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Who Started The War?

March 2023
3min read

Walker had been in his grave less than a year when the American Civil War began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter—April 12, 1861. Immediately afterward, and continuing down to the present day, there has been an argument: Who really started it? Did Jefferson Davis, President of the Southern Confederacy, give the orders that began the war—or did President Abraham Lincoln cleverly maneuver things so that he was able to bring the war on even though he gave the appearance of letting the other man start it?

In a way this is an argument over nothing at all. The new Confederate nation wanted the United States forces out of Fort Sumter, and the United States government, knowing that it could not keep its soldiers there, refused to pull them out until somebody shot at them and made them go, and what was really at issue was whether there would be one or two American republics. The immovable force met the irresistible object, the guns went off, and there was a war. The conflict was inevitable, and all the two Presidents did was to accept the fact.

Yet the argument goes on. It is still argued that perhaps North and South need not have gone to war with each other if the canny Lincoln had not managed affairs so that the Confederates would be goaded into firing the first shot. By this argument, the burden rests upon Lincoln. There might have been peace if he had not willfully stirred up a war.

Lincoln and the First Shot, by Richard N. Current. J. B. Lippincott Company. 224 pp. $3.95.

This argument is based upon a complete misreading of the ten years that had gone before. By the time Lincoln became President the lines had been drawn. Seven states had announced their secession; Jefferson Davis was executive officer of something which these seven states had proclaimed to be a new nation. Both Davis and Lincoln were the prisoners of their times. In the middle of April they came to a collision point. Would either man back down? If not, which of the two was responsible for the terrible war soon to begin?

Richard N. Current examines the whole business in a cogent book called Lincoln and the First Shot . Step by step, he studies the events which followed Lincoln’s inaugural address, in which he promised to “hold, occupy and possess” the bits of real estate which his government claimed to own south of the Mason and Dixon line. Mr. Current looks especially into the question of provocation. Was Lincoln really the aggressor?

Lincoln did a number of things. He offered to trade Fort Sumter for a guarantee of the adherence to the Union of the all-important state of Virginia. He at least toyed with the idea of letting Sumter go and taking his stand at Fort Pickens, in Florida. He seems to have allowed his Secretary of State, William H. Seward, to give Jefferson Davis’ emissaries a good deal of double talk; and, in short, he took a solid month to make up his mind what he was going to do, after which he went out of his way to notify the southern authorities that he was going to send supplies into Fort Sumter, tacitly inviting them to make something out of this if they wanted to do so. Did he, thus, intentionally, touch off a war that might have been averted?

The essence of Mr. Current’s conclusion is that neither Lincoln nor Davis could have kept the war from beginning unless he were willing to back down. Neither man wanted a war, but each man could do nothing less than stand by the principles on which he had taken office. As Mr. Current puts it:

“When Lincoln expressed his desire for peace he was sincere, and so was Davis when he did the same. But Lincoln thought of peace for one, undivided country; Davis, of peace for two separate countries. ‘Both parties deprecated war,’ as Lincoln later put it, ‘but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.’ ”

That pretty well says it. Mr. Current argues that Lincoln cannot rightly be accused of jockeying the southern states into starting the war; the most he did was to take a position—which grew logically out of everything he had always stood for—in which, if there was to be a first shot, the southerners would have to fire it.

This seemed like an extremely important point a century ago. By this time we have learned something. We can see that neither of these two Presidents wanted a war and that neither of them had any real notion of what the war that finally came was going to cost. But we can also see that neither man was really a free agent. By the middle of April, 1861, people were no longer just talking about secession. It had happened. If we try to imagine Lincoln and Davis sitting down together and talking about some way of ironing out the difficulties that had arisen between the sections, we are imagining a vain thing. It was too late. By now the sections were going to fight unless one leader or the other gave in, and neither man was the giving-in type. In the spring of 1861 both Lincoln and Davis were, in a sense, the creatures of the decade that had just passed.

Which is to say that by that time the lines had been drawn, and it is idle to talk about “aggression” by either side. Lincoln summed it up, once and for all, in the grim remark: “And the war came.” It came because of what had gone before it. The United States was not maneuvered into that war. It blundered into it, through a long and unhappy decade, and in 1861 it began to pay the price, not for arbitrary acts done by either President but for ten years of failure to grapple with a problem which the ordinary processes of politics ought to have solved.

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