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3Qs: Reaping the whirlwind

Photo by Lauren McFalls.

On April 6, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln notified the governor of South Carolina that he planned to send resupply ships to Major Robert Anderson and his small U.S. Army garrison at Fort Sumter, near Charleston. When the Confederate government, including seven states that had seceded from the Union, responded by issuing an ultimatum for the fort’s surrender, Anderson refused. The ensuing 34-hour battle that began on April 12th started the Civil War. We asked William Fowler, Distinguished Professor of History at Northeastern University, to assess the implications of the battle on its 150th anniversary.

What options did Lincoln have regarding Fort Sumter?

Lincoln had virtually no options at all. When he took the oath of office, on March 4, 1861, he was confronted with a fait accompli. The federal forces at this time did not have a navy sufficient to force an entrance into Charleston Harbor. So there was no way by force of arms that Lincoln could resupply the fort. In the meantime, Major Anderson refused to surrender.

After notifying Anderson, the Confederate authorities opened fire on Fort Sumter. Major Anderson defended the fort, but it was a hopeless situation. He put up — as they said in the 19th century — an honorable defense. It was all very decorous. Major Anderson and his men who had gallantly defended the fort were allowed to retire with great dignity.


Could Lincoln have avoided war while still preserving the union? Why or why not?

Lincoln had no desire to precipitate war. It was, in his mind, and in the mind of the North, the Confederates who precipitated war by firing on Fort Sumter, which led Lincoln to call for 75,000 volunteers to defend the union.

I suppose one could speculate that if Lincoln had ordered the peaceful surrender of Fort Sumter, then negotiations could have continued [that might have resolved the crisis]. It’s a question worth pondering. Would the war have happened anyway? I don’t know. What I do know is that Lincoln was committed to preserving the union. That was his goal.


Each side, before, during, and after the war, claimed to be the side preserving the American ideal against a revolution. Who was correct?

We need to be careful that we don’t completely distort history. This was a war to preserve the union and it became a war to abolish slavery. It was a noble cause and a noble war, so I hope we don’t begin to twist the Civil War into something that it wasn’t.

The American ideal was summed up at the Gettysburg Address, when Lincoln said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln said it himself: This nation could no longer exist half slave and half free.

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