As both Northerners and Southerners waited to see how Lincoln would respond, he calmly announced in his first inaugural address that he would do nothing. Rather, he reaffirmed the North’s friendship with the South, stressed national unity, and asked Southerners to abandon secession. Moreover, he declared that the secession was illegal and that he would maintain the Union at all costs—but that he would make no move against the South unless provoked.
In announcing that he himself would take no action, Lincoln placed the responsibility for any future violence squarely on the South’s shoulders. He knew that Americans in the North would support a war only in which the Southerners were the aggressors. Lincoln could thus continue to claim honestly that he was fighting to defend and save the Union from those who wished to tear it apart.
Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, announced in his inaugural speech that the South might be required to use force to secure its aims, and that spring, the South made good on its word. On April 12, 1861, General P. T. Beauregard ordered his South Carolinian militia unit to attack Fort Sumter, a Union stronghold on an island in Charleston Harbor. After a day of intense bombardment, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort to Beauregard. South Carolina’s easy victory prompted four more states—Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—to secede. The Civil War had begun.
The fall of Fort Sumter was not a major battle, militarily speaking: the Union troops surrendered only because they ran out of supplies, and neither side suffered any serious casualties. However, the easy seizure of Fort Sumter inspired complacency in the South: Southerners misinterpreted Anderson’s surrender as a sign that the Union was weak and unwilling to fight.
Lincoln’s lack of immediate response was likewise misleading. The North appeared to do nothing for months afterward—the next battle wasn’t fought until July—and the South interpreted this inaction as further weakness. In reality, Lincoln used the interim weeks to ready the military and put the gears of the North’s war machine into motion. The brutal war that followed turned out to be far different from the smooth sailing the South initially expected.