On April 12, 1861, South Carolina began shelling the federal position at Fort Sumter near Charleston. This action led President Abraham Lincoln to issue a proclamation on April 15, calling for the levying of 75,000 troops from the states still loyal to the Union in order to put down this rebellion. This was the catalyst for an almost universal swing in public opinion in the state to the side of secession. Governor Ellis responded forcefully in a letter to the Secretary of War. "I regard the levy of troops made by the Administration for the purposes of subjugating the States of the South, as in violation of the Constitution, and as a gross usurpation of power. I can be no part to this wicked violation of the laws of the Country and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina." (Item 536) All three of the Unionist newspapers examined in this exhibit reacted much the same way as governor and viewed this move by the president as that change in the “existing causes” that forced North Carolina to leave the Union.
The Weekly Standard responded to the events on its April 17th editorial page. The paper reported the news of the firing on Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops. It stated its opinion that “We very much fear that a general civil war impends. We have told our readers from the first that secession meant civil war and the destruction of civil liberty.” It continued that “the Union cannot be maintained by force. It will fall to pieces before the first touch of aggressive or coercive power.” (Item 832) On April 24, the Standard reported Governor Ellis’s refusal of Lincoln’s request for troops and clarified its new position in an article called “We must Fight.” The paper argued that the president’s call for troops would lead to war. It asserted that "The proclamation of Mr. Lincoln has left to the people of the border States no alternative but resistance or unconditional submission. The Southern man who would quietly submit to the doctrines enunciated in that document, is fit only for a slave.... We have labored for peace on honorable terms,--we would hail it now, on honorable terms with profound satisfaction; but, much as we deprecate war, war must be encountered, and must be continued as long as the foot of a federal soldier rests on our soil." (Item 833)
In its April 23rd edition the Watchman also published the president’s proclamation. On its editorial page in an article called “Our Position,” the paper resigned to war as a necessity. While it lamented the fact that North Carolina would have to fight its brothers in the North, it acknowledged that there was no way that the state could answer the president’s call for troops, since that would have meant fighting against the South. They stated in no uncertain terms that “The die is cast! Civil war is upon us.” (Item 744) Finally in the piece, the Watchman advocated laying aside of all former party affiliations in order to join together and fight for freedom and honor, like their forefathers had in 1776.
On April 18, the Fayetteville Observer also ran its account of the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops in a story called “Hostilities Commenced.” (Item 718) In the paper’s editorial page it ran a story outlining the paper’s past advocacy for the cause of the Union and regretted that the nation’s troubles had not been solved peacefully, like the paper thought they could and should have been. The editors detailed how North Carolinians did not seek conflict and that the conflict was forced upon the state. However, like the Watchman, the Observer acceded to the fact there was no way that North Carolina could support Lincoln’s demand for 75,000 troops as it would have meant marching those troops against its southern brothers. The paper called the move “the last feather that breaks the camel’s back” and lamented that “The future seems to us full only of evil. A civil war! In which it will be hard to say whether victor or vanquished is the greater sufferer.” (Item 718)
All three newspapers had argued that the fact of Lincoln’s election did not constitute cause for secession, and all three newspapers had made arguments that without congressional backing the new president would be in no position to assert any authority over the southern states and abridge their rights; however, South Carolina’s decision to fire on Fort Sumter changed all that. The attack on Fort Sumter meant war and galvanized support of the northern states and Congress behind Lincoln. South Carolina’s actions gave the president the occasion to authorize the use of force against the states in open rebellion. All three newspapers had made arguments that there was no way the Union could be maintained through force. Lincoln’s call for troops meant the use of such force against the South, and the newspapers could not abide this coercive use of force. Instead they regretfully threw their support behind the secessionist cause.