Crisis at Fort Sumter is an interactive historical simulation and decision making program. Using text, images, and sound, it reconstructs the dilemmas of policy formation and decision making in the period between Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 and the battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861. The program primarily focuses on Lincoln, both as President-elect and as President. Viewers place themselves in Lincoln's position, consider the events that transpire, and choose a course of action at five critical junctures, called "problems." At each of these five junctures, Lincoln made a decision that helped determine the outcome of the crisis at Fort Sumter. In order to assess each problem and make a decision, advice is available from official advisors, such as cabinet members, and from various informal channels, such as newspapers, friends, and public spokesmen. The site divides the information about the Sumter crisis into seven chronological and two framing sections. The text within the sections also contains hotword links that permit viewers to explore information in a topical rather than a chronological manner and commentary links that provide additional information including material about debates among historians about events, action, or people. The site also contains a calendar of events, an extensive bibliography on the civil war, a notebook device for taking notes, and some questions for consideration.
1. To understand how the policy responses to critical events following the election of Lincoln shaped the crisis that culminated in the battle of Fort Sumter. 2. To evaluate the actions and motives of Lincoln and other key historical figures as they made policy decisions. 3. To explore the sometime ambiguous and controvertible nature of historical evidence
Target Student Population:
Advanced Placement High School courses, College
Prerequisite Knowledge or Skills:
Some knowledge of the events preceding the Firing on Fort Sumter would be helpful and would make the learning experience more worthwhile.
Type of Material:
Simulation with essays, some primary documents, maps, photographs of the individuals involved in the events leading to the Civil War.
Teaching. This site makes an excellent assignent for a class on Civil War History or a United States survey course. The site could be used to teach decision making in American politics.
Due to copyright restrictions,
some video segments are not available to those accessing the site outside the Tulane University campus.
Evaluation and Observation
The background information in each section that sets up the problem for students and the explanations about what Lincoln did are straightforward, accurate, and well-documented. The commentaries do a good job of introducing students to historical debates or at least the debates among David Potter, Richard Current, and Kenneth Stampp, the three historians upon whom the site author relies the most in this part of the site. To make things even better, the author includes historiographical information at the end to provide input into what historians over tiime believed was the correct answer.
In the instructions, the site author acknowledges the limitations of the simulation. It cannot include everything that happened between the 1860 election and the shelling of Fort Sumter, the data on the Confederacy is fragmented, and students have access to information that Lincoln did not know, which makes the activity a less than perfect simulation. However, I don't think that these limitations undermine the usefulness of the site or the quality of the information that it does present. Visuals should be tweaked to increase attractiveness.
Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool
The narrow focus of the subject of the site and its chronological presentation of "problems" is an effective way of exploring the complexity of the issue of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, the contingency of history, and the methods of historians. The site offers students a thorough overview of the issues and different points of view without overwhelming them. The policy focus of the problems helps students to understand that policy-making often involves a difficult weighing of many factors and to see how choices about one issue affect the course of subsequent events. What in hindsight might have seemed inevitable is shown to be contingent by forcing students to proceed chronologically. The problems approach also offers instructors an alternative way of teaching students how to do the work of historians. Rather than ask students to analyze primary documents to figure out what happened and why,
the problems at this site ask students to explore why events happened by having them compare their responses to historical events to those of Lincoln. A thorough comparison would give students insight into the ways in which their way of looking at the world is the same as or different from Lincoln's and how hindsight affects our view of what happened. The problem study aspect of this site makes it a stand out. The questions for consideration in the last section might be the basis for in-class discussions or writing assignments. The "notebook" device is a creative way of encouraging students to both take notes and to write down their responses to the problems. This devise is an online space in which students may record notes and responses to problem questions. Notebook comments cannot be saved in the program, however.
Ease of Use for Both Students and Faculty
This is a well-designed, easy-to-use site. It includes clear instructions about how to navigate through the site as well as buttons at the bottom of every page that facilitate navigation. In most cases, these buttons send users (1) back to the home page, (2) back to the first page of the section they are in, (3) forward or backward one page within the section, (4) to the calendar, and (5) to the notebook. The text is well-written. And the appearance is easy on the eyes.
The download times for the audio materials are slow. This might deter some students and cause frustration. The author plans to update this feature of the site in 2004-2005.
Other Issues and Comments:
This is an excellent site and an important addition to any course on the time period covered. This site is guaranteed to make any course more interesting.