Davis’s Choice

If Abraham Lincoln made a choice that he knew might risk war in 1861 when he decided to resupply the garrison at Fort Sumter, Jefferson Davis made a choice that ensured the commencement of hostilities.  There were alternatives before him.  He could have allowed Fort Sumter to be resupplied; he might have ordered the commander of Confederate forces at Charleston, Pierre G. T. Beauregard, to fire on the relief expedition; or he could choose (as he did) to authorize firing on Fort Sumter itself.  The first choice would have prolonged the  stalemate in Charleston Harbor; the second would have been a repeat of the Star of the West incident in January 1861, when South Carolinians fired upon a vessel approaching Sumter to resupply and reinforce the garrison; the third was clearly the most provocative and confrontational response.

Much is made of the notion that Lincoln somehow forced Davis’s hand. That simply is not true, and deprives Davis of the ability to make a choice he believed was his to make.  Indeed, Davis had already explored how to oust the garrison at Fort Pickens, a place where Lincoln was determined to stand fast (as opposed to his ponderings about Sumter).  Davis believed his best choice was to attack Sumter.  It would rally Confederate support for secession, which according to some reports was flagging, and bolster secessionist spirit in those states that had yet to secede.  If Lincoln’s decision to resupply Sumter forced Davis to make a decision (although not the decision he made), Davis’s response placed Lincoln in a tight place.  Lincoln could decide to take the punch deliveredby Davis at Sumter, or he could respond by going to war.

The fact is that by April 1861 both Lincoln and Davis were prepared to go to war.  Just days before Sumter Lincoln was making sure about the preparedness of northern governors to respond to a call for troops, while the Confederacy was already engaged in raising its own army.  It would have been foolish for either president to have done otherwise.  Having explored several alternatives and found then unsatisfactory, Lincoln was willing to risk war in order to prolong the stalemate at Sumter, and Davis was willing to fire the first shot and risk what followed because the stalemate no longer served his interests, while opening hostilities served Confederate interests.

The way in which some people approach the Sumter crisis strikes me as amusing and childlike, as if the discussion between two kids on a playground, each telling the teacher that the other kid started it.  Lincoln and Davis walked together on the path toward war.  Each made choices that together commenced the conflict.  The idea that either was an innocent man who was forced to do something against his inclination because of the cleverness of his counterpart strikes me as ludicrous, and a sign that some people would rather point fingers and cry “He started it!” as if that would absolve the other participant of any responsibility.  To those people I say … grow up.

Of course, you may feel differently.  The comments section is open.


12 thoughts on “Davis’s Choice

  1. Jeffry Burden April 5, 2011 / 7:46 am

    Amen to this. To conclude Lincoln diabolically maneuvered a peace-loving Davis into war, one must also conclude Davis was a dupe, a fool, asleep at the switch, or all three.

  2. Charles Lovejoy April 5, 2011 / 4:15 pm

    This is a ‘ save to memory ‘ and thought provoking . I always wondered what would of happened if right after SC seceded, if the government in Washington took the position of, ‘Go on peace’ now your are a new and sovereign country. OK now lets start negotiating commerce agreements, after all your not a US state anymore so everything now starts from scratch . By the way you know there will be an import tax on your cotton but not cotton grown is the states that are still part of the US. Things like the enforcement of the FSL would be off the table for SC , not in states that were a part of the Union but in SC. Just something I have wondered about.

    • Will Hickox April 5, 2011 / 6:57 pm

      Except that it wasn’t a case of SC versus all the other states. The rest of the Deep South felt a solidarity with SC and shared a hatred of Lincoln, which is why they promptly joined their sister state in secession.

    • Marc Ferguson April 5, 2011 / 8:03 pm

      Agreements were essentially in place already for the other deep South states to follow SC out. If by the government, you mean Buchanan’s administration, my guess is that there would have been a revolt in Congress, and hostile opposition throughout the North, especially by Republicans who with some justification believed they had just won a national election and with it the right to govern the whole nation.

  3. Peter Olivola April 5, 2011 / 5:30 pm

    I think Charles proposition misses an important aspect of the situation with regard to South Carolina. Left to its own devices, South Carolina would have preferred economic disaster over rejoining the union. It can be reasonably argued that South Carolina still prefers secession.

  4. Gregory Dehler April 5, 2011 / 7:07 pm

    I really enjoyed this post because I never felt comfortable with the idea that Lincoln slyly hoodwinked the Confederates into firing the first shot. Like you wrote, it deprives Davis of his ability to act and turns him into something of an automaton. And Davis had his own motives for belligerence. The Confederate States needed the populous northern states of Tennessee and Virginia, both of which were outside of of the CSA in April 1861. And, ideally, Davis wanted Kentucky also so the northern boundary would be the much more defensible Ohio River, although he did not achieve this.

  5. R. Alex Raines April 5, 2011 / 10:05 pm

    Someone commented on the Lincoln’s Choice post that, in terms of Lincoln’s goal of convincing the upper South to side with him, it was, for the most part, a failure. Firing on Fort Sumter got Jefferson Davis 4 more states for his Confederacy.

  6. Al Mackey April 6, 2011 / 7:29 pm

    Davis knew the choice he was making. He chose the one course of action that had the highest probability of leading to warfare. Lincoln had sent word to Gov. Pickens, which was transmitted to Davis, that if the provisions were allowed to be landed without opposition there would be no landing of troops. Had Davis allowed that to happen, the status quo would be maintained. And what if Lincoln was lying? That means more troops inside the fort, which means that when the current provisions run out their situation is even worse, with more hungry mouths to feed. Plus, Davis could publicize Lincoln’s promise and seize the moral high ground. He had to have considered that option and he decided to reject it. Lincoln, for his part, knew that his actions *might* lead to war, and he was willing to accept it if that’s the way Davis wanted to go. Davis knew that firing on Fort Sumter would *most probably* lead to war, and he jumped on it. Why? It seems he wanted a war. Why would he want a war? It would unify the south, for one thing. In that, it was pretty successful, because it led to NC, V, TN, and AR joining the confederacy.

  7. Margaret D. Blough April 7, 2011 / 5:20 am

    In particular, President Lincoln’s call to the states for troops after Ft. Sumter (which, BTW, was totally within the powers granted to him by the Militia Act of 1795) changed the dynamics in Virginia which, up until that point, had been turning fence-sitting into an art form. Davis made his belief that the Confederacy’s chances of success depended on Virginia joining the rebellion (as did many, as evidenced by the fact of Richmond becoming the capital of the Confederacy after Virginia joined the rebellion.)

    Troops without artillery powerful enough to silence the guns of Charleston Harbor would have been an exercise in futility. If Lincoln had violated his word and landed troops, the Confederates would have done exactly what they did anyhow: blast the fort into submission with those guns.

  8. MarkD April 8, 2011 / 8:36 am

    Another flaw I have come to see in Charles proposition is to be found in the way many actors such as US Grant saw the South as a tyranny. We might call that a purist view to be sure since it wasn’t anything extreme, but the seeds were there to grow. So aside from the aliances and such that could have followed, you’d have to deal with a society that was closing in on itself. From slavery being a necessary evil, to being a positive good, to punishing those that disagreed and increasing violence to maintain the order that required violence to begin with and it doesn’t end up so pretty. And eventually threatening the North anyway since the whole game depended on active Northern participation in returning runaway slaves. Otherwise, even more of Southern society would have been involved in keeping them all in place. All these scenarios that show a peaceful South minding its own business and being happy and eventually returning to the Union ignore some fundamental realities of societies that head down the road they were on. If Lincoln had allowed them to secede and abolished slavery in the North I suspect in a fairly short time you’d have two states whose relationship resembled East and West Germany.

  9. AustinS April 12, 2011 / 12:25 pm

    War was inevitable; both sides knew this. Had it not started at Ft. Sumter, it would have started somewhere else. The very basis of the South’s economy would have isolated the Confederate States not only from the North but abroad. Had the conflict not started in the east, it most definately would have started in the west, as both the Union and the Confederates continued to push into western territories.

  10. Spelunker January 24, 2015 / 8:47 am

    One of the drawbacks to blogs is that posts aren’t typically chronological. War is what the South wanted, and War is what they got. I think all of the historical revisionism is due to a serious case of buyers remorse. They had their rear ends handed to them. Nothing can change the fact that they initiated hostilities. They clearly had other options which they decided against and went with the most provocative. I have been fascinated lately with the start of the War and the causes.

    One of my main curiosities is, was secession and war necessary at all? I don’t believe either were.

    I also see a lot of drumbeat for a modern day repeat of the failures of the Confederacy circa 1861-1865 today. It is just foolish for people to think that they are going to wage a War of rebellion against a Federal Government with AR-15’s:


    How stupid can people be? Washington would laugh at such an opposition.

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