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 H. Stephens, argued that Lincoln wanted war and maneuvered the Confederacy into a position where it had no choice but to attack the garrison commanded by Maj. Robert Anderson.
How Lincoln responded to the first crisis of his administration reveals a great deal about the newly inaugurated president’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 it 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 on April 12. After suffering through the artillery barrage for 34 hours, Anderson surrendered the fort on April 14.
And the war came. Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to crush the rebellion. Although several states, including Virginia, joined the ranks of the Confederacy, key Border States did not. 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.
Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation
No less resilient than the outrageous myth that Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — and allowed it to happen to incite America to fight in World War II — is the stubborn myth that Lincoln “provoked” the attack on Fort Sumter. In a way, the charge gives the novice president far more credit than he deserves for early strategic brilliance. And it accepts Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens’s absurd argument that an act of aggression can be considered defensive.
Lincoln never made a secret of his insistence that federal property in the South would be held — forts included. While still president-elect, he even came close to breaking his official silence when rumors reached him that the Buchanan administration was considering withdrawing troops from the installations. “I will, if our friends at Washington concur,” he vowed, “announce publicly at once that they are to be retaken after the inaugeration[sic].” He added, “This will give the Union a rallying cry.” Privately, he added that if Buchanan really intended to abandon the forts, “they ought to hang him.”