-- Initial Problems at Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens --

March 16-18, 1861

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Commentary: Lincoln's Reasons

Lincoln's actions demonstrate his deliberateness during the secession crisis. He neither authorized the Fox plan to go forward, nor ordered the withdrawal of Anderson's troops. He listened seriously to different points of view and yet remained independent of his advisers. By so doing, he established his own authority as President, and counteracted the impression that others, particularly Secretary of State Seward, would be the "premier" of his administration.

However, while Lincoln's actions can be observed and recorded, his reasons are less accessible. Was he leaning strongly in favor of abandoning Sumter at this time, or was he determined to find a way to fulfill his inaugural pledge to hold and possess federal property? The way in which one views Lincoln in this instance says much about how one views Lincoln's motives and expectations throughout the Sumter crisis.

David M. Potter, for example, thinks that Lincoln was inclined at this time to abandon Sumter. According to Potter, Lincoln had "tentatively adopted" the view of the majority of his cabinet and would withdraw troops when it could be put off no longer. "If he had been required to make a final decision on the Sumter question" at this time or even over the next two weeks, Potter claims, "he would almost certainly have decided in favor of evacuation." Potter's assessment of Lincoln during this period is part of his larger argument that Lincoln always sought the most peaceable course available to him.

Kenneth M. Stampp sees Lincoln's action in a different light. Since December, Lincoln had become less sanguine about relying on southern unionism, and more alert to the increased gravity of the secession crisis. Determined to preserve the Union and enforce its laws, he hoped to accomplish these ends peaceably. But he also accepted the risk of conflict that his actions entailed. Thus, even though urged by General Scott, Seward, and others to withdraw from Sumter, Lincoln refused to do so. Instead, he signaled interest in Fox's plan by sending him to Charleston to gather more information.

It is possible, of course, that during this period, Lincoln wavered between these two positions: at one moment thinking the fort had to be abandoned out of military and political necessity; at another time, seeking a way to relieve the fort, hopefully without conflict but accepting its possibility. It seems particularly noteworthy that in the face of majority sentiment in his cabinet, including that of the politically influential secretary of state, Seward, and despite the considerable weight of military authority opposing Fox's plan, Lincoln kept the door open to relieve Fort Sumter. Thus, it is evident to another historian, Richard N. Current, that Lincoln decided to test the various assumptions of those who were counseling him. He would try to find out for himself whether Sumter could be relieved and held, and what he could expect from the South if he made the attempt. He would also see whether there was, in fact, sufficient unionist sentiment in the South upon which to base a policy of conciliation and withdrawal.

Bibliography: Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. xxxi, 339; Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 184-87, 190-91, 203, 274-77; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, p. 71.

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