Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy


His decision to re-supply Fort Sumter was a pragmatic one. Major 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--that it was 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 he was simply feeling his way as a new president facing an unprecedented crisis. 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 Governor 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 re-supply vessels could arrive. He did so mainly because he feared looking weak more than he feared civil war. It was a disastrous decision.