Almost all historians reject the claim that Lincoln deliberately provoked the Civil War. They consider the idea unsubstantiated by evidence, inconsistent with Lincoln's character, and unwarranted by the context of events. David M. Potter, for example, contends that Lincoln sincerely pursued a policy that would avert war. Placing great-- too great-- faith in the existence of unionist sentiment in the South, Lincoln did all he could to avoid a confrontation that would und ermine unionist chances of regaining power. He modified his Inaugural Address to eliminate the threat of repossessing federal property, and seriously contemplated abandoning Sumter if military considerations made such an action necessary. Although he would not sacrifice the essential principle of Union, on every occasion, Lincoln adopted the least provocative course available.
Lincoln, the Man of Peace
In the end, Lincoln reluctantly sent the Sumter expedition only after learning that the reinforcement of Fort Pickens had not taken place. Since Pickens could not provide a symbol of the Union's permanency, the abandonment of Sumter was now unacceptable. Even in these circumstances, Lincoln took the most peaceable course possible. He adopted a plan to resupply rather than reinforce the fort, and informed South Carolina officials of his intention. Althou gh fighting broke out as a result of his decision, Lincoln did not deliberately choose war. Instead, he opted for a course whose consequences were unknown, and which offered at least a possibility of avoiding war.
From Potter's perspective, the bombardment of Sumter represented a failure of Lincoln's policy to avert war. War was an unintended consequence of a policy that failed because of Confederate actions and Lincoln's miscalculation of the strength and determination of the secessionist cause. The Lincoln scholar, James G. Randall, has articulated the significant distinction between intentions and unintended consequences. "To say that Lincoln meant that the first shot would be fired by the other side if a first shot was fired, is not to say that he maneuvered to have the shot fired. The distinction is fundamental," Randall observes.
Bibliography: Potter, Lincoln and His Party, xxxi-xxxiii, 336-75; Potter, "Why the Republicans Rejected Both Compromise and Secession," Knoles, ed., Crisis, pp. 99-106; Randall, Lincoln the President 4, 1: 350.