By attempting to resupply Ft. Sumter, did President Lincoln purposely provoke the war?

Commentary by Bragdon Bowling

A grand and elaborate ruse. A perfectly executed scheme. When Lincoln became President on March 4, 1861, he was confronted with the specter of massive Southern secession. His predecessor James Buchanan seemed confounded as to what to do. He followed the Constitution but failed to act. Lincoln needed time to organize and plan. But at what cost, peaceful negotiation or war? He devised what may have been the most clever but deceitful con game in American history. His cunning maneuvering left the Confederacy naively trusting that all could be worked out and peaceful relations might be possible. His plan literally forced the Confederacy to fire the first shot of the War Between the States and be branded the aggressor in the war, hence galvanizing Northern opinion.

On March 4, Lincoln was inaugurated and his Inaugural Address boldly stated that he would use federal power only to “hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and collect duties and imports.â€Â He publicly had told the world that he would take a military course of action to hold onto forts such as Ft. Sumter.

Not surprisingly, in contradiction to the modern day depiction of Lincoln as Father Abraham, he was conciliatory on the issue of slavery in the Inaugural speech stating it would not be interfered with where it was legal. The people of the South viewed his saber rattling inaugural address as a prelude to war.

In March, 1861, South Carolina sent a group of commissioners to Washington to negotiate a peaceful settlement of all questions arising from secession, to pay for federal property and to arrange for the removal of the garrison in Charleston Harbor. Lincoln refused to meet with them. By using Secretary of State William Seward, who spoke through an intermediary to the commissioners, Lincoln was able to obfuscate the situation by using Seward to tell the commissioners that cooler heads would prevail, Ft. Sumter would be abandoned and that he was working towards a peaceful reconstruction of the Union . Seward led the commissioners to believe that he was the guiding force in the administration and that his views would prevail. This of course was completely contrary to Lincoln’s intentions. Seward continued the deception all the way to April 7, 1861. Certainly by this time, Lincoln felt that the departed Southern states were not going to return peacefully and that his only option to restore the Union was war.

On April 8, 1861, President Lincoln sent a letter to South Carolina Governor Pinckney stating that he would resupply Ft. Sumter , peacefully or by force if necessary. Lincoln realized that if South Carolina and the Confederacy allowed reprovision, it would make a mockery of their sovereignty. If the Confederacy fired on the ships bringing provisions, he would have maneuvered them into firing the first shots of the war, thus rallying the North into a wartime footing and national feeling of patriotism to restore the Union. Checkmate.

In a message to the Confederate Congress, Jefferson Davis declared that "the crooked paths of diplomacy can scarcely furnish an example so wanting in courtesy, in candor, and directness, as was the course of the United States government towards our commissioners in Washington."

Lincoln sent a flotilla of fighting ships to Ft. Sumter complete with food, ammunition and troops. No longer trusting in Lincoln’s words or intentions, and not wishing for an even stronger Federal presence in Charleston, the Confederacy demanded surrender of the fort before the ships could arrive. Major Robert Anderson refused and firing commenced on April 12, 1861.

Despite having been advised by most of his cabinet and Major General Winfield Scott to abandon Ft. Sumter, Lincoln pressed on with his plan. All told him that the Confederacy would not tolerate a foreign fort in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Opposition from the Northern press was quickly evident, condemning Lincoln for his dangerous stunt which would lead to war, echoing the feelings of many Northerners who were against the use of military force to compel reunification.

It is my feeling that Lincoln was never averse to war but totally misjudged the ability of the South to fight a prolonged war given their lack of population, armaments and industrial capacity. He felt victory could possibly be won in a single battle so war was worth the risk. Settlement commissions and Peace Conferences offered in good faith were what the South championed to avoid war. Lincoln ignored them, refusing to meet. He ignored his advisors. He shrewdly concocted his plan to use the Secretary of State, William Seward, to mislead the South. The South bought it hook, line and sinker and as a result, a horribly destructive war resulted where 620,000 people would die and leave the South totally supine for another 100 years.

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