Lincoln was thus in a stronger position when he finally decided as to Fort Sumter. It is unnecessary to follow the repeated consultations that took place. There were preparations for possible expeditions both to Fort Sumter and to Fort Pickens, and various blunders about them, and Seward made some trouble by officious interference about them. An announcement was sent to the Governor of South Carolina that provisions would be sent to Fort Sumter and he was assured that if this was unopposed no further steps would be taken. What chiefly concerns us is that the eventual decision to send provisions but not troops to Fort Sumter was Lincoln’s decision; but that it was not taken till after Senators and Congressmen had made clear to him that Northern opinion would support him. It was the right decision, for it conspicuously avoided the appearance of provocation, while it upheld the right of the Union; but it was taken perilously late, and the delay exposed the Government to the risk of a great humiliation.
An Alabama gentleman had urged Jefferson Davis that the impending struggle must not be delayed. “Unless,” he said, “you sprinkle blood in the face of the people of Alabama, they will be back in the old Union in ten days.” There is every reason to suppose that the gentleman’s statement as to the probable collapse of the South was mere rhetoric, but it seems that his advice led to orders being sent to Beauregard to reduce Fort Sumter. Beauregard sent a summons to Anderson; Anderson, now all but starved out, replied that unless he received supplies or instructions he would surrender on April 15. Whether by Beauregard’s orders or through some misunderstanding, the Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12. Fort Sumter became untenable on the next day, when the relief ships, which Anderson had been led to expect sooner, but which could in no case really have helped him, were just appearing in the offing. Anderson very properly capitulated. On Sunday, April 14, 1861, he marched out with the honours of war. The Union flag had been fired upon in earnest by the Confederates, and, leaving Virginia and the States that went with it to join the Confederacy if they chose, the North sprang to arms.
In the events which had led up to the outbreak of war Abraham Lincoln had played a part more admirable and more decisive in its effect than his countrymen could have noted at the time or perhaps have appreciated since. He was confronted now with duties requiring mental gifts of a different kind from those which he had hitherto displayed, and with temptations to which he had not yet been exposed. In a general sense the greatness of mind and heart which he unfolded under fierce trial does not need to be demonstrated to-day. Yet in detail hardly an action of his Presidency is exempt from controversy; nor is his many-sided character one of those which men readily flatter themselves that they understand. There are always, moreover, those to whom it is a marvel how any great man came by his name. The particular tribute, which in the pages that follow it is desired to pay to him, consists in the careful examination of just those actions and just those qualities of his upon which candid detraction has in fact fastened, or on which candid admiration has pronounced with hesitancy.