Founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
The notion that Abraham Lincoln purposely provoked the Civil War by attempting to resupply Fort Sumter in April 1861 became a cornerstone of the reinterpretation of the Civil War after the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865. Most notably, the memoirs of the President and Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, argued that Lincoln wanted war and maneuvered the Confederacy into a position where it had no other choice but to attack the garrison commanded by Major Robert Anderson.
How the newly inaugurated President responded to the first crisis of his administration reveals a great deal about Lincoln’s political skills and the complex issues he faced during the secession crisis. One of Lincoln’s aims was to prevent the Border States from leaving the Union. He knew that if the Union undertook military action, it would be seen as the aggressor and as the initiator of a war between the states. Lincoln also worried that England or France might recognize the nascent confederacy, especially if it was attacked by Northern forces. While Lincoln hoped to avoid war, he knew that if war came, it would be better for the Union to be seen as responding to Southern aggression. As Lincoln realized the growing need to resupply the soldiers at Fort Sumter, he faced several choices: he could abandon the fort, but that would give legitimacy to the Southern states’ claim that they were no longer part of the Union; or he could use a naval force to resupply the fort, but this could be used to bolster the claim of “Northern aggression.” Lincoln announced that he would resupply the fort using a naval convoy. While Jefferson Davis also wanted to avoid being seen as the aggressor, orders were issued to commence a bombardment on the fort beginning on April 12. After suffering through the artillery barrage for 34 hours, Major Anderson surrendered the fort on April 14th.
And the war came. Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to crush the rebellion. Several Border States--including Virginia--joined the ranks of the confederacy. While Lincoln did not provoke the war, he shrewdly took advantage of the situation and ensured that the South fired the first shots of the Civil War.