Lincoln Inherits the Fort Sumter Dispute

March 5, 1861 – Arriving at his office on his first full day as president, Abraham Lincoln found an ominous dispatch on his desk from Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor | Image Credit:
Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor | Image Credit:

On March 1, the Confederate government assumed authority over military matters at Charleston, including the harbor where Fort Sumter was located. President Jefferson Davis commissioned P.G.T. Beauregard as a brigadier general and placed him in command of the vicinity. Davis instructed Beauregard to assemble militia for a potential attack on Major Anderson’s Federal garrison at Sumter.

Meanwhile, Anderson informed his superiors at Washington that Sumter would soon need to be either reinforced or abandoned. Relations between Anderson’s men and the South Carolinians had been amiable, but state militia were assembling, training, drilling, and building defensive works in the harbor. The supplies that South Carolinians had allowed the Federals to receive from Charleston were quickly running out.

The day before Lincoln’s inauguration, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott informed Secretary of State-designate William H. Seward that a major effort to relieve Fort Sumter was impracticable. The next day, outgoing Secretary of War Joseph Holt announced he would relay the message from Anderson about the situation at Sumter to incoming President Lincoln.

Lincoln read the message on the 5th. Anderson stated that Sumter could not be held without at least 20,000 reinforcements, and even then his garrison could starve before the reinforcements arrived because he and his men would run out of supplies within weeks. Confederate defenders in Charleston prevented the Federals from leaving Fort Sumter, and several ships had been sunk in Charleston Harbor to prevent Federal vessels from delivering provisions.

Lincoln, who knew of this crisis from outgoing President James Buchanan, did not know its extent until the 5th. Lincoln did not even have his full complement of advisors and cabinet officers yet; William H. Seward had not yet agreed to withdraw his resignation from the 2nd, and Salmon P. Chase had not yet been notified that Lincoln nominated him as treasury secretary.

Scott advised the president that Sumter could not be reinforced before Anderson’s garrison starved. And even if they could, a battle over Fort Sumter would result in heavy casualties. Moreover, the regular army did not even have 20,000 effectives at this time, and the navy did not have the vessels to transport them. Scott met with army and navy leaders on the 6th and informed them that the navy would have to deal with Sumter because the army could do nothing to relieve the garrison.

Lincoln, who had no executive experience or knowledge of his presidential duties, spent several days contemplating what to do about Fort Sumter until his advisors could assume their roles. He held his first in-depth cabinet meeting about the situation on the 9th. He explained to his cabinet officers how dire the situation was, and the men debated whether to resupply or evacuate the fort.

Both Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Secretary of War Simon Cameron adopted Scott’s advice to evacuate. Seward also advised evacuation, asserting that such a move could appease the border states and embolden unionists in the Confederacy. Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair advised holding on. His father, influential statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr., stormed into Lincoln’s office and declared that surrendering Fort Sumter was “virtually a surrender of the union,” which was treasonous. The next day Blair apologized for saying “things that were impertinent.”

Although outnumbered, Lincoln was not yet ready to give up Sumter. He wrote to Scott asking how long the Federal garrison could stay in the fort without reinforcements, and whether the army could resupply the fort. But it seemed unlikely that a mission requiring at least 20,000 men could be accomplished by an army numbering only 16,000 total effectives.

Responding to Lincoln’s query on the 11th, Scott stated he did not know how long the Federals could survive in the fort, and the fort could not be reinforced by the army for several months because it would require warships, transports, and 25,000 troops (5,000 regulars and 20,000 volunteers).

Two days later, Lincoln met with former naval officer Gustavus V. Fox at Montgomery Blair’s behest. Fox had proposed a plan to former President Buchanan to resupply Fort Sumter, and Blair wanted Fox to share that plan with Lincoln and refute Scott’s claim that the fort could not be resupplied.

After Lincoln heard Fox out, the men called on Scott and explained the plan to him. Scott replied that such a plan would have been effective last month, but by this time the Confederates had built defenses strong enough to make it impracticable. Fox offered to go to Charleston to inspect the defenses himself, and when Scott and Cameron did not object, Lincoln agreed.



  • Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 35-36
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4764-76
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-33
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5975-85, 6008
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 16-18
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 43-49
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 264
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War


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