The Cameron telegram

by Fred Ray on August 19, 2008 · 1 comment

Many people think the Civil War started with the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. However, the capture of Sumter was bloodless and was simply a continuation of the Southern policy of seizing Federal properties located on their soil. What really pushed things over the edge was Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to invade the South. The lower South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, etc.) had seceded in late 1860 and early 1861, but the upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky) demurred. Here in NC pro-Union sentiment was strong. However, you didn’t need to be a military man to see that any army raised in the United States would have to traverse the upper South to get to the seceded states. Furthermore, Lincoln required these same states furnish troops to put down the rebellion. War was now an accomplished fact, and the only real question was which side you were going to be on.

Two days after the fall of Fort Sumter NC Governor John W. Ellis received a telegram from Secretary of War Simon Cameron demanding two regiments of troops “for immediate service.” Faced with the prospect of having to invade its neighbors and of being invaded itself, North Carolina reluctantly threw in its lot with the Confederacy on May 20, 1861—the last state to join.

Here’s a copy of the “fateful” telegram. The price for the decision was high—North Carolina would lose thousands of its young men killed and maimed, more than any other state, and would be blockaded, repeatedly invaded, and “reconstructed.”

Could Lincoln have avoided war by artful diplomacy, playing off the upper and lower South against each other without resorting to war? We’ll never know.

The telegram, part of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History holdings, is part of a presentation by a retired colonel, Sion Harrington, who now works for them, as part of a project to interview veterans in the state.

UPDATE: Southern seizures of Federal property began three months before Fort Sumter. On January 4, 1861, Alabama State Troops captured the Mount Vernon Arsenal, about 30 miles from Mobile, in a pre-dawn coup de main, capturing the garrison, several thousand arms, and an ammunition plant. The operation was bloodless but only because the outnumbered garrison, under Captain Jesse Reno, quickly surrendered. One of the state companies involved was the Warrior Guards, commanded by Captain Robert E. Rodes. Both Rodes and Reno would gain high rank in the coming conflict; neither would survive it. On the next day the Alabama troops occupied forts Gaines and Morgan on Mobile bay.

On the night of January 8 in nearby Pensacola what were arguably the first shots of war were fired by Federal sentries at “shadowy figures” lurking around the Navy Yard there. Four days later seven companies of Alabama and Florida troops (including Rodes’ company) occupied the Navy Yard and Forts Barrancas and McRee. The Federals retreated to Fort Pickens, across the bay, where an uneasy standoff developed.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Stephen Graham August 20, 2008 at 12:00 am

Bloodless? I don’t think John Schweirer would agree with that.

There were also persistent rumors of a few killed on the Confederate side, although the official reports said that there had only been minor injuries. See the discussion of this in Detzer’s Allegiance.

That no-one in the Sumter garrison was killed was mere happenstance.

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