Lincoln's election was a thunderbolt to the South. It meant that the great question of slavery would have to be decided one way or another. Lincoln was a man who had opinions, and opinions in which he believed, for which he would fight; he would not let things drift as Buchanan did. Buchanan's policy would have ended in allowing the South to separate itself from the North; the Southern politicians knew this, and they wanted Buchanan's policy carried on, so as to make that separation possible.
Few men in the North, although many in the South, understood as clearly as Lincoln did the position of affairs. He saw that the time had come when active measures must be taken, a strong and decided policy maintained, if the Union was to be held together. He was a true patriot.
He believed in the Union; he thought it a great and glorious thing. That North and South should be separated was to him like separating husband and wife; their strength and happiness lay in each other; they had grown together for eighty-four years; if they parted now, each must lose something it could never regain. He loved his country. He loved the South as well as the North. He believed that if the South tried to separate, the North would be justified, in the true interests of the American nation, in compelling her to remain.
The great problem was now, as he saw: Could America hold together as one nation, half slave and half free? Could the Union be a real Union while there was this deep division, a division which it was now clear could not be got rid of, as the Northerners had hoped for so long, by the slow passage of time? Time alone would not induce the South to give up slavery. Slavery was a barbarous institution, degrading to the slaves and to those who owned them; the North could not accept it. If North and South were to hold together slavery must go. The great thing was to keep North and South united. This and this only was Lincoln's great purpose. He hated slavery, but he would not have compelled the South to give up slavery if he had believed that the Union could have been maintained without that. North and South must hold together whatever it cost; only so could each part of the nation, and the nation as a whole, attain the best that was possible for it.
Lincoln's great difficulty was this. The South saw that the nation could not hold together for ever half slave and half free. Two years before Lincoln's election, one of the members for South Carolina had written what was afterwards known as the Scarlet Letter. In it he declared, "We can make a revolution in the cotton States," and there were many, even at that time, who shared his views. The South saw that, if they were to remain united to the North, slavery must go, and they were ready to separate from the North in order to keep slavery.
But, while the South understood the position, the North did not. It did not understand it fully at the time of Lincoln's election, or, indeed, until the end of the second year of the war. And because they did not understand they could not appreciate Lincoln's policy, or support it as they ought to have done. All the time they criticised, blamed, and abused him, making his hard task harder.
Not until after his death did all the Northerners see how great and how right he had been. Not until his death did Americans realise that had it not been for Lincoln the United States might have ceased to be.
Lincoln's speeches had been plain and outspoken enough; the South was terrified by his election. They resolved on separation.
Lincoln, though elected in November 1860, did not actually become President until February 1861. During these three months he remained in the plain, yellow house at Springfield, his little office crowded every day with visitors who came to consult him, to advise him, or often merely to shake his hand. "Honest old Abe," as they called him, had a joke or a kindly word for all of them. He was presented with many quaint gifts. An old woman came one day, and, after shaking hands with Lincoln, produced from under her huge cloak a vast pair of knitted stockings for the President to wear in winter. Lincoln thanked her graciously and led her out; then returning, he lifted up the stockings, and showing the enormous feet, said to his secretary, "The old lady seems to have guessed the latitude and longitude about right!"
Lincoln spent the time reading and writing, drawing up memoranda, choosing his Cabinet, learning the difficult ins and outs of the new work before him. All these months he was thinking hard. His purpose was already clear: but the presidentship, always a heavy burden, had never been so heavy as it was to be for Lincoln.
Things grew more serious every day. The weakness of Buchanan, who had no plan or purpose, allowed the South to do as it chose. The only chance of avoiding war lay in firm action now; but it was not in Buchanan's nature to be firm. He had been made President by the votes of the South because he was not firm, because he would allow them to do as they chose. They dreaded Lincoln because he was firm, and therefore acted while there was yet time.
On December 20, 1860, the chief men of South Carolina met together and declared the Union to be dissolved. Posters appeared all over the State: the South was in a state of feverish excitement. Within the month the States of Missouri, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—the chief cotton-growing, slave-owning States—also declared themselves to be separated from the Union; and these six States joined with South Carolina to form what they called the Southern Confederation, independent of the North. They chose for their first President Jefferson Davis.
Buchanan did not know what to do. The question was: Has a State any right to leave the Union? America, of course, is a Federation: at the time of the Declaration of Independence the thirteen States that then existed joined themselves together forever, and created a common Federal Government for common purposes, with a President at its head. Lincoln would have said one State has no more right to leave the others than an English county has to declare that it is a separate kingdom, not bound by the common law. Buchanan said "no," too; but he also said, if a State does leave, the Federal Government has no right to force it to stay: which meant a stand-still. "You ought not to want to go; but if you do, we have no right to prevent you." Buchanan's one idea, indeed, was to let things drift.
There was one great and immediate difficulty. In each of the coast States of the Union the Federal Government had armed forts: in South Carolina there were two important ones, Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter, with a small garrison in each, commanded by Major Anderson. South Carolina demanded that the garrisons should be withdrawn. Now to withdraw the garrisons and abandon the forts was to admit that South Carolina had a right to leave the Union, and to recognise the Southern Confederation as independent of the Federal Government. To maintain the forts more forces must be sent. Anderson wrote to say that he was not strong enough to hold out against an attack. Buchanan did nothing. Anderson, believing that an attack was going to be made on Fort Moultrie, which he was too weak to defend, removed all his men to Fort Sumter. The militia of South Carolina at once occupied Fort Moultrie.
In the second week of the new year, 1861, a Government vessel, the Star of the West, sailed into the harbour of Charleston to bring provisions for Anderson. The South Carolina, having attacked the Star of the West, fired on the United States flag which it carried, and drove it out of the harbour. The Confederate Government, led by Jefferson Davis, then demanded that Fort Sumter should be given up to them. When Anderson refused, it was blockaded by much superior forces, and by the 12th of April it was taken by General Beauregard.
Under these circumstances, when war was at hand, when half the nation was ready to take up arms against the other half, Lincoln took up the burden of office. It was a burden, indeed, which no ordinary man could have borne. Buchanan had simply looked on while rebellion was preparing itself; for Lincoln was the task of quelling it. But the fact of rebellion was not his greatest difficulty. This was the disunion of the North. One section—the Abolitionists—rejoiced at the secession of the South. "We shall no more be chained to the slave-owners." Another section thought that, if the South wanted to go, why not let them.
There was as yet only a very small section able to agree with Lincoln. Lincoln hated slavery but not slave-owners. He loved the South as much as the North. It was agony to him to know his country divided against itself. Well might he say, in the speech he made on leaving his old home at Springfield forever, "There is a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington."
It was very natural that men who had not known Lincoln should fear to have the fate of their country at so critical a time entrusted to a man of so small experience. But any one who knew Lincoln felt absolute confidence in him. Years of difficulty and disappointment, of constant struggle against every kind of obstacle, had made him what he was: clear-eyed to see where the right was; steadfast and unflinching to pursue it; tender-hearted and generous to sympathise with all those who stumbled on the way.
Few people, indeed, understood him. In the years to come nearly all at one time or another abused him and distrusted him, and blamed him when things went wrong. For four years he bore the whole burden of a great responsibility; patiently and silently he endured disappointment and reproach. In the end he could say that if Washington had made America one, he had remade it so that it could never again be unmade.
The speech he made when he entered on his duties as President showed how little bitterness there was in his heart towards the South. He said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
The attack on Sumter and its fall made war inevitable. Lincoln was no Buchanan. War was horrible; civil war—war between men of the same country, between friends, often between relations—most horrible of all. But he could not, at whatever cost, allow the Union, for which his countrymen had fought so heroically eighty-four years ago, which had stood so long for such a high ideal of freedom all over the world—he could not allow the Union to be destroyed; without fighting to preserve it. To him the, secession of the Southern States mean something as unnatural as a separate kingdom in Scotland would be to us, and a kingdom based on something which we thought wholly wrong.
"The question is," he said, "whether in a free Government the minority have a right to break it up whenever they choose." He declared that they had no such right. The whole population of the slave-holding States was much smaller than that of the free States, and among those States, while seven had seceded, eight remained at least nominally in the Union; and even in the seceding States themselves, there was a party in each that was ready to remain faithful to the Union, and not prepared to take up arms against it.
They wanted war: their attack on Fort Sumter was a call to arms. They wanted war: they should have it. In the long run the North was bound to win: its population was half as great again, and its resources as much superior.
Almost the first act of Lincoln's Government was to call for 75,000 volunteers.
The attack upon Sumter and Lincoln's call to arms roused the North from its apathy. Excitement grew when the 7th Massachusetts regiment, passing through Baltimore on its way to headquarters, was violently attacked by the mob: when the Southern army, already in the field, captured Harper's Ferry and seized the Union arsenal at Gosport.