2 presidents, 1 fateful decision
The sesquicentennial of the firing on Fort Sumter reminds us of the enormity of the decision facing Abraham Lincoln and his opposite number, Jefferson Davis, that fateful April in 1861. Going to war is the gravest choice a president can make, and doubly so when the conflict is civil war.
It was Davis who made the decision to fire the first shots of what proved to be the bloodiest war in American history. Many of Lincoln’s critics argued that he had led the country into war, but what he had done was maneuver Davis into firing the first shot.
The same charge of deliberately leading the nation into war while claiming otherwise has been hurled at Franklin D. Roosevelt. Here the setting was a global conflict on the most colossal scale yet witnessed.
It is ironic that this same accusation has been attached to two men who are widely considered to be not only two of the country’s best presidents but also the most politically savvy. Their reputations rest in large part on their handling of the crises that confronted them and on the leadership they displayed.
Lincoln came from humble origins and pulled himself up by his own bootstraps; Roosevelt was the product of old-line American aristocracy. Roosevelt was a Harvard man who had held a variety of offices at the state and national levels; Lincoln came to the presidency with one lone term in the House of Representatives and time in the Illinois state Legislature. Both men aroused deep emotions ranging from undying devotion to blind hatred. They shared a gift for language and metaphor as a way to get their message understood.
Both men had hoped fervently to keep the nation out of war. Where Lincoln had barely six weeks as president to deal with a dividing nation, Roosevelt endured 27 months of an already existing war in Europe before Pearl Harbor. But both came to realize that entry into conflict could not be avoided. If that were so, the single most important factor became how the country went into the fight.
In particular, it was crucial that the other side fire the first shots. Only in that way would the nation enter the war united and determined to see it through.
Lincoln inherited the situation at Fort Sumter with a tight timetable. If the garrison did not receive supplies, it would soon be starved out and the last remaining federal presence in South Carolina lost. That would enhance the prestige of the new Confederacy and bolster its chances for foreign recognition.
The alternative was to send supplies and/or more troops to reinforce the garrison. If this was done, the supply flotilla might well have to fight its way into Charleston harbor. Lincoln’s brilliant solution was to send Davis a message informing him that relief ships would be sent to resupply the garrison only with necessities; no attempt would be made to put more troops into the fort.
This cleverly transferred the burden of decision to Davis. If the ships were allowed to resupply the fort, the Confederacy would appear weak. If the ships were fired on or the fort attacked, Davis would have started a war on Lincoln’s terms.
In deciding to attack the fort, Davis chose the lesser of two evils. And the North, as Lincoln had hoped, rallied to the Union cause. Eighty years later, the attack on Pearl Harbor also united a deeply divided people as nothing else could have done.
Maury Klein is professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island and the author of 15 books.