-- Crisis At Fort Sumter --


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Crisis at Fort Sumter is an interactive historical simulation and decision making program. Using text, images, and sound, it reconstructs the dilemmas of policy formation and decision making in the period between Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 and the battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861. The program primarily focuses on Lincoln, both as President-elect and as President. You will place yourself in Lincoln's position, consider the events that transpire, and choose a course of action at five critical junctures, called "problems." At each of these five junctures, Lincoln made a decision that helped determine the outcome of the crisis at Fort Sumter. In order to assess each problem and make a decision, advice is available from official advisors, such as cabinet members, and from various informal channels, such as newspapers, friends, and public spokesmen. You must, therefore, assess information, calculate the consequences of various options, determine a course of action, and evaluate your decision, just as Lincoln did during the winter and spring of 1860-1861. While Crisis at Fort Sumter focuses on Lincoln and his administration, it also provides relevant information about events in the Confederacy. This information is placed alongside a Stars and Bars icon to distinguish it from events taking place elsewhere.

Crisis at Fort Sumter places the policy and decision making aspects of the Sumter crisis within the broader context of secession and southern independence. The program begins with the period following Lincoln's election, during which time the problem of secession and southern independence were tackled in ways that influenced the later predicament at Sumter. The events that shaped the Sumter crisis appear on the screen in chronological sequence. Each calendar screen presents information about events that transpired on that day. In some cases where more than one significant event occurred on a given day, you will be presented with a list of events. Click any event title and you go to that calendar screen.

To proceed sequentially through the Crisis at Fort Sumter program, from one event to another, both forward and backward, use the Right and Left Arrow buttons at the bottom of the screen. You may also click the Back and Forward buttons at the top of the screen when they are available. You can also jump back and forth between events by means of the Main Calendar, which can be accessed by clicking the Calendar icon on the bottom right hand side of each screen, or by selecting "Calendar of Events" from the Text Menu screen. In the Main Calendar, each day for which the program provides information is underlined and may be selected. To return to the original screen from the Main Calendar, click the Back button at the top of the Main Calendar screen.

The program divides the information about the Sumter crisis into nine sections. To go to any section, click on the appropriate button on the Main Menu screen, or select the section's title on the Text Menu screen. You can go to the Main Menu from most screens in the program by clicking the Main Menu icon at the bottom left of the screen. Every section begins with an Introduction screen which usually includes a calendar for the specific period of time covered in that section. You can go to a section's Introduction screen from any screen within that section by clicking the rectangular icon containing the name of the section at the bottom of the screen.

The Background section provides an overview of critical events relating to the Sumter crisis. The following five sections present five decisions or "problems" that Lincoln confronted. Each of the five Problem screens occurs at the end of its section. The Problem screen contains information about the decision facing Lincoln at this juncture of the Sumter crisis. The text poses the dilemma for your appraisal and suggests that you consider the advice available before making your decision. In order to receive this advice, click any of the pictures of the advisors. The Problem screen text also suggests the likeliest decision options from which you can choose, although you can choose a different course of action. Before making your decision, you may wish to know what Lincoln did in this situation. To find out, select "What Lincoln Did" on the Problem screen. (You can return to the Problem screen by clicking the Left Arrow at the bottom of the screen or the Back button at the top of the screen.) However, you may instead wish to make your decision before learning what Lincoln did. You can then compare your decision and reasoning with Lincoln's. You may go to any of the Problem screens directly via the Menu Text screen or from the Introduction screen for each of the five Problem sections.

The program contains a Notebook. In the Notebook, you may record and e-mail information, bibliographic citations, comments, and ideas. You can also use it to write brief responses to the five Problem questions. The contents of the Notebook will not be saved in the program, even temporarily. If you wish to preserve a note, e-mail the Notebook to yourself and choose the appropriate subject title from the "Choose A Title" menu above the pad. The Notebook may be accessed from the Text Menu screen or by clicking the Notebook icon at the bottom right portion of most screens. To return to the original screen, click the Back button at the top of the screen. Due to its limitations, users will generally find it more convenient to respond to the Problem questions or to take notes by running a word processing program alongside the Sumter program.

Throughout the program, the text contains words which are underlined, called hotwords. Hotwords permit you to explore information in a topical rather than chronological manner. Clicking a hotword provides additional information about the subject, genera lly in the form of text and images. As one might expect, people's lives were often interconnected and influenced by similar events. Thus, within a hotword, there are often other hotwords. In some cases, these hotwords also contain other hotwords. In general, the program permits you to search such interconnections through three layers of hotwords. To return to the previous screen, click on the Back button at the top of the screen.

On many screens, you will find the word "Commentary" underlined. Clicking this word provides additional information. For example, the Commentary text often discusses the different ways in which historians have viewed an event, action, or person. Like all historical events, the story of Fort Sumter lends itself to different interpretations and assessments. Indeed, one of the fundamental objectives of the Crisis at Fort Sumter program is to demonstrate that historical evidence is not unambiguous and incontrovertible. So-called "facts" must be collected, assessed, evaluated, and analyzed. Those who perform these tasks-- historians, for example-- often differ in their interpretations of the data. In order to understand the events at Fort Sumter, it is necessary to confront this relationship between evidence and interpretation, to explore how and why we "know" something. The various points of view found in the Commentary text not only demonstrat e how different observers explain the same evidence, but they also prompt new insights and a fuller understanding of the Sumter incident. To return to the original screen from the Commentary text, click on the Left Arrow at the bottom of the screen or the Back button at the top of the screen.

Crisis at Fort Sumter is not a perfect historical simulation. The information provided is necessarily selective and subjective. Clearly, not everything that happened in the Union and the Confederacy between Lincoln's election and the shelling of Fort Sumter is included. Indeed, the program's emphasis on Lincoln makes the data on the Confederacy especially fragmentary. I have tried, however, to incorporate a sufficient amount of essential information so that the five decisions (problems) are accurately rendered. Additional data would not, I think, significantly change the nature of the program.

The program knowingly departs from a strict simulation in other ways. For example, while Lincoln was aware of most of the information that is found in this program next to the Stars and Bars icon, there are instances in which he was uninformed about these Confederate actions. Thus, when considering the choices faced by Lincoln, you sometimes have access to information about which the President could not be certain. You may also know the outcome of the Sumter crisis, which may influence your evaluation of the situations you confront. Furthermore, you have access through the Commentary text to various interpretations of events.

While these conditions necessarily limit the program's verisimilitude, they enhance its value as a tool for intellectual inquiry and analysis. You can analyze and assess the actions and motives of Lincoln and other key historical figures. You can evaluate different interpretations of events and examine the evidential basis for them. And you can engage in counterfactual ("What if . . . .") conjectures, trying to ascertain what would have happened had other decisions been made or had events transpired in a different way. In the end, history as experienced in this program does not appear as the deterministic and predestined unfolding of events that often informs historical narratives. Rather, it has a contingent quality in which events and decisions look like multiple crossroads, each leading to several possible outcomes. Crisis at Fort Sumter, therefore, can be explored many times and in different ways, each effort yielding a fuller, more textured understanding of the entire Sumter episode.

A word about the bibliography. The information in the program comes from a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, such as books, contemporary accounts, memoirs, diaries, official records, and manuscripts. Footnotes identify the immediate sources of information on the screen. Full citations for footnoted items are found in the Bibliography, which can be accessed from the Main Menu and the Text Menu. These works contain additional information about the topic. The program's bibliography, however, barely scratches the surface of the wealth of material relating to Fort Sumter, secession, and the Civil War. In order to pursue questions further, you should consult the superb bibliographies in many of the recently published words cited in the program.

Crisis at Fort Sumter originated in a CD-ROM format and differs from this Internet version in some respects. Most significantly, due to copyright restrictions you may not be able to access the video segments from Ken Burns's compelling documentary The Civil War if you are viewing this program outside the Tulane University campus.

Finally, this project is for Richard H. Sewell, who continues to be an inspiring mentor and warm friend.

Richard B. Latner
Tulane University
July 23, 1996


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Production Credits

Content Expert & Author: Richard B. Latner
Executive Producer: John E. Diem
Producer & Editor: Susan F. Brower
Programming & Design: Linda L. Orth
Programming: Charles S. Rooks
Hyper-Text Formatting: Jorge M. Donato
Instrumentation & Vocals for: "Dixie" and "Lincoln & Liberty": Paul R. Schierhorn
Portions of "The Civil War" have been used by permission from American Documentaries, Inc. and Ken Burns, who own the exclusive copyright to "The Civil War"
Thanks to the following organizations:
  • The Louisiana Educational Quality Support Fund
  • The Newcomb Foundation
  • Pictures courtesy of:
  • The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
  • The National Archives, Still Picture Branch
  • Indiana State Library, Indiana Division
  • Many Thanks to:
  • Greer Browne
  • William Conniff
  • Kevin Fontenot
  • Eugene Hopstetter
  • Lynn Kickham
  • Alison Hartman Lauricella
  • Wilfred M. McClay
  • Renee Duvoisin Mendez
  • Jeffrey Mendez
  • Carolyn Thompson

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