The Secession, Lincoln’s Strategy, and Fort Sumter Attack


By Gary W. GallagherUniversity of Virginia

James Buchanan was president for the first several months of the secession. He said that secession was illegal, but also said he was powerless to do anything about it because the seceding states were not engaging in active violence. He hoped that he would get out of office before everything fell apart completely.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter”
The bombardment of Fort Sumter was a clear message from the South to the United States in the midst of secession. (Image: Currier & Ives./Public domain)

A Compromise?

In the Congress, Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky led a movement to reach compromise. He argued for a couple of things. Those who supported argued to extend the 36°30’ line of the old Missouri Compromise to California. Everything South of it will be open to slavery. Everything North of it will not. South of it is a big territory. Cuba, for example, is south of 36°30’, so if the United States grabbed Cuba sometime, it could be slave territory. 

They also argued in some of the compromises, that a constitutional amendment might help resolve the situation.

Irreconcilable Demands

Buchanan thought those were good ideas, as did some moderates in both free and slave states, but the Republicans said “no”. Their main plank had been “no extension” into the territories. They couldn’t accept this 36°30’ compromise.

Many extremist Southerners opposed it, too. They wanted slavery below 36°30’, everywhere in the territories.”

The minimum demands of the Republicans in much of the North, and the minimum demands of much of the white South, were simply irreconcilable: prohibition of slavery in the territories on the one hand, absolute protection of slavery in the territories on the other.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Lincoln’s Problem

Much of the North believed southern slavery in the territories would slow down economic development and compete with free labor. Eventually, it would open up the whole nation to slavery, perhaps, and perpetuate southern power in Congress, where northern numbers should have been holding sway. Many in the South, in contrast, believed they would see the end of their society if slavery was restricted to the South. 

The situation, when Abraham Lincoln took office in March 1861, was this. Seven states had seceded. They had set up the Confederate States of America. Their capital was Montgomery, Alabama. 

Lincoln, in his inaugural address, promised to leave slavery alone in the South. He couldn’t promise anything else.  

Neither Side Wanted to Trigger Violence

Portrait of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1862
Just like Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis didn’t want to be responsible to trigger the violence. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Lincoln also condemned secession unequivocally, and he said that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” all United States property in the seceded states. Determined to take no offensive move, Lincoln wanted the South to be responsible for inaugurating violence if violence were to begin.

Neither did Confederates President Jefferson Davis on the other side. Nobody on either side really.

So, what did “Hold, occupy, and possess” apply to in terms of United States property? Well, there were only four military installations left in United States control in all of the seceded states, and only two of them mattered—Fort Pickens off Pensacola, Florida, and Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. 

Lincoln’s Smart Move

Sumter became the critical post, because South Carolina was demanding that it be turned over, that the United States relinquish control.

A ring of cannons soon extended around Charleston Harbor, pointed at Fort Sumter, the implicit message from the South to the United States being that, “If you don’t give us Fort Sumter, we are going to put in place the military power to take it.”

Lincoln knew that northern opinion would be very upset if the United States backed down in the face of this demand from the Confederacy, but he wanted to make it as uncontroversial as possible. 

He told the governor of South Carolina the vessel was coming: “It’s an unarmed vessel. It’s not bringing ammunition. It’s not bringing reinforcements. It’s merely bringing food and supplies,” he said, “and this is when it will be there.”

The Attack on Fort Sumter

Now the ball was in Jefferson Davis’s court. He talked to his advisors. They were upset when they learned of Lincoln’s decision. They interpreted it as a hostile act. In the end, Davis decided to demand to the capitulation of the fort.

Early on the morning of April 12, 1861, the cannons in Charleston Harbor began to shoot at Fort Sumter. This galvanized both North and South. Northerners who’d been reluctant, who’d been lukewarm in terms of forcing these seceded states back, now rallied to the effort to save the Union, because the flag had been fired upon. 

The South seemed clearly the aggressor. The South had fired the first shot. And Lincoln’s strategy of making the South fire the first shot had been successful in uniting the North, at least temporarily. On April 15, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion, and that is the key call that sent the Upper South out of the Union.

Common Questions about the Secession, Lincoln’s Strategy, and Fort Sumter Attack

Q: What was the initial resolution of the new Congress to reach a Compromise?

They argued that they can extend the 36°30’ line of the old Missouri Compromise, sending it all the way to California. Thus, Everything South of it would be open to slavery, while everything North of it would not. They also argued that a constitutional amendment might help resolve the situation regarding secession.

Q: Why the extremist southerners opposed the Congress idea?

Because they didn’t just want slavery below 36°30’, they wanted it everywhere in the territories. Their minimum demand was simply irreconcilable with that of Republicans in much of the North, so the secession seemed inevitable.

Q: What was the situation when Abraham Lincoln took office in March 1861?

The secession had been started at that point, as seven states had set up the Confederate States of America, with its capital being Montgomery, Alabama.

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