Commentary: Beauregard's Aides

-- And The War Came --


Friday April 12, 1861

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Commentary: Beauregard's Aides

General Beauregard sent four aides to Fort Sumter at this critical juncture, James Chesnut, a former South Carolina senator; Roger A. Pryor, a Virginia secessionist; and two South Carolina officers, Lieutenant Colonel A. R. Chisolm, and Captain Stephen D. Lee. Their actions at the fort have raised questions about their responsibility for the battle that began the Civil War.

The historian James Ford Rhodes concluded that the four emissaries acted impetuously by not informing Beauregard of Anderson's conditions. Had Beauregard, whom Rhodes describes as a "careful man," forwarded Anderson's reply to Davis, the Confederate President "would have said, Wait." According to Rhodes, the Montgomery government was eager to avoid striking the first blow, however much it felt that war was inevitable. But the four aides acted rashly, driven by the heated atmosphere of Charleston and undue concerns about the relief expedition, one ship of which was thought to have been sighted off Charleston Harbor a few hours earlier. By acting on impulse, rather than sound judgment, the four men "in the last resort made the decision that began the war."

Allan Nevins adds additional weight to Rhodes's charge. The four emissaries might have telegraphed their government and received a response in a few hours, Nevins asserts, and the wait would have "cost nothing." But being authorized to act on the spot, they were impatient. Charleston was on a war footing, business was suspended, and people were gathering on the waterfront, at newspaper offices, and on housetops in expectation that war was imminent. In rejecting Anderson's terms and announcing that their batteries would commence firing in an hour, the four men thereby "took upon themselves a tremendous responsibility."

But the significance of the action taken by Beauregard's delegation may not be so great. Richard N. Current contends that the Montgomery government had already decided on war; such were Davis's instructions to Beauregard on April 10. Given Anderson's conditional response, the aides were "faithfully following the line of Davis's policy, and Davis afterwards fully approved what they had done. The real decision was his, not theirs."

Bibliography: Rhodes, History, 3: 349-51; Nevins, War for the Union, 1: 69-70; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 199-200.

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