Sunday, July 16, 2017

My Unfair(?) Attack on a Struggling Little Guy

Note: As of a couple of nights ago, I have seen the movie, "Revolt at Fort Laramie," but the following was written before I saw it, based on statements made about historical facts. Seeing the film has not persuaded me to change a single word that I wrote below.

In 2009, someone posted a viewer's movie review on Internet Movie Database (IMDb) titled "Historical Fact Checking." It has yet to be changed or removed by the author.

Since he says little about the movie in his review, I should give the title and plot summary: "Revolt at Fort Laramie" is set at a frontier U.S. Army garrison on the eve of the Civil War. Half the soldiers are southerners [hmm, maybe somewhat less than half], which necessarily means that half are not. When news arrives that Fort Sumter has been fired upon, officially beginning the war, the southerners leave the fort and head off to join the Confederacy.

Here is what the reviewer considered fact checking:

"In the run-up to Maj Bradner's fateful announcement, we are led to believe that there is a "tension" between Northern and Southern soldiers at this far west outpost. Also, the announcement that we are expecting is not forthcoming. Great movie but left me scratching my head when Maj Bradner said that Fort Sumpter had just been attacked by Confederate forces and that President Lincoln had called for an "intervention." This error is later repeated by Captain Tenslip. What the major and the captain should have said was that Fort Sumner, located in South Carolina, had been attacked. It was this attack that precipitated the Civil War. Fort Sumpter was fired on by the British during the Revolutionary War!"

Fort Sumter, South Carolina

Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Fort Sumner, Maryland
Now here is the problem. Or rather the several problems. For one thing, it is Fort Sumter, not Fort Sumpter.

For another, Fort Sumner was the name used for two Civil War era forts, one located in Maryland and the other in New Mexico. (More about this below.)

Trying to figure out what the author of the post is thinking requires some guess-work, but I suppose that he reasoned that the Union must have attacked a fort in South Carolina because he could not understand how Confederates in South Carolina could start a war with the Union (the Federal government or North in the Civil War) by attacking a fort in the South. Yet this is precisely what happened, as contradictory as it seems to the poster (whom I presume, without much evidence, to be a he).

The government of the United States held federal property in most of the states and territories including those that seceded to form the Confederate States of America. These federal properties included armories and forts, such as Fort Sumter, which was near the entrance to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederates repeatedly asked the United States to surrender the fort precisely because they regarded it as a foreign stronghold within the territory of their new nation. Union attempts to send supply and troop ships to reinforce the undermanned and under-gunned fort were repulsed. In the wee hours of April 12, 1861, the Confederates fired on the fort. Both incomplete in its construction and at half-strength in terms of men and guns, the fort surrendered the next day. The North was almost instantly roused to anger, and President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer troops to be raised.

It is interesting to note that, during 1860 to 1862, the Confederates seized one federal facility after another in several states. Armories in several break-away states were plundered by Confederate mobs. In contrast to these successful seizures, an aborted takeover attempt was made by Confederate sympathizers in California although they were in the minority. A group planned to take over a large federal armory at Benicia, California, which is north of San Francisco. The conspirators thought they were in luck because the commander of the U.S. Army in California was a Texan named General Albert Sidney Johnston, but when the conspirators went to Johnston's office in San Francisco, he spoke these words to them:

Gen. Albert S. Johnston

Johnston was clearly honorable, but there were those who doubted the Texan's loyalty to the United States, and Johnston was relieved of his command at the end of April 1861. By this time, news of Fort Sumter's surrender as well as the secession of Texas from the Union had reached Johnston, and he had sent his resignation to Washington, although he served the United States faithfully until he was relieved of his command. BTW, Johnston was relieved by General Edwin Vose Sumner for whom the forts in Maryland and New Mexico were named after he died in early 1863 (from wounds he had received at the Battle of Antietam months earlier). So, the story of General Albert S. Johnston has not entirely been a digression if you accept such a connection as relevant.

The reviewer also calls into question the "tension" between southerners and northerners at the fort in the movie. Does this mean that there is doubt about the historical accuracy of such animosity? As the story of General Johnston illustrates, there was a great deal of suspicion on both sides. Sometimes justifiably. In New Mexico, after the military commander of the territory, who was from Florida, resigned and defected to the Confederacy, his successor, Colonel (later General) E.R.S. Canby, intercepted a letter intended for his predecessor. It came from Major (later General) Henry Hopkins Sibley who hailed from Louisiana. Sibley proposed the takeover not only of forts but the whole of the New Mexico Territory with an army raised in Texas. Canby and Sibley had known each other for years, and Canby took Sibley's betrayal personally.

Subsequently, some Confederate sympathizers captured Fort Fillmore near Mesilla, New Mexico, and, for nearly a year, held the southern tier of New Mexico Territory (the southern parts of both what are now New Mexico and Arizona). Sibley made good on his plan of raising an army (a brigade, really) in Texas and briefly captured several New Mexico cities including the capital, Santa Fe. But his invasion was over by the late spring/early summer of 1862 when Confederate forces permanently evacuated what they had dubbed "Confederate Arizona Territory."

But the movie reviewer has not finished. He goes on to compound his errors. He asserts that "Fort Sumpter" had been "fired on by the British during the Revolutionary War!" [His exclamation.] Not only has he got the fort's name wrong, but construction of Fort Sumter was not begun until fifty years after the Revolutionary War. Indeed, the fort was named after General Thomas Sumter who served during the Revolution. (As you might already have noticed, these forts were named after deceased persons, usually, although not always, generals; even the two forts called Sumner were named months after the death of General Sumner.)

Gen. Thomas Sumter

I could go into a long digression on General Sumter, but I will only touch on it. When Mel Gibson made the movie "The Patriot," many people thought that it was supposed to be a lightly fictionalized account of the career of General Francis Marion, but they then had to wonder why the details of the fictional character, Benjamin Martin, did not jibe with Marion's life. The answer is that Martin was a composite of three or more Revolutionary War leaders, only one of them being Marion. One of the others was Sumter.
Francis Marion 001.jpg

Andrew Pickens.jpg
Gen, Andrew Pickens

(BTW, while the fictional Benjamin Martin was nicknamed the "Ghost," three of the models for Martin had animal nicknames: Sumter was the Carolina Gamecock, Marion was the Swamp Fox, and General Andrew Pickens was the Wizard Owl. Some have pointed out that Gibson's movie character might bear the most resemblance to Pickens, whose home was burned after he had pledged not to fight the British, and whose son was killed. Marion had no son.)

1 comment:

  1. Wikipedia's disambiguation page for "Fort Sumner" suggests that "Fort Sumner" may refer to forts or towns in Maine, New Mexico, and Maryland. But it adds:

    "Other similar sounding: Fort Sumter, a fort in Charleston, South Carolina where the Civil War began."

    This suggests that confusing Fort Sumner with Fort Sumter is pretty common.

    The article on Fort Sumner, Maine, does not tell where the name came from, but does say that it was built in the 1790s.