Lincoln and the Outbreak of War

Nicole Elizabeth Brunk

Writer’s comment: I will always look upon this particular essay with a sense of pride and accomplishment because it was the first paper of my college career. As a freshman in my first quarter at U.C. Davis, I was very anxious about whether I had what it takes to succeed at a university. I remember thinking that this first writing assignment was a sort of test—if I could produce a well-written college paper, then I really did belong here. That is why the recognition of this paper by the readers for Prized Writing has been so meaningful to me, providing me with invaluable confidence in my writing and in my ability to do college work.
      For this assignment Professor Marchand provided documents for students to use in supporting their opinions of how the Civil War actually started. As a native of Charleston, South Carolina, I grew up playing among the cannons at the battery across from Fort Sumter, and I had quite a different view of the Civil War than did many of my classmates. While most thought that the South was solely responsible, I believed that Lincoln had played a larger part in starting the war than others realized. My essay attempts to show that while neither side was completely at fault, Lincoln played a major role in provoking the South into firing that first fateful shot on Fort Sumter.
—Nicole Elizabeth Brunk

Instructor’s comment: The writing assignment for “Lincoln and the Outbreak of War” is challenging, especially for first-quarter freshmen such as Nicole. It requires each student to become an historian by sifting through a mass of primary documents that represent all the problems confronting those who write history: contradictory accounts, missing evidence, complex personalities, and the chaos of tidbits of information which the writer must bring into some kind of order. Because students were required to narrate the course of events while simultaneously providing the reader a clear and plausible line of interpretation, they faced a formidable task.
      Nicole’s paper succeeded because she managed to combine an incisive, convincing analysis with a thorough narrative of events. She does not simply recount the history of the Fort Sumter crisis; she analyzes critically the most important documents. She astutely picks out important details—such as the differences between the first and final drafts of Lincoln’s Inaugural Address—and uses them to convince the reader of her interpretation of Lincoln’s intentions and strategy. The result is a fine example of historical writing.
—Roland Marchand and Kathy Olmsted, History Department

The Civil War was the worst crisis in American history, pitting two sides of a split nation against one another in bloody battles that persisted for four exhausting years. It was a war that neither side claimed to want, and that neither side claimed to start. Although popular belief places the blame with the South because they fired the first shot, there is considerable evidence that Lincoln, realizing war was inevitable, coerced the South into firing that first fateful shot.
      At the time of Lincoln’s inauguration, the tension between the North and the South was nearing a breaking point. Seven states—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas—had already seceded from the Union, although the federal government refused to recognize their government, the Confederate States of America. And eight other slave states—Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas—strongly sympathized with the Confederates. President James Buchanan seemed to have been waiting for his term to end, thereby avoiding making an actual decision. Thus, the public realized that the handling of this delicate and potentially explosive issue rested on the shoulders of the new government and the new president, Abraham Lincoln.
      As the people watched and waited, all questioned what Lincoln’s position would be. Their first clue was his Inaugural Address. In this speech, he said that he would use his power to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government” (Doc. 1). This statement seemed to imply that Lincoln would maintain the status quo—keeping what he had, but not seeking more. Perhaps a better indication of Lincoln’s true feelings is his draft of the Inaugural Address before it was revised by Seward and Orville Browning. In this draft, Lincoln vowed to “reclaim the public property and places which have fallen; to hold, occupy, and possess these and all other property and places belonging to the Government” (Doc. 2).
      It is clear that Lincoln favored the holding and supporting of Fort Sumter much more than the general public realized. This is evident not only in Lincoln's original draft of his Inaugural Address but in his reaction to his advisors’ suggestions. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, wrote that when Lincoln learned that Secretary of State Seward believed that it would be “impossible to relieve and reinforce the garrison,” he was “much distressed with the conclusions of the military officers” (Doc. 5).
      Everyone seemed certain of the evacuation of Sumter. Most of Lincoln’s cabinet favored it (Doc. 12), and Seward was so sure of surrender that he told Justice John Campbell, an intermediary to the commissioners from the Confederate government, that “you may say…that before the letter reaches him the telegraph will have informed him that Ft. Sumter will have been evacuated” (Doc. 11). This promise was never kept.
      On the night of March 28, Lincoln read aloud a letter that he had received from General Scott, which stated Scott’s belief that both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens should be surrendered. Montgomery Blair, the only member of the cabinet who supported the reinforcement of Fort Sumter, then said, “Mr. President, you can now see that General Scott, in advising the surrender of Fort Sumter, is playing the part of a politician, not of a general, for as no one pretends that there is any military necessity for the surrender of Fort Pickens, which he now says it is equally necessary to surrender, it is believed that he is governed by political reasons in both recommendations (Doc. 15).
      This marked a turning point for Lincoln. He realized that he had been misled by Scott and that the only course of action left was to trust his own judgment and do what he deemed best for the country—the preservation of the Union at all costs. Lincoln realized that this goal would require a strong and united government. However, the surrender of Fort Sumter would convey a very different impression—one of weakness and lack of conviction. Thus, on that night of March 28, Lincoln made the crucial decision to reinforce and hold Fort Sumter for the United States.
      But it was clear to Lincoln that any attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens “would most certainly be viewed as a hostile act, and would be resisted to the utmost. No one acquainted with the feelings of the [Confederate] military…can doubt that it would be considered not only a declaration but an act of war” (Doc. 22). Thus, if Lincoln sent troops to Fort Sumter he would be responsible for starting a war. On the other hand, Lincoln reasoned, if he only sent supply ships to the fort and informed the government of South Carolina ahead of time, then it couldn’t be considered hostile. If the South attacked these ships, then they would be considered the aggressors and the North would be united against them.
      Lincoln knew that any act, even the supplying of the forts, would be enough to provoke the South. However, he had this note sent to the governor of South Carolina: “I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the fort” (Doc. 30).
      If one reads the above document carefully, he will see that this statement was very ambiguous. To the already suspicious South, it was regarded as a direct challenge—an ultimatum: let the supplies through or face attack. However, in the North it was simply viewed as an attempt to feed starving troops without violence. It is very improbable that this wording was accidental on Lincoln’s part. He was a very eloquent speaker and would go on to write masterpieces like the Gettysburg Address. This letter seemed a purposeful attempt to provoke the South into making the first move.
      On April 11, General Beauregard of the Confederate Army wrote to Major Anderson, the U.S. officer in charge of Fort Sumter, and said that he was “ordered by the Government of the Confederate States to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter” (Doc. 34). This was received by Anderson, who in turn wrote that “your communication demanding the evacuation of this fort…is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and my obligations to my Govt. prevent my compliance” (Doc. 35).
      Beauregard realized that Anderson and his troops could not hold out without supplies for much longer and wrote another letter pledging that the South would not open fire on the fort if Anderson promised to evacuate it. Anderson stalled for time, knowing that the U.S. fleet was on its way. So he wrote back that he would surrender on April 15 “should I not receive prior to that time controlling instructions from my Government or additional supplies” (Doc. 37).
      But General Beauregard and his aides knew that Anderson was stalling and that the fleet was on its way. Anderson’s time was up. He was sent this note: “By authority of Brigadier General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time” (Doc. 38). The Confederates were true to their word, and at approximately 4:30 a.m. the first shot of the Civil War was fired.
      The fort was surrendered to the South, but Lincoln was the true winner. He had succeeded in depicting the South as the aggressor, thus uniting the public opinion of the North behind him. Orville Browning, a U.S. Senator and friend of Lincoln, summed it up perfectly when he said of Lincoln, “He himself conceived the idea, and proposed sending supplies, without an attempt to reinforce, giving notice of the fact to Governor Pickens of South Carolina. The plan succeeded. They attacked Sumter—it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could” (Doc. 39).

References (Documents provided and described by Professor Roland Marchand)

Document 1: Excerpts from Lincoln's Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.

Document 2: Original draft of a portion of the Inaugural, pertaining to the forts.

Document 5: From the diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln, entry for March 7, but written up at a later time.

Document 11: Statement by Campbell, undated, summarizing his negotiations.

Document 12: Letter from Lincoln to each member of cabinet, March 15, 1861, with brief excerpts from their replies.

Document 15: Letter from Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s Postmaster-General, to Samuel Crawford, May 6, 1882.

Document 22: Letter from Captain H. A. Adams, commanding U. S. S. Brooklyn and U.S. Frigate Sabine off Pensacola, to Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy. The letter is dated April 1, 1861.

Document 30: Letter from Lincoln to Robert S. Chew, Special Messenger of the State Department, April 6, 1861.

Document 34: Letter from General Beauregard, C. S. A., to Major Anderson, April 11.

Document 35: Major Anderson to General Beauregard, April 11.

Document 37: Anderson to Beauregard, April 12, between one and two a.m.

Document 38: Letter from James Chesnut, Jr., and Stephen D. Lee, aides to General Beauregard, to Major Anderson. Written at Fort Sumter, 3:20 a.m., April 12, 1861.

Document 39: Excerpt from the diary of Orville H. Browning, United States Senator from Illinois and a friend of Lincoln. Entry is for July 3, 1861.