled to Texas when he found that the United States could no longer hold him. The pioneers of that state were all threats of one kind or another. . . . [T]hose of them that have escaped hanging or the state prison, and their descendants, are the men who have led the secession movement in that state.

Editor,Boston Journal: Secession is treason.

The Confederate president could see the war clouds forming in the Alabama sky. He blamed the Union.

Jefferson Davis: My mind has been for some time satisfied that a peaceful solution to our difficulties was not to be anticipated and therefore my thoughts have been directed to the manner of rendering force effective.

He understood that if war came, he would be asking men who did not own slaves to lay down their lives to defend slavery. He justified doing so by defending the institution.

Jefferson Davis: A government, to afford the needful protection and exercise proper care for the welfare for a people, must have homogeneity in its constituents. It is this necessity which has divided the human race into separate nations and finally has defeated the grandest efforts which conquerors have made to give unlimited extent to their domain.

Jefferson Davis: The slave must be made fit for his freedom by education and discipline and thus made unfit for slavery. And as soon as he becomes unfit for slavery, the master will no longer desire to hold him as a slave.

And he made an accurate prediction about the coming conflict.

Jefferson Davis: A Civil War will be long and bloody.

It was not just the South that was worried, but the West, too, and no one in the West was more concerned than Sam Houston, the governor of Texas. In November of 1860, he expressed his fears in a letter to a friend.

Governor Sam Houston, Texas: When I contemplate the horrors of Civil War, such as a dissolution of the Union will shortly force upon me, I cannot believe that the people will rashly take a step fraught with these consequences. They will consider well all the blessings of the government we have and it will only be when the grievances we suffer are of a nature that, as free men, we can no longer bear them, that we will raise the standard of revolution. Then the civilized world, our own consciences and posterity will justify us. If that time should come, that will be the day and hour. If it has not—if our rights are yet secured, we cannot be justified. Has the time come? If it has, the people who have to bear the burden of revolution must affect the work.

When their new peaceful homes are the scene of desolation, they will feel no pang of regret. Moved by a common feeling of resistance, they will not ask for the forms of law to justify their action. Nor will they follow the noisy demagogue who will flee at the first show of danger. Men of the people will come forth to lead them who will be ready to risk the consequences of revolution. If the Union is dissolved now, will we have additional security for slavery? Will we have our rights better secured? After enduring Civil War for years, will there be any promise of a better state of things than we now enjoy?

As tensions heightened over Fort Sumter, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis began to examine their options—and their consciences.

Jefferson Davis: God forbid if the day should ever come when to be true to my constituents is to be hostile to the Union.

Abraham Lincoln: I am not a war man. I want peace more than any man in this country.