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.