Lincoln’s Choice

In April 1861 Abraham Lincoln made a choice to resupply Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Harbor.  In so doing he was fully aware that he risked having the convoy fired upon by Confederate forces in and around Charleston.  He also knew that he risked having the fort attacked by those same Confederates.

We know that Lincoln could have made a different choice, because he considered alternatives.  He had done so for weeks.

Given Lincoln’s commitment to reject secession, why did he make the choice he made?  What other choices were there?  Did he make the right choice?

Again, in answering, understand that Lincoln would not accept secession or the legitimacy of the Confederacy.  So the discussion, if it is to have any value, has to take place within that assumption.  We could debate that assumption, but that’s a different discussion.

10 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Choice

  1. Mark April 4, 2011 / 1:09 pm

    Lincoln’s choice was to let the South fire the “first” shot, although the violence and terror was common responses by the South already, Fort Sumter was the first “battle” type situation. See Sherman’s letter to Hood for a list of Southern actions that caused the war — without even mentioning slavery.

    As Lincoln said, and the South itself said, the war was about the SPREAD of slavery. In Lincoln’s reply to Alexander Stephen’s note — he would agree to almost anything but the SPREAD of slavery. He did not say secession. Secession was merely a side issue to the spread of slavery, as the Southern Ultimatums show.

    Lincoln did nothing when the Southern states seceded. He did nothing when the Southern states issued their Ultimatums to spread slavery. Lincoln only took action when the South – pursuant to their own threats and promises — attacked.

    In a very real way, Lincoln had no more choice than FDR did, when Japan attacked. Japan issued ultimatums too, then attacked when those ultimatums were not met. If Lincoln had let the attack go, it was not “secession” that would be the result, that was already fait acompli. It would be the spread of slavery by violence and terror, and the ruination of government of the people by the people for the people.

    Lincoln was right to respond to the attack. The South was wrong to issue Ultimatums to spread slavery – then attack.

    As Varina Davis later said, the right side won the Civil War. And Lincoln’s actions at Ft Sumter set the chess board for that victory.

  2. James F. Epperson April 4, 2011 / 2:21 pm

    Lincoln was in a bind. Sending provisions would risk open warfare, while letting the garrison surrender (due to lack of food) would risk massive loss of support for the Administration. So he sent the food, notified Gov. Pickens, and shifted the bind to the Confederates. I think it was a smart move. War was coming, voluntary reconstruction wasn’t going to happen, so let it start on Lincoln’s terms.

  3. cyd April 4, 2011 / 2:49 pm

    If I understand correctly, Lincoln’s principal goal was to force the Confederacy to fire the first shot, thus demonstrating to the Upper South—specifically, to Virginia—that the Confederacy were the aggressors, hence strengthening the hand of Unionists in the South.

    But even if Lincoln overestimated Unionist sentiment in the Upper South, his maneuver would be a very good one even if his assumptions were wrong (as they turned out to be), because it bolstered Unionism in the North.

    So I find it hard to imagine a better move—though maybe this is due to a lack of historical imagination?

  4. Chuck Brown April 4, 2011 / 4:44 pm

    Anything less than the resupply of Fort Sumter would indicate an unwillingness on the part of Lincoln to defend the property of the United States, the nation of which the Confederate states were still a part. If he had not taken the action he took, what signal would he be sending as to how far he would go to prevent secession?

  5. Al Mackey April 4, 2011 / 8:03 pm

    I think he drew a line in the sand in his Inaugural, saying he would hold, possess, and defend US installations. That made it difficult for him to abandon Sumter and make Pickens the symbol of national authority. Pickens was more defensible and was easier to reprovision This may have been a rookie mistake on Lincoln’s part.

    • Marc Ferguson April 5, 2011 / 1:07 am

      But for orders gone awry, and lack of control/understanding over the chain of command process (part of the rookie learning curve), the war might have started at Pickens. He intended it to be resupplied and reenforced from the very beginning.

  6. Commodore Perry April 6, 2011 / 8:29 pm

    I think it goes back to your questions about inevitability. If war was inevitable, what good were the other options? Lincoln could have surrendered the fort and simply blockaded the South, but the South could have found another excuse to fire.

  7. Ric Ben-Safed April 7, 2011 / 6:22 am

    I think Commodore Perry has an excellent point. Let me make an observation from my professional field of Psychology. (No, I am not referring to any so called “Psycho-history’ which seems to me to me more literature than historically based.). As individuals we often assume a linear pattern exists on events that have happened sequentially in time. Indeed political discourse sometimes even demands it. (Remember patterns are imposed on all data by the individual mind.) My point is that its possible that even if no shot was fired at Ft. Sumter, that there were no ships waiting outside the harbor and a civil war would have progressed to conflict anyway. And in similar fashion as the English Civil Wars in the mid 1600’s created a new ‘identity’ for the whole English nation, so the u.s. civil war did the same–created a new ‘national’ identity for the U.S.A.

  8. josh February 22, 2017 / 12:35 am

    Interesting there is no mention of 620k dead in this article or comments. Because they are not material for discussion for Lincoln or you, or this topic. The comparison to Hawaii is terrible, geographically these two incidents are totally different, plus FDR was probably relieved to have a reason to attack, considering the situation across the Pacific.

    American Men all think the same, and Lincoln is a good example. If they attack us, even one installation, we must retaliate until every last boy is gone from the continent, and maybe we’ll receive unconditional surrender at 90% or when the sky is fired up and entire cities are vapor. Yes, this is basic engagement rules. Of course that is a different discussion, it’s not even a discussion, because we are all the same, it’s very much like cage fighting.

    Turn the other cheek? hah. no way, never, if you get attacked, make sure everyone in the room is dead before you stop.

    Truth? LIncoln could have done nothing, fall back a little, fortify defenses, perhaps started some laughable “peace talks” and DELAY. Why couldn’t he do that? because all the other American men are just like he is, and wouldn’t stand for it.

    • Kristoffer March 6, 2017 / 8:06 pm

      Don’t you love stereotypes.

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