March 15, 1861 – Secretary of State William H. Seward took it upon himself to discuss the Fort Sumter situation and other pertinent matters with Confederate envoys despite President Abraham Lincoln’s instruction not to do so.
The three Confederate commissioners whom President Jefferson Davis had appointed to establish relations with the Lincoln administration (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) arrived in Washington in early March. The men had authorization to negotiate the Federal withdrawal from Forts Sumter and Pickens, and to discuss compensating for U.S. property claims in Confederate states.
The commissioners issued a written request to meet with Lincoln and Seward in person. While awaiting a reply, they communicated with various pro-southern politicians in Washington. On March 13, Lincoln ignored pressure from his cabinet by instructing Seward to not receive the envoys because negotiating with them would acknowledge the Confederacy as a sovereign nation, not simply a region in rebellion. Such an acknowledgement would mean that secession was valid, something Lincoln had rejected in his inaugural address.
Two days later, Seward wrote a letter to the Confederate envoys that he listed as “filed” but never sent. Meanwhile, Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell (a pro-Confederate) asserted that in a meeting with fellow Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Seward, Nelson told the men that the executive branch of the Federal government could not coerce the southern states into returning to the Union without committing major constitutional violations.
Seward explained his dilemma: Lincoln had banned him from meeting with the Confederate envoys, which outraged southerners; but if he defied Lincoln and met with the envoys, he would outrage northerners. Nelson suggested allowing Campbell to act as an intermediary.
Seward met with Campbell on the 15th and informed him that the administration could not meet with the envoys because the Federals would soon abandon Fort Sumter, and “The evacuation of Sumter is as much as the Administration can bear.” As Campbell began writing a letter to Davis, he asked Seward, “And what shall I say to him on the subject of Fort Sumter?” Seward said, “You may say to him that before that letter reaches him—How far is it to Montgomery?” Campbell said, “Three days.” Seward replied, “You may say to him that before that letter reaches him, the telegraph will have informed him that Sumter will have been evacuated.”
Campbell also contended that Seward assured him that “the condition of Pickens was satisfactory, and there would be no change made there.” This information delighted the Confederates, unaware that Seward had no authority to give such assurances.
When Campbell relayed this news to the envoys, Crawford requested a written pledge, and Seward responded by pledging that Sumter would be evacuated within days and no change would be made at Pickens. In exchange, Seward asked the Confederacy to refrain from embarrassing the new administration by making any further demands. The envoys agreed by not following up on their request to obtain a personal interview.
Meanwhile President Lincoln, unaware of Seward’s interaction with Campbell and the envoys, held a cabinet meeting on the 15th. He requested his officers’ written opinions on the question: “Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort-Sumpter (sic), under all the circumstances, is it wise to attempt it?”
The cabinet officers submitted their responses the next day. Seward naturally opposed resupplying Sumter due to his secret dealings with the Confederates. He said that such an action would “provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war,” and “I would not provoke war in any way now.”
Secretary of War Simon Cameron opposed resupplying Sumter because military officials advised it was “perhaps, now impossible to succor that fort, substantially, if at all.” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles opposed resupply for military and political reasons. Attorney General Edward Bates and Interior Secretary Caleb Smith also opposed such an action.
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase supported resupplying Sumter, but only if it would not provoke a war. Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair supported unconditional resupply. He contended that southerners believed “that the Northern men are deficient in the courage necessary to maintain the Government.” Provisioning the fort could “vindicate the hardy courage of the North and the determination of the people and their President to maintain the authority of the Government.” He also said that “measures which will inspire respect for the power of the Government and the firmness of those who administer it” could prompt southern unionists to resist the Confederacy. Blair urged Lincoln to implement the plan submitted by naval officer Gustavus V. Fox.
With five cabinet officers opposed to resupplying Fort Sumter and just two in favor, Lincoln opted to make no decision yet, instead holding more meetings and drafting a memorandum listing the pros and cons of provisioning the fort.
On the 18th, Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote to South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens informing him that Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s command over Charleston had been expanded to Beaufort and vicinity. Davis shared Pickens’s concern for the safety of the South Carolina coast, particularly Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter. He told Pickens that although he doubted “the enemy would retire peaceably from your harbor,” Davis hoped the Federals would evacuate Sumter on their own.
The next day, special agent Gustavus V. Fox left Washington to study the situation at Fort Sumter and determine whether the garrison could be resupplied. Fox’s mission conflicted with Seward’s assurances to the Confederate envoys through Justice Campbell that Sumter would soon be evacuated.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4682-752, 4776
- Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133-35
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6019
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 45-46
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 17-18
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 340-43
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 49-50
- 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. 268
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 55