Southern leaders of the Civil War period placed the blame for the outbreak of fighting squarely on Lincoln. They accused the President of acting aggressively towards the South and of deliberately provoking war in order to overthrow the Confederacy. For its part, the Confederacy sought a peaceable accommodation of its legitimate claims to independence, and resorted to measures of self-defence only when threatened by Lincoln’s coercive policy. Thus, Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, claimed that the war was “inaugurated by Mr. Lincoln.” Stephens readily acknowledged that General Beauregard‘s troops fired the “first gun.” But, he argued, the larger truth is that “in personal or national conflicts, it is not he who strikes the first blow, or fires the first gun that inaugurates or begins the conflict.” Rather, the true aggressor is “the first who renders force necessary.”
Stephens identified the beginning of the war as Lincoln’s order sending a “hostile fleet, styled the ‘Relief Squadron’,” to reinforce Fort Sumter. “The war was then and there inaugurated and begun by the authorities at Washington. General Beauregard did not open fire upon Fort Sumter until this fleet was, to his knowledge, very near the harbor of Charleston, and until he had inquired of Major Anderson . . . whether he would engage to take no part in the expected blow, then coming down upon him from the approaching fleet . . . When Major Anderson . . .would make no such promise, it became necessary for General Beauregard to strike the first blow, as he did; otherwise the forces under his command might have been exposed to two fires at the same time– one in front, and the other in the rear.” The use of force by the Confederacy , therefore, was in “self-defence,” rendered necessary by the actions of the other side.
Jefferson Davis, who, like Stephens, wrote his account after the Civil War, took a similar position. Fort Sumter was rightfully South Carolina’s property after secession, and the Confederate government had shown great “forbearance” in trying to reach an equitable settlement with the federal government. But the Lincoln administration destroyed these efforts by sending “a hostile fleet” to Sumter. “The attempt to represent us as the aggressors,” Davis argued, “is as unfounded as the complaint made by the wolf against the lamb in the familiar fable. He who makes the assault is not necessarily he that strikes the first blow or fires the first gun.”
From Davis’s point of view, to permit the strengthening of Sumter, even if done in a peaceable manner, was unacceptable. It meant the continued presence of a hostile threat to Charleston. Further, although the ostensible purpose of the expedition was to resupply, not reinforce the fort, the Confederacy had no guarantee that Lincoln would abide by his word. And even if he restricted his actions to resupply in this case, what was to prevent him from attempting to reinforce the fort in the future? Thus, the attack on Sumter was a measure of “defense.” To have acquiesced in the fort’s relief, even at the risk of firing the first shot, “would have been as unwise as it would be to hesitate to strike down the arm of the assailant, who levels a deadly weapon at one’s breast, until he has actually fired.”
In the twentieth century, this critical view of Lincoln’s actions gained a wide audience through the writings of Charles W. Ramsdell and others. According to Ramsdell, the situation at Sumter presented Lincoln with a series of dilemmas. If he took action to maintain the fort, he would lose the border South and a large segment of northern opinion which wanted to conciliate the South. If he abandoned the fort, he jeopardized the Union by legitimizing the Confederacy. Lincoln also hazarded losing the support of a substantial portion of his own Republican Party, and risked appearing a weak and ineffective leader.
Lincoln could escape these predicaments, however, if he could induce southerners to attack Sumter, “to assume the aggressive and thus put themselves in the wrong in the eyes of the North and of the world.” By sending a relief expedition, ostensibly to provide bread to a hungry garrison, Lincoln turned the tables on the Confederates, forcing them to choose whether to permit the fort to be strengthened, or to act as the aggressor. By this “astute strategy,” Lincoln maneuvered the South into firing the first shot.
Bibliography: Stephens, Constitutional View, 2: 35-41; Davis, Rise and Fall, 1: 289-95; Ramsdell, “Lincoln and Fort Sumter,”pp. 259-88.