It is often assumed that knowing history is "knowing the facts." But historical understanding is more accurately depicted as a series of inquiries and hypotheses about the past. Asking questions and looking for answers are essential components of the historian's craft.
What follows are a number of questions to help you reflect on the crisis at Fort Sumter. Although the information in this program never changes, you may find that as you ask new questions or reconsider old ones, your ideas about what happened change and broaden.
Pursuing the program's bibliographic references will also enlarge your understanding of this event.
Questions for Consideration
- According to some accounts of the Sumter crisis, President Lincoln should bear the major responsibility for the outbreak of war because his actions were needlessly provocative.
Although the Confederacy might have fired the first shot, the real aggressor is not necessarily the person who first resorts to violence. To what extent do you agree with this assessment of Lincoln's policy?
- Would you have recommended that Lincoln adopt a more conciliatory course towards the seceding states, and, specifically, what would you have advised him to do?
- If Lincoln had adopted a more conciliatory course, do you think the outcome would have been any different? Would it have averted war? For example, if Lincoln had abandoned Sumter, what do you think would have happened?
- Would you have supported Secretary of State Seward's advice to let Sumter go but make a symbolic stand at Pickens? What were the benefits and liabilities of Seward's idea?
- Do you think that Lincoln was actually too moderate and conciliatory, and that he misjudged the Confederacy's resolve and intent? If you were an adviser, would you have recommended that the President adopt a firmer and more forceful stand on Fort Sumter and other federal possessions at the very outset of his administration?
- If Fort Sumter had little military value to either side, did Jefferson Davis and his cabinet miscalculate the best interests of the Confederacy by firing on Sumter before the relief expedition arrived? Was this simply an act of "rash emotionalism," as some have contended?
Would it have mattered if the fort remained in Union hands for the time being?
- Suppose Lincoln recognized the likelihood of conflict when he ordered the relief mission to sail. Does this decision make him more, less, or equally responsible than Davis for the war that followed?
- What was Lincoln's justification for risking conflict when he sent the Sumter expedition? Are some things worth the risk of war? If so, do you think holding Fort Sumter should be considered one of them?
- To what degree do you think Lincoln's decision to send the relief expedition was dictated by a sense that there was simply no better alternative, and that the "best" decision was actually only the "least bad" alternative?
- In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln offered his own observations about the outbreak of war. "Four years ago," he recalled, "all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war.
All dreaded it-- all sought to avert it . . . Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
Do you think that Lincoln was accurately describing the positions of both the Union and the Confederacy? Does his statement imply a fatalistic recognition that war was inevitable?