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Professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy
No. From the first full day of his presidency, Lincoln’s policy was to prevent a war with the seceded states, not to start one. He believed that many Southerners in those states, perhaps even a majority, had been stampeded into secession by the heat of the moment, and that a policy of firmness and restraint might allow time for cooler heads to prevail.
His decision to resupply Fort Sumter was a pragmatic one. Maj. Robert Anderson had reported that he could not feed his dependents beyond April 15, and Lincoln, in an obvious reference to that fort, had pledged in his inaugural address to “hold, occupy, and possess” government property in the seceded States. Lincoln notified South Carolina’s governor, Francis Pickens, of the resupply effort because Secretary of State William H. Seward had promised (on his own authority) that the government would not reinforce Fort Sumter without prior notification.
It is impossible to know exactly what Lincoln thought such a notification would achieve. It is tempting after the fact to conclude that this was Lincoln’s masterstroke — a deliberate ploy to compel the rebel leaders to make a belligerent decision and thereby shoulder the burden of having starting hostilities. To be sure, Lincoln’s note to Pickens might provoke the secessionists to act and, in acting, propel the nation into war. But Lincoln could not count on such a response. More likely, the new president was uncertain what the Southern reaction would be and, as a new president facing an unprecedented crisis, was simply feeling his way. If the supplies could be safely delivered without incident, it would at least prolong the crisis and allow more time to find a peaceful solution. If local authorities resisted, it would cast the secessionists in the role of aggressors. Either way, it was better than letting Anderson’s men starve or abjectly withdrawing them from their post under threat.
So Lincoln sent the relief expedition on its way and notified Pickens that it was en route.In doing so, he put the ball in his opponents’ court and left the decision in their hands. Pickens kicked the decision upstairs, and in the end, it was Confederate President Jefferson Davis who decided to open fire on the fort before the resupply vessels could arrive. He did so mainly because he feared looking weak more than he feared civil war. It was a disastrous decision.
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 James 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.