Read CHAPTER XXI - TOOMBS AS PREMIER OF THE CONFEDERACY of Robert Toombs Statesman‚ Speaker‚ Soldier‚ Sage , free online book, by Pleasant A. Stovall, on

One of the first acts of the new Confederate Government was to send three commissioners to Washington. John Forsyth of Alabama, Martin J. Crawford of Georgia, and A. B. Roman of Louisiana, were intrusted by the Secretary of State, Mr. Toombs, with a speedy adjustment of questions growing out of the political revolution, upon such terms of amity and good will as would guarantee the future welfare of the two sections. Mr. Toombs instructed Mr. Crawford, whom he had especially persuaded to take this delicate mission, that he should pertinaciously demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter and the maintenance of the status elsewhere.

Secretary Seward declined to receive the commissioners in any diplomatic capacity, or even to see them personally. He acknowledged the receipt of their communication and caused the commissioners to be notified, pointedly, that he hoped they would not press him to reply at that time. Mr. Seward was represented as strongly disposed in favor of peace, and the Confederate Government was semi-officially informed that Fort Sumter would probably be evacuated in a short time, and all immediate danger of conflict avoided. There is no doubt that such were Mr. Seward’s intentions. He had cordially agreed with General Winfield Scott that the possession of Fort Sumter amounted to little in a strategical way, and that the peace-loving people, North and South, should not be driven into the war party by premature shock over the provisioning of a fort that no Federal force could have held for a week. Mr. Lincoln’s Cabinet took this position and, by a vote of five to two, favored the abandonment of Sumter. The commissioners were apprised of this feeling, and in a dispatch to Secretary Toombs, on the 20th of March, declared that there was no change in the status. “If there is any faith in man,” they wrote, “we may rely on the assurances we have as to the status. Time is essential to the principal issue of this mission. In the present posture of affairs, precipitation is war.”

On the 26th of March the commissioners, having heard nothing more, asked the Confederate Secretary whether they should delay longer or demand an answer at once. Secretary Toombs wired them to wait a reasonable time and then ask for instructions. He gave them the views of President Davis, who believed that the counsels of Mr. Seward would prevail in Washington. “So long as the United States neither declares war nor establishes peace, it affords the Confederate States the advantage of both positions, and enables them to make all necessary arrangements for public defense and the solidification of government more safely, cheaply, and expeditiously than if the attitude of the United States was more definite and decided.”

Meanwhile new pressure was brought to bear on President Lincoln. On the 2d of April, the commissioners, who kept up pretty well with the situation, telegraphed Secretary Toombs: “The war party presses on the President; he vibrates to that side.” The rumor was given that the President had conferred with an engineer in regard to Fort Sumter. “Watch at all points.” Three days later they telegraphed that the movement of troops and the preparation of vessels of war were continued with great activity. “The statement that the armament is intended for San Domingo,” they said, “may be a mere ruse.” “Have no confidence in this administration. We say, be ever on your guard.... Glad to hear you are ready. The notice promised us may come at the last moment, if the fleet be intended for our waters.”

On the 6th of April Governor Pickens of South Carolina was informed that the President had decided to supply Fort Sumter with provisions, and on the 10th, Hon. Levi P. Walker, Secretary of War at Montgomery, notified General Beauregard, then in command of the Confederate forces at Charleston, to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter, and, if refused, to proceed to reduce it.

There is no doubt that the Lincoln Cabinet reversed its position about Sumter. The pressure of New England and the West became too strong. What Sumter lacked in military importance, it made up in political significance. The Lincoln Government had already been taunted with weakness by the people who had placed it in office. Mr. Lincoln decided, against the better judgment of Mr. Seward, to make the issue in Charleston Harbor.

Seward’s mind was of finer and more reflective cast than Mr. Lincoln’s. He had all the points of a diplomatist, ingenuity, subtlety, adroitness. He was temporizing over the natural antipathy of the North to war and the probable transient nature of the secession feeling in the South. At that very moment he was assuring England and France that “the conservative element in the South, which was kept under the surface by the violent pressure of secession, will emerge with irresistible force.” He believed “that the evils and hardships produced by secession would become intolerably grievous to the Southern States.”

Mr. Lincoln was not temporizing at all. He was looking the crisis in the face. What he wanted was support at the North, not at the South. He was willing to force the fighting at Sumter, knowing that the mere act of the Confederates in firing upon the flag would bring to his aid a united North.

Secretary Toombs was one man in the Montgomery Cabinet who was not deceived by Seward’s sophistries. He knew the temper of Mr. Lincoln better than Mr. Seward did. He appreciated the feeling at the North, and gave his counsel in the Davis Cabinet against the immediate assault upon Sumter. There was a secret session of the Cabinet in Montgomery. Toombs was pacing the floor during the discussion over Sumter, his hands behind him, and his face wearing that heavy, dreamy look when in repose. Facing about, he turned upon the President and opposed the attack. “Mr. President,” he said, “at this time, it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountains to ocean, and legions, now quiet, will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal.” He clung to the idea expressed in his dispatches to the commissioners, that “So long as the United States neither declares war nor establishes peace, the Confederate States have the advantage of both conditions.” But just as President Lincoln overruled Secretary Seward, so President Davis overruled Secretary Toombs.

No event in American history was more portentous than the first gun fired from Fort Johnson at 1.30 o’clock in the morning of April 12, 1861. As the shell wound its graceful curve into the air and fell into the water at the base of Sumter, the Civil War was an accomplished fact. Major Anderson replied with his barbette guns from the fort. He had but little more than 100 men, and early in the engagement was forced to rely entirely upon his casemate ordinance. The Confederate forces numbered about five thousand, with thirty guns and seventeen mortars, and served their guns from the batteries on Mount Pleasant, Cummings Point, and the floating battery. Fort Sumter was built on an artificial island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, and was about three and a half miles from the city. It had cost the government one million dollars, and had not been entirely completed at the time of the bombardment.

The excitement in Charleston at the opening gun was very great. People rushed from their beds to the water-front, and men and women watched the great duel through their glasses. The South had gone into the war with all the fervor of conviction. The gunners in Moultrie and on Morris Island would leap to the ramparts and watch the effect of their shots, and jump back to their guns with a cheer. There was all the pomp and sound, but few of the terrors of war. On the morning of the second day the quarters in the fort caught fire and the whole place was wrapped in flames and smoke, but Major Anderson’s men won the admiration of their enemies by standing by their guns and returning the fire at regular intervals. The battle lasted thirty-two hours; more than fifty tons of cannon-balls and eight tons of powder were expended from weapons the most destructive then known to warfare; not a life was lost on either side. Sumter and Moultrie were both badly damaged. Major Anderson surrendered on Saturday, April 13.

The London Times treated this remarkable event in humorous style. The proceedings at Charleston were likened to a cricket match or a regatta in England. The ladies turned out to view the contest. A good shot from Fort Sumter was as much applauded as a good shot from Fort Moultrie. When the American flag was shot away, General Beauregard sent Major Anderson another to fight under. When the fort was found to be on fire, the polite enemy, who had with such intense energy labored to excite the conflagration, offered equally energetic assistance to put it out. The only indignation felt throughout the affair was at the conduct of the Northern flotilla, which kept outside and took no part in the fray. The Southerners resented this as an act of treachery toward their favorite enemy, Major Anderson. “Altogether,” says the Times, “nothing can be more free from the furious hatreds, which are distinctive of civil warfare, than this bloodless conflict has been.” Another London paper remarked “No one was hurt. And so ended the first, and, we trust, the last engagement of the American Civil War.”

Mr. Toombs’ prediction, that the attack upon Fort Sumter would “open a hornet’s nest” in the North, was sustained. The effect of the assault at that time and the lowering of the national flag to the forces of the Confederacy acted, as Mr. Blaine has stated, “as an inspiration, consolidating public sentiment, dissipating all differences.” In fact it brought matters to a crisis all around, and prepared the two sections for the great drama of the War.

An important part of the work of Secretary Toombs was the selection of a commission to proceed to Europe and present the Confederate position to England and France, in order to secure recognition of the new nation. Mr. William L. Yancey was placed at the head of this commission, and with him were associated Mr. A. D. Mason of Virginia, and Mr. A. P. Rost of Louisiana. The first month of the term of the Confederate Secretary of State was occupied in the issue of letters of marque. On the 19th of April President Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of Southern ports, and declared that privateers with letters of marque from the Southern Confederacy should be treated as pirates. This gave Secretary Toombs a strong point in dealing with foreign powers. The new government had been organized with promptness and ability. Great energy was shown in getting the civil and military branches equipped. The Southern position had been presented with great strength abroad, and France and England were not slow in framing proclamations recognizing the Confederate States as belligerents. Next to immediate recognition as a separate nationality, this step was significant, and was the first triumph of the diplomacy of Secretary Toombs over Secretary Seward. Then came the demand from the foreign powers that the blockade must be effectual, imposing a heavy burden upon the Northern States. Lord Lyons, acting in Washington in concert with the French Government, declared that “Her Majesty’s Government would consider a decree closing the ports of the South, actually in possession of the Confederate States, as null and void, and they would not submit to measures on the high seas pursuant to such a decree.” Mr Seward bitterly complained that Great Britain “did not sympathize with this government.” The British Minister accordingly charged the British Consul at Charleston with the task of obtaining from the Confederate Government securities concerning the proper treatment of neutrals. He asked the accession of the Lincoln government and of the Davis government to the Declaration of Paris of 1856, which had adopted as articles of maritime law that privateering be abolished; that the neutral flag covers enemy’s goods, with the exception of contraband of war; that neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under the enemy’s flag; that a blockade, in order to be binding, must be effectual, that is, must be maintained by a force sufficient to prevent access to the coast of the enemy. These conditions, except the first, were accepted by the Confederate Government.

The Southern Confederacy thus became parties, as Mr. Blaine says, to “an international compact”; and when, a few months later, Mr. Seward offered to waive the point made by Secretary Marcy many years before, and accept the four articles of the Paris convention, he found himself blocked, because the Confederate States had not accepted the first article, abolishing privateering, and her privateers must, therefore, be recognized. It was by these privateers that great damage was inflicted upon American shipping.

The Confederate States had no regular navy, and but few vessels; they were an agricultural community, not a commercial or a ship-building people. Quite a number of vessels were put in commission under letters of marque, and these reached the high seas by running the blockade. Many prizes were taken and run into Southern ports. Later on steamers were fitted out and sent to sea under command of experienced officers. This naval militia captured millions of the enemy’s property, and produced a great sensation at the North. A Southern agent was sent abroad by the naval department to get ships and supplies. “In three years’ time,” says Mr. Blaine, “fifteen millions of property had been destroyed by Southern privateers, given to the flames, or sunk beneath the waters. The shipping of the United States was reduced one-half, and the commercial flag of the Union fluttered with terror in every wind that blew, from the whale fisheries of the Arctic to the Southern Cross.”

On the 21st of May, the Confederate Congress, after providing for the disposition of these naval prizes, and the treatment of prisoners of war brought into Southern ports, adjourned to meet on the 20th of July in the City of Richmond, now selected as the permanent seat of Government of the Confederacy.

The powers of Europe never recognized the Confederate States as a separate nation. The leaders of the English Government were, no doubt, inclined to this step, but the rank and file of the Liberal party, under the leadership of John Bright, refused to sanction such a course toward a government whose corner stone was slavery. Mr. Seward ingeniously pressed the point that Southern success meant a slave oligarchy around the Gulf of Mexico. Russia remained the strong ally of the Northern States. England, with the Crimean War fresh upon her hands, hesitated before engaging Russia again or imperiling India in the East. France could not afford to take the step without the aid of England. Secretary Toombs dispatched a Minister to Mexico to look into the interesting tumult then going on. Louis Napoleon was filled with his desire of establishing Maximilian in Mexico, but his movement did not succeed. Maximilian was defeated and executed, and Napoleon found himself too much engaged with the House of Hohenzollern in Germany to follow any new or original policy in America.

Carlyle declared with dyspeptic acrimony that the Civil War was the foulest chimney of the century, and should be allowed to burn out.

Secretary Toombs had issued credentials to commissioners to the unseceded Southern States. On the 17th of April Virginia seceded; on the 28th of May North Carolina went out of the Union; these were followed by Tennessee and Arkansas. The border States of Kentucky and Missouri did not formally secede, but indignantly declined to furnish troops in response to Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation. They appointed delegates to a Peace Congress to meet in Washington.

The tedious routine of the State Department did not suit the restless spirit of Robert Toombs. He had established relations abroad as belligerents, and had placed the new government in touch with its Southern neighbors. His dispatches were remarkable for brevity, clearness, and boldness; his public papers are models of nervous style, but he longed for a more active field in the revolution. He chafed under red-tape and convention. Toombs charged the new administration with too much caution and timidity. He declared that ninety per cent of war was business, and that the South must organize victory rather than trust entirety to fighting. He urged the government to send over cotton to England and buy arms and ships forthwith. “Joe Brown,” he impatiently declared, “had more guns than the whole Confederacy. No new government,” said he, “ever started with such unlimited credit.” Mr. Toombs believed that the financial part of the Confederacy was a failure. “We could have whipped the fight,” said he, in his impetuous way, “in the first sixty days. The contest was haphazard from the first, and nothing but miraculous valor kept it going.” Mr. Toombs said that had he been President of the Confederacy, he would have mortgaged every pound of cotton to France and England at a price that would have remunerated the planters, and in consideration of which he would have secured the aid of the armies and navies of both countries.

But Robert Toombs concluded that his place was in the field, not in the Cabinet. Too many prominent men, he explained, were seeking bombproof positions. He received a commission as brigadier general, and on the 21st of July, 1861, joined Generals Beauregard and Johnston at Manassas.