From The Journal of Southern History Vol. 3, No. 3 (Aug., 1937), pp. 259-288

When the Confederate batteries around Charleston Harbor opened fire on Fort Sumter in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, they signaled the beginning of the most calamitous tragedy in the history of the American people. Because the Confederate authorities ordered the attack it is generally held that they were directly responsible for the horrors of the ensuing four years. Certainly that was the feeling in the North, then and afterwards, and it became the verdict of austere historians.

Whether the war was inevitable, in any case, is a question that need not be raised here. It has been the subject of endless disputation and is one to which no conclusive answer can be given. But even though it be conceded that if the conflict had not arisen from the Fort Sumter crisis it would have sprung from some other incident growing out of the secession of the “cotton states,” the actual firing of the “first shot” placed the Southerners under a great moral and material disadvantage. The general Northern conviction that the “rebels” had made an unprovoked attack upon the little Federal garrison added thousands of volunteers to the Union armies and strengthened the determination of the Northern people to carry the struggle through to the complete subjugation of the South.

The Confederate leaders who ordered the bombardment were not vicious, feeble-minded, irresponsible, or inexperienced men. As even a casual investigation will show, they had been fully aware of the danger of taking the initiative in hostilities and had hoped for peace. How then could they be so blind as to place themselves at this manifest disadvantage?

The story of the development of the Fort Sumter crisis has been told many times, but it is so full of complexities that there is little wonder that many of its most significant features have been obscured with a resultant loss of perspective. On the one hand, most accounts have begun with certain assumptions which have affected the interpretation of the whole mass of evidence; on the other, too little credit has been given to Abraham Lincoln’s genius for political strategy, which is truly surprising in view of all the claims that have been made for the abilities of that very remarkable man. The purpose of this paper is to place the facts already known in their logical and chronological order and to re-evaluate them in that setting in the belief that when thus arranged they will throw new light upon this momentous affair.

The early stages of the Sumter problem can be dealt with in summary form. It is well known that six days after the secession of South Carolina Major Robert Anderson, who had been stationed at Fort Moultrie in command of all the United States forces in Charleston Harbor, abandoned Moultrie and moved his command into the new and still unfinished Fort Sumter where he thought his force would be better able to resist attack. The South Carolina authorities evidently had had no intention of attacking him for they thought they had an understanding with President Buchanan for maintaining the military status quo; but they immediately occupied Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney and made protest to Buchanan, demanding that Anderson be sent back to Moultrie. Buchanan refused to admit their ground of protest or to order Anderson back; then early in January he ordered relief to be sent secretly to the garrison on a merchant steamer. This vessel, The Star of the West, was forced back from the entrance of the harbor by the military authorities of the state, and the South Carolinians were with some difficulty restrained by the leaders in other Southern states from assaulting Fort Sumter. Thereafter Buchanan refrained from the use of force, partly because Anderson insisted that he was in no danger, partly because he still hoped for some peaceful adjustment, if not by Congress itself, then by the Peace Conference which was soon to assemble in Washington, and partly because he was averse during the last weeks of his term to beginning hostilities for which he was unprepared.

By February 1 six other cotton states had passed ordinances of secession and each of them, as a matter of precaution and largely because of the happenings at Charleston, seized the forts, arsenals, customs houses, and navy yards within its own borders. There were two exceptions, both in Florida. Fort Taylor, at Key West, was left undisturbed; and Fort Pickens, at the entrance of Pensacola Bay and on the extreme western tip of Santa Rosa Island, was occupied by a small Federal force much as Fort Sumter had been.

Since Fort Pickens plays a part in the development of the Sumter crisis, some explanation of the situation at that point becomes necessary. In the beginning this fort was not occupied by troops, but a company of artillery, under Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, was stationed at Barrancas Barracks, across the neck of the bay about a mile and a half to the north of Pickens, and close by the Navy Yard. The town of Pensacola was some six miles farther up the bay. On January 10 Lieutenant Slemmer, hearing that the governors of Florida and Alabama were about to send troops to seize the forts and the Navy Yard and in accordance with instructions from General Winfield Scott, removed his small command to Fort Pickens. On the twelfth the Navy Yard capitulated to the combined state forces under Colonel W. H. Chase. Chase then demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens, which Slemmer refused. After some further correspondence between the two opposing officers, a group of nine Southern senators in Washington, on January 18, urged that no attack should be made on Fort Pickens because it was “not worth a drop of blood.” These senators believed that the Republicans in Congress were hoping to involve the Buchanan administration in hostilities in order that war might open before Lincoln’s inauguration. On January 29 an agreement was effected at Washington by Senator Stephen R. Mallory of Florida, and others, with President Buchanan and his secretaries of War and the Navy to the effect that no reinforcement would be sent to Fort Pickens and no attack would be made upon it by the secessionists. The situation at Fort Pickens then became somewhat like that at Fort Sumter; but there were certain differences. Fort Pickens did not threaten the town of Pensacola as Fort Sumter did Charleston; it was easily accessible from the sea if reinforcements should be decided upon; and there was no such excitement over its continued occupation by United States troops as there was about Sumter.

As soon as the new Confederate government was organized the Confederate Congress, on February 12, by resolution took charge of “questions existing between the several States of this Confederacy and the United States respecting the occupation of forts, arsenals, navy yards and other public establishments.” This hurried action was taken in order to get the management of the Sumter question out of the hands of the impatient and rather headlong Governor Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina, who, it was feared, might precipitate war at any time. In fact, the public mind, North and South, sensed accurately that the greatest danger to peace lay in Charleston Harbor.

This danger, of course, was in the irreconcilable views of the two governments concerning their respective claims to the fort. To the Washington officials Sumter was not merely the legal property of the Federal government; its possession was a symbol of the continuity and integrity of that government. To withdraw the garrison at the demand of the secessionists would be equivalent to acknowledging the legality of secession and the dissolution of the Union. There was also, especially with the military officials, a point of honor involved; they could not yield to threats of force. The attitude of the Southerners was based upon equally imperative considerations. In their view the Confederate States no longer had any connection with the government on the Potomac; they were as independent as that other seceded nation, Belgium. No independent government could maintain its own self-respect or the respect of foreign governments if it permitted another to hold an armed fortress within the harbor of one of its principal cities. When South Carolina had ceded the site for the fortification it had done so for its own protection. That protection was now converted into a threat, for the guns of Sumter dominated not only every point in the harbor but the city of Charleston itself. We may conceive an analogous situation by supposing that Great Britain at the close of the American Revolution had insisted upon retaining a fortress within the harbor of Boston or of New York. The Confederate government could not, without yielding the principle of independence, abate its claims to the fort.

During the last six weeks of Buchanan’s term the situation at Charleston remained relatively quiet. Anderson and his engineers did what they could to strengthen the defenses of Sumter; while the state and Confederate officers established batteries around the harbor both to repel any future relief expedition and, in case of open hostilities, to reduce the fort. Although Governor Pickens had wished to press demands for surrender and to attack the fort if refused, he had first sought the advice of such men as Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Both advised against any such action, partly because they still had some hope of peace and partly because they saw the danger of taking the initiative. Although Anderson was under constant surveillance, he was allowed free use of the mails and was permitted to purchase for his men fresh meats and vegetables in the Charleston market. Other necessities, which under army regulations he must procure from the regular supply departments of the army, he was not allowed to receive because that would be permitting the Federal government to send relief to the garrison and involve an admission of its right to retain the fort. Anderson consistently informed the authorities at Washington during this time that he was safe and that he could hold out indefinitely. The Confederate government, having taken over from the state all negotiations concerning the fort, was moving cautiously with the evident hope of avoiding hostilities. On February 15 the Confederate Congress by resolution requested President Davis to appoint three commissioners to negotiate with the United States “all questions of disagreement between the two governments” and Davis appointed them on February 25. They reached Washington on March 5, the day after Lincoln’s inauguration.

Southern as well as Northern men waited anxiously to learn what policy would be indicated by the new President of the United States in his inaugural address. It is not necessary to dwell long on what Abraham Lincoln said in that famous paper. He stated plainly that he regarded the Union as unbroken, the secession of the seven cotton states as a nullity. In this he merely took the position that Buchanan had taken. He also said that he would enforce the laws of the Union in all the states; but he immediately softened this declaration by saying that he would not use violence unless it should be forced upon the national authority. Then he added, “The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” And later on: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.” How is it possible to reconcile the declaration that he would occupy “the property and places belonging to the government” with the promise that the government would not assail his dissatisfied fellow countrymen who either held or claimed the right to those places? While ostensibly addressing the Southerners, was he really directing these last soothing words to the anxious antiwar elements in the North? Although it is improbable that he had this early any definite plan in mind, his warning that the secessionists would be the aggressors, if civil war should come, may be significant in view of what he was to be engaged in exactly a month from that day.

But the inaugural should not be regarded as the declaration of a definite program; for while the new President was careful to lay down the general principle that the Union was legally unbroken, he refrained with equal care from committing himself to any course of action. If he hedged at every point where a statement of active policy was expected, it was because he could not know what he would be able to do. Caution was necessary; it was not merely political expediency, it was at that juncture political wisdom. Cautious reticence, until he knew his way was clear, was a very marked trait of Abraham Lincoln. There is another characteristic quality in this address. Lincoln had developed an extraordinary skill in so phrasing his public utterances as to arouse in each special group he singled out for attention just the reaction he desired. To the extreme and aggressive Republicans the inaugural indicated a firm determination to enforce obedience upon the secessionists; to the Northern moderates and peace advocates, as well as to the anxious Unionists of the border slave states, not yet seceded, it promised a conciliatory attitude; in the seceded states it was interpreted as threatening coercion and had the effect of hastening preparations for defense.

In the latter part of the address Lincoln had counseled the people generally to avoid precipitate action and to take time to think calmly about the situation. He doubtless hoped to be able to take time himself; but he discovered within a few hours that there was one problem whose solution could not be long postponed. On the very day of his inauguration Buchanan’s secretary of war, Joseph Holt, received a letter from Major Anderson in which for the first time the commander at Fort Sumter expressed doubt of his ability to maintain himself. More than this, Anderson estimated that, in the face of the Confederate batteries erected about the harbor, it would require a powerful fleet and a force of twenty thousand men to give permanent relief to the garrison. Since it was his last day in office, Buchanan had the letter referred to Lincoln; and when on March 5 Holt submitted it to the new President he accompanied it with a report sharply reviewing Anderson’s previous assurances of his safety. Lincoln called General Scott into conference and the General concurred with Anderson. After a few days of further consideration Scott was of the same opinion and was sustained by General Joseph G. Totten, chief of the Army Engineers. These men considered the question primarily as a military problem, although Scott could not refrain from injecting political considerations into his written statement. In doing this the aged General was suspected of following the lead of Secretary William H. Seward who was already urging the evacuation of Sumter, in order to avoid precipitating hostilities at that point, and the reinforcement of Fort Pickens in order to assert the authority of the government. Lincoln accepted at least a part of Seward’s plan, for on March 12, General Scott, by the President’s direction, sent an order to Captain Israel Vogdes, whose artillery company was on board the U. S. Steamer Brooklyn, lying off Fort Pickens, directing him to land his company, reinforce Pickens, and hold it. Instead of sending the order overland, Scott sent it around by sea with the result that it did not reach its destination until April 1, and then the navy captain in command of the ship on which the artillery company was quartered refused to land the troops because the orders from the former Secretary of the Navy directing him to respect the truce with the Confederates had never been countermanded. The fort was not reinforced at that time, a fact of which Lincoln remained ignorant until April 6. We shall return to the Fort Pickens situation later.

Meanwhile Lincoln was considering the Fort Sumter problem. He had learned that Anderson’s supplies were running short and that the garrison could not hold out much longer without relief. Although both General Scott and General Totten had advised that the relief of the fort was impracticable with the forces available, Gustavus V. Fox, a former officer of the navy and a brother-in-law of Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair, believed that it would be possible to reach the fort by running small steamers past the Confederate batteries at the entrance to the harbor. Fox had first proposed this to Scott early in February; he now came forward again with the backing of Montgomery Blair and presented his plan and arguments to Lincoln on March 13. The President seems to have been impressed, for on March 15 he asked for the written opinions of his cabinet on the question whether, assuming that it was now possible to provision Sumter, it was wise to attempt it. All, save Montgomery Blair, advised against an expedition. Apparently this overwhelming majority of his cabinet at first decided him against the plans, for there is considerable evidence, although it is not conclusive, that he was about to order Anderson to evacuate. Certainly rumors of impending orders for evacuation were coming from various high official circles in Washington, aside from those for which Seward seems to have been responsible. There is the familiar story of how old Frank Blair, brought to the White House by his son Montgomery, found the President about to sign the evacuation order and protested so vigorously that Lincoln did not sign it.

Lincoln now found himself facing a most difficult and dangerous situation and the more he considered it the more troublesome it appeared. It seems reasonably certain that he never wanted to give up Sumter. As early as December 24, I860, having heard a wild rumor that the forts in South Carolina were to be surrendered by the order or consent of President Buchanan, he had written from Springfield to Senator Lyman Trumbull that he would, “if our friends at Washington concur, announce publicly at once that they are to be retaken after the inauguration.” After he had arrived at Washington and had taken up the burden of office he saw that the problem was not so simple as it had looked from the frontier town of Springfield. His Secretary of State, a man of far greater political experience than himself, was urging him to make his stand for the authority of the government at Fort Pickens and not at Sumter, for Seward could not see how it would be possible to reinforce Sumter without putting the administration in the position of the aggressor. That would be a fatal mistake. Fort Pickens, on the other hand, could be relieved from the Gulf side without coming into direct conflict with the Confederates.

It would be extremely interesting to know what was passing through Lincoln’s mind during those difficult days when, bedeviled by importunate office seekers, he could find little time for considering what he should do about the re-establishment of Federal authority in the seceded states and especially about the imperiled fort at Charleston. As was his habit, he left few clues to his reflections and it is impossible to say with assurance what ideas he picked up, examined, and discarded. One plan which he seems to have entertained for a short while, just after the adverse cabinet vote on relieving Sumter, contemplated the collection of customs duties on revenue vessels, supported by ships of war, just outside the Confederate ports; and there were hints in the press that Anderson’s force was to be withdrawn to a ship off Charleston. If it were seriously considered, the plan was soon abandoned, possibly because of legal impediments or more probably because it did not fully meet the needs of the situation. But although Lincoln kept his thoughts to himself he must have studied public opinion closely, and we may be able to follow his thinking if we examine for ourselves the attitudes of the several groups in the North as they revealed themselves in those uncertain days of March.

It must not be forgotten that, notwithstanding Lincoln’s smashing victory in the free states in November, his party was still new and relatively undisciplined. His support had come from a heterogeneous mass of voters and for a variety of reasons. The slavery issue, the drive for a protective tariff and internal improvements, the promise of free homesteads in the West, and disgust at the split among the Democrats had each played its part. Many voters had been persuaded that there was no real danger of a disruption of the Union in the event of his election. The secession of the border states had now thrown the former issues into the background and thrust to the front the question whether the discontented Southerners should be allowed to depart in peace or whether the government should, as Lincoln phrased it, ’’enforce the laws” and in so doing bring on war with the newly formed Confederacy. As always, when a new and perilous situation arises, the crosscurrents of public opinion were confusing. As Lincoln, pressed on all sides, waited while he studied the drift, he could not fail to note that there was a strong peace party in the North which was urging the settlement of difficulties without resort to force. On the other hand the more aggressive party men among the Republicans, to whom he was under special obligations, were insisting that he exert the full authority of the government even to the extent of war. This group included some of the most active and powerful members of his party whom he could not afford to antagonize. One disturbing factor in the situation was the marked tendency of many voters who had supported him in November to turn against the Republicans, as was shown in a number of local elections in Ohio and New England. While the peace men attributed this reversal to fear of war, the more aggressive Republicans insisted that it was caused by disgust at the rumors that Fort Sumter would be given up to the secessionists.  Reinforcing the Northern conservatives were the majorities in the eight border slave states who had thus far refused to secede but who were openly opposed to any “coercive” action against their brethren in the Lower South. The Virginia State Convention, which had convened on February 13 and was in complete control of the conditional Unionists, was still in session, evidently awaiting his decision. Therefore, if he should adopt a strongly aggressive policy he might find himself opposed by the large group of peace men in the North while he precipitated most if not all of the border slave states into secession and union with the Confederacy. If, on the other hand, he failed to act decisively, he was very likely to alienate the radical Republicans who were already manifesting impatience. In either case he would divide his party at the very beginning of his administration and increase the risk of utter failure. There was, however, some cheering evidence among the business elements of a growing irritation against the secessionists because of the depression which had set in with the withdrawal of South Carolina; and if the Confederates should add further offense to their low tariff policy or adopt more aggressive tactics with respect to the forts, this feeling might grow strong enough to overcome the peace men.

He had promised to maintain the Union, but how was he to attempt it without wrecking his chances at the very outset? It was now too late to restore the Union by compromise because, having himself rejected all overtures in December, he could not now afford to offer what he had recently refused. Moreover, there was no indication that the Confederates would accept at this late date any compromise he might proffer. He must do something, for the gradual exhaustion of the supplies of the garrison in Fort Sumter would soon force his hand. He could not order Anderson to evacuate without arousing the wrath of the militant Unionists in the North. If he continued to let matters drift, Anderson himself would have to evacuate when his supplies were gone. While that would relieve the administration of any charge of coercion, it would expose the government to the accusation of disgraceful weakness and improve the chances of the Confederacy for foreign recognition. If he left Anderson to his fate and made ostentatious display of reinforcing Fort Pickens, as Seward was urging him to do, would he gain as much as he lost? Was it not best, even necessary, to make his stand at Sumter? But if he should try to relieve Anderson by force of arms, what was the chance of success? Anderson, supported by the high authority of General Scott, thought there was none. If, as Captain Fox believed, swift steamers could run the gauntlet of the Confederate batteries and reach the fort with men and supplies, would they then be able to hold it against attack? Failure in this military movement might seriously damage the already uncertain prestige of the administration. Would it not be looked upon as aggressive war by the border state men and perhaps by the peace men in the North? Could he risk the handicap of appearing to force civil war upon the country? In every direction the way out of his dilemma seemed closed.

There was one remote possibility: the Confederates themselves might precipitate matters by attacking Sumter before Anderson should be compelled to evacuate by lack of supplies. But the Confederates, though watchful, were showing great caution. General P. G. T. Beauregard, in command at Charleston since March 6, was treating Major Anderson with elaborate courtesy. The government at Montgomery was in no hurry to force the issue, partly because it was quite well aware of the danger of assuming the aggressive and partly because it was waiting to see what its commissioners would be able to effect at Washington, where Seward was holding out hopes to them of the eventual evacuation of Sumter. At some time, while turning these things over in his mind, this daring thought must have occurred to Lincoln: Could the Southerners be induced to attack Sumter, to assume the aggressive and thus put themselves in the wrong in the eyes of the North and of the world? If they could, the latent irritation perceptible among the Northern moderates might flame out against the secessionists and in support of the government. The two wings of his party would unite, some at least of the Democrats would come to his support, even the border-state people might be held, if they could be convinced that the war was being forced by the secessionists. Unless he could unite them in defense of the authority of the government, the peaceable and the “stiff-backed” Republicans would split apart, the party would collapse, his administration would be a failure, and he would go down in history as a weak man who had allowed the Union to crumble in his hands. As things now stood, the only way by which the Union could be restored, his party and his administration saved, was by an unequivocal assertion of the authority of the government, that is, through war. But he must not openly assume the aggressive; that must be done by the secessionists. The best opportunity was at Fort Sumter, but the time left was short for Anderson was running short of essential supplies.

Let us examine closely what Lincoln did after the middle of March, taking care to place each movement as nearly as possible in its exact sequence. We have seen that Captain Fox made his argument to Lincoln for a combined naval and military expedition on March 13 and that the cabinet, with the exception of Montgomery Blair and the equivocal Chase, had voted against it on the fifteenth. Fox then offered to go in person to Fort Sumter to investigate the situation and Lincoln gave him permission. He arrived in Charleston on March 21 and was allowed to see Anderson that night. He and Anderson agreed that the garrison could not hold out longer than noon of April 15. Although Anderson seems to have remained unconvinced of its feasibility, Fox returned to Washington full of enthusiasm for his plan.

On the very day that Fox arrived in Charleston, Lincoln had dispatched to that city a close friend and loyal supporter, Ward H. Lamon, a native of Virginia and his former law partner in Illinois. This sending of Lamon on the heels of Fox is an interesting incident. The precise nature of his instructions has never been fully revealed. Lamon himself, in his Recollections, merely says he was sent “on a confidential mission” and intimates that he was to report on the extent of Unionist feeling in South Carolina. He arrived in Charleston on the night of Saturday, March 23; visited James L. Petigru, the famous Unionist, on Sunday and learned from him that there was no Unionist strength in the state, that “peaceable secession or war was inevitable”; and on Monday morning obtained an interview with Governor Pickens. In reply to questions the Governor stated very positively that any attempt on the part of President Lincoln to reinforce Sumter would bring on war, that only his “unalterable resolve not to attempt any reinforcement” could prevent war. Lamon, whether through innocence or guile, left the impression with the Governor, and also with Anderson whom he was permitted to visit, that the garrison would soon be withdrawn and that his trip was merely to prepare the way for that event. He left Charleston on the night of the twenty-fifth, arrived in Washington on the twenty-seventh, and reported to Lincoln what he had learned. What had he been sent to Charleston to do? There must have been some purpose and it could hardly have been to prepare the way for Anderson’s evacuation. Does it strain the evidence to suggest that it was chiefly to find out at first hand how strong was the Southern feeling about relief for Fort Sumter and that this purpose was camouflaged by the vague intimations of evacuation? But it is quite probable that Lamon himself did not understand the real purpose, for it is altogether unlikely that the cautious Lincoln would have divulged so important a secret to his bibulous and impulsive young friend. But if there was such an ulterior purpose, Lincoln now had the information directly from Charleston that any sort of relief would result in an attack upon the fort.

According to Gideon Welles, whose account of these events was written several years later, Lincoln sometime in the latter half of March had informed the members of his cabinet that he would send relief to Sumter. During a cabinet meeting on March 29 (two days after Lamon’s return), when the matter was again discussed, Lincoln, at the suggestion of Attorney General Edward Bates, again requested each member to give his opinion in writing on the question of relieving Sumter. Whether Lincoln’s known determination, political pressure, or some other influence had effected it, there was a marked change from the advice given just two weeks earlier. Now only Seward and Caleb Smith were for evacuating Sumter, but they both wished to reinforce Fort Pickens. Bates proposed to strengthen Pickens and Key West and said that the time had come either to evacuate Sumter or relieve it. The rest were unequivocally for a relief expedition. Later that day Lincoln directed the secretaries of War and the Navy to co-operate in preparing an expedition to move by sea as early as April 6. The destination was not indicated in the order, but it was Charleston.

On the same day Seward, intent upon the reinforcement of Fort Pickens, brought Captain M. C. Meigs of the Engineers to Lincoln to discuss an expedition to that place. On March 31 Meigs and Colonel Erasmus D. Keyes, of General Scott’s staff, were directed to draw up a plan for the relief of Fort Pickens. They took it to Lincoln who had them take it to Scott to be put into final form and executed. On the next day, April 1, Seward, Meigs, and Lieutenant D. D. Porter of the navy went to the Executive Mansion and after consultation with Lincoln finished the plans for the Pickens expedition. It was to be conducted with such absolute secrecy, lest information leak out to the Confederates, that even the secretaries of War and the Navy were to know nothing of it. The orders were signed by the President himself. It was only because the same ship, the Powhatan, was selected for both expeditions that the Secretary of the Navy learned of the expedition to the Gulf of Mexico. Energetic preparations began in New York and Brooklyn to collect vessels, men, arms, and provisions for the two expeditions.

In the first days of April came the disquieting returns from the elections in Ohio, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. April 4 proved to be an important day. Early that morning Lincoln seems to have had a mysterious conference with a group of Republican governors, said to be seven or nine in number. Among them were Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania, William Dennison of Ohio, Richard Yates of Illinois, Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, Israel Washburn of Maine, and Austin Blair of Michigan. How did all these governors happen to be in

Washington at the same time? The newspapers, in so far as they noticed the presence of these gentlemen, assumed that they were looking after patronage; but rumors were soon current that they had gone to demand of the President that he send relief to the garrison at Fort Sumter. This is not improbable since all these men belonged to the aggressive group of Republicans who had been alarmed at the rumors of evacuation and they could hardly have known what Lincoln had already planned. Several questions arise here. If Lincoln was still hesitating, did they bring pressure upon him and force him to a decision? Or did Lincoln allow them to think they were helping him to decide? Or, if the President had not actually summoned them to a conference, did he seize the opportunity to make sure of their powerful support in case the Confederates should show fight? Were mutual pledges of action and support exchanged that morning?

Later that same morning occurred the much-discussed Lincoln-Baldwin interview. On April 2, apparently at the suggestion of Seward, Lincoln had sent Allan B. Magruder, a Virginia Unionist living in Washington, to Richmond to ask G. W. Summers, the leader of the Unionists in the State Convention, to come to see him at once or to send some other representative from that group. Magruder reached Richmond the next day. As Summers could not leave, John B. Baldwin, another leader of the group, was selected; and Baldwin and Magruder were in Washington early on the morning of April 4. They went to Seward who conducted Baldwin to Lincoln at eleven o’clock. Lincoln took Baldwin alone into a bedroom, locked the door and exclaimed “You have come too late!” In the conversation which followed, according to Baldwin’s statement, the President asked why the Unionists in the Virginia Convention did not adjourn sine die, as the continuance of the session was a standing menace to him. Baldwin replied that if they should so adjourn without having accomplished anything for the security of the state, another convention would certainly be called and it would be more strongly secessionist. He then urged the President to assure peace to the country and strengthen the border-state Unionists by evacuating both Sumter and Pickens and calling upon the whole people to settle their differences in a national convention. Lincoln replied that his supporters would not permit him to withdraw the garrisons. Baldwin then warned him that if a fight started at Fort Sumter, no matter who started it, war would follow and Virginia would go out of the Union in forty-eight hours. Lincoln became greatly excited and exclaimed, “Why was I not told this a week ago? You have come too late!” This is Baldwin’s account; but it is substantiated by several other Virginia Unionists, at least to the extent that it was what Baldwin told them when he returned to Richmond the next day.

But John Minor Botts, a violent Virginia Unionist who by invitation talked with Lincoln on the night of April 7, insisted that Lincoln then told him that he had offered to Baldwin to withdraw Anderson’s force from Sumter if the Virginia Convention would adjourn sine die, that he would gladly swap a fort for a state; but that Baldwin refused the offer. When Botts offered to take the proposition to Richmond at once Lincoln replied, “Oh, it is too late; the fleet has sailed and I have no means of communicating with it.”

Baldwin always denied that Lincoln had made any such proposal as Botts reported. Did Baldwin lie? He seems to have had a much better reputation for accuracy than Botts and his account of his journey to Washington is accurate as far as it can be checked, whereas Botts’ story is full of minor inaccuracies. Besides, Baldwin was a sincere Unionist and voted against secession to the last. Why should he have refused Lincoln’s offer and failed to report it to his fellow Unionists in Richmond? Did Botts lie about what Lincoln told him? His extreme prejudices and frequently unwarranted statements on other matters would easily bring this conclusion into the range of possibility, were it not for the fact that Lincoln seems to have told much the same story to others. If Lincoln did, then the question whether the President offered to evacuate Sumter at this stage of his plan becomes an issue of veracity between Lincoln and Baldwin, which obviously places the Virginian at a great disadvantage. But let us consider other factors in the situation. Lincoln had just been holding conferences with the militant Republican governors and evidently had come to some agreement with them, else why should he greet his visitor with the exclamation, repeated later in the conversation, “You have come too late”? Certainly he could not have referred to the final orders to Fox, for those orders were given later that day. And why did he refuse on the night of April 7, if the Botts story is correct, to permit Botts to take his proposition to Richmond, alleging that the fleet had sailed, when in fact none of the vessels left New York until the next night? Is there not some basis for suspecting that Lincoln had not actually made the offer to Baldwin to evacuate Sumter because he was already bound by some sort of agreement with the Republican governors to send the expedition forward; and that later, desiring above all things to leave the impression that he had done everything in his power to avoid a collision, he dropped hints about an offer which had been flatly refused?

During the afternoon of April 4 Lincoln saw Captain Fox, who was to have charge of the Sumter expedition, and told him of his final determination to send relief to Anderson and that notification of the relief expedition would be sent to the Governor of South Carolina before Fox could possibly arrive off Charleston Harbor. Fox hurried back to New York to push his preparations. At some time that same day Lincoln drafted a letter to Major Anderson, which was copied and signed by the Secretary of War, informing him that relief would be sent him.

On the afternoon of April 6 Secretary Welles received a letter from Captain Henry A. Adams of the navy, stationed off Fort Pickens, explaining that he had not landed the artillery company at the fort in accordance with General Scott’s order of March 12 because of controlling orders from the former Secretary of the Navy to respect the truce of February 29, but stating that he was now ready to obey if ordered to land the men. Welles consulted the President and then hurried off Lieutenant John L. Worden with verbal orders to Captain Adams to land the men at once. This incident gave occasion for a strange statement of Lincoln which deserves notice. In his special message to Congress of July 4, he stated that the expedition for the relief of Sumter was first prepared “to be ultimately used or not according to circumstances,” and intimated that, if Pickens had been relieved in March, Sumter would have been evacuated, and that it had not been decided to use the expedition until word came that Fort Pickens had not been reinforced in accordance with the order of March 12. The strange thing about this statement is that word was not received from Adams until April 6, while positive orders had been given two days before to Captain Fox to go ahead with his expedition and at the same time Anderson had been notified to expect it. Had Lincoln become confused about the order of these events? It does not seem probable. Or was he, for effect upon public opinion, trying to strengthen the belief that his hand had been forced, that his pacific intentions had been defeated by circumstances?

On April 1 Lincoln had passed the promise through Seward and Justice John A. Campbell to the Confederate Commissioners in Washington that he would notify Governor Pickens if any relief expedition should be sent to Fort Sumter. When they learned of it, several members of his cabinet objected to such notification, but Lincoln insisted; he had his own reasons for so doing. The formal notice which he drafted with his own hand, dated April 6, is interesting not only for its careful phrasing but for the evident importance which he attached to it. It was embodied in a letter of instruction to R. S. Chew, an official of the state department who was to be accompanied by Captain Theodore Talbot, directing him to proceed to Charleston where, if he found that Fort Sumter had not been evacuated or attacked and that the flag was still over it, he was to seek an interview with Governor Pickens, read to him the statement and give him a copy of it. If he found the fort evacuated or attacked he was to seek no interview but was to return forthwith. The message to Governor Pickens was in these words:

“I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only; and that, if such an attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the fort.”

Was the purpose of this message merely to fulfill a promise? Is there not special significance in the fact that Lincoln entrusted the form of it to no one else, but carefully drafted it himself? It is unnecessary to call attention again to the fact that Lincoln was a rare master of the written word, that he had the skill of an artist in so phrasing a sentence that it conveyed precisely the meaning he wished it to convey. He could do more than that: he could make the same sentence say one thing to one person and something entirely different to another and in each case carry the meaning he intended. It is obvious that the message to be read to Governor Pickens was intended less for that official than for General Beauregard and the Confederate government at Montgomery. But it was intended also for the people of the North and of the border states. To the suspicious and apprehensive Confederates it did not merely give information that provisions would be sent to Anderson’s garrison— which should be enough to bring about an attempt to take the fort—but it carried a threat that force would be used if the provisions were not allowed to be brought in. It was a direct challenge! How were the Southerners expected to react to this challenge? To Northern readers the same words meant only that the government was taking food to hungry men to whom it was under special obligation. Northern men would see no threat; they would understand only that their government did not propose to use force if it could be avoided. Is it possible that a man of Lincoln’s known perspicacity could be blind to the different interpretations which would be placed upon his subtle words in the North and in the South?

The message was not only skillfully phrased, it was most carefully timed. It was read to Governor Pickens in the presence of General Beauregard on the evening of April 8. News of the preparation of some large expedition had been in the newspapers for a week; but as the destination had not been officially divulged, newspaper reporters and correspondents had guessed at many places, chiefly the coast of Texas and revolutionary Santo Domingo. It was not until April 8 that the guessing veered toward Charleston, and not until the next day was any positive information given in the press of the notice to Governor Pickens. The Confederate officials had regarded these preparations at New York with suspicion while conflicting reports came to them from Washington concerning Lincoln’s designs about Sumter. The first of Captain Fox’s vessels were leaving New York Harbor at the very hour that Chew read the notification to Governor Pickens. The Confederates were given ample time, therefore, to act before the fleet could arrive off Charleston. They did not know that a portion of the vessels which had left New York were really destined not for Charleston but for Fort Pickens at Pensacola. The utmost secrecy was maintained about the Pensacola expedition, thus permitting the Confederates to believe that the whole force was to be concentrated at Charleston.

The tables were now completely turned on the Southerners. Lincoln was well out of his dilemma while they, who had heretofore had the tactical advantage of being able to wait until Anderson must evacuate, were suddenly faced with a choice of two evils. They must either take the fort before relief could arrive, thus taking the apparent offensive which they had hoped to avoid, or they must stand by quietly and see the fort provisioned. But to allow the provisioning meant not only an indefinite postponement to their possession of the fort which had become as much a symbol to them as it was to Lincoln; to permit it in the face of the threat of force, after all their preparations, would be to make a ridiculous and disgraceful retreat. Nor could they be sure that, if they yielded now in the matter of “provisions only,” they would not soon be served with the “further notice” as a prelude to throwing in “men, arms, and ammunition.” This, then, was the dilemma which they faced as the result of Lincoln’s astute strategy.

Events now hurried to the inevitable climax. As soon as President Lincoln’s communication was received General Beauregard telegraphed the news to the Confederate secretary of war, L. P. Walker. Walker at once ordered that the Sumter garrison be isolated by stopping its mails and the purchase of provisions in Charleston. On this same day the Confederate commissioners at Washington had received a copy of a memorandum filed in the state department by Seward, dated March 15, in which the Secretary declined to hold any official intercourse with them. They telegraphed the news to their government and at once, feeling that they had been deceived and knowing that their mission had failed, prepared to leave Washington. Jefferson Davis was thus, on April 8, apprised of two movements by the Federal government which, taken together or singly, looked ominous. On the following day Beauregard seized the mails as they came from Fort Sumter and discovered a letter from Anderson to the war department which disclosed that he had been informed of the coming of Fox’s expedition and indicated that the fleet would attempt to force its way into the harbor. This information also was at once communicated to the Montgomery government. On the tenth came the news that the fleet had sailed from New York. Walker then directed Beauregard, if he thought there was no doubt of the authorized character of the notification from Washington (meaning Lincoln’s), to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter and, if it should be refused, “to reduce” the fort. The Davis administration had waited two full days after receiving word of Lincoln’s notification before deciding what to do. It is said that Robert Toombs, secretary of state, objected vigorously to attacking the fort. “It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal!” If Toombs protested, he was overruled because Davis and the rest believed that Lincoln had already taken the aggressive and they regarded their problem now as a military one. To them it was the simple question whether they should permit the hostile fleet to arrive before they attacked the fort or whether they should take Sumter before they had to fight both fort and fleet.

At two o’clock on the eleventh Beauregard made the demand upon Anderson, who rejected it but added verbally to the officer sent to him that if not battered to pieces, he would be starved out in a few days. When Beauregard reported this remark to Walker, that official informed him that the government did “not desire needlessly to bombard Fort Sumter” and that if Major Anderson would state when he would evacuate, Beauregard should “avoid the effusion of blood.” Evidently the Montgomery officials thought there was still a chance to get the fort peaceably before the fleet could arrive. Had not Lincoln so carefully timed his message with the movement of Fox there might have been no attack. But late in the afternoon of the same day Beauregard received information from a scout boat that the Harriet Lane, one of Fox’s ships, had been sighted a few miles out of the harbor. It was expected that all the fleet would be at hand by next day. Nevertheless, Beauregard about midnight sent a second message to Anderson, in accordance with Walker’s instructions, saying that if he would state the time at which he would evacuate and would agree not to use “your guns against us unless ours should be employed against Fort Sumter, we will abstain from opening fire upon you.” To this Anderson replied that he would evacuate by noon on the fifteenth and would in the meantime not open fire upon Beauregard’s forces unless compelled to do so by some hostile act “against this fort or the flag it bears, should I not receive prior to that time controlling instructions from my government or additional supplies.” This answer was conditional and unsatisfactory for it was clear that, with Fox’s fleet arriving, Anderson would not evacuate. Thereupon the two aides who had carried Beauregard’s message, in accordance with their instructions from that officer, formally notified Anderson—it was now 3:20 in the morning of the twelfth—that fire would be opened upon him in one hour’s time.

What followed we all know. The bombardment which began at 4:30 on the morning of April 12 ended in the surrender of Anderson and his garrison during the afternoon of the following day. The three vessels38 of the fleet which lay outside were unable to get into the harbor because of the high seas and the failure of the rest of the fleet—the tugboats and the Powhatan—to arrive. Although there were no casualties during the bombardment, the mere news that the attack on the fort had begun swept the entire North into a roaring flame of anger. The “rebels” had fired the first shot; they had chosen to begin war. If there had been any doubt earlier whether the mass of the Northern people would support the administration in suppressing the secessionists, there was none now. Lincoln’s strategy had been completely successful. He seized at once the psychological moment for calling out the militia and committing the North to support of the war. This action cost him four of the border slave states, but he had probably already discounted that loss.

Perhaps the facts thus far enumerated, standing alone, could hardly be conclusive evidence that Lincoln, having decided that there was no other way than war for the salvation of his administration, his party, and the Union, maneuvered the Confederates into firing the first shot in order that they, rather than he, should take the blame of beginning bloodshed. Though subject to that interpretation, they are also subject to the one which he built up so carefully. Is there other evidence? No one, surely, would expect to find in any written word of his a confession of the strategem; for to acknowledge it openly would have been to destroy the very effect he had been at so much pains to produce. There are, it is true, two statements by him to Captain Fox which are at least suggestive. Fox relates that in their conference of April 4 the President told him that he had decided to let the expedition go and that a messenger would be sent to the authorities at Charleston before Fox could possibly get there; and when the Captain reminded the President of the short time in which he must organize the expedition and reach the destined point, Lincoln replied, “You will best fulfill your duty to your country by making the attempt.” Then, again, in the letter which Lincoln wrote the chagrined Captain on May 1 to console him for the failure of the fleet to enter Charleston Harbor, he said: “You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.” Was this statement merely intended to soothe a disappointed commander, or did it contain a hint that the real objective of the expedition was not at all the relief of Sumter?

Lincoln’s two secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, in their long but not impartial account of the Sumter affair come so close to divulging the essence of the stratagem that one cannot but suspect that they knew of it. In one place they say, with reference to Lincoln’s solution of this problem of Sumter, “Abstractly it was enough that the Government was in the right. But to make the issue sure, he determined that in addition the rebellion should be put in the wrong.” And again, “President Lincoln in deciding the Sumter question had adopted a simple but effective policy. To use his own words, he determined to ‘send bread to Anderson’; if the rebels fired on that, they would not be able to convince the world that he had begun the civil war.” And still later, “When he finally gave the order that the fleet should sail he was master of the situation . . . master if the rebels hesitated or repented, because they would thereby forfeit their prestige with the South; master if they persisted, for he would then command a united North.”

Perhaps not much weight should be given to the fact that before the expedition reached Charleston his political opponents in the North expressed suspicion of a design to force civil war upon the country in order to save the Republican party from the disasters threatened in the recent elections and that after the fighting began they roundly accused him of having deliberately provoked it by his demonstration against Charleston. And perhaps there is no significance in the further fact that the more aggressive members of his own party had demanded action to save the party and that the administration newspapers began to assert as soon as the fleet sailed that, if war came, the rebels would be the aggressors.

There is evidence much more to the point than any of these things. Stephen A. Douglas, senator from Illinois, died on June 3, 1861. On June 12 the Republican governor of that state, Richard Yates, appointed to the vacancy Orville H. Browning, a prominent lawyer, a former Whig, then an ardent Republican, and for more than twenty years a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. Browning was one of the group who from the first had favored vigorous measures and had opposed compromise. He was to become the spokesman of the administration in the Senate. On July 2, 1861, Browning arrived in Washington to take his seat in the Senate for the special session which had been called to meet on July 4. On the evening of the third he called at the White House to see his old acquaintance. Now Browning for many years had kept a diary, a fact that very probably was unknown to Lincoln since diarists usually conceal this pleasant and useful vice. In the entry for July 3 Browning relates the conversation he had with the President that evening, for after reading the new Senator his special message to Congress, Lincoln laid aside the document and talked. The rest of the entry had best be given in Browning’s own words:

He told me that the very first thing placed in his hands after his inauguration was a letter from Majr Anderson announcing the impossibility of defending or relieving Sumter. That he called the cabinet together and consulted Genl Scott— that Scott concurred with Anderson, and the cabinet, with the exception of P M Genl Blair were for evacuating the Fort, and all the troubles and anxieties of his life had not equalled those which intervened between this time and the fall of Sumter. He himself conceived the idea, and proposed sending supplies, without an attempt to reinforce giving notice of the fact to Gov Pickens of S.C. The plan succeeded. They attacked Sumter—it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could.

This statement, condensed from the words of Lincoln himself by a close friend who wrote them down when he returned that night to his room at “Mrs. Carter’s on Capitol Hill,” needs no elaboration. It completes the evidence.

It is not difficult to understand how the usually secretive Lincoln, so long surrounded by strangers and criticized by many whom he had expected to be helpful, talking that night for the first time in many months to an old, loyal, and discreet friend, though a friend who had often been somewhat patronizing, for once forgot to be reticent. It must have been an emotional relief to him, with his pride over his consummate strategy bottled up within him for so long, to be able to impress his friend Browning with his success in meeting a perplexing and dangerous situation. He did not suspect that Browning would set it down in a diary.

There is little more to be said. Some of us will be content to find new reason for admiration of Abraham Lincoln in reflecting on this bit of masterful strategy at the very beginning of his long struggle for the preservation of the Union. Some, perhaps, will be reminded of the famous incident of the Ems telegram of which the cynical Bismarck boasted in his memoirs. And some will wonder whether the sense of responsibility for the actual beginning of a frightful war, far more terrible than he could possibly have foreseen in that early April of 1861, may have deepened the melancholy and the charity toward his Southern foemen which that strange man in the White House was to reveal so often before that final tragic April of 1865.

Charles W. Ramsdell

Charles W. Ramsdell (1877-1942) was a professor of history at the University of Texas, and served on the executive committee of the Texas State Historical Association, 1907–1942. His research centered on the history of the Old South from 1800 to the close of the Reconstruction Era.


  • Earl Starbuck says:

    Cunning, shrewd, and Machiavellian – Lincoln was always the villain of the piece.

  • scott thompson says:

    ‘In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.’ correctly the criminal should have said, my ‘dissatisfied fellow republicmen” with this view, not his bought and paid for claptrap, no war would have taken place. but ‘vote your self a farm’ had taken hold of the newbies and somehow a notion that southerners (more mixed race than the north and 80 percent not even slave owning) had it so good compared to fresh socialsits filling northern cites and the nifty yankee propaganda (northern papers before sumter even happened callimg for the bloody destruction of the south….eh, same as they always have been. jefferson, way before abe and more important..on secession, ‘hate to see you go, do what you gotta do’ but abe, at his presidential se·ance was hearing ‘mystic chords of memory’ that never existed and went to war with a bunch of euro-48er-socialists. personally, im glad he was exterminated.

  • scott thompson says:

    i also wonder with the half a dozen times various northern states met to discuss secession from the onion…did the south ever raise voices or print articles calling for yankee destruction? claim that ‘mystic chords’ somewhere wouldnt allow it secession, like abe did? argue over a fort in a state 500 miles away? did the south ever threten to invade the north when yankees thretened secession or nullified various demands from the general govt?

    • David LeBeau says:

      Hi Scott,
      March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson said this in his First Inaugural Address, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

  • My upcoming historical novel, The Last Laird of Sapelo, opens as the Union naval blockade steams southward in Spring 1861. Randolph Spalding warns his family of the prospect that he would have to relocate them and their plantation workers inland should Union ships appear on the horizon and threaten Sapelo Island (50 mi south of Savannah/Tybee Island). The Spalding family were anti-secessionists but they also were Georgia patriots. Inside the story bathed in actual historical events during the first year of the War, it is clear Georgia prepared to DEFEND its sovereign soil but held no ill will toward the North. Farmers, merchants, politicians, planters, and businessmen rallied and filled the militia ranks. By the fall of 1861, Robert E Lee directed militia companies to man the barrier islands to thwart any Union aggression, which is where Randolph Spalding’s story grows as he hastens to reap his last harvest of cotton on Sapelo Island while troops arrive and encamp around his family’s famous plantation “Big House”. Four hundred Wiregrass militia soldiers share 15,000 acres of Sapelo with four hundred Geechee slaves. After the Union’s invasion of Port Royal, SC, Robert E Lee then withdraws the militia to DEFEND Charleston and Savannah. Cotton clogs the docks as merchant blockade runners are fewer and fewer. Randolph Spalding evacuates the island and leases a plantation outside of Milledgeville where most of his slaves are taken to ride out the war. Sadly, Randolph dies of pneumonia March 1862 and is buried with full military honors. The story attempts to portray his struggles and challenges as The Last Laird of Sapelo.

    As depicted by early reviews, history is not so black and white as we are led to believe but includes a wide swath of grayness that we should understand. This article and others like it, reveal that fact. Sadly, history is written by the victors and the villains of history are the vanquished. Yet, what inspired this story is the broader story of the innocent participants in history–the family members of the South (and North). Likewise, I wanted to understand why nearly all of Sapelo’s freed slaves and their families returned to Sapelo following the war’s end. Why did they risk their lives to return and overcome the turbulent Reconstruction Era. And why, when Randolph’s widow and family returned to the island did they coexist with their former enslaved workers and thrive?

    I appreciated reading Ramsdell’s account. Wars are not fought and lives lost over single incidents. And certainly, the South did not choose to secede to protect slavery. Politics is far more complicated, and “Honest Abe” as history has him memorialized is not the bastion of honesty and truth.

  • a. j. campagna says:

    Excellent write sir. In thank you for reminding us.

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