Fort Sumter: The Confrontation Looms

April 9, 1861 – Tension increased as three vessels left New York to relieve Fort Sumter, Confederate envoys in Washington expressed dismay with the Lincoln administration, and President Jefferson Davis felt increased pressure to address the Sumter issue.

L to R: Abraham Lincoln, Fort Sumter, Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:
L to R: Abraham Lincoln, Fort Sumter, Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

In New York, Gustavus V. Fox, special agent leading the naval expedition to deliver supplies to the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, boarded the steamer Baltic along with 20 landing boats and 200 troops from Governor’s Island. The transport Illinois (carrying 500 muskets and 300 troops) and the steam-tug Freeborn accompanied Baltic.

In Washington, the three Confederate envoys (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) assigned to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the Lincoln administration regarding Federal property in the Confederacy ran out of patience upon learning about the Fort Sumter relief mission. They wrote a final letter to the Lincoln administration and forwarded a copy to President Davis:

“Your refusal to entertain these overtures for a peaceful solution, the active naval and military preparations, and the formal notice… that the President intends to provision Fort Sumter by forcible means, if necessary… can only be received by the world as a declaration of war… The undersigned are not aware of any Constitutional power in the President of the United States to levy war, without the consent of Congress, upon a foreign People, much less upon any portion of the People of the United States…”

In the Confederacy, southerners pressed Davis to stop the Federal vessels from reaching Sumter. The Charleston Mercury declared that provisioning Sumter meant war. Secessionist J.G. Gilchrist advised Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker that “unless you sprinkle blood in the face of the people of Alabama, they will be back in the old Union in less than 10 days.” A Mobile newspaper opined:

“The spirit and even the patriotism of the people is oozing out under this do-nothing policy. If something is not done pretty soon… the whole country will become so disgusted with the sham of southern independence that the first chance the people get at a popular election they will turn the whole movement topsy-turvy.”

In Montgomery, Davis held a cabinet meeting to discuss President Lincoln’s message sent to South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens on April 8. Lincoln had declared in his inaugural address that there would be no conflict without the Confederacy being the aggressor. Now he hoped that Confederates would show that aggression by firing the first shot over Fort Sumter. Most southerners favored attacking Sumter, which played right into Lincoln’s hands.

Most of Davis’s cabinet officers not only favored attack, but some expressed fear that doing nothing or allowing South Carolina to act unilaterally would undermine the new government’s credibility. Ultimately every officer voted to attack but one. Secretary of State Robert Toombs, the lone dissenter, did not vote. But he did warn Davis:

“The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen, and I do not feel competent to advise you… Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend in the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountain to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”

Having received his advisors’ consultation, Davis concluded that Lincoln had caused this crisis because of his administration’s deceptive reversal on its initial pledge to evacuate Fort Sumter. Through Davis, Secretary of War Walker telegraphed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston:

“If you have no doubt as to the authorized character of the agent who communicated to you the intention of the Washington government to resupply Fort Sumter by force, you will at once demand its evacuation, and, if this is refused, proceed in such manner as you may determine to reduce it. Answer.”

Beauregard also received a wire from the Washington envoys informing him that negotiations with the Lincoln administration were done. They warned: “The Tribune of to-day declares the main object of the expedition to be the relief of Sumter, and that a force will be landed which will overcome all opposition.” U.S.S. Pawnee joined U.S.S. Baltic off Hampton Roads, Virginia and the fleet started for Charleston.

On the 10th, Beauregard responded to Walker, “The demand will be made to-morrow at 12 o’clock.” Walker wired, “Unless there are especial reasons (in) connection with your own condition, it is considered proper that you should make the demand at an early hour.” Beauregard replied, “The reasons are special for 12 o’clock.”

That same day, an editorial in the anti-administration New York Herald stated, “Our only hope now against civil war of an indefinite duration seems to lie in the overthrow of the demoralizing, disorganizing and destructive sectional Party, of which ‘honest Abe Lincoln’ is the pliant instrument.”

Meanwhile, Confederates continued their military buildup in Charleston by anchoring a floating battery near Sullivan’s Island and garrisoning the positions facing Fort Sumter. Former Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall, participating in the Charleston buildup, reported: “No one now doubts that Lincoln intends war. The delay on his part is only to complete his preparations. All here is ready on our side. Our delay therefore is to his advantage, and our disadvantage …”

The Charleston Courier opined, “Let the strife begin–we have no fear of this issue.” Mass celebrations took place in Charleston on the night of the 10th, with former Congressman Roger Pryor of Virginia addressing the crowd from his hotel balcony:

“I thank you especially that you have at last annihilated this accursed Union, reeking with corruption and insolent with excess of tyranny. Not only is it gone, but gone forever. As such as tomorrow’s sun will rise upon us, just so sure will old Virginia be a member of the Southern Confederacy; and I will tell your governor what will put her in the Southern Confederacy in less than an hour by a Shrewsbury clock: Strike a blow! The very moment that blood is shed, old Virginia will make common cause with her sisters of the South.”

The Confederate envoys left Washington on the 11th, feeling deceived by the Lincoln administration. They felt particularly misled by Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had pledged several times that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. Unbeknownst to the envoys, that pledge had not been authorized by President Lincoln.

In Charleston, three Confederate representatives rowed out to Fort Sumter in a boat bearing a white flag. The men were Colonel James Chesnut, former U.S. senator; Captain Stephen D. Lee, who had resigned from the U.S. army; and Lieutenant Colonel A.R. Chisolm, representing Governor Pickens. They delivered a message to Major Robert Anderson, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter.

The message stated that Confederate authorities “can no longer delay assuming actual possession of a fortification commanding the entrance of one of their harbors, and necessary to its defense and security. I am ordered by the Government of the Confederate States to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter… All proper facilities will be afforded for the removal of yourself and command, together with company arms and property, and all private property, to any post in the United States which you may select. The flag which you have upheld so long and with so much fortitude, under the most trying circumstances, may be saluted by you on taking it down.”

Anderson shared the message with his officers, and all of them opposed abandoning the fort. After an hour, Anderson gave his reply: “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication demanding the evacuation of this fort; and to say in reply thereto that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor and of my obligations to my Government prevents my compliance.”

Anderson asked if there would be a warning before the Confederates began firing on Sumter, and Chesnut said probably so. Anderson said, “Gentlemen, if you do not batter us to pieces, we shall be starved out in a few days.”

The Confederate officials delivered Anderson’s response to General Beauregard, including Anderson’s remark about being starved out. Beauregard informed Secretary of War Walker, who telegraphed: “Do not desire needlessly to bombard Fort Sumter. If Anderson will state the time at which, as indicated by him, he will evacuate, and agree that in the mean time he will not use his guns against us unless ours should be employed against Fort Sumter, you are authorized thus to avoid the effusion of blood. If this or its equivalent be refused, reduce the fort as your judgment decides to be most practicable.”

At 11 p.m., the Confederate officials rowed back out to Fort Sumter to try getting Anderson to give them a specific time at which he would evacuate.



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