David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Not all viewpoints are valid — Parshat Korach

Attack against Fort Sumter - 1861 (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Attack against Fort Sumter - 1861 (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States of America. The Republican candidate defeated Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge and John Bell, winning almost 40% of the popular vote. He carried all but one of the Northern states but not a single state from the South, and only two of the 996 Southern counties.

However, Lincoln would not take up office until March 4, 1861. In the meantime, Democrat President James Buchanan remained the chief executive. This lame duck transition period is widely considered to be the most difficult crisis any president has faced during their transition into office.

Lincoln arrives in Washington, D.C. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Almost immediately, the slave states began talking of secession. On December 3, 1860, in his State of the Union Address, Buchanan said that secession was illegal but also held that the government could not prevent it.

The truth is that the South, and particularly South Carolina, had considered secession before. Already in 1828, Vice President John C. Calhoun wrote an anonymous letter entitled, “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” arguing that the state might secede if the import tariffs – which disproportionally hit the slave-owning South – were not revoked. The state did not leave the union then, but now, with Lincoln about to become president, it did.

On December 24, 1860, South Carolina issued a proclamation called, “The South Carolina Declaration of Secession.” It said that the main reason for secession was, “”increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.” Over the next few weeks another six Southern states — South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas — seceded and in February they formed the Confederated States of America. On February 9th, 1861, Jefferson David was elected provisional president.

The March 4, 1861, inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The truth was that at this point, Lincoln had not said he would free all the slaves. He argued that non-slave states should be barred from owning slaves. He was in favor of the eventual abolition of slavery, but was criticized by Republicans for his slowness in abandoning his initial position of non-interference. In his first Inaugural Address, Lincoln said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” It was not until July 22nd, 1862, that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Yet after the inauguration, another four states – Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina – left the Union and joined the Confederacy.

As soon as it had left the Union, South Carolina authorities demanded that the US Army leave Charleston Harbor, On December 26th, 1860, Robert Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to Fort Sumter, which was more easily defended and which controlled the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Anderson then asked the president for support as he soon found himself besieged and running low on food. In January, Buchanan sent an unarmed merchant ship, Star of the West, to reinforce and resupply Fort Sumter, but the South Carolina militia opened fire, and the boat turned back. South Carolina then seized all Federal property except for Fort Sumter.

Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, and his first crisis was what to do with Fort Sumter and the stricken forces there. Anderson reported that his men only had six weeks of rations remaining.

For the next month, Lincoln was unsure what to do. If he withdrew the Union troops from Charleston Harbor, he would be recognizing the Confederacy, which he held to be illegal. It was also likely that other nations would extend diplomatic relations to the Confederacy as an independent country, effectively ending the vision of the Founding Fathers of a single, United States of America. However, if he abandoned Fort Sumter, he could avoid a Civil War and perhaps prevent the other slave-owning States from seceding.

On March 15th, 1861, a majority of Lincoln’s cabinet, led by Secretary of State William H. Seward, advised the president to yield Fort Sumter. Lincoln considered withdrawing from the outpost in exchange for assurance from Virginia that it would remain within the Union, allegedly saying, “A state for a fort is no bad business.” Seward even went so far as to inform Confederate commissioners that Lincoln would withdraw his troops from Fort Sumter.

However, by the end of the month, Lincoln had changed his mind. He had the support of the majority of the cabinet now who backed his decision to resupply Fort Sumter.

However, now that the decision to resupply the stranded troops had been made, Lincoln had to figure out the best way to do it. If he sent armed reinforcements to hold the fort, he would be blamed for starting the war that he so desperately wanted to avoid.

Instead, he made it a humanitarian mission – he would send only provisions to provide “food for hungry men.” On April 6, 1861, Lincoln sent a message of peace to Governor Francis W. Pickens, declaring that, “an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter with provisions only; and that, if such 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.”

This message in effect switched the script, putting the ball firmly in the Confederate court. If they allowed Lincoln to resupply Fort Sumter, the American flag would continue to fly there, delegitimizing the Confederacy. But if they opened fire on an unarmed ship on a humanitarian mission, they would be blamed for starting a war. In the words of historian James McPherson, “In effect Lincoln flipped a coin with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, saying: Heads I win; tails you lose.”

Jefferson did not hesitate. He sent instructions to General P. G. T. Beauregard in Charleston telling him to, ““demand [the fort’s] evacuation and, if this is refused, proceed in such manner as you may determine to reduce it.” Beauregard sent emissaries to Fort Sumter demanding its surrender. Although Anderson refused to leave, he admitted that, “if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be starved out in a few days.”

The Confederate Secretary of War told Beauregard, ““We do not desire needlessly to bombard Fort Sumter. If Major Anderson will state the time at which, as indicated by him, he will evacuate and agree that in the meantime he will not use his guns against us unless ours should be employed against Fort Sumter, you are thus to avoid the effusion of blood.” These terms were delivered to Anderson at 12:45am on April 12th, and Anderson said he would evacuate on April 15th unless he received supplies before then. However, Lincoln’s supply ships were already on its way, so this answer could not satisfy Beauregard.

On April 9th and 10th Lincoln had sent the Baltic, the Harriet Lane, the Pawnee and the Pocahontas to bring food to the stricken fort.

On April 10th, the New York Evening Post welcomed the “revelation of the government’s purpose to defend its property and maintain the laws.” The paper made the case very clearly. “If the rebels fire at an unarmed supply ship,” the responsibility will be “on their heads.” When the ship arrives, the rebels will “elect between peace and war.”

The South had already made up its mind. As the convoy of ships approached Fort Sumter, on April 12th at 4:30 am, a signal mortar shell was fired from Fort Johnson. The surrounding batteries soon joined in, effectively beginning the Civil War.

Andersonville National Cemetery, Georgia. (CC BY-SA, Bubba73/ Wikimedia Commons)

The war would not end until four years later, on May 9th, 1865 and would lead to the deaths of over 1,000,000 men – three percent of the population.

Even though the first shots were fired by the South, attacking a mercy mission trying to resupply starving men, the leaders of the Confederacy blamed Lincoln for starting the war.

Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens wrote in 1868 *after the war was over, “I maintain that it (the war) was inaugurated and begun, though no blow had been struck, when the hostile fleet, styled the ‘Relief Squadron,’ with eleven ships carrying two hundred and eighty-five guns and two thousand four hundred men, was sent out from New York and Norfolk, with orders from the authorities at Washington to reinforce Fort Sumter, peaceably if permitted, but forcibly if they must.”

He continued,

“The war was then and there inaugurated and begun by the authorities at Washington. General Beauregard did not open fire upon Fort Sumter until this fleet was to his knowledge, very near the Harbor of Charleston, and until he had enquired of Major Anderson, in command of the Fort, whether he would engage to take no part in the expected blow, then coming down upon him from the approaching fleet?’

Similarly, Confederate President Davis wrote, “The attempt to represent us as the aggressors is as unfounded as the complaint made by the wolf against the lamb in the familiar fable. He who makes the assault is not necessarily he that strikes the first blow or fires the first gun.”

Even in the 20th century, writers such as Charles W. Ramsdell present Lincoln as the aggressor, blaming him for forcing the South to fire the first shots.

The dilemma faced by Lincoln about whether to fight or concede reminded me of a similar dilemma faced by Moses in this week’s Torah reading, Korach.

Korach and his supporters accused Moses of taking all the honor for himself and his immediate family. They challenged his authority and his right to leadership.

Moses was caught in a bind. If he instructed the Children of Israel to fight against these rebels, he would be reinforcing the view that he was power hungry and guilty of nepotism. If he did nothing and allowed Korach and his men to stage their coup, it would entirely undermine the Torah, giving credence to the rebels’ claim that Moses had not heard the word of God.

Moses initially bought time by putting off the confrontation until the next day. Then he went privately and offered an olive branch to Korach. “Listen, sons of Levi, is it a small thing that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to draw you close to Him, to serve the service of the Tabernacle of God, and to stand before the congregation and serve them? … As for Aharon, what is he that you complain against him?” (Numbers 16:8-11).

He then tried to speak to the other ringleaders, Dathan and Abiram, but they refused to even meet with him.

Having failed to stage off the fight, Moses had no choice the following day but to confront the rebels. But he knew that even if he defeated them, people would both blame him for their deaths and not see it as conclusive. After all, one of the two sides had to win.

Moses had hoped to avoid confrontation with Korach and his men. Not only because he desired peace, but more fundamentally, because any kind of conflict with them would weaken his own position as leader.

So Moses made a unique request of God and told the people that this would not be any ordinary defeat. “With this you will know that God sent me to do all these deeds, and it was not from my heart. If these people die like all people, with the death of all people visited upon them, it was not God who sent me. But if God creates a new creation, and the earth opens its mouth to swallow them and everything they have, and they descend alive to She’ol, you will know that these people rebelled against God,” (Numbers 16:28-30).

Korach and his family were immediately swallowed by the earth. And the 250 rebels around him were burned by Heavenly fire.

Yet even this was not sufficient to show that Moses’s leadership was divinely ordained. Many of the people continued to blame Moses for instigating the conflict and for killing those who disagreed with him. Immediately, God sent a plague against the nation which was only ended when Aharon offered incense, showing that his priesthood was divinely mandated.

Yet even that was not sufficient. Aharon still had to demonstrate his authority miraculously. All the tribal leaders and Aharon took staffs and placed them in the Tabernacle. While the others remained barren, Aharon’s staff began to blossom and bear almonds.

Only at this point did the Children of Israel admit that they had been wrong. “We are dead and lost, all of us are lost,” (Numbers 16:26).

There are always at least two sides to every story. And people may believe a certain set of facts regardless of the evidence or testimony supporting the other side.

Lincoln did everything he could to avoid Civil War yet was still blamed by the rebels who had fired the first shots for starting it. Moses knew that his confrontation with Korach could not end with uncertainty. Korach and his followers were peddling alternative facts that would have entirely destroyed Judaism. Moses had no option but to invoke miracle after miracle to firmly establish his authority and leadership.

My current series on WebYeshiva is entitled, “Rebuilding After Destruction Through Text” and is live every Tuesday. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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