The three Confederate commissioners whom President Jefferson Davis had appointed to establish relations with the Lincoln administration (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) arrived in Washington in early March. The men were authorized to negotiate the Federal withdrawal from the five southern forts still in Federal hands (Fort Monroe in Virginia, Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and Forts Pickens, Jefferson, and Taylor in Florida), and to discuss compensation for Federal property claims in Confederate states.
Upon their arrival, the commissioners officially presented their request to avoid hostilities, but Federal officials held them off while the new administration got up to speed with the situation. Crawford reported to Secretary of State Robert Toombs on the 6th that “the President himself is really not aware of the condition of the country and his Secretaries of State and War are to open the difficulties and dangers to him in cabinet today.” While awaiting a reply, the commissioners consulted with various pro-southern politicians in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward received the commissioners’ application, but he would not meet with them because doing so would acknowledge the legitimacy of the Confederate government, something he and President Abraham Lincoln were not willing to do. He discussed their mission with an intermediary, Virginia Senator R.M.T. Hunter, and the following day Seward informed him: “It will not be in my power to receive the gentlemen of whom we conversed yesterday.”
Seward explained that, in the administration’s eyes, the creation of the Confederacy was “not a rightful and accomplished revolution and an independent nation, with an established government, but rather a perversion of a temporary and partisan excitement to the inconsiderate purposes of an unjustifiable and unconstitutional aggression upon the rights and authority vested in the Federal government.”
The commissioners then formally petitioned the State Department for a meeting “as early a day as possible,” arguing that the “Confederate States constitute an independent nation, de facto and de jure,” and the “people of the Confederate States earnestly desire a peaceful solution of these great questions.”
Meanwhile, rumors swirled throughout Washington that Lincoln was about to order the evacuation of Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison from Fort Sumter. Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall, still in the capital despite his state’s secession, wrote to President Davis on the 11th: “It is believed here in Black Republican circles that Anderson will be ordered to vacate Fort Sumter in five days. An informal conclusion to this effect was arrived at Saturday night in Cabinet.” Wigfall sent a similar message to Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate forces surrounding Sumter.
Three days later, commissioner John Forsyth wrote to South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens: “I confidently believe Sumter will be evacuated, and think a Government messenger left here yesterday with orders to that effect for Anderson.” An article in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on the same day went so far as to describe how the surrender would be conducted, with Anderson “to leave it (Sumter) with a small garrison; who will surrender on demand, without opposition.”
But by this time, Lincoln had heard the plan presented by naval expert Gustavus V. Fox in which small, fast-moving vessels could slip in and out of Charleston Harbor to reinforce Fort Sumter. Most of his cabinet was against it, but Lincoln posed a question to each of his advisors: “Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it? Please give me your opinion in writing on this question.”
Seward had been urging Fort Sumter’s evacuation because he believed that it would at best reunite the Union and at worst keep the border states from seceding. He also had little confidence in Lincoln’s presidential abilities and therefore believed he could eventually persuade him to abandon the fort. On the 15th, Seward was visited by two Supreme Court justices, Samuel Nelson and old friend John A. Campbell. When the justices urged Seward to meet with the commissioners, he declined. But he added: “If Jefferson Davis had known the state of things here, he would not have sent those commissioners. The evacuation of Sumter is as much as the Administration can bear.”
Campbell, an Alabaman, was expected to resign from the bench and join his state out of the Union, so Nelson suggested having him act as an intermediary. As Campbell began writing a letter to Davis, he asked Seward, “And what shall I say to him on the subject of Fort Sumter?” Seward said, “You may say to him that before that letter reaches him—How far is it to Montgomery?” Campbell said, “Three days.” Seward replied, “You may say to him that before that letter reaches him, the telegraph will have informed him that Sumter will have been evacuated.”
In addition to this information regarding Fort Sumter, Campbell later contended that Seward gave him inside information regarding Fort Pickens, which was currently garrisoned by Federal troops in Pensacola Harbor. There had been a “gentlemen’s agreement” since January that the garrison would not be disturbed as long as the Federals made no attempt to reinforce it. According to Campbell, Seward assured him that “the condition of Pickens was satisfactory, and there would be no change made there.”
This information delighted the commissioners when Campbell forwarded it to them. Unaware that Seward had no authority to give such assurances, Crawford asked for a written pledge. Seward responded by pledging that Sumter would be evacuated within days and no change would be made at Pickens. In exchange, Seward asked the commissioners to refrain from embarrassing the new administration by making any further demands on behalf of the Confederacy. The envoys agreed by not following up on their request for a personal interview.
It was unclear whether Seward had consulted with Lincoln at any point during his interaction with the Confederate officials. Lincoln would get his cabinet’s opinion on Fort Sumter the following day.
- 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.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
- 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.