-- Reflections --

Lincoln the Realist

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Some of those who have examined the secession crisis present Lincoln as neither a war hawk nor a failed peacemaker. Kenneth M. Stampp and Richard N. Current disagree with those who allege Lincoln's responsibility for provoking the Civil War. Indeed, they argue, one could readily reverse the charge and allege that the Confederacy was motivated to provoke the war. For Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government, Sumter provided an opportunity to unify the Confederacy, uphold southern honor and prestige, and drag the upper South out of the Union, despite Lincoln's best efforts to avoid conflict! It was Davis, after all, who ordered the attack on Sumter before the arrival of the expedition.

At the same time, these historians do not think Lincoln was unequivocally committed to a peaceable resolution of the crisis and the voluntary reconstruction of the Union. If the President truly sought the most peaceable course possible, he would have let Sumter go and taken his symbolic stand for federal authority at Fort Pickens. Since Sumter had no military value, Lincoln could have justified his withdrawal on the grounds of military necessity, blaming the previous Buchanan administration for handing him the fort in an indefensible condition. Even in sending the Sumter expedition, Lincoln could have announced his purpose without also stating that he would attempt to reinforce the fort if the provisioning were resisted. Such a course would have appeared less threatening to sensitive southern leaders.

Lincoln, then, neither deliberately provoked war nor followed the most peaceable course imaginable. Instead, he was a realist who acknowledged the possibility that his policy risked conflict. According to Stampp, Lincoln developed a "strategy of defense," by which he would hold federal property by means that would be considered defensive, not coercive. Thus, despite his cabinet's almost unanimous approval initially to withdraw from Sumter, Lincoln continued to search for ways to relieve it. He himself formulated the idea of sending in provisions unless resistance occurred, and of providing advance notice to the South Carolina government. The South, then, would have to bear the onus of firing the first shot, and firing it against an unarmed ship bringing food to hungry troops.

To be sure, Lincoln hesitated for a time before making his final decision to dispatch the Sumter expedition. But this cautiousness was not dictated by the tempting prospect of focusing attention on Fort Pickens and abandoning Sumter. Instead, it was due to the greater military and political dangers inherent in the situation in Charleston Harbor. He could not simply ignore advice from military experts that a relief mission was impossible, and he had to find a way of sending it without appearing to be the aggressor. His determination to go forward with the Sumter operation was made independently of the situation at Pickens. He made his decision prior to learning that Pickens had not been reinforced, though that news likely confirmed his judgment to proceed.

To Stampp and Current, the outbreak of fighting did not represent a failure of Lincoln's policy; he had always recognized the risk of conflict. Indeed, his policy would have succeeded regardless of what happened at Sumter. If the South permitted the fleet to resupply the fort, the prestige and legitimacy of the Confederacy would have suffered a severe blow. If, as happened, the South resisted, Lincoln would find a more united North and a sympathetic European community standing against the South's aggressive attack. As his private secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, later expressed it, when Lincoln issued the decisive order for the Sumter ships to sail, "he was master of the situation."

Although they dispute key aspects of Potter's argument, Stampp and Current agree with him that in sending the Sumter expedition, Lincoln was not choosing war over peace. While he realized the probability that the expedition would be attacked, it was at least possible that the South would acquiesce. Moreover, alternatives, such as abandoning Sumter, also entailed risks. Withdrawal could bestow legitimacy on the Confederacy and hasten a new crisis over another issue. It could also encourage the upper South to secede, persuade European governments to offer recognition, or merely postpone the inevitable conflict. Finally, if the expedition eventuated in battle, as was likely, Lincoln did not necessarily anticipate a protracted and bloody war. He may well have expected a brief contest which would lead to the quick restoration of the Union. In accepting the risk of conflict, Lincoln was not envisioning the Civil War that actually came to pass.


Bibliography: Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 188-94; Stampp, Imperiled Union, pp. 177-85; Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 284-86; Stampp, "Comment" on Potter's "Why the Republicans Rejected Both Compromise and Secession," Knoles, ed., Crisis, pp. 107-13; Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 3: 442, 4: 62.

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