Fort Sumter: The Reinforcement Decision

March 29, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln held a cabinet meeting after deciding what he would do about Fort Sumter.

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

Lincoln assembled his cabinet officers at 12 p.m. and announced he had already decided to reinforce both Forts Sumter and Pickens. Focusing on Sumter, Lincoln shared reports from Federal agents, most notably Gustavus V. Fox, describing how Sumter could be reinforced. In Fox’s opinion, a naval fleet could avoid the Confederate batteries in Charleston Harbor by supplying Fort Sumter from the sea.

Lincoln—having less than a month of Federal executive experience—had bypassed the military chain of command by working directly with Fox to assemble the fleet in New York. Fox provided Lincoln with data on the amount of men, supplies, and equipment needed to reinforce Sumter. Fox said the fleet could leave for South Carolina within a week, and Lincoln told Fox to await further orders.

After Lincoln explained Fox’s plan, each cabinet member submitted a written opinion on the matter. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had stalled Confederate envoys by assuring them that Sumter would be evacuated, still opposed reinforcing the fort. Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith also opposed reinforcement. Attorney General Edward Bates vacillated, writing “I think the time is come either to evacuate or relieve it (Sumter).”

On the other side, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair all supported reinforcing Sumter, with Blair even threatening to resign if it was not done. Secretary of War Simon Cameron did not vote. Thus the final cabinet vote stood at three-to-two (not counting Bates or Cameron), marking a reversal of the five-to-two vote against reinforcement two weeks before.

When the meeting ended, Lincoln handed Welles the order to resupply Fort Sumter: “I desire than an expedition, to move by sea, be got ready to sail as early as the 6th of April next, the whole according to the memorandum attached, and that you cooperate with the Secretary of War for that object.”

The next day, the Confederate envoys in Washington (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) received a telegram from South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens inquiring about the purpose of Colonel Ward Hill Lamon’s visit to Charleston and the Federal delay in evacuating Sumter. Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, acting as intermediary between the Seward and the envoys, brought the message to Seward’s attention.

Lincoln’s decision to reinforce Sumter threatened to expose Seward’s duplicity in negotiating with the Confederate envoys without presidential consent. It also violated Seward’s pledge of March 15 that the Federals would evacuate the fort. On March 20th, Seward had called any delay in the evacuation “accidental,” and when Campbell confronted him with this latest correspondence, Seward scheduled a meeting for April 1.

By the end of March, rumors swirled through Washington that Sumter would be evacuated. The Confederate envoys still believed that the Lincoln administration would abandon the fort based on their communications with Seward through Campbell. But Lincoln, unaware of these communications, had other ideas.



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