The Crisis at Fort Sumter

Crittenden CompromiseRichard Ladner's "The Crisis at Fort Sumter" is an exemplary teaching site. It confronts students with the choices Lincoln faced during the secession crisis. For each, Ladner provides an introduction, biographical information on key players, and a well-chosen set of primary materials including newspaper editorials, speeches, and letters. Students see the conflicting paths Lincoln's advisors urged upon him. What would they have done, had they been in Lincoln's shoes? Then they see his decision. I have used this site very effectively in both introductory and intermediate-level courses. In the first, time constraints led me to limit the task to specific decisions, such as how to respond to the Crittenden Compromise, rather than to cover them all.

An anti-Republican cartoon from early 1861 shows supporters of the Crittenden Compromise forcing the “constitutional” remedy down the throat of the uncooperative Republican who is still clutching the Republican Platform with its pledge of “no compromise.” For a larger version, click on the image. The image comes from the free section of HarpWeek on American Political Prints, 1776–1876.


Crisis at Fort Sumter siteRichard Ladner’s Crisis at Fort Sumter site at Tulane University takes you through the choices Abraham Lincoln and his party faced between his election in November of 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in April of 1861. The first dealt with the attempts by some to work out a compromise by which southern states would remain in the Union in return for a constitutional guarantee that slavery could not be interfered with. South Carolina and four other states had adopted ordinances of secession in late 1860, but the other slave states had not. Presumably, the compromise would keep them in the Union and might well get the five seceding states to reconsider. Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, one of the states still undecided, took the lead in drafting the first compromise measure.

Once compromise failed, the new president confronted a new set of challenges. Seceding states had seized federal property such as post offices and armories. But two offshore forts, Fort Pickens off the coast of Florida and Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, remained in Union hands. Would Lincoln try to hold on to the forts, even if doing so might provoke the war all claimed not to want? We will break up into six teams and work our way through these choices over two class periods. In the first we will consider problems 1 and 2 on the Ladner site. In the second we will take up problems 3–6. One hour before class submit the notes you intend to use in reporting on the problem, the advice Lincoln received, and his decision.