Abraham Lincoln’s Life and Limb

Abraham Lincoln had an innate instinct for Public Relations – but with him, it usually meant “Political Realities.”

The Fall of Fort Sumter

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) had only been President for six weeks when Fort Sumter was attacked in Charleston Harbor.  Lincoln had inherited the seething dilemma from the moment he was sworn in.

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The attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor – the first shots fired in the American Civil War.

Should he reinforce it?  That would trigger a war without doubt.  Should he surrender it?  Unthinkable.  Lincoln, against the considered opinions of his cabinet, opted for a third solution.  Resupply it.  No ammunition or arms or soldiers – just food, blankets and medicines.  He would also advise the Governor of South Carolina of his intentions.  In that way, the Union would not be attacking, something he had pledged in his inaugural address.  “We will not attack you…..”  Any attack would have to come from the South.

South Carolina did exactly what people expected – and dreaded.  The Union ship bringing supplies to Fort Sumter was turned back.  Shots were fired, and the American Civil War began.

The Constitutional War Powers Conundrum

On April 15, 1861, when those shots were fired, Congress had already adjourned, and was not due to reconvene until July 4th,  three months later.  According to the Constitution, Congress alone had the right to declare war.

What were Lincoln’s options?

It is important to remember that Abraham Lincoln was barely known outside of his own state of Illinois.  It is also important to remember that he was elected only in the North and “Western” states.  In the South, he wasn’t even on the ballot.  He was not expected to be a strong leader.   He was expected to perform in the same manner as his predecessors.


President Franklin Pierce (1853-57) ducked many of the looming issues leading up to the Civil War.


President James Buchanan (1857-1861) wrung his hands over the issues, and was delighted to turn the office over to Lincoln.

Franklin Pierce (1853-57) and James Buchanan (1857-61) were also lawyers.  During their administrations throughout the 1850s, every sectional crisis saw them ducking the issues and wringing their hands, claiming they did not have the Constitutional authority to take any action – even if they had wanted to.

As Lincoln saw it however, if he waited for three months until Congress returned, the South would have the time it needed to reinforce its militias, strengthen its infrastructure, put its political house in order, and possibly cultivate foreign recognition or alliances.  There was also no guarantee that Congress, once reassembled, would do any more than dither and posture.  By its very nature, Congress is a deliberative body, and had been dithering and posturing for decades.

The issues at hand – preservation of the Union first and foremost, along with its underlying cause, slavery, had to be resolved once and for all.  Fort Sumter was the straw.

If however, President Lincoln chose to respond to the “attack” and assert his leadership as Commander-in-Chief (his Constitutional responsibility) he would be acting in violation of Congress’ sole authority to declare war (its Constitutional responsibility).  Lincoln knew this.  So did every legal mind in the country.

The Conundrum Continues

To act or not to act, that was his question.


The famous Lincoln portrait by George  Healy. The new President had many deep issues to determine; few woul. d have more impact than how to deal with Fort Sumter, only a few weeks into his term.

If Lincoln delayed or ducked as did his predecessors, he would be guilty of the same lack of leadership the country had been decrying for a decade.  He would be excoriated in the press, especially since Union property had been assailed.   That was untenable.

If he took bold measures however, there was a real risk that it could backfire.  Congress could reconvene and declare that Lincoln’s actions were unconstitutional and thereby nullified.  This would immediately place him in an untenable situation.

Lincoln Assumes War Powers

Abraham Lincoln was a very canny practical politician.  He had sworn an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and as Commander-in-Chief, he saw his duties to do just that, believing they were included in the “war powers” granted inherently by that same Constitution – although even to this day they are open to serious debate.

He immediately authorized a blockade around the major Southern ports, tantamount to a declaration of war.  He further called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, thus tripling the size of the federal army.

Perhaps the most troubling was his action to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.  Hundreds of people, particularly in the border states, were summarily arrested and jailed on suspicion of “disloyal activity.”  They were not given the benefit of a trial, or even the charges against them, which was their Constitutional right.

Lincoln was taking a huge risk.  Congress, when it met again, could not only nullify his actions completely, but could even impeach the President.  Or it could ratify those actions retroactively.

Lincoln Plays A Careful Card

In Lincoln’s inimitable way of condensing a complex issue into simple, understandable terms, he explained his questionable Constitutional actions thus (his words):  ”By general law, life and  limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb.”

Congress, which was well-populated with lawyers, understood Lincoln’s metaphor.  To save the Union (i.e. the “life”), certain laws (i.e. the “limb”) had to be at least temporarily restricted. To maintain the laws for law’s sake, would likely have been the death of the Union itself.

Congress ratified Lincoln’s war power actions retroactively.  By that time, the North was solidly behind the President, clamoring “On to Richmond!”  It was a true case of understanding the political reality as well as the public opinion.


Henig, Gerald S. & Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts – Stackpole Books, 2001




About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to Abraham Lincoln’s Life and Limb

  1. Sharon says:

    This is the clearest explanation of the war powers and how Lincoln implemented it that I’ve ever read.

  2. energywriter says:

    Great info to clarify the myths that surround Lincoln. Left a comment. sd

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