Digital History>Topics>Decision Making

President Lincoln: Resupply Ft. Sumpter?

Digital History TOPIC ID 62

Every American president makes decisions with enormous repercussions for the future. Some of these decisions prove successful; others turn out to be blunders. In virtually every case, presidents must act with contradictory advice and limited information. Following his election as president, Abraham Lincoln was faced with several pressing problems:

  • How could he prevent slave-holding states from seceding from the Union?

  • Was it possible to fashion a sectional compromise that would not violate the president’s antislavery principles or the Republican party pledge to prohibit slavery’s westward expansion?

After South Carolina voted to leave the Union in December 1860, the president confronted an even more difficult challenge: Whether to hold on to federal military installations in states that seceded or to evacuate them. This challenge became even more intense when he discovered, immediately after his inauguration, that Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, harbor, was short of supplies. Since the president recognized that re-provisioning the fort would precipitate a crisis, he had to approach this problem with the utmost caution. Several months before he became president, the Navy had tried to resupply Fort Sumter by sending an unarmed merchant ship, the Star of the West, with 200 reinforcements. But on January 9, 1861, Confederates fired on the ship, making it impossible to resupply the fort. The fort’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, came from Kentucky, a slave state, and President Lincoln was suspicious of his loyalty. But Major Anderson was, in fact, unwilling to surrender the fort. The president received a great deal of conflicting advice, but ultimately decided to send merchant steamers, protected by warships, to carry "subsistence, and other supplies" to Anderson. He also notified Governor Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina that he planned to resupply the fort. Major Anderson informed the governor that he would have to evacuate the fort by noon on April 15, 1861, if he did not receive supplies.

At 4:30 a.m., April 12, Confederate batteries began to bombard Fort Sumter. For 34 hours, until "the quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed by fire, the gorge walls seriously injured, the magazines surrounded by flames," Fort Sumter resisted the Confederate attack. No lives were lost on either side during this engagement, although two soldiers were killed when a spark during a salute to the U.S. flag during the surrender ceremony detonated a pile of cartridges. Questions to Think About:

1. What should Lincoln have done, if anything, as president-elect and Republican party leader, to prevent secession and head off a possible Civil War?

2. Should President Lincoln have abandoned Fort Sumter or tried to hold on to it by sending a re-supply mission or by dispatching a military force?

3. Should President Lincoln have called off the resupply mission when it appeared that it would arrive too late to save Fort Sumter or would precipitate Civil War?

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