No Fort Sumter?
September 28, 2005 9:00 AM   Subscribe

What would Lincoln have done if the south had not fired on Fort Sumter?

I'm sure some counterfactual historian must have addressed this, but I've not seen it discussed. Without such a stirling casus belli, would he have been able to mount an invasion of the south? Would he have had the nerve? Any Lincoln scholars out there?
posted by IndigoJones to Law & Government (12 answers total)
I'm not a Lincoln scholar, but I don't think he really had the intention of invading the South until fairly late in the war. He was committed to stopping the spread of slavery when he was elected, not freeing the slaves. It was the Southerners who freaked out and started the war. After that, Lincoln's main goal was just keeping the country together. There is a quote that if he could have kept the Union together but none of the slaves would be freed, he would just as well have done that.
posted by stopgap at 9:06 AM on September 28, 2005

Oh, and I'm pretty sure the main reason the South was scared about ending the spread of slavery is that this was in the days when new states were being admitted to the Union fairly regularly. For quite a while, states had come in in pairs, one slave and one free, so the South kept their balance of power in the Senate, guaranteeing that an antislavery amendment couldn't be passed. End the spread of slavery, and it's only a matter of time until the free states have the clear majority to end the institution altogether.
posted by stopgap at 9:11 AM on September 28, 2005

I don't think there's a useful point of departure there; Lincoln would just have waited a bit longer.

If the Confederate forces hadn't fired on Fort Sumter that day, they almost certainly would have fired on it (or a US ship) soon enough rather than see the fort continue to be resupplied. Even if nothing happened at Sumter, somehow, the south had a high enough concentration of hotheaded morons with muskets and an overdeveloped sense of easily-wounded honor that Confederate forces were exceedingly likely to take the first shot somewhere else.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:11 AM on September 28, 2005

The Battle of Bull Run (July, 1861) took place less than 90 days after Ft. Sumter (April, 1861). It would have been pretty hard to have formed, trained and outfitted the Army of the Potomac in that amount of time. Granted, they were very green and lost horribly, but they were not that green.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:15 AM on September 28, 2005

(This is an answer by proxy, but...) My racing buddy is also a huge history buff. His belief is that if/when the issue had come before the Supreme Court, the South would have been granted the legal right to secede and Lincoln's hands would have been tied. But a bunch of "hotheaded morons" thought they could do better than the legal system, so...

We were just talking about this the other day.
posted by LordSludge at 9:17 AM on September 28, 2005

Actually, they did fire on a ship sent to supply Fort Sumter prior to the bombing on the fort. Her name was Star of the West.

It wasn't enough of a cause for war, apparently. Since half of the South had broken away from the Union, I think Lincoln would have resorted to military options to re-unite it to the Union after political possibilities failed. Lincoln was not afraid to use the armed forces to secure his goal of a unified nation.

He would have justified it using any of the other hostile Southern actions, such as taking over Federal arsenals, forts, etc. In the end, I doubt it really would have mattered who started what, as both sides would feel themselves vindicated in their actions and justified by the actions of their opponent.
posted by Atreides at 9:19 AM on September 28, 2005

The Battle of Bull Run (July, 1861) took place less than 90 days after Ft. Sumter (April, 1861). It would have been pretty hard to have formed, trained and outfitted the Army of the Potomac in that amount of time. Granted, they were very green and lost horribly, but they were not that green.

Like wise, you would have to say that the Confederate forces were also prepared to the same extent or more so, since they did win the battle. After Lincoln's call for volunteers (after Sumter), I think a general militarization of both sides began if not sooner.
posted by Atreides at 9:21 AM on September 28, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you for the answers so far. I fear I've been a little unclear. Sumter gave Lincoln a PR advantage in rallying volunteers. Firing on a flag tends to get people riled up in a way that seizing the odd federal storage depot probably would not (I could be wrong on this latter point- were northern noses disjointed by such takings?).

The question becomes, absent such a clear cut incident as southern gunfire, absent cool headedness in Charleston, what really could Lincoln have used as a means for getting the Northern blood up? Or was there any other rabbit that might preserve the union? Or would he have just had to let it go and hope for a later reconciliation?

I'm guessing for letting it go, whihc is pretty undramatic, but am interested in other points of view.

Again thanks.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:23 AM on September 28, 2005

In February 1861, the Army of the CSA was formed from over 300 former US Army officers and over 80,000 volunteers. The commander of the CSA Army was PT Beauregard (the man who had overseen the construction of the levies and draining of New Orleans, later he served as superintendent of West Point for three days, until he left to serve his home state). Beauregard was in command both at Ft. Sumter and at Bull Run.

I don't think that with 80,000 troops and most of the military command of the US Army forming ranks that the appropriate question is if the incident that sparked the war would occur but when.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:03 PM on September 28, 2005

I don't think at any moment Lincoln would have considered voluntarily letting the Confederate states secede from the Union. Fort Sumter was an excitable event, but it wasn't a "Pearl Harbor" so to speak that enraged the northern populace into supporting a war to re-unite the country. To answer your question, Lincoln really didn't have a need to get the Northern blood up. The only folks who ever were really so-so on the war were the Copperheads/Northern Democrats and they were pretty soundly beating in the '64 election. Basically, the secession was the "event" which raised everyone's blood.

The better question would have been what event might have occurred that would have taken away the support of the nation for the war. Short of the major eastern cities being occupied by the South, I'm not sure if anything might have been able to do that. Even after defeat after defeat and general after general, the Union remained essentially behind its decision to bring back its sister states.

If Lincoln could not have re-united by peace, he would have chosen the sword. In fact, thats exactly what he did.
posted by Atreides at 12:10 PM on September 28, 2005

He would have put together some phony intelligence indicating that the south was developing "weapons of mass destruction" and invaded anyway?
posted by idontlikewords at 6:31 PM on September 28, 2005

In Lincoln's 1861 Inaugural Address, he stated:

I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.... In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.

Clearly he hoped at this point to persuade the seceded states to return to the fold, so he was using conciliatory language. But the fact that he asserted there will be no invasion indicates that one was already widely discussed and feared (or hoped for). At the same time he was declaring a position that was incompatible, from the Confederate viewpoint, with a peaceable divorce, and declaring that such a divorce was illegal and impossible. I'm of the view that the die was cast from that point on.

Theoretically we can imagine the terms of that divorce -- the US demanding the CSA compensate them for the seizure of federal property, the determination of the status of Alexandria, a treaty guaranteeing the US access to the Gulf via the Mississippi -- but there's really no evidence that anyone was seriously ready to contemplate any of those things. The moderates knew they were outnumbered. The Confederacy knew it would never have sovereignty without war, and the North was dead set on abolition over peace.

Had the 1860 election gone differently, perhaps with a broader swathe of states going to the Constitutional Union Party, which was compromise-oriented, and fewer states had successfully seceded (recall that border states such as Maryland officially considered and rejected secession), there might have been more room for a moderate, middle way.

As it was, however, Lincoln's chief opposition had exited stage left, the moderate forces were split between states which seceded and stayed, and Congress was wholly dominated (a three-fourths majority) by Lincoln's abolition-oriented party, many of them Radical Republicans, including Edwin Stanton (who was his trusted deputy in the War Department even before becoming Secretary).

I'm with the inevitablists on this one.
posted by dhartung at 12:42 AM on September 29, 2005

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