Fort Sumter: The Lincoln Administration Vacillates

March 21, 1861 – Special Federal agent Gustavus V. Fox arrived at Charleston, South Carolina to assess the situation at Fort Sumter.

On March 20, the Confederate envoys seeking to negotiate a peaceful settlement of disputes over Federal property on Confederate soil (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) telegraphed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston. The envoys asked if the Federals were preparing to evacuate Fort Sumter, as Secretary of State William H. Seward had pledged on the 15th. Beauregard replied that the Federals were building defenses and showed no sign of evacuating.

Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, intermediary between the Lincoln administration and the Confederate envoys, brought this news to Seward. The secretary assured both him and fellow Justice Samuel Nelson that the administration’s policy would be peaceful coexistence with the Confederacy, and any delay in evacuating the fort was unintentional. Seward did not reply to two notes written by Campbell accusing him of overreaching his authority and vacillating. Meanwhile, officials released some correspondence between Seward and the Confederate envoys to the press, which caused indignation in the North.

Gustavus V. Fox | Image Credit:
Gustavus V. Fox | Image Credit:

Fox reached Charleston the next day. South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens, skeptical of Fox’s mission but reluctant to spark a diplomatic issue by expelling him, permitted Fox to visit the Federal troops at Fort Sumter and notify Washington of their condition. Permission depended “expressly upon the pledge of ‘pacific purposes.’”

Confederates escorted Fox to the fort in the harbor. Unbeknownst to them, Fox used the visit to gather intelligence on how best Sumter could be resupplied. The escorts tried preventing Fox from meeting privately with Major Robert Anderson, commanding at Fort Sumter. Fox could only hint to Anderson that help may be on the way. After touring the fort, Fox informed Lincoln that Sumter could be reinforced by sea.

As Lincoln approved Fox’s reinforcement plan and authorized Fox to assemble a transport fleet in New York, Seward again assured Campbell that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. This helped ease Confederate fears that the Federals may try reinforcing the garrison.

Two more Federal agents, Colonel Ward Hill Lamon and General Stephen A. Hurlbut (both Illinois friends of President Lincoln), met with Governor Pickens and General Beauregard in Charleston on the 25th. Lamon conceded that reconciliation was impossible and said he was authorized to arrange for Sumter’s evacuation. He asked Pickens to allow a Federal warship into Charleston Harbor to evacuate the Federal garrison, but Pickens refused, asserting that permitting a foreign war vessel to enter the harbor could compromise his state’s sovereignty.

The men agreed that the Federals could be evacuated aboard a regular steamship, which Lamon said that Major Anderson preferred anyway. The meeting ended with Lamon expressing hope that he could return in a few days to direct the evacuation. Meanwhile, Fox continued assembling a naval fleet to reinforce Fort Sumter, despite Lamon’s pledge and Anderson’s strong urging to evacuate the fort.

In Washington, Republican Lyman Trumbull of Illinois introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that “it is the duty of the President to use all means in his power to hold and protect the public property of the United States.” A Republican caucus met with Lincoln and warned him that surrendering Sumter would be disastrous for the new party.

Lincoln continued consulting with advisors about the mounting crisis. Hurlbut returned from Charleston on the 27th and reported: “Separate Nationality is a fixed fact… there is no attachment to the Union…positively nothing to appeal to.” Hurlbut opined that any effort to resupply Fort Sumter would be considered an act of war; even “a ship known to contain only provisions for Sumpter (sic) would be stopped and refused admittance.” Reinforcing Hurlbut’s opinion, Governor Pickens notified delegates to the South Carolina Convention that 600 men were needed to defend the Charleston Harbor forts.

On March 28, Lincoln received a message from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott advising him to abandon both Forts Sumter and Pickens (in Florida). Scott noted that he and his officers had already assumed Sumter would be evacuated, but the “evacuation of both the forts would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States, and render their cordial adherence to the Union perpetual.” Scott acknowledged that Lincoln would have the final say.

The idea of abandoning both forts shocked Lincoln, but he concealed his emotions until after holding an official state dinner. Then he summoned his cabinet officers into an emergency meeting, where they expressed “blank amazement” as Lincoln read Scott’s dispatch.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair accused Scott of playing politics, especially since the Confederates could not possibly seize Fort Pickens by force. In a reversal of their vote two weeks ago, four of the six officers present (Secretary of War Simon Cameron was absent) now supported reinforcing Sumter, with only Seward and Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith opposed. The cabinet unanimously supported reinforcing Pickens.



  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4752, 4776-88, 4847-59
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133, 135
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 31
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6053-64
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 46
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 51
  • 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. 269
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 53, 56
  • White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War


Leave a Reply