Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
The provocation of civil war came with Lincoln’s election, not Lincoln’s selection.
South Carolina seceded because the North acceded to Republican rule--perceived as abolitionist domination--in the election of 1860. War commenced with secession, not Sumter.
The Lincoln Doctrine was established in the first minutes of Lincoln’s presidency. “[N]o state, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union,” Lincoln decreed in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. “[R]esolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void.” Part II of the doctrine did not equivocate. “Acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary.” Part III declared Lincoln’s constitutional duty. “The power confided to me, will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government.”
Five weeks passed between Lincoln’s inauguration and Fort Sumter. Lincoln did not hedge on a single word in his Lincoln Doctrine during that interval. Did he, then, conspire to provoke war in Charleston? Secession, by Lincoln’s judgment, was the original provocation.
Lincoln approached conflict with secessionists with his lawyer’s logic. He was a literalist, a pragmatist, and a realist.
Lincoln literally explained his position in his first inaugural address. “I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual.” Lincoln never vacillated, never wavered, never compromised on this principle. For Lincoln, the principle of Union superseded peace. The Confederate government refused to accept Lincoln’s literalism. The secessionists felt rebuffed because Lincoln accepted no compromise. Compromise, for Lincoln, was tantamount to surrender to secession.
Lincoln followed a pragmatic--not emotional--approach to Fort Sumter. He deemed it U.S. property. He would not yield it to secessionists. The fort’s garrison needed provisions. He ordered it resupplied. He informed the governor of South Carolina that supplies were en route, ensuring no surprise or secrecy. Lincoln’s penchant for pragmatism boiled the blood of the Confederates. Lincoln was centered on purpose; concise in mission; and consistent with conviction.
Lincoln understood the reality of his pragmatism, and the possible--and even probable--response. His predecessor President Buchanan had attempted resupply of Sumter three months earlier, and the secessionists promptly fired on the vessel. Lincoln adopted Buchanan’s course. It was not radical, but reasonable. Lincoln anticipated the same reaction. Does this constitute purposeful provocation?
Lincoln protagonists muse that he devised a brilliant scheme to force the South to fire the first shots of war at Sumter. Lincoln antagonists claim he created a diabolical conspiracy to make the South the aggressor.