Director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln in his Inaugural Address boldly stated that he would use federal power only to “hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and collect duties and imports.” He publicly had told the world that he would take a military course of action to hold onto forts such as Fort Sumter. Considering the heated atmosphere of the times, the people of the South viewed his saber rattling speech as a prelude to war. Confronted with massive Southern secession, Lincoln needed time to organize and plan. Lincoln felt that it was too late to bring the seceding states back into the Union peacefully. Despite a split vote and the opposition of his General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, he chose the military option. What resulted was the cleverest but most deceitful con game in American history, literally forcing the Confederacy to fire the first shot of the Civil War.
In March, 1861, a group of Southern commissioners went to Washington to negotiate a peaceful settlement of all questions arising from secession, to pay for federal property and to arrange for the removal of the garrison in Charleston Harbor. Lincoln refused to meet with them. He employed Secretary of State William Seward to obfuscate the situation by maintaining that cooler heads would prevail, Fort Sumter would be abandoned and that he was working towards a peaceful reconstruction of the Union. Seward continued the deception until April 7, 1861.
On April 8, 1861, President Lincoln sent a letter to South Carolina Gov. Francis Wilkinson Pickens stating that he would resupply Fort Sumter, peacefully or by force if necessary. Lincoln realized that if South Carolina and the Confederacy allowed reprovision, it would make a mockery of their sovereignty. If the Confederacy fired on the ships bringing provisions, he would have maneuvered them into firing the first shots of the war, thus rallying the North into a wartime footing and national feeling of patriotism to restore the Union. A perfectly executed ruse. Checkmate.
Lincoln sent a flotilla of fighting ships to Ft. Sumter complete with food, ammunition and troops. No longer trusting Lincoln’s words or intentions, and not wishing for an even stronger Federal presence in Charleston, the Confederacy demanded surrender of the fort before the ships could arrive. Sumter’s commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, refused, and firing commenced on April 12, 1861.
Lincoln totally had misjudged the Southern capacity to fight. By choosing war over negotiation, he could realize the economic hegemony he had long sought over the South. Settlement commissions and Peace Conferences offered in good faith were what the South championed to avoid war. Lincoln ignored them, refusing to meet. He ignored his advisers. His skillful plan to employ Seward to mislead the South had worked, but the results weren’t as planned: a horribly destructive war resulted where 620,000 people would die and leave the South in a state of Northern-dominated reconstruction --- economically and politically --for another 100 years.