Lincoln’s Goals

Abraham Lincoln inherited a mess when he was elected to the presidency of the United States and quickly found himself facing an almost insoluble dilemma. The South was terrified of a Lincoln administration, and two days after Election Day the Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury trumpeted a call to arms: “The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”[1] Lincoln was quickly confronted with a decision about what to do with two federal forts in the South, and his troubles were compounded by the divided nature of Northern opinion, a split that was mirrored in his cabinet. He had summed up his goals in his inaugural address, indicating that “if fighting should occur, if it could not be avoided, the administration must not be perceived as the aggressor.”[2] The new president spent the next few months vacillating and stalling, walking a tightrope of fear and indecision.

As Lincoln groped his way toward a solution—and even after he had made some decisions—he was hampered by cabinet members, advisors, and military leaders who went out of their way to thwart his plans. While they were certainly being disloyal to their president, there is no indication that these men were traitors to the Union. Rather, they simply believed that the solutions they had in mind were better for the Northern cause than anything Lincoln was proposing. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the dissidents were not a unified bloc; they each had often very conflicting ideas about the best course of action for the administration. Once Lincoln arrived at a plan for dealing with Forts Sumter and Pickens, these advisors schemed to put their own separate plans into motion, and the result was a tragic “comedy of errors.”[3] Lincoln’s advisors had managed to make his position even more difficult, and he was effectively forced to relinquish Fort Pickens and hope against hope that he could hold on to Fort Sumter.

Lincoln knew that the mission to resupply Sumter was hazardous, that it risked a military response from South Carolina. He felt he had no choice, however, not if he was going to affirm Union sovereignty and prestige while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of secession. Lincoln gambled that by sending only supplies into Sumter and not reinforcing the fort with men or materiel, both the North and the southern Border States would see that his motives were purely defensive.[4] As expected, the South Carolinians responded with force, attacking Sumter even before the supply convoy arrived. Lincoln’s gamble may have paid off if he had not overplayed his hand. Two days after Sumter fell to the South Carolinians, Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to put down the rebellion. The Border States that Lincoln had hoped to impress with his restraint and thereby retain in the Union viewed this mobilization as an act of war against their fellow southerners. Within five weeks, four more states had joined the original seven of the Confederacy.[5]

[1] Quoted in David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976), 485.

[2] Russell A. McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 233,

[3] Ibid., 246.

[4] Ibid., 249.

[5] Ibid., 249-51.

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