The deadliest war America has ever endured was the American Civil War. In four years of fighting, between 600,000 and 750,000 young Americans died. Each side had their reasons for waging war against their brothers, but they were united in the fact that none of them wanted war. Near the end of the war, one of the two opposing presidents remembered how “all dreaded it, all sought to avert it.” The only difference was he had been “devoted altogether to saving the Union without war” while the other president had been “seeking to divide it without war.” The “union” man was United States President Abraham Lincoln. This is the story of how he desperately tried to prevent the eruption of the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln rose to prominence at a time when the country was tearing itself apart over slavery. He was born in February 1809 in the slave state of Kentucky, but he grew up in the free state of Indiana. As a boy he studied William Grimshaw’s History of the United States, which criticized Americans for ignoring the plight of African-American slaves. Lincoln himself witnessed the cruelties of slavery when he travelled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Returning to the North, he settled in Illinois, established a law practice and launched a career in politics. While serving in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, he came to the full realization that the Constitution afforded certain protections for slavery. Like other Northerners, however, he refused to accept slavery’s spread into the western territories. He spoke out against Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas who seemed one of the foremost Northerners willing to accommodate the South. The two faced each other in a series of debates shortly after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, legislation which allowed the territorial inhabitants to decide for themselves if their territory would become a slave state or a free state. It was during one of these debates that Lincoln famously declared “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” His opposition to slavery’s expansion led him to join the new Republican Party. In November 1860 he was elected president. He was then immediately thrust into the greatest crisis the nation ever experienced.
Even before Lincoln assumed office in March 1861, he and the United States stood on the brink of war. Southerners were outraged at his election and feared it was the end of their way of life. One Virginia newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, accused the North of electing Lincoln “for the avowed purpose of aggression on Southern rights.” For others, it was “a declaration of war.” There was only one answer the Southern states could possibly give. Beginning on December 20, 1860, South Carolina and six Deep South states seceded from the Union. As he journeyed from Springfield to Washington, D.C., he described how he would not interfere with Southern institutions, but he also said he would steadfastly defend the principles of the nation. To a crowd in Philadelphia, he declared “I never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Then he expressed a desire to “be assassinated on the spot than to surrender it.” He arrived in the capital amid a high state of alertness and set to work finishing his inaugural address. He intended the address to combine a call for reconciliation with a promise to defend the Constitution.
On March 4, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address, in which he stated his intent to carry out his constitutional responsibilities. He stated he had the “most solemn [oath] to ‘preserve, protect and defend’” the Constitution. Even more important than the Constitution, however, was the Union itself. He reminded his listeners the Union had been formed before the Constitution was adopted. It was not possible, therefore, for one state, or even a group of states, to dismantle the government based on that Constitution. It was his duty to ensure the Union did not falter at this moment. To that end, he promised to “hold, occupy and possess” those federal forts and military arsenals not already seized by Confederate forces. But he also tried to calm Southerners’ fears by declaring “there will be no invasion, no using force against or among the people anywhere.” It was not truly up to him though. As he said, “in your hands my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.” Before firing the first shot, he urged Southerners to carefully consider the ramifications of their decisions. He hoped the seceded states would return to the Union. After all “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” When the inauguration was finished, Lincoln set to work keeping his promise to maintain control of a fort that lay in the very heart of the maelstrom — Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
The day after the inauguration, March 5th, Lincoln received a message that threatened his promise not to act aggressively towards the South. Major Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter’s commander, informed the president he and his soldiers only had supplies to last six more weeks. If the fort was not supplied by then, he would have to surrender. Lincoln immediately felt the gravity of the situation. He realized he had two options: evacuate the garrison or resupply the fort. He knew if he withdrew the garrison he would appease the Confederacy and prevent the Upper Southern states of Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee as well as the Border States of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware from seceding. An evacuation, however, would be a rejection of his pledge to “hold, occupy and possess” federal property. He would be seen as backing down in the face of opposition, and his administration would end before it even began. On the other hand, he knew that to resupply the garrison meant risking a commencement of hostilities with the Confederacy. The two sides had nearly come to blows back in January when South Carolina militiamen had fired on the supply ship, the Star of the West, and forced it to turn back. A second resupply mission was even more likely to result in violence. As he considered the choices in front of him, Lincoln realized he would be criticized for whichever choice he made.
The new president desperately needed time to develop a suitable strategy to avert the looming crisis. To give himself breathing room, he sent two friends, Ward Hill Lamon and Stephen Hurlbut, to Charleston in hopes they would find evidence of Unionist sentiment he could use to diffuse rising tensions. They reported back that no sentiment was in existence. With no choice now, he turned to his civil and military advisors for counsel. Most of them were convinced he should do nothing to antagonize the Confederates. Secretary of State William Seward urged the president not to resupply the fort. He said the act was too provocative and would shatter the fragile peace that still existed between the Union and the Confederacy. General Winfield Scott, the U.S. Army’s top commander, similarly advised Lincoln to evacuate the garrison while there was still time. He strengthened his argument by telling Lincoln that any effort to resupply Fort Sumter would require a fleet of warships, 5,000 regular U.S soldiers and 20,000 volunteer soldiers. It would take six to eight months to assemble, equip and train this army. Obviously Major Anderson could not hold out that long. Lincoln was sobered by this information, but at the same time, he still wanted to keep the fort in Union possession.
As the days passed, Lincoln felt the strain of trying to reach an accord between those who wished to relieve Fort Sumter and those who wished to evacuate the fort. Each of his Cabinet officials, with the exception of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, agreed with General Scott that the garrison should be evacuated. Supporting his son’s position, the Postmaster General’s father, Francis P. Blair, Sr., a former advisor to President Andrew Jackson and a founder of the Republican Party, told Lincoln that giving up Fort Sumter “was virtually a surrender of the Union.” Both father and son recognized Lincoln needed a viable alternative to consider. Fortunately, they knew just the man for the job. Montgomery’s brother-in-law, Gustavus Fox, was a former naval officer. Fox proposed to the president that a steamship carrying troops and two tugboats carrying supplies be sent down to Charleston. Once there, the three ships would probe the Confederate defenses in order to find a weak spot and then use the cover of night to slip through and relieve the garrison. Lincoln was suitably impressed and passed the recommendation on to his Cabinet. Only Montgomery Blair and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Case endorsed the proposal though. The rest still thought it was too risky. By now it was late March, and the window of opportunity was closing. Despite the lukewarm response he had received, Lincoln decided to send a rescue mission anyway.
On March 29, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln made the fateful decision to dispatch a relief convoy to the aid of those trapped inside Fort Sumter. He directed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of War Simon Cameron to gather the provisions the soldiers desperately needed to hold out. In the meantime, Gustavus Fox travelled to New York City to prepare the transports for the journey. The convoy set off on April 9, 1861. As the ships steamed south, Lincoln sent a message to South Carolina’s Governor Andrew Pickens telling him the fort would be supplied, but only with food and other provisions. He strongly asserted there would be no attempt made to reinforce the garrison with additional men, weapons or ammunition. Governor Pickens immediately forwarded the report to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis and his Cabinet realized they had to respond. A resupplied Union garrison was a direct threat to Southern honor. They instructed General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate commander in Charleston, to demand Major Robert Anderson’s surrender. When Anderson refused to comply, the Confederates opened fire at 4:30 A.M. on April 12, 1861. As Abraham Lincoln said four years later in his Second Inaugural Address, “And the war came.”
Abraham Lincoln’s actions in his first month as president showed he wanted to avoid war as much as anyone. He understood what would befall the country if war erupted between the North and the South. Four years later he had the grim satisfaction of knowing he had been right. He now looked out across ruined farms and devastated cities and hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Americans. No matter how hard he tried to avoid it, the war came anyway. With little choice, he dedicated his entire presidency to reuniting the country. He finally succeeded, only to become one of the war’s last casualties. With his martyrdom, however, his place among American heroes was secured. President Abraham Lincoln strove to protect the United States from the horrors of civil war, but once it erupted, he determined to see it through until final victory and everlasting union were won.