On April 6, 1861, Pres­i­dent Abraham Lin­coln noti­fied the gov­ernor of South Car­olina that he planned to send resupply ships to Major Robert Anderson and his small U.S. Army gar­rison at Fort Sumter, near Charleston. When the Con­fed­erate gov­ern­ment, including seven states that had seceded from the Union, responded by issuing an ulti­matum for the fort’s sur­render, Anderson refused. The ensuing 34-​​hour battle that began on April 12th started the Civil War. We asked William Fowler, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of His­tory at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, to assess the impli­ca­tions of the battle on its 150th anniversary.

What options did Lin­coln have regarding Fort Sumter?

Lin­coln had vir­tu­ally no options at all. When he took the oath of office, on March 4, 1861, he was con­fronted with a fait accompli. The fed­eral forces at this time did not have a navy suf­fi­cient to force an entrance into Charleston Harbor. So there was no way by force of arms that Lin­coln could resupply the fort. In the mean­time, Major Anderson refused to surrender.

After noti­fying Anderson, the Con­fed­erate author­i­ties opened fire on Fort Sumter. Major Anderson defended the fort, but it was a hope­less sit­u­a­tion. He put up — as they said in the 19th cen­tury — an hon­or­able defense. It was all very deco­rous. Major Anderson and his men who had gal­lantly defended the fort were allowed to retire with great dig­nity.


Could Lin­coln have avoided war while still pre­serving the union? Why or why not?

Lin­coln had no desire to pre­cip­i­tate war. It was, in his mind, and in the mind of the North, the Con­fed­er­ates who pre­cip­i­tated war by firing on Fort Sumter, which led Lin­coln to call for 75,000 vol­un­teers to defend the union.

I sup­pose one could spec­u­late that if Lin­coln had ordered the peaceful sur­render of Fort Sumter, then nego­ti­a­tions could have con­tinued [that might have resolved the crisis]. It’s a ques­tion worth pon­dering. Would the war have hap­pened anyway? I don’t know. What I do know is that Lin­coln was com­mitted to pre­serving the union. That was his goal.


Each side, before, during, and after the war, claimed to be the side pre­serving the Amer­ican ideal against a rev­o­lu­tion. Who was correct?

We need to be careful that we don’t com­pletely dis­tort his­tory. This was a war to pre­serve the union and it became a war to abolish slavery. It was a noble cause and a noble war, so I hope we don’t begin to twist the Civil War into some­thing that it wasn’t.

The Amer­ican ideal was summed up at the Get­tys­burg Address, when Lin­coln said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this con­ti­nent a new nation, con­ceived in lib­erty, and ded­i­cated to the propo­si­tion that all men are cre­ated equal.” Lin­coln said it him­self: This nation could no longer exist half slave and half free.