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A House Divided
Posted at 03:30 PM ET, 04/11/2011

Mike Musick: By attempting to resupply Ft. Sumter, did President Lincoln purposely provoke the war?


In trying to answer this question, we find ourselves pondering the wellsprings of human action. Not uncommonly, we ourselves can be at a loss to account for just why we take specific actions.Yet historians have persisted in trying to plumb the springs of motivation, in part because they can be remarkably illuminating. The inquiry made here has been no exception.

Some who have considered the matter have concluded that Lincoln did in fact deliberately plan to put the Confederacy in the position of being compelled to fire the first shot. A notable example of these scholars is Dr. Charles C. Tansill of Georgetown University. Professor Tansill used the occasion of a 1947 celebration of the birthday of Confederate president and Mississippi politico Jefferson Davis in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall to bring this charge against Lincoln, whom he viewed as a small man facing issues so big that they overwhelmed him.

The tools historians have at their disposal to probe the motivations of 1861 are the documents of the time, recollections of participants, and close attention to chronology. These suggest that, despite Dr. Tansill’s familiarity with the discipline, his conclusion was mistaken. Under intense pressure from many quarters, besieged by office seekers, and buffeted by diverse counsel, it seems far more likely that Lincoln had determined, by resupplying rather than reinforcing, to underscore the pledge he had made in his March 4 inaugural address to “hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government,” including the bastion in Charleston harbor. He announced his wish not to do anything which would be “irritating,” and declared that “there will be no invasion - no using of force against or among people anywhere.”

Perhaps it was a realization of the professor’s extremism in his characterization of the confrontation over Ft. Sumter that prompted Mississippi Rep. John Rankin to leave the Davis gathering as soon as he conveniently could, saying as he did so that Dr. Tansill had gone “too far.” An impartial consideration of the evidence draws us to the conclusion that the congressman’s verdict was the right one.

By Mike Musick  |  03:30 PM ET, 04/11/2011

 
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