But there is no evidence that Lincoln had a sudden flash of brilliance and chose to supply, but not re-arm, the starving fort in order to trigger an attack that could justify a massive response to secession. In fact, he initially allowed underlings, including Gen. Winfield Scott and Secretary of State William Seward, to negotiate a range of other options, one of which all but guaranteed Virginians that Lincoln would in fact make no stand in Charleston Harbor.
Good politicians need good luck, and Lincoln could not have predicted a more useful result. The subsequent bombardment took no lives but damaged the American flag. In the North, the image of the desecrated banner inspired indignation at Southern treason. Lincoln called for volunteers and lost Virginia and North Carolina to the Confederacy, but the Union got the “rallying cry” he had hoped for.
“And,” as he said later, “the war came.” But was Sumter part of his master plan to make the Union seem the aggrieved party? All the evidence we have, as convincingly interpreted by scholars from Richard Current to Craig Symonds, suggests otherwise. Jefferson Davis fired the shot that started the Civil War, not Abraham Lincoln.
Giles distinguished professor emeritus of history
at Mississippi State University
When Abraham Lincoln took his oath of office, the last thing on his mind was starting a civil war that would consume his entire presidency. He did, however, believe that he had a constitutional duty to prevent the breakup of the Union, which he and so many Americans viewed in mystic terms.
Preserving the Union meant doing what it took to prevent its dismemberment. Fort Sumter became the symbol of the ability or inability of the national government to maintain control over its territory, and the ability or inability of the Confederates to eject Federals from what they considered to be their land. Lincoln knew he had to hold on to that fort or admit the success of Confederate secession and the dissolution of the Union. Jefferson Davis and the Confederates believed just the opposite.
Ironically, both Lincoln and Davis hoped that the other side would go on the attack first and thus lose the moral high ground. Lincoln held fast, but the Confederacy blinked and Southern cannon opened fire on Fort Sumter.
Did Lincoln’s actions to preserve the Union maneuver the Confederates into going on the attack first? Historian Charles Ramsdell certainly thought so in his famous Journal of Southern History essay in 1937. This was hardly the case, however. Southerners were only too happy to attack the fort on their own. Whether Lincoln tried to resupply Sumter or not, it seems probable that the South would have attacked anyway. The Confederacy had gone too far already in its determination to be a separate nation to do anything less.