Founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
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.”
Lincoln made his position clear at his inauguration. Though he stressed that “there needs to be no bloodshed or violence,” he insisted that the “power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government.”
Over the tense five weeks between the swearing-in and the bombardment of Sumter, Lincoln struggled toward a policy that would enable him to keep that promise without giving tenuously loyal Upper South states an excuse to quit the Union.
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.
Director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute, an educational group established by the Sons of Confederate Veterans
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln in his inaugural address boldly stated that he would use federal power only to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and collect duties and imports.” He publicly had told the world that he would take a military course of action to hold onto forts such as Fort Sumter. Considering the heated atmosphere of the times, the people of the South viewed his saber- rattling speech as a prelude to war. Confronted with massive Southern secession, Lincoln needed time to organize and plan. Lincoln felt that it was too late to bring the seceding states back into the Union peacefully. Despite a split vote and the opposition of his ranking general, Winfield Scott, he chose the military option. What resulted was the cleverest but most deceitful con game in American history, literally forcing the Confederacy to fire the first shot of the Civil War.
In March, 1861, a group of Southern commissioners went to Washington to negotiate a peaceful settlement of all questions arising from secession, to pay for federal property and to arrange for the removal of the garrison in Charleston Harbor. Lincoln refused to meet with them. He employed Secretary of State William H. Seward to obfuscate the situation by maintaining that cooler heads would prevail, that Fort Sumter would be abandoned and that he was working towards a peaceful reconstruction of the Union. Seward continued the deception until April 7, 1861.
On April 8, 1861, President Lincoln sent a letter to South Carolina Gov. Francis Pickens stating that he would resupply Fort Sumter, peacefully or, if necessary, by force. Lincoln realized that if South Carolina and the Confederacy allowed reprovision, it would make a mockery of their sovereignty. If the Confederacy fired on the ships bringing provisions, he would have maneuvered them into firing the first shots of the war, thus rallying the North into a wartime footing and national feeling of patriotism to restore the Union. A perfectly executed ruse. Checkmate.
Lincoln sent a flotilla of fighting ships carrying food, ammunition and troops to Fort Sumter. No longer trusting Lincoln’s words or intentions, and not wishing for an even stronger Federal presence in Charleston, the Confederacy demanded surrender of the fort before the ships could arrive. Sumter’s commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, refused, and firing commenced on April 12, 1861.
Lincoln had totally misjudged the Southern capacity to fight. By choosing war over negotiation, he could realize the economic hegemony he had long sought over the South. Settlement commissions and peace conferences offered in good faith were what the South championed to avoid war. Lincoln ignored them, refusing to meet. He ignored his advisers. His skillful plan to employ Seward to mislead the South had worked, but the results weren’t as planned: A horribly destructive war resulted in which 620,000 people would die and the South would be left in a state of Northern-dominated Reconstruction for another 100 years.
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.
A panel of Civil War experts — from academia, the world of letters, archives, museums and assorted other sources — will answer questions posed by
The Washington Post and our readers during the war’s anniversary. Watch for more questions or suggestions at washingtonpost.com/civilwar.