Fort Sumter: The Relief Expedition Proceeds

April 4, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln notified special agent Gustavus V. Fox that the relief expedition to Fort Sumter would go ahead.

By April 2nd, the Confederate envoys in Washington had lost faith in Secretary of State William H. Seward’s pledge that President Lincoln would evacuate Fort Sumter. After conferring with Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, the envoys telegraphed Confederate officials in Montgomery, Alabama: “The war wing presses on the President; he vibrates to that side… Their form of notice to us may be that of a coward, who gives it when he strikes.”

Abraham Lincoln, Gustavus V. Fox, and William H. Seward | Image Credit: Bing public domain,,
Abraham Lincoln, Gustavus V. Fox, and William H. Seward | Image Credit: Bing public domain,,

Meanwhile, supplies dwindled in Sumter, as Major Robert Anderson and his men no longer had access to Charleston for provisions. And the Confederates in Charleston Harbor made it clear no relief would be allowed; on the 3rd a battery at Morris Island fired on the U.S. schooner Rhoda H. Shannon as it approached.

Lincoln modified Fox’s plan before directing him to proceed on the 4th: instead of fighting their way into Fort Sumter, Fox’s naval fleet would only deliver supplies to the Federal garrison. Warships would accompany the fleet, but if the Confederates did not fire on them, the Federals would show no aggression. In this way, the Confederates would be considered the aggressors if they fired on ships merely bringing “food for hungry men.”

Lincoln informed Major Anderson at Sumter that “the expedition will go forward…” and would most likely arrive on the 11th or 12th. Lincoln left it to Anderson’s discretion whether he and his men could hold out that long, and assured him that if the Confederates resisted, the relief fleet “will endeavor also to reinforce you.” Anderson was permitted to respond to any Confederate act of aggression as he saw fit.

On the 6th, Seward notified Lincoln of his pledge to the Confederate envoys in Washington that Fort Sumter “would not be reinforced without prior notice.” Lincoln responded by dispatching State Department clerk Robert S. Chew and Captain Theodore Talbot (recently returned from Sumter) to Charleston with a message for South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens:

“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 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.”

This message sought to assure the South Carolinians that the Federals had no aggressive intentions, but it wiped out any chance that the Federals at Sumter could be secretly supplied or reinforced.

Secretary of War Simon Cameron delivered Lincoln’s letter to Anderson on the 7th, informing the major that relief was on the way and “You will therefore hold out, if possible, till the arrival of the expedition.” Meanwhile, Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard prohibited Anderson from any further interaction between his Federals at Fort Sumter and the people of Charleston. The fort could now only be reached by sea.

Justice Campbell wrote to Seward, asking if a naval fleet had been dispatched to relieve Sumter, and if Seward’s past assurances had been disingenuous. Seward wrote back, “Faith as to Sumter fully kept. Wait and see.” Campbell believed this meant that Seward’s pledge to evacuate Sumter would be kept, but Seward meant that Sumter would not be relieved without prior notification. This delay in interpretation gave the Lincoln administration more time to build up military forces. Campbell forwarded Seward’s reply to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

On the morning of April 8, the Federal revenue cutter Harriet Lane left New York to join the relief fleet. That same day, Chew and Talbot arrived at Charleston and delivered Lincoln’s message to Governor Pickens. Pickens forwarded the message to General Beauregard, who telegraphed Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker in Montgomery: “An authorized messenger from President Lincoln just informed Governor Pickens and myself that provisions will be sent to Fort Sumter peaceably, or otherwise by force.”

Beauregard placed all forts in the harbor on alert, and Confederate forces in Charleston began mobilizing for defense. An erroneous report appeared in a city newspaper announcing that war had begun.

That same day, Major Anderson wrote to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas protesting the relief mission in an attempt to prevent war. Anderson asked Thomas to destroy the letter once received because it could be seen as insubordinate to Lincoln. Confederates intercepted this letter and forwarded it to President Davis, a friend of Anderson’s, who saw that he was not part of the administration’s scheme to resupply the fort.

The Confederate envoys in Washington, after receiving assurances from Seward that Sumter would be evacuated, sent a dispatch to Beauregard through Martin J. Crawford: “Accounts uncertain, because of the constant vacillation of this Government. We were reassured yesterday that the status of Sumter would not be changed without previous notice to Governor Pickens, but we have no faith in them. The war policy prevails in the Cabinet at this time.”

Seward unofficially informed the envoys that the administration sought peace and would only fight if their possessions were attacked. At the same time, the relief expedition was on its way to Sumter.



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