It was about 4:30 A.M., Friday, April 12, 1861, when white-haired old Edmund Ruffin--long an advocate of Southern secession and now, for this occasion, temporarily a private in the Palmetto Guards--jerked the lanyard of Columbiad Number One at the Cummings Point Battery on Morris Island, South Carolina. The huge cannon roared and belched a cloud of dense white smoke. Its projectile sailed out across Charleston Harbor toward Fort Sumter, where the flag of the United States constituted a provocation no longer to be borne by citizens of the self-styled Confederate States of America. In so doing, Ruffin established his claim (in truth, one he probably shared with a number of other gunners around the harbor) to have fired the first shot of America's Civil War. Before it was over, four years and six days later (its end was somewhat delayed west of the Mississippi), it had taken the lives of some 620,000 Americans, far more than all of the country's previous wars put together, and more than any of its wars since. It changed the fabric of American society, altered the American Constitution, rid the land of the curse of slavery, and left scars that remain to this day. It can, without exaggeration, be called the hinge of American history.
Much that came before it in the story of the United States can be seen and explained in terms of events that led up to the war. Historians have long debated--and continue to debate--the issues of the war's causation. Was the war a factor of economic forces, or the result of a generation of politicians who had forgotten how to compromise? Was it, perhaps, the result of social forces, expansion, or any one of dozens of constitutional issues? Was Southern secession engineered by wealthy slaveholders and political leaders, or were the Southern people, as their leaders at the time claimed, actually leading their leaders in the