Crisis at Fort Sumter: The Simulation

fort-sumter-fireEarlier this week my class took part in a simulation that required them to advise the President on what to do with the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter.  Below is the assignment and the list of documents that they used to construct their essays.  The discussion went extremely well.  One thing that I will do next time is have students come to class with outlines of an argument and allow them to use the class discussion to help with a final draft.  A number of students were swayed from their original positions.  The majority counseled that the fort should be resupplied and they argued mainly based on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.  They agreed that some kind of conflict was inevitable, but they also believed that a strong stance in the name of the Union was warranted.

Background: On March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States from the new Republican Party.  Between his election on November 6, 1860 and February 9, 1861, seven states in the Deep South seceded and formed a new nation – The Confederate States of America.  President Lincoln has scheduled a meeting of advisers for March 29, 1861 to discuss the looming crisis in Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter, where Major Robert Anderson is surrounded by Confederate forces and desperately short of provisions.  He reports that by mid-April he will be forced to surrender unless relieved.

Assignment: As a member of the cabinet you are requested to advise the president on a course of action.  The meeting will take place on Tuesday February 12 and you will come prepared with a 2-3 page essay outlining your recommendation.  Your essay should be addressed to the president and can be written in the first-person voice.  References to individual documents can be made indicating the doc # in parentheses at the end of the sentence. (Doc. #)

Questions that you will likely be asked by the president:

  • Evacuate or reinforce Fort Sumter?
  • Send only supplies or send additional troops as well?
  • What are the likely consequences of reinforcement or abandonment?
  • Is there any hope of South Carolina and the rest of the Deep South returning peacefully to the Union?
  • What is the likelihood of losing the Upper South (especially Virginia) if the decision at Sumter leads to fighting?  What is the feeling in that part of the country?
  • In the likelihood of war, how will the military situation change if we lose the Upper South? (territory, industry, population, etc.)
  • What is the state of morale in the North.  How is a decision at Sumter likely to effect support for the president and the Republican Party?
  • How important is it to show strength at Sumter and reinforce the president’s commitment that the Union will be preserved?


  1. Selection from James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom — This will provide you with an overview of events leading up to and following Sumter.  Pay careful attention to quotes that McPherson uses.  They provide a window into what people were thinking at the time about a possible crisis.
  2. “The Choice is Charybdis”/NYTs Disunion by Jamie Malanowski — What important information does Stephen Hurlbut add to Lincoln’s decision?
  3. Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address — What does Lincoln’s speech reveal about his view of the Union and a possible course of action?  Does he anticipate violence?
  4. Jefferson Davis’s Inaugural AddressWhat does Davis’s speech suggest in terms of policy toward Sumter and does it include anything that Lincoln should consider?
  5. Positions of official cabinet members
  6. Secretary of State Seward counsels restraint for the sake of the Republican party and the nation.
  7. Lincoln to William Seward, April 1, 1861
  8. Lincoln to Winfield Scott (Commanding general of United States forces in 1861), March 9, 1861 and Scott’s response to Lincoln, March 11, 1861
  9. Virginia State Representative Chapman Stuart’s address to the secession convention on April 5, 1861 — According to Chapman at this time is there sufficient reason to secede from the Union over slavery?  Why or why not?  Why might this be important information for Lincoln to know and how do you think it should fit into his decision making re: Sumter?  In other words could the opinions of those in the state legislature like Chapman change if Lincoln were to threaten a fellow southern state?  [Note: Virginia’s secession convention has been in session for over two months.  During that time they took one vote for secession on April 4 and those against won (88-45).
  10. Diary entries by New York City resident, George Templeton Strong — Does Strong’s pessimistic attitude (an attitude likely shared by others) pose any problems for Lincoln?)
  11. Congressman John A. Gilmer of North Carolina (March 1861) — reports on the situation in his state between those pushing to stay in the union and those advocating secession.
  12. A Marylander Rejects Disunion – Maryland congressman Henry Winter Davis on secession and the firing on The Star of the West in Charleston Harbor
  13. Entries by Charleston newspaper editor William Gilmore Simms
  14. Diary entry (January 30 and February 28, 1861) by Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard
  15. Maps/Charts — See the class blog for a series of maps on Fort Sumter and Secession
7 comments… add one
  • Heather Wood Apr 30, 2019 @ 7:21

    This looks like an awesome activity, but what age level did you do this with? I would love a simplified version accessible for 8th grade US history.

  • Scott Manning Feb 18, 2013 @ 5:07

    Kevin, that is a brilliant assignment and I will bet the kids were very engaged. I have seen assignments similar to this before, but usually in college-level history courses. Do you have a method for sharing with the class what each student proposed? I’m curious if you have them present their ideas or if you somehow consolidate each unique concept for discussion. I would love to hear more.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2013 @ 5:46

      This was a fairly straightforward discussion, but there are a few things I will change for next time. At the beginning of the discussion each students shared his/her position. The problem is that like so many class discussions they tend to be dominated by a few voices. Luckily, I have a pretty strong class. Next time I will divide up the documents among the students so that each one (or small group) is responsible for reporting on some aspect of the debate. This way we cover all the ground and every student gets equal time.

  • Brendan Bossard Feb 16, 2013 @ 5:56

    This is a great assignment. Will you be around in, say, 15 years to teach history to my son? 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2013 @ 12:43

      Hi Brendan,

      That’s the plan. 🙂

  • Steve Light Feb 15, 2013 @ 5:53

    Very cool – I am curious to know how difficult it was for the students to separate the situation from what they already knew of hindsight and the actual events.

    Reminiscent of the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum’s “White House Decision Center” programs.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 15, 2013 @ 9:18

      On occasion a few fell back into the historical narrative, but for the most part they understood the point of the exercise, which was to consider all possible avenues. The kids seemed to enjoy it.

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