On the first day of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, he was given a message from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the isolated Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Anderson wrote that he could only hold out for about six more weeks before running out of supplies, and to hold the fort he would need 20,000 more men. No such number of men was available, but Lincoln had not decided to evacuate the fort yet. He turned to Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, for a solution.
Scott had concluded that the fort would have to be abandoned, but the president asked him to examine the problem in greater detail. On the 6th, Scott held a meeting at the War Department with new Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, outgoing Secretary of War Joseph Holt, incoming Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and U.S. Army Chief Engineer General Joseph Totten.
The general-in-chief explained that Anderson was isolated, and expeditions like the Star of the West mission in January could not be tried now because defenses at the harbor entrance were too strong. Scott asked for advice. According to Welles, Scott had “apprehensions, perhaps convictions that hostilities were in his opinion imminent and inevitable.” Scott concluded that if Anderson was to be reinforced, it would have to be by sea, and as such, this problem was “one for naval authorities to decide.”
Later that night, President Lincoln and his cabinet met for the first time. It was a brief gathering to introduce one another, leading Attorney General Edward Bates to call it “uninteresting.” The true extent of the Fort Sumter situation was still unknown to all but Cameron and Welles. Lincoln would wait to discuss it with the rest of his cabinet at a later meeting.
The War Department meeting that had ended inconclusively resumed on the 7th at the White House. Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward joined the attendees; Holt was no longer needed now that Cameron was up to speed. While Scott and Totten expressed doubts about using the army to reinforce Fort Sumter, Welles was confident “that the navy could reinforce the garrison with men and provisions.” Scott noted that the sloop-of-war U.S.S. Brooklyn was available for service if needed. Seward feared that any attempt to bolster Anderson might push the border states out of the Union. According to Welles, “No conclusion was arrived at.”
Lincoln held his first in-depth cabinet meeting on the night of Saturday the 9th. He explained to his advisors how dire the Fort Sumter situation was, and he asked their advice on whether the fort could or should be reinforced. Welles and Cameron adopted General Scott’s advice to evacuate. Seward also advised evacuation, asserting that such a move could appease the border states and embolden unionists in the Confederacy.
Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair advised holding on. His father, influential statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr., stormed into Lincoln’s office and declared that surrendering Fort Sumter was “virtually a surrender of the union” equal to treason. Blair later apologized for saying “things that were impertinent.”
Although outnumbered, Lincoln was not yet ready to give up Sumter. He wrote to Scott asking further details: “1st. To what point of time can Major Anderson maintain his position at Fort Sumpter, without fresh supplies or reinforcement? 2d. Can you, with all the means now in your control, supply or re-inforce Fort Sumpter within that time? 3d. If not, what amount of means and of what description, in addition to that already at your control, would enable you to supply and reinforce that fortress within the time?”
But it seemed unlikely that a mission requiring at least 20,000 men could be accomplished by an army numbering only 16,000 scattered effectives.
Meanwhile, Confederate Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker wrote to Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the forces defending Charleston Harbor. Walker approved of what Beauregard had done so far as well as what he planned to do regarding the harbor defenses. Walker added: “Push forward your contemplated works with all possible expedition, especially with the view to prevent the re-enforcement of Fort Sumter. This must be prevented at all hazards… Fort Sumter is silent now only because of the weakness of the garrison. Should re-enforcements get in, her guns would open fire on us.”
Back at Washington, Scott received Lincoln’s queries and on the 10th met with Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and James H. Ward, commanding the U.S.S. Brooklyn. Ward proposed sending a small squadron of men into the harbor under cover of darkness aboard two swift tugboats. Apparently, that plan did not appeal to Scott because the next day, he submitted a gloomy response to Lincoln.
Scott wrote that there were only enough supplies in the fort to last Anderson’s men seven weeks, and he could not organize a relief expedition before those seven weeks were up. Such an effort would require 25,000 men and a “fleet of war vessels & transports,” which would take up to eight months to put together. Scott concluded: “It is, therefore, my opinion and advice, that Major Anderson be instructed to evacuate the fort so long gallantly held by him and his companions, immediately upon procuring suitable water transportation.” He prepared an evacuation order and waited for Lincoln’s approval.
Meanwhile, Gustavus V. Fox arrived in Washington at the behest of Postmaster General Blair. Blair was currently the only member of Lincoln’s cabinet who demanded that Sumter not be evacuated, and he wanted Fox, his naval expert brother-in-law, to share with Lincoln the plan he had proposed to President James Buchanan to supply Fort Sumter from the sea.
Lincoln met with Fox on the 13th, and Fox explained his plan. Rather than try to send a large, conspicuous ship through the channel as was done with the Star of the West, Fox proposed sending several small, fast-moving vessels that Confederate gunners would have a harder time seeing or hitting with their batteries. The men called Scott in to share the plan with him, but Scott still believed that “as a practical military question the time for succoring Fort Sumter with any means at hand had passed away nearly a month ago.”
Despite Scott’s misgivings, Lincoln was intrigued enough about Fox’s plan to present it to his cabinet at a meeting the following day. The members remained divided, with Secretary of State William H. Seward still leading the call against reinforcing the garrison. Fox offered to go to Charleston and inspect the defenses himself, and when Scott and Secretary of War Simon Cameron did not object, Lincoln agreed. What to do about Fort Sumter was still very much undecided.
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.
- Welles, Gideon, Diary of Gideon Welles Volumes I & II. Kindle Edition. Abridged, Annotated.