-- Reflections --

Orville H. Browning's Diary

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Historical evidence is not self-explanatory, and different historians looking at the same information often derive divergent lessons from it. A good example is presented by Orville H. Browning's diary notation for July 3 , 1861. A longtime friend of Lincoln's, Browning was a new Illinois senator, replacing the recently deceased Stephen A. Douglas. Browning visited the President at the White House the evening before the opening of the special session of Congress. Lincoln read his forthcoming message to Browning and recounted for him the incidents leading up to the fall of Fort Sumter.

According to the Browning's diary, Lincoln explained that "he himself conceived the idea, and proposed sending supplies, without an attempt to reinforce giving notice of the fact to Gov Pickens of S. C. The plan succeeded. They attacked Sumter-- it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could."

Charles W. Ramsdell considers the Browning entry as "evidence" that Lincoln deliberately maneuvered the South into firing the first shot at Sumter. The plan "succeeded" when the Confederates attacked the fort, leaving them with the stigma of starting th e war, while the North was now united against southern aggression.

But are these the words that Lincoln actually used, and if he did speak them, do they mean what Ramsdell alleges? Allan Nevins asserts that Browning's report of Lincoln's words, which were not written down on the spot, "cannot be regarded as literally a ccurate." David M. Potter also wonders how correctly Browning understood Lincoln and how much he distorted Lincoln's meaning when he wrote the diary entry after leaving the White House. Potter finds Browning's statement unconvincing because it accords "so ill wi th all the circumstances." Had Lincoln truly wanted to provoke war at Sumter, for example, he would not have hesitated so long to send the expedition, or provided advanced notice that the attempt to provision would be peaceable. In short, if one assumes that Lincoln wanted peace rather than war, Browning's rendering of Lincoln's words must be inaccurate.

But even if Browning had Lincoln's words more or less correct, do they necessarily mean what Ramsdell claims, an admission of a devious, provocative strategy? Nevins, who thinks that Lincoln probably said "something like" what Browning recorded, interprets Lincoln's words as meaning only what he told the country in his special message: that although Sumter fell, the "sudden and unnecessary Southern seizure of it aroused Northern determination."

Both Richard N. Current and Kenneth M. Stampp conclude that Lincoln's remarks show that he did not regard the Sumter mission as a failure. However, his satisfaction had nothing to do with successfully manipulating the South into starting the war. Instead, Current and Stampp contend that Lincoln had always calculated the risk of conflict and, given that possibility, "always intended to make the Confederates be the aggressors." He did not deliberately provoke a war, but if it should come, it woul d come at the hands of the Confederacy. According to Current, Lincoln doubtless would also have claimed that his plan succeeded if Confederate forces had withheld their fire and permitted Sumter to be provisioned.

In short, Browning's entry, if accurate, is not as self-explanatory as Ramsdell assumes. When Lincoln expressed the idea that in coming under attack, Sumter "did more service than it otherwise would," his words did not necessarily mean that he intended, instigated, or desired conflict. Those who view Lincoln as adopting a peaceable or a defensive posture during the Sumter crisis will view his words in a more benign fashion than those who consider hi m provocative and aggressive.


Bibliography: Browning, Diary of Browning, eds. Pease and Randall, 1: 475-76; Ramsdell, "Lincoln and Fort Sumter," pp. 287-88; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, p. 373-74; Nevins, War for the Union, 1: 76n; Randall, Lincoln the President, 1: 344-45; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 193-94; Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 284-86.


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