- Peer Review: “Crisis at Fort Sumter”
Crisis at Fort Sumter
- May 24, 2004 by History
- 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.
- Type of Material:
- Simulation with essays, some primary documents, maps, photographs of the individuals involved in the events leading to the Civil War.
- Recommended Uses:
- 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.
- Technical Requirements:
- Due to copyright restrictions,
some video segments are not available to those
accessing the site outside the Tulane University campus.
- Identify Major Learning Goals:
- 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
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
- 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.
- 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
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 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.