If the confederates had not fired on Fort Sumter?

The thread

reminds me of something I have long wondered about. Speculate what would have happened had the South decided not to start a war.

Lincoln was looking to provoke a conflict. He sent a ship to resupply Ft. Sumter with that intent. (Actually a supply ship had been fired on earlier under Buchanan but Buchanan took no action.) The South (actually South Carolina) took the bait.

If South Carolina had let Sumter be re-supplied, Lincoln would have kept upping the ante elsewhere until finally a conflict happened. The Southern states had appropriated all Federal property within their boundaries; Lincoln couldn’t have allowed them to keep it. He would have sent troops to re-occupy it; at some point there would have been an incident that would have sparked the war.

I submit to you that the South seizing federal property (i.e. arsenals) was an act of war.

If Lincoln really wanted to be “provocative”, he would’ve sent a substantial naval force to Charleston harbor to stop Southern forces from menacing Fort Sumter. He instead took mild and ineffectual action, and rebels attacked the fort because it was their desire to start a war.

It was. War was inevitable.

Perfectly true. But Lincoln preferred not to be seen as the one that opened hostilities. He deliberately made a non-violent move that he hoped would be met by an attack. The war was easier to sell in the North if the South could be portrayed as making the first move.

Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that. I just wonder whether, assuming the CSA had wanted only to secede, not start a war, some arrangement could have been made allowing it. Of course, the fugitive slave act would have been voided, the Dred Scott decision voided under a newly north dominated court, and all western territories would have remained free. But DE, MD, KY, MO would all have remained slave states inside the union. Or would they? Would slavery have been abolished, perhaps with some indemnity to slave holders?

Buchanan believed that although states didn’t have the right to secede, he also didn’t have the right to stop them. But the southern states seceded in response to Lincoln’s election, and he wasn’t willing to let them go. So the southern states being able to leave peacefully was never in the cards, once Lincoln had been elected.

Lincoln won, with less than 40% of the popular vote because the Democrats split for three different candidates. The Democrats varied in their views on secession and whether slavery could be permitted in the territories. It was not impossible that a pro-slavery, pro-secession candidate could have been elected, especially if the election had been thrown to the House. But if a pro-slavery candidate had been elected, there would be no reason to secede.

If the Confederacy had been allowed to leave without a fight, that would have established a right of secession. On the other hand, once they were gone the North would have been overwhelmingly in favor of abolition. So the Union slave states would probably have either been allowed to keep slavery and secede, or abolish slavery and remain in the Union. It’s possible that some indemnity could have been paid to encourage the latter. (Maryland seceding in particular would be very inconvenient, since it would put Washington inside the Confederacy.)

It would have been a much wiser strategy for the Confederates. The Confederate Secretary of State, Robert Toombs, strongly argued for it. He pointed out that the Confederates were winning just by existing; if they avoided war, it was a victory.

If the Confederates had refused to start a war, Lincoln would have eventually had to. He had set the policy of bringing the seceding states back into the United States so he could not accept the status quo.

But starting a war to reverse secession would have cost Lincoln a lot of political capital. There were people who said the United States should let the southern states go and they would have strongly opposed a declaration of war. Border states, especially Kentucky, were willing to stay in the United States but they were on the edge. A declaration of war against the Confederacy might have pushed them into seceding. And foreign opinion in London and Paris would have moved against the side that started the war.

The Confederates starting the war greatly helped Lincoln’s position. He no longer needed to make arguments against secession or slavery. He could just point out that the United States had been attacked and needed to defend itself from its attacker. This was a cause that rallied people together in the United States.

I tend to disagree. The American government had always accepted the idea of states having slavery. Even the Republicans had declared they would not make any effort to abolish slavery in the states that wished to have it.

I feel the government, even Lincoln’s, would have gone the opposite way and assured the slave states that remained that they would make no effort to abolish slavery. If they had tried to abolish slavery in the remaining states, it might have driven more states to secede. But even if it had succeeded without causing any further secession, it would have allowed the Confederates to point and say “See? Those damned Republicans were planning on abolishing slavery just like we said. We were right to get out.”

Wars don’t typically just happen because of one bad decision; it’s usually the product of momentum reaching a critical mass. The Union-Confederate conflict was inevitable, as long as there were enough powerful people in the north who wanted to preserve the southern states as part of the union.

People forget that it wasn’t just Lincoln the southern states were opposed to. There were plenty of fire-eaters in the south who vowed before the election to secede if Douglas was elected.

One interesting note is that Douglas might not have served as President very long. Historically, he died in June 1861. Admittedly, he might not have contracted the disease that killed him in a different timeline. But if he did, he would have only served three months as President and been ill for much of it.

And Douglas’s successor would have been Herschel Johnson, a pro-slavery Georgian who was chosen as his running mate to balance the ticket.

Yes. Douglas was strongly against allowing slavery in the territories and against secession, and those positions caused the Democratic Party to split. The northern faction nominated Douglas, who won only one state. The southern faction nominated Buchanan’s vice president Breckinridge, who was proslavery and won most of the South. John Bell was nominated by the Constitutional Union Party, which wanted to preserve the Union by avoiding the issue of slavery, and won three border states.

I believe Douglas’ position was that the territories should have popular sovereignty, just like the states. Douglas felt that the people in each state or territory should be allowed to choose for themselves whether they allowed slavery or not.

It was a position neither side agreed with. The Republicans wanted to ban slavery in the territories. The Southern Democrats wanted slavery to be guaranteed in the territories. Both sides invoked higher principles in support of their policy. The Republicans said that Congress was the legislative body for the territories and therefore it should have the same authority over territories that state legislatures had over states. The Southern Democrats said that the Supreme Court had ruled that Congress could not prohibit slavery in any territory in the Dred Scott decision and therefore the issue was settled.

I don’t know. Counterfactuals are (at best) difficult. But, Lincoln won a majority of the vote in states sufficient to give him 169 electoral votes (152 needed to win). If you switched the states where he received a mere plurality (California and Oregon – and I don’t really know what was going on with New Jersey) to Douglas or Breckinridge (and assumed that only one of those received all the electoral votes won by the other or Bell), Lincoln still wins. Of the four states decided by less than 1%, Lincoln only won one of those. Of the states decided under 5%, Lincoln won three total (Oregon, California, and Illinois).

I think an underdiscussed element of the secession is that fact that Lincoln won a commanding electoral college victory, despite not being on the ballot in nine states (and receiving less than 11% of the vote in four others – less then 3% in three, and 10% in Missouri). The voters of the states that seceded cast a total of 1,900 votes (out of over 850,000) for the winner of the presidential election.

Many of the modern complaints about the electoral college and feelings of overrepresentation and disenfranchisement would be magnified if something similar happened today (even in 2020, the most lopsided state (Wyoming) still cast about 25% of its votes for Biden/the most lopsided the other way (Vermont) voted about 30% for Trump).

I was under the impression that a local militia leader ordered the firing of cannons, on his own, unauthorized, use of authority…
That an actual attack was not politically authorized. It was intended to be a noisy bluff.

I wonder about an alternate reality where the CSA didn’t seize the federal property in its borders. If they’d said something like, “We’ll allow you to operate your forts and federal lands and won’t hinder any transport within our borders to support those operations.” Just adopt a posture of passive resistance, and agree to purchase federal property when the USA was ready to vacate their borders.

Obviously this sort of thing wasn’t really done in the 1860s but it would have put the North in a real bad position.

The bombardment was ordered by Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, commander of the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States. There was nothing unplanned about it.

From Wiki

Firing commenced at 4:30 AM in accord with the ultimatum.

Except that the South wanted to test the principle of secession. If they allowed federal forts within their boundaries they couldn’t claim to be an independent country.

Actually, most other forts and other federal property in the south, except for Sumter and Ft. Pickens at Pensacola, had already been seized without bloodshed by the time Ft. Sumter was finally bombarded. Most garrisons simply agreed to leave, and in some cases went over to the Confederacy.

I have read all the replies quite carefully and they are interesting. I did not know very much of this history. It still sounds as if it would have been possible for the south to go its way and the north theirs. I wonder what would have happened next. Would the CSA still have slavery today? It seems unlikely, but how would it have ended?