When studying the history of the Civil War, there are two things that become increasingly apparent about Abraham Lincoln. The first is that he is an incredibly enigmatic figure. His views are ambiguous, often by design as he navigated a political environment that had been torn apart and reassembled with a fragile new party, in which Lincoln had been launched from obscurity into a position of leadership. His speeches were constructed carefully to try to find balance between the polar extremes that were only allied over weak agreements, such as opposition to territorial slavery.
The second is that Lincoln is and probably always will be a controversial figure. And it’s not enough to say that he’s controversial in the traditional sense; his controversy does not fall along modern ideological lines. Both Democrats and Republicans love the guy. The people who despise him can be found all over the political spectrum. Southern patriots. Libertarians. Pacifists. In the 1960’s, black power activists even took their turn in criticizing Lincoln as a “reluctant emancipator.”
But much of the disagreement over Lincoln comes down to the question of war guilt. For many defenders of Lincoln – especially those who acknowledge the clear fact that the Civil War was not waged to end slavery (a fact not contested among professional historians) – it seems at least implicit in their arguments that if Lincoln had pursued war as a positive goal, rather than a reaction to hostilities he could not evade, then there may be more plausible room for criticism. But, many of these people argue, Lincoln did not want war. War was thrust upon him, and his actions in response to this were a matter of necessity and reality.
By contrast, many Lincoln critics say that if Lincoln was waging war to end slavery, there might be more room for defending his pro-war actions. Even Thomas DiLorenzo concedes that “A crusade against slavery would have offered a compelling case for Lincoln’s war, but he never made that case."1 But, these folks typically argue, Lincoln did wage the war, and he did not do so over slavery. Thus, the real division between many pro- and anti-Lincoln folks is the matter of whether nor not Lincoln deserves blame for starting the war.
And like many questions in history, this is not as simple as we would like it to be. The question of Union vs. Confederate war guilt boils down essentially to the partly philosophical question of legitimate aggression (this question is often mistakenly presented as a matter of who fired the first shot, but this neglects the well accepted concept of threat as aggression). But while this may be germane to the question of Lincoln’s personal role in waging war, it does not fully answer the question of how much responsibility should be specifically attributed to Lincoln for the start of the conflict.
So here are some facts that should help illuminate the question for those wishing to adopt an honest and informed position on this historical controversy:
Abraham Lincoln was clearly and repeatedly informed by his military advisors that anything short of an evacuation at Fort Sumter would be seen as an aggressive act and would almost certainly launch the country into war. The country’s leading military officer and Mexican War hero, General Winfield Scott, advocated the evacuation of the fort on numerous occasions when President Lincoln sought counsel from him. Less well known but equally important, the military’s leading expert in military engineering, General Joseph Totten, who actually helped design Fort Sumter, advised Lincoln than any attempt at sending supplies or reinforcements to Fort Sumter could only end in failure.
Nearly the entirety of Lincoln’s cabinet, including his Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, thought such a mission would be foolish and would likely start a war. They advised evacuation. Even Major Robert Anderson, the reigning officer in Fort Sumter, believed that evacuation was the only course of action that could stand any chance of avoiding war.
Some historians, such as David Potter and James G. Randall, have argued that Lincoln believed a successful resupply could be executed without military confrontation. This position appears to be remarkably naive. For Lincoln to have genuinely believed this, he would have to have done so despite the expertise of every military leader consulting him. The only two members of his cabinet who supported the idea were his Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase, and his Post Master General, Montgomery Blair – hardly experts in military affairs.
It seems clear that Lincoln was fully confident that sending supplies to Fort Sumter would (1) end in failure and (2) result in war. Thus, when considering Lincoln’s motivations for ordering reinforcements to Fort Sumter, it is highly plausible that war was his goal, rather than merely a calculated risk that he hoped to avoid.
But this is not the same as saying that Lincoln wanted war. Asking simply whether or not somebody “wants war” is a somewhat silly question (unless you’re asking John McCain, perhaps). This is an unconstrained question, and answering it tells us very little about the historical figure. If there were no tradeoffs in choosing peace over war, would Lincoln have preferred peace? Probably. But there were tradeoffs.
To Lincoln, the tradeoff was not slavery. He made clear that slavery was worth maintaining to avoid war, if that had been possible, and his endorsement of the Corwin Amendment – the nearly-ratified amendment that would have protected slavery where it existed – demonstrates this. To Lincoln, slavery was also worth maintaining to avoid disunion. Neither his rhetoric nor his actions contradict this claim, despite the common misconceptions cultivated by a public-school narrative of history.
But if we accept, at least for the sake of argument, that Lincoln preferred peace to war, union to disunion, and abolition to enslavement when all other variables are held constant, this does little to help us understand whether or not he, for instance, preferred peace to union, or enslavement to war, or war to disunion. And these are the trade-offs Lincoln faced.
An honest study of the history allows us to actually rank Lincoln’s preferences in the context of the war question. If we interpret Lincoln as generously as possible, his ranking of preferences was as follows:
- Non-Extension of Slavery (which less generously can be interpreted as Republican unity)
- Abolition of Slavery
But when we cancel out the issues that are in conflict with each other, Lincoln’s actionable preference ranking would look more like this:
- Non-Extension of Slavery
- Abolition of Slavery
This ranking of Lincoln’s preferences seems indisputable from both his rhetoric and his actions. He made clear that he would not budge on the question of territorial slavery even if it might stave off disunion. Whether this was due to genuine moral objections (doubtful) or a desire to maintain the fragile Republican Party that was unified by little more than this issue (more likely), the opposition to territorial slavery appears to be Lincoln’s highest value issue during the winter of 1860-61.
Lincoln’s devotion to Unionism came next. Although he rejected the compromise proposals offered by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden because they would have extended slavery to the western territories below the Missouri Compromise line, Lincoln also said that he would gladly either protect or abolish slavery if it meant keeping the Union together, and he endorsed the Corwin Amendment as an explicit display of this position. Unionism outranked any issue on slavery other than the territorial question.
But these points aren’t heavily contested. So that brings us back to the issue of whether Lincoln, himself, was willing to wage a potentially avoidable war in order to prevent disunion. Many northerners – including members of his cabinet such as William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State – actively voiced their desire to let the South secede in peace rather than wage war to maintain the Union, even though they were themselves Unionists.
Lincoln unequivocally rejected this position. He said that disunion was impossible, but what he really meant was that he would make certain that it was impossible. Even his inaugural address, which was soft and ambiguous in its language, was only softened after Seward advised Lincoln against using the strong language of his original draft.
And when Lincoln was faced with the decision of either evacuating Fort Sumter, as he was overwhelmingly advised to do if he wanted to avoid war, or designing a resupply mission that that, even if it were successful, would only delay the issue for a few weeks – Lincoln approved the mission, all while acknowledging that it was almost certain not to succeed. In reflecting on the attempt to resupply Sumter in a letter to the mission’s brainchild, Gustavus Fox, Lincoln said that “You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the results.”
Successfully resupplying Sumter was likely never Lincoln’s goal. Lincoln did not expect it to be successful, and he knew that even if it was, it would only postpone the issue. The more plausible goal was finding a way to get the war started – a war that Lincoln treated as inevitable because he had come to the realization that there was no compromise that would peacefully bring the South back into the Union, and thus the choice was between forced reunion rather than a peaceful split.
The war was inevitable because Lincoln decided it would be. And if Lincoln was going to wage war, he could at least start it in a way that might make the Confederacy appear to be the aggressors in the eyes of the world by provoking them into firing the first shot, which they promised to do when Confederate leaders told Lincoln that any attempt to supply the fort would be treated as an act of foreign aggression.
Finally, just before the mission was put in motion, Lincoln finally sent a letter to Major Robert Anderson in Fort Sumter. In it, Lincoln told Anderson that the ship would send reinforcements and that if any attempt was made to stop the ship – which the Confederate government had already promised would be the case – Anderson was to “hold out, if possible, till the arrival of the expedition.” Even pro-Lincoln historians consider this letter to be a low blow to Major Anderson. Lincoln said that he was confident that Anderson would “act as becomes a patriot and soldier, under all circumstances,” and that surrender was only authorized if Anderson felt that it was the only way, “in your judgement . . . to save yourself and your command.”
David Detzer even concedes that the
letter was, at the very least, uncharitable. Anderson had stood for months, holding up the flaking pillars of the nation, while Lincoln had whiled away his time, first in Springfield, then in Washington, making postmaster appointments and telling whimsical stories. This April 4 message raised subtle questions about Anderson’s honor and courage – and added an ugly whiff of something else, something later generations would small far too often in politics. Lincoln was covering his backside. He was still placing the ultimate responsibility for surrender in Anderson’s hands.
But even with this concession, Detzer generously asserts that “The Abraham Lincoln that would evolve over the next four years would become far too empathetic, far too estimable an individual to again stoop so low.”2
So did Lincoln want war? Probably not. But to the degree that he wanted peace, he only wanted it on his terms: Unionism. And when his terms were clearly not going to be met, war was a price Lincoln was willing to pay – at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, both North and South, soldier, civilian, and slave.