Address of Hon. James F. Byrnes

At the Charleston Confederate Centennial

April 11, 1961

“Address: Fourth National Assembly”

The Senate Judiciary Committee in reporting the Resolution establishing the Centennial Commission stated its purpose was to encourage public knowledge of the history of the social, economic, and other causes of the Civil War and its results.

There can be no doubt of the good intentions of the sponsors of the Resolution, but in my humble opinion it was a mistake. Winston Churchill in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples wrote: “The cleavages of the great Civil War [of England] dominated English life for two centuries, and many strange examples of their persistency survive under universal suffrage in English Constituencies today.”

Our Civil War was the greatest tragedy in the history of any country. After two centuries its battles might be commemorated, but one century is a short period in the history of a country, and I fear it is quite impossible to re-live the four years of the Civil War without recalling experiences that will be unpleasant to the people of both North and South.

However, I am confident no man is more anxious, and if let alone, is more able to administer the Resolution than General U. S. Grant III.

Southerners frequently make history but seldom write it. Many sincere Northerners from their reading of history have an impression entirely different from the accepted view in the South as to the causes of the war. In the next four years many speeches made by Northerners on this subject will displease you. My views on the subject and particularly as to the bombardment of Fort Sumter may displease others, but I must state my view, which is based in great part upon the official records.

For the views of Southern leaders in 1860 as to the right of a state to secede, there was justification. The Declaration of Independence had referred to “free and independent states” and the fundamental opposition of the people to government “without consent of the governed.”

The 56 signers of that instrument, in referring to the compact between the United States of America, spelled the adjective “united” with a little “u.” The Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation, which declared that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence” and every power that is not delegated to the United States.

In the Treaty ending the Revolutionary War. Great Britain referred to each one of the states separately, acknowledging them to be free sovereign and independent states.

At the Constitutional Convention, Madison declared that “the use of force against a state would look more like a declaration of war than the infliction of punishment.” And the great federalist, Alexander Hamilton, said that “to coerce the states is one of the maddest projects ever devised.”

This desire of the people of all states to limit the power of the federal government was so well understood that the men who drafted the Constitution thought it unnecessary to declare it. However, when the instrument was submitted for ratification, it appeared certain to be rejected by the states until pledges were received from its advocates that the Constitution would be promptly amended. This was done in the Bill of Rights, the Tenth Amendment declaring “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution or prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively or to the people.”

That is in the Constitution today, and no political party would dare advocate its repeal. Instead, through the years the proponents of a centralized government have advocated legislation in violation of the Tenth Amendment and have relied upon such violations being approved by the Supreme Court.

In the half century following the ratification of the Constitution, cheap labor from abroad enabled the northern states to make great progress industrially while the South, relying almost entirely upon agriculture, made less progress. The industrial North demanded tariff laws to protect its industries. The South opposed a protective tariff law, because it meant increased prices for what they had to buy.

The economic conflict that divided the sections was mild compared to that arising out of slavery. The African slaves were brought to this country first by slave traders of Spain; then by British traders, and later by the slave traders of New England. When the Constitution was adopted, slavery existed in 12 of the 13 states. The industrial northern states soon found it impractical to use slaves in manufacturing plants and gradually sold them to the agricultural South. When they had disposed of their slaves, the North began efforts to abolish slavery in all states.

There can be no doubt that the cold war of 100 years ago was started by many who sincerely opposed the institution of slavery. It was opposed by many leaders in the South. It is my belief that in 1860 slavery was on the way out, and had there been no war, ways and means would have been found to abolish it.

From my own study in boyhood days, I could not understand how the people of all the states had ever favored slavery. God never made a man wise enough or good enough to own a human being. New England brought them here, but the South bought them. For our sin we are still being punished. It is our cross, and it prevents us form giving to many subjects the unbiased consideration of which we are capable.

The economic problems, plus the agitation of the slavery problem, aroused the passions of the people. Whenever that happens, people do not think or act wisely. The political leaders found it impossible to devise a satisfactory compromise between the national and state governments.

In 1857 the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case held that within the meaning of the Constitution, a Negro was not a citizen and could not sue in the United States courts. The decision aroused the non-slave states. On June 26, 1857, Abraham Lincoln attacked the Court and argued that the decision was not binding as a precedent. The Supreme Court was widely denounced in the North, but no editor there attacked the critics of the Court nor argued that the decision was the law of the land.

In Boston, following the decision, there were rumors of secession and efforts were made to hold a secession convention at Worcester, Massachusetts. That doctrine did not originate in the South.

As early as January 1804, Senator Timothy Pickering, in a letter to George Cabot, said: “I do not believe in the practicability of a long-continued union. A Northern confederacy would unite congenial characters and present a fairer prospect of public happiness; while the Southern states, having a similarity of habits, might be left ‘to manage their own affairs in their own way.’ If a separation were to take place, our mutual wants would render a friendly and commercial intercourse inevitable.”

During the War of 1812 there was held at Hartford, Connecticut, a secession convention with delegates from five New England states. They demanded seven changes in the Constitution and complained of many violations of the rights of the states. A Committee was appointed to present their demands to the Congress and report back in six months, but when shortly thereafter the war ended with a satisfactory treaty with Great Britain, the subject was dropped.

The people of the original 13 states did not doubt their right to withdraw from the compact whenever they believed it in their interest. They knew the national government had been created by the states and thought the creature could not be greater than the creators.

It was with full knowledge of these historical precedents that, when the cold war, diligently conducted by the political extremists of the North, could no longer be tolerated, South Carolinians met first at Columbia and then in Charleston in December 1860, and finally with great reluctance, adopted the resolution of secession. Other southern states. followed.

In February 1861, the Congress of the Confederate States of America met in Montgomery and Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President. In his inaugural address, President Davis did not once mention slavery. He did defend the Constitution and the right of states to withdraw from that compact between the states. His address was really a prayer for the preservation of peace.

When Lincoln was inaugurated, Davis, still hoping to avoid war, dispatched three Commissioners to Washington to request through the Secretary of State an audience with the President to convey to him the sincere desire of the newly created government of the confederate states, to bring about a peaceful settlement.

On March 15, they sent such a written request to Secretary of State Seward. With the approval of President Lincoln, Seward took the position that he was entrusted only with the control of foreign affairs, subject to the approval of the President, and he could not see the Commissioners or grant their request to arrange a conference with the President, because it might be construed as recognition of the Confederate States of America. That was a mistake. A conference might have averted a war.

Seven of the original 13 states then composed the Confederate Government. If Lincoln chose to take the position that the five million people of those states had not seceded, they were still citizens of the United States, and he could have received their representatives. If he could not receive them publicly, he should not have dealt with them secretly through intermediaries, as he did.

The Secretary of State asked Justice Nelson, a New Yorker, and a member of the Supreme Court, to request Justice Campbell, of Alabama, to act as a mediator.

Campbell, accompanied by Nelson, called on Seward, who said that a civil war might be prevented by the mediation of Campbell. Seward authorized Campbell to advise Davis that “before this letter reaches you, Sumter will have been evacuated.”

Justice Campbell wrote to Judge Crawford, one of Davis’s Commissioners, that Fort Sumter would be evacuated “within the next five days.” The five days elapsed. Campbell and Nelson again called upon Seward with a telegram from General Beauregard stating that Fort Sumter was not evacuated. Seward assured them the failure was not due to bad faith but to causes necessary to carry out the intention to evacuate.

In the meantime a Captain Fox, professing a peaceful mission, was allowed to visit Fort Sumter. Then a Colonel Lamon, a Springfield friend of President Lincoln, visited Charleston and told Governor Pickens he came to arrange for the removal of the garrison. Lamon did advise Lincoln that Major Anderson favored evacuation.

Because of many rumors, Campbell again communicated with Seward and on April ___ first received from him a written statement, “I am satisfied the government will not undertake to supply Fort Sumter without giving notice to Governor P.” But Lincoln ordered the expedition to start for Charleston by April 6. That order was equivalent to a declaration of war.

On April 7th Justice Campbell again addressed Secretary Seward, stating that the government had alarmed the South by its reported preparations of a fleet to reinforce Sumter. Seward’s reply was the cryptic “Faith as to Sumter fully kept–wait and see.” On that day the Charleston Courier announced that en route to Charleston harbor was a formidable armada. According to the federal government’s own statement, this armada consisted of “eight vessels carrying 26 guns and about 1400 men.”

The day before, Seward gave Campbell the assurance that “Faith as to Sumter would be kept” written instructions dated April 6 had been given to Robert Chew of the State Department, to be read to Governor Pickens and General Beauregard: “I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such an attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms or ammunition will be made without further notice or in case of an attack upon the Fort.”

From the record, it is evident that arrival of the expedition was expected shortly after the delivery of Lincoln’s message, at a late hour on the 8th. That would have given Beauregard no opportunity to get instructions from the Confederate government.

Complete deception was thwarted by a severe storm off Cape Hatteras, which delayed the federal ships. And, because President Davis had received confidential information from many sources of the sailing of the fleet, he had advised Beauregard to be on the alert for a conflict and the Confederate forces stood in readiness.

From official records, it is clear Lincoln had conflicting advice. He requested the advice of General Winfield Scott, who advised it would be a tragedy to attempt to reinforce Sumter. Scott prepared an order for the President’s signature providing for the evacuation of the Fort. Lincoln decided to disregard the advice of his military advisers. He sent to Charleston Captain Gustavus Fox, a textile agent of Massachusetts, who formerly had been a naval officer, to decide whether Sumter could be successfully reinforced. Fox–on the false pledge that he came on a peaceful mission–was on March 21 permitted by Governor Pickens to visit Fort Sumter. He did not tell Anderson his purpose, but later reported to the President that Sumter could be reinforced. At his request, Lincoln sent him to New York to secretly prepare the expedition and placed him in command of it.

Lincoln was not the first nor the last President to do harm because of the advice of an unofficial but ambitious do-gooder.

These were crowded days. On April 11, the President of the Confederacy instructed Beauregard to demand evacuation of Fort Sumter and if the demand was refused, to reduce it. That afternoon under a flag of truce, the ultimatum was conveyed to Major Anderson. Because of the recent instructions from his government, Anderson decided he could not comply and sadly remarked, “I will await the first shot,” and then added, “if you do not batter us to pieces, we will be starved out in a few days.”

President Davis understood the terrible situation confronting his old friend, Major Anderson, and he saw through Lincoln’s efforts to goad the South into shooting. Anderson’s reply quickly became known and aroused great excitement in Charleston. People lined the waterfront, looking toward the sea. Notwithstanding the demands for immediate action, President Davis, with patience and his love of peace, made one more effort by having his Secretary of War wire General Beauregard a message, pursuant to which Beauregard at 11 p.m. wrote Major Anderson, “We do not desire needlessly to bombard Fort Sumter . . . . If you will state the time at which you will evacuate Fort Sumter, we will abstain from opening fire upon you.”

When the message was presented by Colonel Chestnut, Major Anderson at midnight held a conference with his top officials. He had a fateful decision to make: if to avoid a war he agreed to evacuate, he knew would be branded a traitor. The alternative was that his men would face death. Finally Anderson answered, in writing, that he would evacuate by noon of the 15th, provided he did not receive prior to that time controlling instructions from his government or additional supplies.

The proviso imposed made acceptance impossible, because Chestnut knew that at that very moment some of the ships were at the entrance of the harbor. Colonel Chestnut asked for paper and pen and addressed to Anderson one sentence, notifying him that they would open fire on Fort Sumter one hour from that time. It was then 3:20 and at 4:30 the first shot was fired form Fort Johnson.

That afternoon Beauregard wired President Davis that he would take possession of Fort Sumter the following morning and allow Major Anderson the privilege of saluting his flag. Davis was happy when he learned no one had been killed in taking the fort.

Most historians have overlooked the treatment accorded Major Anderson. He was kept entirely in the dark. Captain Fox, a civilian friend of President Lincoln, sought information of him but gave none.

Lamon led Anderson to believe the idea of relief had been abandoned. Not until April 7 did Anderson receive any word from his government. Then he was advised by Secretary of War Cameron that the expedition was on the way, and he should hold out if possible until the ships arrived.

The following day Major Anderson wrote the Adjutant General, Colonel Lorenz Thomas, a significant and courageous letter, from which I quote:

              “I had the honor to receive by yesterday’s mail, the letter of the honorable Secretary of War, dated April 4, and confess that what he there states surprises me very greatly . . . . I trust that this matter will be at once put in a correct light, as a movement made now, when the South has been erroneously informed that none such would be attempted, would produce most disastrous results throughout our country.

              “It is, of course, now too late for me to give any advice in reference to the proposed scheme of Captain Fox. I fear that its result cannot fail to be disastrous to all concerned. Even with his boat at our walls, the loss of life (as I think I mentioned to Mr. Fox) in unloading her, will more than pay for the good to be accomplished by the expedition . . . .

              “We have not oil enough to keep a light in the lantern for one night. The boats will have to, therefore, rely at night entirely upon other marks. I ought to have been informed that this expedition was to come. Colonel Lamon’s remark convinced me that the idea, merely hinted at to me by Captain Fox, would not be carried out.

              “We shall strive to do our duty, though I frankly say that my heart is not in this war, which I see is to be thus commenced. That God will still avert it, and cause us to resort to pacific means to maintain our rights, is my ardent prayer.”

(Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, page 294.)

Because of the general knowledge that the military expedition was then on its way, this letter was intercepted and it appears in the Official Records of the Confederacy.

It is significant because this loyal federal officer described the expedition as a “scheme of Captain Fox”; and significant too, is the reference to “the war to be thus commenced.” It was thus commenced!

President Lincoln must have known of the solemn promises made by Seward to Justices Campbell and Nelson that Fort Sumter would be evacuated, and it is certain that Seward knew at the time he made these pledges, that Lincoln had ordered the outfitting of the expedition and that the fleet was then on its way.

Lincoln had deliberately goaded the Confederate government into firing upon the Fort and when the “scheme” was discovered, the people of the South were enraged.

The attitude of the responsible officials of the Confederate government at that time was accurately expressed by President Davis in his address to the Confederate Congress: ”We protest solemnly in the face of mankind that we desire peace at any sacrifice, save that of honor. We seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind form the states from which we have lately been confederated. All we ask is to be let alone and that those who never held power over us should not attempt our subjugation by arms.”

Had their hope for peace been based on power, these were little justification for it. The northern states had three times the population, four times the bank deposits, and five times the number of factories of the South. In the face of such odds, hope had to be based on principle supported by courage of a free people willing to sacrifice their fortunes and their lives.

Four years later, at Appomattox, Lee surrendered and with his surrender the issue of secession was forever settled. But I cannot refrain from saying, it was settled by might and not by right, under our Constitution.

The Centennial Resolution refers to results of this war, but with the tensions existing throughout the world today, I would not discuss events of the resulting reconstruction era. However, in mitigation of what was done by the army of occupation, I express the belief that most of the oppressive acts from which we suffered were committed not by the fighting men of the Union Army as it existed prior to the surrender.

We can recall how, after both World Wars, men in the armed services maneuvered to secure discharge. I am sure the Union soldiers, after four years of war, similarly exerted every influence to be permitted to return to their homes and businesses. They were replaced by other men, many of whom had no homes and no businesses, and who saw an opportunity to prey upon a conquered people. When Southern leaders protested against the crimes of reconstruction, many Northerners thought it was only the cry of poor losers. Gradually, however, the truth was realized in the North, and many retired Union soldiers assisted the courageous Southerners to bring an end to the tragic era.

During that nightmare that lasted ten years, the governments of the southern states were in the hands of adventurers from the North, called carpetbaggers, plus Southern traitors, called scalawags. Of course, their control was possible only because of the votes of the recently free African slaves, and the support of the army of occupation.

The white men and women who lived through that period seldom blamed the Negroes. They knew that the white man had behind him centuries of training and self-control, and they should not apply the same yardstick to the recently freed slaves who had no such background and no educational opportunities.

With the return of governments to the control of the white people, cordial relations were soon established between the white people and the Negroes. Negro men worked by the side of white men; Negro women worked in the homes of white women,. Without a Marshall Plan or aid of any kind from the federal government, they brought the South from poverty to prosperity.

In the years that have passed, the Negro has made greater progress in the South than in any other place on Earth. One has but to read of the Negroes in Africa today to realize the fabulous progress of the Southern Negroes. They are being educated and, certainly in this state, their schools are as good as and in many instances superior to the schools for white children. They have gone into the professions and into business. Thousands own their farms and their homes. I am proud of their progress.

Our willingness and ability to unite was proved soon after reconstruction, in the Spanish-American War. In World War I the loyalty of the South was again demonstrated. When the first draft law was enacted, the County of Union, in this State, furnished so many volunteers that not a single man was drafted. In World War II and in the Korean War, the heroism of the sons of the South was too dramatic for me to attempt to recite.

In the field of domestic affairs our people will differ and fight for what they believe to be right, but all the world should realize that when danger threatens from abroad, our differences will be forgotten, and all Americans will unite to defend the land we love.


James F. Byrnes (May 2, 1879 - April 9, 1972), an American statesman from South Carolina.

During his career, he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives (1911-25), as a United States Senator (1931-41), as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1941-42, nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt), as Secretary of State of the United States (1945-47, under President Harry S. Truman), and as Governor of South Carolina (1951-55). He was also a confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and one of the most powerful men in American domestic and foreign policy in the mid-1940s.

He never attended high school, college, or law school, but apprentices to a lawyer and was admitted to the bar in 1903. He was a Democrat and later a Republican.

President Eisenhower commissioned a national Civil War Centennial, with state centennial commissions to coordinate activities. South Carolina called theirs the Confederate Centennial. The Confederate flag was hoisted over the State House to commemorate the war. The centennial kicked off on April 11, 1961, with a re-creation of the firing on Fort Sumter, and the flag went up for the opening celebrations and just stayed there. The uproar over civil rights at the time, however, overshadowed James Byrnes’s attempts to correct history with this great speech.