Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lincoln Goes to War

Created September 29, 2010


The Lesson


Lincoln Goes to War: Lincoln

This lesson plan explores the decision-making process that precipitated the Civil War, focusing on deliberations within the Lincoln administration that led to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Students first review the situation that Lincoln inherited when he took office in March 1861, and summarize his views on the critical issues before him as reflected in his First Inaugural Address. Then students examine the conflicting recommendations that Lincoln received from his cabinet as he formulated a response to the Confederate demand that federal troops evacuate Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Working with primary documents, students argue the risks and benefits of the options Lincoln had before him, re-enacting the debate among his cabinet members, and then, based on Lincoln's final decision, seek to determine what he thought was ultimately at stake. Finally, students investigate the Confederate contention that, by attempting to secure Fort Sumter, Lincoln provoked the South to defend itself and thus ignited the Civil War. Looking back at the words Lincoln addressed to the secessionists in his First Inaugural Address -- "We must not be enemies" -- students consider whether or not his actions bore out those sentiments.

Learning Objectives

  • To learn about the secession crisis of 1861 and the significance of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter
  • To explore how Abraham Lincoln made the decision to secure Fort Sumter despite Confederate objections
  • To evaluate the extent to which Lincoln's actions were calculated to provoke conflict
  • To gain experience in working with official papers, private correspondence, and public speeches as resources for historical study

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Review events that led up to Battle at Fort Sumter

The Battle of Fort Sumter, though one of the shortest of the Civil War and one of the few with no casualties on either side, remains a key moment in the history of that conflict, not only because it marked the opening of armed hostilities but also because it brought the meaning of secession sharply into focus for both sides. Begin this lesson by reviewing with students the events that led up to the battle, drawing on the resources available through EDSITEment at the Crisis at Fort Sumter.

Outpolled by his rivals in the election of 1860, Lincoln did not win a majority of the popular vote. He did capture a majority in the North, while his sharpest critic, Breckinridge, took less than half the vote in the slave states. Despite this equivocal outcome, Lincoln's victory emboldened the advocates of Southern secession. For additional information on the election, see the "Background" section titled The Election of 1860. To learn more about the Southern secession, see the "Background" section titled Secession in the Deep South. To access information regarding the secession of specific states, scroll down to the calendar icon at the bottom. Click on the following dates for further analysis of the secession of these states: Florida (January 10), Alabama (January 11), Georgia (January 19), Louisiana (January 26), and Texas (February 1).

Activity 2. Read Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

o gauge how Lincoln reacted to these developments and the situation that faced him as he took office, have students read his First Inaugural Address, available through EDSITEment at the Presidential Speeches website. (At the website's homepage, click on "Abraham Lincoln," then select "First Inaugural Address, 1861.") Divide the class into study groups, each representing one of the constituencies addressed by Lincoln's speech. Have each group report on its "reaction" to his speech, citing passages where he addressed issues vital to their interests. For example:

  • Secessionists: How would those who supported the Confederate States of America react to Lincoln's assertion "that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances"? What other passages of the speech seem aimed at this audience?
  • Non-secessionists: How would those in the slave states that had not seceded react to Lincoln's assurance that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists"? How would they understand his remarks about fugitive slaves? Where in the speech does he raise questions about the practical consequences of secession? What attitude does Lincoln express toward these states? Conciliatory or threatening? Cooperative or noncommittal?
  • Compromise proponents: Does Lincoln address the issues raised by the Crittenden Compromise? How would this audience interpret his remarks on the Constitution's limitations: "May Congress prohibit slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say." How would they view his comments on a possible Constitutional convention? Does Lincoln seem open to compromise on the question of extending slavery? Does he imply that there might be a right formula for settling differences over slavery?
  • Unionists: What is Lincoln's message to those outraged by secession and impatient to reassert federal authority? How would they receive his assurance than the Union "will constitutionally defend and maintain itself" and his promise that "In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority"? Would they share his "hope of a peaceful solution of the national troubles"?
  • Abolitionists: How would those determined to abolish slavery throughout the United States respond to Lincoln's support for a constitutional amendment "to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service"? How would those held in slavery react?
Activity 3. Research situation at Fort Sumter

Have students research the situation at Fort Sumter during this period, using the resources available through EDSITEment at the Crisis at Fort Sumter. Many federal forts were taken over by state forces during the period of secession, but Fort Sumter was an exception to these seizures. It was not easily defended, being surrounded by three other forts which were all in Confederate hands. It was also the least significant in terms of military value and the one most in need of supplies. Soon after Lincoln's inauguration, the fort's commander sent word that he would be without provisions for his troops by mid-April. Upon taking office, then, Lincoln was faced with the decision whether or not to preserve a force at Fort Sumter, and if so, how? By March 29, this question had become critical and Lincoln convened a cabinet meeting to help him determine the best course to take.

Activity 4. Review options presented to Lincoln and write an executive memorandum

Provide students with transcripts of the written opinions that Lincoln's cabinet members submitted after their meeting on March 29, using the resources available through EDSITEment at the Crisis at Fort Sumter website. (At the website's homepage, click on "Hesitation and Decision," then click "Problem 4" in the calendar. Scroll down to the pictures of Lincoln's cabinet members: William H. Seward, Secretary of State; Montgomery Blair, Postmaster-General; Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy; Caleb B. Smith, Secretary of the Interior; Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury; and Edward Bates, Attorney-General. Click on each picture to reach a summary of that cabinet member's opinion, then click "Advice" to retrieve a transcript of his written recommendation.) Have students work in groups to sort out the options that were presented to Lincoln, and the risks and benefits associated with each course of action. Then debate these choices:

  • Evacuate Fort Sumter or sustain it?
  • Send only supplies or send additional troops as well?
  • Take action in secret or advise Confederate officials beforehand?

Have each student write an executive memorandum expressing a choice among these options (or a preference for some other option), explaining the reasons for that choice, and forecasting the consequences of that choice in the situation Lincoln had before him.

Activity 5. Share and discuss memoranda

Have members of the class share their memoranda, then discuss what Lincoln might have written in a memorandum justifying his decision: to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only and to inform Confederate officials beforehand, assuring them that no troops would be landed if the supply mission were not attacked.

  • Discuss the possible benefits of this decision. What could Lincoln hope to accomplish by providing the troops at Fort Sumter with provisions? Could they realistically hold out against a Confederate attack? Would their presence continue to inhibit Confederate action? Was Lincoln hoping to prolong a stalemate, or did he have some other goal in mind? Assuming that Fort Sumter itself was indefensible, what could he achieve by trying and failing to hold it that he could not achieve by simply giving it up?
  • Discuss the potential risks of Lincoln's decision. What was the likely Confederate reaction to a squadron of Union ships entering Charleston harbor? What would they make of Lincoln's assurance that the ships carried only provisions? What were their choices in this situation, and what benefits could they expect by letting the supply mission proceed? Assuming that Lincoln could anticipate that the Confederates would feel threatened and suspicious on receiving his message, why did he not at least attempt a secret mission? Was there some underlying benefit in alerting the Confederates, despite the obvious risks?
  • Have students consider the possibility that Lincoln may have viewed Fort Sumter in almost symbolic terms, as a staging ground for political conflict, not a strategic asset in the first stages of the military struggle. The Fort's military value was insignificant and tenuous, no matter how it might be reinforced. By making an open and non-belligerent effort to hold it, however, Lincoln could demonstrate his commitment to carry out his constitutional duty no matter what the cost, and could to some extent dramatize the Union's commitment to sustain even its most beleaguered member. At the same time, if the Confederates repelled his effort and seized the fort, they would demonstrate their determination to dominate and dramatize their commitment to violence. Seen in this light, how might the non-secessionist slave states have interpreted his action? How might it have influenced opinion among Unionists in the North?
Activity 6. Review the Confederate charge against Lincoln

Conclude this lesson by taking up the Confederate charge that Lincoln provoked civil war by his actions at Fort Sumter. What should he have done if he had wanted to preserve the peace and seek a compromise with the secessionists?

  • Remind students of Lincoln's promise in his inaugural address: "There needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government . . . but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion." How can these words be applied to the situation at Fort Sumter? What does he suggest is really at stake there?
  • Remind students finally of the celebrated closing words of Lincoln's inaugural address:
    We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
    Have students reflect on this passage in relation to Lincoln's actions at Fort Sumter and write an editorial, for publication on the day after the battle there, commenting on whether "the better angels of our nature" played a part in Lincoln's decision.

Extending The Lesson

To gain additional perspective on the crisis at Fort Sumter, have students research contemporary news reports in Northern and Southern newspapers, available through EDSITEment at the Valley of the Shadow website. (At the website's homepage, click on "Enter the Valley Archive," then select "The War Years" and click on "Newspapers" in the navigation graphic. Click on "Newspaper Search Page" and select "Search All Civil War Newspapers," then choose "Year: All" and type "Fort Sumter" into the text box for a list of news articles covering the Fort Sumter crisis.) For analysis of a difficult presidential decision in a different era, see the 1996 article "America, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust," by William J. vanden Heuvel, available through EDSITEment at the New Deal Network website. (At the website's homepage, click on "Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute," then select "Topics and Issues" at the bottom of the page for the text of the article.)

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Oral Communication
  • Research



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