Fort Sumter: Evacuation or Reinforcement

On the 15th, President Abraham Lincoln held a cabinet meeting and asked each member to write out their opinion regarding the feasibility of reinforcing Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison isolated at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The meeting resumed the next day with each cabinet member giving their response.

A plan had been submitted by naval expert Gustavus V. Fox to provision Fort Sumter using small, fast-moving sea vessels under cover of night. The plan intrigued Lincoln, but most of his cabinet (with the exception of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair) was opposed.

Secretary of State William H. Seward naturally opposed resupplying Sumter due to his secret dealings with the Confederate commissioners currently in Washington. He said that such an action would “provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war,” and “I would not provoke war in any way now.” Attorney General Edward Bates, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, and Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith agreed with Seward.

Secretary of War Simon Cameron, “greatly influenced by the opinions of the Army officers,” wrote that it was “perhaps, now impossible to succor that fort substantially, if at all, without capturing, by means of a large expedition of ships of war and troops, all the opposing batteries of South Carolina.” He added: “Whatever might have been done as late as a month ago, it is too sadly evident that it cannot now be done without the sacrifice of life and treasure not at all commensurate with the object to be attained,” and as such, the fort should be abandoned, and “the sooner it be done the better.”

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase supported resupplying Sumter, but only if the administration could be sure that it would not start a war. Only Postmaster General Blair supported unconditional resupply. He contended that southerners believed “that the Northern men are deficient in the courage necessary to maintain the Government.” Provisioning the fort could “vindicate the hardy courage of the North and the determination of the people and their President to maintain the authority of the Government.” He also said that “measures which will inspire respect for the power of the Government and the firmness of those who administer it” could prompt southern Unionists to resist the Confederacy. Blair urged Lincoln to implement Fox’s plan.

Rumors that Fort Sumter would be abandoned intensified in Washington; this may have been because Seward was seen as the top presidential advisor, and he was strongly pushing Lincoln to evacuate. Seward himself may have been planting the rumors in the press. An article in the Baltimore American asserted: “The battle of the cabinet has been fought and Mr. Seward has triumphed. The cabinet has ordered the withdrawal of Major Anderson from Fort Sumter.”

Lincoln, having been president for less than two weeks, was not ready to go against the majority of his cabinet yet. But was not ready to abandon Fort Sumter either. So he held off on a decision for now, despite the rising impatience in the North. The New York Times opined: “We trust this period of indecision, of inaction, of fatal indifference, will have a speedy end.” Influential New Yorker George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary: “The people want something to be decided on—some standard raised—some policy put forward… The bird of our country is a debilitated chicken, disguised in eagle feathers… The country of George Washington and Andrew Jackson (!!!) is decomposing.”

On the 18th, by which time Seward had assured Confederate President Jefferson Davis that Fort Sumter would be evacuated, Lincoln wrote out a list weighing the advantages of reinforcing Sumter versus those of abandoning it. He came up with eight reasons to abandon the fort, with the top reason being “The fort could not be permanently held.” The fort could not be held without a battle, and it was not worth a fight were among the other reasons.

Another reason was that it would “remove a source of irritation of the Southern people and deprive the secession movement of one of its most powerful stimulants.” If the garrison was destroyed before it could be evacuated, “the administration would be held responsible for it and this fact would be used by their opponents with great effect.” Such an attack would give secessionists a large “moral advantage.”

As for holding Fort Sumter, Lincoln came up with just two advantages. Surrender would present the “danger of demoralizing the Republican Party.” There was also the “danger of the movement being construed by the Secessionists as a yielding from necessity, and in so far a victory on their part.” Despite the lopsided outcome to this exercise, Lincoln remained very much undecided on what to do about Fort Sumter.

Meanwhile, President Davis wrote to South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens informing him that Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s command over Charleston had been expanded to Beaufort and vicinity. Davis shared Pickens’s concern for the safety of the South Carolina coast, particularly Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter. He told Pickens that while he hoped the Federals would abandon Sumter on their own, he doubted “the enemy would retire peaceably from your harbor.”

The next day, Cameron wrote to Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army: “The President requires accurate information in regard to the command of Major Anderson in Fort Sumter, and wishes a competent person sent for that purpose. You will therefore direct some suitable person to proceed there immediately, and report the result of the information obtained by him.” G.V. Fox had previously volunteered to go to Sumter, so Scott selected him. Fox left the same day, writing to his wife in New York:

“I am real homesick for the kind company of the dearest wife in the world—the best and the sweetest. But our Uncle Abe Lincoln has taken a high esteem for me and wishes me to take dispatches to Major Anderson at Fort Sumpter with regard to its final evacuation and to obtain a clear statement of his condition which his letters, probably guarded, do not fully exhibit. I have really great curiosity to see the famous Fort and several of my naval intimates are there in command. Gov. Pickens may turn me back but I think not. I leave this eve and ought to return here Sunday and N. Y. Tuesday or Wednesday.”

Fox’s mission conflicted with Seward’s assurances to Jefferson Davis and the Confederate commissioners that Sumter would soon be evacuated.


Bibliography

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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