No Alternative But a Surrender

As Abraham Lincoln began his first full day as U.S. president, the Senate assembled in special session to consider his nominations to cabinet, diplomatic, and other executive positions. All cabinet appointments were confirmed:

  • William H. Seward of New York as secretary of state
  • Salmon P. Chase of Ohio as treasury secretary
  • Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as secretary of war
  • Montgomery Blair of Maryland as postmaster general
  • Gideon Welles of Connecticut as navy secretary
  • Edward Bates of Missouri as attorney general
  • Caleb B. Smith of Indiana as interior secretary

Southern fears that Lincoln would appoint abolitionists to high positions in his administration were confirmed. With the exception of Chase, most of his cabinet was moderate on the slavery issue, but abolitionists dominated his diplomatic corps, with figures such as Charles F. Adams, Anson Burlingame, Cassius M. Clay, Carl Schurz, and Joshua R. Giddings named ministers to Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Spain, and Canada respectively. But on his first day in office, Lincoln was blindsided by an issue more pressing than administration appointments.

As the month had begun, Major Robert Anderson and his unwelcome Federal garrison remained stationed at Fort Sumter, an island installation in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. State Governor Francis W. Pickens had written to Confederate President Jefferson Davis requesting instructions on how to proceed to get the fort out of Federal hands. On the 1st, Confederate Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker responded: “This government assumes control of military operations at Charleston, and will make demand of the fort when fully advised. An officer goes to-night to take charge.”

The officer assigned was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. He was a Louisianan who had graduated second at West Point, where ironically one of his instructors had been Anderson. He had served on the staff of Winfield Scott during the Mexican War and was breveted twice for gallantry. He had resigned his U.S. military commission in February, and now he was appointed brigadier-general in the Provisional Confederate Army, with the purpose of assembling a force of up to 5,000 men for a potential attack on his former teacher.

Beauregard arrived at Charleston on the 3rd and met with Governor Pickens and other state officials at the Charleston Hotel, Pickens’s home away from the Governor’s Mansion. The transfer of authority now passed from state to national hands. Beauregard then quickly set about inspecting the harbor defenses, both those held by the South Carolina militia and those of Fort Sumter.

Meanwhile, Anderson had sent a message to his superiors at Washington saying that Fort Sumter would soon need to be either reinforced or abandoned. He currently had just 85 men and 43 civilians in the fort. Relations between Anderson’s men and the South Carolinians had been amiable, but state militia were assembling, training, drilling, and building defensive works in the harbor. The supplies that the South Carolinians had allowed the Federals to take from Charleston were quickly running out.

Anderson also asserted that because of “the limited supply of our provisions,” he needed 20,000 reinforcements to hold the fort, which he would have to abandon anyway if his supplies ran out before those reinforcements arrived. At the time, there was not even 20,000 men in the entire U.S. Army. And even if there were, and if they could be sent to aid Anderson, the South Carolinians had batteries trained on the harbor entrance and had sunk ships in the harbor to block any relief effort.

Outgoing Secretary of War Joseph Holt received this message on the morning of Lincoln’s inauguration and admitted that it “takes the Department by surprise.” Previous reports had stated that Anderson’s garrison was secure, but since then the South Carolinians had massed batteries, bolstered defenses, and restricted Anderson’s supply flow. This meant that Anderson could not stay at Sumter without help from Washington. And this was Lincoln’s problem now.

The new president read Anderson’s message on his first day in office. Lincoln had been briefed on the situation by outgoing President James Buchanan, but like Holt, he did not know the extent of the crisis until this message arrived. Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had informed Seward before the inauguration that a major effort to relieve Fort Sumter was impracticable. But that was just what Anderson was asking for now.

Lincoln forwarded Anderson’s message to Scott, who concluded that there was “no alternative but a surrender,” because “we cannot send the third of men (that Anderson needed) in several months.” In his inaugural address, Lincoln had pledged to “hold, occupy, and possess” all Federal property in the South. To evacuate the garrison would mean to renege on a pledge at the very start of his presidency. But to hold Fort Sumter would mean to reinforce it, which the new Confederate government would see as an act of war. The president would spend the next several days weighing his options.


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