As the reality of civil war quickly took hold in the days following April 12, the dramatic saga of Anderson's garrison at Fort Sumter faded into the background. Montgomery Blair remarked that "events of such magnitude" rapidly crowded on the country and President Lincoln, that "Sumter and Anderson are not thought of for the moment."
Fort Sumter, of course, was not forgotten, and the story of the fort and its small garrison holds a prominent place in American history. Sumter's fame has little to do with its military aspects. In strictly military terms, the battle between Union and Confederate forces at Fort Sumter scarcely merits attention. After a relatively brief bombardment, the small Union garrison surrendered a position of questionable military value to either side. Not a single human life was lost during the fighting, as compared to the massive, momentous, and bloody engagements at Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, or at Cold Harbor during the Wilderness Campaign where in a brief period of no more than half an hour, Union forces suffered some 7,000 casualties.
It is Sumter's association with the Civil War, one of the great shaping events of the American experience, which gives it a symbolic dimension far outweighing its military significance. The attack on Sumter was the first notable clash of arms between the newly formed Confederacy and the Union. The battle marked a transition from the period of precarious peace that accompanied the initial secession of seven deep South states from the Union to the four protracted years of bloodshed and devastation of the Civil War.
Like the Civil War itself, however, Sumter remains the subject of considerable controversy. Contemporary recollections, popular investigations, and historical analyses, have offered different assessments of a variety of issues connected with the outbreak of fighting. The most intense debate has focused on Lincoln, some of whose critics at the time, as well as later, held him responsible for the war and contended that he deliberately provoked the South into firing on Fort Sumter. In their view, Lincoln deliberately and disingenuously fixed the onus for starting the war on the Confederacy. To be sure, scholars have also investigated the Confederate government, and some hold it accountable for the fighting. But it is Lincoln's decisions and motives that have been most closely scrutinized.
Lincoln was not the first, or last, President to be accused of acting deceitfully and provocatively in order to advance broader military or political objectives. In an earlier period, President James K. Polk was charged by opponents, including Lincoln himself, with initiating the Mexican War by sending American troops into disputed territory. In more recent American history, some critics assailed Franklin D. Roosevelt for maneuvering the United States into World War II, and Lyndon B. Johnson was alleged to have used an ambiguous incident in the Tonkin Gulf to widen the Viet Nam War.
The controversy over who was responsible for the "first shot" of the Civil War raises substantial moral and political issues. Americans have long and proudly considered themselves a peaceable people, who repel aggression but do not initiate war. Fortunate circumstances, including isolation from Europe and the presence of few and weak neighbors, partly explain the existence of the idea of America as a peaceful oasis in a contentious world. But the sources of this claim run deeper. The insightful nineteenth-century French visitor to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, remarked that democratic nations "quench the military spirit." According to Tocqueville, the manners and customs of democracies, combined with their wide diffusion of wealth and property, mitigate against war and warlike passions.
Whatever the validity of Tocqueville's observation, Americans have generally taken it to heart. They have affirmed that the United States should avoid international conflict and only intervene in response to outside aggression-- after the enemy has fire d the first shot. In a society devoted to democracy and prosperity, war is an aberration. When compelled to fight, however, Americans claim the high moral ground of defending freedom against aggressors. The possibility that either the Lincoln or Davis administrations initiated war, therefore, challenges long-established and strongly held cultural assumptions.
The issue of responsibility also involves broader questions of both policy and decision making. What exactly were the policies of the Lincoln and Davis administrations in dealing with the Sumter crisis? What were the decisions they made, and what assumptions underlay their decisions? Did either government, for example, want or expect war? What did each side expect would happen when it implemented its policy? Did their decisions have unintended consequences? Were their policies consistent over time, or did policies change as conditions altered? Issues of policy and decision making, therefore, call not only for an investigation of actions taken, but also of the motives and intentions behind those actions.
This section contains a survey of some of the key controversies surrounding Fort Sumter. Two topics, often overlooked by historians today but of great moment during the Sumter crisis, concern the Fox expedition and the condition of Fort Sumter itself. Could Fox's plan have worked? If so, if it had been possible to relieve Sumter, would the fort have been able to withstand the Confederate assault and remain in Union hands?
These two questions suggest a much broader issue about the Fort Sumter episode. Assuming there were reasonable grounds to send the relief expedition, what were Lincoln's expectations when he dispatched it? In answering this question, commentators have offered very different assessments of Lincoln's motives and actions. He has been variously portrayed as a man who provoked war, as a man of peace, and as a political realist. Depending on how Lincoln is viewed, the events at Sumter take on very different meanings.
To explore the issues concerning the Fox expedition and Fort Sumter, and to understand the various ways in which Lincoln's motives and actions during the Sumter crisis have been portrayed, click on the appropriate topic. The information presented illuminates the different perspectives with which Americans have viewed their Civil War. The section ends with a series of questions raised by this program.
Bibliography: Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 7-12, 182-208; Stampp, Imperiled Union, pp. 163-88; McWhiney, "Confederacy's First Shot," pp. 5-6; Robertson, American Myth, American Reality, pp. 324-31; Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Bender, p. 541.