How America’s president led his country into the Civil War.
On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was elected president of the United States. Running against a split Democratic Party (two Democratic candidates), with a Unionist Party candidate further fragmenting the vote, Lincoln won with a plurality (39 percent) of the popular vote. He carried solely Northern and Western states and won none in the South. By February 1, 1861, just over a month before Lincoln’s March 4 presidential inauguration, seven Southern states – South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – had seceded from the Union. They declared themselves the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their president. Then on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., in what became the opening shots in a bloody, four-year-long Civil War. Recent scholarship estimates that during the war at least 750,000 Americans died (over 2 percent of the country’s 1860 population), while an equally appalling number were wounded, with many left crippled for life.
During the five crucial months between the election and the day the first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter, Lincoln faced critical decisions. The choices he made – particularly those regarding a possible peaceful compromise and the April 1861 attempt to relieve the fort – made the bloodiest war in American history inevitable.
Even after Lincoln’s election sent Southern states into secession frenzy, most Americans in the North and the South assumed that some compromise acceptable to both sides would be reached and that war would be avoided. In fact, compromises dating back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had peacefully settled continuing sectional disputes between the North and the South, including the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 and the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Some of these disputes involved economic issues such as tariffs, but overwhelmingly the subject of continuing sectional contention was slavery – its future in the states where it existed and, most troublesome, its possible extension into America’s Western territories.
Although after Lincoln’s election several factions, notably those in the Border States (slave states but staunchly pro-Union in sentiment), pursued efforts to reach a peaceful compromise and avert war, two other factions opposed any compromise at all. The abolitionist radical element of Northern Republicans adamantly refused any war-averting agreement that would allow slavery in the territories, while the Southerners known as “Fire-eaters” single-mindedly demanded their states’ independence from the United States. The ineffective lame-duck president James Buchanan blamed the secession crisis entirely on “abolitionist Republicans” and provided no leadership to solve the issue peacefully. Thus Lincoln’s active involvement in forging a compromise seemed America’s only hope for avoiding war.
LINCOLN’S DECISION: Despite desperate pleas by moderate Republicans (then clearly representing the party’s majority), president-elect Lincoln chose not to make any attempts at striking a deal that would avoid war. Publicly, he frustrated the efforts of those who were desperately trying to reach a peaceful compromise by refusing to speak out – maintaining a “paralyzed silence,” as the New York Herald complained. Privately, Lincoln sided solidly with those in the Radical Republican minority faction, telling them he would “hold firm” and refuse any agreement that included permitting slavery in any form in the territories. “Thus,” as Lincoln biographer Harold Holzer concluded, “compromise was doomed.”
As the newly formed Confederate government moved to confiscate federal property within the seceded states, the major focal point of both sides by early April 1861 became Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Major Robert Anderson commanded the fort’s garrison, and although he steadfastly refused Confederate demands to evacuate the fort, no military hostilities had yet commenced. Anderson’s supplies, however, were critically low. If the garrison was not resupplied soon (by sea, the only possible means), the fort would have to be evacuated.
No one in the North or the South doubted that any Union attempt to resupply Fort Sumter would provoke Confederate military action. Yet even if resupplied, the garrison could not hold out indefinitely against the numerous Confederate artillery batteries ringing the coastline surrounding the island fort. Whether Fort Sumter received supplies or not, its evacuation at some point was inevitable. The choice Lincoln faced was whether the evacuation would be conducted in a manner that would maintain an uneasy peace, or done in a way that would provoke a Confederate military response.
LINCOLN’S DECISION: Lincoln, knowing full well his decision would cause the Confederates to respond militarily, chose to send naval vessels under Captain Gustavus Fox to resupply Fort Sumter. On April 6, 1861, the president notified South Carolina governor Francis Pickens of his intent to resupply the garrison. This notification prompted the Confederate government to order General P.G.T. Beauregard in Charleston to issue Anderson a surrender ultimatum. When Anderson refused to surrender, Confederate artillery began bombarding Fort Sumter at 4 a.m. on April 12. Anderson surrendered April 14.
By choosing to resupply the fort, Lincoln had maneuvered the Confederacy into firing the first shot. Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs clearly understood the dire implications of the Fort Sumter action: “It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”
CALL TO ARMS: REAPING THE WHIRLWIND
Although the first shots had been fired at Fort Sumter, the scope of the worsening conflict briefly remained limited. Indeed, during the “Secession Winter” of 1860-61, four Southern states (Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina) and the Border States (Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland) had rejected the idea of leaving the Union. However, when on April 15, 1861, Lincoln chose to issue a “call to arms” to raise 75,000 troops to “put down the rebellion” and then on April 20 ordered a naval blockade of Southern ports, he effectively undermined any further efforts by Southern pro-Unionists to keep their states from seceding. Over the next two months, the Fire-eater faction gained ascendancy in the remaining four Southern states – Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina – and led them out of the Union.
Moreover, Lincoln’s actions evoked rising pro-Confederate sentiment in the vital Border States, forcing the president to hold them in the Union through military force and extralegal means (such as imposing martial law, suspending habeas corpus and imprisoning legislators). Nevertheless, a substantial number of the Border States’ citizens joined the ranks of the Confederate Army during the war, while a brutal no-quarter guerrilla war broke out in Missouri and many of the border regions.
The biblical passage “they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind” seems an apt description of the tragic events in America during the five crucial months of November 1860 to April 1861. Many leaders in the North and the South bore responsibility for “sowing the wind” during this troubled time. Yet Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the only one whose choices might have allowed the country to avoid “reaping the whirlwind” of bloody civil war.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.