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Posted at 1:21 PM ET, 02/28/2011

Frank Williams: By the end of February, 1861, federal forts, arsenals, post offices and court houses had been seized by Confederate troops; how much did this help the South in its war effort and how much did the loss hurt the North?

By Frank Williams

Chairman of The Lincoln Forum


The seizure of federal installations by Southern state governments including forts, arsenals, the mail, courts and custom houses did much to embolden the South and secession. These acts caused much anxiety and anger in the North. To this, add the election of Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860, the separation of South Carolina on December 20, the meeting of seven states from the Deep South in Montgomery in February 1961 to form the Confederate States of America, failure of the Peace Convention in February and Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4.

Such seizure reinforced the making of a de facto separate nation in Montgomery as it was evidence that the federal government was either unwilling or unable to maintain or re-take federal property. President Buchanan vowed to keep Forts Sumter and Pickens but was unable to effectuate this with the Star of the West expedition to Sumter. His truces over these forts failed. The president-elect’s policy was to re-take and hold on to government property and he so advised General Winfield Scott through emissaries during the secession winter.

Yet, the thrust came in Charleston harbor when Lincoln stood by his position, stated in his inaugural, to hold the forts and other government installations pursuant to his oath of office. While the Southern states felt vindicated, the North, including political opponents, became committed to maintaining the Union. The President with wide public support in the North forced the issue by his attempt to re-supply Fort Sumter and reinforce Fort Pickens. In the short term, such takings enhanced the newly formed Confederate States with morale, funds, equipment, property, officers and men who left the federal forces to join the CSA but in the long term it strengthened northern determination and will to maintain the government.

By Frank Williams  | February 28, 2011; 1:21 PM ET
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