Many historians agree that the shots that began the American Civil War occurred at Fort Sumter at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. What many Civil War scholars have come to odds about is whether it could have been prevented and the role, or lack thereof, leaders (i.e. Lincoln and Jefferson Davis) played in the activities leading up to that faithful day in April of 1861. Richard Current attempts to shine more light on the events leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter as well as gives his interpretation of where the “blame” lies in Lincoln and the First Shot.
Harper & Row, Publishers, originally published the book in 1962. The author does a good job in presenting the story for readers. Current begins his piece right before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln and goes to the reactionary period after the firing on Fort Sumter. In telling the story, the author brings to light other question—which was more important to the Lincoln administration—Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens off the Florida coast. This question brings to light the pressure weighed on the new president from within his on administration (Postmaster Blair pushing to reinforce Sumter; Sec. Seward wanting to relinquish Sumter, but reinforce Fort Pickens).
Attention was also given to the Confederate side of the Sumter/Pickens matter. This may have been done deliberately, suggests Thomas Pressley, who reviewed the book in an edition of “The Journal of Southern History” in 1964. Pressley suggests (and I tend to agree) that a lot was added on the stance taken by Jefferson Davis to show that as much blame needs to be placed on Davis’ role in the matter that was paced on Lincoln. As he quoted the book, “Lincoln did not order the guns to fire. Davis did.
The way in which the author lays out the book is quite interesting, but enjoyable all the same. The first six chapters of the book is the narrative of the events leading up to after the firing on Fort Sumter. Little can be seen in whether or not the author was being biased in one way or the other. The final chapter (Chapter 6), named “Afterthoughts”, is where Current gives his stance on the argument, while discussing the opinion of others in the field. In this section, the author goes through the arguments claimed by several in academia, each with different viewpoints as to Lincoln’s/Davis’ role in the conflict. It can be easily seen that Current supported the view that the new U.S. president was not responsible for the firing on Fort Sumter, despite arguments by others that Lincoln pressured the Confederates into firing. He supports his views by quoting other historians who have studied the matter as well as pointing out evidence presented throughout the book. Despite his convictions, Current gives equal billing to those that feel Lincoln’s actions were the cause of the conflict.
Lincoln and the First Shot is a good starting point for those who are interested in studying the Civil War. The content of the book is not too much, yet it has enough information to please the Civil War enthusiast. Enough information is given to allow readers to develop their own view of the Fort Sumter incident. The reader highly recommends the book.